Monday, 31 May 2010

Budapest and Vienna

Budapest is quite spectacular. The castle sits on a big rock outcrop overlooking the Danube which curves elegantly through the center, dividing Buda from Pest. It's full of grand, imposing buildings from around the mid 1800s and more statues than I have ever seen anywhere. It's made to impress.

I didn't know much about Hungary beforehand, other than it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and that they're big fans of paprika.
But it was (sort of) on my way home and neither my parents nor I had ever been, so we decided to meet up and see something new together. I was late because my train from Warsaw was stuck locomotiveless for about 5 hours in Breclav (Czech Republic?), so Claire and Paul were waiting for me at the station when I got there.

On Saturday we visited the Grand Market, designed by Gustav Eiffel, and toured the World War II hospital that was built in the caves under the castle (C+P pictured heading down to the hospital entrance, left).
Sunday was Pentecost, and there was mass in St Matyas church (roof at right) with a full orchestra and choir singing Mozart. The mass was half in Latin and half in Hungarian. I didn't understand anything, but, man, it was impressive!

In the afternoon we went to the Jewish quarter. We visited the orthodox synagogue, which is little more than a shell now, and the Jewish Museum and Grand Synagogue. They're the original buildings, because the Nazis didn't have time to destroy them, having occupied Hungary from March 1944 - setting up the ghetto only that November - to January 1945. They managed to exterminate 130,000 people, but it's nice somehow that some of the beautiful things those people made have survived.

It was a beautiful weekend, with great weather and lots of fascinating things to see. The food was terrific too, and we found lots of opportunities to fit it in. And pastries. Mmm.

Vienna, on the other hand, was a bust. I couldn't get in touch with the hostel where I was planning to stay and didn't know of anywhere else and the guys at the information counter and at the tabac - where they sell phonecards - were not nice and the payphones didn't work. I was tired and cranky and couldn't come up with a good answer to 'why not just go home?'

So I bought my ticket back to Geneva for that evening. Having committed to leaving Vienna, it didn't seem that bad at all. There was a festival going on outside the Rathaus (a suitable name for all government buildings?) and lots of people out in all the parks. It was a very pretty evening, and I had 4 pleasant hours wandering around. Maybe I'll go back.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw

Arrived in Finland on Monday after happily uneventful flights from Ulaanbaatar. No pony trekking or camping though, like in the Monty Python song. I had to be in Budapest by Friday, and there was no time to mess around. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, apparently the first really summery day this year, and the whole population was out in the parks around Helsinki. There are a lot of them - parks that is - and after Mongolia I was amazed by how green everything was. I stayed in the Design District, but pretty much everything was closed by the time I finished my laundry and was free to walk around. It is a pretty city, at least in the sunshine, with trams and a general vibe that reminded me a lot of Geneva.

The next morning I took a 2 hour ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland, entirely in the fog, to Tallinn, Estonia. I was planning to head straight south, but when I saw how charming it is I decided to stay the night. That the last bus of the day had already left helped with my decision. The 13th century old town of Tallinn is a UNESCO world heritage site, and about as picturesque as you can imagine. I had a delightful afternoon wandering around, window shopping. With no money left and no room in my backpack, it wasn't hard to keep from buying stuff.

The next morning was Wednesday, so I had to high-tail it out. I caught a bus to Riga, Latvia (that's the middle one - I finally figured out how to remember which is which: they go alphabetically from the north - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Piece of cake!) where I had a little over an hour to wander around the market near the central bus station. Unfortunately, after I changed my last remaining estonian kroon - abbreviated to EEK, :0) - to Latvian Lati, I was left with not quite enough cash to check my backpack. I was back in the station with my 13kg pack on the bench next to me in plenty of time for my connecting bus to Vilnius.

We arrived at the bus station in Vilnius at around 9pm. I had an hour again before my next bus and it was still light but didn't seem like the best part of town so I didn't venture out at all. The supermarket was about the only thing open in the station, but it was pretty nice and I got a decent dinner there. There was a bookie open too, which isn't so unusual, but with a West Ham banner?!

The bus from Vilnius arrived in Warsaw at 6am on Thursday morning. I booked my overnight train to Budapest, changed money yet again (Lesson: skeptics be damned, the Euro rocks!), then had just 14 hours to kill before it left. Apparently the old town of Warsaw is quite beautiful, but I only found that out afterward. The tourist information center still wasn't open, so I set out to look around with no idea where I was going, or what to see.

As usual, I saw lots of interesting things, though not necessarily what I would have planned. Walking through the gardens in the neighborhoods near the station, I came across what I think is an old water treatment facility complete with art deco relief carved above the entrance (pictured). I also visited a couple of churches, and snoozed in one of them during organ practice - it had been a long night.

In the afternoon I saw the marker (pictured) for the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation. There's a pillar marking the corner and a plaque with some information, simple but moving. I didn't realize the uprising and demolition happened in early 1943 - seems like so long before the end of the war.

The only museum I came across was the Muzeum Techniki, but that was a gem. It's an old-fashioned museum with a delightfully eclectic collection. There are old Polish motorbikes, computer models going back to punch card days, prehistoric washing machines, and handmade models tracing the history of metallurgy with the model builder's name included. I loved it.

Leaving Mongolia

We left camp at Ikh Nart with a spectacular sunset on the evening of the 13th. We stopped at a pretty quiet nightclub not far from the station at the town of Shevi Gobi. I had imagined a kind of rough place, but it was a nice, clean restaurant with a small dance floor and disco ball and no one in it (sorry, no pictures. I know: poor effort). We were all kind of bummed to be leaving and the only other client was a lone drunk, so there wasn't any dancing. We made it to the station in plenty of time for the overnight train.

Back in Ulaanbaatar ('red hero') for our last official Earthwatch day, we had time for a warm shower (yippee!) before heading out to see the sights with Buyanaa, Puujee and Tuwshin, the van driver. In the evening we went to a fantastic performance of traditional Mongolian singing and dance, including a dance with masks like this one. Then we had a final team dinner where we said our goodbyes and Phil, Amanda, Puujee and I went out for some drinks.

The next day Barbara and Amanda headed back to reality, but Phil and I still had a couple of days left. We dropped Amanda off at the airport (Barbara left too early) and then walked around town for a while. In the afternoon Puujee met us again and gave us a guided tour of the Natural History Museum and took us to visit the local temple. That evening we met Kevin, Rich and Amgaa for more final drinks, and ended up going with them to dinner with some serious academics and World Bank people. I said I work in sewage and they hardly troubled me at all. After goodbyes with Kevin, Rich and Amgaa and still more final drinks with Puuj, and me starting to develop quite a taste for Chinggis vodka, we called it a night.

Everyone was gone the next day so Phil and I headed out of town to visit Manzshir Khiid, a monastery that had been destroyed by the Stalinists. It was a public transportation adventure, and just what I needed to get over my leaving Mongolia blues. We found the bus at around 9am and shared it with a very vocal drunk and his worryingly gassy friend. Fortunately for us we didn't have a clue what he was saying, but the woman sitting next to him didn't look amused. Of course, she also had to deal with his friend falling asleep on her. Eventually both the drunks fell asleep, and the vocal one actually spit in his sleep on his buddy. It was all I could do to keep from laughing and waking them both up again. With friends like those...

We were a little worried that the drunks were going to try to take us to the monastery, but with the lady's help managed to evade them and set off on our own. It was a 5km walk, reminiscent of our regular trips in search of Sara the hedgehog, and like our trips to find Sara, on the way out we probably didn't take the most direct route. We made it, though, and even got to see the beautiful rock carvings on the mountain. We saw a couple of eagles while we were up there, and we could really have used Puuj's identification skills and Kevin's fabulous camera (we missed all of you!).

It was really something to see the extents of the ruins. Apparently 350 monks used to live there. They have rebuilt one of the buildings, but all you can see of the rest are the foundations.

On our way back in the drunk-free bus it started to rain, and I think it kept raining all night. It was certainly very wet when I headed to the airport at 5:30 the next morning. If it rained like that at Ikh Nart too it'll be all green now. Lucky June team!

Monday, 17 May 2010


I went to Mongolia as a volunteer on the Earthwatch project, Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe, run at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, 6 or 7 hours drive roughly southwest of the capital in the semi-desert part of the Eastern Gobi, though I'm not sure which semi-desert part that is in the Wikipedia entry. The camp is made up of 7 gers (pronounced gehr, like Frank Gehry), two pit latrine outhouses, a shower - that's for solar showers, there's no running water - and two containers for storage, and is powered by solar panels and a wind turbine.

There were 4 volun- teers out of a possible 6: Phil, from New Zealand; Amanda, from Singapore; Barbara, from Mississippi; and me (last year's volunteers pictured). We were the first Earthwatch group of 2010, and all agreed the best so far this year. We worked on several projects, ably assisted by the 15 scientists, students and staff who keep the research going year-round.

Selenge, who studied in Germany and speaks English with a lovely German accent, is like the project manager - as far as I know she doesn´t do any research, but she takes care of the logistics that make the research possible. She was also the one responsible for getting the new cook, Uuree, who kept us all going with her wonderful food.

Amgaa is president of the Argali Wildlife Research Center and hands down the best tracker in camp, having spent the past 20-odd years monitoring argali sheep. This is the longest running project at Ikh Nart, and these were the sheep I went to count. In April they catch and put radio transmitter collars on argali lambs and ibex kids and in the autumn they do the same with adults. The transmitters work for a couple of years before falling off, and are used to monitor the argali numbers and movements.

Tracking argali and ibex is no picnic. They have great hearing, vision and sense of smell. Usually by the time I had found them with my binoculars they were looking right at me or already running away. The males were a little less flighty, and one morning I got close enough to some ibex to take some decent pictures (yes, I consider that to be a decent picture). They stood there, intrigued, while I fumbled with my binocs and camera. Clearly I wasn't much of a threat.

After a couple of days chasing argali, it was a nice break to go out with Mandakh, the botanist, and help with the botanical surveys. It was always a pleasant walk at a relaxed pace, and she would point out other interesting species as we went along. We saw wild irises (pictured) and thyme, and she would tell me the local or medicinal uses of the plants we passed. She's also very good at spotting animals. I saw my first vulture while out with her, and got closer to a couple of argali than I ever did while tracking them without a guide.

Buyanaa leads the small mammal research, assisted by Muugii. We set traps in the evenings baited with peanut butter and millet, and in the mornings saw what cute little furry creatures gave in to the temptation. Then Buyanaa and Muugii weighed, measured and tagged them and let them go again. They only really need one more assistant to write down the data but it's such a nice experience that usually at least 3 of us went. Even on the snow day we turned out in numbers. So did the small mammals - we caught more hamsters and gerbils that night than any other. They were all half-frozen, but alive.

The snow day fell on our Mongolian Barbecue day, so once we had released the small mammals we were free for the day. We built a snowman and had snowball fights. When it cleared up in the afternoon I went for a couple of walks. The only thing that detracted from the beauty and serenity on the rocks in the sunshine was my imagination. I kept picturing getting pounced on by wolves, or dozing off and being awoken by a hungry vulture. There's nothing like visualizing yourself as lunch to make you a little jumpy. I can sympathize with the argali.

Puujee is studying the cinereous vulture and other birds of prey, and there seem to be lots of them around. He didn't particularly need our help this time of year but he still pointed out lots of birds to us and thanks to him I can now identify a few of them. We also got to see this nest of Saker falcon chicks he's been monitoring.

of the Denver Zoological Foundation, has been working on projects in Mongolia for 16 years, and on this trip was mainly involved in fecal studies, comparing the intestinal parasites of wild and domestic animals. This fit right in with my lifelong fascination with all things poo-related. I helped prepare the samples but soon learned I´m not much of a parasitologist. If you can tell the difference between coccidia and strongyles you´re doing better than me.

The newest project underway is a study of the local snakes, so they brought Kevin in from Denver as herpetologist and veterinarian. He arrived about a week before us but we left at the same time, and since it was his first time in Mongolia too he kind of felt like one of the volunteers. A really, really knowledgeable one.

The snake study was a little slow starting. It turns out snakes aren't crazy about the snow. We didn't catch any until well into the second week, and even then it was mostly vipers so the volunteers didn't get to handle them. There was one coluber (pictured) who let us pass him around, but the rest weren't nice.

Collars aren't much use on a snake (yes, I had to ask) so Kevin inserted the radio transmitters and
8 inch (200mm) long flexible antenna surgically into the two snakes that were big enough to take them (over 80g, I think). Our dining ger was converted to a surgery theatre, and he was assisted by Hongoroo, a veterinary student, and Nandia, a biology undergrad. Everyone in the camp, including a couple of the rangers, turned out to watch. It was amazing. You'll be happy to know both snakes recovered fine and seem unperturbed by their new hardware.

Evenings when there wasn't fecal sampling or snake surgery to be done we sometimes had present- ations on the research people here have been doing. Amgaa explained the argali/ibex study and how the work we were doing contributes to that. Buyanaa gave a presentation on the small carnivores study she recently finished, and Puujee talked about his research on cinereous vultures. Kevin showed us footage of his recent expeditions to the arctic and antarctic, complete with penguin impressions. They were all fascinating. On other nights we played cards, which it turns out is a great way to learn to count. I'm proud to say I can now count to 10 (slowly) in Mongolian.

The evening of the snow day we ate our Mongolian barbecue inside. It was goat cooked with potatoes and turnip-like vegetables and rocks in a big pot on the open fire. I didn't see how it all fit together so I'm not sure what the rocks were for, but it was good. Afterward we sat around and sang. It's a typical Mongolian pasttime, and they're really good at it. They all know all the words and the tune - already way ahead of us - and then they harmonize and it's just beautiful. Phil and Kevin made a valiant effort to represent the Southern and Western hemispheres, Phil with a Haka (like this, sort of) and Kevin with the Beverly Hillbillies and a Christmas dance. The rest of us all made some contribution - I think Amanda and Rich sang Mandy in my honor but I blocked that part out. We were outclassed - no question. The Mongolians won.

I had an absolute blast - it was everything I hoped, and this post doesn't even begin to describe it. I can't end, though, without mentioning Sara, the elusive hedgehog. At first I was really excited - I like hedgehogs and the idea of catching one and helping to replace her transmitter sounded great. Sara had other ideas though, and after days of hiking the 5km out to her burrow to see if she had come out of hibernation and then hiking back again disappointed the charm wore off a little. She's clearly determined to save herself for the June team. I hope they appreciate her.