Sunday, May 06, 2007

The last 4 months

Finding time to look back at the blog has been limited recently, how people manage to do a daily blog while living a normal life I'll never know...

Looking back my last post was on the 16th Jan. My son, Alex, was born shortly after that and Nadia and I had a couple of weeks in Bangkok working out all the things new parents have to do. Having been in Bangkok for a few months by then we decided to try a local roadtrip and flee to the beaches of southern Thailand. Despite the heat Alex travelled quite well on a two-week trip down to Koh Lanta.

Soon after getting back from Lanta we packed up the apartment in Bangkok, shipped a 100 kg of mainly kitchenware up to Mongolia, and then started the journey ourselves. After a hour queue to get through Thai’s cattle-class check-in at the new Bangkok airport (about a million times worse than their business class check-in) the flights went well with Alex even sleeping all the way through the short Beijing to UB hop.

Back in UB we moved into Nadia’s apartment and started to hunt for something more family-sized. We looked at five or six places together but then Nadia found the gem one day while I was at work. We now have a modern place on the 8th floor of a new block with views to sunrise in the morning and sunset (over the engine-sheds of the Trans-Mongolian railway) in the evening. We’re about 15 minutes walk from my work and five-minutes drive from Sukhbaatar square in the other direction.

Having an apartment and being back in work again during the week, it took a couple of weekends to find a decent vehicle to buy. For the last few years I’d used company vehicles when I needed but I wanted to break away from that dependence and as I now had a secure heated garage it was time to buy something worthy of the Gobi. Unless you want the instant depreciation from buying a 4x4 in a showroom the best bet in Mongolia is a directly imported second-hand vehicle from Japan, hopefully only driven by a salary-man for weekend jaunts along nice smooth roads. We found a Toyota 80-series Landcruiser from 1997 in very good condition with 180,000 km on the clock. It was an automatic, which I can live with, but more importantly a diesel, as high-octane petrol is scarce outside of UB (so is diesel in the countryside but at least the fuel economy is better and carrying jerry-cans is less risky). The test-drives had a couple of ill omens, running out of fuel after the first 200 m and then not restarting after a stop at a petrol station on the second drive as only one of the two batteries was attached at the time. However we decided to ignore the signs and go ahead with the deal. Buying a car in Mongolia is a cash process so was down to the bank where I only needed my local driving licence as ID to take out a couple of inches of $100 bills to hand to a man in a roadside lock-up… Dodgy or what? Anyway the car was soon registered and a few days later was fully insured.

Having planned a trip back to the UK in May for the bub to see his grandparents on my side, we all settled down in our new apartment, with our new car for weekend trips and shopping, and a more relaxing than normal 5-day week for me – ahh, normality! Then I got an out of the blue request from the company to go and do some property appraisals half the world away in Australia, squeezing a two-week trip in before the flights to the UK. After a couple of days stopover in Bangkok to receive a briefing from the boss I headed on to Oz and got to see some beautiful bush-county while looking at some interesting geology. It was my first real time away from Alex but being in Australia the communications back to home were better than being in the Gobi, where I probably would have been otherwise.

Coming back from Australia I had a few days in UB to write-up before heading to the UK with Nadia and Alex. As on an Air China flight last year (June '06) we had the same ‘flight is delayed, come back at 20:00’ situation so finally took off 10 hours late and had just 3 hours to rest at a Beijing transit hotel. I mush have a short memory not to have used MIAT for flying out of Mongolia…

So, at last, back in the UK, where the weather has been fantastic for the last 10 days. We haven’t done much apart from shopping for baby kit, walking down the beach and sitting around with Alex [how things change ;-)]. I’ve been slack for getting in-touch with old friends so many apologies for not running around and seeing y’all.

Soon we’ll be back to UB and will probably be there until September unless any other requests come through from work. Weekends and longer evenings will give us a chance to get out of the city and at least a couple of longer trips are planned to visit the SE of the country and to help out as a surface photographer for a buddy who will be diving in Lake Huvsgul in August.

So, until next time…

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Apple Powerbook - the saga continues...

Well, the Powerbook went in for service. They checked the HDD, found it to be physically okay, reinstalled the OS, replaced the superdrive (it didn’t burn DVDs for the last 6 months) and replaced the battery so it didn’t blow-up.

I got the laptop home and decided the first thing to do would be to check it with DiskWarrior again. DW found about 50 directory errors on the new install but hung when replacing the directory structure – “uh-huh” I thought, here we go again. Anyway, a force-quit of DW later and the laptop was still running. I started to copy about 25 Gb of files to it so I could free up a firewire drive to re-partition into 10 Gb to take a clone of my fresh system, 100 Gb to take a clone of my system once I got everything back up and running, and a partition of the remaining space for data.

Okay. Then reboot the laptop again and… nothing… The same grey screen of death with a apple logo I had before sending in the computer for repair. Booting up from a firewire clone and I can again no-longer see my laptops HDD on the desktop. DiskWarrior can see the disk and verify its SMART status but a recovery of the disk hadn’t moved after being left to run overnight.

So. The laptop will go back to apple again today with a strong push from me to replace the HDD. Fingers crossed.

Mongolia... Dunes and their height, a wager, UB accom

My reply to a reply commenting on sand dunes in the Gobi - an open wager worth 2 pints in UB - some random comments about hotels in UB...

C'om Riccardo, you know those dunes aren't 300m high... 80m is my guess from climbing up them in a few places and from what is written in one of the old 'Mongolian' Mongolia guide books. I believe one of the older english guide books mis-typed this as 800m in one edition and the LP seems to have brought it down to a slightly more reasonable 200m. Would someone please check with a altimeter watch or GPS with barometer next time they are there, I'll buy them a pint in Dave's bar. Riccardo - want to make a bet on greater or less than 300m? I'll put 2 pints in Dave's bar on the dunes not being over 300 m high (vertical distance from the bottom to the top of a single dune with photos of the altimeter readings, first person to prove it only!).

(Some of my pictures of the dunes here)

PS. The Bayangol Hotel used to be around 70USD on a good company rate (2006). The walk-in rate is nearer to 120USD. It's mainly used by large tour groups of large Americans/Europeans, Russian business men and geologists/drillers spending a night in town on a rotation into or out of the country. Not such a good place for independant backpackers although the Taj restaurant gets my vote for a curry in UB (no, Babu doesn't give me a commission). Willie's 'Cassablanca' bar is the place to find the mining industry partaking in a quiet evening beverage... Black-tie and tails only I'm afraid ;-)

Then again there is a lack of decent accom in UB in the 20-80 USD range so if you want more than a backpackers dorm you may have to look at the +100USD options. The Puma Imperial hotel is a more modern alternative to the Bayangol and is in just as good a location near Sukbaatar Square. The Khan Palace hotel is out past the British embassy to the east (~500m past the embo) and is another new building - it's a dollar's taxi ride from Sukhbaatar Sq.

Mongolia... Cycling tours

The biggest problem in Mongolia for cycling would be a strong and constant headwind...

I've not cycled in Mongolia but I used to cycle a lot and know what difference the wind can make. While driving in Mongolia I've seen poor souls heading on a road with 100km or more to go to the next attraction, zero shelter, and a 30 kmph headwind that will last for days. Absolutly exhausting work.

Remember that the wind in Mongolia mainly blows from the north or the north-west. Take a look at some of those dune-fields on google earth in the west and south of the country to get the general idea... Rarely wind will blow from the south (in my experience, if this happens for a day or two in the Gobi with warmer humid air then you will be in for a big sandstorm on day 3).

The majority of cycle tourists I have seen are riding from UB to Kharkhorin (heading west) or from UB to Moron or Terkiin Tsagan Nuur (north and north west). These guys are definitly doing it the hard way. If you must do a long-leg of just 'getting somewhere' then fly or get a jeep out and ride BACK to UB with the wind behing you. Another wind-assisted ride would be from Bayan Olgii to Altai as winds normally blow down the valley of the lakes.

One thing to be aware of (ignoring the fact that even the Mongolian Government accepts that MIAT's internal flights are not up to par on safety) is that internal flights only let you take 20kg of baggage on-board. I be very surprised if they gave you an extra allowance for a bike as 'sporting equipment'...

Mongolia... Vaccinations

Again, relating to a recent post on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree message site about what vaccinations should be considered for Mongolia...

The main thing to realise re heath in Mongolia is that if something does happen you may be a long time away from good medical-aid or health care. Vaccination for some things may make the difference by giving you a few extra days to get back to UB or on to Beijing/Hong Kong etc for a real emergency.

Plague - rare in Mongolia. Anthrax is more common (that should stop a lot of people!). Neither is common enough to worry about.

Tetanus - get a booster if you haven't had one in the last 10 years, helps prevent infection in the event of an accident which gets dirt into the body.

Hep A - is spread via saliva so worth getting jabbed for if into communal eating/cooking/snogging. Not worth it for a short trip unless you are especially into these things!

Heb B - is spread mainly via blood so it's better to take the precautions (condoms, surgical gloves in your first-aid kit) than to get the jabs.

TB - spread via milk products and also close confinement to carriers (who may have no symptoms). Personally I'd recommend this if in Mongolia for a long time and eating/drinking a lot of dairy in the countryside or traveling on packed busses a lot. Infection rates apparently go up in winter.

Rabies - your choice. If bitten by a animal in Mongolia you should consider it rabid, as in a lot of the developing world. What you should do is capture the animal and it will be tested for rabies - this is commonly not possible so you have the choice of getting treatment or risking it. If you have the rabies pre-vaccination you will normally just need a booster if bitten. If you don't have the pre-vax you will need a much harsher course of injections that should really only be administered with an anti-toxin (available at major hospitals - ie not in the Mongolian countryside and possibly not even in UB). The pre-rabies vaccine is (or used to be - vaccines are changing all the time) a course of shots spread over weeks/months so you need to arrange it well in advance of travel. Personally I'd arrange the pre-vax jabs if you are a frequent traveler to developing countries, not just for Mongolia. BTW, if you are bitten by a rabid animal the first-aid is to wash the wound as soon as possible in alcohol (>70% if available). You can pick up small (10 ml?) blue bottles of medical alcohol at most pharmacists in UB and health clinics in regional towns/cities. Put a few in your first-aid kit.

Influenza - shots are hard to get in Mongolia as there is a big demand for them every winter. If old, seriously young or 'at risk' get a shot before you come.

Jumblina's point about carring antibiotics - some antibiotics can be useful for several things but to treat a specific virus a doctor needs to identify what the problem is and what drug best treats it. Resistance to antibiotics is on the rise and some local strains of virus in Mongolia have become drug resistant. Your doctor in Europe/N Ameraca etc may not be the best person to supply you with antibiotics and you probably won't be the best person to carry out a diagnosis and choose treatment. That said carrying something like doxycycline, which has a lot of different uses, could mean you have a 'quality product' available if the doc tells you to take it rather than getting a possibly suspect version.

I've never had a bad experience from countryside milk in Mongolia though visiting friends with guts not attuned to Asia have had interesting experiences (inversly I get one or two close calls everytime I visit Europe or North America these days). I also use the tap water in UB when brusing my teeth or when I've run out of bottled water at 3 in the morning. It tastes crap but is so heavily chlorinated it should be fairly safe.

PS - Not a doctor but 12 years of catching things in developing countries has taught me a lot. Better always to learn by other people's mistakes... ;-)

Mongolia... Rubbish!

The following quotes were posted by someone on Lonely PLanet's Thorn Tree message board relating to camping in Mongolia...

Carry out all non-biodegradable items and deposit them in rubbish bins in the nearest town. Make an effort to carry out rubbish left by others.


Never bury your rubbish. Digging disturbs soil and groundcover and encourages soil erosion. Buried rubbish will likely be dug up by animals who may be injured or poisoned by it. It may also take years to decompose.

Sorry, but the LP guide for Mongolia has this wrong, they obviously cut and pasted this section from another country... This is my take on what to do with your rubbish while camping and travelling around remote parts of Mongolia.

If you take your rubbish to a town/city in Mongolia it will get taken out to the town 'tip' and left to blow around the countryside (if it isn't just spread around by local dogs first...). There is almost no proper waste disposal (as Europeans/N Americans would know it) in all of Mongolia, including the main cities and the ger-camps. Smaller cities and towns do not have incinerators or proper land-fill sites and waste is trucked to an area just outside town and dumped on the surface. If you are lucky your ger-camp may have a burning-pit, otherwise they may just take stuff to dump in a out-of-sight creek-bed...

I do the following with rubbish when in the countryside in Mongolia:

Plastic bottles - squash them, store them in a bag and give them to kids in the towns on the main transport routes. They kids will get cash for these from truckers who collect them and take them to a larger city where there are people who buy then, consolidate a truck load and ship them to UB. Eventually they get taken to China for recycling.

Glass bottles - try to take to a city or town and leave them by a bin. Someone will collect them to sell-on to a company who will sell them to a recycler. Your driver will probably know which can and can’t be returned for reuse in UB.

Cans and tins - ditto as for glass but be aware the dogs will rip plastic bags apart to get at food remaining in tins and may cut themselves in the process - stamp tins flat to at least prevent the latter.

Food wastes (left-overs etc) - local dogs will find and eat these if you are within a couple of km of any gers so just leave stuff on the ground surface, away from any well or water and preferably not where someone else may camp. In the really remote areas something will usually eat anything left lying around. Dogs in Mongolia will even eat human excrement - especially that from well-fed traveler's bottom as it is more nutritious than the average food the poor animals get.

Excrement - not withstanding the above point it is better to bury your own poo.

Paper, plastic, anything else - burn it and then bury it. The first stage isn't essential if you are in a high fire-risk area or just don't want to draw attention to yourself.

Tom's guide to burying stuff (2-4 people after a night’s camp...)
-1(thought of last!) – don’t be messy in the first-place. Bag rubbish as it is produced to make it easier to clean up your campsite when you leave. Place bagged rubbish in a vehicle overnight or at least tied somewhere high on the vehicle so dogs visiting in darkness can’t spread it around.
0-find an area not used by anyone as a trail, camping area etc. If you camped in a popular area carry your waste with you and wait until later in the day.
1-find somewhere with a reasonable thickness of soil where erosion won't take place in the near future (not in sand, >200 m from wells and water, not in or near dry stream-beds)
2-use something to remove the top layer of soil (your jeep driver should have (but probably doesn't have) a shovel of some type), put to one side of the planned hole. If there are plants try to take of a 'slice' of top-soil containing the roots.
3-dig a hole at least a foot deep (30cm) putting the soil on the other side of the hole to the first soil taken out - this can be really difficult in hard ground in Mongolia so picking the right place as per step 1 really helps
4-put your rubbish in the hole
5-put the soil from step 3 back into the hole
6-put the soil from step 2 back into the hole - if you took a 'slice' of top-soil put it back the same way up.

If done correctly no-one will notice your pit even if standing right next to it. I’ll probably go down in flames for this from the ‘environmentalists’. Yes, maybe you left some stuff in the ground that will not decompose or may produce minor leachate but these things are only issues where they will significantly effect something, and I’d suggest that this is unlikely from the waste generated by a small group over a day or two. Dispersed and considerate burial is a much better option than taking rubbish to a local town where it will be spread around close to where people are living or dumped to blow around the countryside.

Much more damaging to the environment than burying a small amount of rubbish are drivers who just head across the steppe to see something, chase a fox etc. Wheel marks through vegetation can take years to disappear and encourage other drivers to also start crossing the same area. These wheel marks also trigger erosion much more than digging and filling a small pit (especially as local drivers sometimes like to show-off by heading straight up the steepest slope they can find within sight of your camp...). Make sure your driver doesn't drive around aimlessly and If you see a good campsite 100m from the track then try and get your driver to park-up near the track and carry your sleeping stuff over. If you can't be bothered to do this but get-upset about burying a minor bit of non-degradable rubbish then you are barking up the wrong tree...

Wow, that turned into quite a piece didn’t it! Must be withdrawal due to not writing for a while!

Other stuff I posted in connection with the message on this thread:

re poster#2 - right about tents needing a good flysheet that will cope with strong winds. Most tents available in UB are for 'sheltered campsites only' i.e. a nice pleasant garden back at home. I would take a '3-season' mountain tent as minimum strength due to the wind and the lack of shelter. My tent for the last four years in Mongolia has been a MSR Fury that is supposed to stand alpine storms in exposed sites, I've still been worried at times... Try to move campsites every day (you will if traveling anyway) but if you are staying in the same place a long time then move your tent every 2nd day (actually packing it away will prolong the life of your tent as it won't get damaged by strong UV at mid-day or if a storm comes in while you aren't at the campsite). Camping in prime grazing land is a bad idea due to increased animal poo and flies in the area (goats, cows, camels and horses can also destroy a tent rather amusingly in a matter of minutes).

Jumblina's point about not camping in driver river-beds is very good advice. A thunderstorm 20km away can flood a dry river within 30 minutes. I've seen flash floods totally change apparently small dry river channels in minutes in the Gobi.

Now I await the flaming…


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Apple service in Bangkok

To save people some sleuthing (except the sluthing to find this thread of course) here is a map to get to the new Apple service office in Bangkok, open now for about 3 months. So far you can't find any details of it on Google or on Apple's support website (poor form again from Apple). Even the Applecare person I called in the UK could only give me the phone number rather than an address...

The place is called Mac Center and is on the 4th floor of the Siam Discovery Center (BTS station 'National Stadium'). On the 4th floor go to the back (north) of the level and the center is just out of sight to the right of Asia Books, though it has got a Apple sign sticking out that you can see.
I believe this is a third-party service center approved by Apple to carry out work onder Applecare. I hope so as I dropped my mac off with them this morning... Updates on the repair to follow.

Their website (in Thai) is here and their phnone number within Thailand is 02 6580 4767

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Books about Mongolia

Following on from a thread on another website I've just been thinking about books available as an introduction to Mongolia. There are many out there but the info below links to some of my favourites...

Yep, 'Last Disco' and 'Wild East' are dated, 'Dragon Hunter' is a great book but not really relevant to today - does have some insight into the local character but from a fairly colonial viewpoint.

‘Edge of Blue Heaven’ by Benedict Allen is a good read and has some good pictures, it is about Benedict’s journey by horse, camel and foot around Mongolia. I particularly like his comments about how long a vegetarian would survive on the nomad diet but wouldn’t want to be one of his pack-animals who he seems to have a habit of killing-off… A friend found me a second-hand edition hard-back, don’t know if it’s still available, check as it’s a Brit publication.

There is a series of pictorial maps/satellite images published by a N American foundation called Conservation Ink for 4 of the protected areas in Mongolia which are excellent introductions to the localities. You can order them from the foundation for 8 USD each ( or you can order them from for 18 USD each (ho, ho, ho…)

For other insights into the park areas there is a great series of guide books published in association with a German agency They give very good information on several of the park areas including flora, fauna and issues with integrating nomads and wildlife conservation. They are probably the best thing if you want to know what type of bush you are sheltering from the sun under and the name of the lizard that just scrabbled away in the sand. I seem to remember more guides than are shown on their website, which seems a bit dated. All are available in English, probably German and some have even been translated into Japanese. Fairly easy to pick up in UB when you get to Mongolia.


I just found - check it out as a great source of Mongolian hard to get books in Europe. I have to order "Imperial Mongolian Cooking" to see if it's for real or not...

Monday, December 25, 2006

My Mac's Christmas present...

Thank you Apple. I have had my Powerbook for 15 months now and I'd like to give you an update on it...

The impish nature of your product fist came to light when the power adaptor stopped working just a few months from new. Oh the fun I had trying to get a new one while in Mongolia as even with Applecare (costing a few hundred quid) you couldn't find a way to send one out to me. Surfing your support forum I felt a warm glow that I had joined a select group of Apple users - actually not that select, there were loads of them, and I was only admitted as a junior (it was my first power-adaptor to go kaput, not my 3rd, 4th, 5th...)

I think next was the DVD burner - what you so amusingly call a 'super'-drive. One day it just point-blank refused to burn DVDs anymore. The entertainment of buying a new type of DVD every time I went to a computer shop and then the suspense of seeing if it would work or not continued for months. My coaster collection is now the envy of my friends and I’ve even had to start giving them away to the local taxi drivers so they can dangle them from the rear-view mirror and blind-themselves with reflections at hilariously critical moments. My DVD drive problem entitled me to join another not-so-select group on the apple support forum who had all had 'super'-drives; I think you should rename that branch the “Coaster Club” in honor or all the people who didn’t know they were beta-testers.

Moving along a couple of months and I was now in Kazakhstan. Yep, the land of Borat and copper-line modem dial-ups. Ho, ho, ho (well it is Christmas), the joyous time I spent trying to connect to a local ISP was increased ten-fold due to the speaker on the laptop's modem not working. Was the line engaged, was my ISP not answering, had I got a crossed line with Borislav as he discussed this year’s water mellon harvest with the Central Committee? I guess I’ll just never know and will miss out on corning the Kazak mellon-futures, at least for this year.

And finally, to seal 2006, you gave me the best present at all. Did you know I had time on my hands and was rapidly running out of books to read? Trying to recover the data from my hard-drive has been a most enjoyable challenge, I must thank you all for giving me a puzzle that was so complicated it took several days to solve. Not including any software in the OS that could deal with the failure was a brilliant step as it took me several extra hours to find, download and run a program that would recover the data.

However, despite all the fun I’ve had with my Mac I think it’s time we took a break from one another for a while (this will probably be enforced by the amount of time I hear Applecare takes to turn around repairs). When the laptop does come back I think it will be time to grow-up and get a serious computer. One that has parts that aren’t cutting-edge but will, hopefully, work for at least a couple of years before they give up the ghost.

Thankfully I still have my trusty work laptop. It’s a Prostar, not very common as you get them put together to spec rather than off the shelf. It weights a ton, the fans wail like a banshee, and it’s made of a very boring grey plastic. It has traveled with me for over 10,000 km off-road in Mongolia and for at least 200 hrs of vibrating around in the back of a Mi8 helicopter. It’s been used at +35 Celcius and stored at -30 C. It’s a year older than my Powerbook but it still works. Every single bit of it (right, back-up now just in case…).

Happy Christmas.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Garmin and Mac, GPS and Google Earth

Well, back on the 10th Jan Garmin announced that it's GPS software products would be compatible with mac computers by the end of 2006. I found a Garmin 'blog' site the other day here and asked them if their developers' Christmas bonus were dependent on that, as with only a few days to go it's doesn't look promising... Obviously the criticism didn't go down well as my post never materialised.

Searching the rest of their site I then found a later press release from 27th Jun 2006 which admitted that only one of GPS software products "Training Centre" would be up and running (pardon the pun) by the end of 2006 and further announcements would then follow regarding the release date of other Garmin GPS software.

Sorry guys, sounds like you paid lip service to mac users earlier in the year without having finalised a realistic project time-line; either that or just slacking off. As your site says, the Arizona office, where mac compatible software is being developed, "is also an ideal place for us to test and use Garmin devices while biking, hiking, and geocaching." Hmm, more time needed in the office maybe?

Anyhow. Garmin software will be overtaken by 3rd-party translation software fairly soon. Why do I say this? Two words, that should shake the fear of god into Garmin, Google Earth, which I'll call GE from now on to save my fingers. GE uses a simple code language to put points on Google's 3D globe of the earth that is already well stocked with satellite images, maps, roads etc and is all available for gratis after downloading a and installing a small program file. (As an aside Google managed to roll-out a mac version of GE within less than a year of the PC version becoming popular...) Google calls uses a language called KML (keyhole mark-up) to put points on the GE globe but this language uses XML convention grammar and files which can be edited in a simple text editor (if you haven't heard of XML then just pretend it is similar to HTML, used to write web-pages, if you haven't heard of HTML then you can give up now...). Googles explanation of KML can fe found here and if you haven't yet discovered GE then get the program from here.

I haven't done a huge search on the topic, but once you have GE on a mac you just need a program that will download points from your GPS and save them in kml format to see them in a glorious full-colour world. Up till now I've been using MacGPS Pro to do this, a program available for around 50 bucks here. So far this program gets data out of your GPS and into KMZ format for GE but has issues up-loading points saved from GE in KMZ format. (Don't worry, kmz files are only kml (and therefore xml) files in a compressed format, see my previous post for how to uncompress and examine them using Excel.)

So, the last step of the puzzle is how to get points out of GE and back into a GPS. I suspect there are copyright issues involved, storage of data in a digital medium etc etc that have slowed Google's development of this, or are they just being leaned on my the GPS manufactures who see their own market for selling digital mapping products vanish in a puff of smoke?

Friday, December 22, 2006


Complete luxury today – it’s so cold outside I’m sitting here in trousers and a jumper. According to the nearby weather station (Near Asoke/Soi Cowboy) it dropped to 18.3 Celsius early this morning. UB is reading minus 24 and smokey… Choice A or choice B?

Yesterday evening saw a large fire just down the street. I think it was in an area with detached residences and it must have destroyed at least a couple of properties so someone will not be having a very merry Christmas. It shut down the power to the block and fire-crews closed down the roads on either side, including a major N-S link road passing the Queen Sirikit conference center and Benjakiti Park up to Asoke BTS. The fire was close enough that at one point where we were gathering up ‘irreplaceables’ just in case the wind changed. Fortunately we are travelling light so we could fit cameras and some back-up hard-drives in a shoulder bag and disappear to dinner, narrowly avoiding being rundown by some moterbike-mounted fire-crews on the way.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bah, humbug

Don't the Bangkok Thai's get peed-off at the creeping Christmas time invasion of Christianity into their lives?

As I walked along the skywalk between Siam and Chidlom yesterday I was almost deafened by Christmas songs being blared out of speakers every 25m along the way. Is this purely commercial marketing or a not too subtle attempt by the god-squad to infiltrate a Buddhist country on the sly?

Foodland, a 24-hr grocery chain, should also be sent to the court of the Thai Ministry of Culture (if they have one) - guilty of playing Christmas songs sung by a bunch of 5 year olds. I may have to stop buying groceries for the next few weeks just to avoid Class 3b's rendition of Frosty the Snowman.

And even worse, the rare Christmas puddings that were on the shelves a week ago can now only be bought as part of a Christmas hamper... Any Thai's reading who don't know what to do with that little red plastic tub hiding under the bottle of Jonnie Walker black can get in touch…

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

More on traveling through Mongolia and hiring jeeps...

A post I recently put on Lonely Planet's thorn tree branch for Mongolia, the discussion was started by taking about vehicle fuel use...

Hi riccardo,

hadn't seen your reply to the other post - very good info and fairly spot on, looks like we are thinking along the same lines, other than that I love those "worthless, arid, dusty flat and huge place" - there aren't too many of them left in the world that you can drive across like in the Gobi...

You were very lucky getting away uninjured if your jeep rolled. Driving if the biggest safety issue in Mongolia as medical assistance in the remote areas is absolutely zero. My medical insurance rates Mongolia with the same current risk as for Iraq and Afghanistan… There are only a limited number of helicopters in the country (4 or 5 available as commercial hire) and these are often out on fishing tours in the summer. Even worse is that they have to get permission from a government/military authority before flying - last year my company wanted to arrange a medical evacuation of a driver who had rolled his vehicle and was in a coma, the authority 'decided' a helicopter evacuation wasn't necessary and wouldn't give the pilots permission to fly. We had to send a local doctor out to the countryside and the casualty was brought to UB a few days later, where he eventually died.

Even if you can get permission for a helicopter evacuation (and your health insurance will pay the cost, currently around 2200 USD per hour's flight time) it takes a helicopter about 2.5 hours to get from UB to near Yolyn Am and another 2.5 hrs to get back to UB (so over 10,000 USD), where medical facilities are still fairly poor and you’ll probably just be stabalised before needing a international medivac to Beijing or further. Basically, if you are in a critical condition in a remote part of Mongolia (say an open fracture of the femur or anything else that causes a huge blood loss and shock) YOU WILL PROBABLY DIE - no questions asked, do not pass go, do not collect 200 quid

I personally know of two other vehicle rolls last year where people died. In one, the foreign passenger was sleeping when the vehicle rolled and woke up next to his dead driver. Another vehicle roll killed 5 local guys from a mining company in a single accident.

I think anyone planning a long jeep or van journey around Mongolia should add on a week at the start of their trip to find a good driver and jeep. Do some day trips out from UB to Terelj or Khustai as a test run to see if you get along with the driver, his driving is safe and his vehicle doesn’t break down all the time. The time you spend doing this will make a huge difference to the enjoyment of a 2-week trip and possibly to your health for years to come.

Moving on… General advice for ‘independent’ travellers in Mongolia…

People who suggest that tourist should not worry about things like over-reporting fuel use or paying for drivers ‘accommodation’ when they sleep in the back of the van anyway are not helping the areas they visit. Mongolian was a closed county 15 years ago and people are still learning how to deal with an open society and an open-market economy. Not all tourist companies have experience or knowledge of the world outside Mongolia (say, how a backpacker hostel should be run) and many are learning what they can ‘get away with’ as they go along. Same with the drivers, where siphoning off a bit of petrol every now and then is a rite handed down from father to son…

How do people think they are helping when they accept being ripped-off because ‘the people are so poor’ anyway? This encourages tour companies and drivers to lie, steal and cheat rather than provide a good service. If you do get good service then make sure it is rewarded somehow – possibly not via cash but with something useful (do you really need to carry that sleeping bag back to Europe/N America? How about giving it to the driver who drove you safely, at a reasonable pace, for the last one or two weeks? And tell him why you are giving it to him.)

Staying at local gers is another delicate issue. If your driver rolls up to a ger and lets you know that you will be spending the night there and it will cost 5USD then he has probably been there before, knows the family, and the family will be used to seeing him with passengers and getting paid for it (probably 2 USD out of the 5 you give the driver). Don’t start feeling sorry for the family and giving out food/money/gifts – they have accepted you as a commercial guest.

If, however, your driver is obviously lost, eventually finds a ger as the sun is setting, goes in, and then comes out saying you can stay for the night, it is probably a family he has never met before and who are not used to ‘paying guests’ – the true hospitable nomad… Be very suspicious if the driver then says ‘5 USD per person’ and wants to collect it from you to give to the family. Make sure you pass the money over yourself. Also consider cooking your own food (and offering to share it with the family). If the ger is in a really remote area then a gift such as a kilo of flower, a bag of salt or sugar will probably be appreciated. Other good gifts are pencils and note-books for children. Please don’t give out batteries as some guide-books suggest – they only end up being thrown out when they are dead.

Whoa, that went on for a little longer than expected…

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Long live the King

Today is the 79th birthday oh the King of Thailand. Many happy returns if you happen to be reading…

Monday, December 04, 2006

Only in Mongolia - State Sponsored Terrorism

Unbelievable but true...

A MIAT flight from Dalanzadgad to UB was apparently held up by 2 passengers who pulled out pistols upon landing at UB airport last week. Some people were tied up but it all ended peacefully, the only casualties being a lady who received cuts on her face and lips and one person who was taken to hospital due to high blood pressure.

Unbeknownst to the passengers or flight crew this was a planned test of counter-terrorism measures with the “hijackers” being members of the Mongolian General Intelligence Agency (GIA). According to the UB Post newspaper the GIA acknowledged they had been asked by the Civil Aviation Authority of Mongolia (CAA) to test security without alerting any other party of the exercise.

You can see the original story on the UB Post’s website here

Can you believe these guys? Is the ignorance, arrogance, naivety or a general combination of all three? This just goes to show how little contact with the outside world Mongolian officials still have. Luckily for the GIA and CAA there was only apparently one foreigner on the plane, a Japanese national. Imagine the scene if there had been a group of American, British, or Israeli tourists on the flight who were familiar with stories of hijacking via the global media. They may have thought it worth taking matters into their own hands. The Americans would at least have attempted to sue the shit out of the CAA for setting up such a stupid stunt and causing mental trauma – and for once I’d be inclined to support the mentally traumatised party.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mongolian jeep trip fuel use - a random post...

Russian jeeps and vans - fuel use.

Just reading some posts on another travel website and it seems people are getting ripped-off with buying petrol on their jeep trips...

Russian vans and jeeps if well maintained should both average around 15 L / 100 km on a long jeep trip when mixing driving on asphalt, flat dirt-tracks and rugged areas. Thats 1 L of fuel for 6.6 km on average - use will be more in rugged areas but balanced by better efficiency in flat areas (or when the driver turns the engine off and coasts downhill...). Surprisingly I've logged almost identical fuel use in Toyota Landcruisers in Mongolia (4.6 L diesel engines).

Drivers can easily fool you with how much fuel they are using as both the vans and jeeps have 2 fuel tanks and the fuel gauges rarely work. If you are paying for the gas ask your driver fill up both tanks to full when you are leaving town. Then, allways fill up both tanks every time you refuel and keep a tally of the number of litres and the kilometres on the odometer (but the latter can be out by up to 10% if the jeep/van has non-factory wheels/tyres).

Random point of interest:
Russian jeeps have 2 fuel tanks of 39 L each
Russian vans have a 56 L main tank and a 30 L sub-tank
A loaded Zyl truck uses 65 L / 100 km...

ATM cards and Big Brother watching you

I used my ATM card once when I got to Thailand a few weeks ago to take out cash. It worked the first time but the next few times I tried it, over several days in various ATM machines it was rejected. I called my bank and they said it had been blocked (not cancelled - don't panic) because they had recorded a single cash withdraw transaction in Thailand, which they regard as a country with high fraud risk.

I've also had credit cards blocked due to first-time use in a new country - it now seems a necessity to notify your bank and creditcard companies about all your travel plans ahead of time. Not content with monitoring you after the event they now want to know about where you are going beforehand. When they say they are monitoring against fraud they try to make you feel like the guilty party - all doubtless in the name of the war on terror? Wonder what would happen if you told them you were going to somewhere dodgy, say Tadjikistan, and were going to make several 5-figure transactions... Would you see people in suites and dark-glasses following you onto the plane? Would you even be allowed onto the plane????


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

web site update

What do you call an old update? Well whatever it is, it has happened to my main website recently with new (?) photos from back in September being added. These were taken in Uzbekistan as part of a study-group trip to see a couple of Central Asia's largest copper and gold mines. Don't worry, the photos aren't of rocks (well, most of them...).

Go look at for the new stuff.

Life in Bangkok continues. Salvation was found yesterday with the discovery of a shop selling Marmite and Arran marmalade. I continue to be amazed at the standard of service here, we had previously used a home delivery service from a shop when buying kitchen stuff but yesterday used the delivery service for groceries. If buying before 2pm delivery is guaranteed between 2.30 and 4 pm, and you can even ask them to deliver your beer and wine cool. All for a minimum purchase of around 15 pounds (about 3 pots of marmite and one marmalade). Can you tell I’ve been living in some pretty ropey places for the last decade?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Back to the blog!

Okay, okay, okay. So I've been totally slack during the last few months and haven't updated much at all. Some of us are just too busy...

After having the break in Thailand in July it was back to Mongolia for a while before heading off to Kazakhstan where I ended up spending a couple of months on and off in a small mining town in the NE of the country. Short transits through Almaty reminded me strongly of Sofia in Bulgaria, though the mountains to the south are a bit more serious than Vitosha. My girlfriend met me on a trip back to the UK in August where we covered around 3000 miles in 10 days catching up with people and then it was back to Kazakhstan for me and Mongolia for her. September found me in Uzbekistan looking at some gold mines on a study-tour and then it was finally back to Mongolia for October.

About a week or two ago Nadia and I moved down to Bangkok where we'll be staying for the next few months until our expected baby makes an entrance and Mongolia warms up a bit after the winter chill (so probably until May then!). That’s assuming that the hospital can extend Nadia’s visa and the change in Thai visa regulation at the start of October don’t effect my multi-entry one.

So, expect some more posts in the near future with more than a hint of red-curry and not a piece of boiled mutton in sight.