Weekly Wednesday Video: Mongolian talent show

And…. I’m back! Yep, the little break I took for my birthday ended up turning into two weeks due various time suckers occupying my days in New York, but now it’s time to go on with the Weekly Wednesday Video series.

Today I’d like to take you all to Mongolia, a vast and isolated Asian country I got to visit with my dad during the Trans-Siberian train trip last fall. Unfortunately our time there was reduced to just five days due to China’s Golden Week celebrations messing up train schedules, but we did get to experience a few cool things. One of those was the 55-minute performance of the Tumen Ekh ensemble. The entertaining talent show features typical Mongolian throat singing, wildly twisting contortionists, folk dancing and funky masks.

The show was highly recommended to us by the Sun Path Hostel‘s manager Doljmaa (pronounced “Deutsch-ma”), so we couldn’t miss it – even though we almost did. We only had about ten minutes until show time when we hopped into a taxi outside the guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar. Despite encountering major language issues, we got our point across to the driver and magically made it to the theater just in time.

And I’m glad we did! The show was definitely one to remember. Here’s a short recap of what to expect if you ever get to attend a Mongolian talent show.

Have you been to Mongolia? Any interest in going?

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Weekly Wednesday Video: Eating Live Octopus in South Korea

Hmm, somehow this blog has changed into one big Weekly Wednesday Video series. It seems like I never find the time to write an actual post, even though my head is full of ideas and stories I want to share. But whoops – AGAIN a week has gone by and it’s time to post my weekly video. And that is a whole process in and of itself (as I have to scroll through tens of videos from tens of countries to choose my favorite).

In honor of completing my first four weeks of the Weekly Wednesday Video series, I am taking you all back to South Korea (whose cat cafes I showed in my first weekly video). Initially my plan was not to feature the same countries too often, but this time I’ll have to make an exception. That’s just because this particular video kept popping up today, as if begging to be seen.

What is it about, you may ask…. Well, it’s about eating live octopus. Yep. That’s exactly what a fellow traveler, Shai from Israel, wanted to do as we toured around Seoul together last October. This bizarre dish, called Sannakji, is common in Korea and is believed to make you healthier. It’s really quite simple to whip together – as Sarah Shaw wrote for Mappingwords.com, the meal consists of “fresh, wriggling pieces of live baby octopus, drizzled with sesame oil. After minimal preparation, it is served immediately.”

So here we go! Bon appetit!

Initially I was a bit grossed out, but finally ended up popping a few pieces into my mouth, as you’ll see in the end of the video. And I was pleasantly surprised! The moving tentacles felt really funny, and the suction cups kept latching onto my tongue and mouth. The raw octopus didn’t have much of a taste. The worst part was having to crush the wandering tentacles with my teeth. It felt pretty cruel. 😦

While this plate was just a little appetizer, I came across another video on YouTube that shows a more elaborate live octopus dinner, in case anyone is interested.

Have you tried live octopus? If not, would you like to? 

World’s Longest Train Rides: Trans Siberian vs. Indian Pacific

In case you were wondering whether the earth swallowed me last fall due to the radio silence on the blog, it kind of did: I spent much of September and October on the train crossing Russia, Mongolia and China. (See, I do get away from beach destinations sometimes!)

I had been planning on riding the Trans-Siberian railroad for years, as I’m a big fan of long train journeys. Yet for some reason I never got around to it before 2012. But it’s good that I didn’t – now I was able do the trip with my dad, who retired from the Finnish army a couple of years ago at the age of 50, and thus is a young senior citizen with plenty of free time. What better place to head for a family trip than Siberia!?

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So after I spent a fun summer in Finland, my dad and I set off for the 3.5-week train journey into dark Siberia (which, funnily enough, ended up being bright and sunny the whole time). And just FYI: Most of this time was spent seeing sights and visiting towns along the way, not just sitting on the train. The actual travel time from Helsinki to Beijing was about a week.

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After successfully completing the famous ride, I wrote an article for the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, comparing the Trans-Siberian with another long train trip I’ve got under my belt, the Indian Pacific of Australia. (And yes, I know that by veering off to Mongolia after Ulan-Ude we actually took the Trans-Mongolian route for half of the trip, but for the purposes of the article, I focused on the Trans-Siberian part of the journey.)

The article turned out to be quite popular based on the feedback I heard, so I thought I’d do an English translation of it for you. So here we go:

The World’s Longest Train Rides

Which marathon train trip suits you better, the tundra-crossing Trans-Siberian or the Indian Pacific zooming by the desert? HS put the trips to the test.

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The Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok is 9, 259 kilometers long. The trip takes about 150 hours, or more than six days.

History: Building a railroad crossing Russia took 25 years. The constructions were completed in 1904, and involved 90 000 people. The majority were inmates and soldiers sentenced into manual labor.

The main attractions: The city of Nizhny Novgorod that was closed off from foreigners during the Soviet era, where the Volga River can be crossed with a cable car, the Perm region with its 10,000-year-old permafrost ice caves, the world’s deepest lake Baikal, Irkutsk with its wooden mansions and the Buryatian Republic‘s capital city Ulan-Ude.

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DSC05918 (480x640)The atmosphere: The train rattles steadily along the tracks. The tobacco smoke floating into the carriage adds to the sleepy atmosphere. A young man pours hot water into his ready-made mashed potatoes, a grandpa takes secret sips from his spiced-up Sprite bottle in between card games. In roadside towns, older grannies with headscarves sell greasy pelmenis. The nights go by while listening to the snores of your carriage mates, and wondering what the sudden stops are all about.

Scenery: The landscape consists of Siberian birch forests, low hills, pine trees of the taiga and snow-capped mountains in the East. Pastel-colored houses and slowly crumbling old villages dot the way.

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Travel companions: Despite the Trans-Siberian’s great international popularity, the majority of the passengers are Russians: retired couples, families returning from visiting relatives, army boys and sports teams on trips. Every now and then you can hear some conversations in the Buryat language, spoken by the Buryat people who are descendants of Mongolians. Of the foreigners, most are Chinese and European.

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Price: For the 54-bed open carriage (platskarny), a one-way ticket costs about 200 euros. First and second class four-person cabins cost 400-1,000 euro per person, depending on the train. Tickets can be bought either in Finland or for slightly cheaper in the Russian railway stations.

Facilities: The first-class cabins have showers, other passengers have to make do with shared toilets. The dining car’s golden décor reminds you of the grandeur of days gone by with its silk table cloths and curtains. Beer and vodka flow freely, and chatter is accompanied by borscht soup.

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Please note: The term “Trans-Siberian” refers to the train track crossing Russia, not to any particular “Trans-Siberian train.” Rossija and Baikal are some of the better-quality trains that serve the route, as well as the new British luxury train Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express. There are also local trains traveling between different Siberian towns. One option is to get off the train in the morning in a town of your choosing and to continue the journey in the evening with another train. In doing so, the tickets need to be bought separately for each leg of the journey. Pay attention to the departure times: Russian railways always operate in Moscow-time, no matter what the local time in your Siberian destination may be.

The Indian-Pacific travels from Sydney to Perth. The 4 352-kilometer train journey takes 65 hours, or three days.

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History: The railroad that crosses Australia, connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, was opened in 1970. It includes the world’s longest straight piece of track, the 478-kilometer Nullarbor Plain.

The main attractions: Australia’s oldest mining town Broken Hill, the city of 700 churches known as Adelaide, Kalgoorlie with 100 years’ worth of gold fever history, Nullarbor Plain, the ghost village of Cook with its four residents and millions of flies, the beaches of Perth.

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Atmosphere: The 700-meter row of metal wagons rummages through the desert, past the occasional kangaroo, emu, herds of camels and two-meter wedge-tailed eagles. Happy chatter fills the restaurant car as the chicken curry dishes are scarfed down from the tables seating four people. The atmosphere is communal. The vast emptiness behind the windows is highlighted as the radio blasts bits of Slim Dusty’s perky song every couple of hours: “The Indian Pacific spans the land!” One can’t help but join in on the tune. A train trip doesn’t get more Australian than this.

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Scenery: The majority of the three-day trip is characterized by typical Australian landscape – red sandy desert, scrubs, bright orange sunsets and sunrises. Upon leaving Sydney you’ll see the bluish spruce-covered Blue Mountains, after Adelaide the shallow reddish mountains and on arrival to Perth, the lush Avon Valley.

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Travel companions: Adventure-loving Australian retirees, locals moving across the country, European and North American backpackers and train travel enthusiasts.

Price: In the Gold Kangaroo section, a one-way trip in a luxury cabin with full board costs about 1,760 euro and in the Red Kangaroo section the same goes for 1,200 euros. Occasionally there will be platinum-level suites with a double bed on offer, costing 5,000 per person. Budget travelers have to settle for a reclining seat, best accessed by accruing a Rail Explorer pass. For about 360 euro you can ride Australian trains for three months.

Facilities: The Gold Kangaroo cabins feature bunk beds, combined toilet-shower stalls and large windows, and some come with a TV and minibar. Once the train has left the station, the Rail Explorer pass holders have the opportunity to purchase a Red Kangaroo cabin for 120 euro, provided there is enough room. Different travel classes have their own restaurant and lounge cars.

Please note: The stopovers are a few hours long. Guided city tours are sold for about 20 euro.

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So that’s it! Have any of you taken the Trans-Siberian and/or the Indian Pacific? Any thoughts on which one is the best marathon train journey? 🙂 

The Art of Traveling Light

A few weeks ago I wrote about the five unexpected benefits of traveling light, and in the end promised that I’d share my own packing tips with you soon.

My apologies that it took a while for me to get back to you on that, but here I am, ready to address all your questions and packing concerns with:

 Mirva’s Ultimate Guide to Traveling the World with a Carry-On

Before you get started, here’s my disclaimer: this information may not be suitable for mountaineers, hikers, skiers, winter enthusiasts, campers or globetrotting opera singers.  This advice is geared for typical travelers who are heading to those predominantly warm destinations – Australia, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean  – and who plan on mostly sleeping in hotels, hostels or private homes, not outdoors. Also, some of this advice may not apply as well to guys as it does to girls. Sorry about that.

Still, this post will include information that may also benefit those above-mentioned groups and several others. Just remember that anything you read here should not be taken at face value – what works for me may not work for you – and is best used as a guide that can be modified to suit your needs.

Everyone has their own “must-have-items” while traveling, so please do not get offended if I have left out the one item without which you absolutely cannot live. For each his own! That said, here is my advice that comes from 10+ years on the road.

The Three Things You Think You’ll Need, but You Really Do Not

1)      Jeans

This may come as a shock for you blue jeans lovin’ folks out there but these heavy, cumbersome and hard-to-dry pants are the first absolute no on my packing list. You know how much space those take out of your little bag? And you know how much they weigh? A lot. Let’s face it, you plan to chill on the beach for the majority of your vacation anyway and jeans do not belong in that scene at all.

I realize you may want to bring a pair with you ‘just in case’, but I am telling you – it’s not worth it. Instead bring a few of the following: light-weight khakis, a thin pair of black pants, capris, shorts, sweatpants, skirts, dresses, leggings or even jeggings –basically anything is better than a pair of jeans. And if you are one of those countless people who just cannot imagine life without jeans, then fine, bring one pair. But make sure that it is of the lightest fabric you can find and be prepared to wear it whenever you are on the move: changing cities, flying somewhere or sitting in a bus for 30 hours. At least that way the jeans won’t take up precious space in your bag. Just don’t come complaining to me that you’d rather be wearing shorts or a nice dress in this heat! In all my travels around Asia, Australia, Latin America and now Africa I have never once wished I had brought jeans with me. Instead, long skirts are my staple travel wear (perfect also for countries where you shouldn’t show much skin). Whenever I get cold, I just wear leggings underneath.

2)      Sleeping Bag

I used to travel with a sleeping bag at all times though I wasn’t planning on doing any camping. I just brought it along in case the blankets in my hostels would not be warm enough or I’d take a night bus where the AC was on full blast. How many times did I actually roll the sleeping bag out of its case? A handful, at the very most, and even then I used it mostly just to get at least some use out of it.  Thus hauling a sleeping bag around for months just in case was hardly worth it. Nowadays I travel without one and have never regretted it. Every hotel gives you a blanket, and hostels too. When I have gone Couchsurfing, every host has offered me a duvet or a blanket or at least a sheet. And should you ever find yourself really needing a sleeping bag – well, just deal with it somehow. Wear layers, cuddle up with someone, tear down the curtains of the hotel room, use a scarf as a blanket… Be creative.

(The only time my sleeping bag came in handy in Australia in 2006 was during a visit to Byron Bay with my friend Kaisa, pictured here. The bus dropped us off at 4.30 a.m., and we didn’t want to splurge on a night’s accommodation when the night was almost over anyway.)

Nowadays I’d rather experience a chilly night once or twice during my trip than haul extra weight around for months. If you absolutely want to bring something to calm your nerves, get one of those slip-in silk sleeping bags that weigh nothing (and are meant for avoiding contact with dirty sheets) or “borrow” one of those handy, light airline blankets.

3)      Towel

While I started off traveling with a fluffy normal towel, over the years my towels just got smaller and smaller, until I finally was down to a tiny kitchen rag. You really do not need much more than that to pat yourself dry. Air-drying is so underrated! And if you love wrapping yourself in a big towel after taking a shower, don’t worry. Many guesthouses and hotels will supply you with one. Also, being deprived of a real towel for a while will help you appreciate the luxury when you come across it. For me that is part of the point of travel – learning to enjoy things you used to take for granted.

(Here I am, loving my most recent borrowed towel in Senegal’s Casamance region)

On the other hand, here are the…

Three absolute  must-haves for a traveler

1)      Sarong

If I could only take one item with me on my trip, a sarong would be it. If you are not familiar with the term, a sarong is a thin, colorful piece of fabric that is sold pretty much in every beach town worldwide.

If you do not already own one, make sure to buy one when you hit the road. You can rest assured, there is not a single item in this world that is more multi-functional than a sarong. I use mine as a towel for the shower and the beach (which is why I often do not even bring the little kitchen rag with me anymore), as a blanket in chilly buses and planes, as a sheet or a pillow case in one-star hotel rooms. I wrap it in my head like a turban or around me like a dress.

I even wore a flowery sarong to a Cambodian wedding once! I sometimes carry things inside my sarong, or hang it down from my hostel bunk bed to create an illusion of privacy. I use it as a curtain or as art on the wall. The sarong simply cannot be beat! I usually buy a pretty one from every trip and keep it as a multi-functional souvenir.

2)      Bolero

As with jeans, many people feel the need to bring a bunch of long sleeve shirts along just in case. But unless you are going to a Muslim country, a place with an abundance of malaria or some chilly high altitude towns, you will not get much use out of long sleeve shirts. But since you’ll still want to be prepared for chilly days or nights, the best solution is to bring a bolero or two. A bolero refers to those add-on sleeves that were trendy some five years ago, and are still super trendy in my books as the ultimate travel accessory (hence I’m wearing a bolero in the sarong photo above!). Just throw on a bolero and voila – your sleeveless top has turned into a long sleeve shirt! The best part is that you can wear the bolero with any of your tops, and it weighs much less than a full long sleeve shirt. So even if you never end up needing to wear it, it’s not a big loss weight-wise. The only thing is that boleros are a bit hard to come by these days. So if you see one sold, grab it right away! In fact, I just spotted some in a store in Dakhla, Western Sahara, if anyone is heading that way…


3)      Mini-size shampoos and other beauty products

You know those mini-size shampoos and conditioners that you get at hotels? That is what you should be traveling with too. There is absolutely no reason for you to haul around full-size lotions and potions that take up half of your luggage (yet many people still do!). I bring just a tiny shampoo bottle with me – well, everything I bring is tiny in fact! Here’s a half-liter water bottle as a size comparison.

This black miniature shampoo bottle in the middle lasts me a couple of months, easily.

“How?” you may ask. Well, for one, I have trained my hair so that it only needs to be washed once or twice a week. Other days I just take a shower without washing my hair, which is a great time and shampoo saver. Secondly, I’ll refill the little bottle from time to time from the big bottles that other travelers are hauling around – they are usually more than happy to get rid of a few extra ounces of weight. Or if need be, I’ll buy a bigger bottle to refill from and give the rest to another needy traveler or a local.

(Note: If you think that your hair cannot be trained not to get greasy every day, you are wrong. It definitely can – you just might not want to be seen in public during the training period as it takes a few weeks. Getting braids makes the process a whole lot easier. Your hair doesn’t need to be washed more than once a week after it is braided, and you can continue on that path even after you take the braids off.)

  (Braids are also a great ice-breaker when traveling. People cannot wait to touch your strange hair, at least when you have partly pink braids…)

 

What did you think about these tips? Were any new to you? I still have a few more up my sleeve, so stay tuned…