Category Archives: Travels

All my displaced writings in one handy category

Curious mistranslations and mistakes

One of the most amusing things about visiting Asia as an English speaker is the way that concepts and phrases which would be perfectly ordinary in one language become horrifically mangled when transposed into another tongue. Hence in Mongolia we have:

“The Great Electronic Brian” – which I think is supposed to say Brain instead (it was on a computer advert).
“Destroy, Destroy!” – the name of a designer footwear shop.
“The Homeboy shop” – for all your hip-hop needs
“Please share happiness and wellbeing with your loved ones by peanut coloured sands” – The serving suggestion on the side of a biscuit packet

and my personal favourite:

“The Crazy English Language School and Institute” which is presumably where all these translators learned their skills. And yes, I’m not making that up, I have photographic evidence

I forgot to mention…

…that deserts don’t have toilets.

After my return to civilisation I realized that Thomas Crapper was in fact some sort of mystic visionary genius.

Also I think I made it onto Mongolian state television by leaping in the air infront of a TV camera during an open air concert. The only Mongolian word I know is pronounced something like “Tee shu” which I think means “You The Man” (although it could mean something much worse) so I jumped up and down shouting “Tee shu, Tee shu”. It was only afterward that I discovered that the concert was to honour Mongolians who had been killed fighting against the Russians. I have a nasty suspicion that I might have accidently insulted Mongolia’s war dead. Come to think of it, I thought everyone else at the concert was being a bit sombre…

The trouble with Nomads…

…is that they tend to move a bit I guess. Mongolia doesn’t really have proper roads anyway, only dirt tracks across the steppe so on our way south our driver frequently had to stop at other Ger camps en route to ask for directions. I think the content of these conversations might have ran like this:

DRIVER: Hey is this where the Jones family live? (NB Mongolians don’t speak English and it is highly unlikely that the Mongolians were called Jones – I’m using artistic license)

1st Ger camp: No they moved three hundred miles that way [nomads point at some distant speck on the horizon]

DRIVER: Okay cool, I’ll drive that way

Some time later, 2nd Ger camp.

DRIVER: Hey do the Joneses live around here?

2nd Ger camp: Over that way 200 miles [points in another random direction]

In this manner we proceeded to zigzag our way across the great steppe of Mongolia, which looks uncannily like a big, bumpy, sandy lawn, which has been cut through with dirt tracks. That is until you reach the real Gobi, at which point enormous three hundred meter high sand dunes rear up out of the ground.

On the the first night we arrived at our Ger and were wondering how to occupy ourselves for the next few hours after sunset but before we slept. At this point the nomads uncovered a huge satellite dish, an ancient plastic black and white television and a car battery that had been charging off a solar panel all day long. I have no words to describe how impressed I was that they could get any kind of signal out in the middle of nowhere with only the most basic equipment. They must have spent an hour trying to tune the TV making minute changes to the dish and decoder but ultimately could get it tuned right.

We eventually reached the Gobi on the third day of driving south to be confronted by the dunes. We awoke one morning opened the Ger door only to have a small family of goats attempt to join in our breakfast. Using bar stools as battering ramps we pushed the recalcitrant goats back out of the tent (in the same tent we also discovered some sort of desert rat). We got one of the locals, a kindly only man with a deeply tanned face and James Brown rayban sunglasses, to make us a lunch before we headed up the dunes. It took a long time to make it up under the sandlanch which occurred with every step but we eventually made it up and looked out across the dune sea heading off into the distance towards China. It was the most Star Wars thing I’ve ever seen (a sight helped by the moonbase like structure of the Gers). Later on we rode evil smelling camels into the sunset (it is worth noting that the nomads make evil smelling camel cheese from the evil smelling camels).

I’m back in Ulaan Bataar now, having washed of the sand and the camel smells. I should make the Chinese border toward the end of the week. Maybe I’ll have time for another update before then

I’m still in Mongolia…

…but I’ve got the beginnings of some sort of travellers flu/head cold job thingy. Still trying to work out how to get to the desert. Nothing to tell other than that I went to a German theme pub run by Mongolians yesterday – I think we were the only westerners there. Pretty surreal. I’ll blog more when I’m not ill and when I’ve done something crazy.

So later on…

On the same journey I eventually managed to befriend the people who threatened/joked about robbing me – It transpired that they were actually a minor league Siberian football team – aside from the fact that they drank solidly for 72 hours (I’m not joking I don’t think they ever slept) they turned out to be pretty nice – if not very rowdy. All they wanted to talk about with me was premier league football and Peter Crouch’s capabilities on astroturf. That is as far as I could translate with my meager Russian language skills.

The train eventually arrived in Irkutsk at around three in the morning local time. Very confusing because the train service operates on Moscow time but covers about 8 different time zones so you always need to have one time piece on Moscow time on one on Local time to work out what is actually happening.

I spent some time after that by Lake Baikal doing some hiking (as I probably alluded to below) then caught the train here – Mongolia. Yesterday I spent almost 10 hours on a searing hot train at the border whilst my passport and travel documents were checked and re checked – no one ever checked my bag though. I could have taken anything across and no one would have known

Oh yeah – I’m currently a millionaire by Mongolian standards. I should get myself some bling and a fur coat. I’m just a stones throw from the Gobi desert and Gengis Kahn’s nomadic decendents. Only another 2000 or so miles to go before I hit Beijing and the great Pacific beyond. Apologies for the lack of detail in this post. So much has happened that I’m finding it difficult to filter my perceptions of time and place. My watch is on Mongolian time, my phone on another time zone and my soul… my soul is a few thousand kilometers away struggling to catch up.

Contains scenes of a somewhat disturbing nature*

In two hours I board another train – this one to Mongolia.

I should give you the story of the first train now. Here goes:

Do you ever wonder how Chewbacca feels when Han Solo isn’t around to communicate for him. He’s just reduced to howls and sign lanuage (did you ever feel sorry for Chewbacca because he is actually incapable of pronouncing his own name?). That was (almost) me.

The story goes:

Moscow. I board the train and find myself in the company of a Buryat woman on her way to Lake Baikal to seek sponsorship for Tibetan massage training and an eighteen year old Tartar on his way from San Deigo to his home in Siberia (there are many distinct ethnic groups in Russia). He speaks English and she doesn’t. I am somewhat left out of there conversation after introductions have been made because I don’t speak Russian. After we set off, they go to sleep for a while. At one of our first stops a new passenger enters our cabin. He promptly forces us to rearrange every piece of baggage in the compartment to fit him and his huge bag in. He sits opposite me and (although he also doesn’t speak English) offers me a drink. Beer and then whisky. Siberian whisky.

I’m no connesieur but I don’t think whisky should be translucent white. I express my concerns regarding the curious whiteness of said whisky but because he doesn’t understand and because I’m slightly scared by him I decide it would be rude to decline. After all I can handle my whisky right?

Seven or so shots later, I feel something in my stomach twang like a taut bowstring. Something is wrong. I casually ask the one person in the cabin what’s in the Siberian Whisky (also known as samiegon I think). Milk. Milk that has gone rotten and then some how been distilled. I think the lactose somehow becomes alcohol. That is why it is off white in colour. The man made it himself, but he doesn’t remember how. The fear sets in. Maybe it’s rotten milk mixed with ethanol? It does taste a lot like actimel and bleach.

I have to be sick. The toilet is locked. The only place I can go is to stand between the two moving carriage and vomit down the gap whilst trying not to decapitate myself on the moving parts of the train (* I told you so). It was whilst I stood there I had a strangely lucid moment and realised that I had made many regretable decisions this year.

Later it transpired that the guy with the whisky was actually a Russian police officer who turned out to be okay. However slightly later on when the train stopped I got out to sober up and as we were standing there, the one English speaking guy in my carriage translated something another groups of Russians were saying about me “They say you are extremely hardcore to be on your own in Siberia…but they also say if they can make you any drunker they will still everything you own”.
I swiftly learned the Russian for “Please don’t be offended but I don’t want alcohol”.

When I woke up the following morning it felt like a mule kicking me in the stomach. A mule with solid gold hooves.

I’ll do a proper blog entry about the train when I have time…

..but until then I’ll tell you that it will involve some of the following elements: alcohol, a Siberian police officer, lots of sign language and a football team. Are you feeling tantilised yet?

As I say I have to rush through the last bit of the trip. I’m making paper notes which will in due course be blogged so you can enjoy the adventure all in one go, kind of like watching several episodes of 24 back to back. Except with me as the hero

I’m alive…

Just thought you’d like to know. I have some fairly severe financial diffculties at the moment becuase my ATM card doesn’t seem to work with Ruskie cash machines outside St Petersburg. I’m living on travellers cheques which are running out fast and it is incredibly difficult to get them changed in Siberia. I’m in Irkutsk by the way (2/3 of the way there). I might have to rush through the final leg of my journey so as not to get stranded somewhere in the Gobi desert.

On the plus side – Last night I slept in a tent with some french hikers I met on the train and I woke up in time to watch the sunrise over Lake Baikal – the largest freshwater lake in all the world.

The Russian way…

After Lenin I trekked around for hours looking for a place to stay and realized that there is no cheap accomodation for miles. I’ve ended up staying in an average hotel which is stupidly expensive. It is listed in the Lonely Planet guide as Mid Range and although it has a nice facade it is really nothing more than an upscale B&b (albeit with a sauna available in the winter). It is however The Most Expensive Place I Have Ever Stayed. The only reason I am there is because I thought I was about to start suffering from sun stroke.

However on the off chance you ever find yourself in a hotel in Moscow here are some fun things to do:

Pretend you are a spy. I spent the last few hours in a bathrobe/dressing gown practising my Sean Connery accent and sipping cheap whisky.

In your head append the end of every conversation you have with a Russian, with the phrase “..because you are about to die”. My conversation with the receptionist earlier ran something like this (in truth that is – apart from the obvious addition):

Me: Is there a laundry facility here?

Receptionist: Yes there is

Me: May I use it?

Receptionist: No you may not

Me: Can I ask why not?

Receptionist: Because you are leaving us too soon sir… BECAUSE YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE!

(okay I embellish slightly but the rest of the conversation could have come from a spy film).

On another note I’m going on a train tomorrow which won’t arrive at it’s destination for about 72 hours. I’ll catch you then

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to give you the wilfully non-decomposed corpse of….Lenin!

Guess who I went to see this morning? If you can tell from the title of today’s entry you should be shot as a counter revolutionary. Yup I queued for half an hour, passed through more security than it took for me to actually get into Russia (and I’m not joking either, two independent sets of metal detectors and a bag search) all to spend exactly one minute in the shadowy tomb of a lifeless former dictator. I have no photographs to show for this because cameras were all confiscated before we went in. In fact I saw the military police physically eject someone who smuggled a camera through. I think Lenin is a definite contender for strangest and creepiest tourist attraction in the world. I’d say it was a bit of a dissapointment but I wasn’t expecting him to do anything (I was tempted to shout “his eyes are moving, he’s back from the dead” but then I remembered the police and their tasers and CS gas canisters and thought better of it). If David Blaine ever needs a stunt double though, he could do worse than look in Red Square.