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Category: Mongolia

Cover Story For Malaysia Airlines Inflight Magazine!

It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing –…

Cover Story 1_GoingPlaces_Nov15It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing – mostly on blog posts here and some contributions on other travel sites. And this November, my feature article was chosen as cover story for Malaysia Airlines (MAS), Going Places in-flight magazine.

I’ve been flying MAS since I was very young and in more recent years I’ve realised that in-flight magazines are what I look forward to when boarding flights. Going Places has been a signature for MAS and I’m stoked to have contributed to its pages.

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The TransSiberian rail journey in itself is a lifetime experience. It crosses three countries; China, Mongolia and Russia and passes through five different time zones. Culturally, it is a robust experience, awakening every facet of your physical senses; sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The real game changer for a holiday like this, is the people you choose to go with. I went with my husband and two-year-old toddler and they were fantastic travel buddies. We learned so much more about each other and about the world – the small train cabin forces you to be within close proximity. So choose your travel buddies wisely! 🙂

If you’re looking for a rich experiential holiday, take a read and decide for yourself if you’re up for a rail adventure of a lifetime.

The online version: http://bit.ly/GPTransSiberian

The November issue here:  http://bit.ly/GPnov15

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Terelj National Park: Explore Mongolia’s Backcountry

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks…

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks or more – some even up to a month! Initially, I was in disbelief – seriously, a month is a long time for one country, but it later evolved into an apologetic revelation with a regretful, “I wish I had planned a longer stay. I will come back for the Gobi desert, climb the Altai mountain range, bask at Lake Kovsgol, traverse Orkhon Valley”.

Safe to say, our experience at Terelj National Park remain one of the highlights throughout our TransSiberian adventure. Getting out of the city we passed undulating hills, plains flecked with gers and small country homes, and wild horses galloping in the distance with unrestrained freedom.

Trelj NP76We entered the national park after an hour plus on the road. I was looking forward to the seclusion and wilderness that it promised, but entering the park, I realised that this was a favourite holiday destination for locals – there were cars parked everywhere, holiday retreats on the left and right, gers made of brick and tour buses. After Naadam, locals made a beeline here for some rest. So, it’s not exactly off the beaten track. Thankfully, Terelj NP is massive, covering 1.2million acres of land – there is enough room for everyone to have their own open-plains experience.

The park is known for the gigantic Turtle Rock formation, named for its resemblance to a turtle. There are several monasteries within the park and we visited Ariyapala monastery. The climb up to the temple was unforgiving but the view at the top was well worth it. Inside the temple Buddhist monks sat crossed legged chanting almost in silent whispers, colourful flags danced to the gentle breeze and the wind chimes played a beautiful tune.

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Meeting Our Host Family

It was time to meet our host family, our four-wheel drive pulled into a small community of about five gers. Some horses grazing nearby against a mountainous backdrop. We entered into the family ger and felt immediately at home. The domed shape home was well lighted with natural light coming from the opening above, a sofa set, a tv, a few small cupboards and a small portable sink were lined neatly along its side. The centrepiece of the home as its kitchen, a wood-fire iron stove with a long chimney sticking up and out of the ger.

Trelj NP_iphone41Our host, Chan’gkhan (I think that’s how its spelt) was a pretty young woman with plump healthy cheeks and sparkling eyes is the mother to a one-year old boy and a superb multi-tasker. She cooks all meals, milks the horses every to hours, takes care of her son and ailing father and attends to all her guests. Her husband works as a horse herder and brings guests on horse riding trips in the summer. When winter hits and the tourist dry spell arrives, her husband travels to Ulaanbaatar and works in construction.

Trelj NP9During our stay, we were flanked with simple home cooked Mongolian meals. I had the privilege of helping and seeing how the meals were prepared. Fried meat dumplings called huushuur was my favourite. Light pastry with mutton, potato and onion filling deep fried to crunchy perfection. Huushuur is usually served with hot milk tea or a clear vegetable broth. We had man tou, a white flour fluffy steamed bread served with mutton soup.

Mongolia FoodMongolia food2Chan’gkhan offered us some mare’s milk, a sour fermented drink that tasted nothing like milk. I took a sip and politely declined seconds. We also had a steady selection of Mongolian tidbits – aaruul, dehydrated yak curds, hard cake-like biscuits and dried milk chips. It’s an acquired taste, I must say.

Mongolia Mares MilkAfter lunch, we walked to our ger about 100 meters from the family home. There were four single beds inside the ger each covered with pretty linen. Sunlight streamed in from above illuminating the beautiful hand-painted orange beams that held the ger in place. There was a small table in the centre and that was it. I appreciated the simple spaciousness it offered. But there was no electrical plug points, no toilet, sink or shower. It dawn on me that we were in for quite a camping experience.

Trelj NP_iphone6Trelj NP66Trelj NP64Trelj NP_iphone35The toilet was about 150 meters away where the horses grazed. There was a wooden box-like shelter that I thought nothing off, until I realised that that was our only toilet! I neared the wooden box and was already overcome by the strong stench – there was only two wooden planks over a deep pit and the only thing that seemed to be having fun were the flies! I made a mental note to avoid the toilet unless for emergencies.

Trelj NP_iphone33Besides the toilet conundrum, we had a wonderful stay. We went on horse riding trips and laughed when our horses had to stop for a wee and a poop. It wasn’t my first time riding a horse, but it was our first as a family and we enjoyed every moment of it – watching how Seth was completely drawn to every movement of the horse, patting the horse and saying, “You can do it!” and today, he sits on pillows and gallops away. Wonderful memories were made.

Trelj NP32We watched and marvelled at the strength of Chan’gkhan as she carried out her daily task. Every two hours, she would put on knee guards and with a bucket in hand she gets down and milks the mare. She makes grunting and hissing noises to coax the mare to let down while her father steadies the animal.

Trelj NP52Our days in Mongolia’s backcountry could not be a better introduction to the vastness and distinct culture and landscapes this country has to offer. We connected with a local family through our similarities of shared family value, our appreciation for nature and curiosity to learn about each other’s culture. Beautiful Mongolia could do with more marketing on an international stage, but somehow, I selfishly hope that Mongolia will stay a little less known because its rugged edge is what makes her special.     Trelj NP26

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Naadam Festival In Ulaanbaatar

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from…

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from 11 – 13th July annually with a grand opening ceremony on the first day. Over 35 thousand wrestlers, 40 thousand horse racers and 1,500 archers compete in Naadam’s competitions.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city will be jam packed with cars and shopping malls and streets are filled with people. Locals tell me that the people from the countryside drive into the city to join in the celebration. Hotels are fully booked and the opening ceremony tickets are usually sold out a week prior to the event.

Our hostel would only sell us tickets if we signed up for a full day Naadam tour with them. So we opted out. We decided to walk to the Central Stadium on the morning of the opening ceremony. The streets were eerily empty and we imagined everyone was at the stadium. Nearing the stadium, a carnival mood could already be felt – street vendors parked on the side of the road selling drinks, candy floss, helium balloons, stick-on tattoos, sun glasses, and Mongolian flags. Kebabs sizzling over pit barbecues cast a heavenly scent across the dusty road. It was an upbeat day and our hearts thumped to the music coming from the stadium.

No Tickets For The Opening, Until…

When we got to the stadium’s gate, we asked if we could go in. The gate attendant, a young lady (a volunteer, presumably) asked for our tickets. We told her we didn’t have one. A little disheartened at first, we backed off and tried to peek in. After a few minutes, Terence approached her again, this time he worked his manly charm. He pointed at me, with Seth in the sack – I gave her a weak smile and mouthed, ‘Please’ and a few seconds later, she waved us in. Terence’s ’have-some-pity-on-us’ plea worked! I was grinning from ear-to-ear and I clambered up the steps, gently pushed my way into the standing crowd and found a seat – it’s always good to have a child with you!

Naadam Festival is Mongolia’s very own Olympic Games. The opening ceremony is imposing and grand. We saw a parade of people dressed as ancient warriors, men and women in embroidered robes called ‘del’ and elaborate headdresses, along with burly wrestlers clad in blue and red briefs, soldiers, monks, traditional throat singers, pop dancers and bands. The atmosphere was eclectic. The costume details are unbelievable and for that few hours it felt like I was transported back in time during the Genghis Khan era. Naadam is very significant to Mongolia and in 2010, it was added into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

The festival’s local Mongolian name, “eriin gurvan naadam,” is translated as the “three games of men.” That is, archery, horse racing, and wrestling. Whereas horse racing and archery competitions have gradually incorporated women participants over the years, wrestling continues to be a highly male-dominated sport. Today, knuckle bone shooting is also part of the competition.

Here are some photos from the day.

Naadam Festival 3FullSizeRender (1)IMG_0954Naadam Festival 8Naadam Festival 9Naadam Festival 7Naadam Festival 10Naadam Festival 1Naadam Festival 2Naadam Festival 11FullSizeRenderNaadam Festival 4Naadam Festival 12Naadam Festival 5Naadam Festival 6IMG_0972Naadam Festival 13Naadam Festival 14

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Trans-Mongolian Rail Adventure: Beijing To Ulaanbaatar

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the…

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the sack, we headed to the train station. It was chaotic – mad crowds at every turn, trolley bags knocking on my ankles, people elbowing at my side in a hurried puff, the air was still and incredibly humid. We had to find the station’s entrance, but all signs were in Chinese. Then we spotted a queue with some Western travelers in the line. We promptly asked if they were heading to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia capital and they said, “Yes”.

The line steadily snaked in going through security and then into a large waiting hall. It dawned on me that this is IT! We are really getting on a train starting our Trans-Mongolian railroad adventure! One sure sign was seeing other western travelers with their huge backpacks and hiking boots on – the look of rugged travelers ready to embark on a great adventure.

TransMongolian7The gates opened and there before us, the familiar green train with the famous red star on its side. I’ve seen this train in pictures after many months of researching prior to the trip. We were on the right track. I looked around and saw people taking selfies. There was a tangible mutual excitement that lingered in the air – an anticipation that was almost forceful enough to push the train along with a chugga-chugga.

TransMongolian8Our train attendant was a stalky, middle-aged friendly chap. He checked our tickets and waved us in. This was the first overnight train of many to come as we were headed west straight to Moscow in the next few weeks. New to the whole train scene, we got into our cabin of four, with two bunk beds on each side, a small table next to the window and enough for two adults to stand side by side.

TransMongolian9We stored our luggages under the bottom bunk bed and stowed away our small backpack. Surprisingly, although the cabin may seem small at first sight, after keeping our bags, there was enough room to sit comfortably, even with legs outstretched. Every space and fixture in the cabin has been thoughtfully positioned – we had hooks for small towels, hangers for clothes, a little rack for phones or small items and in each carriage had two power sockets and a samovar for hot water anytime of the day. It’s especially convenient for making instant noodles and coffee.

TransMongolian10TransMongolian11TransMongolian3Since we bought second-class tickets, our carriage did not have air-conditioning. And the worst part was that the windows in our cabin was faulty so it couldn’t be opened. The small fan helped with circulation, but since it was summer – it got a bit hot and stuffy in the afternoon. We would escape to the first-class carriages (two beds per cabin with a cushy seating space) to enjoy some cool air. But as soon as we received stern stares from the train attendant, we exited promptly. We did this several times until the afternoon heat simmered down.

One of the best things of train travel is meeting new friends. Stuck in a small space, we’re forced to forge new friendships. We shared our cabin with Samantha, a young British girl who was also headed for Mongolia and she was going to spend a month in the country before moving onto South Korea. We exchanged travel stories and shared umpteen snacks.

TransMongolian5Not long after we departed, our train attendant (each carriage has one attendant) knocked on our doors and gave us clean bed sheets and duvet covers. Then he gave us two red and green tickets for lunch and dinner – we couldn’t contain our excitement! No where in the ticket did it say lunch and dinner was provided. We did not catch this information on any of the guides we have read – so it was a pleasant surprise.

What we found out after the whole TransSiberian experience was that Chinese trains offered the best food. Who can fault a Chinese cook with a belly sticking out and a towel around his neck? There was a fully equipped kitchen in the dining carriage and the wok was fired up at full steam. We had rice and celery chicken for lunch and rice and meatballs for dinner. Sadly we were too enthused with the food to take any pictures. It didn’t stay long on our plates.

TransMongolian12Eight hours down, 20 hours to go! We’ve explored different carriages, visited the loo several times, read a few stories to Seth, finished a few chapters in our books and popped way too many raisins and nuts. Surprisingly, we were not bored (yet). The novelty of sitting on the train still gripped us. I kept taking out my phone to capture the ever-changing scenery. The train meandered past valleys with towering mountains on both sides, farmers were seen herding cattle and sheep in wide open plains, we saw modest Chinese homes with unmistakable a-framed tiled roofs clustered in small communities and we tunnelled through mountains – and each time we did, the cabin was pitch black. Seth’s favourite was going through tunnels. He would exclaim, “Mommy, where are you?” with hands outstretched, “Daddy, are you there?” groping in the dark. He would snicker as soon as we exited the tunnel.

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Changing Bogies At The Chinese-Mongolian Border

Whether you’re a regular train passenger or not, one of the more unusual experiences happens at the Chinese-Mongolian border – Erlian. Here, the train’s bogies (wheels) have to be changed due to the different track gauges used by Mongolia and China railway networks.

We arrived at 940pm at Erlian, immigration officers entered our carriage to carry out customs and immigration checks. They take our passports and ask us to verbally state our names while looking at us with a steady glare. We were given a choice to remain on the train or alight at the station. Once you get off the train, chances are you will not return until after the bogies have been changed – the whole process took about two hours. Terence went down to get some snacks and ended up waiting. At the station there are proper toilets, an ATM machine and some shops for drinks and snacks. Most people alighted, but I stayed since Seth was fast asleep and I had secretly wanted to see how the bogies were changed.

Our train wheeled into a shaded platform where each carriage was raised, one at a time during the bogie change. Toilets on the carriage were locked and electricity was shut down. The bogies are then removed and new ones are replaced. Every time an existing bogie was removed from a carriage the entire train would shake violently. There was a lot of banging and knocking involved too! At some point I thought Seth would wake up crying because of the loud clanking but he slept through, even snoring at some point.

After an hour and more of ground shaking activity, the carriages are lowered back onto the track and we headed back to the station to pick up the other passengers. It was another 30 minutes wait before we got our passports back and then we finally bid goodbye to China.

An hour into the ride and just as we were about to settle in for some slumber, we arrived at Zamyn Uud the Mongolian border. Our jarring cabin lights flicked on, a smart looking lady officer with strong perfume and brightly coloured nails motioned for our passports. We handed it over and she stamped our customs declaration forms. The wait continued – another two hours on a stationary train waiting for our passports to be cleared. Alas at 315am, about six hours since Erlian’s border crossing, the officers returned to the train and handed back our passports. Our train chugged away into no man’s land and we sank straight into bed.

Good Morning Mongolia!

The air was cool and arid, our cabin door was still shut but outside I could hear children from the other cabin exchanging notes on Mongolia, “Dad, can we ride a horse? Do they have camels too?” “What do people in Mongolia eat?” “They look like Chinese, but they are not.” I chuckled under my sheets and thought, what an amazing country Mongolia is – even children are genuinely curious about her.

TransMongolian14The scenery had changed dramatically. I saw horses galloping afar, random gers dotted in the field, and we even passed some grazing camels. The morning has broken and the skies were the brightest blue with stark white clouds and the occasional majestic eagle circling the sky.

TransMongolian6TransMongolian2We made our way to the dining carriage to grab some breakfast and I was completely spell bound when I opened the carriage door. The dining carriage must have been changed at one of the border crossings and I was now staring at a Mongolian-furnished dining hall. Wooden furnishings of Mongolian instruments, bow and arrow and other hunting paraphernalia. Faces of ancient gods were part of the fixtures too. I could tell that every person who walked in for the first time was equally surprised. They had that “Wow” look on their faces, almost gawking in disbelief. We had some hot goulash and buns for breakfast and immediately missed the great Chinese food the day before.

TransMongolian1328 hours after we first boarded the train, we arrived in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The day was incredibly hot, but a new country awaited us. We alighted with our bags and toddler in the sack and was greeted by a cheerful welcome from our hostel host. I love this country already!

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