I don’t recall when I last wrote. My mind and experiences blur into one.
So how is it really I hear you ask?
Hmm. Hard to describe. I could relate different perspectives on things we do or tell you about the little markers of positivity or negativity. At the moment there is no cohesion to my thoughts or themes to my thinking. Hmmm, that in itself says something- when things feel calm and make sense I often find connections and synchronicities in my inner world. When things feel random and unsorted they are not necessarily problematic I just feel more on-the-spot rather than intuitive. I prefer the latter but try to be patient with the former.
Firstly though to put it out there. Christos and I can both state out loud now that we brought too much stuff! It has taken us a while to admit it, but each time we pack up we increasingly realise there are packs we have not opened. Perhaps it is the seven sleeping bags, seven sleepmats and two and a half tents and camp cooker that is pushing us to the limits and requires an Olympic effort each time we attempt to get in and out of trains? (Whilst we have used the camping stuff on several occasions; in villages in China, on the Great Wall and the sleeping bags in the ger… on each and every occasion we could have hired equipment and saved all the lugging!)
Or perhaps the excess is relating to the fantastic but relatively untouched homeschool equipment in a mini suitcase on wheels that Christos hauls up steps and along narrow train corridors. I think it is both actually, along with quite a few unnecessary pack repair bits, more bathers than we need, and the occasional odd thing I can’t even think of now- it’s been so long since we took them out of a pack. So in all, we figure that Christos and I could get rid of our packs entirely as well as the schooling suitcase thing and just get the kids to carry all the stuff. That would be much more fun!
So back to random offerings of observations that activate bewilderment and curiosity.
Train wheel change. A fascination of a few weeks ago was watching a train wheel change on the Mongolian Chinese border. The train stops for 4 hours. At the start of the adventure (9pm) many people get off the train and some explore the town of Erlian… Our kids were asleep so we tag teamed a quick visit to the train station shop to get supplies, and then got on the train to try and see what others talk about but I could not imagine.
It’s crazy. Chinese Border Control does its things with passports, then checking luggage compartments for stowaways/refugees etc.. And then after massive jolts that have you wondering whether the train has been hit by lightening or not and much stopping and starting we find that the train has moved into a massive ‘hanger’ stye shed where each carriage has been separated and placed between four massive hoists. The carriages are literally lifted off the Chinese carriageway/wheels and these are wheeled out from beneath us- then a new Mongolian friendly gauge of wheels are wheeled into place beneath us. After we are lowered from lofty heights we (we are one with the carriages) are reconnected to our moving parts and the banging and clanging happens again as the train joins back up into a long noisy pooing and weeing metal snake on a track and returns to the station of waiting passengers.
An added fascination for us was watching the hoist worker out our window proceed to pick every bit of unnecessary mucous from both nostrils with the most intricate detail- a very thorough job indeed. For those travellers that did not realise the stop at Erlian was so long, our train wove back into the station and many weary travellers and children made their way back to their resting place for the night.
Travelling with kids is a different kettle of fish to travel pre-kids. To tell you the truth I can’t actually put a finger on a lot of it, I just feel moments of discomfort when we work our way through something new. For instance, I don’t think we touched western food in China, apart of course from ice creams and chocolate… The kids were great and enjoyed our surprise at their adding chilli to plain Chinese veggies. But Mongolia had Christos and I a little nervous on the food front, known for its meat culture and fatty meat at that, not to mention the use of all parts of the animal, we had even heard of testicle soup… So for the first time in our travel memories we were happy to embrace and explore the range of western foods on offer. As idealistic and budget conscious travellers in our 20’s we would never have contemplated this. Now I can’t imagine not having a French bakery treat or two! And the kids love thinking they are getting treats so often.
The other difference for Christos and I in relation to our previous single life travel is letting go of agendas; catching a taxi when the road is long (never previously an option in our younger independent determined minds), and checking the time of any adventure. Early morning and late night train arrivals and departures can alter the course of a trip. Ie/ there appears (so far) to be no reasonable train times for our planned Yekaterinburg stopover (where the Ural Mountains draw a line between Asian Russia and European continental Russia), so basically it might not happen. That is unless of course we hear back from a ‘Servas’ member email we have sent and there is an offer of a pick up…. It’s kind of nice to have a different set of lenses by which to make decisions even if it has taken us a while to recognise the activities/elements that can make or break us.
Nomadism in Mongolia – so much to learn and what a way to live.
In life there are layers of transition, permanence and impact. Mongolian nomadism is I suppose, one way of living at the ‘lighter footprint on the earth’ end of the spectrum.
We, the Milikings are to an extent nomads at the moment…modern consumer, global nomads of a kind. An unusual, seven part, paleish haired (those of us who have hair anyway) massive backpacks with all the modcons-lugging, train and the occasional plane catching, Lego carrying, connected to the net and wifi where possible kind, of nomadic family.
I have been pondering movement, impact and all that jazz in this last week. So many thoughts and attempts to understand why and reason how it came to be that things are done the way they are, how dynamics, relationships and all of life are impacted by the resources we have and way we live in the world.
You have probably read in the kids musings on daily life that we have just spent a week with a nomadic family on the grassy planes of Mongolia, about 4 hours or 200 km from the capital Ulanbataar.
What does one think of when you are told in the information session that Mongolia has the only thriving nomadic culture left in the world???
It has inspired layers of contemplation for me. I lived in an untouchable village in India for 15 months in my mid twenties… So village life is something I am very comfy with, I feel I get it to a degree… I have been involved with the environment movement for half my life in some form (though I could improve a lot of what we do at home) I am aware of water issues, wood collection and land pressures… I grew up having horse riding lessons instead of swimming lessons after the initial swimming skill was achieved in keeping myself safe… I felt I was kind of prepared for this; I didn’t realise I would be so active in my mind digesting the experience.
I think in part this window into nomadism impressed upon me how our relation to the land can colour so much of our relationship to animals.
There is nothing physically permanent in terms of structures about this family’s impact on the environment. They live on massive open plains with an enormous rocky range to the north, sand dunes about 8 kms away to the east, the national highway off to the south about 8km and who knows what to the east, (can I just mention that the sun rises about 5.30 am and sets (fully dark) about 10.30pm – try sticking to reasonable kid bedtimes with that!). There are no fences. There are no fences. There are no fences. Did you get that? No fences. The animals roam; goats, horses and for some families cows and camels. We appear to be in quite a sparsely populated area compared to what we saw on a drive today. We only see our goats and horses during the day. The horses, apart from I think three ‘broken in’ horses, are wild to a large extent. Mare milking seems to happen every couple of days when a huge effort is required. It seems the strategy is to tire out the herd of about 20 or so horses by chasing them around either with a motorbike or one of the blokes on a horse.
Then they lasoo the four foals and wrestle them to the ground (you know the way a shearer might grab the legs from beneath them and sit on the torso). Each foal is given a handmade halter (some are rope, some are made from what I suspect is home prepared leather). Then the chase is on to lasoo the corresponding mares for milking- each is hobbled with three of its feet tied so it can’t move far or fast.
The foal is then bought to its side, gets half a minute to feed, the ‘grandma’ simulates suckling and milks a mare. During this time each foal is tied to a very strong rope tied between two strong sticks banged into the ground. My impressions sway from; this is barbaric treatment of the horses and what happened to holding out a carrot?, to ‘ I don’t think it would even enter their minds to try and entice the horses’. The full on manoeuvring on motorbikes and horses that we saw; the skidding along the ground on the heels by the men as they lasoo a horse but it won’t stop, or the breaking of the rope, etc… A true spectacle that many of our horse loving friends and family would be gob-smacked at.
Then there is milking the goats- a much milder affair and great to be involved in…But what I find interesting here is that the yards- literally smaller than our lounge room at home (now that is consumerist permanency to an embarrassing degree) is created from beautifully smoothed wooden slabs shaped by years of wear and tear tied together by random straps of rope/ leather/ clothing off cuts… We seriously re-tied the fences several times a day during our stay. At the end of a season (apparently this is the summer location the family comes to each year and the winter camp they stay at for 9 months) all this is untied and carried away…. Non permanence has an impact on how you work with, round up and keep at hand the animals on whose products your life depends.
So back to the horses… It appears that what happens is that one horse (tame) is left tied to the treeless yards for about 24-36 hours and then is let free as one of the others is rotated in for use…
For days we wondered where and how the livestock got water. We went up rocky hills trying to find water to no avail. Now we realise why every now and then someone would jump on the horse or a bike and hoon up past the empty looking camp in the gully behind us. There is a well. So the only permanent infrastructure I can work out is this well. But all water needs to be pulled up in a cut blue bucket with a rope handle and poured into- yes you guessed it a transportable tractor tyre that has been cut so it opens out in a long strip with sides and ends that curl up a bit. We filled it for cattle- not sure where they came from but they were thirsty (I had never observed the hierarchy of cattle before- there was a definite bully cow who did not let anyone else drink until she had her fill, and then others took their turn as ‘superiors’ moved on) and we walked ‘our goats’ up too. We poured water out until they had their fill and then left it full- ish. But there wasn’t much in the well I fear. It was communicated by charades that in spring the well overflows and a river runs here… Perhaps it is a dry season.
Ah, I knew there was another bit of worldly insight I wanted to pass on. It is my new found wealth of knowledge and experience in cooking fuel collection. Are you aware that wiry great grandmas of 80 years can put to shame a family of seven in mountain scampering for firewood and dung collection? What a gorgeous capable hardworking soul she is.
But my excitement is this… Did you know that horse pooh is crap for cooking with! True. Cow manure is much denser, bigger blobs and much hotter and slower burning… A ten litre tub of water (for drinking) can be at a rolling boil in minutes. More efficient than our fancy new camping stove whose fuel cannot be carried on aeroplanes nor found in Chinese or Mongolian shops! Oh the joy and fun of it all. By the way the water does need a good boil… It is literally pale brown when it comes out of the well and much to no one’s delight it is strained after boiling with the strainer that is used for collecting the meat fat after a big cook up.
Has anyone written about the animal parts hanging in the other ger- goat feet, skin, intestines, hooves, heads, jaws full of teeth… but we all know nothing is wasted when a animal is killed, well not here anyway etc… Actually I hate to report the number of horse hooves that one finds on a wander in the fields another aha moment… why else would you keep wild horses if not for meat? A bit slow on the uptake I know but the hooves really bought it home to me.
Another interesting experience would be the toileting- there is much to write on this from China but check this out for efficiency – the Mongolian ger family dogs are protectors not pets and have been known to slurp up ones numbers twos as one continues to wipe ones rear end! Charming and a definite deterrent on dog petting.
Movement, expectations and perspective
I know not what else to share, so much happens each day… Christos and I are glad to report responding more and more calmly as the weeks move on. We try endlessly not to snap, shout or burst in frustration; but that is a part of travel too. We oscillate between smiles of ‘this is priceless’ and ‘ what a fantastic learning/opportunity/experience’ to ‘ I really hope they don’t hold this trip against us for the rest of their lives’. Fortunately the latter usually coincides with hunger, tiredness and the beginning of something they are not keen on but end up loving…
A perfect example of this was the Terracotta Warriors in China. I had read about these in a magazine about 9 months ago and thought them quite interesting. The kids were dead against it, so we traded a visit to a panda rescue centre with the Terracotta Warriors tour. Ironically the panda centre was a bit disappointing. The Terracotta Warriors was our first bigger group tour. It was a day that Christos was in bed, actually more likely in the shower, trying to ease extremely painful stomach cramps. Me and 5 kids on tour on someone else’s timeframe- things weren’t boding well!
The location is spread over a 40 hectare site. An ancient tomb of an emperor hidden underground for centuries discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a hole for a well. There is heaps more to it than that obviously, but the exciting thing was that the kids got so into it!
Their imagination went on overdrive, we even bought a book that the original farmer who uncovered the initial relic signed! He received 10 yuan (about $1.40) for his find back in 1974 and the village was relocated.
And because horses have become such a thing for the kids this trip, we bought a small replica horse to replace, oops I meant supplement, the mascot meerkat we were presented with by our neighbours Suz and Pete and family for our trip…. Actually, we don’t seem to be much of a mascot family as the horse nor meerkat feature in many photos… Perhaps some of these purchases are some of the ‘excess’ we are carrying around! Anyway the point is, the interest and excitement of the kids in history and detail was such a thrill to feel and be a part of. A happy ending to a shaky beginning.
Oh, one last thing… Christos’ latest realisation, that I am still not quite ready to relearn or re-embrace, is about expectations. We have often found and needed to discuss with the kids about how there is a shiny brochure, website, words and photos that promises so much…. but the reality can often be so different. It is great to have these conversations and the kids are even bringing it up themselves, so i suppose the next step is tempering expectations in the first place … Of late we have been very excited about things we have planned, then when we get somewhere initially there has been some disappointment for all of us to be honest. Hopefully and usually, that gives way to making the most of the opportunities and by the end it is all ‘awesome and epic’… But in those moments of sadness and disappointment we can hear the line more than once in an accusational tone ‘You said this was going to be fun!’ To which we reply less and less defensively each time – ‘check your attitude!’
At this our friend Fi might suggest ‘throw the expectations out the window’.. And I have enjoyed ‘no expectations’ previously in my life and the joy and freedom that perspective brings, but how to impart that to kids… Especially when I haven’t washed for many many days and I ‘expected’ that this location would have a good space for a really good scrub up and major kids wash and clothes wash… As yet we have not found a time slot on the banya (shower) door! And we are located 100m down the road from said wash space in separate rooms so I can’t even cuddle Christos to soothe my grumps! I think that implies that for me it is time to; give myself a break, toughen up, plan a lush hot wash tomorrow, grow up and keep my expectations in check.
Until next time, thanks for helping me to bring my thoughts together a little in this blog (Christos does prod me every couple of weeks and I thank him for that), the goddess knows I haven’t made time for my own journal or writing …. Getting perspective in itself is soothing to an unwashed me, and getting your comments or reflections adds a sense of warmth and connectedness to this physically removed space.
Russia – so much is familiar and foreign at the same time.
It is amazing how lovely life is after an afternoon nap and a hot Russian steam bath. What a gorgeous experience. All seven of us naked in a multi-compartmental space (I can hear my mum cringing at this already) – first an entry room, then a dressing room, then a drying room, then the hot wash room, then the sauna all spiralling around a big hot furnace. Each room is progressively hotter…. and we washed and groomed ourselves with relish. There is a hot tap that spurts out boiling water into a low tub into which you ladle the desired amount of cold water from a 44 gallon drum.
Outside, whilst it is a relatively warm day, their winters get to minus 50 degrees, the wind off lake Baikal is cold and polar fleece tops are essential. This place, Nikita’s homestead on Olkohn Island is great. It was recommended to us by Bernie and Ryan. They came last Siberian winter and drove on the lake that we have swam in and had to catch a boat ferry on… I cannot imagine winters here. Summer nights are cold. The wind is arctic – it feels that way anyhow.
The sun goes down at 11.30pm and is up about 5 am…. What would winter be like! Anyway, this was a place described to us as a bit like Mittagundi for backpackers, and it is. There is a great kids play area, creative little rooms and buildings, camp style food and dining area. Three meals a day provided… The only draw back is that they were full and so we were allocated two rooms at a neighbours 100m away from this communal complex…. That was the initial disappointment. But as life goes things are lovely none the less. We have met a great American family who are travelling home after a year working in Hong Kong with two kids and grandma Kathleen. We have, it could be said spent every waking moment with them since we all met on the first day. The kids are inseparable and so good together, and we have found lots to chat about over hot green tea. I’m sure the kids will write lots about them so I’ll stop there.
I just want to tell you one experience from Russia. I got up early the morning we were leaving for lake Baikal. We wanted to check out the cost of train tickets if bought directly from the train station and not over the Internet. It was my job. And a bit of a challenge that first solo adventure in a new country. I was hoping that Christos might do it because he can understand the Cyrillic script and work a little bit out because the spoken language has some similarities to Bulgarian which he knows… But he had already done two solo trips for supplies and he was working on uploading some of the kids blog entries which I also am not that adept at. So, choose between two unknowns, and yes I went for the less technological of the two. I have done it many times as a solo traveller how hard can it be, and the city at dawn, quiet and still… That was an extra enticement. I enjoyed the quiet walk in the cool morning, looking at old ornate wooden buildings and the heavy mist over the river…
Low and behold, I thought a smile and looking apologetic and appreciative could encourage even the sternest character into a helpful mood. It was not to be. Initially a sign was held up in my face, no worded or looks or smiles… ‘Go to building one for tickets’, so I did. That lady spoke at me in Russian with not an ounce of softness and wrote a few numbers on paper indicating prices. Then I was waved off. It was then the goal to withdraw some money but the ATM on my first attempt said – insufficient funds. Fair enough, that could be right, I need to work out the station WiFi to transfer from one account to another…. Follow the stickers saying WiFi on the station floor. I found a woman sitting behind a desk. Middle aged and grumpy looking, it is 7am. After huffing at me when I asked about English or WiFi, she pushed her noisy chair back and stormed off to two rooms and points to a sign in Russian that I can see says 60rubles (their money) and 20 something else… I follow her stout and strong figure back to her desk and she waits impatiently for me to hand over money, I hand her 50rubles and the frustrated sigh I received was demoralising. I gave her the other 10rubles (it was a genuine mistake she ruffled my feathers and intimidated me!) and she pointed to another room and turned away from me. I timidly went to the other room and could not find out how to connect to the WiFi. There was no password written anywhere, and I knew not what to do. I tried my most humble of approaches to the person most likely to have some English words that I could see in the waiting room. He was great and looked at my receipt then took me to the lady again… He found out the important info. That the WiFi only works in a 10 metre zone. Why cant that be written on a card and stuck on the wall? So I transferred the money, withdrew it from the ATM and caught a bus back to our bizarre but good little hostel, a deflated and demoralised woman. I choose to continue to believe in the power of humility and appreciation and patience when in a foreign country where you do not speak the language but golly it took me a while to bounce back from that sad space.
Fortunately, I have had more positive experiences in the last few days but the Russian language is still so foreign… I am about to start Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ to try to get a bit more of a grip on the psyche and feel of the place albeit a bit dated…
Cheers and love
A great quote to end with from the Montessori book I’m reading – “A foreign country isn’t designed to make you feel comfortable, it’s designed to make its people feel comfortable.”