This was a crazy day starting with our wake up call at 4 a.m. Our rough and ready (Kiwi) hotel in Darkhan had a breakfast of one white bun, one fried egg and a plate of processed cheese slices (I am so proud of our gourmet breakfasts at Abigail’s Hotel, thank you Matt and Victoria for all your creativity and hard work). Like the true chefs we are, we improvised and made Egg McMuffins. By 5:30 a.m. we had left our hotel and were heading to the borders, first we had to get approval to exit Mongolia at their border crossing and then move forward a few meters to get approval to enter into Russia at their border crossing. As we got closer to the border crossings the terrain changed to a flat plateau area with small pine trees and small scattered bushes. There was no longer the lush green grass; it appeared very dry and was very windy. This is kinda like I expected Siberia to look like.
As we lined up for the Mongolian border crossing we noticed a man with his pants down around his knees and he had on a pair of black pantyhose. His wife was stuffing his pantyhose with clothing and I do not mean just a couple of items. She packed this stuff into him, as much as the pantyhose could hold. Then she punched the bulges down as flat as she could and proceeded to wind a piece of cloth around him to smooth out the bumps and then wrapped that cloth with duck tape turning him around and around. It was hilarious! They were doing this right beside us and the border patrol people could see them as well as us. She helps him pull up his pants and he can barely walk because the clothes are stuffed down his legs as well around his back and stomach. This man grew from about 175 pounds into about 250 pounds in just a couple of minutes, they really had the procedure down to a science. He puts on a tunic for his top and he looks very odd with a small head, hands and feet yet a huge body. Then we start looking around at most of the Mongolians lined up to go across the border and they are all really, really fat and waddling around! One lady kept bending over to put her purse down and her top lifted up and you could see stuff wrapped around her backside sticking up from under her top. It was a little surreal, here we are lined up to go through the Russian Border and we were told not to take any photos; not to look suspicious; do not joke around and make sure all our paperwork is ready to show the officers and all the Mongolians are blatantly smuggling clothes and purses under their clothes into Russia.
It took us a mere three and one-half hours to get through these borders. It was a good thing we had such good entertainment. We watched the people walking like penguins having all their bags x-rayed and being passed through with no problem. Every person has to go single file into a booth to get their passports stamped, then have their bags x-rayed at the Mongolian Border and at the Russian Border the crossing guards come out to look at the cars individually and at the luggage but our guard decided we did not have to pull our luggage out to be x-rayed. Lucky for us because the car in front of us had to pull everything out and take their luggage into a little shed to be x-rayed and looked over; then they had to put everything back into their car again. Our crossing guard didn’t want to check our luggage because it was cold and windy outside and we had so much luggage. She just wanted to get back inside her little office, thank goodness for that. There was also a doctor that stood beside a guard at the final crossing and asked our guide Ksenia questions about our health. This was interesting because if someone was sick I do not suppose they would tell the doctor about it but one never knows!
Russia is one hour ahead of Mongolia’s time. So we set our watches and then met our new Russian driver Sergey. There was an immediate change as we entered Russia. The look and feel was different, more permanent and slightly more organized. Women are well groomed and wear makeup, hydro poles were made of cement, roads were very good and 99% of the homes are wooden houses with wooden fences. Inside their fenced yard are vegetable gardens and sometimes flowers. The houses are still unpainted wood but they have decorative window frames with shutters that are painted different colours. Most of them are painted blue with white trim because they have a superstition that blue equals the sky which equals heaven and when they close their shutters at night they will still be able to see the sky and therefore the heavens. Most of the houses have three windows facing the street and there are decorative wooden shapes above. These are remnants of Shamanism and the decorations were used to ward off evil spirits that could enter your house through a door or window. They believed that when you have these decorations above the door and window frames evil spirits could not enter. Some of the houses have 6 or 5 windows facing the street and these houses are duplexes. Two families live there, one on each side (we have that in Canada as well). The only difference is when the owner of one side wants to move they take their half of the house with them to another spot!
Shamanism was followed by both the Mongolians and some Russians. It was believed that Shamans had certain powers and could communicate with the super natural. By having these powers they could cure disease and suffering. Plus they could increase good luck and wealth. A male Shaman is known as a Zairan Boo and a female is known as a Udgan. Ghengis Khan practiced Shamanism. In 1578 Shamanism was forbidden in both Russia and Mongolia to allow Buddhism to grow. Now only a small portion of Russian and Mongolian people believe in Shamanism.
As we moved further into Russia the terrain reminded us very much like driving from Vancouver to the Okanagan, complete with the pine beetle sections in their forests. At times the terrain would change and look like the Caribou with beautiful purple flowers covering a mountainside. Their forests have Siberian Pines which have dark bark that peels off to a yellow colour much like our Arbutus Trees back home. They also have Birch, Elm and Alder trees.
For dinner our first night in Russia, Temuujin our Mongolian guide, brought his neice and nephew (and nephew’s girlfriend) to meet us. They were lovely and from Columbia, South America. Temuujin had not seen them since they were babies and he was very excited and proud to have them visit him. Their father is Mongolian (Temuujin’s brother) and their mother is Columbian. At the present time they are going to University in Moscow. It took them four days by train to get to this city, Darkhan, to meet up with their uncle Temuujin! Tomorrow he is taking them to UlaanBaatar, Mongolia, to meet their grandparents and relatives.