Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

Haven’t I Seen You Before?

November 13, 2008
by Stuart
1 Comment
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The morning of our last day together in Beijing was spent looking for the US Embassy so I could get pages added to my passport. We walked for over an hour and even took a taxi to the location in the LP book. Turns out it had moved in 2007 to a new location a few miles away. At this point the Visa office was closed so we decided to walk around the neighborhood and get some lunch. It was a cold drizzly day so we weren’t in the adventurous mood. While we were also looking for this art studio with North Korea communist kitsch, we found a fancy mall with a movie theater one of the Swiss guys had told us about. And wouldn’t you just know it – it was playing the new James Bond movie!

art

Posters from the Pyongyang Art Studios.

Now, since Tina was about to fly home and get some good American entertainment, I wanted a bit too. So after lunch and the art studio we spent the afternoon watching the movie, then went to a night market for dinner. The night market was kinda like the Snack Street but much bigger and even less touristy. There was also a wider variety of food – we had noodles, dumplings, but had to have more pineapple on a stick.

Blury photo from the night market.

Blurry photo from the night market.

After dropping Tina off at the airport I headed to the new Embassy location, which wasn’t that much easier to find. Now, I’ve not been to that many Embassies, but man, this one was super fancy. They just built it a couple years ago and it was very modern – glass walls, a sculpture garden, reflecting pools – all well maintained and kept from view behind huge cement walls. So next time you hear someone wondering why there is no money for schools, show them this picture. Hopefully it will help.

After getting pages added, I headed to the main train station to get tickets for my upcoming trip to western China. While in line at the information counter, I struck up a conversation with a guy named Santiago who was from Columbia – but living in London – who was passing through China on the way to Japan to see his girlfriend. Turns out he had been hiking the Great Wall the same day I had been. And last night, as I was editing the photos, I spotted him!

Santiago

That's Santiago on the right.

We bonded over the frustraion of not knowing Chinese and that there was no foreign services desk at the station (had I read my guidebook I would have known that). So we took the metro and a bus to the Beijing West Train Station which had foreign services desk. This place was huge! We found the desk on the second floor and got our tickets, then parted ways. After walking around for a couple hours, I came back to the hostel and started getting ready for my trip.

The Great Staircase

November 12, 2008
by Stuart
4 Comments
2,028 views

One of the first watchtowers of the hike.

One of the first watchtowers of the hike from Jinshanling.

On our third day in Beijing, we got up early to hike part of the Great Wall. There are several places close enough to Beijing to make a day trip out of it but most locations are a single place you hike around and are really touristy. We decided to do a 10k hike from Jinshanling to Simatai to see more of the wall and spend more time hiking. I know a 10k isn’t much, but, dang. This kicked out butts. The hike was pretty much walking up and down stairs the entire way.

The wall going on forever. As does the haze.

The wall goes on forever. As does the haze.

There were a few other people from our hotel going to the Wall, but we ended up in a car with two guys from Switzerland – architects, one of whom was studying in Tokyo. Our driver was one of the obnoxious kind around here who honks a lot, cuts people off and drives way too fast. Yet somehow we ended up getting to the Wall at the same time the other group did riding in a minivan.

An old tout selling water, coke and beer. Wouldn't let us photograph him.

An old tout selling water, coke and beer. Wouldn't let us photograph him.

We got our entrance passes and started walking through the little town near the ruins. The Swiss guys were hungry so we stopped at a cafe and got tea, coffee and dumpling soup. Pretty soon we were joined by an American couple who was doing China and Japan in two weeks. They were leaving that night for Shanghai by overnight train. The soup was taking too long so we left the Swiss dudes and said we’d walk slowly and wait for them.

This is where we stopped for lunch. And to watch the highway construction.

This is where we stopped for lunch. And to watch the highway construction.

Hiking the Wall was pretty cool. But I have just one little problem with it: it looks just like the pictures you see. So, you take this long staircase up to the wall, you get on top, look around, and it’s like, yup, this is what it should look like. There is very little surprise – if any at all. Anyway, you get my point. And, yes, I might be the only guy who has a complaint about hiking the Great Wall.

humm

The ridge in the background is the Simatai section.

A couple hours in, we heard a huge explosion off in the hills. Then another one maybe 30 min later. As we rounded a bend, we saw an explosion on a distant hillside. Turns out the Chinese are building another highway near the great wall. When it’s done, there will be highways visible on both sides of the Wall. This is so symbolic of where China is right now: needing to expand to maintain it’s breakneck growth but trying to balance it’s history (often on the loosing side) – and and international destination – in mind. There are already too many touts walking the wall trying to get you to buy stuff. I can’t imagine what it will be like when there are lots of tourists, touts and the roar of two highways. Better get there now while it’s semi-peaceful.

Tina wanted proof that we hiked the Wall.

Tina wanted proof that we hiked the Wall.

Close up detail. I like how the bricks at the top slope down.

Close up detail. I like how the bricks at the top slope down.

What Mao Could You Ask For?

November 12, 2008
by Stuart
4 Comments
31,978 views

Let the good eatin' begin!

Let the good eatin' begin!

Since we only had a few days until Tina left, we decided to hit up the big “must-sees”. So, after spending the first evening exploring the hutong (little alleyways that are neighborhoods with shops and street vendors) we awoke to a gray hazy day. Not wanting to ruin the visual feast that is the Forbidden City, we changed our plans and walked over to the Wangfujing Dajie shopping area. It was a wide promenade with no cars and lots of antique and arts stores. We also found a good-sized bookstore with English titles. Our guidebook says it’s the biggest in Asia. I hope not because there wasn’t much I wanted to read.

Yummy

Just because it's on a stick doesn't mean it good.

The highlight was the Wangfujing Snack Street. In this little side street were stalls selling all kinds of awesome food. It was packed with locals who enjoyed it as much as the few tourists we saw. We had chicken on a stick, beef on a stick, corn on the cob, fried dough on some sugar – but the best things was fruit on a sick coated with a crunchy sugary glaze. We watched the vendors put some fruit on a stick – tangerines, cherries, pineapple, kiwi – and dunk it in a wok that was bubbling with sugar. It wasn’t too sweet so maybe it was cane sugar. Our favorite was the pineapple.

Ok, maybe it does.

Ok, maybe it does.

As the stories have all told, there were scorpions (still alive) on a stick, crickets on a stick, sea horses on a stick and other weird bugs on sticks. When I would pass by one of the stalls, the men would grab a stick with bugs and suggest that eating it was good for my, umm, “manhood”… if you know what I mean. Clearly this was all for show as literally no one was eating them. And the locals found them really funny and gross. I’ve heard they offer these for uneducated tourists to eat – the tourists think they are a specialty.

Too bad you can't have chicken AND meat on the same stick.

Too bad you can't have chicken AND beef on the same stick.

After the Snack Street we walked around more and headed to Silk Street, a multi-floored building with fake versions of things like clothes, dvds, sporting goods and antiques. And you get to haggle like crazy. As you walked down the aisles the workers, usually women, would come out and softly grab your arm and say things like, “Hello, sweetshirt?”, or “You are handsome, want backpack?” or run through their entire inventory in one sentence. Some were really funny about it – like they knew the circus aspect. I ended up getting a statue of a Terracotta Warrior for like 80% off, and Tina got over 50% off for a Burberry scarf knockoff. Tina was standing her groud by faking indecison – even I started question her altho we had just talked about how much she wanted one. The woman would grab my arm and say “Your lady is killing me!” and “You must joke about price!”. Finally Tina won out.

The next morning was sunny so we got up and checked out Tiananmen Square and Chariman Mao’s Memorial. Similar to Lenin, he has been keep in a permanent state of preservation for the public to view; the viewing is similar, too. You are rushed by and aren’t allowed to talk. He looks pretty good for a guy who’s been dead for over 30 years.

Mao's house.

Mao's house.

What I found most interesting was that the foyer, if you will, had a statue of Mao – upon which people would lay flowers and bow – sitting cross-legged on a big chair. He seemed really relaxed and approachable – a true “man of the people”. Now, thinking about Lenin’s Tomb, the contrast was amazing. Lenin is kept in a dark, cold vault. Mao’s room is much lighter and more spacious with draperies – kinda of like a living room with a really weird coffee table.

Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Gate of Heavenly Peace. Somehow all that traffic doesn't say "peace" to me.

Afterwords we walked around the Forbidden City. This place is endless. We must of walked for hours exploring all the alleyways and temples. It was also filled with people. We found it quite funny to see huge groups of Chinese tourists while in China. I guess I thought they would just walk around like regular people.

The Golden Stream.

The Golden Stream.

Dragons

Dragons guarding the Gate of Supreme Harmony.

Visitors inspecting the handywork.

Visitors inspecting the handy work.

One of the many towers near the City walls.

One of the many towers near the City walls.

An archway between courtyards.

An archway between courtyards.

Relaxing in a pavilion in the Imperial Garden.

Relaxing in a pavilion in the Imperial Garden.

Sundown means time to go.

Sundown means time to go.

Then came the highlight of the day. We went to a Chinese acrobatics show. I don’t even know how to explain this. Imagine a poor man’s Cirque du Solei with high school production values. The acrobats were skilled but the props kept falling apart or the lighting would be off. This one “skit” had boys doing back handsprings or whatever across the stage and then through hoops. But when a hoop fell, there was suddenly a bunch of boys running across the stage to distract us – and they all had just one “jazz hand” leading them around until the prop was fixed.

And you know the face performers give the audience to say “hey, what I just did was impressive so clap”? The faces they made said “wow, I can’t believe there are only 20 people in the audience”. Sometimes just a person in the back would cough or maybe a few obligatory claps. It was classic. All I kept thinking was, how much did we pay for this? But Tina and I laughed the entire time so it was worth it.

Changing of the Guard ceremony in front of a poster about the Guards.

Changing of the Guard ceremony in front of a poster about the Guards.

Third month. Third country.

November 7, 2008
by Stuart
2 Comments
2,389 views

The outskirts of UB after a night of snow.

The outskirts of UB after a night of snow.

After a 30-hour train ride we arrived this afternoon in Beijing, officially completing the Trans-Mongolian part of our trip. Last night at the border we watched them change the boogies – wheels – on the train cars. Russia and Mongolia have the same width tracks, but China has a smaller gage. After you leave Mongolia, the train goes into this warehouse where each car is lifted about eight feet in the air, the old boogies are slid out and the new ones are slid in. The process is so smooth you don’t feel a thing – Tina didn’t even know it had been done. You have to watch this process from the train car since they won’t let you out (there are guards at each end of the car). Plus customs still has your passport so you don’t want to be going anywhere.

Hey! That's our train!

Hey! That's our train!

We we started and were we ended.

We we started and were we ended.

Sunset in the Gobi.

Sunset in the Gobi.

The subway in Beijing is in Chinese and English and the streets are also in Roman characters which made it easy to find our hostel. However, the hostel seems to have been swallowed up by a hotel. The guidebook says the hostel is across a nice courtyard from a hotel. But the courtyard has a sign saying the hostel is in the hotel. It’s still only $10 a night and about a 15 min walk to Tienanmen Square, but it doesn’t have that social atmosphere that a hostel does. And it has squat toilets.

The new boogies being slid into place.

The new boogies being slid into place.

So far Beijing seems really cool. It’s a big city but it feels tame and kinda chill – like Portland, OR. There are as many people on bikes as cars, and lots of side streets that are cobblestone with little markets. And contrary to Russia and Mongolia, every restaurant looks so good! We passed a place that serves “Assuredly Mixed Vegetables”, which is good because when I order that at home I’m a bit incredulous as to the quality of mixing.

China is gonna be awesome.

Terelj

November 5, 2008
by Tina
1 Comment
2,277 views

After debating a while as to whether or not to leave Mongolia early for Beijing on the Sunday train, on account of my arm, we decided to stay another week in Mongolia and take another trip out to Terelj national park. The park is about 80k north of UB, and we signed up for a three day/two night trip. On the morning of our departure it was snowing – even UB looks pretty under a blanket of snow – and we drove out of the city in the peaceful early morning before the street became jam packed with loud, erratic traffic.

Hills and snow

Frozen river.

Trees

Tina and trees.

 The park was a lot more touristy than the other places we had been with lots of tourist ger camps and even a golf resort, but we again stayed with a family in their extra ger. We learned while visiting the Mongolian History Museum that a prosperous family has all 5 national animals of Mongolia, sheep, goats, cows, horses and camels. This was a very prosperous family as they has all 5, and while visiting them in their family ger, we also noticed that they had a TV, satellite dish, computer, microwave and washing machine. We were hence surprised when we wer shown to our ger and it was in pretty bad condition. We got pretty good at sousing out the quality of a ger upon arrival after spending 12 nights in them. This one had holes in the sides and was very drafty. We knew that we’d be in for a cold night.

The family ger

The family ger - complete with broken motorcycle and satellite dish.

Hills and Valley

Looking back towards our ger camp.

We got a fire going and relaxed in the ger until after lunch and decided to brave to cold and go for a walk. After we got a couple feet away the kid who had been taking care of yelled out, “horse?”. Two hours of horse riding a day was included in out trip so we decided to go for it (broken arm and all). The kid saddled up a couple horses, lots of yelling ensued between family members and we finally took off for our ride with the 16 year old son of the family. We got off to somewhat of a rough start with the kid changing his mind as to which direction we should go and him getting frustrated with me because I couldn’t control my horse very well. Mongolian horses are semi-wild and therefore don’t always abide when you pull on the reigns and you end up going in a lot of circles.

Powering through

Powering through.

Goat

Goat

We explored the hills of the park, beautifully blanketed in snow and started to enjoy or ride once we were able to control our horses a bit and trekked along at a nice pace until my horse decided it would stop for a bite to eat. Down the horses head went for a piece of grass and then down I went right over its head, onto the ground, landing right on my broken arm. Lucky for me Mongolia horses are short and the fall was not hard. I was pretty shaken up, and the horse got spooked and charged Stuart’s horse. The kid was amazing adept at calming the horse down. He tightened the saddle (thats the last time they let the 1o year old do that job) and had me climb back on the horse after assuring me that it was in fact a ‘good horse’.

Our ger

Our ger. It sleeps four.

Sheep

Sheep

We finished finished our ride around sunset and took our frozen toes back to the ger to warm up and enjoy another “Mongolian” flavored dinner. The night was freezing cold as predicted, but we powered through.

You should see the other guy

You should see the other guy.

The next morning we were joined in our ger by another couple who we promptly filled in on ger living, us being experts and all by now. Stuart and I passed on the horse riding. I didn’t think that my arm could take it anymore. The weather being a lot more enjoyable, we decided to go on a couple hikes and check out the cool rock formations and forests of the park.

The other guy

The other guy.

We walked until sunset, which was awesome.

Sunset

Sunset