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The Russian-Mongolian Boarders

I am now in Ulaan Baatar, the land of Ghenghis Khan and the world's coldest capital city, just edging out Ottawa. Finally something Canada doesn't have to feel bad about being 2nd best at!

Rob and I left Irkutsk last Tuesday, packing up our things and saying our sorrowful goodbyes to Russia, where we had a fantastic month. The jeremiad lasted all the way until we boarded the train at which point I burst into excited giggles at the prospect of spending the next couple of weeks in Mongolia. The cheap Russian champagne helped.

Gandantegchinlen Monastery, Ulaan Baatar

Our train carriage was filled entirely with foreigners, approximately as many as we had met in our entire month in Russia. We befriended a couple of Swedes, some Germans, two Americans and a Frenchman, Olivier. Curiously, not only were there only foreigners in our wagon, we foreigners were the only ones on the train whatsover.

Wednesday morning we arrived at Naushki, the Russian town at the Mongolian border. I had heard that our border stop would be a long one but was still surprised to find out it would be 6 hours before we even tried to pass customs and our train was moving again. After an hour of sitting about - there is absolutely nothing in or around Naushki - I got off the train and entered the station to look around. When I came back outside I witnessed the rather unsettling sight of my train leaving down the tracks.

The train was moving slowly and back towards Russia, so my mood was more perplexed than panicked, but everything I own (including Rob) was on the train. Luckily the two Americans were there as Olivier, so we all watched curiously as our train was pulled backwards, pushed onto a second track, a car disturbingly called The Laboratory Car was detached, our train was pushed back onto the first track, the Laboratory Car was moved forward by a 2nd engine, our train moved back onto the 2nd track, 3 more cars were detached, the Laboratory Car was attached to our car (even more disturbingly), the 2nd engine pushed us back onto the first track and so on. It was like one of the children's puzzles where you have to move the tiles around to try and make a picture. We watched this go on for about an hour and a half, wondering the exact point - Russia has taught us that there needn't necessarily be one - until I finally just got too hungry and re-boarded the train.

Practising My Moves - A Mongolian Contortionist in action.

After six hours the customs officials came aboard for about thirty seconds and waved us through, and off we went. Until we got to the Mongolian border town, where we stopped for another 3 hours. This stop had the highlight of Rob, I and the Americans being fleeced out of $10 by a woman selling insurance that we supposedly needed. After we had bought it, a Mongolian guy who spoke absolutely no English and who had joined our wagon, laughed, shook his head and said "You guys are fucking stupid". Which is true.

Besides our Mongolian wagonmate showing us how he was smuggling cigarettes into the country, the rest of the ride was uneventful, and we checked in at a local hostel upon our arrival. Instantly, we were amazed by the difference from Russia - many more people speak English here than anywhere in Russia, even Moscow; there is a massive tourist infrastructure, with internet cafes on every street corner; and people are all very friendly and willing to help, something that, while I loved Russia, was certainly not true of it.

The city is actually quite cosmopolitan with lots of restaurants, bars, museums and music all over the city. And yet, it still retains some of the funkiness that sets Asian cities apart from the west. For example, there are no pay phones in the city - instead, people stand on the street corner with their bulky home phones that have an odd antenna attached and people pay the phone's owner to make calls. One of the Swede's saw a Buddhist monk using one, which still just seems kind of odd.

Rob and I went to a nightclub, too, which, despite the complete playlist of American music, remained still not quite like the west. When we arrived the club was busy, though nobody was dancing. At exactly midnight a siren went off and was followed by the announcement in perfect English, "Good evening everybody. Drag queens take your places, the dance floor is now open." At which point everybody in the club started dancing. (No drag queens, though. Their places must have been somewhere else.)

Watching wrestling with a few buddies.

Everybody danced for about an hour until an announcement was made over the speakers, everybody cleared the floor, and the contortionists came out and had a performance. After that finished, everyone danced again. Then they stopped, cleared the floor again, and there was a competition. After that, they all danced again. We understand that this always happens in clubs and that performances can include singers, fire-eaters and strippers, so we definitely need to go out again.

Since being here we have also gone to an art museum, seen some amazing monasteries and witnessed some traditional Mongolian dancing and throat-singing. The most interesting thing we did was yesterday when we went and watched a Mongolian wrestling competition. We entered the stadium, 2 of perhaps 6 foreigners in the crowd, and just sat in some good seats. After a few minutes an announcement rose over the tannoy and all the guys around us started taking off their pants. I believe in the "When in Rome..." platitude, but it only goes so far. It turned out we were sitting amidst a large group of the wrestlers who were getting changed and they would just enter the competition from the stands.

Mongoilian wrestling is very similar to greco-roman wrestling as a sport, but is also redolent of sumo in that the tradition attached to the the sport is almost as important as the sport itself. The wrestlers perform an Eagle dance when entering the ring, do a series of exact movements in order to honour the judges and do a victory dance if they have won. Now, perhaps I have been away from my girlfriend from too long, but what really struck me about the Mongolian wrestling is how it is easily the most homo-erotic event I have ever been to.

The wrestlers' oufits are a tight, magenta, half-length, open front corset/tummy top that look approximately 43 sizes too small and leaves the nipples out in the open. The shorts are speedo tight and leave butt-cheeks akimbo on the wrestling floor. Up to seven bouts happen on the floor at the same time, so flesh abounds. Then come the rules, which we didn't really understand save for the fact that the sport seems to rely on a great deal of ass-slapping. If you win a bout, you get your ass slapped. If you lose a bout, you get your ass slapped. If the judge wants things sped up, you get your ass slapped. It really doesn't seem to matter what happens, you are bound to get a slap on the ass. Of course, I didn't mention my own personal observation to the 6'4, 300 lb. wrestlers participating. Perhaps when my Mongolian gets better.

It is off tomorrow for 10 days through the Gobi desert and central Mongolia. No electricity, no showers and lots and lots of mutton. Should be great.