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On the Golden Eagle Across Siberia (Part XI) – To Vladivostok, and so the end of the line…

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With Ulaan Baataar and Mongolia a pleasant memory behind us, the Golden Eagle continued towards Khilok, Chita, Mogocha, out of the taiga and eventually overnight at Khabarovsk.This gives us time to reflect on all that we have seen, discuss the lectures by Dan Healey and comment on the news headlines before reaching the Amur/Ussuri river junction towards the end of the line at Vladivostok.

The subject of Siberian exile and the Gulag inevitably comes up, in lectures and in conversation. Both Joseph Stalin and Feliks Dzierzhinsky (founder of the secret police) escaped from Siberia twice. On that overnight at Khabarovsk, we hear that a large statue of Stalin is still standing there and that there is nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which had seemed to offer stability after the more recent economic chaos from a rushed privatisation. Engineering delays on the tracks allowed us to study the subject further, with an additional lecture by Prof.Dan on the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and national memory, the central event in Soviet history.

Fear of chaos in this huge land has always been central to Russia’s history.The rise of Vladimir Putin is attributed to his skill in balancing the various competing clans. Ultimately his concern has been more with internal matters than external economics. Much is made of his choosing Siberia to celebrate his 2014 (62nd) birthday, far from the Kremlin and its factions, though local observers are heard to remark ” Why does Putin need friends when 85% of Russians support him ?”. American strategist Robert Kaplan has pointed out that if Putin were toppled, it would be quite possible that a more brutal dictator would emerge to forestall any possible chaos. He sees the breakup of Russia more likely than any emergence of Western-style democracy. It is interesting to realise that, if that were to occur, Siberia would still be the largest country on earth.

Dissenting opinions on the past are still expressed. Recently, award-winning Russian film director Andrei Konchalkovsky, celebrated for his epic film “Siberiade” (and whose father wrote the words to the stirring 1943 national anthem), explains during an interview at the Venice Film Festival, that “Marxism is a wonderful thought if you are sitting with a pipe by the fire, but Marxist ideals in Cambodia give you ten million chopped heads”. Statistics from 2013 estimate that the median household wealth in Russia is US$ 871  while, surprisingly, it reaches US$ 1040 in India. Someone appropriately quotes 19th century historian Vasily Kluchevsky who said “The state grew fat while the people grew thin”.

We already are in Eastern Siberia8230218781_c1274db7af_b, land of the endangered Amur Tiger. There are less than 30 left in China and 400 in Siberia, some of which prey on bears. There is also an Amur leopard, though only about 45 adults remain in the wild. Earlier in 2014, Vladimir Putin released three tagged Amur tigers into the wild in this region. One, a male called Kuzya, made headlines by quickly choosing to cross the river into China, where local officials welcomed the event, promising that “if necessary, we can release cattle into the region to feed it” .Siberia remains in the news…

A final on-board Farewell Dinner, then it is time to prepare for the last stop on the world’s longest railway line, the once closed city of Vladivostok. The journey has been a tremendous survey of Siberia and Russia itself, an experience to savour for long, maybe even contemplate a return journey for a magical winter view. Certainly the words of poet John Keats ring true:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…

 

In London for the January 2014 Stanford Travel Writers Festival, I spoke with writer and traveller Nick Hunt about Siberia. He had recently walked from London to Istanbul, describing the experience in his latest book Walking In The Woods. He told me about French author Sylvain Tesson who had gone to spend six months isolated in a log cabin at Lake Baikal, equipped mostly with vodka, pasta and books. He outlined his thoughts in a memoir, “Consolations of the Forest”. Ah! Thoreau and his famous retreat at Walden, but on Stolichnaya !! Unbeatable !!tumblr_lqu6l1R2a31qb96yeo1_1280

Tesson’s book is at the top of my reading list for 2015 !

 

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On The Golden Eagle Across Siberia (Part X) – Lands of the Great Khan

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It is established that the burial of Genghis Khan was always to remain a mystery. Warriors escorting the body fired arrows at any open windows en route and killed anyone they saw on the way to the burial ground. They then killed those who built the burial tomb, finally committing suicide themselves.

IMG_1619Stories of the great treasure, said to be buried with him, have always circulated among Mongol tribes.The site of his former palace is located about 150 miles from today’s capital, Ulaan Bataar. Despite rumours and many searches (even, most recently, by satellite), nothing has ever been found. In the city itself, the main city square is dominated by the seated statue of Chingghis (Genghis) Khan on the approach to the National Museum.
In the museum, maps show ancient Mongolia as a land between Siberia and the Great Wall of China (while a Chinese sage is quoted as having written of a time when “Mongolians were compared to wolves and the Chinese peopleIMG_1631 to sheep”). Traditionally a nomadic people, they were accustomed to live in relative isolation from each other. Once guided by Shamanism then by Buddhism, they were ruled from the legendary capital of Karakorum, the center of power moved later by Kublai Khan to Shengdu, an event imagined by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his memorable verse

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea….”

In fact, our first glimpse of “pleasure-domes”, from the Golden Eagle, was a traditional Ger-tent, a circular latticewood and sheep-felt structure, in this case adapted to a modern function.. a Burger King outlet !
We had passed the Russian border control at Naushki, all formalities handled expertly by Train Director Tatiana and the Golden Eagle team while we slept. Soon we reached Ulaan Bataar itself, located 1300 metres(4,300 ft) above sea level and the coldest capital on earth.
We are told that new arrivals to the city, which contains almost half the total population of Mongolia ( 1.3 out of 2.9 million), mostly cope in their Ger tents sharing basic services and, in the harsh winter months, a highly polluted atmosphere from their wood burning stoves. Although overcrowded, according to a recent Financial Times report,IMG_0145 the city still has some of the lowest crime rates in Asia.
The modern skyline is dominated (since 2009) by a curved sail-like building known as the Blue Sky Tower.
It has 25 floors and is over 100 meters high, with three bedroom apartments for sale at one million dollars each!! It also contains Louis Vuiton, Ermenegildo Zegna and Loro Piana boutiques as well as a 200-room luxury hotel. Ulaan Bataar is fully up to date! English is in use everywIMG_1584here. A popular restaurant, DGH, is subtitled “Dreams Get Happiness” while another sign reads “DESTROY, Hair and Beauty Salon”?! The largest commercial enterprise is the STATE DEPARTMENT STORE, “All Needs are Fulfilled,100% cash back guarantee”. It is full of Western and UK brands that, according to our British fellow-travellers, are offered at 2/3 the price of Marks and Spencer.
It is a long cry from the days when all modern ideas came from Russia, even when a Mongolian astronaut was sent into Space on Soyuz 39 (in 1981).Vodka also came from there and quickly became popular. It is now a major industry, together with the production of leather goods and, of course, cashmere.

Mongolia is also a vibrant democracy. Near the National Museum, a large but simple black marble monument proclaims in Cyrillic,      Mongolian and English) “NO TO DEATH PENALTY”.

IMG_1618While two of our intrepid travellers, Bob and Geraldine, head out of the city to see the enormous (40 meters/about 130 ft tall) Genghis Khan statue by the Tuul river, the rest of us leave for the dramatic rocky Terelj National Park. The tour is led by our local guide Buyana, whose name, we find out, means “heavenly light”. It is a chance to catch a glimpse of wild Mongolia.

An interesting traditional lunch is included (though not the grilled sheep’s head I hear is popular with the herders for breakfast). It is served at a spotlessly kept GER vacation motel. We also visit and examine a Ger tent where we are told that the two supporting posts represent a man and his wife (the word Ger itself means”home’), while a loose cord is always left hanging for prosperity. Doors must always be south-facing and the inner felt layers are increased from a single one in summer to  2-3 in winter. Fermented mares’ milk is offered to those seeking different flavours and tastes.The host family tell us how Mongolian boys ride a horse as soon as they can walk. We too explore the surroundings with a ride on those famoussturdy Mongolian horses, in a fabulous rocky setting, including a prominent rock resembling a huge turtle. On the way back to Ulaan Bataar we stop to watch Yak at pasture.
The evening dinner is served on the 17th floor restaurant of the Central Tower building. Dishes are Mongolian-modern, the view is panoramic and the wi-fi is not connected for security reasons, as President Putin is coming for dinner next day, on his visit to discuss the oil situation.We are entertained by an amazingly flexible contortionist, then a traditional band demonstrating the unique, haunting throat singing. It is explained that male herders developed these strangely harmonic sounds in a landscape where echoes carry a great distance. It completes what has been an unforgettable day.
So back to the Golden Eagle and a goodnight’s sleep in time to reach Sukhe Bator for the Mongolian passport checkat 6.45 am.IMG_1582

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