Epilogue

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We got the keys!!!!!!!! 

Its been four months since we arrived in Lisbon to make Portugal our home for the foreseeable future.

I’ll be honest, its not been easy.

Sometimes my mind drifts back to those wide open spaces of Patagonia, the biting wind off a Faroese mountain, the expanse of sea seen from the deck of a cargo ship, the sunny over-the-topness of California, the frenetic stickiness of a Hong Kong evening, the vast expanses of Mongolian plains and Siberian taiga, and I can’t quite believe we actually did it. Or that we stopped!

After a year of being on the move and just having a backpack each, with little more to worry about than which country to visit next or whether to splash out on a flight or endure a 24-hour bus journey, we have been thrust into the bureaucracy of setting up life in a country that sure loves its bits of paper.

I fought my way doggedly through the bureaucratic process of being ‘fully legal’ – registering as resident, becoming tax registered, setting up as a sole trader so I can work and pay taxes, enrolling in social security, registering with doctors….. even getting a bus pass was immensely complicated …. The list seemed endless, with a frustrating circularity whereby I couldn’t do one thing until I’d done another, but finally I am getting there.

Lauren started school in September, and after a rocky first day (“no one knows me, they all already have their own friends, I have no one to play with”) she has become a hit in the playground due to her possession of a ‘cool’ skipping rope (devices are, mercifully, banned at her school). She has a little circle of friends and while it’s not like Mozambique where they were forever in and out of each other’s homes and at times I’d have a houseful of girls, she has been to one sleepover and has requested a 5-girl sleepover for her tenth birthday next month. I don’t think she feels fully settled or integrated yet, but she is getting there.

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First day of school…..  

As expected, the year of online schooling had no negative impact on her academic abilities – she is bringing home excellent marks and was even moved up to the ‘native speakers’ class in Portuguese, which given its her third language, is pretty impressive. The school is definitely stretching her, but she is coping well.

I attacked our move here like a job.

Multi-page, colour-coded excel spreadsheet ‘to do’ list and all.

After an intense but relatively short search, helped by very specific criteria (budget and proximity to Lauren’s school as I refuse to drive every day), we bought an apartment ten minutes’ walk from the school, and I am currently writing this on a small corner of the dining table, surrounded by rubble and building supplies with most of our possessions piled up around me, as three workmen rip out some of the features less to my taste. The place is small but in a good, up and coming part of a well-established family-friendly area, and we are very happy with it.  I am sure it will throw some surprises at us, it’s an old building, but so far so good.  The mortgage process was stressful but helped by a patient bank manager who has known me for years, and by a large deposit thanks to a very kind friend.

I have been doing some work for a former client, and there is potential for more on the horizon, so fingers crossed I will be able to pay the mortgage, the school (more than the mortgage!!), the ballet, the gymnastics, the hip hop classes, the 10-day “not obligatory but we will make your kids feel like shit if you don’t let them go” school trips to France …. and maybe even food and the electric bill as well….

Emotionally, its been a rollercoaster – we only moved in to the new place last week, and before that we were staying at a friends place a bit out of town. It was wonderful to be able to stay somewhere while we dealt with all this, and we are immensely grateful, but we were desperate to be in our own place, and properly settled. Commuting in to do the school run twice a day was a drag. While we were fine with moving every few days and living out of backpacks last year, once the decision was made to settle, that is what we both wanted to do, and the limbo of temporary accommodation and not being able to really unpack has been hard.  Even though we are currently living among the dust and building equipment, we are happy to be in our new home.

We haven’t truly explored Lisbon yet – most weekends we have been trekking up to my parents’ place, enjoying spending time with the family after many years of brief intense visits and then nothing for months. Those weekends not spent up there have somehow disappeared into the black hole that is IKEA and the Portuguese equivalent of Homebase (AKI).

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Lauren has taken to skipping everywhere……. 

I miss my network far more now I am settled than when we were travelling. I was privileged to have a wide and varied support network in Mozambique – like-minded colleagues and friends who ‘got’ my work and shared my interests, other families who shared the joy and stress of raising our kids, good friends I could unwind with and when necessary unload upon…. People who looked out for me, and Lauren, and for whom I did the same. It will come here, to some extent, I guess, although European life is more self-contained and insular. All those sleepovers and dinner parties are far easier to handle when you have staff, large houses, live close to one another, and don’t need to plan things weeks in advance… . but hopefully I will find my niche here, and Lauren will do the same. In the meantime, once the builders have gone, you are all invited to visit us here in Lisbon!

So as I sit here watching a guy plaster my new ceiling, I sign off this blog (for this really is the last post) in a positive frame of mind – the worst of the transition is over, we are in our new home, I am working, Lauren is doing well at school both academically and socially, we are loving being close to family, and the rest will come.

On this exact day last year we set sail on a cargo ship for the other side of the world. This year we are setting off on another adventure, as we make our new home really ‘ours’, and create a life in our new neighbourhood.

Wish us luck.

Thank you all for reading, and for those who celebrate Christmas, in whatever way – have a wonderful one.

 

 

 

 

 

The End, and the Start

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Ennis family reunited…..

All too soon, the moment we had been equally dreading and anticipating arrived, as we boarded the plane in Brussels that would take us to Portugal, crossing our final time zone, completing our round the world in 340 days trip, and delivering us into the welcoming arms of the rest of the Ennis clan.

We were so excited to see the family, but I’d be lying if we didn’t both feel a little down about the end of the adventure.

Having said that, we are psyched to settle somewhere and start creating a life here in Portugal. Lauren starts school in 2 weeks, and I have a ‘to do list’ which is currently hovering around the 3-page mark.

Top of the list is finding a place to live in Lisbon, and resurrecting my work as a freelance international development consultant. I have had a year to think and am raring to go, keen to throw myself back into the intense and at times massively frustrating, but at times also incredibly rewarding world of development. I have rediscovered my desire to work for the good of people who haven’t had the benefits I have had in life, and I have been able to put the work into a broader context than when I was at the coal face in Mozambique. I won’t ever get as attached to a country again, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make a valuable contribution through my work.

The trip has been one hundred percent worthwhile. The chance to spend a whole year with my daughter is worth more than all the money in the world. Our relationship – already incredibly close – has deepened and grown.

The psychological benefits to me of a year away from what had become an immensely difficult situation in Mozambique have been enormous. I left depressed, cynical and feeling my work was pointless. I return with greater perspective and a new energy to tackle the challenges ahead.

Lauren has grown and matured beyond anything that would have been possible in a ‘normal’ year. She has of course learned a lot of geography – crossing time zones, different climates, altitudes and seasons, volcanoes, ice fields, glaciers, deserts, tectonic plates…. In history she has learned about the ancient Romans and Greeks, the Incas, colonization, Chinese dynasties, the opium wars, communism and the USSR… In politics we have discussed Syrian refugees in Greece, Democracy in Beijing, the Black Lives matter movement in America, the financial crisis in Iceland, discrimination in the Balkans, corruption in Bolivia, Brexit in Brussels. She learned so much natural history, from Penguins in Tierra de Fuego to the animals and their habits in the Galapagos. She could speak passable Spanish by the end of our months in Latin America.  At various museums she learned about physics, space travel, evolution, engineering. We saw the impact of humans on nature, in Patagonia, in China, in Russia, in Peru.

More than any of the knowledge she has amassed though, she has developed as a person. She has had to show great resilience when things didn’t go to plan, whether it be accommodation not working out, delays in transport, getting lost in strange cities or coping with my being sick in the Andes. She has persevered when the volcano was hard to climb, the crowds on the metro too chaotic, the backpack too heavy, the food too spicy, the heat too oppressive. She has had to interact with people of all ages, backgrounds and languages, including making herself understood in China and Russia where neither of us had more than a few words.

I included her in budgeting decisions and route planning. She has learned how to navigate using a GPS and an old-fashioned paper map. She has had to entertain herself without tech, often for days on end. She has felt what it is like to be cut off from the internet, mobile phone signals and other people, and to be self-reliant. She has cooked, cleaned and washed clothes. She has been exposed to many different life options, showing her that you can take life and make it your own. She has had to make effort to remain connected to her friends and invest in her relationships with family and friends. She has learned to get stuck in and reach out to other kids when seeking playmates.

She has had to eat food she didn’t like, or even recognise. She has been exposed to seriously cold below zero temperatures and terrified herself being over confident in a blizzard. She has experienced the extreme heat and dryness of the desert, and learned how to pace herself.

She has developed into an expert snorkeler, learned some new dance techniques, and explained the offside rule to a bunch of guys in China.

She has learned to compromise, to adapt, to keep going when things aren’t exactly how you would like them to be. She has learned that sometimes, she doesn’t come first, that others, including her mother, sometimes need to take priority.

She has learned that some people look at things completely differently from us, and that that’s OK.

I could go on and on, but I have a life to put together here. I am so proud of Lauren, and so glad we did the trip – I wanted it to be a wonderful moment for both of us to enjoy life and learn about the world – it was that and so much more.

Thanks for reading, I hope some of the blog was entertaining or useful, and if you are ever wondering whether you should do something similar: do it.

Brussels!

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Brussels was a lovely week of meeting up with friends, with some good food and a dash of culture throw in.

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The main objective of stopping in Brussels as we wound our way inexorably westwards and towards ‘home’ and the end of the trip was to see our good friends and their respective families.

The focus was on catching up, but we managed to do a few cultural things too.

One day we visited the European parliament and its museum, which was extremely well done although rather bittersweet for the pro-European Brit in me. The museum had a family game to play as we wandered round the exhibits, and the kids ran around looking for answers while the adults tackled some of the more complex questions.

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My main sensation was of how the lofty ideals and desire post WWII to create a united Europe to prevent war, has been pushed somewhat off track, but the fundamental values that the EU stands for are still worth fighting for, and that the UK would be better served engaging properly with all the EU does, rather than standing on the sidelines and criticising like a resentful teenageer.

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Lofty ideals indeed.

At a time when the EU is under threat, I feel it should be less arrogant, blithely assuming that people understand and support what it is doing, and instead be a pro active advocate for the things it wants to do, and explain the benefits. There are some immensely dedicated technical staff, and MEPs, who campaign long and hard for what they believe in – some of which is beneficial to EU citizens – but most EU citizens, and certainly most Brits, would have no idea that the EU is protecting them or debating policy ideals that they can, through their MEPs, input into. I guess Brussels is suffering from the general frustration and distrust of politicians and bureaucrats that currently characterizes much of Western politics – with the added complication of not being well understood, feeling more remote than national politics, and being easy to critizise as a supra national body.

Another day we had a lovely picnic with other families who live/used to live in Mozambique, in one of the beautiful parks in the centre, and then we went on an ‘underground treasure hunt’ around ancient Coudenberg Palace. It was great fun watching our bunch of 7 kids trying to work together to solve all the various puzzles hidden in chests around the ruins.

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The rest of our time in Brussels was spent catching up on everyone’s news over wine, and just letting the kids hang out.

The last night, I took Lauren to the Hard Rock café on the Grand Place, to celebrate the end of our trip, as the next stop would be Lisbon to be reunited with family and start a whole new chapter.

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Moscow

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We had a lovely week in Moscow, although it took a few days to fully recover from the journey from Beijing. We were lucky enough to have gracious hosts who lent us an apartment, showed us around, and generally made our time very special. Thanks guys!

We did the touristy stuff – Red square, Kremlin, GUM, St Basil’s cathedral etc, but Moscow was suffering the effects of a Europe-wide heat wave, so we paced ourselves, and spent just as much time chilling in cafés, eating ice cream and hanging out with our friends. Moscow is certainly more colourful, friendly and Western than 20 years ago when I first visited – if you can ignore the fact its effectively a police state, where journalists are routinely harassed and people who disagree with the state are forced to leave, you can pretend you are in any cosmopolitan European city.

One day we went to the Cosmonaut museum, all about the Russian space programme, including a full size replica of the main module of the International Space Station, which was cool, and the first two dogs (stuffed) who survived a trip to space….(Belka and Strelka)  which was a bit grim. At least they didn’t stuff Yuri Gagarin…..

Another day we went to Afisha Picnic, a music festival with a weird vibe, possibly due to being alcohol free. It was very odd, with many people dressed to the nines (expensive dresses, high heels, designer jeans they didn’t want to get grass stains on…) and lots of stalls promoting products…. The music seemed somewhat irrelevant to the high rollers of Moscow who were more interested in showing off their designer gear and posing on beanbags. There was a fun kids area though, and we were happy to see Belle & Sebastian play a brilliant set. Dancing down the front with Lauren on my back was possibly not the most sensible idea though…. And I can’t even blame alcohol….

 

Soon it was time to cross our 23rd time zone, this time to Brussels, which would be our last stop before ending our round the world trip in Lisbon, from where we set off almost exactly a year ago.

Ulaan Baator to Moscow by Train

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Day One

The compartment we were allocated in first class is certainly a step down from what we had on the Chinese train. We had been told that first class included a shower shared with one other compartment, electrical sockets, air conditioning and one meal a day. None of these pertain. Well, you can open the window (if you have the strength and as long as you don’t mind not being able to shut it again), that’s the extent of the aircon. Don’t get me wrong, we are perfectly comfortable – Lauren said ‘I don’t like showers anyway’ and I did come equipped with wet wipes. The socket situation is a problem – there is one in the corridor that works occasionally but after all the lights went out unexpectedly and the attendant fell over my cable for the laptop in the dark, I have decided we can’t use it unless we leave our devices there. Plus, it only works about 20 percent of the time… We did bring actual books for just this possibility but Lauren has finished hers already on the second day. She is a voracious reader these days.

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The hot water boiler, providing boiling water for pot noodles and tea…. our main source of  sustenance for the next 5 days… 

The scenery up to the border through Mongolia was beautiful – lots of rolling hills and rivers. Obviously its not easy getting pictures from the train, but these give you an idea…

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The border crossing into Russia happened late at night – we arrived around midnight – but was much quicker than the China-Mongolia crossing as the wheels didn’t need changing. Out of Mongolia was fast and polite. Into Russia was brusque, serious and intense. First they came round and scrutinized passports and visas. A woman inputted every detail of our passport and visa into a hand held device, then scanned/examined (?) every page of our passports, with some kind of handheld electronic camera/magnifying glass… Then she stamped my passport and returned it, with the immigration card, but took Lauren’s and disappeared, clearly not happy with something….  Not  sure what happened but 10 minutes later she returned, stamped it rather aggressively, and then tore off the part of the immigration card we are supposed to retain – tearing right across her stamp on ‘my’ section and presenting me with the two bits that I will probably get into trouble for.

After that, ‘border security’ came through and there was no being nice because I had a child – we were made to leave the compartment while a young military guy inspected everywhere – not a problem, but would it have hurt to say please? He barked orders at us (in English) and seemed impatient with the whole process. I thought we were done after this and put the door to so that Lauren could try to sleep (it was well after 1am by now). A minute later a tall guy in uniform berated us loudly in Russian, and wrenched the door open, so we left it like that. Then a woman with a face straight out of Kafka marched sternly past, carrying a video camera and filming each of us. Still not done, we were then visited by customs who made us open our bags and poked around amongst the dirty underwear and pot noodles until satisfied we weren’t bringing in anything illegal.

Still we were not allowed to close our door, but Lauren dozed off eventually as I stayed up until around 3am when we finally left.

Day Two

After a disturbed sleep, we woke around 9am, to be told it was actually 4am as we were now in Russia and Russian trains work on Moscow time no matter how many time zones they are away from Moscow. We are 5 time zones away. Its very confusing. We have decided that I will have my watch on Moscow time and Lauren will changes hers as we cross each time zone, until we ‘meet’ in the Moscow time zone…

We were travelling along the shore of beautiful Lake Baikal, supposedly the ‘oldest’ lake in the world and certainly the deepest. At times there was nothing to see but vast expanses of water, at others people were camping on beaches and even swimming.

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After a breakfast of slightly stale cinnamon rolls and instant coffee/mint tea, we spent the morning reading and attempting to charge various devices. Around 09h45 (Moscow time) or 14h45 (Lauren’s stomach time) we arrived in Irkutsk where a stop of 45 minutes gave us the opportunity to dash off the train, find an ATM and buy lunch.

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Its amazing what you can classify as acceptable food when the alternative is pot noodles. Lauren had deep fried chicken wings and chips, I had a beef wrap (which in the picture was actual beef chunks in a wrap with salad, but in reality was a burger in a wrap with a slice of tomato and a gherkin…). Both were grim, but warm, filling and, most importantly, not pot noodles. My approach was to eat as fast as possible and not think. Lauren’s was to take forever over every mouthful, screwing her face up as she chewed and sighing loudly.

We are not fast food kind of people.

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The afternoon passed in looking out the window, more reading, updating this blog while my laptop had battery and playing yet more sessions of Machi Koro.

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Day Three

Day three saw us travelling due west across the endless expanses of Siberia. We stopped occasionally for 20-30 minutes at stations, where we would stretch our legs and buy snacks. Lauren was nervous at first about leaving the platform, but soon got used to dashing quickly around the station to get some exercise, even running up and down the steps to the overhead bridges to work up a bit of a sweat.

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We drank a lot of tea, read a lot, played a lot of machi koro, and allowed ourselves snacks every couple of hours. The scenery didn’t change much – forests of silver birch, pine and fir, interspersed with beautiful meadows of long grass filled with purple, yellow and white flowers. Occasionally we passed little villages of wooden houses and the odd golden dome of a church. Guys wandered about shirtless, tinkered with old cars, drank beer. Women carried bags and herded children along country lanes, kids played football or mooched about in the fields.  We crossed a lot of rivers, occasionally seeing a fisherman or people camping on the shore. There were also spooky remnants of industry, ancient abandoned factories in the middle of nowhere, and modern timber yards. When we came to road crossings the attendants were always middle aged women in high vis orange jackets, hanging out the window of their little blue huts.

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We were asked by the two women who are in charge of the carriage to swap compartments. We were a little annoyed about this as we had really unpacked and made ourselves at home. I figured there must have been some mix up with tickets and agreed, but it turned out they just wanted to hang out in ‘our’ compartment which was closest to the galley.

One super annoying thing on the train, which we noticed more in our ‘new’ compartment, was the piped music that can never be properly turned off. Its played from a central point on the train and while each compartment has a volume button, ours didn’t quite work so that when the train was quiet you could just about hear it, which was more annoying than hearing it properly. It was torture for a while, but then we got used to it.

The highlight of the day was discovering the restaurant car. Given we had managed to get Rubles in Irkutsk, I thought we might brave it, despite  my memory of Russian train food being of lumps of unidentified grey meat and pickled cucumber.

We walked through around 9 carriages to reach the restaurant car, passing through crowded 2nd class carriages and eerily quiet empty ones. Between the carriages were dark spaces where two metal plates overlapped, bouncing and jumping so that you could see the tracks speeding by below. Wires hung down from above so that my head brushed against them in the dark. Many of the lights were out or broken as we made our way ever further towards the back of the train.

Then, suddenly we were at the restaurant car, and as I opened the door and entered we were greeted by a hot, dimly lit carriage decorated with disco lights and coloured balloons. Russian pop music was blaring out from a karaoke machine clearly made for a much bigger space, and the only other customers were two very drunk guys and a table of Mongolian guys in their 20s. There were artificial flowers on every table, heavily ornate gold brocade curtains, polished wooden benches and tables, and behind the bar a well-padded lady of indeterminate age with a soviet-era haircut who greeted us and ushered us to a table as if she hadn’t seen a paying customer in years. It felt a little Hotel California.

We ordered borsch followed by stroganoff and both were actually delicious. One of the drunk guys wobbled over to our table to shake hands, then left us alone, much to my relief. He and his mate belted out a few karaoke numbers, including a Russian language version of Despacito, which was most odd.

Day Four

Day four passed very much like day three – reading, machi koro, tea, snacks and dinner in the (thankfully karaoke-less) dining car. More opportunities to run around stations and grab an ice cream, and even 5 minutes of free wifi at one of the stations, so we could exchange a few messages with family and friends.

We officially crossed into Europe at some point, although we missed the monument that is supposedly there. I remember it from 20 years ago, but we couldn’t see it. We were now officially in ‘known territory’ once we passed Yekaterinburg, which was as far as I ever got in my Siberian adventures back in my 20s.

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We also spent some time with our Mongolian neighbours – they were moving to Egypt and decided to take the train to Moscow and fly from there. He was a diplomat and had worked all over the middle east. We had some interesting discussions about Mongolia, the middle east, Africa and foreign policy of a country sandwiched between Russia and China, demanding neighbours indeed.  Lauren and his 4 year old daughter played together for ages despite no common language.

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Day Five

Suddenly it was out last day on board and we would soon disembark and see our good friends from Mozambique, who now live in Tanzania but were spending the summer in Moscow. Lauren was beside herself with excitement to see the two girls. I was also looking forward to seeing friends, but just as excited at the idea of a shower! It was wonderful to be once more amongst friends, and Moscow was a whole lot more inviting than the last time I had been here, nearly 20 years ago.

 

 

 

 

Mongolia!

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As we pulled into the station in UB, as the locals call it, we scanned the crowds on the platform for the face of our friend Naomi, who I had worked for previously in Mozambique. Naomi, her husband Eric and their two teenage sons would be our gracious hosts and guides for the too-short time we were in Mongolia. [I can’t believe it but we didn’t even get a picture of us all….too busy nattering!].

I finally picked Naomi out of the crowd and rushed (as much as a 20 kg bag allows) over for a hug – it was so good to see someone we knew!!

A quick turnaround at their place and we were joined by two small girls, half Mongolian half French, who would be accompanying Eric, myself and Lauren to a camp out in the hills. Unfortunately, Naomi had to work. The three girls kept up a constant chatter for the next 24 hours. It was nice for Lauren to have someone to talk to other than me, and a break for me to not be the only recipient of her chatter.

Win-win.

We drove about an hour and a half out of UB, to get to the camp, which consisted of a few Gers on the banks of a river and surrounded by horses, cows and goats. The ger was surprisingly roomy inside and the girls took delight in teaching us some of the rules of ger living – always enter with the right foot, stepping over (not on) the threshold, never walk between the two minor poles supporting the roof, always walk a particular way round the major main pole…. they took even greater delight in pointing out when we did something wrong.

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Dinner was somewhat rustic, mutton with potatoes and carrots and pasta, but tasty and edible. Funnily enough, Eric (who is French) was the only one of us to eat all his mutton fat and gristle. The (half) Mongolian girls and the tourists left a little pile of gristle by the side.

After dinner the girls played with the kids of the owner, a mish mash of languages, ages and genders that seemed to gel into some kind of cohesive game.

The next day, the others went horse riding.

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I was so jealous, my teenage self would have given just about anything for the opportunity to go horse riding across the hills of Mongolia – across rivers and up hills, no path required. I just couldn’t risk hurting my back (I had surgery on it a decade ago, its never been right since) so instead waved them off and settled down by the river with my kindle for a couple of hours of peace.

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Lauren returned full of excitement and stories of how they crossed a river saw Yaks and other animals and how the guides at one point hopped off their horses for a ten minute nap. Not strictly required on a two hour ride I would have thought, but there you go.

Looking around, you really get the impression of a country comfortable with its traditions – gers are everywhere and even when there are brick buildings, they also have gers. Apparently families often sleep in the gers in winter (and it gets seriously cold here, like minus 30) as they are warmer than the ‘modern’ houses. Young children sit on horseback as if they are part of the horse. We saw one boy, probably about Lauren’s age, astride a horse, leading 4 or 5 others by leads, while typing on his mobile.

The scenery was stunning, even this close to UB. Of course, with more time we could have gone further, more remote, and that would have been incredible. But thanks to Eric we at least got a flavour for what it would be like – the country is huge, scantily populated, and still retains a lot of nomadic culture.

After packing up and thanking the owner of the camp (the only word we learned in Mongolia was thank you, and even that was complicated) we visited the enormous monument to Ghengis Khan, who is still revered in the country. The monument is huge, brash and hideous, but certainly a sight worth seeing. We decided we didn’t feel the need to pay the entrance fee and climb up to the top of his horses ‘mane’ like the droves of other tourists and chose lunch instead.

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After lunch we visited a Buddhist monastery and meditation centre. To reach it we had to walk up a steep incline, surrounded on both sides by some distinctly odd and dark sayings… trying to figure out what they meant gave us a good excuse to take a breather as we wound our way up the mountainside, and then across a rickety suspension bridge.

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And my personal favourite………

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The views from the top were incredible, but my lungs soon protested when I tried to enter the temple – the air was thick with incense and my pneumonia-weakened lungs (that still hadn’t recovered from the climb) insisted I wait outside while Eric and the girls explored. I sat in the shade and contemplated the view.

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Back in UB that night we had a bath (I don’t think I have had an actual bath in a year!) which was lovely after a night on a train then a night in a ger, followed by a yummy dinner (Indian! Yay! Although there was mutton tikka which we left to Eric).

All too soon the next day it was time to pack up (after another bath this time in the master bathroom, complete with coloured lights, bubbles and ‘massage effects’ ) and head to the station.

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We just managed to squeeze in a coffee and lunch and a quick trip to a souvenir shop for our Mongolian ‘swag’ before boarding a distinctly less luxurious train than the one we arrived on.

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We had barely two days in Mongolia, and while we packed plenty in thanks to Eric’s willingness to play tour guide, it was difficult to get much more than a superficial impression. Just crossing on the train we were struck by how much more colourful and individual houses were than in China. People definitely smiled more (although I wouldn’t say they were ‘smily’). The economy is clearly doing well (huge amounts of mining) and there are new buildings and cars in UB. It is also clearly a country shaped by the need to appease the two huge neighbours it is squeezed between. I would love to explore further but for now, we say goodbye to this fascinating country, thanks a million to Naomi and Eric, and head off on our next leg – all the way without stopping, five days on a train, to Moscow.