29 June 2010

Tsingtao "Beer" Town

Qingdao is better known throughout the world as Tsingtao due to the beer brand. I had high hopes for the place. So far in China, the beer had been downright disappointing, homogenous and weak. Ever though I’d been drinking weak Tsingtao beer in other parts of China, I had been told that it was beer in the town where it was brewed, as there is a better selection of their range.

It proved to be pretty much untrue. I had one can of their stout, which admittedly was strong, but was not particularly palatable. Their Gold brand, was slightly better, but barely worth the extra cash it costs. We went to the brewery for the tour, which proved to be a rip-off, as you only got a couple of tiny glasses of their beer for the pricey entrance fee. The only bright spot was that one of them was an unfiltered version of their beer which was certainly the best Chinese beer had yet to offer, but was practically impossible to buy outside the brewery.

The worst thing was, though, that the locals were (understandably) proud of their town's beer due to the international recognition it beings. But they kept asking/telling me how great their beer was. "Tsingtao; best beer in China?" (Not hard to be) "This is better that your beer at home?" (Yeah, but assuming you mean Asda own brand beer)

The other thing the town is famous for is being a beach town. Before I got there, I pictured myself drinking a few cold ones on the beach, heading into the water to cool down regularly. There was need for cooling down, the three days we were there proved to be constantly overcast. Our hostel was up on a hill that was close to the coast, and from the rooftop bar, where I spent quite a bit of time, I only seen the sea once, briefly.

The hostel, on the other hand, was top-notch. It was based in an old observatory. Each evening, you could drink as much as you liked for about £2 from 6:30 until 11:30 from a keg they put out on the balcony. They projected the world cup games onto the outside of one of the observatory domes (we have a picture, but still can’t post them on this within China).

There wasn’t much to stay for, but it was damn near impossible to get trains out of the place, as it was a public holiday period (dragon boat festival apparently). Trains in China are packed at the best of times, but during holidays quite often it can be standing-room only. One Chinese lady we met at the hostel had stood for 10 hours on a train to get to Qingdao.

Eventually, after trying numerous permutations, we got a hard seat for the 14 hour trip on to Nanjing. How I missed Russia, and their relaxed attitude to getting tickets which meant that booking a day in advance never caused us problems. It would leave at 14:00 and arrive at 04:00 the next day. I was really looking forward to it...

China: Das Capital

Arriving in Beijing impressed me. The final minutes of the train journey railed past high rise upon high rise, as far as the smog would let me see. A huge train station (the biggest in the world by some measures) received us; it felt like an airport (which I’m not a fan of; I want a train station to feel like a train station, airports are horrible places).

Since the train had got in at 5am, we were already out sightseeing by 7. We walked to Tiananmen Square, were, due to security concerns, you have to go through a number of underpasses and airport style security checks (same on the subway as well). Luckily the queues are not like at airports, but for a public square it is a bit of overkill, even if it does have a bit of a history.

The Chairman Mao-soleum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mausoleum_of_Mao_Zedong) is the main building in the square. It was 7:20, it didn’t open until 8, and the queue was already in its thousands, stretching halfway around the building. Lenin must feel shit, as there wasn’t a queue in sight in Moscow (although Lenin has better opening times, Mao is only 4 days a week for four hours at a time; how’s that for a working week, not exactly the hard work that his commie ideals espoused). We decided against it, and walked on to the Forbidden City, at the other end of the square.

You don’t need me to tell you all about how amazing it is, loads of places on the net can do that much better. From background reading, it seems somewhat lucky that it is still here in its original state. During the Cultural Revolution, the only reason why it was spared wreckage by the Red Guards was that Zhou Enlai (Premier of the PRC) stationed a battalion of the army there. It was huge, and luckily we got there early as it enabled us to get a good walk around without it yet being swarmed.

We were back in Tiananmen Square at 11:30, and the queue had all but dissipated, so in we went. It was very quick, and, like, Lenin, he simply looked quite waxy. Only his head was visible, neck and hands obscured by a cloak. Bit of a let down, Lenin was better, and less tacky (there was a large marble statue of him and a souvenir shop in Mao’s).

All I need to see now is Ho Chi Minh when we get to Vietnam, and I’ll have a hattrick of Communist embalmed leaders (old Joe Stalin used to be on display beside Lenin, by was dropped by Khrushchev during destalinisation). The fourth and final one would be Kim Il-sung’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumsusan_Memorial_Palace), but we’ll not be near North Korea in the foreseeable future.

We got around Beijing over the next few days doing and seeing loads, as well as the obligatory day trip to the Great Wall. The bit we went to was only partially restored, so we got to see how it’s really stood up to the test of time. Not well in a number of places, but considering the time spans involved, it’s still impressive. Unfortunately for us, the hills we completely drowned in a cloud of fog, so we couldn’t see much beyond 10 metres for most of the walk. At the very end, after about 4 hours, it finally cleared up a little, and we could take in the breath-taking scenery that the wall somehow snaked around.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Beijing. Despite all the worries about all the natural historic growth of the city being swept away and replaced by modern high-rises for the Olympics, this doesn’t appear to be true. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe many people were unjustly removed from their property to make way for new structures and many ‘Hutong’ (link) areas were demolished, but do not all societies suffer from this at some point?

In the UK and US, the government taking property for the benefit of the community at large exists (compulsory purchase and imminent domain respectively). London has, in the past, had huge periods of slum clearances to make way for the ‘future’. The Hutong areas that have survived are being modernised to an extent to pull the lives of their residents out of squalor. (Interestingly, most of the properties don’t have toilets or bathroom, so the communities have shared facilities throughout their area.)

The main sticking point with the Chinese way of doing it is that often people are not adequately compensated when it happens. In this respect, this is a society still developing property rights (as well as one that still suppresses human rights to an unacceptable degree).

Early one morning, we visited the Temple of Heaven park (beautiful place, pity about the smog blocking the view of the city as usual). We were astounded by the number of elderly out there doing some sort of exercise, whether it be simply stretching (I saw one old lady who must about been about 75 stretching one leg up against and tree, and it was way above her head), playing badminton, Chinese fan dancing or any number of other things. They are a fit old race (bit like the Germans).

We also headed over to the Olympic site, big disappointment. I guess I generally compare these things to Munich’s Olympiapark, which is a perfect example of how to turn a wasteland into something that the whole city can enjoy. Beijing’s is flat and bedecked in concrete. Munich’s has hills and is covered in greenery. In Beijing, you feel suffocated by security. In Munich, you can wander round without ever seeing anyone official. In Beijing, you feel like you’re being ripped off to view the stadium, while in Munich it costs a third of the price (part of the reason in Beijing is that is basically the only business they’ve got, long-term use of the stadium for other events wasn’t well planned). The architecture in Beijing does look impressive, but I’m not sure how well it’ll age; the roof of the Bird’s Nest already looks filthy. The venues in Munich are approaching 40 years, and still look relevant.

Enough of my germanophilic tendencies, back to Beijing. The food was great, but as ever it did involve numerous leaps of faith involving intestines, kidneys and hearts of all sort of animals. Some prices were scarcely believable. We had a sit-down breakfast one morning for about 70p, and some dinners didn’t run us much beyond the £2.50 mark.

We had only 6 days there, wish we could have spent a bit more time, but there is so much more to do in China, and my visa only allows me a certain amount of time. We moved onto Qingdao, China’s beer town.

26 June 2010

The first tentative steps in China and feeling like a celebrity

On the evening train out of Mongolia, we seen the last proper pieces of Mongolian landscape that we would come across properly. We woke up the next morning near the border, with the local guards asking for our documents.

Another drama ensued with Audrey’s credentials on the Chinese side. While in London, she was told the only thing she could get was a “Travel Document” to allow her to enter from anywhere apart from Hong Kong, where she should be using a “Travel Permit”. Unfortunately nearly no one in China, including border patrol people, know of this.

So she was hauled off the train to sit in an office for 20 minutes, until some supreme-know-it-all-official told the dopey-sub-ordinates that it was all in order, and released her back to the confines of the train. It’s been two weeks in China now, and most people query her about the travel document (it is required for any lodging in China), thinking it some sort of fake. I’ve had no problems so far.

The train then pulls into a huge warehouse to changes the bogeys (essentially the undercarriage). The gauge width is different between China (on the European standard) and Russia (their own standard, to make it more difficult for the west Europeans to invade using rail). Since we’re not allowed off the train, we watch out the back window while the carriages are slowly raised up, the wheels pushed out and pulled away by a huge crane and replace by another very similar looking set, then lowered back down.

We’ve got a few interesting pictures of it happening, but it’s still proving a nightmare to add all these types of things while in China. I might finally get around to it when in Hong Kong.

That evening we arrived in Jining, a tiny provincial place in China of ‘only’ a few hundred thousand. We wanted to get a train onto Datong, but it was too late, and the queues for tickets was huge, so we got a nice hotel on the main square by the station.

We got some local food, and the local waitresses made quite a fuss over us, which was nice, and gave us a little present as we left. Back at the main square a group of locals were doing a street version of a Beijing Opera, with about 100 people gathered around watching. I’d read from Paul Theroux that this was a popular form of entertainment back in the 80s, and it seems to have carried on until today.

We stopped to watch it; interesting music, strange pitched singing and random dancing. We understood nothing of what was going on, but the locals seemed to appreciate it. Very quickly, a lady appeared requesting a viewing fee of 10 yuan each (about £2 altogether). We were probably being ripped off, but she seemed very insistent, and we wanted to watch a little longer, so we paid up after a bit of hesitation.

By then, though, we noticed a crowd starting to gather around us. Audrey started fielding random questions from the locals:

“Where is he from?”
“Why are you here?”
“How old are you?” (Chinese have no hesitation in asking personal questions, including how much you earn.)
“How old is he?” (On the next train journey, a lady guessed I was 45, I blame the beard for adding 15 years.)
“Where are you both staying?”
“Does he speak Chinese?”
"How much do you earn?" (!?!)

And so on. The crowd had swelled to about 60 people, and for the first time I knew what it felt like to be swamped by people. Few were watching the Opera guys (who I was nearly feeling sorry for). This was much more intense than when we were in south Mongolia in a town called Dalanzadgad, a wide-open place of about 15,000 people. Lots of people (actually teenage girls) would smile, say hello and ask my name (and I would do likewise), but that would be about as far as a conversation would go, as they’d reached the limits of their English and I’ve no Mongolian.

Back in Jining, discomfort soon set in, and after about 20 minutes, we headed back to the hotel. I’ve no idea how celebrities feel when out and about, but I imagine this is about the closest I’ll get to it (but without the bodyguards).

The receptionist told us that despite working in one of the nicer hotels in town, in the main square by the train station, I was only the third foreigner she had ever seen. It explained a lot. I was a curiosity, a freak. No doubt helped by the beard (which now has obvious random grey bits in it to go with the ginger).

On another note, signs in China, even within these couple of days, already had me chuckling. In the train into China, the toilet had a sign indicating not to jump out the window, it read:

“Cherish your life, don’t jump out”

I felt that, in reality, the railway operators were more worried about train delays for the rest of us. Another was in the bathroom of the hotel in Jining; beside a picture of someone sliding on a slippery floor:

“Carefully slide”

The next day we went to Datong, seen the Gungang Grottoes, which were awesome, but quite expensive at 100 yuan (about a tenner). There are no local prices here, so it probably means large swathes of the natives can’t afford it (average wage in China is still around £200 a month). I think these top sites can afford to do it since even if only 10% of Chinese (still their main market) can afford it, they will have enough tourists. I feel it is a grossly unfair system for the average Mr. Chan.

We got the night train to Beijing at 22:48.

22 June 2010

Mongolia: The Departure

We had agreed to go with Dofa to a local national park/religious monument on our second last day. She was to pick us up at the hostel at 10:00, and we’d head off. She didn’t get there until after 1pm. Ulaanbaatar (UB) was hosting their first marathon that day, and most of the city was blocked off at some stage or another. They spent hours trying to get to us, but they perservered.

The park was beautiful, with quite a few trees, which is unusual for Mongolia. The religious site within the park was equally interesting, most of it had been totalled in the communist times, as usual. At the end of the day, we picked a few local wild vegetables, and brought them back to UB, Dofa had a traditional dumpling recipe for them.

The food was good, and they got out the bottle of Vodka we had brought from Russian and given them on our first visit. They insisted we couldn’t leave until we had finished the whole bottle with them, as it was bad luck. Then they got out the remnants of another bottle, which we’d been drinking the first time. Again, it was necessary to finish it.

Dofa got out one of her traditional Mongolian instruments, and played for us, as well as getting her grandson out of bet to play the horse head violin for us. He looked pretty groggy, but preformed well, it was turning into a bit of a session in both senses of the word (links). We got back to the hostel quite drunk at 1am.

Getting our trains tickets to China should have been easy. But due to visa issues, plus a few breakdowns, it proved to be an ordeal. I had a month visa, so I could leave the country anytime within a month of arriving. Audrey had no visa, as Hong Kongers get 14 days free, but once we got there decided we’d be there for more than two weeks. We got Audrey an exit visa hat was valid for 10 days, but it meant we had an overlap of only 4 days to get out of the country.

We waited for about 40 minutes for the number 4 trolleybus from the centre of town to the ticket office. When it finally arrived, we got on, and it broke down within 300 metres. The driver got out and clambered up onto the top of the bus, and started hammering away at something for 10 minutes. Luckily, another number 4 came by, stopped, and everyone got on. It broke down another 500 metres later. A dude in a high visibility jacket, who had been sleeping on the back seat, sprang into action, climbed up on the bus, tinkered with something, and we were off again in a couple of minutes.

Finally we arrived at the ticket office. After paying for the tickets and handing over our passports for the clerk to fill in the details (for some reason, even a democratic society like Mongolia likes to keep track on your movements, just like the Russians did), she printed only one ticket. We thought there might be a problem with Audrey’s visa (the process at the immigration department had been quite confusing). Eventually it turned out the printer had broken down. We had to come back 6 hours later to get them.

Finally, we left Mongolia at 7:00pm on the 7th of June.

Is shamanism just a sham?

(Guest post from Audrey)

Allow me to be smug: Not many tourists get to see shamans. Like Stephen and myself, most tourists come with a sceptical mind, and shamans are too proud to show their crafts to ignorant, hostile non-believers. We only got the chance through a friend from London, who in turn introduced us to her aunt who is a close relative to the shaman we visited.

I went in trying to be as objective and academic as possible. From this perspective of the curious “investigative journalist” who bombarded the shaman (called Gonchitsuren) with batteries of questions, it was easy to come to premature conclusions from his sensible responses and eloquence. Yes, shamans square each other up by studying the shades of colours emanating from their head; yes, shamans have the grave responsibility of teaching younger, lost generations “the right way”, as well as pray for rain during periods of draught. And yes, there is some gravity, and substance to what he said.

And yet the costume looked too flashy and the rituals too orchestrated for me not to question the ingenuity of it all. First of all you have the gadgets: mirrors hung about the chest and tummy to protect the inner soul and deflect evil spirits during the vulnerable trance session; rattles to impress and attract the attention of the selected spirits; eagle claws and bear paws to establish the bridge between the realms of mankind and spirits; seven-coloured strips, a bit like Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat for I don’t know what...

And then there is the trance itself. Gonchitsuren fell into trance way too quickly! Maybe I was being harsh – just like any disciples of 21st century civilisation I might be too ready to denounce the whole ritual as a performance (and a shaman does not dance his dance in order to prove himself to us anyways), but how can you beat the drum for just a minute and have the selected spirit come into you so quickly? (But then Gonchitsuren has already forewarned us that “spirits travel more quickly than our thoughts.”) How can you alter your state of mind in just a snap? As Gonchitsuren beat the drum his dance rhythm became more frantic, and then with a sudden jerk of movement he collapsed to the floor, only to be pulled up by his two assistants who stood close by.

There came an eerie silence – the drumbeat has stopped – and then came the croaks of an old man. For a minute I was suspended in surprise and awe: Maybe it is real after all, for how can Gonchitsuren feign this voice (or could he)? His two assistants started chatting to the spirit in a homely, casual manner, as you would when you are on the phone with granny. “Was the journey tiring? Want some cigarettes? We have guests with us here today!”

The spirit was slow in his speech, but burnt through two packs of cigarettes in his 45-minute visit. One by one he summoned members from the audience to seat beside him and receive his blessings. Stephen and I didn’t have to speak to the spirit, although in hindsight I probably should have said my name and “Thanks you, Good Bye!” at the end of our blessing. The spirit, however, told us not to be afraid (I wasn’t scared in the least bit – Gonchitsuren was feigning after all!) and swiped his whip down our back, beat us slightly on the bum and thighs, and pressed his hand on my head, while muttering something else. My friend translated his words afterwards: The spirit realised that we were travellers from afar (without being told by anybody) and told us to roll around in a mountain before leaving Mongolia, an advice that not even my friend made much fuss of. In the end the spirit blew some air on a small bowl of goat milk and handed it over to me, which I gulped down.

One by one we receive blessings from Mr. Old Man Spirit. I wished I could understand some Mongolian as he continued with his muttering, but our friend later explained that the spirit used such an ancient language that even she had difficulty understanding half of it.

So Mr. Spirit drank, smoked and sat there muttering for 45 minutes. Without much drama it eventually became tedious and repetitive, and made me understand what Stephen must have felt when he visited my Granny, who speaks no English. My mind started to wander, I started to pick holes and wonder whether I could have spent this hour more effectively elsewhere. After what seemed like eternity, the spirit decided to fly home. Gonchitsuren beat his drum again, and in a few second’s time returned to his normal human self. “Other spirits wanted in, so I had to hurry the last bit to block their way.” When my friend commented that he smoked a lot during the trance, he replied casually, “Why, this is my first cigarette of today! Ancient spirits are used to smoking pipes using self-rolled tobacco. They have to smoke more to compensate for the much diluted modern-day cigarettes.”

I rolled my eyes.

18 June 2010

Mongolia: The People

(Still having problems posting from China, so no links and photos again)

In his 1987 book “The Iron Rooster”, Paul Theroux describes the Mongols:

“Once these people had lived on the plains and in the mountains. Now they lived in two-room flats in this lifeless and stark city. They were in every sense a subject race, and in this – one of the largest and emptiest countries on earth – they lived cheek by jowl. They lived out of the world, almost totally cut off. It had not made them angry. It had kept them innocent in many ways. There was something very sweet about the Mongolians. Perhaps that was the whole point about Mongolia: that after a Soviet-inspired revolution in which everything was destroyed and swept away – religion, the old ecomony, the army, the social order – the country was so changed that it could not function without Soviet help. The Mongolians had been reduced to a state of infancy. All their old habits and institutions were gone. The Soviets stepped into this vacuum: they brought Soviet building and urban structures, Soviet railways and roads, Soviet schools, and the Soviet ideology displaced Buddhism”.

In some ways it’s difficult to argue with his points. The Mongol people do seem to put up with hardships without complaining about them, and do still seem to be trying to grow up again to become their own mature democracy (it’s been 20 years now).

The all complain about corruption within government, and I do certainly believe it, but it’s back to the old French quote “Every nation has the government it deserves”. People we met here don’t seem to be interested in their politics (except for Dopa, a lady we know who we’ll come to later), but in the good old fashioned pursuit of wealth. To me, it’s the best way of the status quo keeping them from getting involved in politics and upsetting the gravy train (like the owners of our hostel).

During the communist period, the literacy rate increased from less than 5% to 96%, but I still get the feeling that they still have a long way to go. People everywhere use calculators to show prices, which make sense, saves you having to write it out on paper all the time for the foreigners. But I have witnessed a waitress adding 1000 (there are 2000 turgrits to the pound), 1000 and 1000 on a calculator to show me the total, and then using it to work out the change from 10000.

People can also be surprisingly open, by UK standards. For example, it was not uncommon to see women breastfeeding in the middle of the street.

While in Mongolia, we also got to meet up with a family who were friends of someone Audrey knew in London (thanks Einav). Ganbold and (especially) Dopa were a lively couple in their 60s. We went with Ganbold to the wrestling and the black market (where he got his cigarettes nicked). Dopa organised a shamanistic ceremony for us, as well as a trip to a local national park.

They served us dinner at their flat, with a healthy helping of vodka to go with it. They also accidentally found a plastic milk bottle of airag, fermented mare’s milk. Some people may find it tasty, but since it tasted of liquid gorgonzola, I found it pretty repugnant. It was interesting to get a taste of it though, as normally it is only available over the winter, but they’d discovered it a couple of days previous when their grandkid tried to pour some on his cereal. I preferred their vodka.

I’ll go into more about Ganbold and Dofa in the next post.

13 June 2010

Mongolia: The Capital

(As mentioned previously, due to the Great Firewall of China (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_websites_blocked_in_the_People's_Republic_of_China), posting is a pain, and posting link and photos isn’t possible, so each blog entry will be that bit more plain until Hong Kong (unless I could be bothered posting them somewhere else and putting links to them).)

Ulaanbaatar can be quite crazy, and would be a stressful place to live in. Crossing the street is a nightmare, and traffic barely obey signals, pedestrian crossings etc. The best way to navigate the madness is to make sure you cross when a local is crossing, and make sure they are traffic side, for a buffer, just in case.

It also felt relatively unsafe in comparison to Russian cities. The Russians have a bad press for their country being a dangerous place, but we didn’t get that feeling at all. I think if you want to get into business in Russia, that’s when the danger comes in. The Russian Mafia can’t be bothered with small fry tourists when there is so much more money (with less hassle) to be made elsewhere.

The amount of cops on the street also made it feel safe, typical authoritarian state. The police can be considered dangerous, as many people told us, but again, foreign tourists can be too much of a hassle for them, as they may complain to embassies etc. Better to try and get bribes off the locals.

On arrival at the train station, we met with a guy who’d we’d shared a hostel with in Irkutsk, and the first thing he told us was that him and a mate almost got mugged the previous night after a few beers. The number of people we met with similar stories or bag-slashing/pick-pocketing stories was quite high.

At the hostel, the Golden Gobi, we met a few interesting people (including the other guy who almost got mugged). There was an Aussie who’d biked all the way through China to UB illegally; an American who wanted to bike from UB to Russia, and then onto the Stans (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central%20Asia) (he failed after 4 days, Mongolia is difficult biking terrain, and lonely); a Japanese marathon women (who we guessed is about 65); German couple who bought horses and headed out of town on them; a couple of musicians who played Beatles songs very badly, but in an endearing way.

The hostel owners were simply money grabbing gits. They could be very friendly and charming when they think they can get money out of you, but do a volte-face when there it seems there is no more money to be made. I do have to admit that their hostel was very good though, centrally located with wifi, a good kitchen and a couple of chill-out rooms, and well-priced.

Initially they were very friendly as we wanted to do a tour with them, which is where I think they make their real money (the well-priced hostel may be a loss-leader). After the tour though, they shunted us into a room in a different part of the building, with only a shower. Also, they wouldn’t give us all the info needed to get to the Office of Immigration so that Audrey could extend her visa; eventually we used one of their drivers to take us there, as they said it would be easier to get it sorted. It wasn’t easier, as the driver didn’t know the regulations, and we were able to get a Taxi for half the price when we went back a few days later to pick up the passport.

We bought tickets for a wrestling tournament (lasted 4 hours for £1.50, great value). With 256 competitors being whittled down to 1 winner, it starts off with about 15-20 fights going on at any one time on the arena floor. Battle Royal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle%20royal)/Royal Rumble (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal%20Rumble) wouldn’t be in it. Some of the match-ups were over in seconds (due to their being no age/weight groups), while others could last for up to 30 minutes. There were a quite few impressive moves and gruelling battles, while all was done with the upmost sportsmanship.

There was also a huge “Black Market” there, where it was possible to buy nearly anything (we heard rumours that the German couple bought their horses there). Was pretty dodgy, but also extremely interesting. The International Intellectual Museum (really a wooden puzzle museum) kept us amused for an hour or so with those complicated wooden puzzles that you can only solve if you know the knack amongst other things.

Food was good; we had an interesting mix of local food, decent western grub and other east Asian dishes. After each excursion, we tended to go for anything that wasn’t local, as there is only so much mutton a person can take.

12 June 2010

Trouble posting blogs in China

Yes, the great fire wall of china is getting in the way at minute. Can't write anything at the minute, as the way I'm accessing it will probably get dropped soon.

06 June 2010

Outer Mongolia: The Vast Emptiness

During our stay in Mongolia, we’ve taken two trips out into the Mongol countryside.  The first one was a five day trip organised by the hostel that we spent most of our time staying in.  A brief rundown of the trip was:

Day 1 – driving to the semi-Gobi (a place that is getting close to being a desert).  On the way we stopped at the Hustai National Park, where there are the last remaining Przewalski horses, the only untamed horses on the planet.  There were six of us; we were joined by a 19 year old posh English kid of Peter Crouch proportions (Jamie), an Indian, Sandeep, who’s been living in American for more than decade and two Swedes, who proved to be stingy, silent, sour and stubborn.
Swedes not included, as they annoyed me, I was taking the picture

Day 2 –  Driving to the Ulaan Tsutgalan waterfall, set in a large plateau surrounded by mountains.  On the way there, the underside of Russian van we were travelling in wacked a rock in the ground as we were going through particularly rough muddy terrain.  After an hour of trying, and surrounding the tyres with stones to help grips, the van eventually came loose.  It was only then that we could see the full extent of the damage, as one end of the drive shaft lay on the ground.  Top Gear wouldn’t be in it for drama (plus, we didn’t have a huge supply van to keep us and the camera crew living in a worst case scenario).  Our driver simply took it off and put it in the van, and on we continued.

Day 3 – Woke up to a magnificent, snow covered landscape, thought it melted quickly (that didn't stop that wretched Swedish Orlov from remarking "I fucking hate snow!").  No driving today, we simply stayed in the area and did some walking in the hills with a couple of random dogs leading Audrey, Jamie, Sandeep and I.  We also got the chance to help with goat herding and sawing wood.  The Swedes did not take part in anything, and simply sat in the tent, apart from the horse-riding, which was part of the organised tour.  We both had sore arses after a couple of hours of that.  The driver spent the day getting the van back in working order (Russian machines are not so complicated, so it seems you can do this type of stuff yourself).

Dinner time, doggie!

We also had a “Mongolian Barbeque”, when our tour guide helped us buy half a goat.  I didn’t expect anything like what we have in the West, but it was also nothing like a BBQ.  It involved heating up a load of large round stones in the fire, taking a large cauldron of hot water and putting in spuds, carrots, onions and then the meat, and dropping in the stones, and letting it all stew for an hour or more.  Was quite interesting, not the best meal ever though.

(Left: Tuul our tour guide, very friendly, and cooked well with the limited resources. Just to be clear, with "limited resources" I don't mean the size of the lamb. In fact it had nothing to do with the BBQ)

The Mongolian "BBQ"!

Day 4 – On the road again, we headed to Kharakhorum, which was the ancient capital of Mongolia and where good old Genghis called home.  Seen an impressive monastery that is basically the only thing standing from ancient times (but reliable Joe Stalin did his best by getting over 70% of it destroyed in the 30s).  Then we headed back to the semi-Gobi, but a different part of it.  Rode camels, even more uncomfortable, never again.  Where we stayed that night, they used dried dung in place of firewood, which wasn’t that surprising, as there wasn’t a tree in sight.  Seemed to work quite well, with no smell.

Day 5 – Headed back to UB, got my first beer in 5 days.

The second trip we took with a friend of a friend that Audrey knew, so it wasn’t really a tourist trip, but rather someone going back to his family to help with a few things before going back to UB.  This way, we avoided the slightly more sanitised tours and got to see how people live day-to-day.

Day 1 – Headed out of UB, took about 3 hours to get out by the time the driver, Mönkhbat (henceforth known as Monk) stopped off a few times to get things and pick up other people.  There were two vans, and seven of us.  His newly wedded son (Naran) and daughter-in-law (Bolor) were moving to the South Gobi, where he came from originally, to live in a Ger that used to belong to Monk.  His mate (name unknown) and son (Chegi) joined us, which helped us somewhat as Chegi had some English (the rest had none, but some did have a little Russian).  We stopped regularly to fix one of the vans, which wasn’t coping well with the terrain.  We camped in the middle of nowhere late that night.

Naran, Bolor, Audrey and Chegi

Day 2 – Driving the whole day except for breakdowns, a short lunch break (awful food at a “restaurant” about 100km from anything else) and Bayanzag, which was quite impressive.  Eventually we reached a village Bulgan, where we would stay for the next two days.

Day 3 – Spent the day doing not much in Bulgan.  Monk got stuck into doing the regular things he was there to do, such as fixing the door of his bro's squat toilet (as we had specifically said we didn’t want to interrupt his plans as we were only paying for his petrol, and he wasn’t a tour guide).  Bolor and Naran showed us around the village.

(Left: Monk's brother and other random family)

Monk fixing the toilet door

Day 4 – Headed up into the hills to drop Monk's mate off in the mountains for a two week Buddhist retreat with a famous local Lama.  We found out later that Monk’s mate was also quite famous, having been the governor of one of the districts in UB.  We helped them set up camp at the top of a mountain, and then left them.  Audrey had great difficulty getting down, a mountain goat she is not.  Audrey, Chegi and I headed off to Yolin Am, an ice valley set in beautiful landscape, while the others headed off to Monk’s hometown.  We met up with them later there, and stayed in the Ger that Monk was giving to the newly-weds.

Day 5 – We took the Ger apart, put it on the back of a lorry, and drove it to Bolor’s family and rebuilt it there.  The whole process took about 4 hours to dismantle, move and rebuild, and by the end of the day, they had the interior 100% completed.  I’d like to see that happen in the west.  In the evening, copious amounts of Vodka were consumed with a few beers.

Day 6 – The start of the day was quite slow due to the evening before.  Eventually we set off at 3pm on the “road” back to UB.  It would be 570km before we saw any proper roads (again to add a bit of perspective, it’s only 466 km from the northern most point to the southern most point in Ireland).  After 7 hours on the road, we set up camp in a hill, had a bit of food, and then three of us slept in the back of the mini-bus.

Day 7 – After setting off at 8, UB appeared on the horizon at 1:30pm.  Traffic was horrendous, and it would be 3pm before we would reach Monk’s apartment.  He invited us up for some food, but we declined politely, saying that we needed to get some sleep as we were knackered.  Really we wanted to avoid another helping on mutton or goat and milk tea (as the name suggests, very milky tea, but also with salt).

We found out when we met him later with a friend who spoke English and Mongolian that he had phoned ahead to his wife to get her to prepare something a bit more western with beef, as he sensed our exhaustion with the Mongol diet.

We got back to our hostel at 4pm.

Mongolia: The Arrival

I’m not sure where to start with Mongolia, as we’ve been here for three weeks, and have seen and done so much.  Firstly, a few facts.  Mongolia is huge, 17 times the size of the island of Ireland, and less than half the population.  It is the least densely populated country in the world.  More than a third of its population lives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar (UB), which makes the rest of the country seem even more remote.

There are practically no roads in the country, only 2600km of paved roads, which would be just about enough to create one straight road across the country, everything else in the official roads maps (up to 40,000 km) are simply bumpy dirt tracks.

Ghengis Khan (know to the Mongols as Chinggis Khaan) and his offspring are the only world famous people that the country has produced (although he is as famous as nearly anyone in any civilization ever).  Without a google search, or having previously visited, it would be difficult to name anyone else who is famous (some Japanese people might be able to name a Yokozuna or two, as Mongols are known for wrestling, and some crossover into Sumo, the only current Yokozuna is a Mongol).

Getting here involved a one day train trip from Ulan Ude.  Nothing major happened on the train trip.  It was the best carriage we had been on yet, as all international trains are minimum 2nd class, and they are from China, who normally provide better trains than the Russians.  One of the travellers in our compartment was a Russian nuclear physicist.

It took us 9 hours to get through the border, 7 on the Russian side, and two on the Mongol side.  For a few minutes, it looked like we were going to get fined by the local Russian gendarmes, as we had not registered anywhere while we were in Russia.  Actually, it looked like Audrey was going to get fined, for some reason, he didn’t ask me any questions, even though Audrey and I had had the same itinerary and visas.

In Russia you are meant to register anywhere that you stay for more than 3 working days, but we had been moving on from places quite often, as well as hitting weekends, so we didn’t register anywhere.  He started talking about how much of a “fine” we would have to pay (him).  We stood our ground, told him our situation (Audrey’s Russian was proving very useful at this point) and started showing him all our train tickets to prove that we’d been moving around quite often.  Eventually our persistence paid off, and he slunk off to the next carriage.

Eventually the train got moving across the border, and we were saluted into Mongolia by a number of military personnel.  Everything was much quicker on this side, the train got moving, we fell asleep and work up the next morning in Ulaanbaatar.

We got off the train a 6:20am

04 June 2010

Ulan Ude, the end of our Russian adventure

We’re a couple of weeks behind in our blog writing, since we’ve spent most of our time in Mongolia hitting the hinterlands where the internet is a rarity, and when we’ve been back in Ulan Bator, we’ve either been recovering or meeting up with people.  And to top it all off, my domain expired, so I've had to spend a few days getting it all back together.

Ulan Ude would be the last place that we would regularly encounter people who determined themselves as Russians.  Initially, I had mixed feelings about them.  When you first get to Russia, and go through St. Petersburg and Moscow, the main thought you have about the Russians is how unfriendly they seem.  Bump into someone, walk on.  Stand on their heel, ignore them.  Go through a door, let it slam in the face of the next person.  Smile at someone, get a puzzled look.

Once you get over this aspect of Russian behaviour, and realise it is not personal, it’s just the way they are, you become more comfortable wandering around, doing similar things (except if you’ve knocked into an old lady, people will still apologise for something like that, they’ve been through a lot for the motherland).

The people that you actually meet though are a different kettle of fish.  Once a Russian spends 10 minutes getting to know you, and if they like you, then they are very helpful and hospitable.  I can’t think of anyone that we met on our way for the briefest period of time that wouldn’t help us when lost, offer us some drink or a bit of food.

Anyway, back to Ulan Ude. On the train journey, we went around Lake Baikal, which looked amazing.  The train snaked its way through mountains above the lake giving us great views over the vast frozen expanse (as usual, a camera find it much more difficult to pick up what the eye can see; and that's a crack in the ice).  I also got accosted by a 12 year old kid, who was interested in speaking English with us.  His English wasn’t great, but I was amazed by his persistence, as he spent 3 hours talking to us about different things.

I tried to explain to him I was from Ireland, the northern part, but he got confused, and continually called it the Republic of Northern Ireland (which is perhaps the best solution for the place).  He also wanted to know what types of guns we used there!  I couldn’t remember the name Armalite.  He told us that in Russia, they loved their AK-47.  By the end of the journey, he'd given me his address and e-mail (and vice versa, seems I’ve now got a 12-year old penpal), and he told me I had to stay with him the next time I’m in Russia, which I will, in case he gets his Kalashnikov out after me.

We arrived in Ulan Ude on a scorching hot day, at 5 in the evening, the heat of day having accumulated to make it humid and stuffy.  We had a 30 minute walk to the hostel, and by the end I was sweating like David Cameron in a working man’s club.

The hostel was pretty shit, they moved us between rooms the two nights we stayed there, and also somehow managed to move the kitchen to another room in the hostel as well (sink and everything). The hot shower didn’t work on the second night, and Audrey had to make do with the kettle for washing her hair.

We went to the big Lenin head (pic), the biggest in the world, and a monastery, but apart from that, the place didn’t offer too much.  Except for unusual encounters with strangers again.  We were on the tram in wondering (aloud, in English) where to go for dinner, when a young man approached us and offered help. It turned out that he (Shawn, I tried to explain to him it should be Sean) is studying English at the uni and wanted some practice, and we are the fist "real" foreigners he has ever spoken to.

After recommending us two good local restaurants, he suggested driving us there.  Audrey was interested, but a bit skeptical (he was a stranger, after all), but I was up for it, so we got off the tram and got in his car.  The windscreen had a spiders web of cracks all the way across it (like my brother Karl’s Skoda used to have), but no one worries about that type of thing over here.

We headed to the restaurant, but it was closed, so he suggested we try another one that was his friends.  He drove us out of Ulan Ude (I could sense alarm bells ringing in Audrey’s head, later she told me she was making mental calculations as to whether it would be safe to pile out of the car as we sped out of town) to a village, where he claimed the best baozis were to be had.  The food was good in the restaurant (right), and we got to hear the Russian take on Walk Like An Egyptian over the radio.

Shawn was Buryatin, but was fiercely proud of being Russian, and even though he studied Chinese and English, he had no interest in using them as a ticket to a “better” life in the west, but rather wanted to stay in Ulan Ude and help make it a better place instead of it continually suffering a brain drain.

During his English courses at Uni, he also studied the culture around the language, and had recently done a module on Northern Ireland, so he had a chance to ask me a few questions about it, and we discussed the situation.  He did admit to barely passing that one, but I can understand, as it’s a pretty complicated situation even now.

At the end of the night, far from being robbed, poisoned or abducted, we had 6 delicious baozis, a new friend, and valuable insights about Buryatin life in Ulan Ude.

A couple of final things, I had the best chocolate cake ever while I was there, for the grand sum of £1.4, and cheapest tastiest dinner, costing about £4 for both of us.  I would show links on google maps, but that part of Russia isn't mapped too well.

We left the next day at 6:55am.

01 June 2010

Website down

This is a test post.  Lost my domain, so the website has been down for over a week now.  Trying to get things back up and running.  Currently I can't see the website where it should be, so sticking this up in the hope it will republish the blog.