New Zealand’s South Island

I found the South Island to be less industrial, colder, less populated by humans and over-run with sheep. The scenery is also much more dramatic and beautiful with deserted rock strewn beaches and rugged snow-capped mountains.

My journey in the south began in Christchurch followed by a drive south along the coast to Dunedin, then west into the central highlands wine producing region of Alexandra, Clyde, and Cromwell, Then on to the tourist and extreme sports town of Queenstown and finally a long drive back north to Christchurch through the foothills and over Landis Pass.

Once back in Christchurch I traded the rental car in for train and ferry tickets on the Coastal Pacific Scenic Train from Christchurch to Picton followed by a ferry crossing from the South Island to Wellington. A Saturday night in Wellington then another day on the Wellington to Auckland scenic train. And after one final night in New Zealand a morning flight to Fiji to make like a seal and warm myself in the sun on the beach.

Christchurch suffered from a devastating earthquake a few years ago and is still recovering all these years later. According to my taxi driver the city was built on a swamp and the lack of solid foundations contributed to the devastation. So, since most of the historic buildings are no more or modern rebuilds – spent very little time in Christchurch and headed straight for the historic city of Dunedin.

The highlights of my time in Dunedin was a visit to the Taiaroa Head underground coastal fort, Larnach Castle, the Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head, and an evening Blue Penguin Viewing Tour. The low lights of my time in Dunedin was the Taieri Gorge Scenic Train Tour and the Seasider Scenic Train Tour.

The Royal Albatross

First the good, I had no idea I would enjoy watching and learning about a damn bird. I was surprised to find the Royal Albatross Tour absolutely fascinating. The colony on Taiaroa Head is the only colony found on a mainland anywhere in the world. All the other colonies can only be found on extremely remote barren rocks hundreds of miles out in the South Pacific.

Let me begin by describing these incredible birds. An adult albatross stands about waste high and weighs 22 to 28 pounds. They have a wing span of 3 meters and can fly at speeds of around 75 miles per hour. These birds mate for life and produce one egg every two years. A female will produce off springs from her 5th year thru her mid to late 20s. Albatross’ are a true solitary seabird. They live their entire lives at sea except for the brief period every two years for courting, mating, hatching and feeding their fledglings.

Once the mating couple have successfully launched their fledgling they go their separate ways for two years circling the globe at the southern extreme never approaching land or their mate or other albatross. Once the fledgling reach 7 months they are ready to fly and leave the nesting area and do not return to dry land for 4 to 6 years.

They say that superstitious sailors believe the albatross are the souls of drowned sailors.

I’ve included photos of both chicks in the nest and mature adults flying and gliding on the winds. Albatross can fly incredible distances in a single day only stopping to feed on sea life and to float on the ocean as they sleep.

The Blue Penguin

The Viewing Tour of the Blue Penguin was a night time affair. It seems these little guys spend all day at sea feeding and only return to dry land and their nest after dark. The Blue Penguin is the smallest of all the species of Penguins and the Otogo Peninsula is home to one of the largest colonies. They have a white front and blue back which perfectly camouflages them from predators at sea. To any predator looking up from below they blend in with the sky above and any predator looking down from above the blue blends in with the sea.

The photos attached are not that good because they were taken at night without the use of a flash which is prohibited

The Fort

New Zealand became a British Colony in 1840 and up until the 1870s was responsible for providing protection to the colony. In the 1870s Briton made New Zealand responsible for its own defense and a series of coastal defenses were prepared to cover the major ports.

The effort was rather lackluster until a Russian Warship showed up during the Crimean War. This one ship had more fire power than the entire nation of New Zealand. After the shock of the Russian War Ship’s fire power the politicians got serious and Fort Taiaroa was constructed in 1885. By the turn of the century over 100 soldiers and militiamen were living on Taiaroa Head and 6 gun batteries had been installed with ranges of between 3,500 and 4,000 yards.

The pride of the fort was the 6inch Armstrong Disappearing Gun with a range of 8,800 yards. This gun was the cutting edge of military technology in its day. It used compressed water to raise the gun into firing position then the gun’s own recoil would reverse the water pressure in the opposite direction and the gun would immediately lower itself out of site. The entire firing sequence from beginning to end was one minute and the breach loading gun could fire on a 360degree axis.

Within 20 short years this new gun technology was totally obsolete. With the coming of the airplane a gun that could not be raised skyward was useless and lowering a gun from site of ships on the sea was totally ineffective with a plane flying above. BTW this gun was never used in conflict and only shot about 450 shells in practice. Unlike most forts of the day this fort was entirely underground and during World War II 40 percent of the coastal defenders were women.

Larnach Castle

Larnach Castle is a grand estate and testament to a rich guy’s vanity. Lanarch was a wealthy banker, landholder, gold speculator and salvager of ship wrecks that spent a fortune on this property. He imported artisans from all over Europe that spent years, finishing stone, carving and etching wood paneling, moldings, and banisters into mahogany, teak, walnut, maple and oak, plasterers and tilers creating masterpieces in the floors and ceilings.

My favorite innovation though was how over 100 years ago Larnach had horse manure piped underground from the stables to a purpose built chamber outside and directly behind the Music Room and below the privy so that the human manure was added to the brew of horse manure. This resulted in methane gas which was captured in a glass bubble and then pumped up to the Castle by a boy working a foot pump and was used to light the chandeliers. Wonder how the crap pumping boy identified this job on his later resumes.

High tea at Larnach

Apparently old William Larnach was not the greatest of humanitarian in the world. While visiting a local heritage museum in Dunedin I came across an account of how a ship of poor immigrants floundered near Dunedin. Larnack’s Marine Salvage Company stripped the ship and pilfered the surviving immigrants meager possessions including any clothing not on their backs.

One funny thing about leaving the Castle grounds – parked next to my car was the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine Van. ZONKS!!! I’m sure old William’s ghost was muttering “Curses, and I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids”

Now for the low lights or bad.

The Taieri Gorge Scenic Train Tour turned out to be 4 hours in seats on the wrong side of the train staring into the side of a mountain. The other side of the train had spectacular views but my side not so much. In fact the “scenic” tour was so bad I used my time to write my last two blogs once I gave up on trying to find anything worthwhile to see or photograph. The only bright spot in the trip were the 4 lovely sisters sitting across the aisle from me on the good side of the train.

Heather, Mary, Wendy, and Lucy were on holiday from their homes in Nelson. They ranged in age from 90 to 78 and they all moved back to Nelson once their husbands passed. They helped make the time pass listening to their commentary and sparring back and forth. Interestingly all four ladies had been mountaineers in their younger years and one even climbed a season in Nepal. I would love to see a photo of the 4 in their prime.

So to sum up – in four hours I saw maybe 4 minutes of interesting scenery, completed two entire blog posts, and met 4 lovely ladies. Oh yes and one final unfortunate thing about the 4 hour tour to nothing – it ran late so I missed my afternoon Scenic Seaside Rail Tour. Hot tip – if anyone ever suggests a scenic train tour – DON’T DO IT!!!! You will never get those wasted hours back.

And now for the truly ugly!

Our premium picnic lunches that I had ordered at considerable expense turned out to be not simply a disappointment but perhaps the foulest food I have ever attempted to eat. The picnic box included a small roll stuffed with a spoon of barb-b-que covered in apple jam, a frozen finger sandwich of egg, cheese, and mystery minced meat on white bread (it all blended together to taste like wet cardboard), a meat and cheese pie the size and consistency of a corn bread muffin with a fingernail size piece of mystery meat and one cheese curd inside, a piece of fruitcake (who eats fruitcake except at Xmas and only in front of the senile aunt that bought it), and an apple the size and hardness of a cue ball. Clearly this crap was not intended for human consumption. The cardboard picnic box was much more digestible.

On a better note, I left the train wreck of a tour for the wine country of the Alexandra Basin. But more about Wine, 100-year-old steam ships, a long distance train ride across both islands of NZ, a Ferry across the Strait between islands in foul weather and dramatic mountain scenery in the next blog.

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On To Hobbiton, Hot Springs and Mud Baths…

I began my third day on the north island with 2nd Breakfast in the “Shire Café” after short hour drive from Rotorua to Hobbiton also known as the “Shire” home of the Hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic literary works and Sir Peter Jackson’s award winning films (Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit Trilogies). It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the movie Lord of the Rings was made and 8 years since the Hobbit movies were produced. Time seems to accelerate with each new birthday for me.

Bilbo’s home

Hobbiton was entirely created out of the fertile mind of Sir Peter Jackson. He discovered this location for all the exterior scenes of the Shire during aerial scouting by helicopter. I am told he knew exactly what he was looking for – a bucolic pasture like series of rolling hills interspersed with large old majestic trees. And of course, he needed a piece of property far enough from any road to avoid prying eyes and modern sounds like cars and trucks.

 

He found the perfect location in Alexander’s 1250-acre Sheep and cattle farm. The selected site was far from the nearest road, had a number of incredibly majestic 100-year-old imported California pine trees, and a topography perfect for building Hobbit Holes.

Green Dragon Pub

I’ve included way too many photos of this site because they are all so perfect I could not decide which to use. The photos show the Green Dragon Pub from both the outside and inside, the Mill, Stone Bridge, Bags End, and several additional Hobbit Holes. In total 30 Hobbit Holes were built for the exterior shots of the scenes in the Shire. I have also included a photo of one of the California Pines. Take note of the tree above Bags’ End – This is the only tree that is not real! It is made of steel and totally fake. All other trees are the real deal as is all the vegetables and fruit trees.

The guided tour was excellent and ended with a visit to the Green Dragon Pub and excellent pint of Hobbit dark stout. The Green Dragon is now a licensed Pub serving Ginger Beer, Cider, an Amber Ale, and Dark Stout as well as meat pies and pastries. The Cider and Beer/Ale are brewed in a nearby town exclusively for the Green Dragon and are quite tasty! Interesting side fact – more ale is sold in this pub than any other establishment in New Zealand. Guess Hobbits love their beer!!!!

And for those of you that are not familiar with the movies, a little background. Hobbits are little people – about 30 inches tall with large hairy feet. As a result everything you see in the photos are built to scale for people the size of the average American 6 year old.

From Hobbiton we drove back to Rotorua and visited a second Maori village and cultural show that was pretty much a repeat of the one the night before except the Maori warriors were not Maori and looked a little silly like the Maori version of the Village People. One guy looked like an old heroin addict, one guy was blue eyed balding middle aged white guy with man boobs, another was a kid who hadn’t learned his dance steps and grunting sequences with only the 4th looking anything like the real thing.

A major feature of every Maori war dance is the use of the face to intimidate. At different times the warrior will bulge his eyes, bear his teeth and stick out his tongue like Gene Simmons from Kiss. This is supposed to let the enemy know the warrior is looking forward to eating your organs.

The most disturbing part of this groups dance though was the heroin addict’s tongue work looked much more sexual than threatening and he kept winking at the women in the front row as he alternated between rapidly working his tongue at them and grinning like a demented pervert.

Fortunately, the cultural dance was not the reason for my stop here. In addition to the pornographic version of a Maori tradition this stop offered a rare look at New Zealand’s flightless national bird – the kiwi. These strange creatures are tanga (sacred) to the Maori and held in very high esteem. The birds are incredibly shy and reclusive so no photographs were allowed in the Kiwi House. You will just have to trust me when I tell you I saw two of these ugly little creatures. And I assume they are endangered because they are so ugly they aren’t even attractive enough to each other to mate.

The other purpose for visiting the Te Pura is that there is a large geo thermal reserve on their property featuring the Pohutu and Papakuru geysers, Ngararatuatar cooking pool, Nga mokai-a-Koko mud pool, and Lake Waikaukau.

From the Te Pura village I moved on to the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Home to the Lady Knox Geyser, Geothermal Park and more Mud Pools. Unfortunately, the sky opened on me here and I got drenched in a monsoon. Perfect timing since from the Wai-O-Tapu I was headed to Hells Gate Mud and Bath Spa.

Hells Gate provided the perfect antidote to the cold rain. Sitting neck deep in a hot sulfur spring and covering my body in mud was quite warming and relaxing even in the rain. Too bad they require bathing suits though. The hot shower after my soak worked great for cleaning the mud and sulfur stench from my body but getting both out of my swim trunks was a much more difficult task.

Well this was my last stop on the north island of New Zealand and my next post will be from the South Island…

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North Island NZ – Heritage Museum, Glow Worms and the Maori Warriors – Day 2

My second morning in NZ began with a stop at McDonalds for a quick breakfast. And guess what? In NZ a McDonalds Muffin is a real fricking muffin. How cool is that!

Fortified with my muffin I drove on to my favorite kind of museum. The Howick Historical Village. The village is made up of over 30 buildings rescued and brought to this central location to preserve the history of New Zealand’s early settlers. The English’s settlement of NZ was primarily by retired soldiers and their families recruited by the Crown to protect the British Investment in NZ from the Maori or anyone else who would lay claim to the new lands. Each soldier or sailor was promised free passage for their family, a cottage, an acre of land and yearly stipend to leave England or Ireland and set up house half a world away.

 

Howick, on which is the village is based was the largest fencible settlement and with the other fencible settlements formed a chain to protect Auckland from possible attack fromthe Maori or the French. “Fencible” comes from the word “defencible”, meaning capable of defence. These soldier/settlers were called the Royal New Zealand Fencible Corps.

Many took the government up on the offer to escape the potato famine and despite a dangerous 5 months at sea, once in New Zealand flourished. In fact, the life expectancy in New Zealand was twice that of Merry Old England. I’ve included a couple of photos from the museum of things I thought were interesting or amusing to me.

First you will notice an 18th century version of Spanx, then a photo of a chalk board discussing the children’s game hop scotch. Who knew that kids have been playing this game for over 2,000 years or that it represented the soul’s progress from earth to heaven. Another chalk board enlightened me as to how and when we English came to adopt the Xmas tree as a holiday tradition. Also you will note what a fine figure I cut as a sober judge prepared to mete out 18th century justice.

From the museum I moved on to the strangest stop of my trip so far – the Waitomo Caves. The first part of the Cave tour was on foot and contained the same stalagmites, stalactites, cathedral rooms and bottomless shafts as other caves. But the real treat was further into the cave where we boarded small boats to float quietly beneath a giant constellation of blueish green pin pricks of light. These lights were tens or hundreds of thousands of glow worm larva.

The glow worms of NZ are different than those found throughout the rest of the world in that everywhere else glow worms are actually beetles. The glow worms of NZ are carnivore fungus gnats. These worm like larva live for months hanging from the ceiling of caves in nests made from their own saliva and mucus. They secret a mixture of saliva and mucus to create thin sticky threads that hang down 6 to 8 inches from the nests to entrap prey that is drawn to the blueish green light they emit from an organ similar to a human kidney.

Interesting thing about glow worms – once they pass out of the larva stage they only live to mate and lay eggs for 4 days. And even more interesting is that the larva’s first meal is its brothers and sisters. Out of 100 eggs laid by an adult female 80 will be eaten by their brothers and sisters and only 20 will survive the first days. I think Erin, Sara and Ryan (my children) should take a moment to think about this. Which of you would have been sibling chow?

As grizzly and dismal as the life of a glow worm might seem, they are a spectacular site to see glowing from the top of a cave that is in total darkness but for their blueish green tail lights. But enough about meat eating blind larva.

Now that my appetite has been whetted, on to the Maori Village for a nice traditional ground cooked Hangi Feast of mouth-watering New Zealand lamb & chicken, riwai (potatoes), kumara (sweet potatoes), stuffing made with a mix of bread – mixed herbs – corn – carrots and peas, scalloped potatoes, garlic bread complimented with a thick brown gravy and mint sauce.

For desserts – tropical fruit salad, chocolate log, pavlova, and steamed puddings with custard. And most important – a full bar featuring Maori produced wine and beer as well as any hard spirit you might require.

But even before the welcoming feast we were treated to a feast for our eyes and ears. Just after dark we were escorted down to the Maori Village’s sacred spring to witness the dramatic torch lit arrival of the Maori warriors in their war canoes paddling upstream accompanied by a tattoo of drum beats, chants and grunts by the warriors.

Once the warriors and their chief joined us on the bank a short welcoming ceremony consisting of challenges to determine friend or foe, the ceremonial presenting of a fern (traditional Maori symbol of peace) and acceptance, followed by the traditional greeting of touching noses and foreheads twice we all proceeded back to the Wharenui (traditional Maori meeting house) for a fantastic cultural show. Thru the evening we were offered displays of weaponry and combat, the graceful poi dance, and traditional songs and dances ending with the show stopping Haka finale.

Through traditional song, dance and a Maori narrator the Maori shared many of their customs, history, and legends. I was surprised to learn the facial tattoos are far from random. The tattoo actually tells you exactly who you are meeting. The tattoo will indicate a Maori’s social status, accomplishments, position, ancestry, village, parentage, and marital status.

The process of making the tattoo seems a little extreme and all in all if I were a Maori warrior I would have preferred to remain anonymous. The tattoo is created in a two-step process. First deep cuts are incised into the skin and then a chisel is dipped in pigment and tapped into the cuts by striking it with a mallet.

Having had my fill of Maori culture, a ground cooked feast, Maori beer and wonderful hospitality I decided to end my night so I would be ready for an early morning start to the “Shire”. And for anyone who has lived under a rock or been in a coma since 1999 – The Shire is home to the Hobbits from Lord of the Rings. And the Shire in Middle Earth for 2nd breakfast is my first stop in the morning.. but that is a story for another day.

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New Zealand’s North Island – Arrival and Day 1

When I landed in Auckland a couple of days ago, all I knew about New Zealand was a few simple facts:

  1. NZ has a storied mountaineering tradition (from Sir Edmund Hillary to Rob Hall)
  2. Middle Earth and the Shire (home of the Hobbits) could be found tucked into its bucolic hillside pastures
  3. The indigenous people of NZ, the Maori are fond of tattoos
  4. NZ has lots of sheep and the local men seem quite fond of them.

Downtown Auckland at sunset on a cloudy day from the top of Mount Eden

Now after just four short days, I am an expert on the Kiwi. Or, at least know enough to make an ass of myself in the local pubs. But a few short facts before I begin with my observations. First, this is a fairly small country of only 3 million people. Second, NZ is also only recently populated as things go – the Maori only arrived here in around the 12th century from the Pacific Island of Hawaiki (not to be confused with Hawaii). And the English did not arrive until the 17th century. I guess until the Maori the island was inhabited by Hobbits and ugly little Kiwi birds. Third, the country is made up of two islands. And Fourth the government takes protecting the local people, fauna and flora as a top priority.

First breakfast in NZ at the Sheraton

First, upon our flight’s arrival, we all had to stay onboard the plane in our seats until the hazmat crew came thru the plane and sprayed us and our luggage down with either insecticide or a herbicide or a brew of both plus a healthy dose of penicillin to protect the locals from any cooties we might be carrying along. Once we were properly deloused we were finally allowed to go thru passport control, collect our checked bags and subjected to a cross examination by a very polite customs clerk about any food, drink, or medicine we might be bringing into paradise to corrupt the land or the people. Who knew beef jerky was so dangerous?

Soul Restaurant home of an incredible baked snapper lunch

Fortunately, I am now quite sterile and free of all living micro creatures, my carry on and checked bag has been cleansed of any alien larva it may have collected as I’ve traveled the universe and I have been deemed worthy of a two week visit to paradise. And I’m feeling quite special.

But in the end, it has all been worth the long flight, the indignity of mass delousing, and the St. Peter at the Gates of Heaven interrogation because the country is a paradise. First stop was the Viaduct area of central Auckland and a wonderful morning spent exploring the Maritime Museum, the harbor, and a very tasty baked snapper lunch followed by a peanut butter ice cream taco covered in a sea salt caramel.

The yacht that Sir Peter Blake sailed to back to back America’s Cup Victories

The highlight of the Maritime Museum was the exhibits related to Sir Peter Blake (NZ folk hero and and yachtsman) who led New Zealand to back to back victories in the America’s Cup. His list of yachting victories from the 1989 Whitebread Round the World Race to the winning the Jules Verne Trophy setting the fastest time for circumnavigating the globe to winning the trophy four straight years has earned Blake special hero status in this small country. Sadly, Blake lost his life to a pirate’s bullet on the Amazon but his legend lives on.

The view of Auckland Harbor from the steps of the War Memorial Museum

From the Maritime Museum, I traveled just a few short miles to the War Memorial Museum and learned about many more of this country’s heroes that have fought at our country’s side in every conflict since the first World War. From WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, and Iraq New Zealand has been at our side fighting and dying for the same principles our fathers and grandfathers fought to preserve.

The War Memorial Museum

But interestingly, the War Museum offered much more than simply a tribute to New Zealand’s fallen and veterans. It also contained an extremely educational and entertaining display on Maori history, culture, and customs.

After spending most of the day in museums I hiked up Mount Eden (a spent volcano within Auckland’s city limits) to see the sunset over Auckland’s Viaduct. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day so no sunset but a nice hike and view regardless.

The Burbs of Auckland at sunset on a cloudy day from the top of Mount Eden

This post was getting a little long so day two will have to wait until tomorrow…

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The Journey Has Finally Begun

Waiting in Tampa

Since late Tuesday afternoon we have now traveled just over 12,500 miles to arrive at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Downtown Auckland at 1am on Saturday.

After 90 days of planning, booking over 50 individual flights, well over 100 separate nights in every imaginable sort of accommodation (5, 4, and 3 star hotels, guesthouses in Nepal, a prison in Australia, houseboat in southern India, Yurt in the Gobi Desert in Uzbekistan, tents on parts of my treks thru northern Pakistan and Nepal, dug out caves in Cooper Pedy and Cappadocia, and a repurposed palace in northern India), assorted forms of transportation (rental car, passenger jets, prop planes, hot air balloons over Cappadocia, Turkey, Luxor, Egypt, and Jaisalmer, India, Helicopter over the 12 Apostles off

Southern Australia, modern and scenic trains in New Zealand, high speed trains across China, historic trains in India, Ferries between the north island and south island of New Zealand and between Hong Kong and Macau, paddle boats across lakes and down rivers in New Zealand, China, the and the Nile in Egypt, long tail boat and speed boats in Thailand, and a canoe like contraption in Laos, Buses, mini buses, limos, tuk tuks, motorcycle, scooter, bicycle, e-bike, elephant in southeast Asia and India, Camel in the Gobi Desert in Central Asia and Jordan, Arabian Horse on the Arabian Peninsula and my own two soon to be sore and abused feet across 36 countries the trip finally is underway.

I have now been vaccinated against every disease or parasite known to man to point I felt like a human pin cushion.  But I am now bullet proof from yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, cholera, Hepatitis A and B, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, and tetanus and several other diseases I can’t even remember or spell.

Hawaii

I have my visas all in order thru late July and have my final visas (Pakistan and Bangladesh) in processing under a second passport.  By far this is the longest (9 months) and most complicated (36 countries) trip I have ever undertaken.  But in true Rocko Polo style I have a 287 page itinerary accounting for every minute of the trip with a schedule down to the minute for how long I will spend seeing every temple, pagoda, palace, market, museum, and ruin.  I know which volcanoes to climb and what time I need to reach the summit for the best sunrise or sunset photos, and precisely how I am to get from point A to point B.  But as they say, “men make plans and the gods laugh” or as a friend of mine used to tell me plans are for shredding.  So, let’s see how long I can stay on my plan. 

Breakfast in Auckland

I have included just four quick photos from the long journey to Auckland – one as I waited for the airport shuttle in Tampa, my breakfast in first class to Los Angeles, me ready for bed on my 9 hour flight from Hawaii to Auckland, and an incredible breakfast this morning in Auckkand.

 

 

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Final Days in Mongolia

My second day in Mongolia was perhaps one of my favorite all time travel days. Ogi took me to a once every two year Buddhist ceremony atop one of Mongolia’s four sacred mountains and then to see a Naadam festival.

First about the Buddhist ceremony.  There are four sacred mountains in Mongolia with shrine’s atop each.  One mountain honors the Grandfather, another the horse, the sheep and finally the pig.  The mountain I visited and attended the Buddhist ceremony was appropriately the mountain honoring the pig.  The country’s Buddhist faithful climb this mountain once every two years to worship give offerings at the mountain top shrine to one of their Gods and to make offerings to a carved  rock pig statue.

IMG_4825.JPGThe first thing I noticed as I trudged up the mountain in a cold drizzle was that hundreds of people of both sexes and all  ages were trudging up the mountain in their Sunday best.  The second thing I noticed was that I was the only round eye on the mountain.  A couple of interesting observations about Mongols is that first they don’t seem to understand the notion of switchbacks to ease the difficulty of the climb.  Ive been on mountains all over the world and everyone except these people zig zag their way up a mountain to make the climb more gradual and less taxing on the cardio vascular system and leg muscles.  Mongols just trudge straight up without so much as a turn.  When they get tired they just turn face down hill and plop down.  Then promptly light a cigarette and begin puffing furiously.

It seems that everyone in Mongolia smokes – men, women, children, the healthy, the half dead…  hell I bet their horses and camels even smoke.  I was accompanied up the mountain by a young friend of Ogi’s.  I nice young man who loves American RAP music and Movies based on Marvel Comics.  Even though he is only in his twenties he hiked up the mountain alternating between holding his chest, like Redd Foxx used to do as Fred Sanford, trying to keep his heart from exploding.  Then when it looked like he could take no more he would reach into his coat pocket and whip out a pack of unfiltered cigarettes an light up.

He would smoke until he burnt his fingers on the butt trying to get the last little bit of cancer stimuli, then he would go back to holding his heart in his chest.  He smoked an entire pack on the climb up 3000 vertical feet.

About half way up the mountain I learned that Buddhists are no more enlightened when it comes to women’s rights than Catholics or Muslims. Turns out that women are only allowed to climb to the shoulder of the mountain where they have a smaller shrine with attending chanting monks banging on drums and tooting horns.  And this is as far as the fairer sex goes.  Women are prohibited from befouling the last 1000 vertical feet of the mountain.  The mountain top ceremony is a stag only affair.IMG_4844.jpeg

As I finally approached the summit and beheld the spectacle atop I was surprised to see a big shrine, chanting monks of all ages, the Mongolian army band, a big shot general decked out in all his medals,  and men from all over the area sitting and standing around grooving on the sounds of Buddhist rapture.  After an hour or more of monks chanting and banging their instruments, a rousing march by the army drum and bugle corp, speeches from the general, local politicians and a strange ceremony involving three local celebs shooting an arrow each into the crowd of late comers working their way up the mountain we were all then invited to bring our offerings to the idol.

The ceremonial shooting of the arrows was pretty interesting. There was a dude all dressed up in a beautiful silk costume and carrying his bow and three arrows climbing onto the stage as three older gentlemen made their way center stage.  The bow keeper presented an arrow and the bow to each of the big shots in turn and they then shot their arrow down the mountain as the entire crowd of men stood and chanted Uh Raaa Uh Raa Uh Raa while forming their hands in the shape of a bowl (palms up and little fingers to little fingers )and churning them in a clockwise motion three complete circles.

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The last celeb shooter nearly hit a cluster of late comers still trudging up the mountain.  Instead of scattering these guys all dove for the arrow.  The next thing I knew there was a pile of Mongols ten feet high like a rugby scrum kicking, punching and biting for control of the arrow.  Finally a little guy squirted out from the bottom of the pile holding the arrow over his head whooping it up.  The crowd went nuts cheering his good fortune.

As soon as the last arrow was recovered the crowd surged forward laying their offerings at the base of the shrine.  Men brought all kinds of things for the God to eat and drink.  Milk, cheese, bread, fruit, veggies, flowers, cookies, meat anything a god might have a craving for.  I chose to make my offering of some dried apricots that I had bought in the fruit and vegetable open market in Irkutsk to the Pig Shrine rather than the Buddhist Idol.

Supposedly the mountain god will grant a wish to the offerer.  And guess what?  It worked for me!  Got my wish a couple of days later in Beijing but Mongol rules prohibit me from telling.  Just like the first rule of Fight Club is that there is no Fight Club – the first rule of idol worship is no sharing your wishes.

Once the offerings were complete and everyone had congratulated themselves on a successful ceremony it was a mass scramble down the mountain to get to the Naadam Festival and the food and fermented mares milk (Airag) jerry cans.  Mongols love milk!  People of all ages walk around with cartons of milk like southern rednecks walk around with a can of beer.  And they drink milk from everything, cows, yaks, goats, sheep, horse, and camel.  But their all time favorite milk drink is fermented mares milk which they make themselves by leaving the milk in huge hide sacks to turn then they transfer it into five gallon jerry cans designed to hold petrol and dole the potent brew out to friends and family in bowls for drinking.

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You may be wondering what Airag tastes like – simple exactly what it sounds like, foamy, a little sour, warm, and a little thicker than your Publix store pasteurized 2% purchase.  In addition to imbibing Airag the festival goer can visit any number of food tents selling everything from boiled mutton to boiled horse and camel meat.  Mongols tend to boil all their meats or to mince their meat adding spices then making meat pies and meat dumplings.

Back to the Naadam Festival – this festival takes place once every two years and the entire day is scheduled around displays of strength, horsemanship and marksmanship and feature Mongolia’s three favorite sports; wrestling, archery and horse racing.  The festival grounds are organized in the shape of a large C with the opening of the C set up as a stage and the center of the C used as the wrestling arena.  bleachers are set up in the form of the big C with three tables set up inside the C for scoring officials and a winners victory spoils table.

Behind the bleachers there is second C made up of 12 x 12 tents stocked with cooked foods and strong drink.  Each tent is owned by a family or business and appears to be very similar to our skyboxes in concept with invited guests coming and going constantly.  There is a third C outside the Mongolian Skyboxes made up of more tents which serve as Mongolian concession stands selling everything to drink from milk to cokes, to Airag and everything to eat from mutton, goat, camel, horse and yak to fruits and veggies.  My friend Ogi’s family had one of these stands and I enjoyed my first taste of Airag and horse meat stew there.

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Before the Three Games of Man begin the locals and visitors like myself enjoyed an elaborate opening ceremony involving the Army’s Drum and Bugle Corp, the raising of the flag, blessing chanting to banging on drums and tooting of horns by the Buddhist monks, speeches by local politicians and a big shot general and a very cool rendition of “the long song” by a gentleman in traditional mongol attire accompanied by another playing the traditional Morin Khuur (horse head fiddle).

The wrestling arena is not what you might expect.  The area covers about an acre and the there is not a ring and canvas mat –  just pasture grass. The Mongolian concept of wrestling is also very different than our Wrestle Mania.  First of all there are no weight categories or age limits.  You might see a 300 pound 16 year old paired against a 90 pound eighty year old opponent.  The second thing you notice is the attire.  The wrestlers wear heavy felt and leather boots that come to nearly their knees, a tiny tight loin cloth speedo thing,  pair of sleeves that meet across the back of the shoulders with no waist and just a rope holding the front together and finally a pointed felt hat.

The combatants take the field in an exaggerated gallop jumping and dancing while flapping their arms imitating a soaring eagle.  The bout begins with the two wrestlers standing and grasping each others elbow and either the opponent’s loin cloth or sleeves.  The bout is over when one of the wrestlers forces the opponent’s elbow or knee to the grass by knocking him off balance.

Once the vanquished touches the ground with his elbow or knee he then must walk under the winner’s out stretched arm as a sign of respect and untie his vest sleeves.  The victor then begins prancing and leaping around the field with his arms flapping like a cross between a dancing horse and a deranged eagle.  He then ends his best interpretation of a gay flamer by dancing around the flag pole in the center of the field.

He concludes his NFL style victory dance by prancing over to the winners table to receive his reward of the symbolic prizes of biscuits and aaruul (dried milk curds) and a nice bowl of Airag.  Once he has had his fill of curds he then grabs a hand full of the biscuits and passes them out to the refs, scorers and people in the grandstands.

There are traditionally 512 competing wrestlers and they are paired off in groups of six or seven pairs wrestling at a time.  The six or seven winners of the first round of matches will later be paired up against other winners.  In the end the ultimate winner will have to fight his way through a half a dozen or more competitors over the course of a day.

IMG_4921The archery contests take place in a field just below the wrestling field and is just as interesting.  contestants are divided by men and women.  Men compete by firing their arrows into a plate size target angled at a 45 degree slant 60 meters out.  The women loose their arrows at the same size target but from only 45 meters.

The contestants are dressed in traditional Mongolian costumes and use traditional recurve bows with no modern sites.  Each contestant seems to have their own cheering section standing down by the targets and in addition to cheering their local champion on they serve as human range finders signaling the archer how high or low his arrow passed by the target.

A few pictures from the last day in Mongolia with Ogi and his family.


This post is being uploaded two years later than when originally written because I could not get on the internet for 21 days after the draft was written while in China and then I was separated from my laptop for two more weeks in Central Asia.  By the time I was reunited with the laptop I forgot this was in drafts and never posted.

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Now For Something Totally Different – Mongolia

Buddhist Temple Complex in downtown Ulan-Bator

The Giant Kahn statue from the parking lot

Close up of theStatue of the Great Kahn from atop the horse head

Me atop the horse’s head on the Kahn Statue

Life size bronze statues of a group of Golden Horde Warriors – photo taken from the top of the horse’s head

Yerts taken from Ghengis’ horse’s head

Me playing dress up – Member of the Golden Horde

Providing a perch for a hunting eagle

Mongolian Yerts

Turtle Mountain

The crack on Turtle Mountain I got stuck in

Mongolian Uber

Spinning the prayer drum to receive my message from the dead lama

Results from my spin of the prayer drum

My personal message from some dead lama

On my way to Nirvana

Main Temple at Aryabai

Working the prayer wheels – figured it couldn’t hurt!

The main Temple from a side shrine at Aryabai

Temple Shrine at Aryabai Monastery

View of the valley from the Aryabai Buddhist Monastery

Aryabai Monastery from Turtle Mountain

If there is a more interesting and exotic place on Earth I haven’t come across it yet.  Mongolia is remote, rugged, and steeped in traditions borne of its peoples’ early nomadic lifestyle following their herds of horses, camels, sheep, goats, and cattle across the vast steppes and grasslands of inner Asia.  The country looks a lot like our American West with vistas extending beyond the curvature of the Earth and human eye sight.  A Wyoming or Montana cowboy would feel totally at home on the plains and mountain passes of Mongolia.

It is hard to imagine that this rugged land produced one of the world’s most brilliant military strategists and sophisticated rulers of his time.  Ghengis Khan conquered and ruled much of the known world by gathering the many tribes of the steppes and creating a light Calvary the likes of which the world had never seen.  His warriors could ride for as much as ten days and nights without eating or stopping to rest.  They would sleep upright in their saddles on the move and would survive on a little of their horse’s blood for days.  Their skill with their laminated compound bows were remarkable and they could accurately hit their targets while mounted and at a full gallop.

I arrived in Ulan-Bator at 5:45 in the morning and after saying my good byes to my cabin mate Jacob caught a taxi to the Springs Hotel.  Fortunately I was allowed to check in and was showered and asleep by 7am.  After a short four hour nap I grabbed a quick lunch and walked over to the Lama Monastery and Museum.  The eastern architecture is unlike any in the west and the craftsmanship of the wood carving is remarkable.  I have provided photos of many of the buildings exteriors in the complex but unfortunately many of the temples prohibit photographing the interiors.

After visiting the monastery I walked back to the hotel and found Ogi a dart enthusiast  friend of  Paul Segal’s waiting for me in the hotel lobby.  Ogi, a native of Ulan-Bator had graciously agreed to show me the sites of Mongolia beginning this afternoon with the Ghengis Kahn Monument Park about 100 kilometers from the city.  I’m not sure what I expected but it certainly wasn’t a massive ____ meter aluminum statue of the great Kahn astride his horse.  The size of the statue is a bit overwhelming.  And most cool is you can climb a set of stairs inside of one of the horse’s front legs and get a panoramic view from atop the horse’s head.

While in the museum I tried on the clothing and armor of a Golden Horde rider which the locals found pretty amusing.  Apparently I’m a foot taller than the average Mongolian and about 100 pounds heavier.  And with my round blue eyes and white skin I looked about as Mongolian as Conehead in Tallahassee.  In addition to the huge statue and museum the grounds also had an incredibly life like full size bronze company of Mongol riders in formation.  Some of the riders armed with bows, some with swords, some with mace and others with their falcons.  Very impressive.

Mongols have an incredible tradition of using birds of prey for hunting and in combat.  I finished my visit to the compound by trying my hand at becoming a make shift perch for a hunting eagle.  I was surprised by how heavy they are.  I can’t imagine holding my arm out at a 90 degree angle with a big ass eagle or falcon sitting on it for hours on end riding across the steppes.  After five minutes my arm and shoulder had had enough.

After we left the Kahn Monument Park we drove over to Turtle Mountain.  And the mountain actually looks like a big turtle.  I spent about an hour hiking around and over the mountain and did fine until I came to a passage that was not meant for a six foot three big shouldered American.  You will see in the photos that I was never going to fit through a tiny slot in the rock face.  My Mongolian friend was sure I could and against my better judgement I gave it a try and got myself stuck with my chest and shoulders on one side and my stomach hips and legs dangling below.

The locals were quite amused at my situation – I was not!  Have I mentioned I am very claustrophobic?  Well I am and I was in the midst of a serious anxiety attack.  I finally managed to use my right foot to press against the rock face from below and use my arms to pull up on hand holds from above to unstick myself and inch my way up and back out of my temporary personal hell.

After cussing my Mongolian friend out for convincing me to do something so damn stupid we went back to the car park and who should I run into in the middle of no where Mongolia?  My Polish train cabin mate Jacob – small world.  Jacob told me about a monastery a little further up the dirt track that was worth visiting so off we went.

I’m not sure why but Mongols like to build their Temples high on the mountains.  After taking the car as far as we could we still had to hike another 45 minutes up the mountain to reach the Temple complex.  The hike up was well worth the effort though because the views were spectacular and the temple painting and carvings were eye popping.

Couple of amusing points though.  Along the hundreds of steps up to the Temple the lamas have positioned well over 100 little life messages for the traveler.  About half way up they have placed a huge prayer drum with a wooden arrow on top.  Above the arrow is a huge 10 foot roulette wheel with a number for each of the life message signs.

The traveler is supposed to spin the prayer drum and the number the arrow falls on is your personal message.  Mine read ”  Let alone not having any remorse about the evils that you committed,  Why do you wish to compete with others who have committed meritorious deeds?”  Clearly Buddhism is a fake religion.

The other amusing incident occurred while answering the call of nature.  The toilets for the Monastery are a series of four connected out houses with only three walls and the opening faced out from the mountain side facing a beautiful valley and distant mountains.  As I was finishing my business an older Australian lady rounded the corner and with some embarrassment apologized and scurried back around the structure.  I was trying to be nice and make lite of the situation and said.  “Its okay – this is the best view on the mountain.”  To which she replied “My we do think a lot of ourselves don’t we!  Guess it never occurred to her I was talking about the vista not my exposed self.

Having completed a full day of site seeing, gotten myself wedged in a crack in turtle mountain, been insulted my a dead lama, and exposed myself to an Australian Crone I figured it was time to head back to Ulan-Bator.  I guess I should mention that Mongolia has been corrupted by the worst of American Culture.  My young driver’s favorite music is RAP and though he understands less than half of the words plays it continuously.  He also is a rabid fan of American Movies – his favorites being anything based on a Marvel Comic book.

The other crazy thing is no mater how far off the beaten track I got or how small the grocery store they always had a can of coke for sale.  Some of these stores would only be a closet in a stone hovel with only a half dozen things for sale but. one was always coke a cola.  Makes me wonder if there is any square 25 miles on earth where you can travel and not find a coke.

In fact I was thinking that coke should run a contest and offer a huge cash prize for anyone who can find a remote corner of earth without coke.  They could even create a reality tv show around the contest.

I have included photos from my first day in Mongolia and I will shortly provide a second blog about my incredible day as the only round eye at a once every two year Buddhist ceremony and festival.

I apologize about this and future blogs on Mongolia and my 18 days in China but I was blocked from the internet by the Chinese Government and had to wait to publish anything until out of China and beyond the reach of the Chinese Secret Police.

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Irkutsk to Ulan-Bator – 31 hour train ride and not bad!

In the beginning this train trip was looking like another fine mess I’d gotten myself into.  None of the schedule boards had anything in English.  In fact they didn’t have anything even in an alphabet other than Russian.  Which made it impossible for me to figure out which train was mine, which track I should be looking for, how I should even get out of the station.

After a half dozen attempts to find someone in authority that spoke even a little English I finally found a woman who spoke enough to tell me which train was mine and that it was on the first track.  What she neglected to tell me was how to get to track one.  There was a sign and a door leading to a tunnel to reach every track accept track one.  And there was only one door out to the first platform and it was locked with a Russian policeman blocking  it.

I waited for him to be distracted and slipped behind him unlocked the door and slipped out.  I thought I was home free until he came storming out and nearly tackled me.  Again, he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak commie bastard so we were at an impasse.  Since he was carrying a gun and I wasn’t I relented and went back inside the station.

I spent the next 15 minutes asking everyone I could how the hell you got to track one but no one understood a damn thing I was saying.  Finally I asked a young policeman and he understood enough to pantomime that I had to go back out the front door of the station and walk around the station and a fence to get to track one.  So what is the fricking point of having a station in the first place if all you have to do is find a hole in the fence to catch your train?

So I finally boarded my train with a couple of minutes to spare and found I had only one cabin mate and he was neither a goat herder nor drunk.  In fact he turned out to be a young Polish business consultant on his way to Ulan Bator and then Tibet on holiday. And best of all he spoke perfect English.

We stowed our bags, settled in and got to know one another.  Within minutes the train was paralleling the Ankara River bank on our way to Lake Baikal.  Fortunately we had a big beautiful three quarter moon so we could see across the river and then later Lake Baikal by moonlight and the lights of villages on the opposite shore.  We sat and talked with the lights out and enjoyed the view until time for bed.  So far so good!  The window even opened so unlike the three day train to Irkutsk we could get cool fresh air.

Woke up the next morning feeling pretty good about this train trip.  I had purchased a banana, some peaches, tangerines, and an apple at the market so I had fruit and hot tea for breakfast.  I spent pretty much the entire day either talking to Jacob, working on a crossword puzzle book Jackie Barksdale had given me for my birthday and reading the latest Brad Thor novel.  Around lunch time I learned their was no dining car on this train and we were on our own.  So from 6pm Wed. until 8pm Thursday all I had to eat was fruit and a Snicker Bar.

Things went pretty smooth on the train until we got to the border then Russian Red Tape and Mongolian indifference to schedules brought us to a standstill.  We spent the next eight hours sitting first at the border on the Russia side and then on the Mongolian side with the bathrooms locked, the train car baking because we weren’t moving to stir the air, unable to charge our electronics because they shut the power off when the train is sitting still, and unable to leave the train car without being shot.  Instead I entertained myself watching everyone’s physical tricks to hold off the urge to visit the bathroom.  Some stood with their legs tightly crossed others hopped from foot to foot for eight hours and still some women used their hands to hold things in.  Pretty amusing in a twisted kind of way.

When we were finally released by the Mongolian border patrol we were given one hour to get off the train to find a bathroom, find a cafe, and cure our cabin fever.  Unbelievably the train station did not have any services so Jacob and I had to run three blocks to find a hole in the wall cafe to grab a quick meal.  The menu was pretty short (one item) so I chose grilled mutton with onions, mushrooms and some unrecognizable but tasty vegetable and cold sticky rice.  The mutton was sliced into wafer thin slivers of one Inch by a half an inch and was either really good or I was so starved my shoe would have been just as tasty.  We made it back to the train with a few minutes to spare only to find out we would be stock there for another hour and unable to reboard the train.

One interesting side note about Mongolia is that its money is pretty much worthless.  I checked my currency converter before hitting the ATM and was surprised to learn that 1000 U.S. dollars converts to over 2 million Mongolian Togrogs.  So you walk around with a stack of 20,000 Trolog bills and feel like a millionaire until you find out your mutton dinner and a beer cost nearly 20,000 Trologs.

Another interesting thing about Mongolia is that its culture is steeped in tradition.  I will get into several amusing quirks about Mongolian traditions and culture in a later blog but my first experience occurred upon paying for our check for dinner.  Because we were short on time I asked for the check when we ordered and paid the bill.  As we were finishing dinner a young man in a military uniform came up to the table grinning from ear to ear bobbing his head up and down and bouncing on his feet.  He introduced himself by name and informed me he was pat of the border patrol and that he was a first lst lieutenant.  Not sure how to respond I simply said “your mother must be very proud”.  at which he beamed and bounced even higher.  Then he explained that the cafe lady made a mistake on my bill and I owed a couple of extra trologs.

The problem was that Mongolian customs of hospitality are very strict and the poor lady didn’t know how to ask me for the difference without offending me as a guest and asked the young border patrol officer for help.  The young man was equally uncomfortable asking me which accounted for all the initial small talk before he got to the point.

It seems that in Mongolia any guest that comes to your door must be offered food and comfort.  If the family doesn’t have the food to entertain the guest then neighbors must pitch in and supply the ingredients for the meal.  The traveler is always served first and given the choices cuts of meat.  Custom even dictates how the bowls for food and drink are presented to the traveler and how he must receive them in return.  I will provide additional information on these and other

Damn Glad to be in Mongolia

Me Glad to finally be in Mongolia – Jacob in the background

Two Hundred and twenty thousand Togrogs worth a couple hundred U.S.

My first Mongolian Meal – Grilled Mutton and rice

Tired of sitting on the Russian side of the border

quirky customs in a later blog

Once back on the train a couple of more crossword puzzles and then to bed.  We pulled into Ulan- Bator at 5:45 in the morning.  Said my good byes to Jacob and caught a taxi to the Springs Hotel, called and talked to my normal travel buddy Ryan for 30 minutes and was back asleep before 7am.  After a short nap, shower and a shave I hit the streets site seeing.  In my next blog I will share my experiences at the Buddhist Temple complex next to my hotel and then my trip out to the Genghis Kahn Monument, Turtle Mountain, and the Prince Buddhist Monastery.

Photos of the train trip attached.

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Making My Last Day in Irkutsk Count

View of the Open Air Museum from the entrance gate

Recreation of a bark tepee used by early Siberians when tending their herds or hunting

Recreation of the interior of a 17th century fall hunt cabin

Water mill flume exiting the second cabin mill

Part of a three phase water powered mill. The wooden flume would send water thru three different cabin mills one after the other

Water flume used to turn the millstone exiting the first cabin

Part of a three phase water powered mill. The wooden flume would send water thru three different cabin mills one after the other

Town Granary

The front side of the fireplace. A bed sat atop the backside

Warmest bed in the house. The white you see is a large wood heating system of the other rooms

Interior of a peasant family home

Believe it or not but the former home of a notorious Siberian Witch

Dry Courtyard view of a fortified home.

Cabins were small. Kitchen and Bedroom in one room

Interior of a peasant home with the lady of the house working on her loom

Rapid Transit – Siberian Style

Exterior of an old government building

Exterior of a fortified homestead

Mongolian Yert – Irkutsk is near the border and as a result a lot of shared culture

Historic Siberian Pub

Siberian version of a swing. notice the little girl is sitting astride half a log

Horse drawn sleds for winter transport

Spasskava Tower of Illim displayed in the Open Air Museum

Exterior view of the Kazan Cathedral of Irkutsk

Kazan Alter Art

Interior of the Kazan

View of the incredible alter art inside the Karzan Cathedral of Irkutsk

Church of the Sign

Holy Cross Cathedral

Holy Cross Cathedral

Kazanskia Church

 

Karzanskaya Church 1600s oldest surviving wooden temple in Siberia

The hotel arranged for me to hire a taxi for the day to visit some sites I could not reach by walking.  My first destination was the Open Air Museum of Taltsy.  The museum has gathered wooden architecture from all over Siberia and it is one of the largest in Russia.  The museum displays buildings and peasant life from the 1600 to the early 2oth century.  The oldest actual building preserved is the Kazanskaya Church (1679) is the only wooden temple which was preserved in Siberia.  And the Spasskaya Tower of Illim Stockaded-Town is the monument of the wooden defended architecture of the 17th century.

I have included photos of the most interesting but these are just a fraction of the interesting structures and Siberian life presented in the museum.  I spent half of my last day wandering thru time and life as a Siberian, peasant, hunter, herder, and prospector.

Ater I had seen all I could at Taltsy I had my driver take me back to Irkutsk and began my Houses of Worship tour.  First Stop was the Karzan Cathedral of Irkutsk.  I was in luck because this venue actually allowed photos to be taken inside the church so I can share the beauty within as well as the architecture from the street view.

After Karzan I visited I made a quick walking tour of the Epiphany Cathedral, Savior Church built in 1706, The Church of the Assumption of our Lady – Gothic style Polish Catholic Church, and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Church.  By the time I walked from the waterfront past the churches then past the Kirov’s Square and Park down to Karl Marx and had dinner (little did I know it would be my last real meal in over 24 hours) it was time to collect my bags and get back on the train for another 31 hours of monotony on my way to Ulan-Bator.

Photos attached:

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Irkutsk – Worth The Train From Hell? Yes! But Next Time I Fly

Ankara River flowing out of Lake Baikal

Lake. Baikal with the mountains in background

Lake Baikal from the village

Me with Babr, a mythical Siberian tiger that is the monument symbol of Irkutsk

Cool old log buildings with intricate trim work

Central Market fruit and vegetable Lane

Central Market Center Lane

Vendor stall at the Central Market

One of thousands of old log buildings in Irkutsk

My daily stop for a three layer chocolate layer cake and cup of earl grey

Just one counter of options at the Cake House

Door Knob to the Restaurant that I thought was both cool and welcoming

Russian Menu

Lamb Pelmeni served in clear soup

Four Pork and Beef Khinkali Dumplings with grilled potatoes, tomatoes and Shoto Bread

After three long hot, boring, tedious and painful days and nights on the Trans-Siberian Express I was glad to roll into Irkutsk before 7am.  I caught a taxi to my hotel only to find I couldn’t check in and get a shower, shave and nap before 11am.  Fortunately my taxi driver had hung around and offered to drive me the 78 kilometers down to Lake Baikal, show me around the sites and then drive me back to the hotel to check in around noon.

Sounded like a good plan to me so off we went.  Little did I know this nut case was intent on committing suicide by car with me in the back seat.  Our destination, Lake Baikal is the largest fresh water lake in the world.  In fact 75 percent of all the fresh water on earth is contained in this one lake.  I was told it has over one hundred rivers flowing into it from all over Siberia and just one flowing back out.  The Ankara River flows out of Lake Baikal at the south end and passes thru Irkutsk.

And after Mr Commie bastard’s wild ride and a lot of Devine intervention we made it. to the Lake in one piece.  The lake as well as the river were interesting but maybe not worth the life threatening drive.  The settlement along the lake was worth visiting just to learn how corrupt the Russian system is.  It seems that the colorful and quaint  village that used to exist there and is talked about in all the guide books is a mere shadow of its old self.  Apparently the village sat on prime real estate that someone thought would be better used as high priced tourist hotels.

So the Russian Mafia went door to door telling people to get out, leave their homes, and don’t look back.  Those that didn’t leave had their houses burned to the ground with them in em.  I asked where the hell the police were and my kamikaze driver thought I was hilarious.  It was his opinion that the police worked off duty as mafia fire bugs.

While in the village I visited an open air market and bought a couple of fresh smoked lake fish.  Though claiming they were smoked was a little bit of a stretch.  They were more likely baked but still pretty good.  But an hour lake side was plenty for me – I needed a shower and sleep.

After another hair raising drive back to Irkutsk I got myself checked in to my hotel, got my first shower and shave in over three days and a nice three hour nap before making my first exploration of Irkutsk.  The most interesting thing about this Siberian City is that it must have once looked like our Old West.  There are still lots of buildings from the 1800s and earlier still in use and they are constructed from logs.

I guess using logs as the prime building material made sense since to this day there are still too damn many trees in Siberia and I think I saw every one of them from my train window.  This part of Siberia also shared the Old West’s economy.  The early settlers were all either hunters or reindeer, cattle, sheep herders, or fishermen or gold prospectors.

Most of the photos I am posting are of the cool log buildings with all of their elaborate  trimmings or houses of worship that I thought were pretty cool.  However I have posted a couple of traditional Russian dishes I sampled and enjoyed.  Both dishes were meat dumplings – one as part of a soup called Pelmeni the other a much larger dumpling served as.a main course  and are called Khinkali.  I tried both the lamb and pork versions and both were quite tasty.

I took a lot of photos in Irkutsk so I will break this into two posts.  This first one will cover my first day down on the lake and second wondering around Irkutsk.  The next post will cover my visit to an open air museum that has brought historic buildings from all over Siberia to be displayed in one river side setting and then tour the Karzan Cathedral and other houses of worship.

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