Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Ulan Bataar

Ulan Bataar - commonly and colloquially referred to as UB - is the World's coldest capital. It sits sits at 1300 metres above sea level, and in a river valley  The name means ' Red Hero', and the city started off as a nomadic Buddhist settlement which moved twenty eight times before somebody finally had enough, and parked it permanently where it is now.

I was last here seven years ago, in the winter. It was not only astonishingly cold then (-40 Celsius at night) but also noticeably quieter. I'm not sure if that was a seasonal variation or just that the place has grown, but whatever the reason, its basic infrastructure definitely can't cope, and that adds to its strangeness.

At first glance, it looks like the average modern capital city with glass buildings, flash cars, neon signs and well dressed people, all mixed in with old or traditional stuff.

But seemingly not in the same way as other major cities, with monks in full monkly robes driving the newest model cars or walking along with briefcases, and young business people chatting on I Phones or working on I Pads while riding on oxen carts. It is such a weird mix which really takes you aback.

There has definitely been a recent upsurge of wealth here, and there is now noticeable western influence with shops, cafes and bars. Go into a shop, and you will find the latest flat screen TVs, the latest phones and all manner of designer clothing. But most of the customers live in the ger communities - where there is no running water and no sanitation. It's just a different take on what is important for everyday living and what is not.

Some are imports, like pubs, micro breweries and pizza restaurants, whilst others are a mixture of Chinese imitation and local perception of what foreigners expect, even if they don't. And they don't always interpret the place names as we would......

However, it is the basic infrastructure that gives the game away; UB is a facade where very little works   as you might expect, or in such a chaotic and disorganised way, that you'd be forgiven for wondering what is going on. It is as if ideas have changed too quickly or disposable wealth arrived without a spending outlet for the city to develop systems to keep it going. It has cars, it has shops and restaurants - often operating at near western prices but far from western service levels - it has buses and banks, yet there seems to be no underlying system for any of these things and so rather than create and help develop the community and each other, they just clatter along regardless in isolation. There seems to be no overview or plan for anything in this place, just an expectation that if the raw materials are there, the place will somehow grow and work. However, that is not really the case.

The roads are a good example. It is a small city and the road network should be adequate in terms of comparative size.....but whereas the traffic volume has increased with wealth,  the road conditions have not, and are terrible because nobody repairs them or pays taxes to allow even weather damage to be put right, let alone damage from wear and tear.

Furthermore,  their use is so bizarre that the place is gridlocked at least twice a day; nobody takes any notice of traffic signals or gives way, and it all gets so much worse when the traffic police arrive, allegedly to sort it out. Rather than facilitate flow and move obstructions, they stop vehicles arbitrarily and cause massive snarl ups. They are totally ineffective and laughably useless, although they do look the part with flashy bikes and white wellies.

We arrived in the city during peak hour on a Friday. Not the best of timing but having ridden right across Europe and Asia, we thought we'd seen it all. But UB was something else. It was almost like a fairground ride, with vehicles driving at each other and filling spaces, seemingly without any idea or hope of making progress. And of course they hit each other and blocked more bits of the road as a consequence. Yet nobody seemed to know what to do. Nobody moved crashed vehicles, nobody set up  diversions, and everybody stood around waiting for somebody else to do something. It was quite incredible, but as one woman later remarked ' these people are nomads - they are not used to roads or signs and have no idea of how to live with other people. They just drive and if somebody gets in the way, they hit them.' People just drive to where they want to go, and only a physically immovable structure will stop them, and then only temporarily. But far from aggression,  it's more to do with total incomprehension of how things work.

Then there are the banks. A 24 hour bank in the city centre that only opens between 0900 and midnight, and ATMs that only operate on Visa not Mastercard ( or the other way round - forgotten which, but it it was the opposite to what I needed) or will only let you withdraw cash in minuscule denominations.  We had to withdraw the equivalent of £500.00 in £2.50 lots to buy a replacement motorbike, which emptied the machine, much to the annoyance of waiting customers. But as the lady had already filled it that morning, she was reluctant to do it again - despite it being empty and therefore useless. Or the tourist information place where people know even less about their city than the average first time visitor. It is very confusing at first but once you accept that is just the way that it is, then it becomes easier to deal with.

Tourism is on the up too. I've already mentioned bars and restaurants and there is definitely an understanding that visitors mean cash, and people will spend it at places of interest.

But the balance of what is charged and the service received, particularly in some restaurants, is still way off,  which can be rather tedious when you're hungry and tired and have spent all day supporting the local economy in other ways. But I guess that is all part of the travel thing, and its about knowing when to just laugh and accept it, or object and move on.

'Reasonable' , 'ripoff' and 'cheeky git' haven't quite hit home yet with some chancers either, like the monk at Gandan Monastery who wanted an additional $5.00 USD per picture for general pictures inside the grounds, despite us having already paid an entrance fee. But his efforts were wasted on us and he didn't get any dollars at all in the end.......but he did get some free advice, especially from Nadine.
          This bloke was on the phone in between hitting the gong for prayers

Or one waiter who took our order in a restaurant but neglected to pass it to the chef because he wanted to practise his English on us. Not funny late at night when there is nowhere else to eat.

But then we also went to places that were completely free and spectacular, like the Ziasan memorial on a hill to the south of the city.

It commemorates Soviet soldiers of WW2 and is now a bit tatty and dilapidated, but its probably one of the best places to look out over the city.
Zaisan Memorial overlooking the city

What is evident from there though is the extent of spread of the city in the last seven years. New apartments have sprung up everywhere, and the Winter Palace, once clearly visible from Zaisan, is now hidden amongst new buildings.

But for us, UB  was always the main point of the journey, and anything further would just be a bonus.  It was our original destination, and a place that at until we reached it, always seemed so far away. But I don't  think that either of us really seriously ever doubted that we would make it.  Not aboard our trusty scooters.
scoots on Zaisan Hill

Monday, 22 October 2012

Places revisited

Well, not exactly. The plan is to revisit in terms of sifting through the thousands of photos taken this year on rides across Africa and Asia, and then writing about what we did here and what we saw there. So it's more of a reflection I suppose, a consideration of stuff now that we're back home with time to spare. It wasn't possible to post pictures every day anyway, due to lack of WiFi, or security worries, particularly in Africa, and even when we could, we were limited by slow connections.

And on the subject of being back home.......that  was far harder to deal with than any of the actual travelling or difficulties that we faced, and it hit me very hard; I think it got to Nadine too.

For me, it was like a malaise, a feeling of being disconnection and not belonging anywhere or being part of anything anymore. I lost interest in everything ; a real listless time during which I lacked motivation for anything, even riding.

So much had happened in three and a half months and I knew that I had changed as a result, yet back at home, everything seemed to have stayed still; stuff and people just plodded along as usual, seemingly getting nowhere, and taking ages in the process. It all seemed so pointless and ridiculous as a result, almost inconsequential, and it really got to me.

Neither of us were prepared for it, which I suppose is not surprising, given that we had no idea that it would happen.

But two months later, we're over it, and I am now working my way through pictures and movies, and will be posting stuff as and when I can.

Belgium - while we're scooter less.....

..........we take the bigger bikes on jaunts. Far better than not riding at all, which would be unthinkable. And winter is definitely coming, so we have to make the best of the Ok weather while we can. It's not too cold at the moment but it is wet and the leaves are coming down in their millions, making the ground slippery. We're hoping to have the Mongolian scooters sent back very soon.....but until then, bigger bikes it is.

And this weekend,  Ypres/ Ieper Belgium was top of the list of 'must go' places. A long weekend and a short hop across the Channel via the Tunnel, an even shorter hop through Northern France, and we were there -  Mike and Sue on a BMW 1200 and a Tiger 800 respectively, Nads on her 650 BMW, Gordon on his Transalp and me on my Hornet.

Surprisingly, nobody missed the RVP at the Tunnel on Friday morning, and we all got on the train we were supposed to get on. Yaay.

Even had time for a coffee and a pose. Weather wasn't too bad either.

Not so over the other side though, where it was drizzling. it didn't bother any of us unduly as we all had wet weather gear, but it does make everything look so dismal, and Northern France is not the most picturesque of places at the best of times.  But we took the rural roads rather than the autoroute, and eventually stopped for a late lunch just south of the Belgian border.

I say 'border' but of course this is Europe where there are no borders and sometimes its difficult to know exactly where you are. But this was France. I think.

One of the best bits about travelling by bike is that people chat to you and volunteer information. The owner lady at our lunch stop turned out to be a biker, had a Harley, and had travelled extensively on it through Europe with her husband and his mates.

 And she'd only got her bike licence at the age of 52 - but had done 84 000kms on her Harley since then. Definitely a very cool woman. Never did ask her name but it's a great lunch stop, and it's right on the junction of the D933 and D455.

We eventually arrived in Ypres later in the afternoon, after more wandering through villages. This was not a hurried trip.The hotel was ok - a Best Western job on the outskirts of town but within walking distance of it. And they let us park our bikes outs front for free....better  than the Novatel in town which wanted 11 Euros per night per bike. No thanks.

You have to love some of the town business signs though...

Ypres is one of those towns that copped it badly during WW1. It looks delightfully quaint and impressive, and it is.....but its totally rebuilt, having been smashed to smithereens by constant shelling, so trashed that only one tree and one bit of a building remained standing. But it was painstakingly repaired by locals who used salvaged original materials, and they did such a good job that you would never know. The only giveaway - and again you'd have to know as it really isn't obvious at all - it the occasional newer stone on a facade, inserted when an original was too damaged to reuse.

The building which dominates the town is the Cloth Hall and if you look at it, its a testament to the town's former wealth.

It is fabulously ornate and was one of the World's biggest commercial structures in its day - a medieval equivalent of the twin Towers, but not rising from a city but a little town in the middle of rural Belgium. And like many towns along the western coast of continental Europe and  eastern England, it was all down to the wool industry.

Ypres is probably most famous for its nightly service of Remembrance under the Menin Gate. Every night at 2000hrs, since about 1920, and whatever the weather and regardless of who is there,  local fire brigade buglers play the Last Post  as a tribute to fallen Allied personnel of WW1. I've seen it many times, but it is always moving. But this weekend there was` a problem with the electricity and it was very dark underneath the arch.

So many names, and no known graves, and the Menin Gate is only one of a number of huge WW1 memorials. In recent years, it has become quite a big thing, especially with British school groups and youth groups, particularly since the Government included it in the National Curriculum.

This stuff is part of what we are, and why the world is as it is and it's not for somebody whose only problem is getting to work on time, to tell people how to think.

What was interesting though was the following day at the German cemetery at Langemark, we were stopped by a Belgian journalist who was writing about national patterns of remembrance. He said there was apparently very little German interest, but lots from Brits, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders. Maybe they just do it differently. Or maybe they don't. Who knows.

There is a huge difference between the German and Commonwealth cemeteries though. Whist the Commonwealth ones are pristine and airy and made of light stone, the German equivalent is very dark and a bit creepy. I suppose its just a question of style but there is definitely a marked difference.
Langemark - German

Tyne Cot - Allied

Also checked out the Flanders Fields Museum in the Cloth Hall. Again, impressive even if you're not that interested in WW1 because its about real people and the recent history of the World as we know it, rather than actual war stuff. Stories of real people caught up in something not of their making.

Most of these places are scattered over a fair sized rural area and the roads are not great - particularly on street bikes. Concrete roads, covered in mud, side winds, tractors, and standing water all add up to testing rides but then that's what as bikers we should be doing - riding our bikes and getting as much practice of adverse conditions as possible.

The market was on in the Square on Saturday, so we had a poke around that too. Markets are something that we've really lost in the UK, that higgledy piggledy mishmash of stuff and stalls.Now we just have supermarkets and samey old gear.But not here,where the weekly market is still a community focus as well as a social gathering.

The cafes are pretty good too and something that just had to be checked out, Waffles, pancakes and coffee on a rainy Saturday lunchtime. It had to be done.

And then a quick wander down the street to that other Belgian thing - the Choclatier, of which there are several in Ypres....

Stopped at Blankenburg on the way home. Its on the coast, on the Belgian/Dutch border. One of those seaside towns that have been there for years and you wonder why,given the cold weather and the grey sea. But at least you're safe from sharks. And pirates.

A quick nip through the Tunnel, and time for a quick rest for Nadine.

Then a good soaking on the way back, and we were home 80 minutes later, much to the relief of one son who had been locked out by the other. It was an accident. Apparently.