Irkutsk & Bajkal

11/6 Irkutsk. Meet Pablo again in train station, Russia is small… To hostel. Sleep. Grey day. Rain. Meet Canadian girl again. Walked in the city. In the rain. Streets drowned. Diner with Pascal and Russian friends. Super evening/night. Anastacia (Nastya) even told me I could sleep at her place.

12/6 Sleep long. Realized I lost my camera and went to look for it. Nothing. Took my bag to Nastya to stay at her place. Dinner together. And a beer together. With Pascal too.

13/6 Lazy day. Made pancakes and chocolate salami. Belgian stew I will make another day.

14/6 To Listvyanka by marshrutka, to bolshe koty by boat. Walking back 20km to Listvyanka alongside Bajkal, following partly the Great Bajkal Trail. And then back to Irkutsk by marshrutka. Concert in the evening of a French band, playing electronic music (good drummer!) in a night club. With Pascal and Mark. Followed by a visit to the Irish pub with Mark.

15/6 Picnic at Angara river. Its more like bbq. Shashlik. Together with Nastya, pascal, igor and Natalya. After we visited Irkutsk like tourists. The famous Cathedral, eternal flame, some square,…

16/6 Driving to Arshan. It was supposed to be good weather but it turned completely against me while inside the mashrutka. 😦 Once there I met a Russian Buryat guy, Chingis, who used to be a boxer when he was younger. We looked for a guesthouse together. Once found he drove us to the second datsan (tomorrow the first, touristic one). It was no weather for hiking, so I treated myself to a leg massage in a massage saloon 🙂 And in the evening we had a real Russian “banya”!

17/6 We walked to the waterfall and up the hill -with a view- and drank the healing Arshan water (which tastes awful). After seeing the first (touristic) datsan and some pancakes, we said goodbye and I took the bus back to Irkutsk.

18/6 Nastya and me undertook a final excursion to Listvyanka. We were going to have a ride on the hovercraft. But it didn’t show up. We changed plans and ate omul fish from Bajkal at the beach, with a beer. Delicious. And suddenly i collected all my guts together and decided to have a dip in Bajkal. They say one lives 25 years longer then… As long as they are healthy long years that’s ok for me. I would devote those extra years to more traveling 🙂 At night, a goodbye beer with Pascal and the transsiberian to Krasnoyarsk. It was delayed 30′, so the train left at 2.15am. I was in a lower bed.

19/6 I was so lucky I was surrounded by people who started talking from 8am-10.30am, one sitting on the foot end of my bed, while I desperately wanted to sleep more since I only got on the train at 2am. I looked around and in the whole wagon they were the only ones talking, everyone else was asleep or lying down silently. And when I finally surrendered and decided not to try to sleep anymore, they fell silently slept. Grmbl! It’s really not too bad actually, I just gotta mindfully empty my bucket of tolerance once more. The rest of the day was an alternation of sleeping and reading. Really glad to have a book here. And in this very moment someone is so friendly to share his disco music from his cellphone with the whole area. Some are geniuses in filling others’ buckets of tolerance! In the mean time it became warmer and warmer… Hotter and hotter… And walking to the restaurant wagon, I started to see drunk Russians here and there. I arrived in Krasnoyarsk in the evening. Julia and Svetlana (Sveti) were awaiting me at the quay, took me to their place, fed me dinner and ready for more sleeping. Sweet!

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(Russian) habits I’ve noticed

– the gesture for drinking. Flicking the neck/throat
– don’t whistle inside a house. Means you are poor
– they take each other’s arm/hand easily. It’s a friend-like gesture
– the men walk the woman home, men are protective, trying to make sure women are safe
– meeting a stranger or small talk on the street is not thát strange
– they expect everybody speaks Russian (but that’s no news)
– they’re extremely superstitious
– it’s also normal for men to pay more than women (for drinks for instance)
– when you leave home, but return because you forgot something, you have to look into the morror before going out the door again
– don’t leave an empty bottle on the table
– one and the same person serves drinks until the bottle is empty
– if you break something, it’s bad luck to try to fix it or glue it
– If you sit at the corner of the table, is bad for your marriage
– sitting on top of the table will make you unlucky
– Russian mentality is black/white. No grey, no nuances. Might come from Orthodox Church. They have only heaven or hell, purgatory doesn’t exist.
– lucky ticket

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Mmm… De geur van vers afgereden gras…

Oneindig lang geleden.

Электро Москва
Weer iets om op te zoeken

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Russia – Ulaan Ude & Bajkal

I slept quite good in the train. Having the whole “kupe” for myself, I should have :). At 7am, in Sukhbaatar, the provodnitsa woke us up. And to my relief I heard Pascals voice in the carriage. He hadn’t missed the train, but he has been in a Mongolian (not the international) carriage until Sukhbaatar. No guilt feelings anymore.
The customs inspection at both sides took a while and finally at 10am the train was was “rolling” again.
Then there was another stop in наушки (Naushki), Russia, for about 2 hours. There I made my first steps in Russia. Walking up a hill, and talking and drinking some vodka on the top. I couldn’t think of a more suitable way to start my Russian journey 🙂
And in the train all the (11?) people (travellers) in our carriage joined together in one kupe and we shared (about 3?) bottles of vodka until the provodnitsa came to tell us (basically that she was still the boss) and drinking was actually not allowed.
I got off in Ulaan-Ude while the others continued for Irkutsk. I might see some of them again later… Arrived in the hostel late.

It was a late night and thus a late day. It was quite a cold day anyway. 17 degrees. I decided to do nothing, but then in the afternoon I walked around Ulan-Ude, saw Lenins head, the theatre, the shopping street, the market of course, the cathedral, wooden houses all around, and the “ринроче багша дацан” Buddhist monastery on the hill, with view over the whole city. The sun sets very late here, after 10pm. So that’s pleasant. Pretty good for doing nothing, huh?

Today was gonna be a 24 degree day. Good for a walk along lake Bajkal. I took the 11am minibus (маршрутка) to Turka to walk to Goryachinsk along the Bajkal lake. The buss drove through the hills, through endless forests hiding attractive little rivers to finally reach lake Bajkal in the Buryat region. If covering this small distance on the map already takes about two hours, imagine how huge this lake is! Massive!
On the bus I tried to study more Russian because I’m not able to express myself at all. I don’t find the words or I find them way too late. So I didn’t talk on the bus. What is different here from Mongolia or Asia, is that because I have the same kaukasian etnicity now, people think I’m Russian and start talking to me. And then I feel bad not being able to understand or say anything back but “я не панимаю, я откуда Бельгий…” (I don’t understand, I’m from Belgium)
And here I am sitting beside this massive blue lake. It looks like the village of Turka is deserted. Or everybody is having a siesta. There seems to be nobody. There is not a single sound. The sun is strong and the wind icy.
Let’s start walking.
In the pine woods a little further, next to the lake a bunch of onder people were having a picknick. I said my two famous sentences and they were interested but I didn’t understand a thing except that they invited me to eat something, but i kindly refused. I barely walked any of my 7kms…
A little later, after passing many more of those self made wooden pick nick tables and places to make fire, I found myself a perfect spot out of the wind and in the sun. I just HAD to make a stop. Again.
About halfway it must have been, another family invited me and they didn’t let me refuse this time. The granddad literally pulled me to their table, where I was subjected to my first real Russian “talk” after the can’t-refuse-vodka-shot. I managed to understand some things and to say some things, but it wasn’t much. But the Bajkal fish was delicious, as was the salad that the babushka had made.
After a little while I started walking again. And I smiled. What a nice experience. How hospitable! Memorable. I was giggling out loud like a child.
About 10′ later the son Genya (about my age) showed up behind me to accompany me on my walk. Could you believe it? A great way for me to practice some Russian. (With many thanks to the online translators…)
Anyway, he helped me finding a гостнинтса (guesthouse) and dinner, he showed me around, took me to see the hot springs (for the first time this travel REAL hot springs, literally hot and springs and outside and for free) and told me a lot, and in the end we watched the sunset over Lake Bajkal with a local beer of Novosibirsk.

Goryachinsk by pushbike with Genya! These endless woods must be the MTB paradise. We unfortunately were by regular bike. We biked a 2h loop, passing an old sovjet airfield from where they attacked China, ending at Bajkal lake. Quite exhausting after 6 months not even touching a bike!
And then before dipping my feet in the hot spring we had a late lunch. Next was the bus to Ust-Barguzin! Dirt roads again here. After arrival I walked past another (old?) airfield to Bajkal, for more Chenggis reading around sunset. People were taking their boats in the lake. I saw about ten boats. One with spear fishing spears even. (Reminded me of Borneo) And a lonely kitesurfer, which amazed me to find that here.

Walked around in ust barguzin. To bajkal again. And to the bus. I thought. But the russian women from the guesthouse aparently handnt booked the bus. So hitching. The guy threw coins at every sacred tree. Flat tire. Until Ulan Ude. Wasn’t allowed to pay for ride. Back in hostel. Book train for same night to Irkutsk.


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Terelj and UB

Day started early with a paraglide session with Bold in the mountains close to Ulaanbaatar. Then Siobhán and me arranged our stuff and wanted to take the bus to a Terelj, but we missed it by one hour. I decided to call to Bold to ask if it was ok for us to join him and two UK girls to Terelj. In the mean time we said bye to Emily. They were leaving for Terelj only at 6pm, so finally I had some time to go sightseeing in the city. The circus was the best surprise! In the evening we drove to Terelj and had a beer with Bold in front of the ger.

I woke up at seven for paragliding in Terelj, but Bold didn’t show up and I thought he probably overslept… So went back to bed. Apparently he was waiting up the hill. So, sadly, I missed the extra gliding session. Horse ride and rafting were next. Soon after that, I had to say bye to Siobhán. Already. The next was more reading in my Chenggis Khaan book, taking a nap, hiking and finding a sleeping spot under the Eternal Blue Sky. A little later a million kazillion stars above me.

De ijlere lucht draagt het geluid hier merkelijk verder. Twee steenworpen verder kwam een groep jongeren aangewandeld en moest ik Mongools verstaan had ik het hele gesprek kunnen volgen. Wat ik wel verstond was de “neg huiri gurav” voor ze probeerden allemaal tegelijk op te sprongen voor de foto. (Een, twee, drie!) 😉

In he morning I met my French fellow climbers Louis and Ann-Sophie, their French interpreter and our climbing guide Xhoygbaatar at Buuveit camp. The guide is part of the police rescue unit and was going to climb the first ascend without a real belayer. (Maar dat was buiten mij getekend en ik zeker de hem dan) He was using carabiners instead of quick draws and he still belayed with an 8. I realized it was gonna be mongolian style climbing. I didn’t feel like leading at all. But when I finished the first route, I saw that he made a proper anchor and the bolts looked new. So I was relieved. And I saw he used the 8 like one would use a tuber, and that wasn’t such a bad idea I thought. And then, when Louis was climbing the second route, his foot slipped from a hold when he was only a meter or so up, and he hurt his ankle badly in the landing. Ice, elevation, rest,… And after a while off to hospital. I ended up alone with Xhoygbaatar. After climbing another 2 routes I had enough for today (And it wasn’t like there were more routes anyway) and read some more in the Chenggis Khan book. In the evening we drank two glasses of vodka and then I went to sleep. Xoygu drank some more with the hosting family and came back somewhat drunk and talkative (in Mongolian). But nothing I couldn’t handle.

Children’s day today. Climbing for me. My favorite routes of Mongolia in the morning! Nice long cracks, little sharp grips, and not too much overhanging. After those two we waited a while for the car key which the French interpreter mistakenly took home to Ulaanbaatar. And then we went back to buuveit, where we had met first, there were 4 more routes to climb. All in all not much choice. And there was also a camp for young people. The young people I had heard when I was sleeping under the eternal blue sky one night ago. Apparently they were police rescue unit students. The unit were Xoygu was part of. But there was also a lieutenant and a major, so maybe it’s a combination of police and army…?
It turned out that I could spend the night in their camp… Special! Cool to be able to experience this army style life for an afternoon/night! The food was meat (sheep) and potato, and they ate it with their hands. And the tents for the youngsters didn’t have beds, but mine, that of the teachers, had :). The old steel kind.
In the evening he boys played basket 3-3, and the girls went to a fixed ger. I was curious and went to see what happened there. It appeared it was not only children’s day, but also women’s day, and they were having karaoke! I walked in the ger and they offered me juice and a chocolate praline. I guess it was a good thing to enter there 😉 But after two mongolian songs I didn’t know, I figured I’d quickly get bored. And luckily, the guys (do I say officers?) from my tent just summoned me. They thought I was bored so they decided to chat with me, with one of the students who could speak English (he had been in the Netherlands for a year) translating. And all this with some vodka of course. Arkhi vodka. My favorite. And I shared what was left of my Chengis vodka. It was good to sleep inside because it was quite a cold night, even with trousers and t shirt in my sleeping bag.

Two of the men dropped me at Turtle Rock, where I wanted to make a walk to aryapala meditation centre. But it wasn’t much, so I decided to climb over the fence and hike to the top of the mountain nearby. An amazing view over the valley, flowers, forest and bird sounds around me was my reward. The plan was to read in my Chengis book at the top, but I wanted to hitch a ride back to UB so i decided to go back on time. The hitching was easy, first car! In the evening I met with Bold. We had dinner together, a lot of sushi!, and after that we went to the jazz club where an American band was performing. Mongolian beer has no secrets for me anymore…
And then, after we had several coincidental eye contacts, a Mongolian guy who came to the table to say hi. That’s how I met Bilegt.
Unfortunately because of circumstances we had to leave soon after… Before I knew I was in my hostel.

Lazy day. Rain in the morning. Only left the hostel at 2pm. Walked around UB, visited Gandantegchinlen monastery, and walked around even more. Treated myself to some real italian food and changed hostel. I shared the room with a French guy, Pascal, and a Kyrgyz guy. We talked for a long time at night and then a Spanish guy, Pablo, popped in. The Kyrgyz guy is a wrestling referee and apparently the Junior Asian Wrestling Championship is tomorrow so I’m wondering if I should stay one more day…

Ok, done, I bought a trainticket for Ulaan Ude for tomorrow so I’m going to see the wrestling and also then I can be on the same train as Pascal, who is going to Irkutsk and who I found interesting to talk to.
Then I went to the Black/Narantuul market with Pablo from spain, and we ate pizza together.
In the evening I had a beer with Bilegt. Nice evening.

To the paraglide hill, to the wrestling, buy some things i needed and… Tired now…
Packed my stuff back in the hostel, agreed with Pascal to meet in front of the train station at 8.20pm, and to meet Bilegt at 8pm, and went to Narantuul market again. There was this t-shirt I absolutely needed to have (girls girls girls)… And which almost (you might already guess) made me loose my train. Where the t shirt was literally in EVERY shop yesterday, I spent over 5 minutes looking for it today… Anyway, eventually I found it, bought it (bargained really quickly) and raced to the street.
And there were the Mongolians rescuing me again 🙂 I signaled on the street, very soon a car stopped and it brought me straight to the train station. What a stressy hitch! I’m pretty sure I cursed myself for always playing this same trick. Arriving there I crossed the street running, it must have been about 20.20, but I didn’t see Pascal. There wasn’t much time to look around, I guessed he would be on the train already.
Meanwhile I was desperately looking around for the information centre, where I was supposed to meet Bilegt. I can tell it doesn’t help that everything is written in Cyrillic when you have to hurry. As the train was (already) waiting there I decided to go there. I was probably easy to spot.
I felt a relieve when I heard “Ellen!”. Of course we barely had time to exchange books, let alone to say a descent goodbye. I deeply regret that.
Being on the train, one question remains, where is Pascal? He’s not in my carriage, because I already said hi to all the other people. I just hope he didn’t miss the train because of me. (I showed him the difference in departure time between the ticket –20.25 and the traintable –21.15)…

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Mongolian habits we picked up

– wipe your month after dinner
– always sit down drinking tea
– don’t leave cutlery in touch on plate when finished dinner
– don’t step between the stove and the supporting poles of the ger
– don’t lean against the poles
– walk in the ger clockwise

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Mongolia trip orkhon-khustai

Got up in the morning, and met 2 girls at breakfast. Siobhán (I thought the whole time it was “Chevonne”) from Ireland and Emily from London. They had planned a trip, and were going to leave in one hour. But after a chat it appeared they were gonna do the things I wanted to do and I could just join them. Lucky me! It would be much cheaper to divide everything by 3! So we had a car+driver Senna that spoke a bit English and we were off.

To Khogno Khaan np. We walked three times around a shaman pole for good luck and then… Magnificent views along the way! You could see so far… Amazing. And such a bleek landscape! (I just learned that word). We saw cows, sheep, wild horses, eagles and even vultures (never saw those before, man they are big)! Then we arrived at a nomad summer camp. The people living there at the moment (every season they go to a different spot) were still genuine. They were wearing traditional clothes, they live in gers, they have sheep, lambs, goats, kids (just learned that word too), horses, foals, camels, and even a baby camel! By the way did you know that a camel is pregnant for 2 years?! And the “baby” is quite big already.
After resting a bit we had a camel ride there.
Up a lonely rock in the wind was a perfect spot to play my harmonics and enjoy watching the day go to sleep…

It was raining. We had to wait until the rain stopped to start driving. That was just after lunch. Then we visited the monastery and started driving to the waterfall of Orkhon valley. We didn’t know at that time that it would take 5 hours driving of mostly unsealed roads. But Senna was an amazing driver. We went where others with with even a jeep were hesitant. The speed was slow of course, but the scenery amazing. We saw our first yaks. And we arrived at our ger at sunset. They quickly put a stove inside to keep us warm and while waiting for dinner we had some vodka and played cards.

We abandoned the plan to go to the hot springs today. It would be another whole day in the car. We decided to walk to the waterfall instead and then to hike for 2 more hours following the river. When we arrived at a beautiful spot with even a layer of ice over the river, we sat down for a bit and meditated.
After lunch at our ger again, we made a horse riding trip. That might have been the highlight for me: riding through rivers and through the whole of this overwhelming scenery. The horses were really well trained to listen to a stranger that well!

Another Senna-rally for us. To xharxhorin! We visited the ancient Buddhist monastery, destroyed and rebuilt, and checked into a hotel.
After dinner (with Chengis Khaan and borshia beer) we went to a karaoke and had good fun for two hours! Mongolian horse songs alternated with English songs.

Somewhat hungover but we had to continue our journey. We saw the stone turtle in xharxhorin and somewhere along the way we also visited a Turkish museum. It was a long driving day to Khustai np. We were almost starting to worry that we wouldn’t find a ger family to stay with. The sun was already setting by the time we finally found one. A genuine one!


Made a walk in Khustai np and drove back to UB.

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Car songs

– respect yourself
– all that she wants
– Casablanca
– mambo nr 5
– d I s c o
– rivers of Babylon
– take a chance
– scatman

And the Mongolian horse songs: (phonetic)
– Mor aminunte
– Tisshi ngol gal shari thingerlik orchon wei…

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First impressions of Mongolia

Keep in mind, I arrived at night…
– cold, but not as cold as expected. That’s good. And my new fake down jacket is very warm
– no need for seatbelt in the car, said the driver
– they drive like crazy, taking over left or right, it’s all the same.
– don’t trust the road. Sudden (deep!) holes in the road all the time!
– the city looks quite big, even at night
– 1,8 million inhabitants
– I saw a Karaoke bar, so they like karaoke
– they write in Cyrillic but I see also roman letters sometimes
– the end of the drive was epic. The biggest mess, the biggest maze I have ever seen! And just when you think it must be a dead alley this time, the road just continues around the corner. (And that happened about ten times in a row). I was smiling in the (Korean) car.

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Seoul, South Korea

After a nights flight with China Eastern airlines (the available seats next to mine and the meals and movies provided make for quite a different sensation than with Air Asia) I arrived in the worlds best airport of Incheon, Seoul. Where immediately you are welcomed by Korean punctuality on airport trains and buses to the city.
Driving through the city it reminded me of Tokyo a lot. Same cleanliness, same advertising style, same big high rise buildings, same small restaurants next to each other.
I arrived at Hoam University where I met Inre, originally from India but living here already 3,5years. Together with a friend of his, Inyoung, we walked up Gawanaksan Hill and did yoga there. He is good and taught us very well. Inyaung was specialized in raw food and she invited me to have dinner with her tomorrow. I gratefully accepted!
After that, I went to the neon district Gangnam (!) to meet Atlas. He grew up in US but has been living here for quite some time. We talked, ate some street food, and he made me try Soju, Korean rice wine, and Korean beer.

I explored the city a bit, went to dongdaemun area, where there are markets and the old city gate and some remnants of the old city wall.
At dinner time I went to Inyoung. The raw food was delicious! Pizza made of raw vegetables and sauces, “bread” made by dehydrating seeds and coconut, cheese spread and desert tart made with the help of the dehydrator… I’m quite convinced to buy one back in Belgium. Very healthy and stomach filling food! It’s quite funny, in the “Areng to Aural”-trek we were constantly talking about food. One of the guys, Travis was specifically talking about that dehydrator all the time, and now, 5 days later I actually see what it is and how the food tastes like… I feel the flow of life!
But the best surprise of the evening is yet to come. When I mentioned that my host was feeling too sick to come to the jjimjilbang tonight, she suggested that she could join me! Can things get any better? Being initiated to the typical Korean Jjimjilbang by a real Korean? I loved it. So it goes like this: first women and men bathe seperately. Take a shower, bathe in a warm bath or a cold one, stand under a strong vertical water jet where you can sort of massage yourself with, sit in a warm (sauna) room, and in an even warmer one, and if you like, another cold bath or shower. Then you get dressed and go to the communal area. There are more peculiarities: the Jjimjilbang itself is a sauna that looks like an igloo (low entrance) with a pointy roof and made of brick. There also is an ice room, that’s like a big fridge, a salty sauna, and a warm room. All surrounded by a big communal area with several corners for watching tv, eat, chatting or just sleeping or relaxing or getting a paid massage.
… I guess I don’t have to mention that liked it a lot? And all this you can have for 8$… In Belgium we would pay at least 25€ for that. The big difference is, people here usually do this once or twice a week. But I was surprised to hear that going to a jjimjilbang is relatively new, it’s not a traditional thing.
Oh and the Koreans like to make a “sheep head” (reminded me of Star Wars’ Amidala) with their towel, folding it lenghtways and then curling the left and right end.

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