Monday, 24 September 2012

The Big Smoke - Běijīng

Our train trundled through Inner Mongolian haze to finally release us on the Chinese capital, Běijīng. To tell the truth, I was apprehensive about China. This was the land of my ancestors, but this was also a country that had undergone dramatic social changes since. I had no real idea what to expect.

We arrived at Beijing's main train station, and met with "the crowd". At least it wasn't rush hour. I know Beijing had a lot of people and I expected crowds, but I didn't expect the presence of crowds to be just so constant. So many lives bustling about throughout night and day, routine and life changing journeys crossing paths seemingly all at once. We resigned ourselves to the idea that "the crowd" would most likely accompany us throughout our China journey. So we fought the queue-jumpers to get our next train tickets (elbows, shoulders and big backpacks help), shrugged off the aggressive fake taxi touts (just be typically Chinese and avoid eye contact), successfully dodged the poopy land mines left by children (that's right, parents encourage their kids to defecate openly in public), and navigated the constant stream of electric bicycles to find our way to our hostel in Nianzi Hútòng.

Bicycles in the Hútòng - NianZi Hútòng, Běijīng
It was tucked quietly away amongst the web of Beijing's hútòng, an endangered network of small tiled buildings and alleyways in the heart of the city. Somehow in these little enclaves, a local community culture survived, complete with morning table tennis games, bird singing in the park, and card games in the afternoon. One could almost forgive the sight of a mother teaching her child to urinate in the sink instead of the perfectly functional toilet nearby. Our hútòng was amazingly crowd-free, people helpfully pointed out the direction we needed to go, and there were plenty of greasy street snacks to be tasted.

Typical Chinese Stir-Fry - Běijīng
We all like a good barbeque. Grilled Stuffed Jalapeño Peppers - Lao Bei Jing Kao Rou, Běijīng
We were well situated in Dōngchéng to get to some of Beijing's main attractions. We discovered 800 year old cypress trees at Tiāntán Park, amongst which city folk spent their Sunday practising their ribbon twirling skills with friends, or whiling away a solitary afternoon with a bout of water calligraphy.

Ben at Tiāntán Park - Běijīng
We browsed the bustling streets of Nanluogu Xiang, an historic hútòng street converted into a colourful shopping, eating and sightseeing destination. It had a upbeat, albeit more crowded, atmosphere, where Ben soon found that owning a large DSLR in China did not make you stand out.

Impressive lion dancing for a wedding in the hútòng alleyways of Nanluogu Xiang - Běijīng
And of course we visited Tiān’ānmén Square and the Forbidden City.

Meridian Gate entrance to the Forbidden City - Běijīng
The huge, sprawling complex was thankfully vast enough to spread out the crowds, and the audio guide commentary was informative, although rather dry.

Tia enraptured by the audio guide at the Forbidden City - Běijīng
Artefacts from various periods of Chinese imperial history were displayed in various halls with superfluous names like "Joyful Longevity", "Heavenly Purity" and "Military Prowess". One cool highlight was the Clock Exhibition Hall with hundreds of exquisite antique timepieces gifted to Qing emperors of the 18th Century, including an automaton robot that could write Chinese calligraphy.

View from the Gate of Supreme Harmony. People at the Forbidden City - Běijīng
Despite the crowds and some restoration efforts of questionable authenticity, it was a pretty awesome place to see, and we did find some nice architectural features that we'd love to include in our future dream home, one day.

A calming courtyard in the Forbidden City - Běijīng
Funky Door in the Forbidden City - Běijīng
We met up with an old friend of mine from Australia, Meilian and her partner George, who had carved out a life for themselves in Beijing. They took us out to try some amazing Beijing hot-pot - a big city blend of the Mongolian (tasty, mild) and Sichuan (tongue-numbing pepper) styles of hot-pot, including a spinning display of noodle pulling at our table.

Běijīng Hot-Pot. A combination of Mongolian and Sichuan styles of hot-pot - Haidilao Hot Pot, Běijīng
We queried our hosts on what life was like in Beijing compared to Sydney. Yes, the pollution is bad, often very bad. Yes, people are rude, often very rude. Yes, children are often found peeing and pooing in awfully public places, but you weren't here at this very restaurant a few months ago when one child was directed to relieve himself into a soup bowl … WTF! But there are certain freedoms one has when moving from an orderly, ordinary established western society to the wild, exciting contrasts of a developing eastern society. Plus Meilian was fully committed to her up-and-coming Sweet Tooth venture.

They also took us to a top class Peking Duck restaurant, where we enjoyed the whole shebang of Peking Duck: start with the crispy, delicate skin of the duck breast, sliced separately for you to dip in sugar; followed by the carving of the tender, lightly seasoned duck meat, which you wrap with scallions and dipping sauce within a pancake; ending with the rich broth made from the remaining fat, meat and bones.

Peking Duck - Quan Ju De, Běijīng
The real deal, Peking Duck in Peking - Quan Ju De, Běijīng
The whole bird even came with it's own certificate to "prove" it was a quality specimen. Decadent.

Certified and everything. Peking Duck - Quan Ju De, Běijīng
I was lamenting how we didn't have time this trip to check out any of the famed Chinese acrobatics, when all of a sudden, the restaurant lights dimmed and we were treated to a complimentary show. Score! It started out with four musicians on traditional Chinese stringed instruments, followed by a girl throwing bowls with her foot, catching and stacking them on her head, all while balancing on a unicycle, a Chinese opera singer in traditional elaborate costume, a guy who could pour water in some crazy ways, a dual character with a flipping mask, and a juggler of one huge ceramic pot. It was a happy evening, and a great entertaining way to catch up with good friends.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Saga - Part 4

It was the final leg of the Trans-Mongolian train journey - Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. This was a two-day one-night journey on the #24 train departing at 7:15am. An early start, but as much we liked Mongolia we had a schedule to get out of the city, plus we were excited to see some bare Gobi Desert.

Leaving - Ulaanbaatar Station
Our compartment buddies were a non-talkative Chinese man who spent the whole time either sleeping or smoking, and a young Australian called Johnno. Bloody Aussies were everywhere it seemed. He was a chilled out Fitzroy Melbournian who had some interesting travel experiences. We chatted about books we'd read, people we'd met, and his time with the nomads in Mongolia which was much more intense then ours. He had also been to Tibet, a part of China we would not be travelling to on this trip. His accounts of a Tibetan Sky Burial were captivating to say the least.

However most of the day was spent reading, occasionally picking up the camera to snap the hours away and capture the last bits of Mongolian Gobi Desert scenery.

Our Train to China - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
The Gobi Desert - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Gobi Desert - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
The sunsets over Mongolia - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Unlike the Russian trains, we could open the windows of this carriage for some cool fresh air, as well as some cool shots of ourselves when the train went around a big sweeping corner.

Tia out the Window - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Ben out the window - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
We reached the Erenhot/Erlian border around midnight and were greeted with marching Communist music trumpeting over loudspeakers. Chinese customs officers boarded the train and our passports and luggage areas scutinised for any contraband. One officer looked at Tia, looked at her passport, frowned and asked if she was Chinese. "Uh, sort of ..." she hesitated, to which he asked could she speak Chinese. "Oh, not really," she replied, "Ni Hao?" in a very Aussie-born-Chinese accent. It was clear to the officer that she did not belong to the People's Republic of China, so he moved on.

We were then treated to a minor spectacle. Mongolia's railways were built by the Russians using Russian gauge, 1524mm (5ft) while China built their railways to standard gauge, 1435mm (4ft 8½in). So how do they deal with the inconvenient fact that fat Rusky-Mongol trains don't fit in China? Don't bother getting up good passenger, China will change your wheels for you!

At the Chinese border - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
At the bogie exchange, the carriage wagons were decoupled from each other and lifted off the bogies using a series of hydraulic jacks. The set of bogies underneath were rolled away, and then the smaller set rolled in. Everything got re-aligned, they set the wagons down again, connected them back together and hey presto! we were on a Chinese train. All this took about an hour, and we stayed on the train the whole time, watching the process in fascination. It was a noisy job so there was no chance of sleeping through it, quite fun really.

Changing of the Bogies - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
It was a late finish, so we were soon snoozing to the familiar rocking of the train journey.

Waking up in China was an unreal experience. Gazing sleepily out the window, it looked like the entire countryside was covered in thick morning fog, but the haze never went away. After a while we realized it was smog. I'd heard that it was a polluted country, but I thought that that was just around the big cities , not in the country. Bewildering.


Despite the best efforts of the smog, we managed to spot the Great Wall for the first time. It’s a little hard to make out in the photo, but it is there, running up the ridge-line from the center to the right.

Our first view of the Great Wall of China (running up the ridge from mid photo to the right) - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
We were excited to arrive in Beijing. As odd as it sounds, I was craving rice. Food hadn't been that great over the last few months; yeah there has been some good meals, but nothing like South East Asia, Spain or Italy. This also meant the end of our Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Train Saga - 10,000 kilometres travelled over 7 days and 8 nights, with a few weeks of exploring in between to keep it fun. We met a lot of amazing people, more than any other part of this year's trip so far. A lifetime highlight to remember.

So China, bring it on.

Through the tunnels - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Mixed Bag - Mongolian Adventures

Our "Nomad” experience was coming to an end and to top it all off we had a wonderful “morning soup” for breakfast. I would like to put this lightly, but I don’t know how. It was the most foul tasting soup I have ever had. It was basically the leftovers from the previous night's BBQ, mostly fat and innards soaked off from bones that had already been eaten, but it was worse then just that. It smelled foul, and there was no way I was having it. The others agreed, but somehow Tia was able to finish half a bowl.

And a Beautiful sunrise as well - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
When it was time to go we were rushed into the vans and before we knew it, we were off. Later we realised how sad, and how rude, this was. We just stayed with a family for a couple of nights and were not given a chance, nor did we remember, to say goodbye. I was quite disappointed in myself.

We hadn’t driven more than fifteen minutes before we stopped again. This time one of the vans drove up onto a ramp. Oh no, what now ... ah yes, better fix that suspension before taking the van back to the boss ... Soon a welder came out and they started welding the lower part of the shock absorber back onto the control arm. It looked like a pretty dodge job to me, and I felt sorry for Nic and Dave who had to ride in the van.

You know the roads are bad when you spend most of the time driving off-road. But as usual, this didn't slow down our drivers, who were racing each other again. Tia was getting nauseous and at points we were reaching speeds of 140 km/h. They were constantly slamming on the brakes, swerving around potholes and seemed to play chicken with other cars. Dave advised us on what to do if the van rolled ... scary stuff.

Surprisingly we made it to our next destination without further incident, a massive 40 metre high stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan. The sculpture actually didn't look too bad, and you got to climb out of Genghis' crotch and up the horses mane for a nice view from atop of the head.

40m of Stainless Steel in the form of Genghis Khan - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where

A great place to exit Genghis Khan - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where

The Right hand of Genghis Khan - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where

Then it was back into the dreaded van for another ride; this time it was a race to the tour company's ger lodge. The other drivers took the road, our driver decided to take a "shortcut" over rough, sandy backroads and open plains. This part was particularly scary - if he lost it here we would definitely roll. Thankfully the spirits must have been watching as we survived the 20 minute dash to the lodge.

Calm - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
The ger lodge was different to the nomad experience from the last few nights. It reminded me of a school camp or a caravan park. At least it had a shower and a well cooked meal (I was starving).

With no plans for the next day we decided to plan a trip to Terelj National Park. Nic and Dave were onboard, although poor Nigel was ill (something to do with too much milk) so he and Sarah were content to chill. We talked to Oyuun and this resulted in a bit of a battle to get a fair price (we didn’t trust her after the camel incident), but we got an agreement in the end. The evening was spent with all six of us travellers hanging out in Nic and Dave's ger, swapping stories and joking about how this mixed bag Mongolian adventure was turning out.

The next morning we woke up and got ready for a nice hike. But hold your horses, there seemed to be a commotion between Nigel, Sarah and the guides Neesa and Oyuun. Long story shot, at some point in their Mongolian journey someone had stolen several hundred US$ out of Sarah's bag. The guides panicked and had no idea what to do. They went into lock down mode - no-one could leave. They called all the drivers to get them to come out here and they wanted to search everything. Nigel just wanted them to call the police so he could get a statement for his travel insurance claim, but was told that he would need to pay the police to get them out here. Although Nigel and Sarah insisted that we should continue on our hike, instead of waiting for these guides to sort it out, the guides thought we were very cruel (and possibly suspect) for even considering a hike while this travesty was unfolding.

Eventually we settled them all down; Nigel and Sarah would go to Ulaanbaatar the next day to obtain a police report and we were allowed to go on our hike. Later we heard how Neesa had called her shaman to enquire on the whereabouts of the money (it seemed that shamans could now perform spiritual services over the phone). The shaman, after a day of deliberation and consultation with his spirits, came to the conclusion that yes, a large sum of money had been taken, and no, they will never see that money again.

The ride to Terelj National Park eventually got us there around lunchtime. We asked Oyuun if she knew the track. “The last time I took another group for a walk we followed this road up the hill,” she said as she pointed to a trail, “follow this around and you can come down here” (a sheer rock face), “or here” (a slippery slope of shale scree), “or here” (another sheer rock face). We smiled and nodded but felt we were lucky she had decided not to come along.

The start of the Climb - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
As we started up the track the skies opened up and it actually started hailing. Amazing ... I love a good hail-storm. It was small stuff so we weren't worried, but it reminded me of my childhood in Northern NSW. The track disappeared pretty soon and it was becoming quite the adventure. We continued up hill until we reached the ridge line. There was no way we could walk along it, as it was much too steep. So we found a high point to have a bit of a look and worked out where we would go; off in the distance we could see another track and decided to head down the other side of the ridge towards it.

Nice light after a hail storm - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
The walk was refreshing and enjoyable. It was the start of autumn so many of the trees had turned and golden leaves were falling.

Nic accelerating the Fall - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
The rain had cleared the air and the lighting was crisp. We passed a ger nestled amongst the rocks and trees but no-one was home. We spotted scampering squirrels and soaring eagles.

Finding our own way - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
After a quick snack at the highest point on the walk, we descended back into the valley. It was rough and steep but we slowly made it down.

The view from 2000m- Gorkhi Terelj National Park
When we got back we asked if Oyuun had really done the walk before. "The other group did it by themselves and it took them two days" was her reply. Uh, thanks.

Autunm colours - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
The next day we said our goodbyes to the members of our group headed back to Ulaanbaatar. New friends with new shared stories of Mongolia.

The Gang - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
We had an extra night here which we used to do our laundry (ger struts make good hanging spots), write bits of our blog, and go for long walks.

A good road - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
Long Shadows - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
The reality of this land - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
We also spent some more time with our own guide, Enkee. He became more open with the other guides gone, expressing his concern at the overcharged camel rides and stolen money. That aside, he was a kid who came from the countryside, who loved to drink fermented mare's milk ("I like the people in the ger on that hill over there; they gave me four litres of mare's milk to drink!") and taught us how to play knuckles. Not the painful version I grew up with, but Mongolian knuckles. Basically it uses sheep knuckle bones, where each of the four sides of the bone is distinct and symbolises a camel, sheep, goat, and horse. There are many games, but we played a simple racing game where you line up 20-30 bones, horse side up, set your own "racing horse" bone at the start next to the first bone, and take turns rolling a set of four knuckle bones like dice. You get to move a spot for every bone that gets rolled as a "horse", and extra moves if you manage to roll one of each of the four animals. First to get to the end of the line wins.

Learning to play Mongolian Knuckles - Somewhere in Mongolia
Our last day in Mongolia was spent exploring museums in Ulaanbaatar. First we checked out the cool wooden puzzles at the Intellectual Museum. I was fascinated with the puzzles that had been invented; I especially liked the desks with the hidden draws that would only open when the proper sequence was complete. We also checked out the rocks, fossils and huge number of taxidermied animals at the Natural History Museum. Mongolia's natural history is interesting, especially since it is a major fossil finding destination. We were close to the museum's closing time so had to rush through some of the exhibitions but it was good stuff.

We boarded the #24 train that would take us to China the following day. Our Mongolian experience was a mixed bag of tricks; at times it was frustrating, but in many ways it was amazing. It can be a difficult place to travel, that is for sure, but there are enough great people for you to meet to make a trip worthwhile. You will have stories regardless.

Sunrise - Ulaanbaatar Station

Monday, 17 September 2012

Mongolian Misguidance

I woke up to the crisp, cool morning with stomping and coughing outside our ger. I popped my head out only to see that the animals had sidled right up close to our door overnight. A goat sneeze sounds remarkably human.

Sunrise over the Mongolian Steppe - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
Once everyone was awake and the guard dogs chained up (Mongolians keep aggressive dogs to protect their herds at night) we were directed to help round up the herd. A man with a loop of rope on a stick chased down one unlucky goat - tonight's dinner was sorted.

Picking Dinner - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
One of the drivers also decided to get some sheep to take home, but he had to catch it and kill it himself. "This is the best way; most humane way," Enkee explained, as he helped the driver hold the sheep down to make a short slit in its chest where a quick hand inside pinched the carotid artery until the creature died from lack of blood to the head. It was relatively quick and clean, although it didn't stop the sheep from shitting itself, literally. The reality of ribs, chops and steak.

For dinner we have fresh Meat - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
I was keen to get into the morning horse milking and herding activities that occupied our nomadic host families, however our guides had other plans for us. We were all loaded into our respective vans and taken on a tour to Karakorum in the Orkhon Valley of the Övörkhangai Province. This area was known as the birthplace of Mongolian civilisation, where the legendary 13th century gathering of clans declared the status of Temujin, aka Chinggis Khaan, as the “Great Khan”, and his military campaigns of conquest began. An informative museum showed us artefacts and models of the ancient settlement, of which nothing was left but a single stone turtle from Chinggis Khaan's royal court. On its site was the Erdene Zuu monastery, one of the oldest and most important Tibetan Buddhist centres in Mongolia.

Erdene Zuu Monastery - Kharkhorin  Click here to find out where
The day trip would have been fine if it weren't for the behaviour of some of our guides. Firstly, the drivers felt it was a good idea to spontaneously race each other to every destination. Fortunately, traffic was sparse. Unfortunately, pot-holed roads, worn-out dirt trails and rocky river beds did not make a good race track for drivers who were not rally car drivers, in tin-can vans that were a far cry from all-terrain vehicles. A broken suspension mount ended the frivolity, and sobered the other drivers to the fact that the boss back at the office may not approve of trashing the company car.

Then there was the camel ride. "You can ride over the sand dunes!" Oyuun insisted, as we drove past the camels next to the sand dunes to another group of camels in a flat grass field. "An exciting half-hour ride" she pushed, as a grinning man happily took $15 US dollars (₮25,000 tögrög, a huge sum in Mongolian terms) from each of us, barked at his 5-year-old daughter to take hold of the lead rope and went back inside his ger to sip fermented mare's milk with Oyuun. We were treated to a ten minute wander about the lawn, all at a distracted child's pace. Hmm, somehow we felt we were being taken for a ride.

An uninspiring camel ride - Somwehere in Mongolia
The evening's 'Mongolian barbecue' brought back a bit of fun - a large pot filled with vegetables, water, salt, sections of the butchered goat from the morning and hot river rocks, stewed within a large stick fire.

Getting the fire going for a Mongolian BBQ - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
Not quiet what I expected but this is a real Mongolian BBQ - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
Final Product, a real Mongolian BBQ - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
So more of a greasy Mongolian stew, not too bad, except we were asked to pay Oyuun extra cash for the meat. Shifty character, we mused as we avoided the vodka this evening and tried to focus on the more authentic experiences.

Another beautiful Sunset - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
Like the family from the ger next door, with the father and his young eldest son working with his prize horse in preparation for future horse racing. And the Mongolian herder in traditional dress who came from a collection of gers over the hill to visit us in the middle of the night, without our guides, and share some fermented mare's milk.

Off to Work - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where