Esra’s tour de Berlin

Esra’s tour de Berlin

Its been 2 years today since I arrived on cold winter’s night to begin a new adventure in country #7. In 2 years, here are a few of my stand out/tried and tested tips. If you have any questions/suggestions etc, let me know in the comments below!

At a glance, we cover:

  • Food
    • Breakfast/brunch
    • Lunchtime/dinner
    • Other
    • Give me cake
  • How to see Berlin
    • Shopping
    • Clubbing
    • Museums
    • Practical stuff
    • Getting around
    • I wanna go for a run
  • Accommodation
  • There’s no such thing as bad weather.. Only bad clothing.
  • Stolpersteine/stumbling stones
  • Is it worth going up the tower?
  • Germany is the home of Christmas markets
  • Berlin is a city that has come to terms with its past.

 

Food

(Most of these are Mitte and periphery because that’s where I live 🙂 )

Breakfast/brunch

My theory is the best places in Berlin are owned/operated by Aussies. I’ve yet to find a Turkish breakfast place that has me crawling back. There are a few good cheap spots in Wedding but nothing to really write home about.

The best pancakes in Berlin (besides my house), are at Distrikt. However their extractor/fan broke in the summer of 2017 and its still not operational because of.. paperwork. (That whole thing about Germany efficiency? Yeah that mainly applies to the automotive industry, and that’s in Munich/Bavaria).

Still nice place for a matcha latte and sugary delights plus some other healthy options etc etc

A solid breakfast place is Father Carpenter. Aussie owned in a beautiful courtyard. Closed Sunday’s. Stuff like this.

Cafe Fleury run by a lovely French lady, also very reliable for breakfast. Cash only I think, close to Rosenthaler Platz/transport. I was introduced to this place by a longstanding Berliner who also introduced me to Shiso Burger, but that’s not breakfast… more on that later.

For the best croissants in Berlin (imho) go to Cafe Krone. Hubby discovered this place. Also other great breakfast options, cosy spot and a treat in summer.

People fuss about Bety & Katy but hasn’t ruffled my feathers… Factory Girl and House of Small wonder are honourable mentions, the latter especially for its instagrammable foyer. Go early.

Lunchtime/dinner

My go-to place, and whenever I have guests in town is Transit Mitte. Try to go outside of lunch and dinner hours as it gets quite packed and there are usually lines outside for dinner. Make a reservation. One of the main reasons I like this place is because they play classic 90s RnB 🙂 No diggity.

For South Indian, Chutnify is good for lunch especially. Look at the colours…  and a more useful food pic here. I was recently introduced to Agni, also excellent. It looks no frills and that’s a good sign – the effort is all on the food. Make reservations if you’re going for dinner. There’s a second Chutnify location, not sure where though..Mr Google can help.

Best ItalianAmici Amici. Run by Sicilians who also bring in produce from Sicilia.  I have yet to find a best pizza place.

Best burgerShiso Burger but alas I have yet to find a best Veggie burger place. I tried a highly rated one in Kreuzberg that’s seen better days, and this artwork was better than the burger. My best veggie Burger recommendation is at Shake Shack (not yet in Berlin) and this little veggie place I went to in Paris…. hubby is a burger fiend and he says its worth paying a bit extra to get the wagyu beef at Shiso.

Other

Best ice cream/gelato – I got my bike in summer 2017 and to explore Berlin drew up a list of the top 10 gelato places and would bike to each one after work 🙂 Based on those exploratory adventures, the top 3 for me (based on stracciatella availability and if not, what other goodies), are:

  1. Vanille e Marille – there are a few branches – I like the one in Bergmannkiez and Postdam.
  2. Hokey Pokey
  3. Jones

All these places end up with long winding lines so try to go at off peak times (ie when kids are in bed, random times of the day, not summer etc).

Give me cake

Barcomis – cheese cake is their thing (including vegan options) – 2 locations in Berlin

There is also Princess Cheesecake and the food hall at KaDeWe. No discussion just go and head to the top – the winter garden.

Best milkshake

Tommi’s Burger joint. HOWEVER I have cut down going there because they give you plastic straws and milkshakes in single use plastic cups (even when I’ve requested they NOT do this…I’ve written to their corporate office to ask for change in policy because hey, if you do nothing, nothing changes 🙂 ).

Reliable for breakfast, lunch & dinnerCeconni’s at Soho House. Reservations recommended for lunch and dinner – or go outside peak times (ie early like 6pm). Service has gone down quite a bit but the food is still good. (ps Cowshed at Soho House is also excellent for massages and general pampering).

Over on the west side, breakfast at the Ritz is a lot more affordable in Berlin than if you were in Paris or NYC. Worth going if you’re in that area.

 

How to see Berlin

On bike (when the weather is nice). Book a tour with Fat Tire. Great tours in English and also Potsdam if you can get out for a day. I found out about these guys while doing a first aid course, and yes, I did re-enact The Office resuscitation scene and only 3 people got it, including the dude from Fat Tire. We were all trying to contain our laughter which is not the easiest thing when a stern faced German instructor is in the room. 

If the weather is bleh, do a tour via Trabi Safari (you need a valid driver’s license). These are great fun. You’re essentially driving a 600 kg piece of fibreglass. Hilarity.

The other hilarity in good weather are hot rods. I can’t believe this is legal in Berlin, the land of bureaucracy and rules. Booking essential for all and drivers license for the hot rod’s too. If you do hot rod, someone please get a group together and dress up as Super Mario and friends. Super fun.

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If you want to do Berlin on the cheap, just jump on bus M100 which takes you past the main sights (Reichstag, Brandenburg gate, Zoo, Holocaust memorial etc). A day pass is 7 Euro which is essentially hop on/off. Get your tickets at U’Bahn/S’Bahn or via tram machines (cash recommended).

My favourite thing about Berlin isthe Philharmonie. Its one of the top 3 in the world. Tickets are available/accessible, just try to book far enough in advance. There are also free Tuesday lunchtime concerts at the Philharmonie – recommended that you arrive latest half an hour in advance.

Berlin Underground has also been recommended by Berliners (ie bunkers since WW2)

Shopping 

I’m not a shopper, so not the best to give advice here. Things are still roughly split East/West with the big international names and malls in each. Bergmanstrasse is a nice place to check out with independent/local stores, or just walk around Mitte – Hackescher Hofe etc.

Sundays mean the Mauerpark (wall park) flea market (yes, along the lines of the former wall). From April – October there is karaoke, which is legendary.

Clubbing 

am also not a clubber, so can’t dispense any advice here except good luck getting into Berghain and that there was a meningitis scare at Kit Kat in October.  

Museums 

Berlin has a ton of them. There is of course Museum Island but so much more for every taste such as Spy Museum, Music Museum etc. Gallery scene is also strong. There are late nights monthlies at key museums also and annually ‘late night at the Museum’ which takes a bit of logistics and worth it.

Practical stuff

Money – Apparently its still 1989 in a lot of places which means credit cards are a no go. Bring cash with you (cash machines will charge you 5 Euro in service fee if its not your bank you’re withdrawing from).

Getting around  

is easy. You can buy tickets at machines at stations (not on the bus or via conductor). I would suggest getting 4 x trip tickets (9 Euro)/day pass (7 Euro) or get multiple day tickets if you’ll be using a lot. You can also download the BVG app and purchase from there (available in English, credit card friendly).

Do note that ticket inspectors are common and its an on the spot fine if you’re caught without a valid ticket. That, or run away – they are not allowed to pursue you however there have been common stories of aggressive ticket inspectors who have tackled people.

A lot of the taxi drivers are Turkish (yay for Turkish speakers) though I have found many other German drivers resist speaking in English. You can also download the app mytaxi to pre book taxis etc and save time flagging. Cabs are cheaper than London so if you’re travelling in a group, this might be a better option than public transit.

I bike everywhere, in rain, in snow etc and always send my guests to Zweitrad to Lucas or Ulrich for bike rentals. Call ahead to see if they have bikes and check opening times, and let them know I sent you 🙂 Really lovely folks.

Biking in Berlin is safe. There are dedicated bike lines and auto traffic must give right of way to bikes. There are also dedicated bike streets – ie the only traffic allowed in certain streets are for pedestrians and bikes. There are even one way streets that bikes are allowed to journey in opposite direction. Forget mobikes – there’s no pedal power. Lime bike and Donkey bikes seem to have a better rap if thats your cup of tea.

I wanna go for a run

Sadly, Nike is no longer running its run clubs. They still have NTC classes at their stores in Mitte and on the west side. Germany however is the home of Adidas and they are very active in Berlin with run clubs and classes at Adidas run base. More info here. The runs are free with different levels and distances – the classes charge a nominal fee (or they used to – check the site).  

Accommodation 

Airbnb. Lots and lots of options for all budgets. If I had to hotel it here I would go for

Hotel Oderberger (mainly for the pool). Good for those who would like to relive a Grand Budapest hotel-esque fantasy.

25 hours – this is in the west, overlooking the Zoo and is just a cool hangout.

Adlon Kempinski.. Because if you know me, you know me.

There’s no such thing as bad weather.. Only bad clothing.

Berlin in the winter is like any Tom Hanks/Spielberg cold war spy movie. Its dark, grey, foggy and you feel like someone in a trench coat is going to hand you a briefcase from around a dark corner. It can also get cold (like -20degC). We’ve been lucky in the last 2 years but do check the forecast before you travel and daily. I made a rookie mistake of not doing this one day, to emerge from work to full fledged snow. I happened to be wearing my designer boots that day – which have no grip. To walk home was like ice skating without the steel blade. Try that for 20 minutes. The good thing is if you’re missing something, stuff is available and cheaper than say London/Paris prices.

Stolpersteine/stumbling stones

Especially around Mitte, you will see these little brass panels, commemorating where Jews were taken from their homes and their fates. More information and map here

Is it worth going up the tower?

Meh, not really. There is a revolving restaurant at the top which is nice and beats the lines – reservations recommended. You could also go to the victory column and check out the view from there.

Germany is the home of Christmas markets

And I’m not talking about the cheesy Hyde Park winter wonderland fiesta. I’m talking about the real deal. These kick off from approximately the last week of November to about January 6th. The one in Alexanderplatz is tourist central (ie fromage), and the more authentic/my faves are Gendarmenmarkt and near the one in front of Kaiser Wilhelm church (this is the one where the truck ploughed into the crowd in 2016). Berlin is a relatively safe city, but as with any city, take your precautions. The most dangerous part of Berlin is incidentally Alexanderplatz at night. You will also find little Christmas markets virtually in every neighbourhood in Berlin, and they are cute for presents, for the atmosphere and just a nice cosy evening activity during the winter.

Berlin is a city that has come to terms with its past.

You will see a lot of history here – the wall (on Bernauer Strasse or East Side Gallery), the stumbling stones and there are also mass graves for Soviet soldiers, one quite close to the Brandenburg gate.

 

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If there’s anything else you’d like me to cover/or any questions etc, let me know in the comments below.

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Look…my merich

Last year I travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Ramallah and back to Jerusalem in a day. While travel guides will tell you to travel in a group or take a taxi, I did as the Palestinians – I took minibuses. These are also popular, cheap forms of transport in Turkey, and in Russia. The last time I went to Russia was solo, so in between these three cultures, and with some Arabic, I figured I could find my way around.

The distances between these cities are not great though a 30 minute journey from Bethlehem to Ramallah took 2 hours. Firstly, because the road skirts Israeli settlements and secondly because the minibus was involved in a car accident. That meant I had plenty of time to meet some folks.

Road to Ramallah

Road to Ramallah

In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I blended in, travelling as a single female, I wasn’t out of place. Ramallah reminded me of various Turkish cities from 15 years ago. It felt familiar and when Palestinians learnt I was Turkish, their kindness doubled. The only place I was an anomaly were in the transitions, for instance on the journey between Bethlehem to Ramallah. I was the only female on the minibus, but with recitations of the Quran playing the whole journey, I did not feel a tinge of angst or danger (one of the reasons the Quran is broadcast is for protection). Seated next to me were two Palestinian men, being born and raised in Jenin refugee camp. Between them, they probably spoke 20 words of English. Now I first wasn’t sure if they were being friendly or “friendly” so I kept my sunglasses on and guard up. The one sitting next to me was just fascinated that a Turkish woman was travelling solo, not part of a tour group and doing as the locals do. He was very keen to start a conversation with me. So he showed me his phone  – a basic Nokia, one of the early versions with a colour screen, to show me pictures of his kids. He wanted to look at the maps of Jerusalem and Bethlehem I’d picked up from the tourist offices. The journey continued through uninhabited spaces – save for shacks, literal shacks belonging to herders with sheep and goats running around. Then, he presented his phone, “look, my merich, my merich.” I took the phone and said ‘hello” to which a woman answered – merich..his wife (my marriage). The conversation:

(me) – hello?

(merich) – hello how are you?

– very well, how are you?

– how are you?

– (realising this could go on and also becoming shy…) You have a beautiful country, I’m very happy to be here

– (giggles)

– ok here’s your husband, bye!

– (giggles), bye bye, bye bye!

Shortly afterwards, a car drove into the minibus, it wasn’t a bad accident but meant we all had to exit and wait for a new minibus to take us the rest of the way. At the corner where the accident happened was a furniture store so I went in to charge my phone. Playing on the computer screen of the managers desk was the immensely popular Turkish show, Muhtesem Yuzyil (the soap about Sultan Suleyman, Hurrem and co.)

Turkish soap power

Turkish soap power

The replacement bus arrived, we continued to Ramallah. They walked with me until the center of the city and said goodbyes. Custodians of a stranger, they went their way and I went mine. I do wish I had exchanged contact details, but stopped, limited by adult onset shyness and thoughts of what communication means when you don’t share a common language. I don’t even remember their names but that endearing terms stays with me, “my merich.”

Where do you come from?

At 8 years of age in year 3 with Mrs Finlayson, we were taking a lesson on ancestors. She had a copy of the passenger list of the convicts from the First Fleet. This was 11 ships full of largely petty criminals arriving in Botany Bay in 1788 to colonize Australia. All the eager youngsters put up their hand for their teacher to trace their ‘ancestor’ based on last name. I didn’t get picked. Actually I didn’t really fit in. Everyone was blonde haired, blue eyed with easy to pronounce names. James, Amy, Sarah, Grant, Mark. I had dark hair, dark eyes and definitely not white skin. Back in those days kids used to throw dirt at us, call us names during weekly ‘little athletics.’ I don’t remember that but my mum does.

Fast forward to mid teenage years and the only thing I wanted to do was play my sports. I was good at it, no one interfered with me and it was my escape in so many ways. It was a time of discovering self and identity. My mum would remind us “you don’t know what kind of family you’re from” but I didn’t really care. All I wanted to do was listen to the top 40 hits on the radio and be ready to push down ‘record’ on the tape deck, play hockey and be cool.

And then I went on holiday to Turkey by myself in 2004 after everyone around me seemed to be singing praises of this country, and everything changed. My previous memories of Turkey were going to relatives houses, eating a lot of food, wandering at will and having a freedom your parents would never give you at home. But this Turkey I saw was like waking up to the Mediterranean sea on a summers day. Captivating, beautiful, shiny and deep. Shortly after, I bought a one way ticket to Ankara, (I was living in New York at the time) determined to stay just 2 years. That became 6 years and began what some of my friends call an obsession with all things Ottoman. That may not be accurate but that time did lead to finding out who I am and where I come from.

Sultan Murad IV

Sultan Murad IV
Portrait on display at the Military Museum, Istanbul

It turns out our first ancestor, the first “Dogramaci” was treasurer to Sultan Murad IV during the Baghdad campaign in 1638. Dogramaci Kara Mehmet ended up staying in what is now Iraq, or then Ottoman territory. This is why its difficult to answer the question ‘where are you from?’ What do I say? Iraq? I’m not Iraqi. Turkey? But I’m not from the borders of contemporary Turkey. Australia? I was born there but I’m not from there. I still get puzzled looks if I volunteer that answer. If I tell people I’m Ottoman, most won’t understand, some will think you are a snob and very few others give you a reassuring smile and nod.

What is certain is that my family is almost 400 years old. Down the line, the family is known mainly for my great uncle (Ihsan) and aunt (Emel), and their father, Ali who was a Pasha(Governor) during Ottoman rule, then after the end of the empire, a Senator in the Iraqi parliament. History became real and that depth and captivation of famliy started to take meaning. When you discover that you are connected to something far greater than just one or two generations, for me at least it inspired a sense of ownership and preservation. There are enough connections to places, relics as well as conduct transmitted down the line. Everyone speaks multiple languages, puts a premium on education and diplomatic connections are effervescent. So next time I’m chasing dreams and a past in Jerusalem, Bursa, Rhodes or Istanbul, or when I start telling Ottoman stories about palaces, mosques, people and places, you’ll understand why.

Rhodes: The Ottomans were there for almost 400 years, but you wouldn’t know it

During the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of my ‘free’ time delving into Ottoman history. This is the first in a series of posts about my adventures in discovering my Ottoman past and with it unearthing a rather spectacular history that is still largely closed off in the ‘West.’

In 1522, the Ottomans, after a six month siege and under Sultan Suleyman captured the island of Rhodes, from the Knights Hospitallers of St. John. These were knights descended from those who had taken part in the Crusades. The island was strategically significant because it sat on the trade route to Egypt, which then provided significant resources to the Ottoman treasury, particularly with the victory of the Ottomans over the Mamluks in 1517. It was also important, because Muslims, on pilgrimage to Mecca were being captured by the Knights and forced into servitude on the island. The Ottomans were custodians of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina and as possessing the Caliphate, were liable for the welfare of Muslims particularly within their empire. Sultan Suleyman intervened. The city in some places has seven sets of walls. The Ottomans tunneled under the moat, under the walls and sent poisonous gas through the tunnels when it was realised the Knights were also planning to meet them below the surface. The island remained under Ottoman control until 1912 when it was taken by the Italians, who then passed it onto the Germans, who passed it onto the British who, with the 11 other Dodecanese islands, handed control to the Greeks in 1947.

Conveniently, the very popular series ‘(Magnificent Century) – a Turkish soap/drama taking Turkey, the Middle East and the Balkans by storm – began broadcast when I lived in Doha in 2012, and from this series I learnt about the Ottoman capture of Rhodes. If you speak Turkish, the entire series is available online. Rhodes is only a one hour ferry ride from the south of Turkey, and at such proximity, it was time to go. When you read about Rhodes from its tourist guides, the Ottoman history is glossed over. Why? Has modern history led to a censorship of an Ottoman past?
Rhodes was not subject to mandatory population exchange which took place between Turkey and Greece in 1923. When I was in Rhodes and answered the locals “Turkey” when they asked where I was from, I was treated well, with warmth. However, the locals tell a different story. They tell a story of Rhodesian officials trying to push the Turks out of the island, with palpable tension.

A minority Turkish population resides on the island, which is only a one hour boat ride away from Turkey. This population speaks Turkish, are ageing and say they are being forced out by the Greeks. When they seek assistance from Turkey, they are responded to with, “you are not Turkish, you have a Greek passport.” With the aging and disappearance of a people, so too their remants, namely mosques and other cultural institutions built during the 390 years of Ottoman rule.

But what is the status of Turks on the island, and how are Turks treated in this society. What is taught about the Ottomans in Rhodes to the local children? The Knights of St John were on the island for 200 years. The Ottomans were there for nearly double that time, but when you stroll the streets of Rhodes, you see nothing that reflects this. What is promoted of the island and especially the old city. The walls and Palace of the Grand Master (of the Knights) are largely intact. The cannon balls left in the now grassed moats around the old city are Turkish and with some tunnels, are the only remaining hints of conquer or battle.

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The levels of “InshAllah”

Anyone who has spent time in Arab countries especially, has met with “InshAllah”, translated to God willing.

Need a cab? Call 45 minutes in advance and ask if the cab will arrive on time? “InshAllah”

Call again to see when it will arrive…after 10 minutes? “Ohhhh k InshAllah”

I’ve been working 10 hours a day for the past 3 weeks. Will I leave on time today? “InshAllah” -or- I’ve only had one day off in the last 4 weeks. Will I have a weekend this time? “InshAllah”

Will I make my flight with 10 minutes til boarding closes, despite the fact I’ve been standing in the immigration line for 30 minutes for you to tell me I have no exit visa, despite this document I gave you with various stamps and signatures? “InshAllah”

Will my magazine subscription that I paid 3 times more for so it would be delivered to a country outside the EU arrive? “InshAllah”

Will I be paid this month? “InshAllah”. Ok, then will I be paid on time? “InshAllah”

Did you get my salad right this time after I sent it back 3 times already? “InshAllah”

All true.

So, in order to manage expectations, please meet the levels of InshAllah. Let’s apply this to whether or not you will for instance be able to access a building you need a gate pass for.

InshAllah level 1: We are going to do everything in power to make this happen. Paperwork is all done, everything is processed, you will enter the building.

InshAllah level 2: We have all the paperwork done, everything is processed, you are going to have to wait, maybe 2 hours in 40 degrees heat, but you will enter the building eventually.

InshAllah level 3: We received all the paperwork, we received many phone calls from lots of people, including important people – not that it matters, you are going to have to wait, maybe 2 hours, maybe more, we would really like you to access the building, but, its not going to happen.

And really, these levels can be applied to pretty much anything. InshAllah.

From Istanbul with Love

So, what do you think of Doha?

Why walk when you can gondola?

I’m back in Doha and have had some time to gnaw on this question for the past months absence, in addition to almost 3 months there earlier this year. To be asked this question implies some answers;

  • It’s too hot
  • It’s boring/there’s nothing to do
True, during my first weekend in Doha, I did what any ‘westerner’ does in a Gulf country: go to the mall. But this gets rather old….fast.

Good morning Doha

Yes, the mall might have its own gondola (yes really) and ice rink – not a surprise there so much and sensible considering the heat, but my answer to the ‘what do you think of’ question is’ has remained the same through all this time.  It’s not sustainable. After all, how much shopping can satiate one’s consumer appetite? The desert can be interesting but how much camel riding, sand dune- ing, quad biking can you do until the adrenalin runs a little on empty?

Qatar’s population is slightly over 1.4 million, with an estimated 800,000 ex-pats (largely migrant-workers from the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh). There are two Doha’s really. There’s the fresh steel faced, window glazed skyscrapers

Hello steel & glass

and then there are the dusty streets, neon lit stores, a far cry from plush residences and malls. There are efforts to reinvent, reinvigorate and integrate. The downtown Souk Waqef (outdoor and projects to build a hybrid residential-cultural-markety type area in the middle of Doha, that will take into consideration city design to create wind tunnels, maximize shade, for a place that is notorious for 50 degree Celsius plus weather). As a colleague once told me, no one moves to Doha for the weather. The weather is a restriction and impediment. I haven’t (yet) experienced a Gulf summer but it is basically ferry from one air conditioned building to the next. Efforts for outdoor bike-lanes will only go so far in the ‘winter’ months. Now, add to this mix a burgeoning consumer culture, an almost invisible recycling culture, a society heavily heavily dependent on cars and you begin to see what I mean. A trip to the edge of Qatar where a spanse of water divided Qatar from Saudi Arabia was marked by garbage. Indeed even the tour guides would toss drink cans down sand dunes and hills for the magic garbage fairy to pick it up.  These seemingly small acts can add up to become larger problems. This isn’t sustainable and. Not for the environment and not for regional or global competitiveness. The solution will be to progress without sacrifice and without leaving the majority of the population behind.

Rollin’ along in my auto-mo-bile

What will it take to change? Investments in education (building education city – a complex of satellite universities and other institutions) is one way to realize and maximize human capital. With so many ex-pats, the ground is ripe for global best practices to make an appearance. Another key is not to look outside for fulfilment. Instead of ‘looking for things to do’, how about looking within. Its during the quiet times that the opportunity presents itself to cultivate within. My list is ready: begin studying Arabic again, pick up guitar and piano, again, a limited symphony culture presents an opportunity to cultivate that, a lot of opportunity to read (thank you Kindle) and of course, not only get the skates on but start coaching again.
At the end of the day, in my circles at least, people move to Doha because they believe in something that is bigger than themselves. When you enter that news room, or walk past the galleries, you feel that collective intelligence and that collective consciousness. To be surrounded by people from 51 different countries, and a team who are on that journey with you, Doha living doesn’t look so bad.

JazzyA

More snaps of Doha days here as well as some cool Doha-living people on that journey to follow:

Kamahl – AJE presenter; Steff – AJE meterologist; Bilal – AJE web correspondent + stand up comedian. As always, more to come 😉

Mongolia – Part I

In 2006 I rode the trans-Siberian express. Apparently the train I took was technically the trans-Mongolian express, since it made a right turn after lake Baikal and headed South through Mongolia rather than proceeding East to Vladivostok on Russia’s Asian extremity, but few people bother to make this distinction.

In any case this story begins in Helsinki, where I spent the night in a hostel before an early train to St Petersburg. As luck would have it, the gentleman in the bunk below mine was a fellow Australian by the name of Patrick. When I told him that I would be traveling through Mongolia, his tone became cautionary and he explained his personal experience with the Mongols. Patrick had spent a year living in China, where he shared a room with a  young Mongolian man. Apparently this guy often rushed back to their room panic stricken and pleaded with Patrick to hide him somewhere because his Mongolian friends were going to murder him with knives. Plus, Patrick went on, he had plenty of scars from knife-wounds to indicate he wasn’t exaggerating.

I didn’t say it at the time, but I had the feeling that Patrick himself was probably exaggerating and I promptly forgot his story as I set out on the longest train line in the world. I encountered no foreign tourists on the train in Russia until the final Russian leg of the trans-Mongolian express, from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, when my carriage was almost completely populated by them (or should I say ‘us’). Two of whom were Englishmen by the names of Steve and Paul, funny lads, who I decided to hang out with in Mongolia’s capital.

In early Spring, the area around Ulaanbaatar is a dusty moonscape of rolling hills covered with fist sized rocks like those that line the thousands of miles of train track between there and Helsinki. We spent the first day in that scenery on interesting, wholesome activities that continued until Steve, Paul and I hit the bars for dinner and beyond.

The first place we visited was a large and apparently popular bar slash restaurant with a live band. Here an American man, approaching 50, uninvitedly joined our table. He was in Mongolia for work on some geological project, the details of which I can’t recall, but what I do remember is that he was loud and crass, particularly about local women – I pitied any of the bar girls who were unfortunate enough to stray within calling distance of the fellow. This American man had loitered at our table for around an hour when Steve went to the bathroom in a normal state, but returned visibly shaken. He told us that in the bathroom some locals had set upon him with knives and that he only managed to escape thanks to a timely interruption by a security guard.

Steve was hastily pressing us to leave when one of his would-be attackers calmly joined our table. To our surprise he was quite polite, even charming, and spoke excellent English. After talking with us for a while, and out of earshot of the American, he said that we all seemed like nice guys and asked us why we would be friends with that other rude man. The news that we had only just met him seemed expected, then the Mongolian, still quite calmly, told Steve, Paul and myself that he intended to murder the American as soon as he left the bar.

I was shocked and said “I understand why you don’t like him but you can’t just kill him! If he’s offended you just punch him in the mouth or something.” But the Mongolian was unmoved and he told us “that’s not the way we do things here.” He, ironically, held out his hand in the “thumbs up” signal, then jabbed his thumb into his own throat, heart and groin to demonstrate how things were done.
“What about the police?”
“They understand how we do things in Mongolia.”

I never saw the American again.