AUTHENTICITY Whether it is in my day to day or in my travels, I often find myself yearning for an authentic experience. What exactly is an authentic experience, and why do I keep digging for these moments? In an age where everything feels saturated and commercialized, I wonder if authenticity is still alive.

So what is an authentic experience? I had this fantasy before my trip that the lands would be laced with true and authentic experiences devoid of tourism and commercialism. I imagined I would feel connected to people and places in ways that felt absolutely true. I thought that if truth lived in moments, that I would find them, feel them, and share them. But as a tourist and as a stranger to distant lands, I wondered if it would be that much harder to find the scraps of truth.

I think back to a moment that comes to mind when I think about authentic experience. The first time I rode a horse was in Mongolia as I helped a nomad herd his sheep in a landscape that was straight out of The Land Before Time. Needless to say, all other horse rides in my lifetime will pale in comparison. Thank you Mongolia for single-handedly ruining all future horse rides and giving me one of the best experiences of my life.

_MG_0504 The nomad rode the horse as if they were connected. They were one symbiotic, beautiful beast, and while I was holding on for dear life, he casually smoked a cigarette while navigating the land and his livestock. We didn’t share language, but we shared this moment. It was so beautiful I could cry at the memory of it. It was beautiful not only because it was an objectively impressive scene, but the physical memory and the emotional impression is engraved into me, onto me, and all over me. I argued with myself over the authenticity of it. Mari, you are only having this experience because you paid for it and this tour was set up for tourists to make money. I previously had such strict authentic experience guidelines… anything commercialized and driven by tourism and money could not be authentic I would argue. But I cannot deny the truths I felt in those moments. Yes, I had paid for a tour which I knew included horseback riding. What I didn’t know was that I would actually be herding sheep with a nomad. It felt more like he needed to get his sheep back to base and also provide a horse ride and that he was killing two birds with one stone. I was happy to be a bird because then I was flying in his authentic air space. He wasn’t simply taking me for a ride, I was riding in his world, and I actually did feel as free as a bird. I was soaring.

_MG_0593I realized that authentic experiences cannot be achieved by checking off a near impossible list of rules. There’s actually nothing authentic about boxing in moments with a checklist. An authentic experience comes from within. If you experience truth in a moment, whether it’s on a tour or on a solo wander, it IS an authentic experience.


While my extravagant fantasy of living in continuous authentic moments while traveling was not achieved, the reality was that I found pockets of authenticity that live inside me in brilliant ways. When I think back on other such moments, I realize the common denominator is shared human experience. When we connect with other people, it’s magic.

Abracadabra. Authenticity.


The Architecture of Happiness | Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

architectureI just finished reading The Architecture of Happiness (quoted above) in an architecturally acerbic city. Remember my first impressions of Ulaanbaatar post where I waxed poetically about how it wasn’t a wasteland? Well, I must have been viewing it with my rose colored Russian glasses, because guess what? It is a wasteland. We now know more about Ulaanbaatar than we ever wanted to know. The infrastructure is poor, the traffic is awful, the architecture (if you can call it that) is not cohesive or aesthetically pleasing, and after being witness to a disturbing incident in a parking lot, we realize the city is probably rampant with corruption. Our view from our hostel window

So I finish this book, which explores what our surroundings do to us, and I realize why I am so eager to get the heck out of here. Don’t get me wrong, Mongolia is amazing, but it’s very much a duplicitous country. It’s when you leave Ulaanbaatar that Mongolia becomes a magical place. The countryside is beautiful, the city just a holding cell.

So what does being exposed to a chaotic, ugly city do to one’s happiness?

Chaotic I can somewhat deal with, hence my ability to live in New York City, but at least the big apple has some pretty beautiful sites. You can be bombarded with complete chaos, want to crawl in a hole, swear you are quitting NYC and then look up and see the lit Empire State Building (or my favorite, The Chrysler Building), and suddenly you are in love with NYC all over again. Ulaanbaatar affords you no such experience. You can be so annoyed with the traffic, unable to breathe the dusty air, hope you are wearing appropriate shoes to trek through the haphazardly torn up sidewalks with exposed pipes and whatever else, want to get on a plane, and then you look up, find another torn up ditch that you have to jump across, and then really want to get on a plane. Ulaanbaatar doesn’t make you fall in love again. It makes you want to break up with it.

I’m a big believer that the external permeates the internal and just like the traffic I’m beginning to feel a bit congested. I finished the book at a time when I was so over Ulaanbaatar. Feeling trapped just waiting to make use of our plane tickets to India. I felt my first wave of New York miss and travel blues while cabin fever was setting in. But maybe my own architecture of happiness was being heavily swayed by Ulaanbaatar’s architecture of unhappiness? The book in some way made me realize my own sensitivity to aesthetics.

All this time I thought I was the sole architect of my own happiness, not realizing that perhaps my surroundings act as my subcontractors. Once I realized it’s not all internal and that the external is at work too, I felt relieved to know that my limp arches were probably a product of peripheral woes. Phew. Get me out of here!

Now India, am I going to fall in love with you or want to break up with you?

Central Mongolia Tour | Part 2

After the toads and mouse sightings, we slept tight in our frigid ger and woke to day 3! The landscape often changes in Mongolia and soon enough we found ourselves out of the flat lands and in the middle of rocky mountains. We stopped by a monastery that is tucked between peaks. 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 We continue on until we reach our ger for the night. This nomadic family has the largest amount of livestock we've encountered. Horses, goats, sheep. They are rolling in livestock. We notice their brand new car (the new generation of nomads) and guess they are doing pretty well for themselves. 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 4748Remember how I said we tried fermented mare's milk? How do you even milk a horse I wondered? Well here's how... 49 50 51 52 53After the mare's milking, we were in for a real treat.

Rick and I went horseback riding. Or should I say, horseback riding/sheep herding. Unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera with me because not falling off the horse was more important to me than getting a good shot. Rick has experience with horses, while I had little to no experience at this point.

We hop on and we are led by the herdsman. We think we are just riding around the beautiful landscape but he leads us to his goats and sheep. He puts us to work! We end up herding the animals! What a treat! Here we are in the middle of Mongolia, herding sheep and goats. We are feeling quite nomadic at this point.

Rick's horse goes a little wild at one point but he holds his own. I don't fall off. Everyone wins.

We head back and freeze our rumps off for the rest of the night. The view however, is quite nice.

This is our view from our ger in the evening.54When we wake the next morning (day 4!), this is our view as we open our door. 55Hello heaven. 56 57 58 59We leave a bit earlier on the last day to head to Hustai National Park where a rare breed of wild horses, (Przewalski's Horse)    reside.

All Przewalski horses in the world are descended from nine of the 31 horses in captivity in 1945.

60 61 62So there you have it. Tour #2. Camel riding, herding sheep, purple rain, and wild horses.

Central Mongolia Tour | Part 1

After returning from the Gobi, we thought we deserved a few days of as many showers as we pleased. We moved from a sketchy hostel to a nice hostel where many proper showers were had. After five days, we set out on another tour—this time to Central Mongolia and this time for only 4 days and 3 nights, just the two of us. I know what you are thinking... how romantic.

Well, it was much too cold and rustic to be romantic. Temperatures dropped during the night and sleeping in separate beds in a ger in 30 degrees gets less romantic with every shiver. There were nevertheless, some really great moments. I'm splitting the tour into two posts and here are the first two days.

The good news was the majority of the driving was on paved road, which is a novelty here in Mongolia and we had the whole van to ourselves. The first day was primarily all driving and our destination was the Erdene Zuu Monastery in the ancient city of Karakorum. Unfortunately we arrived just before closing, so we didn't have much time to roam for photo sake.1 2 3 4We stayed the night at a ger camp instead of with a nomadic family which meant toilets! Another novelty! We had enough firewood to warm up the ger for falling asleep, but come 3am we were missing that Gobi Desert weather.5 6 7 8The following day we headed to "Mini Gobi." The sand dunes were much smaller than the ones we had just visited, but also much less windy which made for a pleasant walk and the ability to take photos! This night we stayed with a nomadic family and stayed in a ger where we had little toads jumping around and I spotted another mouse. Rick thinks my imagination got the best of me and that I just saw a toad, but I know what I saw. This time at least, we could share a bed so I slept easier knowing I could wake him up at any sound. 9 10 11 12 13We put our packs down and headed to the dunes and checked out the surrounding area.14 15 16 17 18 19 20Since we were such camel riding experts at this point, we went for round 2. I decided not to take my camera with me this time and to just take in the view. The major difference between the last camel ride and this one was here we actually went through and dunes. The camels brought us to the top and the late afternoon light was magical. After we dismounted, we decided to go back to the dunes, cameras in hand to capture that nice evening sand glow.21 22 23 24 25 26As the sun was setting and the clouds were rolling in, we spotted some very colorful sunset rain. Call Prince. It's Purple Rain.27 28 29 30 31So a very colorful ending to day 2 of 4.


Day 5 was the highlight of the tour and the remaining days were more or less just getting us back to Ulaanbaatar. The pictures in this post are actually day 6 at which point my last camera battery died just as I was shooting the stars in the evening. There wasn't much to shoot on Day 7 or 8 as we were driving all day and taking the same route back. So here we go, Day 6. I'm going to call this the night we sleep with mice in our ger. Or should I say, the night I could not sleep because there were mice in our ger.

After leaving the lovely dunes of the Gobi, we quickly stopped because our engine was overheating. Oh, don't we just love these Russian vans. It was fairly warm out and we find ourselves letting the engine cool periodically throughout the day. We stop where a nomadic family has set up tables of different souvenirs for purchase. While some are tending to the tables, others are tending to the livestock. Here the goats go wild for water.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8We end up stopping for lunch and as Rick and I walk around, we find a carnage of animal parts which is always a nice sight before eating.9 10We eventually end up at Flaming Cliffs in the afternoon, which doesn't really look that flaming to us and we later find out, they appear "flaming" at sunset, so I guess we are too early for the fire. The site is also of importance because here is where many important dinosaur fossils have been discovered. Most famously, it's here where the first fossilized dinosaur eggs were found. This IS The Land Before Time! 11 12 13Nearby, we settle into our ger for the night and this was the least impressive as far as view and facilities thus far. The one perk was there was a tourist camp within walking distance where we could pay for a shower. Hallelujah! A proper shower. And when I say proper, I don't mean nice or clean—there were buzzing flies in mine and it was the kind of shower where you definitely want to wear your flip flops, but it did the job and there were no animal feces in sight. I'll take what I can get.

We walked around the area to find more animal parts strewn about.

What is with today and animal decay?14 15 16 1718 19 20 21 22The evening light was rolling in and we all decided to head back to the tourist camp for a nice cold beer at their bar, which in reality we found out what it actually meant was a nice warm beer in the dark because there was no electricity. Eh, you take what you can get.

We head back and the sky is brimming with stars. I take a few shots and we head to bed...

or so I thought...23 Rick and I as well as the Austrian couple crawl into bed still with the light on— well it's not a light, it's a candle, so we know we have a limited amount of light left. I take my glasses off and am laying there until I see a blob of white go across the floor. I think it's nothing and blame it on the fact that I don't have my glasses on. Wait! There is goes again. This time I put on my glasses and it's like living in NY all over again. Mice! Noooooooooo. Rick then sees another small one climbing on the WALLS! He checks under our beds and there is mice poop everywhere. I want to sleep in the van, on top of the van, I don't even care at this point. Rick thinks they are cute and I am annoyed that he can sleep soundly while I am up all night worried mice are going to crawl in my sleeping bag. It's pretty warm this night, but I fully zip up my down sleeping bag, which I later find out that I might as well be sleeping in a sauna. The Austrian couple seems just as grossed out as I am and we all move our backpacks away from our beds as to not create a grand staircase to our sleeping quarters which were are already pretty low.

We look at the candle and we guess we have maybe 30 minutes left of light and after that it will be dark—a free domain for the mice to run wild! I am freaking out. The ger has holes throughout and they run in as quickly as they run out. There's nothing to be done.24

The candle goes out.

Our other two tour mates come in and I'm just concentrating on trying to sleep all the while trying to make some noise periodically so that if there is a mice near by bed, maybe it will be spooked. By this point,  I'm sleeping with a towel over my head too because I'm imaging them running over my face.

I don't even know what time it is, but I am startled by the Austrian couple and their flashlight. A mouse is crawling on one of our tour mates beds. She hadn't moved her bags away from her bed and the mice took the stairs. By this point I'm sweating—dripping even, refusing to unzip my sleeping bag. Rick hasn't moved an inch and I am awake in a pool of my own sweat.

I barely slept that night and probably lost a few pounds of water weight while doing so. Morning came painfully slow and I was eager to get the heck out of there. Rick was rested. I was weary.

I told myself I'd sleep in the car, but then I remembered that surviving the bumpy roads awake was hard enough. Let's just say I was over the tour come day 7.

Day 7 was all driving minus a lunch stop as well as day 8 and we arrived back in Ulaanbaatar around six in the evening.

Tour complete!

I hope there isn't a mouse in my bag...


This is the first and only day of our tour that we don't start by getting in the van. We have a full day to enjoy the dunes. First up? Camel riding.

The nomadic family we were staying with had horses, sheep, goats, and camels so we did not have to go so far to get between humps. We also found out the night previous that they also produce their own fermented mare's milk. We sipped, but we couldn't really get into it.

We had an hour with the camels, led by the owner and we were to finish the ride at a nearby "lake," as we were told by our guide. By day 5 we were all dying for any form of a shower. She told us it was possible to swim in it, so we all put on our bathing suit attire at a chance of feeling fresh.

The owner prepared the camels and we were off!

My Gobi Desert camel riding fantasy was realized! 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13We arrive at the "lake" as seen behind the camels two photos above. It doesn't look like much, but we are all pretty desperate. We strip down and I'm trying not to be grossed out by the mushy, muddy bottom, or the livestock poop that floats near shore. We wash up all the while pushing away the poop around us in a desperate attempt to wash ourselves. I even made an impromptu facial scrub out of Gobi sand and sunscreen. Who needs a spa?

The things we do to bathe. 14 15 16Once we dry off we head back to our ger and rest up before we climb to the top of the dunes. 17 18Our lunch is reminiscent of empanadas (yum!) and our guide and driver set up a game played with livestock ankle bones. I never thought I'd see the day where I'm rolling ankle bones like dice. Vegas is missing out.

Read more about ankle bone games here. We were taught a game called "Horse Race."19 20 21 22 23 24After feeling ankle-boned out, we got ready to set out to for the dunes. The guide told us it would take about an hour to get to the top and that it would be best to do barefoot.

She was right about both. The dunes are steep and the sand is slippery. It was like being on the StairMaster for an hour. Thighs are burning!

We rest frequently on the way up and as we ascended, the wind became worse.

In fact, you could hear the wind on the dunes from our ger. This is a phenomenon called "singing dunes," and we were about to be in the thick of it.

As you can imagine, sand is deadly to a camera so I could only manage a few shots. 25 26 27 28 29 30 31When we reached the top, the wind was brutal. I couldn't take my camera out, let alone see because the sand was enveloping everything. We made it to the top, now if only we could see! The barrage of sand bullets became too much and we slowly made our way down.

We were exhausted after the climb!

I had no choice but to collapse on the desert floor...

Dream day complete.32


Day 4! This is the halfway mark of the trip! We left the area we deemed The Land Before Time and traveled into a protected area only accessible by way of tour operators.

We stopped at Yolyn Am Valley to find narrow gorges, yaks, and impressive views.123456After hopping back into the van, we found ourselves driving through gorges that could barely accommodate the width of the van, (much like in the above picture) not to mention that we were driving through streams. Is this a road or a river??? Eventually we made our way out and drove a LONG time until we reached the famed Khongor Sand Dunes of the Gobi. This is what we've been waiting for!

And how were we greeted? With a sand storm.

It eventually cleared and we spent the remainder of the night checking out the area and ogling at the view. 7 89 10 1112 13 14 1516 17 18 1920 21 22 2324 25 26 27 28 29The night ended with a rainbow!

The next post includes camel riding & climbing the dunes. EPIC !


Day 3 started off as any normal nomadic day would— milking goats. This is where I discover, I'm not so good at it.

The women separate the females and arrange them head to head with ease. It becomes a goat milking puzzle. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8I give it a go, but I am clearly not a goat milking expert.

We pack up and head out for yet another bumpy ride.

We stop as we come across a large group of camels hanging out by the road. 9 10 11 12 13 14As we headed further south, I understood the term "Golden Gobi."15We arrived in a magical area that felt like The Land Before Time. As you walk around this untouched land, you fully expect a T-Rex to appear from behind the hills. No wonder the Gobi has been a hot spot for dinosaur fossils. If I was a dinosaur, I'd definitively live here. There were condors circling above us as we walked around and I was hoping they wouldn't mistake me for baby livestock. 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32This evening our guide and driver presented us with a bottle of Chinggis Vodka, which we were told we had to finish. We took shots, toasted to the trip, and slept very well that night.

Another brilliant moon over another brilliant view.33 34


Day 2 starts with breakfast at 8:30am and we hit the road by 9am. We drive for the bulk of the day and we are like batter in a bowl by the time we peel ourselves out of the van.

The view is worth the shake up. 13We occasionally see other tour vans taking a similar route and this day the drivers of 2 other vans — who are clearly buddies with our driver, stick near each other for a portion of the day. I'm thinking it's because these "roads" are brutal and the buddy system may be important in a possible breakdown. 2We drive for hours until lunch time where we find ourselves perched hillside for a break.

Lunch and dinner usually consists of some sort of pasta or rice with a bit of vegetables and meat.4 5.1Rick and I found some pretty awesome rocks in these parts and we stuff them in our pockets before we set off in the van again. The landscape changes yet again and long, luscious shadows layer the land only to then find ourselves in the middle of hills that are of a reddish hue. I have never seen such a thing! They are of such saturation that I fear my eyes have fooled me.5 6We finally arrive at Tsagaan Suvarga, also known as Painted Desert. We start at the bottom and drive perilously to the top where the view is nothing but spectacular. The desert floor looks like it had a field day with red and orange splatter paint. 7 8 9 10.1 10 11 1213 14 15We get back in the van and find our home for the evening...16 17We say hello to the family which consists of a grandmother and her grandchild.

Here we try dried goat curd and I get to photograph the space in which they live.18 24 23 22I love that below is where all things hang; purse, baseball hat, cell phone, jacket, meat...

It's the ultimate nomadic hanger.21 20Dried mutton hangs feet from us. Mutton jerky? Who's in?25Since there is little vegetation in the area, these families burn dung to keep the fire going.

Below is a bucket ready to burn baby burn.26Here is our host and her cute grandson.27 29 30 31She sets out in the evening to collect dung for future fires... 32 33 34Our views are incredible and as night falls the vastness of beauty across the land is overwhelming. The sun setting and the moon rising were equally impressive. Where to shoot?!?! They corralled the livestock and Rick found his Capricorn self among his kind. 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 Day 2, you were lovely as ever.


Mongolians boast a true nomadic habit. Looks like we are in good company. We got a taste of this nomadic way of life on our 8 day tour to the Gobi Desert. Remember our lovely van ride from Olkhon? This was Olkhon times 8 in terms of bumpy roads. Guess we had good practice.

Our group consisted of a driver, a guide, an Austrian couple, and 2 others who hailed from Japan. gogogobiWe all got to experience the roads, and I use that term loosely, as we bumped around this Russian van (and boy do we know Russian vans) together for a week. Look at that padding!1So what does this tour consist of? A hell of a lot of driving. I'd say we were in the van driving, or getting thrown around the van for on average 6 hours a day. Each night we would stay with a nomadic family that had an empty ger that could accommodate the 6 of us. You'd think these sort of accommodations would be arranged beforehand, but it's very off the cuff. Some families we stopped at already had guests, so we would often have to visit several families until we found an opening. The gers were basic and when I say basic, I mean you are sleeping on a wood board with a thin padding. Pillows were improvised by wrapping our jackets in our towels, and sometimes Rick and I or the Austrian couple would have to share a twin bed. Remember my gripe about two twin beds pushed together? Well now we were either in two separate twin beds, or squished together in one. Dare I say I was wishing for the twin beds pushed together scenario. So all in all, nomadic luxury.

Now let's talk about bathroom facilities. Or let's talk about how there aren't any bathroom facilities. These nomadic families had outhouses that made you wish you were constipated so you didn't have to use them. So then what? Why be stuck in a smelly outhouse when you can squat somewhere tucked away in the hills and watch camels in the distance? So we skipped all the outhouses and became expert squatters (I knew those yoga classes I took before the trip would come in handy). I am pretty sure I could go to the bathroom in Warrior 2 pose if I had to. Needless to say, toilet paper and wet wipes were always stuffed in our pockets. Wet wipes were also the closet thing we had to a daily shower. We had 1 true shower the entire trip and 2 improvised bathing sessions in a body of water in the Gobi where we learned the local animals also used it as a toilet. So we were feeling squeaky clean. Desperate times call for desperate baths. No bodily rashes were discovered.

You are probably thinking, all of this sounds awful! Nausea inducing bumpy roads, a toilet-less trip, bathing next to camel feces, no showers in sight, and beds that leave you stiff as a board... Why on earth would you even want to partake, let alone pay for such an tour?

Let's get to the good stuff.

As Mongolia's landscape revealed itself, I didn't know if I should cry out of bliss or pee my pants out of excitement. Luckily, I saved myself the embarrassment of both, but no doubt Mongolia has a way of moving you. It's like seeing for the first time. My virginal eyes deflowered by Mongolia's curves. The seduction of simplicity. It has a way of making your feel small, yet possible. Much in the same way you might feel when in a plane and you look down at earth and realize you are an ant in comparison, only to realize your ant-sized self is hurling itself through the sky to discover the world. That is possibility. That is living big.

This is Mongolia. 2 3 4 5We started the trip out of Ulaanbaatar at 9am and we stopped for lunch around 1pm. All three meals are included in the tour and the guide whips up all the lunches out of the back of the van. When you step out of the van you realize you truly are in the middle of nowhere, not a soul in sight except for your tour mates and scattered horses. This is how it is for much of the trip, just the van and the landscape. photo(33)6 7 8 9 10 11 12We made a few stops the first day and the landscape changed dramatically with every passing hour. We found ourselves in the plains, then suddenly mountains would appear, and here we stopped in an area of great rock formations (reminded me a little bit of Joshua Tree) where there are ruins of a monastery which was destroyed upon Stalin's orders. 13 14 15 16 17In the evening, we finally found accommodations and got situated in our ger. It is customary to greet the family in their ger where they have food and drink offerings for their guests. There are several customs when it comes to the ger. Guests always sit on the left side upon entering, family on the right side, and there are different areas in the ger dedicated to specific things whether it be the women's cooking utensils, or the men's horse bridle. After the greeting we had a little time before dinner to explore. Here is our ger for the night.18 24 19These people live so simply, yet you will always find a TV dish. Yes, these nomads love flipping the channels like the rest of the world. Many have also starting using solar panels and we also encountered lights and other electrical objects powered by car batteries once the wires were hooked up. 20As dinner was being prepared, we got to walk around a bit and explore the area.

Here are a few shots of the matriarch of the family.21 22 23To get a sense of scale, that's Rick on top of the rocks! 2625As we stood among the rocks, (see our shadows below) the moon began to rise and the views were magical. 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35So day 1 was ending and minds were already blown.

We slept tight that night, as in both of us in a tiny, hard bed, in a ger, in the middle of Mongolia.

Dream come true.

First Impressions | Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

What do you do with six weeks in Mongolia? We decided to book a week in Ulaanbaatar upon arrival to arrange for tours and scope the city out. To be honest, from what I had read and heard, I was expecting a total wasteland. While Ulaanbaatar is not up to par with other Asian metropolitan cities, it was surprisingly much more modern and westernized than I thought. (Especially coming from Irkutsk, Russia where nothing feels modern.) There is a restaurant called Los Angeles, which is down the street from California Restaurant, which is a few stores down from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and across town is The Brooklyn Restaurant & Pub. So I guess they covered all my old haunts. The streets are filled with luxury cars boasting brands like Lexus, Mercedes, Range Rover, Hummer, etc and while we sat having lunch, songs by Jason Mraz and The Lumineers played in the background. Gone are the days of broken down Russian Lada cars and Russian club music.

One thing is for sure though, the air quality here can grind on your sinuses. The city is quite dusty and you inhale the dust along with the car fumes (traffic is horrible!) leaving you all stuffed up. And while there are modern parts to the city, there are also the areas that are less so.1 4 3 3.1 2One day we took a LONG walk in search of Buddha Park and a memorial that was to have a great view of the city. As we crossed a river, it felt like we were in a different part of town. Suddenly we were among several newly built, or still in construction buildings that appear to be luxury apartments. 5With all these tall buildings we couldn't find the big Buddha statue...


we spotted Buddha among the luxury condos in construction. Isn't this a little sacrilegious?6We eventually found our way to Buddha's feet around all the construction in a valley of all the condos.

Imagine this could be your view if you snagged one of these condos.

Doesn't this seem more gimmicky than sacred?7The memorial we were in search of was perched high upon a hill and so our legs took a beating from the stairs.

On the way up, Rick found a friend. 8As we continued the climb, the new construction around us was so visible.

It almost appears that an entirely new city is being built. 12910 The next photo really shows modern living next to traditional living.

All the white circles below are traditional Mongolian ger's which shows the contrast of how people are living here.1113We finally reach the top and the view is amazing! 14 15.1 15 We spend another day at a local monastery which is filled with pigeons. I hate birds so this should be good. The grounds are filled with prayer wheels and colorful buildings though the inside of the monastery is the most impressive part and the safest part from getting bombed by bird poop.16 17 18 1920 21 2223 2425 262728 2930 3132 33Tomorrow we are leaving on a 8 day tour to the Gobi Desert, so stay tuned for a feast of photos upon return.

Trans-Mongolian Railway | Irkutsk ---> Ulaanbaatar

The best and the worst part about Russia was leaving it. The best part about it was that I no longer felt like I was in trouble. Russia has a way of making you feel like you are about to be sent to your room (or worse) all the time. There is a definite Big Brother feel with omnipresent voices that reverberate over city speakers. Everything is difficult and friendliness is not their forté. Obtaining a visa is hard (and expensive) enough, but then you are also required to register your visa upon arrival. If you stay at an established hotel, the hotel will do it for you, but if you are a budget backpacker, you will find that not all hostels will do this for you and if they do, they charge you a fee. Also, this process is completely different according to whom you talk. Some say if you stay in one city more than 3 days, then you must register, (in each city you visit!) but if you hop around and don't stay more than 3 days in each city, then you are OK. You will also read that there are heavy fines if you don't register your visa when leaving the country. AHHH! At this point, you are just itching for a straight answer that you soon realize, you will never get.

SO... we registered our visa's in two places (Olkhon Island & Irkutsk) just in case, which entailed passing over your passports, the registration fee (which varies according to who's doing it), and the next day you receive a piece of paper confirming your registration that you are to keep. The whole thing seems so unofficial. Needless to say, we were ready to cross the border (hoping without incident) into Mongolia.

But let's get to the worst part...

First of all, remember our lovely air-conditioned cabins from our Trans-Siberian adventure? They are all but a distant dream. We learn that the higher the train number, the worse the trains get. We took train 2 from Moscow to Irktusk. We are now taking train 362 to Ulaanbaatar. The proof is in the pictures...1Another major difference between the Trans-Siberian train and this one is that while the first leg was primarily all Russians, this car had none! It was all foreigners. We board and there is a group of jovial Portuguese all traveling together. We congregate in the hallway, take a shot of vodka, and toast to the trip. Our other two roommates are a British and Swiss guy. It's an international affair. We boarded at 10pm so we went to sleep shortly thereafter for night 1 of 2.2We knew we would hit the Russia/Mongolia border the next day in the afternoon and we also knew from a couple who crossed days before us that we were to expect about a 6 hour stint at the border. 456789So comes the worst part...

We get to the border and what should take maybe an hour, takes the 6 hours we expected. After we get to the station and play disconnect and connect cars for awhile, we find our car all by itself on the tracks. Officials then board the train, look at our passports and visa's to make sure we haven't overstayed, etc. and then leave. Then we are told we have 3 hours before the next phase. (Why? For what?!?!) We can get off the train and meander around, but there is really nothing to do and nothing happening. 3101112It's a total stand still. After the 3 hours pass, we have to all re-board and they come to collect our passports (why couldn't they have done this when they first looked at them?) at which point they don't even look at the registration papers that we stressed out over. I use them as a fan, which was the most use I could make out of them. Then customs control boards the train and they search our cabins. Then we wait again for our passports to come back with stamps. Meanwhile our lonely car is hooked up to a Mongolian engine and we finally leave the station 6 hours from when we got there.13When we get to the Mongolian side, we go through similar procedures which only take maybe an hour at most.

I am already liking Mongolia better. 14We have another hour to wait while they hook up more cars to the train and by the time we leave it's around 9pm local time. Did I mention that as soon as you cross the border, you no longer are on Moscow train time (even though you are traveling 5 hours ahead of Moscow), but local Mongolian time (which is an hour behind local Irkutsk time so we lost an hour) so by this point, your sense of time is totally useless. It's like math class and I was always bad at math. All I knew was it was dark and we had to get up at 5am the next morning so it was time for bed.

We were woken up the next morning at 5am to prepare for our 6am arrival into Ulaanbaatar. We were tired but the sunrise was beautiful. Now this is what I'm taking about...161718I think we are done with trains for awhile.