Danish Delights

The day I left Stockholm was actually something of a milestone in my journey – it was the day I activated my Eurail Pass, and began my tour of mainland Europe via train. The type of pass I’d gotten was a Flexi Global Pass, which meant that I had unlimited travel on the European train systems for 15 non-consecutive days within a two month period. It had seemed like the best option for me, given that my own plans were virtually non-existent, and I had plenty of room to be flexible. Though something else exciting also happened that morning – I received my first successful reply to a Couch Request on Couchsurfing! On the website, you can either post public messages or requests to which individual users may reply to, or you can browse through hosts and send them more personalised requests to stay with them. As I checked my emails before checking out of the hostel, a weight was lifted off my shoulders when a guy named Esben had agreed to host me during my time in Copenhagen. I set out to the train station to leave Stockholm with much higher spirits than when I had arrived – I had a place to stay and, most importantly, someone to hang out with upon my arrival. My time in Stockholm had taught me that having company or going solo can make a huge difference in the way you experience a city.

***

Unfortunately, those high spirits were somewhat deflated by the time I reached Copenhagen. After sitting around on a train that had been motionless for almost two hours, listening to numerous non-English announcements, a Swedish woman finally explained to me that there had been a fire on the tracks ahead of us, and that we had been unable to proceed due to a back up of other trains. It was certainly a bizarre, unexpected circumstance, and I’ll never know for sure if it was a train that was on fire, or just the area around the tracks, or something else entirely. All I knew is that I would be late for meeting Esben at the train station in Copenhagen, and he had to work until midnight in the evening. So instead of meeting him beforehand, when I finally got to Copenhagen I lugged my bags into an all you can eat pizza and salad bar and virtually ate my weight in lettuce – it had been a while seen I’d seen fresh vegetables. After overstaying my welcome, I returned to the station and set up camp on the floor, and waited for Esben to arrive.

I was approached by various people, including numerous beggars and a vulgar group of young men, one of whom – when I failed to understand what he said in Danish – told me to perform fellatio on him (using much more vulgar terminology, of course). But then the group just laughed and wandered away, leaving me by myself to sit and wait. I was so relieved when Esben finally arrived – the city hadn’t been making a very good impression so far, but right from the start I could tell Esben was a good guy. He was a gentle giant – tall and broad, but mild-mannered and soft spoken. He showed me which bus to get on, and asked the driver to tell me which stop I had to get off at – Esben had his bike with him, so he told me he’d meet me at the bus stop. By the time we got home and set up the air mattress in the small living room it was nearly one in the morning, but Esben was extraordinarily patient, and only headed to bed himself when I assured him I settled and comfortable.

***

The following day, Esben said he would be able to show me around in the afternoon, but had a few errands to run during the morning. He was, however, able to lend me his spare bicycle. At first I was a little wary – firstly because the last time I rode a two wheeled vehicle had been a disaster, and even managing the quad bikes in Siberia had been a bit of a fluke, and secondly, I knew that cycling was a serious thing around these parts. Counties like Denmark and the Netherlands are interesting when it comes to their topography because they are exceptionally flat. As a result, riding bicycles becomes a highly favoured mode of transport, because its so easy to get around – there’s no steep hills to work you into a sweat on your way to wherever you’re going, and the bike lane systems are so integrated that its actually easier than driving a car. Seriously, the bike lines even have their own miniature traffic lights! It’s a nice change from the usually arrogant and sometimes aggressive cyclists of Sydney, who usually obey neither road rules or pedestrian etiquette. Helmets are also optional in Denmark – I know there’s obvious dangers in that, but it gives the city a totally picturesque and carefree feeling, with hipster girls in their flowing summer dresses and unbridled hair catching the breeze as they cycle through the wide, open streets.

While Esben ran his errands, I busied myself by cycling to the National Museum, and only getting lost once. There was a huge collection of ethnographic displays and exhibits from ancient cultures from all around the world, and the fascinated sociologist in me was able to spend a couple of hours there trawling through the artefacts. The fact they had free WiFi probably helped as well, the Viking and medieval rooms with displays full of weapons, armour, goblets and tapestries even satisfied the Game of Thrones nerd in me.

Viking drinking horn that excited the GOT nerd in me.

Viking drinking horn that excited the GOT nerd in me.

Wooden statue of St George slaying the dragon of legend.

Wooden statue of St George slaying the dragon of legend.

Ancient skull - the living human most likely died from the damage visible here.

Ancient skull – the living human most likely died from the damage visible here.

***

After the museum I met up with Esben again, and we rode our bikes through the city, passing a lot of old and beautiful buildings mixed in with the modern. With a major street named after Hans Christian Anderson, Copenhagen appropriately has a fairytale feeling surrounding it. We stopped a 17th century church called Vor Freslers Kirke, an elegant looking building with a bell tower that loomed over the city, and was finished with a narrow, spiralling point at the top. Esben and I went inside and climbed to the top – from the final steps, at a height of 95 metres, you could pretty much see the entire city. The land itself was so flat that a tower didn’t need to be much higher than that to get the sweeping panoramas. Esben pointed out some major landmarks and buildings around Copenhagen, allowing me to better familiarise myself with the city and get my bearings for when it came time to do some exploring without his guidance.

The enchanting tower above the church.

The enchanting tower above the church.

The bells inside the old wooden interior of the tower.

The bells inside the old wooden interior of the tower.

Copenhagen horizon - view from the tower.

Copenhagen horizon – view from the tower.

We pressed on via bicycle to an area that I had been very excited to visit ever since Susanna had told me about it back in Helsinki – the commune at Freetown of Christiania. “They’re a commune that have managed to stay pretty independent from the rest if the laws in Denmark. It’s legal to smoke pot, and everyone there’s a little bit of a hippie – it’s just a really cool and chilled out place.” It sounded fascinating from the first time I heard about it, and when I met Esben he told me that he actually worked in a store in Christiania, so he’d be able to give me a tour of the area. And it was really cool – it definitely felt like I’d walked into a completely different city, which I guess I technically had.

Groovy mural on the side of Esben's shop.

Groovy mural on the side of Esben’s shop.

The local brew in Christiania.

The local brew in Christiania.

There were shops, stalls, cafes and restaurants littered throughout the area. There were mainly unsealed roads and paths through the gardens and greenery that were almost always filled with pedestrians and cyclists – in retrospect, I don’t think I saw a single car in the main centre of the village, if at all in the whole commune. Maybe they’re not even allowed there? I’m not sure. It almost felt like a big festival, the kind that turns into a small village for the duration of the event, except this was a small, permanent village. A highlight was probably walking through the Green Light District. There were only three rules in the Green Light District: no running (it can cause panic and alarm people), no photos, and have fun. The ‘no photos’ rule is obviously the most applicable, because any outsider would see what was inside the district and automatically feel compelled to capture such a foreign world on camera. Esben also told me that while the sale of these drugs goes on quite openly, it’s still technically illegal. I’m not sure if the law just turns a blind eye, or if there really is something infringing their jurisdiction, but within the community it all seemed pretty normal. Christiania displayed a lot of it own laws, including no fighting or physical and no ‘hard drugs’, so I suppose they can’t be accused of actively promoting a hugely rampant drug culture, I don’t even know if I should be saying so much about it on a public platform – I feel like it might be in violation of some kind of code of secrecy, something the mainstream world isn’t supposed to know about without experiencing for themselves. But lets just say that before browsing the stalls and shops that were set up throughout the Green Light District, I’d had no idea that hash and marijuana came in such a wide variety of types, styles, flavours, and any other kind of property. Weed isn’t really my drug of choice – not saying that I have a drug of choice at all – so I was merely an observer as I passed through the Green Light District.

The folk band playing in Christiania.

The folk band playing in Christiania.

Being all about freedom, people in Christiania seem to be very active and aware about the situation in Tibet, and sights like this are common in the area.

Being all about freedom, people in Christiania seem to be very active and aware about the situation in Tibet, and sights like this are common in the area.

The rest of Christiania was a little less busy and a lot more mellow. There was an American folk band playing out the front the shop where Esben worked, and we sat and listened to them for a while as we drank a few of the local beers. Afterwards we rode our bikes through the rest of Christiania, which was mainly parks and other areas of greenery. The vibe was so relaxed and chilled out – I could imagine being a regular visitor if I was ever a resident of Copenhagen, purely just to enjoy such an open-minded and chilled out little corner of the world. The following afternoon I even returned by myself, while Esben was at work, to grab a beer and lie on the grass under the warm afternoon sun. At six in the evening the sun was still strong, but the European sun in general doesn’t seem as dangerous as the Australian sun – perhaps it has something to do with their lack of a hole in the ozone layer. I laid in the afternoon sunshine for so long that I think I actually fell asleep for a little while, yet when I woke up all I had was a few tan lines on my feet from slip on shoes. Scandinavia was once again surprising me with a climate that actually allowed for sunbathing.

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A Nomads Life For Me

Luckily we were only staying in Ulaanbaatar for one night, because there didn’t appear to be a great deal of tourist attractions left to see in the city. The rest of our time in Mongolia would be spent at a ger camp about two hours away, far off in the Mongolian wilderness. A ger is a sort of semi-permanent tent that the nomadic people of Mongolia live in – while Ulaanbaatar does have a population of about 3 million, there is a remarkable amount of people who still live the nomadic life out in the wilderness and the Mongolian national parks, moving from place to place with the seasons and taking their home with them, as well as their herds of livestock.

***

We had one stop in the morning on our way to the ger camp. The Gandantegchenling Monastery was a beautiful structure, and Oko explained that Buddhism is one of the major religions of Mongolia. It’s quite interesting how the landlocked country has so many different cultural influences from the surrounding nations, yet it truly becomes a melting pot that breaks all of them down and recombines everything into their own culture that¬†is quite unique. We walked through the temple, silently moving around the people who had come to light candles and incense and to pray, before stopping at the monastery to watch the monks begin their morning rituals and listen to their chanting. I hate to admit it, but ever since my bizarre incident with the shady Buddhist monk in Lop Buri, I’ve been unable to look at any monk the same way again, and even just seeing one creates a rising anxiety within me. It really is such a shame, because I used to hold such a fascination for ideals and spirituality behind the religion, and now those beliefs have been well and truly tainted. I listened to the chanting for only a few moments before stepping out of the low-hanging canopy of incense and into the fresh morning air.

The main building of the monastery complex.

The main building of the monastery complex.

Outside, in front of the main temple, there was a big pair of golden feet. Oko explained to us that the Mongols were attempting to build the worlds largest human structure, a Buddha even bigger than the Statue of Liberty. However, all of the money for the project comes from donations, so there is no scheduled finish date because no one really knows when they will be able to finish it. Oko had also mentioned yesterday that the weather in Mongolia only allows for construction to be done for two or three months every year, which is why there were so many construction sites and unfinished buildings in Ulaanbaatar, adding to the ugly, incomplete cityscape.

Golden feet - all there is of the statue so far.

Golden feet – all there is of the statue so far.

However, the most interesting, or at least entertaining, part of the monastery visit was the swarm of pigeons outside. As we first approached the monastery, we heard the low cooing noise steadily growing louder, and we soon found ourselves in front of a formidable sea of feathers. There were thousands of pigeons, and their call almost seemed to have an eerie echo as it rippled through the flock of birds in the courtyard. Some people were feeding them with seed they had bought from a little old lady wandering through the birds, while other children ran through the crowds to scatter the pigeons and sent them flying. They always came back though. Someone asked Oko about their significance. “The pigeons? No… They just live here, I don’t know why. But they are not special, not at all.”

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

***

After the monastery it was onto the ger camp. The place we were staying at was in a region called Terelj National Park. It was more of a permanent set up that was obviously designed for tourists, but they were the same style of ger that the real nomads live in. Each circular tent was several metres wide in diameter, and had a wood-fire stove set up in the middle, which were traditionally used for cooking all the meals, but would serve only as a heater for us during our stay. I was sharing my ger with Tim and Don, the other Australian guy on our tour, and after we unloaded our bus and settled into the gers, we went for a short drive to a small landmark known as Turtle Rock.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Turtle Rock.

Turtle Rock.

We climbed to the top of the rock to appreciate the view. The Mongolian countryside really is beautiful. I spent a lot of time with my family in the Snowy Mountains as a child, and it was a familiar feeling of watching the virtually untouched landscape stretch out for what seemed like forever. Such sights always remind me of my fathers words about cities being similar from country to country, and I was even more pleased that we’d escaped Ulaanbaatar to explore the rest of Mongolia. After Turtle Rock, we visited the ger of a real nomadic Mongol, and got to see what the inside of a truly inhabited ger looked like. The walls were lined with rugs to retain the warmth and heat, there was a TV and a fridge and a whole kitchen set up, and it felt like an actual home compared to our gers, which were essentially the hotel versions of the traditional Mongol dwelling. There was only one woman who lived in this ger, and she had prepared some food for us, so we asked her questions about Mongolian nomadic life, with Oko as translator, while we nibbled on homemade cheese and bread, dried yoghurt, and sipped on warm milk tea. I didn’t care much for the tea, and the dried yogurt was so hard I thought I was chewing bone, but after spending so long in South-East Asia it was quite a treat to have some hearty, homemade cheese.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

It was definitely surprising how permanent the set up looked – apparently when they move, the nomads travel anywhere from a few kilometres down the road to hundreds of kilometres to a new region, usually for reasons of weather and climate or the availability of grass for their herds of cows, horses, goats, sheep or camels. It only takes 8 hours to completely dismantle the ger, which was deemed an impressive feat by our group. “It took me 8 hours just to pack for this trip!” Alyson exclaimed. We all had a bit of a laugh, but I suppose it was a reminder to all of us just how content people can be with so little in their lives. It feels like I have one of those epiphanies every time I visit a non-Western country, but I do think its important to retain that perspective throughout life, so I never end up taking for granted all the things I do have in life.

***

Our days at the ger camp were mostly spent outside, doing things like horse riding and archery. The warriors of the fearsome Mongolian Empire did both of those things are the same time, though horseback archery isn’t an easy skill to master in a few days, so we kept our attempts separate. We also made several small hikes up the hills and rocks that created the valley that our ger camp was in, and admired the awesome views. The hills rolled on in every direction, and in the neighbouring valleys we could see more clusters of gers, demonstrating just how common this nomadic way of life really is in Mongolia. The food in the ger camp was also amazing. Traditional Mongolian soups, salads and meat dishes, broths full of mutton and meat that melted in your mouth right off the bone, and hearty fillets of steak served with rice and potato. I wasn’t sure if there were any Mongolian restaurants around where I live, but I made a mental note to find out when I go back home – the cuisine is absolutely delicious, and I didn’t go to bed hungry once.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Trying out my archery skills - there's a reason there's no photos of the target...

Trying out my archery skills – there’s a reason there’s no photos of the target…

However, on one of the nights I did go to bed a little tipsy. As a group we’d decided we might get on the piss and have a little bit of a party in one of the gers. Some brought vodka, some brought beer or wine. I myself brought a semi-dry red that was made in Bulgaria, surprisingly delicious for the price that I paid for it. The conversation flowed freely, as is always the case when alcohol is involved, and I chatted a little more to some of the Australian girls who I hadn’t seen much of during the course of the trip. It was incredibly warm and toasty with the fire going inside the ger, and we frequently had to prop the door open for a little bit of relief, sometimes even stepping outside to cool off a little. The wine went to my head pretty quickly, but I remember standing outside with Dan and marvelling at the stars that were spread out across the dark blue night sky, thinking back to my night of stargazing on Koh Rong Samleon in Cambodia and still being a little bit excited that the constellations were all different in this hemisphere – and I don’t even think that was the wine talking.

***

While the Mongolian countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, there are a few things about it that are a little upsetting. When you’re gazing out from the peaks of a rocky outcrop the land looks untouched, but the reality is that the life of the nomadic people takes a toll on the land. Some people burn or bury their rubbish, but there is still an incredible amount of pollution. You’re just as likely to see a plastic bag take flight into the wind as you are a native bird, and at regular intervals there are huge mounds of trash that are most likely the remnants of a ger camp that has since packed up and moved on. I remember as a kid going out on Clean Up Australia Day and picking up all the trash in my local area – I think realistically this country would need a Clean Up Mongolia Year. I absolutely loved my time in Mongolia and out in the ger camp, but it was always a little bit disheartening to walk past what appeared to be a small forest of plastic bag trees, the skeleton of what was once lively greenery smothered with black and blue and translucent plastic.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

***

When we finally returned to Ulaanbaatar, we had an afternoon to kill before jumping on a train to Siberia that evening. We had lunch at a buffet style Mongolian barbecue, which was amazing – I ate so much I felt sick – and then spent some time at the National Museum. The more I learnt about the native Mongolian people and the mighty empire of warriors they had once been, the more I suspect that they as a people were the inspiration for the Dothraki tribes in Game of Thrones. Fierce warriors with highly revered leaders and a lifestyle that revolves largely around their horses, they were nomads that travelled across their vast country and were¬†constantly at war to expand their territory. Modern Mongolia is a different story though, but I still got a little kick out of my geeky comparison. I also saw some exhibits about musical instruments – the name of the Mongolian instruments I’d seen in the show last time we were in Ulaanbaatar was morin khuur, a name that translates to ‘fiddle with a horses head’. The end of each instrument is finished of with a carved wooden horse head, and the morin khuur is considered something of a national treasure for Mongolia.

As I wandered through the museum, I realised that most of the signs and information boards were in Mongolian, with no English translation. I hate being one of those tourists who just expects everyone to be able to speak English, and get angry when they can’t – I frequently struggle silently through awkward language barriers rather than go on a “Can anyone speak English?” spree – but I have to admit I was taken aback. Almost everywhere in South-East Asia had had signs in English, which I suppose I completely took for granted while I was there. English is a common and widespread language, but it’s by no means global or universal, and I think it took being in an official building like a museum, yet there still being very little English, for that fact to truly sink in.

***

Overall, my time in Mongolia was incredibly interesting and unique. Combined with the fact that I wasn’t scammed, tricked, injured or molested, I think I can safely say its been my favourite place on my journey so far, and my only regret is that I couldn’t stay for longer. But the tour schedule was pretty set when it came to transport, and we were due to catch our next train into the heart of Siberia.