Sydney, a quick visit…

HarbourBridgeMonday, 29th June.

Got caught in a sudden downpour yesterday whilst looking for somewhere to eat.

The sky turned to a thunderstorm grey/pink that I’d never seen before. Got wet and found a pizza place after half an hour walking, listening to French gypsies on my iPod. Did some more walking and found a bar, had a drink and watched people play pool.

I spent today in the Art Museum of New South Wales. Had a lie down in the park of fruit bats before going in and realised that eighty percent of Sydney’s population are joggers. Do these fitness junkies have jobs? How much do they pay the personal trainers that jog alongside them?

I liked the museum. Four floors of everything from Medieval, Aboriginal, Indonesian right up to Modern stuff, where I had to stop myself touching things, knocking them over and fulfilling the habitual pattern of making a complete dick-head of myself…

Later had dinner in an Asturian place with a French girl from my hostel. The crapness of the food made me miss Spain. We talked a lot, but I can’t remember what about.

I wish I had more time here. It seems pleasant on the face of it. It’s strange being in a foreign country where the natives speak your language. It’s a lot more unsettling than being in Beijing or Ulaanbaatar. I’ve just spent the last three days with a puzzled look on my face, wondering if I’d slipped into a parallel dimension. My brain’s now completely accustomed to not understanding a word people  are saying and the Australian accents that I here in the street get automatically interpreted as someone talking Japanese. My brain takes a few minutes to realise that it’s a language that I can understand.

Walked across the Harbour Bridge and I resisted taking photos as seeing so many people with cameras put me into another tourist-hating mood. I should have explored more of what was on the other side of the bridge (there wasn’t much at first glance), but I didn’t.

Later got a bus to Bondi Beach just before it started getting dark. What makes the sand squeak in Australia? Had crap and expensive fish’n’chips and deep fried Mars bar. Went for a drink with Maude (French girl) and we talked about what a nutter Sarkozy is, her grape picking summers in France and her year working in Dublin. We said goodbye at the hostel and I told her to look me up in Brisbane as she’s travelling up the east coast for two months.



A million cameras...Sunday, 28th June.

Captain Cook sailed all the way from Whitby to get here. I only flew from Ulaanbaatar…but I bet his journey wasn’t half as f@#&ing annoying as mine.

My plane finally left Mongolia three hours late, which meant that when I finally got to Beijing my connecting flight to Sydney had already left. I had to stop overnight in a hotel along with four others, all at the expense of Air China …although they only agreed to pay for four rooms, “only one room per nationality”. We were all complete strangers and nobody felt like sharing so one of the Americans paid for another room.

The next morning at the airport I learnt what an electronic visa was and that I didn’t have one for Australia. I was directed to a small office where I could use the Internet to apply for one while the staff stuffed their faces and watched TV. I put my bag through what must have been it’s fifteenth dose of x-rays to make sure all my film was properly knackered and boarded the plane for two hours of non-stop, soul destroying turbulence. We landed in Shanghai for a short stop which gave me time to buy what I thought was mineral water but in fact turned out to be bottled sweat, before boarding the plane again for another ten hours…

I joined the quarantine queue at Sydney airport, trembling and swearing never to fly anywhere ever again as the turbulence had been pretty much constant. I then learnt that my little wooden turtle (the only souvenir that I’d bought for myself) might be confiscated after reading the big “$10,000 fine” posters everywhere. Luckily I got through and my turtle was also allowed entry.

So, here I am in the southern hemisphere for the first time. I’ve already had pie’n’peas by the river and walked through a park full of fruit bats, and now I’m sitting by the Opera House in what feels like a big 3D postcard.

What did these people do on holiday before they had cameras?



Friday, 26th June.

I don’t like repeatedly seeing the same faces at an airport. Seeing them often enough, while you’re waiting for your delayed flight, to start giving them a small “ehyup” every time they walk past. It makes me feel as if I were in a disaster film. I’m getting to know all the main characters who will later be going hysterical, screaming, sacrificing themselves heroically or turning nasty and fighting a nun for the last life jacket…

It’s 11:03am. My plane was due to take off in two minutes. I’m sat watching an electronic notice board in Genghis Khan International Airport. When I got here two hours ago they told me that the flight had been put back ten hours to 9pm. I took the news relatively calmly as I had almost expected some sort of f#@k up on arrival. I’d got to the airport in plenty of time and my driver had managed to avoid every one of the heavy goods vehicles on the way by at least a couple of inches…

At the hostel I said goodbye to the remaining few people I’d gotten to know. I’d forgotten or just not bothered to learn the names of all but one of the people who worked there. I said goodbye to Ukhta, shook his three-fingered hand and promised to send him a cassette of decent music. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to “Bob” (one of the family that runs the place), as he was too busy trying to kick the shit out of one of their drivers. As we pulled away and out of the square they were still being held apart.

B@#%@cks, I’m going to miss my connecting flight in Beijing.

Goodbye Mongolia…

Goodbye MongoliaWednesday, 24th June

“Different Ways to Drink Your Own Piss”.

That was Khuu’s translation of the title of the book she chose in the bookshop she’d shown me. I was looking for souvenirs. It’s quite a common remedy in the Mongolian household for almost anything apparently. Children start off with their mother’s urine then move onto their one.

Khuu had a strange condition when she was little. When she ate meat she’d come out in a strange rash and have difficulty walking. She spent three months on a hospital bed without improvement. She was subsequently sent to her aunt’s house/ger. Her aunt was a qualified nurse and looked after her as best she could. When it was agreed that the medicine that Khuu was being given was having no effect,  she was given a glass or two of her aunt’s urine every day. After less than three weeks, she was cured and the strange illness has never returned.

My last visit was to the Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum, housed in the converted house of prime minister Genden. Genden was executed by the communist after refusing to take part in the communist purges of the 1930s. Every room recounts the stories (mostly in Mongolian) of the countless intelectuals, lamas and other “counter-revolutionaries” that were sent to Siberian camps or murdered by the communist regime. The last room contains several skulls from a mass grave, each with its own bullet hole.

It was quite sad saying goodbye to Khuu, Marieke and Tine. They wouldn’t have been an obvious choice for travelling companions, but I think in the end I was really lucky.

Back in Ulaanbaatar

Choijin Lama TempleTuesday, 23rd June.

I’m glad I got a few days to wander round Ulaanbaatar again.

I saw the Zanabazar Art Museum yesterday and had a drink in the only place that wasn’t shut at 11pm. Also found the Choijin Lama temple. A beautiful place hidden amongst grey soviet blocks and the capital’s only skyscraper.

I saw a Khoomi concert there with twenty others, which I’ll probably never forget. I couldn’t bring myself to take photos or videos.

The inside of the Choijin Temple (or “Temple of Mercy”) is full of the usual grimacing, fornicating, laughing deities along with amazing (and huge) Tsaam masks. But what makes this place special are the walls covered with representations of hell and suffering. Metres and metres of people being dismembered, eaten, drowned, strangled, sodomised, etc,. You end up looking upwards to rest your eyes and are greeted with the sight of imitation human hides hanging like a bat colony from the ceiling.

I went out later with the Marike, Tine, Stefan (German guy), a cockney boy called Eric and a Japanese trainee chef with no english. We talked about religion, poverty, philosophy and where to get a beer after 11pm in Ulaanbaatar.

UmpaLumpasSunday, 21st June

Got up early and decided to walk up the hill behind the monastery. Sat by an oovi (sacred mound of rocks) and felt sad about having to be heading back.

Got back to the ger, rushed my breakfast and we set off back towards the capital.

On the way I got talking to Marike about her time in Africa. She told me about the demand for the bones of albinos and the slaughter it leads to, the children that are abandoned by their families for being “cursed”, and the story of an African workmate of hers that was denied asylum in Belgium after a five year wait.

Ukhta & MendeWe arrived in Ulaanbaatar in the afternoon.

Mende was at the hostal.

He waited ten minutes…before saying “let’s wrestle!”

CowsFriday, 19th June.

300km then we camped.

I asked Khuu what Mongolians do (and used to do) with their dead, as I’d realised I hadn’t seen a single cemetery. She pointed a few out to me as we drove. At a distance they just look like one of the many rocky outcrops.

Mongolians normally bury their dead, marking the grave with a gravestone. The site is usually just out of town, on the west facing side of a hill or mountain (facing the sunset). They also sometimes leave the body on a mountain side, to be eaten by wild animals. The faster they are eaten, the faster they are re-born.

Khuu knew of a boy (a friend of a classmate), who hung himself and as a result was refused a burial plot. Eventually his body was left on a mountainside. Nothing touched him and he remained intact (and thus not re-born) for quite some time until a monk finally buried him. I asked about cremation, but she said it wasn’t very common, although one place in Ulaanbaatar recently started doing it.

The night before a Mongolian funeral (which usually take place very early in the morning), the family’s ger is emptied and body is kept there, guarded by two family members. At he funeral, there is usually one specially chosen person incharge. They are selected based on the year when they were born, which must have a four (or multiple of four) year difference from that of the deceased, (e.g. Khuu was born in the year of the dog, so her funeral “boss” has to have been born in the year of the snake or…the horse, I think)

Ukhta should be a getaway driver. We were beinig waved down by the first policeman I’d seen since leavin Ulaanbaatar, whilst leaving a sleepy town. He just drove on by, speeding (without a seedometer) over 300km of holes, bumps, gravel, curves. I’ve learnt not to look at what’s coming, to just look at the view and pretend we’re not close to death. Ukhta has the same idea. He’s usually sending text messages, changing the cassette, messing with god knows what under the steering wheel or just looking at what the shitty back wheel is doing with is head stretched out of the window…

Mongolian triffidSaturday, 20th June.

Listened to the Mongolian music on my ipod with Ukhta by the fire last night.

There’s a track that start’s with a young boy whispering “Shar budaa, shar budaa”. I asked Khuu what it meant, expecting some ancient greeting or religious chant. It means “millet”.

We  got to Amarbayasgalant monastery at 6pm and were shown round by one of the monks, a fourteen year old boy who was followed around by the key keeper, a nine year old boy. They told us a few things about the monastery, but wasn’t overly enthusiastic. He was impatient to get back to the football match he’d started out front. I’ll come back early tomorrow before we set off back to Ulaanbaatar.

The eldest monk here is twenty three, the youngest is six.