Sunday, December 28, 2008

Beijing, the old meets the new

The forbidden city

I woke up. Day two of five in this massive city. So much to see, not enough time.

It is a Saturday and that means that Beijing is swamped with tourists from the countryside of China. This equals mental. Unaware of what was to lie ahead we hired some bikes off a man who'd probably been hiring bikes out his whole life from the hutong we were staying on. For only 10 Yuan (NZ$3) it was well worth it, especially seeing we didn't return the bike till about 9pm. So off we went to ride the bike lanes of Beijing. We only got about 300 metres to the first attraction being Tiananmen Square.

My name is Mao, I'm the face of China

Tiananmen Square is the worlds largest city square, home of Mao Zedong, and place of bloody student riots in 1989. It was pretty fascinating being here, much like Red Square in Moscow. Having similar meaning to the communists of China as to the communists of Russia, being here gave you a real feeling of what the underlying nerves of China are made of. It also gave a great perspective of the population of China. Being the worlds largest urban square it was also the most populated square at the time of visit. So we missed the chance to see Mao and had to come back another day. When we came back it was very bizarre experience, much like seeing Lenin's tomb. This time we were marched through with thousands of people at a very rushed pace, being strictly instructed on what to do and even had the chance to buy a flower to lay on a memorial which we passed on.

Tiananmen Square, looking over to the Forbidden City entrance, with the big famous Mao photo

In the forbidden city overlooking one of the many temples

The rest of the square is basically just a huge open slab of concert so not that great, but at the end is the entrance to the forbidden city. So we headed on in. Again the massive population of China was experienced here. It seemed that Chinese people can only see things in tour groups, so there was hundreds of groups in similar coloured tour hats everywhere. Seeing us westerners are so independent we quite easily made it around the place without being part of a tour. But it was kinda spoiled as the overcrowded place wasn't really fun to experience due to the constant pushing and shoving of tour groups.

This is a crowd, they are annoying

The new opera house is super cool

Getting out of there was pretty relieving and we quickly went back to our bikes to go on a pretty fun self guided cycling tour of central Beijing. A few crazy food streets were visited where we ate lots of not so appetising animals on sticks, then cycled around some nice hutongs, waterways and the new opera building. Riding around town was really fun as Beijing is really well set up for cyclists. There are cycling lanes on nearly all roads which are fenced off from cars, this should be the model for all cities as would encourage a lot more cycling for safety reasons. Go green!

Random food on sticks... YUM...!!!

The next day we chopped tourist things because it was a Sunday and therefore the curse of the weekend busy-bodies had to be avoided. So we went shopping... Markets, knock off malls, and food stalls kept us very busy all day. There isn't much better than a delicious hot pot at the end of socialist shopping spree.

All your expensive clothes are here for mega cheap

Finally the weekend finished and we took this opportunity to visit the great wall. This was a very long day... I can't really explain easily how frustrating the great wall is to get to without being on a tour. So my advice for everyone is just join a tour at your hostel and don't even bother following the lonely planet guide on how to get out to the wall for cheap, as it basically won't be. Some smart Chinese people must have got hold of the instructions in the lonely planet and realised they could make a scam out of them. So we bused to this small town on the outskirts of Beijing, hoped off the bus into the scammer's traps. The wall is another 30 km from the bus stop so you have to take a shared taxi to get out there. Unfortunately tourists like us stand out like anything, so we were followed all over this town by the taxi group ring leader trying to get us to pay about NZ$100 for the three of us to get out this final bit. After doing things like grabbing and throwing the persons sign with excuses for the high price into a rubbish bin we finally got the price down to a reasonable $5 each.

Great Wall is great

Tom strides up the Great Wall's impractical 70 degree stair cases

The actual wall once we got to it was really good. Me and Tom walked from the Jinshanling to Simatai sections, while Arnika just explored the Simatai section. Many a classic great wall shot was captured and being a really nice blue calm day made it all the better. That was until we had to go home again. Another scam was gone through to get back to the bus to Beijing this time costing about NZ$15 each which was really annoying especially because the scammers knew it was our only way back so could basically charge whatever. The whole scamming tainted the day a bit as after all the arguing the amazing sights of the wall were a bit diluted. If someone from the tourism board of Beijing ever reads this, then get a public bus that goes all the way to the wall, seriously.

The Great Wall curves around the hill tops

Our final day was spent at the summer palace. The day was again a brilliant calm day, a little polluted but this made the palace seem quite beautiful as made the sun a saturated hazy yellow. We wondered the grounds for about four hours, and every moment was thoroughly enjoyed. The palace was so serene and so well presented. I managed to only walk about five metres at a time before coming across another amazing view to photograph. I think my photos will probably explain it a lot better than my writing, so enjoy.

All the bridges at the Summer palace were amazing pieces

The random old school street at the palace

The lookout to the lake at the Summer Palace

Travel team assembles at the Summer Palace

Polluted sunsets are beautiful sometimes...

A quick stop was made on the way back to the hostel past the new CCTV tower, which in my opinion is the coolest building in the world right now. Then a final diner was had down our amazing hutong then we took off to our over night train to Xian via the ridiculously over size Beijing West Railway Station.

Over sized? Yes.

CCTV building, if only I could live in it

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Beijing, Trans Mongolian done, China begun.

The Olympic Stadium Area

I am crossing desert, the population density is minimal, the land is featureless. This is leaving Mongolia by train out through the Gobi Desert. I fall asleep. I wake up. Still in the country side, but it is sparsely different. Welcome to China, the land of people. There seems to be no space that hasn't been cultivated, there are paved roads everywhere, and on those paved roads there are people, lots of people. We roll along with signs of a land long lived in, the Great Wall summons us into Beijing. Slowly the buildings get more compressed together and there height pushes the sky. For a city the size of Belgium it takes a good hour to travel into the train station. But as always the train arrives and we get off.

A not very fun three hour stop to change the bogeys on the train in the middle of the night

The great wall seen for the first time by my eyes

Right there, getting off, that was it. That was the completion of the Trans-Mongolian Rail. A journey that took us a quarter of the distance around the world. Along 7536 km of Europe and Asia through five time zones. We got off, and that was it. No 'welcome here' fireworks celebration, no handshake from the Chinese president. We just got off.

Welcome to Beijing...

Walking up out onto to the street we were suddenly lost in a sea of people. It seemed that everyone in town had gathered around the train station. Well this is what it felt like, the fact was there is just lots of people in town, everywhere. This was definitely a significant change from being a nomad wondering the empty steppe of Mongolia. A nice short ride on the flash new Beijing metro took us to our hostel. The Far East Hostel was located in brilliant little Hutong (a little Chinese alley way). But we reserved looking around for later in the day. First mission had to be the Olympics.


The team achieved Olympic glory

So another ride along even flasher sections of the Beijing Metro to the Olympic stadium was undertaken and Beijing then showed off all its grandeur right there. The stadium area is rather impressive to say the least. The new China seemed quite ahead of the world. Even after seeing the birds nest stadium and water cube on TV lots beforehand, it was still rather spectacular being there in person. It was obvious from the random night a few months after the big event on which we were there that the Olympics must have been amazing. We strolled for a while along the Olympic boulevard taking lots of photos until we reached another metro station and then went back for an old school taste of Beijing.

The water cube is beyond today

Looking fly by the birds nest...

This thing is cool, but probably didn't have any events run in it

The nest up close and personal

We had nearly reached our hostel stop, which took about 45 mins, when we had a bit of a disaster. Arnika, who had barely eaten all day was suddenly rather pale and complaining about not being able to stand up. So jumping out of a metro train onto the platform she had to sit down looking like she was about to pass out. Suffering from a case of low blood sugar we tried to make it out of the metro to find some coke or something for her to recover on. So helping her stand up, we made it about 5 metres before she turned to jelly in our arms and fainted. Being rather scared that this could turn out quite catastrophic, Tom ran off to get a coke while I took care of Arnika who had come back around, but had no idea of what was going on. Tom took a few minutes in which Arnika, who wouldn't remember it, was getting rather scared that she was going to get arrested. Thankfully some coke machine was near by and a few sips did some kind of magic and returned back our good old pal from the depths of her other dimension.

Even though Arnika fainting in a metro was quite intense, I still managed to document it

So relieved and contemplating what could have happened we returned to our Hutong to get a traditional dish of Peking duck to celebrate completing the rail. This started the next months eating marathon. Food being very cheap and very good in China was a joy. The joy was also found in the names of the food, 'road duck' being a quite accurate description of the dish which was just a whole duck that had been cut up and so looked like it had been just run over. A cheap $1 beer washed the dish down and feeling fantastic we made our way back to our sterile but very comfortable beds and dreamed of the new adventure that lay ahead, China.

Eating in a Hutong in Beijing is the best way to eat ever.

The diner was dominated

Monday, December 15, 2008

Central Mongolia, the finale of Mongolia

The ultra hard Mongolia team

Arvaikheer is a town in Mongolia, a town that I can't remember really anything about. We arrived here at about 11pm and we only saw a drunk lying in a comma on the street before going to bed. In the morning we woke up and left. I have no photos of this place and not really any memories so it might as well not exist. But it does somewhere and I'm sure it has a purpose in being there. From Arvaikheer we started the central Mongolian part of our tour. We'd spend six nights in this part of the country before returning back to Ulaanbaatar. From Arvaikheer we'd journey to Khuisiin Naiman Nuur Nature Reserve, continuing via Tovkhon Khiid a mountain temple, to Kharkhorin (Karakorum) the old capital city of Mongolia. Then head west to Tsetserleg on our way to the Great White Lake in the Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park to spend two nights. Then start the two day journey back to Ulaanbaatar past the fake Gobi named Mongol Els.

The vast steepe is interrupted by mountainous landscapes

Being completely over sitting in a van all day driving it was another day of it. Luckily the snow on the ground was slowly disappearing. I don't think it was melting from heat as the temperature was well below zero. But there was plenty of radiation from the sun seeing it was another brilliantly cloudless sunny day, so maybe this did a little work. So although driving around wasn't that fun any more, the scenery was just as amazing as ever. It seems that the whole of Mongolia has no shortage of visually stunning landscapes, it must be something to do with the fact that people haven't built rubbish all over the place so everything is just how it naturally should be. I think it says a lot about the rest of the world, I don't think it matters how impressive a building or planted garden is, natural beauty is always much more breathtaking.

Another day, another fantastic view

After driving along an icy blue river that contrasted so nicely against the mountains and hills covered in yellow grasses with a dusting of pure white snow for a few hours we arrived at an amazing ger camp. This was set at the end of a valley in a farm like setting which obviously is quite popular with tourist in the summer as was well equipped with a communal outhouse and a few empty gers that the drivers got to use as there private residence, instead of doing the usual sleep in the van or with the family. There was also a few other guests on another tour here so we got to have a social night although I didn't partake in drinking the bottle of vodka in the new Mongolian style of drinking (pour the person on your left a shot, give them the amount you feel they need) as I still feeling average from previous days situations.

This is us going crazy on some yak's cream, putting it on the biscuits of which we'd eat about a packet a day each

Me and my horse friend

This family was lucky enough to own a herd of yaks

The morning was rather confusing as we'd planned to leave early so that we could go see two monasteries that day and in turn chop riding horses. So after walking to the nearby frozen waterfall we expected to be leaving. But the hosts had produced a herd of horses and we were not allowed to leave without riding them. I suspect it was because about 50,000 togrogs were not going to be spent on the riding if we left. So seeing that we had no choice, hopped on the miniature versions of western horses for a fun ride around in the freezing cold. We managed to get up to a quick canter on the lil' things.

The river prior to the frozen waterfall

The frozen water fall, temperature here is -15 degrees celcius

On the top of the cliffs of where Zanabazar lived

After handing over the cash for the horse rides we took off to the mountain top monastery of Tovkhon Khiid. The monastery is reached by walking an hour long route up a hill. This was a nice walk through some of the only forest in Mongolia and a nice layer of snow made it quite magical. Approaching the top there was more and more blue prayer flags wrapped around trees until reaching the summit where there were just hundreds of them. The monastery cost 2,500 togrogs (about $3) but totally worth it. Supposedly Zanabazar, the greatest artist in all Mongolian history lived up here for a while in a cave. There were a number of recently restored temples at the base of the cliffs that contain the cave where Zanabazar worked. On top of the cliff is the very top of the hill, we climbed up the cliff which was very 'climb at your own risk of dieing' to the top. Here the magic came alive, views over the countryside and buddhist temples was something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. Even though I'm rather ignorant of the buddhist faith, I could have converted based on how impressive this place was.

The zillions of prayer flags that litter the mountain

The mountain top monastery, if there was a supermarket near by I'd totally live here

Arnika chillaxin outside a temple on top of a mountain

The view from the monastery is spectacular, note the forest is only on this mountain...

A buddha sits and waits for reincarnation

It was another late night before we arrived in Karakorum for the night. I wish we could have got here a bit earlier as we were staying in the equivalent of the Hilton of ger camps. Complete with a squat that had a western styled toilet built over it. So a nice dinner with even vegetables in it was had before crashing on the delightfully comfortable beds. The next morning was a sad one, as we had to say goodbye to the other van that had been with us so far. From now it was just our travel team, the American couple and Gana, a pretty good van if I ever did see one.

The wall surrounding the monastery in Karakorum

You can tell if a tree is sacred by all the blue silk flags on it.

Next up was the second monastery, Erdene Zuu Khiid, we didn't get to see the day before. Here in Karakorum is the first monastery built in Mongolia and was probably the most important until the Stalinist purges in 1937 destroyed most of it. This meant it wasn't as impressive as what it probably once was, as inside the large walls there was only a couple of temples and a lot of old foundations where temples had been. There was some pretty ridiculous looking buddhas in there so was worth the nothing we paid to get in as there wasn't anyone around caring to take our money off us.

A dog.

Pavement coming into Tsetserleg, this was a sweet moment for everyone's behinds

A couple of hours driving along some of the only paved roads in the country got us to Tsetserleg nice and early. Here we were surprised to find out that this was actually Gana's home town and we were staying with his own family. So we got treated very well, with offerings of buuz and strawberry tea given to us for a afternoon snack. With all the spare time on us we got to take a walk around town which was really nice. The town is described as the Aspen of Mongolia, this was a great description for this time of year, as snow covered all the surrounding rocky mountains.

The Great White Lake viewed from a volcano

The Great White Lake is freakin sweet.

The real reason for coming this way was to get to the Great White Lake. But in the morning it was hard to convince Gana to leave his family for another few days. So after he had organised his household properly we took off. On the way to the White Lake we got to go past another amazing river gorge, and got to camp early again thanks to some paved roads that were scattered along our route. The lake happened to be partially frozen over, so looked absolutely stunning. We were camping on the edge of the lake where we got to watch the sun go down over the ice. But while having lots of fun skating around on the frozen lake Tina (one of the Americans) happened to fall over and hit her elbow pretty badly. Turns out she broke her arm and would have to go back to San Francisco for a few weeks in her long world trip to get it taken care of. But she toughed out the rest of the time on our tour so it didn't hamper on our adventures.

The icy lake close up

Even after months of roughing it, I can still dominate mountain walks

We had decided to spend two nights here to give driving a break. This was fantastic as ten days of driving a few hundred kilometers each day was pretty easy to get over. Unfortunately the day we weren't driving was spent mostly sitting inside the ger as it was freezing outside. But I tried to make the most of it and went for a little walk around the lake, but the cold forced me back inside soon enough. We had also planned to go riding on horses for a while, but supposedly the herd had disappeared??? This wasn't too big a deal with the cold and all. In the afternoon the wind died down a bit and temperatures rose above freezing. So Arnika and I decided to walk up a nearby volcano, after getting half way there Gana turned up in the van with the Americans and dropped us off at the bottom on it. The volcano was pretty cool, and you can see what the results were after it exploded last, as there is plenty of metamorphic rock formations around including some cool caves we explored.

Sitting on a volcano, am I crazy?! Heck yes!!!

A wild herd of horses gather by the frozen lake

Day twelve, and only one more night. By now we kind of had had enough of the country and were starting to miss modern inventions such as a toilet bowl. So we drove as far as we could today, therefore making the next day a shorter journey back to Ulaanbaatar. We spent the night in a place called the fake or small gobi. This was a good description as had a small set of dunes, and looked much like where we'd been, except it took us only an hour, not six days, to drive in and out of. Another sad night was had, with the eventual disbandment of the group inevitably close. After a few quick photos of everyone in the morning we excitingly took off to Ulaanbaatar.

Spelunking down some stupidly small cave

The anticipation of modern luxuries made the drive into the city seem like forever. But eventually we got there only to be left feeling slightly bemused by how horrible the city actually is. Understandably after spending two weeks out in some of the best untouched natural beauty in the world you view a city for what it really is. Ulaanbaatar is really just like any other city that we'd visited in Russia, with 'grey' being the best description one can come up with. The busy roads and smoky chimneys were a bitter welcome, but it was still good to be back into the comforts of a permanent building. The second best part of being back was finding out all our Chinese visas had been processed fine and were waiting for us back in the hostel (Number one best thing was of course a toilet seat and flush button!). We ordered some good old classic western dinner of pizza to be delivered to us, and then just blobbed out in front of a tv before hitting the sack. Recovery has never been so sweet.

This is what a Mongol look like

This is what a Mongol child looks like

The mighty russian van starts up one last time

This brings a conclusion to Mongolia, the next day at 8am we were on the train to Beijing. It may be the last time I'll ever be in Mongolia as it is one of those once in a life time things. But in saying that I'd love to come back. When people ask me what was my favourite country I visited while away I usually say Mongolia. It was so different to not only everywhere else on the trans-mongolian train line, but also to everywhere else in the world. The vast openness and freedom of the countryside is amazing, I've experienced similar places like in Montana and Canada, but it can't compare with the nomadic way of life people have. With my western eyes I might assume that the people are just poor and live a hard struggle all the time, I feel like this is a huge misunderstanding. All the nomads seemed so happy with their situation that it can't be like this. The people are tough so can handle cold temperatures or lack of vegetables in their diets. All the problems of the country seem to be concentrated in Ulaanbaatar where alcoholism is rife and poverty prevalent. I am not entirely sure that tourism is good for the country as this will slowly dilute the culture, you can see already that the smart nomad families who sell out their homes for tourist accommodation have satellite dishes and a good car or motorbike. So the outcome will probably be just an eventual culture that is lost to western and capitalist's unfulfilling promises. But all the same, this is probably going to happen no matter how many backpackers arrive here. So while you can, visit Mongolia, it is radical, just make sure you bring a good warm coat.

Costs for whole of Mongolia:
3 nights at UB Guesthouse: US$5 a night
Tour base cost (ie renting van, driver, petrol): US$30 a day
Family payment on tour: US$5 for every night at a ger
Chinese Visa: US$30
Train ticket to Beijing: US$110 (FREAKIN expensive, this was the cheapest we could find which was at the international ticketing office near the train station)
Total spent in Mongolia: NZ$1057 = NZ$70 a day (this would have been much less if there wasn't a dam financial crises which saw the NZ dollar lose about 15% of its value against the US dollar just as we arrived in Mongolia).
Running trip total: NZ$7930