In the fall of 1997, Jean and I joined a dozen fellow travelers in the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula city of Petropavlovak for a journey into Far East Russia, Southern Siberia, Mongolia and on to Beijing.
Our flight from Anchorage over the Bering Sea was packed with excited middle-aged men roaming the aisle comparing fishing lures and rods as well as fishing tales. They were going to fish the greatest fishing streams left in the world. This practically road-less peninsula is the home of over sixty-five volcanoes and more bears than people.
Apparently, tourism was just dawning in all of this area. Our hotel accommodations resembled ours of the 1950’s. On our first night we had a TV where we watched the funeral services for Princess Di in black and white without sound. At least we could see what was going on.
The following day, we climbed into a Russian Army helicopter to travel to an area of boiling springs and geysers. On the way, we flew over the craters of several inactive volcanoes. Most of the craters were filled with beautiful sparkling turquoise water.
We were surprised when we landed on the incline of one of the active volcanoes to watch its next scheduled eruption. From the eruptions I have seen on TV and in the movies, I felt very uneasy. The time came and we heard a loud roar for a short while and steam poured about fifty feet into the air for probably ten minutes. Thank goodness it wasn’t as frightening as I had feared.
After a short uneventful stay in Vladivostok, we flew to Khabarovsk in Far East Russia. This is the area from which their natives came across the frozen Bering Sea and settled throughout the Americas and were known as Indians.
Next we arrived in the Southern Siberian city of Irkutsk where many of the European Russian intellectuals were banished during the communist heyday. These refuges developed a bristling city in spite of the severe winters. The area’s main claim to fame is the nearby beautiful Lake Baikal, which is the deepest fresh water lake in the world and can be seen from the outer space.
The Russian flights were uneventful but the interiors of the planes were well worn and slightly tattered. We had to keep our backs braced squarely against our seatbacks in order to hold them comfortably in place. The lady attendants took seat belts casually and delighted in sitting around and visiting with us Americans.
From Irkutsk to Ulan Ude near the Mongolian border, we traveled on a portion of the Trans – Siberian Railroad. The passenger cars were bleak and uncomfortable. They reminded me of the ones we rode during WWII.
We left Ulan Ude on the spur of the Trans – Siberian Railroad that goes through Mongolia and on to Beijing. We were shocked to see that the whole train consisted of just an engine and one passenger car.
The anticipation of this ride turned sour when we found American students occupying our quarters. The students were soon corralled into one room and we moved into our totally filthy compartment. There were benches on either side of a stained linoleum covered table. These bench seats for two were our beds for the night, complete with small dirty pillows.
There was a restroom on either end of the car. One was locked and the rumor was that it contained contraband bound for China. In one corner at the front of the car was an open charcoal fire with a metal pot of boiling water hanging over it. This provided hot water for tea, instant coffee and dried soup that we had had been warned to bring. How often do you see open fires anywhere but out in the open?
When the train stopped, the restroom was locked. This proved to be a real hardship when we stopped for six hours at a large train station. There were no personnel in sight and all station doors were locked. About a half a block away in a park area we found an outside privy. The stench was so terrific that no one could enter it. Behind the shack we men found a dark space for relief.
None of us ever knew why our train was stopped so long but we finally got going just before the women mutinied. We found that we had gained two passengers, an American man and woman who had no seats. Their standing did not last long for they got off at the first stop in Mongolia. In order to renew their visas, they had to leave Russia if only for just a few minutes before re-entering Russia. That night, our guide and a young man from our group took turns sitting in the aisle to see that the rest of us were safe.
Eventually, we arrived in Ulaan Baatar, the capital of the country and checked into a somewhat dilapidated old European style hotel. There were few amenities but it was clean and the food was fairly decent.
After a day of snooping around the city, we were loaded onto a charter plane for a short trip to the Gobi Desert. No airstrips were necessary in the desert since almost all of it was an airstrip. We were billeted in gers, round heavy canvas tents that could be loaded on a camel in an hour and moved to new grassland. Snows had started to fall in the nearby mountains. We kept warm with camel hair blankets and a small wood burning stove in the center of the ger. A smoke-stack took the smoke out the top of the tent.
We had a captivating time with these desert nomads. We dug up dinosaur bones in the Flaming Cliffs, rode two-hump bactrian camels and watched a mare being milked.
Seeing a lady sitting on a stool by a horse with a milk pail in her hand was shocking. I never did see anything like that in Oklahoma. We were invited into our host’s ger for a drink of intoxicating fermented mare’s milk. It was difficult for me to pretend that I enjoyed it.
After two days and nights in the Gobi, we found our way to the pitiful small airport. We did not enter the lonely building but waited at the gate of the wire fence that surrounded the desert area used for the airstrip. A rather large grouchy looking man manned the entrance. He held us back but occasionally let some local enter. Our guide warned the guard that if he allowed one more person through the gate, that we were going to force our way through the gate and on to the plane.
Sure enough, one little strange looking lady was escorted through the gate. All of our group picked up our bags and rushed through the gate to the aircraft about a half a block away. Our guide entered the only door and we handed our luggage up the three steps to him. He threw all of our stuff in the back of the sixty-passenger airplane and we climbed on and found a seat.
Soon, all seats were filled but people kept boarding. They disappeared, one at a time by joining others already seated in the two seats on either side of the isle. We noticed that each new passenger handed cash to the attendant. Most of the seating areas for two now were now crowded with three or four passengers.
I had quite a time calming down Jean. She just knew that we were terribly overweight and would crash and we be killed. I finally convinced her that there was really no problem because we could land anywhere on the level desert. Luckily, we made it back to the city without incident.
The following morning we experienced an even more frustrating flight. There were four helicopters in Mongolia. We were scheduled to take the best of the group to the ruins of Karakorum, which had been the location of the ancient capital of Mongolia and the headquarters of Genghis Khan’s empire.
When we arrived at the airport, we were met with the news that the best copter had been taken by the country’s president. We then pulled up to our aircraft and all of us were placed in a state of shock. It was terribly weatherworn, discolored and covered with splotches of oil. All of our faces reflected our fear. I try and handle fear with humor but my jokes fell flat. The guide told me to shut up because a couple of the women were almost in tears and were about to back out of going.
We all calmed down, climbed in and were met with another shocker. Except for two straight chairs, our seats were sawhorses covered by scraps of carpet. These sawhorses were aligned between and around two metal fuel tanks probably ten feet long with a diameter of about three feet. The proximity of the tank added to our apprehension.
We could never quite relax even though the flight turned out to be very smooth but quite noisy. We never flew at an extremely high altitude, so we had a tremendous view of the desert and the bare mountains in the distance topped by the early snows.
There was not much left of Genghis Khan’s headquarters. It was hard to believe that this was the place where the Mongols started their violent conquest of the world that extended all the way to Vienna.
We had another night in a ger with the restroom two blocks away. Needless to say, the ground around each of them got pretty wet that night. The night air got cold at that high altitude but we were cozy with our mohair socks and camelhair blankets.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Jean woke me up yelling “Get up, there is a drunk man in our tent”. As I awakened, I saw a man jumping out of the door. After Jean’s repeated pleadings, I struggled out of my warm nest and placed a couple of logs against the frail door to wake us if he returned. I also added logs to the fire. The next morning we found that we had not received the message that an attendant would come in and add wood to our fire during the night. I was a little disappointed that my bravery was not necessary.
We rose early and prepared for our trip back to the city. At breakfast we were informed that the battery on our helicopter was dead and that it was uncertain if another aircraft would be available to rescue us. An attempt to jump the battery from the antique bus used around the camp did not work. The good news was that since it was the end of the tourist season, the bus would be returning to Ulan Ude and that we could return on it. The bad news was that the trip would take twelve hours over primitive roads. A couple of hours later, one of the country’s three other helicopters came to our rescue. Again we were seated on sawhorses around the fuel tanks for another uncomfortable but joyful ride.
The following day, we boarded a large Chinese passenger plane for a pleasant flight to Beijing. There, we were shocked to see five super highways loaded with traffic circling the center of the city. When we were in that city thirteen years previously, we had to dodge thousands of bicycles and practically no automobiles on narrow streets. Transportation had certainly changed in that area of China.
All in all, this had been a marvelous eventful trip with great people visiting great people. There were NO MUSEUMS, NO CATHEDERALS AND NO TOURISTS.
Below is a quotation of the first paragraph of a letter written by Margaret Hoge, wife of Hal of California. We met the Hoges on this trip and enjoyed spending much time with them.
“Where can you go on a vacation, spend thousands of dollars and not have hot water, beds too short for tall people, no ice cubes for drinks, climb into airplanes that should have retired twenty-five years ago, ride on roads barely fit for a tank to be on, sleep in a tent in freezing temperatures with a stove for firewood and walk two blocks to a bathroom? If you guessed Mongolia you win an all expense trip ‘to Mongolia to experience this yourself’! By now, however, you know we do have a sense of adventure so the above happenings were just a part of another experience in our lives. One of the frequent sentences we said was, “Well, we don’t know anyone else who has ever done this”!
One of our fellow travelers on this trip was Ms. Darlene Gentry of New Jersey. She was a pleasant, slightly plump unmarried lady, probably in her early forties who was employed by a bank.
She was never without her fairly large backpack. When we were riding in vans or busses, she would pull out a bag of candy from her pack and pass it around. She always had money with her to loan to others when they unexpectedly needed additional money for a purchase. Everywhere we went, she found much to buy.
About three years latter, on another trip with a different tour company, we were talking about our Mongolian trip and our guide’s ears perked up and she asked us if Darlene Gentry was with us on the trip. She explained that Darlene had taken several trips with her company and even another trip to Mongolia with several of her family members for which Darlene paid the entire bill.
The guide continued to tell that the Secret Service came to her company to inquire about the money that Darlene had spent traveling. They explained that Darlene had embezzled over a million dollars from the bank for which she worked. She also owned an antique and collectable shop where she sold many of the items she purchased on her travels.
She was sentenced to five years in federal prison among other penalties. Obviously her travels have stopped. We did enjoy the candy that the bank furnished us.