Eating, Shopping, Training & Sittin’ in Mongolia Hotel Lobby

25 Sep

We’re off again. I’m growing fond of trains. Living in close quarters. Sleeping on a 3 by 6 foot mini-mattress, where worn sheets and pillows are provided by the host country. Cuddling at night with a plastic water bottle, ripe bananas, noddles housed in Styrofoam, crusty bread and last night’s vodka.

Substituting baby whites for bathing and baby powder for shampoo. Sharing recycled air with four others, whose hygiene and immune system don’t match your own. And, enjoying a toilet with 36 others whose nationalities and bathroom habits range from standing on TOP of the toilet to peeing on the floor. Yes, one can see why at age 38 I’m growing fond of train travel.

It’s 7:00 am. I believe a Wednesday. The Mongolian train’s final destination is Beijing. At the train stations, herds of backpackers strapped down with their personal possessions on their backs swayed in anticipation. I’ve never seen so many of them. Can I just please do the American thing and ask, “don’t they work? And, whose paying for this?” There’s not one universal answer for their stories are as unique as mine. But, I do wonder which socialist, high taxed, low hourly work week country do they live.

Once again, I’m finding other countries vacation and work policies are short of incomprehensible. Adorable Jonah is a tram driver from Sweden.

He’s been driving trams for over 6 years and has accrued almost 3 years of vacation. Can you frigging imagine? For the next six months he’s traveling Russia and Asia to chip away at his mountain of vacation time. When he returns, he’s secure. He has a job, in which is loves. I mean LOVES. His passion for his job excites those around him.

The next big plan is to become a train conductor. Guess what, a conductor’s vacation policy – even better. But, that is not what motivates him. He loves trains. He loves driving them at night. The streets are quiet. He says, “its like meditating. It’s beautiful. But, people are stupid and drunk. Not so good. They walk in front of trams. Hitting them is not so good.” He is one of the more honest men I’ve ever encountered. His eyes look like looking at Bambi’s soul. He speaks with such earnest. Wanting to connect. Wanting to understand differences. Wanting to understand your own truth. He’s a gift. He makes me laugh.

Jonah is conservative Swed. There’s election happening now in Sweden and he wants his party to remain in power. In his view, taxes are too high and government is too big. He wants more tax cuts and make it more difficult for people to take advantage of the system.

I asked, “I’m surprised. I thought Swedes were proud to be overly taxed and overly inundated with government assistance.” He says, “Proud of Sweden, Yes. Proud of people taking advantage of system, no. We pay too much in taxes. Government not always good with money. But, Sweden taxes is not the same as American taxes. You don’t pay taxes. This, not so good… The opposing party wants to increase taxes more. Bad for people. We have many problems. Taxes not solution.”

Tell me about… But, I’m fascinated by the assumption that Americans don’t pay any taxes… I’m constantly calling bullshit on that one to my social, socialist friends of Scandinavian and Europe.

Gosh, I can’t tell you how much I love Mongolia. It’s a ray of sunshine compare to the dark clouds of Russia. I think I’ve said it before, but these people smile. I mean smile. It’s amazing how individual’s energy or a country’s energy impacts your spirit. OK. Back to the last 8 hours first. Then, I’ll write a blog about Mongolia – the land of smiles and sunshine.

I did not sleep last night. This time, by choice. Well, more or less… Once again, I’m hanging in the Mongolian hotel lobby. A lot goes down in Mongolia after midnight. This time, the 16 year old porter boy is staying up with me. Last time, it was a young girl manning the front desk. Today, we got back to Ulaan Baatar (UB) around noon time from the GER camp.

My goal was to buy Mongolian cashmere, mail the cashmere at the Mongolian post office, take a Mongolian shower that includes hot water, stock up at the grocery store on train essentials – water, diet coke, bread, jam, cheese, bananas, chips, cookies, beer, misc… – for the two day choochoo to China, lunch at a Korean restaurant with the young bucks, pick up laundry at Mongolian cleaners that use actual machines not hands…I need to get all of this done by 9:00 pm. Not a problem. Right.

It goes without saying, Mongolian cashmere rocks. We’re talking about the cashmere sold at Niemen Marcus – the expense stuff. Not, the crap-ola you buy at Target or H&M that has cashmere fibers intertwined with nylon, pollsters, cotton and dust. Pure cashmere baby.

Gap Adventures provides a country, tour manager to help the tourons (morons) like us to get around the country. Tuya was our gal. She rocked! I asked here where is to buy cashmere for Christmas presents. She set me up. Before that though, I was telling her about my head cold. It’s coming. And, we’re going to China. I had heard that the Chinese don’t let you in if you are sick – cold, TB or STDs. Nothing. So, I was looking for a Mongolian remedy to zap the sniffles. She hooked me up.

The group arrived at the San Hotel around noon time, yesterday, from the GER camp. Tuya had to kick hotel managers ass about pipes breaking in my room, a man shimming down into my bathroom and organismic screams in the hallway. I believe there were a few other issues as well. After her little chat with management, we headed down the dusty streets of Ulaanbaatar, zig zagging across open man holes, broken concrete and paint peeling buildings to a pharmacy. We hit the pharmacy. And, bellowed out some Mongolian. Little girls went a running to the shelves. They came back with little plastic packets of colorful balls and powders. This train festering bacteria was theirs to fight.

The little pharmacy girl and Tuya went back and forth and back and forth. My word, it’s only a cold. They conceded. I needed yellow balls, red balls and orange powder. It’s all “herbal.” Mongolian herbal may mean something different than US herbal. Who knows…But, I will tell you – the snots have left me. I keep popping the colors and drinking the orange. China can’t reject me now…

Commercial break. Lauren from Jersey just walked into our train compartment. She looks tired. Hell, we all look tired. “Yea, I didn’t sleep much last night. Well, you know…Yea, I was electrocuted.” WHAT! Her words were so blase. No emotion. No expression. I fear she has the Russian disease. Electrocution is a possibility when you stay in no star hotels and travel to places like Mongolia, Russia, China…

I asked, “Are you OK? What happened?” She says, “You know. Our room is really dark. We had two lamps. I went to plug one in but it had US sockets, not Mongolian. Damn, like that’s so NOT cool. So, I grabbed the other lamp. Try to put it in the adapter…and ZAP…I screamed. I mean, I really screamed. It hurt like a bitch. No, I was not near any water. So, I’m lucky about that….I mean, not being near water. So, I’m kind of out of it today…I think my brain cells are fried. Damn, I’ve never been electrocuted like that. Yea, so I couldn’t sleep. Other than that my night was cool… Oh, yea, someone stole my cell phone too…I forgot about that…”

After she casually gives us her 411, she walks off to the next compartment to tell the same story. She’s taken on herself to organize a tour to the Great Wall of China when we arrive. Now, That’s going to be interesting.

That’s the norm around here. Electrocution. Theft. Bucked off horses. Mongolian hospitals. Fake organisms. Sliced open toes… Every morning, over breakfast, we all gather to talk about what happened the last 6 to 8 hours while we were sleeping. Every morning, someone has a story – trivial or major – no matter. It can include bowl movements and strange rashes to spider bites and bats landing on your pillow. It’s part of the travels.

OK. Back to buying cashmere. Tuya’s friend has her own cashmere factory. She designs her own apparel and sells it in her beautiful shop. She’s a single mother, raising three children on her own. She was schooled in Germany and speaks German, English, Russian, and Mongolian. Prior to having her own business, she worked for the government run cashmere factor as an executive. It went private when they kicked out the Russians in the early 90s, when communism took a flying leap off a cliff. So, she decided a few years later to start her own cashmere business. A bank gave her a loan. And, Bam…She’s in business, catering to the affluent Mongolian.

Tuya was telling me that the Mongolian women are very strong. They work, support the family, raise the children — do it all. The men are weak. She said, “It’s hard to find a good, Mongolian man” OK – global THEME ALERT. Why are the men – generally speaking – so sorry. Women seem to be doing it all. Carrying all the weight. Maybe it’s always been like this for thousands and thousands of years and I’m at an age where a woman’s fortitude versus a man’s laziness is being thrown in my face, regardless of country, race, or economic status… Maybe, I’m just more aware of this growing gap between women and men. As they say at the train stations, “Mind to Gap.” Maybe us gals need to say, “Mind the Men.”

I really do try and stay away from all of my tangents when I write. But, random things just pop in the head. OK. Back to cashmere. Few days prior, I checked out the Mongolia department store, called the “State Department Sore,” and scooped out some scarfs and hats. Impressive. A green cashmere hat found its way into my hands and kept me warm at the GER camp. Tuya told us “to be careful. Department store cashmere may not be 100%. Only certain brands are 100%. You need to stick with me.” Kiki from Norway, Pat from England and I stuck with Tuya. She took us to her friend’s elegant shop off of Ghangis Khan square. Channel, LV, Prada… I was thinking. I can’t afford this. Wrong.

Tuya had already negotiated discounts. Now, this is very normal for tour guides to bring you to “friends” shops so they can get a kick back. But, this was not the case with Tuya. Gap Adventures and the other tour groups she works with cater to the backpacking set – these are the folks who “refuse to pay more than $1 for water.” Majority aren’t seeking quality cashmere. When we told the group we’re setting out to spend money and paying with what we call a CREDIT CARD, horror was written on their faces. To think VISA stands for something more than an official entry into a country….

OK. Let me set the stage. I’ve been at a GER camp for the last 24 hours – hiking mountains, hanging with four legged animals and cuddling up to an iron stove lit by wood. I’ve not had time to shower for the red and yellow balls and orange powder purchase took a priority. My jeans are brown from riding Mongolian ponies. My hair is brown from oil. My shirt is brown because that its color. I look like shit. And, I walk into an elegant, upscale store smelly and with NO lipstick. My mother would be horrified. “Honey, I’ve never….” I will say I baby wiped the pits. So, the BO was down to a minimum.

Little, Mongolian shop ladies showed us beautiful scarfs, gloves, hats, sweaters… You name it. And, it was inexpensive compared to US prices. We’re talking $25 to $35 for 100% cashmere scarves and pagminas….I loaded up. Next stop was the Mongolian post office. Tuya said – not to worry – the Russian hostility attitude was checked at the border. Hmm… We’re talking about government postal workers in a developing country. Smiles and services are not included in a stamp price. We will see….

Tuya said it was best to mail packages from Mongolia compared to Russia and China. In Russia, “they will steal or just not send it unless it is express mail. They rip you off…They don’t care… China it is the same.”

Tuya was right. I was wrong. We were greeted with smiles. Painless. Now, let’s see if the box arrives in 2 weeks… Maybe Russian Nicoli was right – “Americans are smiling on the outside and feel angry on the inside. Russians look like they are angry on the outside but are laughing on the inside…” I think Mongolians are happy on the inside and outside. This is a country feeding off of 300 days a year of sunshine.

We met the Young Bucks travel group at a Korean restaurant. I’ve never had Korean. There were twelve of us jammed in small restaurant. It’s so interesting how we all react to “imposing” on businesses, whether it is a restaurant or store. Tuya asked the Mongolian restaurant workers to move tables so we can all sit together and share the meal. The Swedes, Norwegians and English all cringe. They hate “putting people out” and would rather suffer themselves than ask a paid employee for something extra. American girl here is like, “that’s their job… to take care of customers.. if they can’t move tables, then will tell us….Let’s ask…Plus, we tip….” My European and Scandinavian friends think I’m rude and they’re embarrassed. I think they are wishy-washy and a pain in the ass… Australians and NZ are pretty forceful – or tell people what they want – like Americans. So, it’s always good to have them in a group. The Canadians just follow the group. They are just along for the ride. Yes, I’m generalizing. But, it makes me laugh how right I am..

So, the restaurant workers move the tables to the center of the restaurant. My friends are freaking. I don’t even notice. Tuya helps us order. She tells the group that we’ve ordered too much food. Our resident Korean/Swed – Hanna, who was adopted from S. Korea to Swed parents – told us that it was not enough food. Guess who was right. Tuya. Our table had stacks and stacks of food. I felt at home. In the States, we’re all about packing mounds of meat, lard and rice on plates. Overeating is our birthright. The rest of the group, were horrified again. They have not seen this much food in such a long time. But the food spurred on US travel stories where they’ve ordered at a US restaurant and received mounds and mounds of food. They talked about how embarrassed they were…. And, even more embarrassed when they ordered just one meal and asked for an extra plate. Such an inconvenience for the kitchen staff, no?

By the way, the Mongolian cuisine is all meat all the time – horse meat, cow meat, chicken meat, goat meat, sheep meat, yack meat – and random meat. If you are a vegetarian or have food allergies, then Mongolia is not your place. They drink unpasteurized milk and cook with heavy creams from cows, goats and yacks. The creams and milks are delicious…

Young bucks order Tiger beer and Tuya and the waiter have a heated exchanged. The restaurant did not have beer in the fridge, just fanta and water. Unacceptable. Tuya – I could tell – told him as such. The Mongolian waiter ran outside. Paid some street kid to get us beer. We got our beers. But, the kid brought back warm beer, instead of ice cold. No matter. Warm beer works with Korean food. It’s so damn spicy that any liquid quenches a burning esophagus.

Tuya was telling me how many Mongolian go to S. Korea to work in factories. They make very good money there. The factories feed them, provide housing and they send their money back to their families so they can buy an apartment, take care of their parents or send a kid to private school. She said that when kids get married, they can’t afford a house/apartment. They normally have to move in with their parents. That’s hard. If they go to S. Korea they can save and buy an apartment when they return. Apartment for life. Fully paid for. Sounds familiar. You see this trend everywhere. Prior to S. Korea, Mongolians would go to Japan. But, with Japan in economic crisis, the Mongolians have opted for S. Korea. She said there is a large Mongolian population living in the US west coast. And, these Mongolian BBQ restaurants are a US born phenomenon, not Mongolian. They have them in Mongolia because of the US, not the other way around. They don’t “own” it… Who knew…

After cashmere and postage, Kiki and I headed back to the hotel. It’s about 7 pm. Pat, our 78 year old traveling companion, was walked back to the hotel an hour prior. I still can’t figure out why Gap Adventures would assume the liability of someone close to 80 traveling with a tour group whose mission is low budget, no frills, no nothing. We have to carry our own bags up flights of stairs. We have to haul this our personal effects through through metro stations, onto buses, through train compartments, over pot holes….

Besides that, the trans-Siberian is a hard trip at any age. But, at that age, when you are frail – its frightening. And, it’s not fair to the group for we are very, very worried about her. Our group leader, fearless Mash from Mongolia, seems not to notice of her fragility for he rarely walks with her or helps her with her bags. That’s a whole other story.

What I really can’t figure out is why in the hell her two sons and daughters would permit her to do this trip – alone. If this was a cruise or one of those post all included trip, that’s one thing. But, we’re talking about sleeping in bacteria filled trains, making and eating store bought food in your bunk bed, finding your way to the toilet on a train hurling out of control in the middle of the night, walking miles a day, fending off thieves in markets, going to sleep at 2 am and waking at 5 am to catch a train in 20 degree weather… I can go on and on and on. This is the day in the life of Trans-Siberian travel…It’s hard.

OK. Last night. Picked up my laundry. Yes, paid $8 for someone to disinfect my clothes in boiling water. How happy am I? Washing shirts and underwear in a bathroom sink, with cold water gets old – but not only that – you never believe anything is really clean. I’ve taken to washing my pants while they are still on in the shower, then soak them after. That’s one thing I do miss – washing machines.

Next stop is the super market to buy train staples. It’s getting dark. Tuya and other say that Mongolians, like Russians, drink a lot. Especially the men. Too much vodka means too much frightening. Too much fighting means too much crime. Police are – well – they can be paid off so justice is in the eye of the beholder or the pocket book. It’s best if you do go out at night, to stay together or just stay inside. But, it’s around 8:00 pm. I have a few hours until the vodka kicks in. I make a dash for the grocery store.

By the time I returned to the hotel, the young bucks had left for dinner. I opted out. I just needed some alone time. Put myself in time out. I’ve been with people for 24/7, and like recycled air, I’m becoming ill. I don’t want to have another conservation about traveling. About packing. About what we are not doing in China. About spending too much on lunch. About rude service. About getting lost. About insects bubbling out of the toilet. About bowel movements. Nothing. I need to be quiet.

Our hotel is hidden from the street. So safety is an issue. Nice, right? The grocery store is 3 blocks away. I pass karaoke bars, a run down apartment complex, pile of human shit and a pub called NATO. The blue NATO signs offers no reassurance. At the intersection is where it gets interesting. Rarely do you have a cross walk. So, you must just walk out in front of traffic and ignore cars. If you look at the car, you have a higher chance of getting mowed over. Uh, slightly different than home. I place my foot down, and jet across the street. I see the store. One eye is closed. I don’t want to see the car that will nail me. Though, I do hope its a Renault not a van.

Got across just fine. Found the grocery store like I own the place. See, this is uneventful. Why? Because the store had a SIGN saying “food market,” unlike Russia who’s attitude is – good luck sister in finding us…we really don’t want your money or you…

The store was stocked with mostly Mongolian, Chinese and Korean brands. I did see Kellogg cereal with duct tape and Nestle instant coffee. I head to carb central. Mongolian breads go stale in hours. Maybe it’s the flour. No clue. I sit and look at the packaged breads trying to determine which one will last two days. I pick the softest one.

Kiki said she found tuna. I decided to splurge and try for some protein on this trip. One thing I vowed NOT to do is to consume plastic noodles packaged in Styrofoam cups. The smell makes me want to hurl. I was in search of peanut butter – I have not seen peanut butter since the States. I did not start looking for it until Poland. So, the Middle East could be stoked with Peter Pan for all I know. Anyway, no peanut butter. I bought some bananas, an apple, crusty bread, strange cheese, yogurt, raisins in a zip lock and three diet cokes. I did not have ONE diet coke across Russia. I believe that is one of the reasons my stomach fell apart. No Diet Coke chemicals to fry the baby bacteria…

I loaded my backpack with the foods and hurled it on my chest. I think I’m going to do that when I get back home. I’m going to go to Publix. Instead of bagging it. I’m going to throw it in my backpack. Strap it to my chest and walk out the door. Now, talk about looks — And, I’m going to pretend that I don’t speak any English. I would like to see how the high school check-out gals would treat me. Done. That will be on my return “bucket” list… That, and drinking loads of FRESCA.

I walked back to my hotel around 9ish. The place was quiet. I packed, again. It takes me 45 minutes to pack this damn bag. I’m still trying to figure out how to make all this shit fit. I’ve been discarding clothes. Discarding shoes.

But, bought boots and a sweater. But, I would have hoped that my bag would have gotten smaller. Nope. After Bhutan, I’m yanking a lot of things. I’m keeping an ugly pair of hiking pants and button down shirt for the Monk trek. After that, its gone baby.

OK. After packing. I went downstairs to the hotel lobby. Only one cable for internet. It’s around 10:30 pm. I’m updating my blog. Trying to rearrange my trip to Thailand. I want to stay longer there. I need a weeks worth of $2.50 massages. It’s now midnight. The porter dude cranks the TV. Dirty Dancing is on. I’m watching him. He’s mezmorized by Patrick Swayze. Yea, I can see that. Then, he flips to Ghangis Khan kicking ass in some fight. He’s mezmorized by that too. Get that. He’s a dude. Then, he lands on Celine Dion in Vegas. Really? Can we PLEASE go back to the Khan. I will take him over Celine. I keep my head down and continue to type.

It’s after midnight and the lobby gets into action. A man walks in the door. He’s talking loud. He does not see me. The porter boy just wiggles his head “no.” Porter boy does not look at the man. Down at the desk. Can’t look at the young girl walking into the lobby. He’s sees her before me. She has the man’s jacket over her head. It’s like she’s cold or something. Probably ashamed. The man is in a nice suit. Looks like a business man. The woman is dressed in a black skirt, tights and shirt. Once again, nothing that scrams, “SLUT.” The porter boy continues to shake his head.

The man says some loud words, grabs the girl and walks out. I catch the porter boys eye. It is vacant. I can only guess what that was about.

He goes back to TV. We’re now listening to a Mongolian show. It’s like a game show. Why do they have to put the volume on notch 100. I tune it out. Back to videos. Shakaria comes on. Porter boy eyes grow wide. He can’t take his eyes off the scream. Damn, neither can I. The woman’s voice and dance moves are amazing. I loved her when I was in Honduras and love her music now. I hear clicking of heels down the marble stairs.

It’s now after 1 AM. A young woman – about 22 – and older Mongolian male make their way down the stairs. She has dark glasses on. He looks straight ahead. He nods at the porter boy. Man does not see me, neither does the girl. The girl keeps her head down. They leave. I have not heard the orgasm screams like a few nights ago. Either these men aren’t performing or were asked to tone down the moans, screaming and rocking of head boards. My last thought is it’s a Wednesday night – so, it could be a “slow”night.

We’re coming to 2:30 am. Another couple comes in. I think its the same man with another woman. I’m not sure. I hope not. But, the porter communicates, “there’s no room at the inn…” They leave. This time the young woman looks at me. She does the once over and dismisses me. Rightly so… I mean, I’m once again wearing crayola crayon brown PJ pants, a zip up hoodie and black suede long boots. My hair is down. And, a Velcro curler is in my hair to keep my bangs down. I would love to imagine what she is thinking of me. I bet it’s good.

It’s 3:30 am and I’ve posted all of my Trans-Siberian travels. I did my last communique on Facebook, for China has shut out the social networking site. Three weeks and no Facebook. The Young Buck travelers are having a hard time of this. The thought of not being able to facebook friends for three whole weeks. I don’t participate in that conversation for either I will come across as a fuddy dud, judgmental or just a retard techie.

I head to bed. Up four flights of marble stairs. Our room is frigging freezing! We only have a sheet. They forgot a blanket. Typical. I need the GER’s iron hot fire now. I throw on more clothes and jackets. I get into bed. Set the alarm for 5:45 am and wait it out. There’s no sleep.

Have I told you how much I love Mongolia? Thank you God for sharing Mongolia with me. In a few hours, we head to China.

2 Responses to “Eating, Shopping, Training & Sittin’ in Mongolia Hotel Lobby”

  1. Stephanie 01/10/2010 at 8:10 pm #

    I have been reading your blog on and off all night…How did I get so far behind on your adventures? I am not lovin the whole train experience. Sounds very uncomfortable and stinky. Not fun when you are traveling and dead tired. Are there food cars for you to eat or do you have to buy all your stuff before you get on the train? safe travels:)

  2. Jeffrey Blydenburgh 17/11/2010 at 9:10 pm #

    Amanda, I have just been loving your travels, your writing, your observations, and your wonderful open attitude. i saw your mom at church. I think she misses you. All I know is that I miss china, so if you come across a town that needs a cultural tourism master plan, let me know. Jeffrey