Before I even got back, people were asking me this question. People continue to ask me this question every day. So here! By popular demand. A short list.
Somewhere in Scotland (or northern England)
We’re due a group camping trip this summer. So at some point, I’ll dig out the totally loud but amazing tent Kristina gave me, load it into someone’s car, and we’ll trek off to the highlands or the Borders or the Lake District and tromp around and have a grand old time, even if it rains sideways.
We’re also definitely going back to Newtonmore in September. Ain’t no party like a Lindy Hop party in a quiet highland town.
Swing Summit, Ferme Les Costes, Ardèche, France
I’m going to Swing Summit (yaaasssssssssssss!) with friend and dance partner extraordinaire, Chris. It’s an intense, week-long camp based on super-focused teaching in small classes for Lindy technique nerds in the gorgeous mountains of southern France. There’s outdoor dance floors and a pool and a dog and they sort all your food for you. It’s going to be difficult and fun and exhausting and flippin’ AWESOME.
AND I intend to have a ridiculously huge French lunch in the 5 or so free hours we have in Lyon before flying home.
New York & Delaware, USA
I have promised I will hit the US sometime before the end of the year. Hopefully in the Autumn. This will involve family time and bagels and Dogfish Head and hopefully some mother-effing hot apple cider. And I still haven’t danced in the states, so I will take care of THAT while I’m over there.
To visit Felix, of course! It seems like a really cool city, so I’m excited to get the local treatment. It will be relatively easy to do, as there’s a direct Edinburgh-Hamburg EasyJet flight, so I’m really hoping I can swing it this year, financially.
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Because food and music. Those should really be the only reasons I need to cite. I can’t eat anything involving crawfish unfortunately, but there is plenty more to be getting on with. And I have a serious weakness for New Orleans and Dixieland style jazz. Plus I have seen relatively little of the US, and it will be nice to go somewhere different over there.
I realise that’s a wide net to cast, but it’s the only continent I’ve not hit yet (aside from Antarctica, which, well, after the cold of Siberia, I don’t know if I’m running down there anytime soon). I just want to go everywhere. Bolivia (salt flats!) , Argentina, and Uruguay are all on my radar as excellent options. I have mixed feelings about whether or not I should go to Galapagos. In any case, this will probably be the source of my next major travel adventure, but it’s going to take a while to get there, and it will probably look very different from the last trip. Much slower, for a start.
Mongolia (in the summer, please)
I’ve said it was my favourite and I’m not lying. I’d really love to go back in the summer for 2 or 3 weeks and go out wandering, camping, riding lovely horses, and EATING yes please. Preferably with a wee group of friends.
We were standing around drinking near the toilets at the Erlian border station shortly after midnight when Wayne asked what everyone was doing at this time last year. It seemed like a simple question but it took me ages to remember because it felt like so much longer ago and further away.
Last New Year, I went for a curry with Kate and Steve, then we hung out with Fred the greyhound watching the hootenanny and jeering every time anyone but Paolo Nutini came on to play. New Years Day I went home in the morning by way of a coffee at Casa Amiga, then I took my quiet hangover to see The Imitation Game (because Finn Polmar) and went home to bed. This year was so incredibly different it may as well have taken place in another universe.
But I’ll start at the beginning.
The plan ended up being that I would be on the train on New Years Eve. From Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. I booked this before most of my Russian trains because I needed to show my entry to China for the visa, and this was pretty much the only real thing I included on that visa application.
In any case, my plan was to make the best of it, Scotland style, and force a party on whomever may find themselves in my compartment. And when I met Felix and he ended up booking a ticket to join the train from Sainshand (halfway from UB to the border), I was OVERJOYED because I was finally sure I’d have at least one person to celebrate with. Lucky me, I ended up with him plus three more.
The train left UB at 7.15, so after meeting my compartment-mates Galaa (from UB and visiting home, now returning to Beijing to study) and Emma (from the UK, a lawyer who retired early, currently seeing the world), we all promptly went to sleep for a few hours.
I woke up before everyone else because I never sleep and stared out at the vast passing Mongolian landscape for a bit. Emma and Galaa slowly emerged from sleep and I told them to expect Felix at the next stop. Emma mentioned that Wayne, a guy from England she’d met while in UB, was also on the train in another compartment and would probably also join the party later. We stopped in Sainshand and gained our German just about 3pm and the epic, 12-hour, New Year train party began.
A last look at Mongolia in the sunshine
THE NEW YEAR TRAIN
Watching Dinner for One
We started drinking the beer we’d acquired almost immediately while Felix shared Dinner for One with us. It’s this English short play that was originally aired in the 60s and has somehow become a German New Year tradition to watch. It’s actually hilarious. Apparently the thing to do is drink every time the butler trips over the tiger’s head. So of course we did. And now I have a NEW New Year tradition to add to my repertoire.
We ran out of beer quite quickly (completely underestimated ourselves) so Felix and Emma gathered up the rest of everyone’s Mongolian cash and trekked off the the restaurant car, making it just 5 minutes before they closed it and bought all the beer they could afford. This added to our stash of fizz for midnight and a whole bottle of Mongolian vodka did us well for the remaining hours of 2015 and the first few of 2016.
Chinese tracks are a different gauge from Mongolian, so when you go through the border, not only do you need to clear customs and immigration, you need to wait while the wheels on every carriage of your train get switched. According to the interweb, sometimes they let you off while this happens, sometimes they don’t. It seems to depend on the whims of the conductors. We were hoping they’d let us off so we could have a party somewhere the toilets were not locked, but once we got to the Chinese side and they gave us our passports back, Galaa, who had done the route a few times by now, said that things did not look good for us getting off before they changed the wheels.
So Felix and I sat in the corridor of the carriage with our vodka putting the world to rights to pass the time while we all got shunted back and forth and up and down during the wheel changing. And after about an hour or so of this, we got a small window where they were letting people off the train for the remainder of the border station stop. We threw on our shoes, gathered up the booze, and ran out to the station building where there were mercifully open toilets and even a wee shop upstairs.
Where the party at
Sun sets on 2015
Changing of the wheels
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
The best party a lady could ask for
This was about 30 minutes before the end of the year, so we readied our fizz and I queued up ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on my phone and the corks popped at midnight on some rubbish, too-sweet fizz when I made my favourite New Year toast (‘Start as you mean to go on’, of course) and there were hugs all around. We rescued Wayne from the train about 15 minutes later so he could rejoin the party, and we goofed off outside for another half an hour before taking the party back on board, watching Dinner for One again, and yammering into the wee hours.
The next morning, we all emerged an hour or two before pulling into Beijing and said our goodbyes. I was fairly certain I’d see Emma, Galaa, and Wayne again though. And Felix was now stuck with me for at least a few days at his own suggestion. So we went off to secure our tickets to Harbin, and ended up eating at McDonald’s in the train station (I know. I KNOW. Not my choice!) because entering China was far too much for our brains to handle unfamiliar food with a hangover, both from the festivities and the being so used to things written in Cyrillic.
We then spent another 8 hours on a bullet train north, by the end of which I think we knew each other better than I know most people after months, or even years. And it’s a good thing we found how incredibly well we got on, because our arrival in Harbin was, I would say, less than smooth.
I am used to organising everything for myself (and everyone else), so when a few days earlier this man I had only met once said, ‘Hey I’ve booked us two beds in a hostel in Harbin, it’s all sorted’ I was like, hey, someone else is doing some sorting out of things FOR me for once! Enjoy the luxury, Kate! And I just trusted that is was all dandy.
Then we got in a taxi and he didn’t have the address in Chinese. After a very confusing (and probably maddening for the driver) 10 minutes, we finally got the driver to call the phone number we had and listed to what seemed like one side of an overlong conversation for the purposes of finding out an address. But then he drove on. And we got to the place (its around 11pm at this point) to find out they’d given up our beds.
This is where the benefits of having a travel buddy became truly apparent, because one of us got to freak out and one of us got to remain calm, and things are just a bit more balanced when those two things don’t have to happen in the same person. I was actually the calm one this time around, but we tended to swap off in that respect over the following two weeks.
This is where we ended up. Could have been worse, I suppose.
With the help of three girls staying int he hostel who had a bit of English, the receptionist managed to communicate to us they’d found us another place to stay. We just went with it because at that point we had little choice. There are a bunch of hotels and hostel in China that only take guests who are Chinese citizens, and I believe the place we ended up was one of those places. It was… mildly terrifying. I’m sure I was the only woman on the premises. They put us in a room all the way at the back. It dingy and cold and not very comfortable and everything smelled of smoke. There was one very dirty squat toilet for the whole place, and no shower (and ALLLLLL we wanted after being on trains for 48 hours was a friggin’ shower). But the people who worked there were really just trying to be helpful in a bizarre situation for everyone, and there wasn’t much else we could do but go to sleep and solve it in the morning.
When I woke up, I WiFi’d up and found that there was an Ibis hotel in the city centre that was not exorbitantly priced and insisted we would be staying there for the remainder of at least MY time in Harbin. This was not met with much protest, particularly after throwing my ‘you best believe I am in charge of this decision’ look. So within the hour, we were in a room with a western toilet and a proper hot shower and it was probably the most relieved I’ll ever be to be in a soulless budget European hotel chain in my life.
From then on, things got much better. We had some absolutely incredible food. We hung out with an American couple we met randomly in the street. They were teaching English in China and were on a weekend trip to the city. (And were also Lindy Hoppers!) We walked on the frozen river and took a ride in some tubes pulled by a snowmobile. I discovered a love for hawthorn berries dipped in sugar. We wandered through the magical ice festival in awe despite our fingers and toes being completely numb just about the whole time. And somehow, rather than getting entirely sick of one another, we decided to stick together for the next 10 days until Felix headed back to Germany from Shanghai.
But only after agreeing I would be in charge of hostel booking duties from now on. Of course.
Everyone on the river!
They had these, and also ICE BIKES
The city from the centre of the river.
More low winter sun
Me and Apocalypse Felix on the cable car over the river
Translation is fun!
Before the sun went down
This is how I feel about hawthorn. I believe this was taken immediately after I said ‘I know this sounds stupid, but I didn’t expect it to be frozen.’
Ice is everywhere!
It’s actually kind of unreal
Worth the freeze
For how cold I was I may as well have been stuck in some ice
Harbin was probably the most expensive leg of this trip, what with the hotel and the ice festival tickets and the last minute train bookings. I never would have gone if it weren’t for this dude I jumped in a freezing cold lake with convincing me to freeze a little bit more to see some lights in some ice. And despite the massive added expense and the numbing cold and the slightly shady first night of the year, I’m so happy I agreed to give it a go. Because I mean, just look at the pictures!
And, as I wrote in my notebook while this was all happening, what a fucking way to start a year.
When I got off the train in UB, I hitched a ride into town with the Golden Gobi hostel pickup because a guy in my train car was staying there and they insisted I come sit around while I waited for a reasonable hour to head to my Couchsurfing hosts’ house. This was lucky and incredibly nice of them, because as I discovered, there were no cafes open at that hour on a Sunday morning and it was dark and cold.
The hostel fed me breakfast and let me sit and use the WiFi for 2 hours and would not let me pay. I know they wanted me to book a tour with them, but I told them my host was sorting that out so I just taught the girl who worked there to fold 3D paper stars as it seemed like the least I could do, and she was interested in how I was doing it.
I walked across town avoiding wipeouts on the ice and certain death by crazy UB drivers (although I didn’t see any of the legendary open manholes everyone warned me about) to meet my fantastic host Tungaa, her grandma, and her adorable baby. She had made breakfast (YAY MORE BREAKFAST!) and we had a lovely chat before I went out to do a bit of exploring. Her husband Naraa was returning from ice fishing that night and she promised to teach me how to make his favourite dish since we’re both into cooking and promised to swap some recipes.
Chinggis Khan Square in smoggy UB
Oh, I wonder what’s in this building?
Since it was Sunday, not a whole lot was open, so I wandered around poking in some shops and things until I found that the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs WAS open. So clearly I went. At the moment it’s in a building they’re renovating, so it’s only one room with a few displays. I don’t know how long it will take for them to sort out the whole museum, and the one room they have IS quite small, but the quality of the displays (in Mongolian and English, huzzah!) is really good, and if they carry that through to a whole museum it will be a really cool place to visit. I was happy for the moment to learn about Tarbosaurus Bataar, because any relative of T Rex is a friend of mine.
I then went and found some Mongolian meat pies for lunch in a local restaurant and checked out the State Department Store before a cold walk back to Tungaa and Naraa’s to learn to make Mongolian beef noodles. I’m really excited to make them at home because they’re so easy, although the meat probably won’t be quite the same. Tungaa was telling me how good all the meat in Mongolia is because there’s absolutely no need for any kind of factory farming or anything. It’s all free range and amazing. Because of all that spaaaaaaace.
So many people had told me the food in Mongolia was so bad, but I found the exact opposite. Everything I ate in there was absolutely amazing. I think the thing is that it’s pretty much all meat and fat and full-on dairy. Westerners aren’t really used to that level of fatty meat in their diet without any vegetables to break it up, and even I got full pretty fast on the stuff I was eating. But it was all so tasty. Nothing processed, nothing nasty. If you really love food, you should love eating in Mongolia.
Anyway, Naraa got home and we discussed what I should do with my remaining 3 days in the country. He’s trying to start a guiding business so I hired him to take me out of the city and show me the best bits of the country he could in the short time I had. He probably got super bored of only having one person to drive around for three days, but he was awesome and I think I saw a lot more and had a much better trip than I would have had I just gone with a package from a hostel. So, score one there.
The first day he drove me out to Terelj National Park where I held a massive eagle (touristy, but irresistible), walked up a hill to a Buddhist meditation centre, drove through miles and miles of gorgeous, snowy mountains, and went to visit Chinggis Khan’s massive statue, which involves the opportunity to emerge from his crotch in order to get to the viewing point at the top of his horse’s head. Class. (And I suppose it makes sense based on this somewhat amusing research.)
A very large bird
I should have got some boots like this guy’s
Camel is not impressed
The turtle rock and all around
Bridge selfie! (Inspired by Duncan)
Direct from the crotch
That night I taught Tungaa to make beef stew with a shortcrust pastry top because she wanted to learn to make a British style meat pie. Before we got back from our drive, she had started the stew based on the recipe I’d left with her (JAMIE OLIVER NEVER FAILS ME) and when I walked in the apartment and smelled it, I knew it was spot on. It’s so weird to smell something so familiar when you’re somewhere so far from home.
The next morning, Naraa drove us 4 hours to see some sand dunes amidst more incredible landscapes. On the way we talked about politics and how Mongolians see the rest of the world, music, movies, and anything else we could think of before I ran out of things to say and instead just let my jaw remain on the floor while looking at what we were driving through. At our roadside lunch stop I tried dumplings and milk tea. Milk tea is kind of like buttery, salty, warm milk – a different sort of taste from anything else I’ve ever tried, but very nice when it’s cold out.
Then we went to stay with a nomadic family for the night, which I was really looking forward to, but was an all at once lovely and difficult experience.
First of all, they moved out of their Ger for the night so that Naraa and I could stay there while they stayed in the house they’d built for winter. According to Naraa, they usually sleep in the Ger anyway (and I can see why, it’s super cosy and lovely). To have vacated it just for us shows incredible hospitality.
They then fed me so well. While they cooked dumplings with horse meat, they had a bunch of cold bits and pieces of leftover meat in a bowl with a massive knife sitting on the table with potatoes and bread. I tried some horse intestine, which was SO tasty. It was like the nicest pork fat you’ve ever had, except a slightly different flavour. I was passed a communal cup of vodka multiple times, and I was even given some kind of Mongolian traditional snuff.
We didn’t talk much, and I only really communicated anything more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ through Naraa, but it was very nice. Later on, I played cards with the men in the Ger before we went to sleep. And I guess this is where I can start to explain the difficulty of this for me.
It’s impossible as someone traveling through countries you don’t know the language in to get a full picture of what people think of things, and I think I got a more authentic experience by having Naraa as my guide, but I’m still just a tourist in the end. I’d love to know what these people thought about life and the world and this random white girl staying in their house eating their delicious food and being slightly awkward, but I’ll never really know. We brought them gifts and things of course, but they were still so nice to show me such hospitality, to vacate their home for the night so I could sleep in it, to cook so much amazing food, to lead me around on a horse in the freezing cold. I really loved it, but I also felt kind of weird about all of it. It’s so interesting to see how other people live their lives, but it feels a little too much like I’m treating them like a museum display when I can’t actually have a two-way conversation about it.
In any case, I probably worry a bit too much about these things. If it were flipped and someone was brought to my house, I think I’d show them the equivalent level of hospitality out of a wish that they feel as much at home as possible in such a different place. So I should probably just trust that that is what’s happening here instead of over-analysing things. People are just nice. The world is a good place. Shut up, brain.
Driving through this amazingness
Blue skies on the sand dunes
There’s a whole country of this
Inside the Ger. Super warm (note my pile of discarded layers).
MY LOVELY HORSE
After a very hot night in the Ger (they kept the fire WAY high for us. At a certain point I went OUTSIDE into the -20C or so cold to get some relief from the sauna), being led around on a horse in the morning, and driving around to try to spot deer and wild horses and yaks, we headed back to the madness of UB, which I found to be probably the most stressful city I’ve been in so far. (Even counting China!) The traffic is just unreal and the smog is horrendous. It’s really too bad to have that in an otherwise gorgeous country. But I did have a good chat with Naraa about how the use of English on signs and in shops is annoyingly taking over Mongolian print because the perception that it’s fashionable.
I managed to get all my shopping done – gifts as well as food and drink for the NEW YEAR TRAIN – and went to bed without sleeping much because I never sleep when I have to worry about getting up super early to catch a train.
Naraa was nice enough to get up and call me a taxi to the station, and Tungaa’s grandma very sweetly saw me out the door at 6.30am. They were really such a lovely family to stay with and I hope I get to go back to Mongolia in the summer with a big ol’ group of people and get Naraa to take us into the Mongolian wilderness for a few weeks. It’s still the one place on this trip I definitely want to go back to.
This week has been a complete mindwreck at work. I’m generally very good at leaving any shits I give about my job AT my job, but when there is a lot of complicated, ridiculous business going on, I can’t exactly leave behind the fuzz my brain becomes from handling it all as easily as my actual care. This has coincided with my desire to now do ALL THE PLANNING for this trip, and the two states of affairs are simply not meshing well.
Last night I was trying desperately to get a handle on where to start with the plans and failing miserably because my brain was just not having it with anything at all. I looked up various packing gear and visa requirements and random cities on Lonely Planet and then at one point decided that reorganising my wallet was the best possible thing I could do RIGHT NOW to help me plan. Because, you know, that makes sense.
It’s like work dropped a massive weight in the middle of a very organised pile of those super bouncy-balls you get in vending machines and they’re bouncing all over the freaking place and I’m trying to catch them all at once. When really I should just let them settle on their own. This is a bad analogy – or maybe it’s not, but I just don’t know what to do while I let them settle. Probably nothing, but I’m not wired that way.
I also haven’t been able to get to sleep very well lately because my brain just Will. Not. Quit. This is a nightly occurrence for the most part, but especially on days when I’ve done a bunch of dancing AND work and I am shattered to the core and all I want is sleep, and my brain goes all Kanye like, ‘Yo I’m real happy you’re tired and IMMA LET YOU SLEEP but I just have to go through this list of all the ten billion things you should be thinking about first.’ Or maybe bouncy balls.
I have yet to figure out how to shut Kanye off. And no, herbal tea and all that stuff people usually suggest doesn’t work. So. I just need to stop thinking so much. But the only thing that seems to shut off the madness is hitting some kind of flow state.
This tends to happen only when I’m making something – designing, coding, cooking, making giant paper calendars – or dancing, actually. Tonight during a lesson I got all the way round the room once to a break where I had no lead and realised I hadn’t thought about anything but my feet and staying on rhythm for the past 30 minutes. No code, no logic, no computers, no work, no personal life drama, not even travel plans. One-track brain. No distractions. BLISS.
Precisely what I needed at the end of this day. And precisely the kind of wipe I need before I try to focus on breaking this massive planning task down so I don’t feel so scattershot about the whole thing.
Because I mean, do you know how big Mongolia is?
Forget even Russia for a minute. Mongolia is huge and I don’t even know where to START in terms of figuring out what bits of it I want to see. Because I’m going to have to choose. And then multiply this by the other two massive countries I’m covering (Russia and China) plus all the more sensibly sized ones and you’ve got a whole lot of ruling things out to do.
Logically I know the thing to do is hit it in pieces. And I can do that. But I’m excited and I’ve not reached the stage where my excitement-driven impatience has been beaten down by my ability to organise the shit out of things.
Amidst my inability to pin down even a single useful action in the past few days, I have at least identified that I have friends who have taken significant trips to almost every country on my list. (Except Russia, funnily enough.) So my current master plan is to take relevant said friends to the pub one by one, buy them drinks, and listen to every last tip and story they have to give. This means I get to go to the pub with people I like AND find things out at the same time. And beer does nearly as good a job as flow state of distracting me from the fuzz in my head (or perhaps just replacing it with nicer fuzz).
Also I do know I want to ride some horses in Mongolia. AND LEARN TO SHOOT ARROWS FROM THE BACKS OF SAID HORSES. Yesss. Even though I may well freeze my ass off because: winter in Mongolia. So there’s one decision.