A Travellerspoint blog

Mao, me, and the Wall: part two

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Boy, what a lovely wall.

Big wall, goes on for ages and ages, lots of different parts.

Most backpackers, or those staying in hostels, have the Jinshanling to Simatai section of the Great Wall marketed to them.

The wall here is mostly unreconstructed you see, still in it's 'original' condition. You won't have to fight with many other tourists. You won't find any souvenir shops. It doesn't have it's own railway station or dedicated expressway.

To be truthful the remoteness of Jinshanling is largely overplayed, and purer locations suitable for untouched-wall fanatics can be found elsewhere, but seriously who cares when hiking the 8km of this section gives you permanent jaw drop.

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Posted by Serge78 14:49 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Mao, me, and the Wall: part one

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I can't explain exactly why, but I fell in love with Beijing the second I arrived.

Maybe I was still wrapped in the afterglow of a 30-hour long drift out of Mongolia and into China on a train so amazingly comfortable, and so hyper relaxing, that I could have floated horizontantly off the carriage by the time we reached Beijing.

Perhaps it was because as we pulled into Beijing Zhan in early afternoon bathed in 20 degree celcius flavoured sunshine, all thoughts of frozen Ulan Bataar thawed in an instant.

Or it could be summit to do with being among millions of Chinese, the vast majority of whom were chilled, smiling, happy, and not rushing anywhere fast. The polar opposite of that place in Russia I won't mention here. I forget it's name.

And I still love Beijing. Nothing I saw in the nine days I was there changed my opinion. It's one of the cleanest, best laid out cities I've ever seen. The place is enormous, but if you're up to the challenge it's a very walkable city as they've got the grid layout thing down to a fine art. Every major junction in the centre of town gives you four options - north, east, south, west - so it's almost impossible to get lost.

There's the touristy bits. I'm not normally a fan of these places, but it's hard not to find the scale of the Forbidden City overwhelming. Can't really guage it from this pic, but when you're stomping around the place it just goes on for yonks.

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Whacking great open spaces in between each gate.

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People having their photo taken everywhere, from almost every angle...

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And very serious signs that leave you in no doubt you've just exited...

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Still, leave via the south side of the Forbidden City and you find yourself sandwiched between that huge portrait of Mao -

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- and the famous/infamous (delete as politically appropriate) Tian'anmen Square.

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This portrait thing is catching.

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Don't despair, the return of the 'beard' was short lived.

And the Forbidden City is just one of many sites throughout Beijing that lived up to the billing.

Tiantan, or the Temple of Heaven, is another.

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You've got the Tibetan temple of Yonghegong, where they burn serious amounts of incense.

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And some great parks to amble about in, Jingshan being just one of them.

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I was staying at a guesthouse in between Houhai and Xihai lakes, and yep, you've guessed it, it was all rather lovely round there too.

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So, what's not to love?

Undeniably, Beijing's current pretty face is the result of a ton of surgery over the past decade, largely driven by that kinda big sporting event lasting two weeks in August this year.

Beijing is pancake flat, and with cycle lanes wider than most roads in London, I got on my bike and headed up to the Bird's Nest to have a look for myself.

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You know what? It's a really odd part of town.

The main stadium itself looks nice enough, but whole thing has got an empty feel. A place where the party has long since departed. Super-loud speakers still blare out what must have been the official, gloriously bland, anthem. Every three minutes. On constant repeat (just imagine what the poor bastards who work here every day must think of the song). But there's nout atmosphere, nothing left of the joy and razzmatazz so eagerly broadcast around the world this summer. It's all as flat as the landscape.

And the water cube? I could have walked straight past it, mistaking it for an Ikea store. At night, with the fancy lights on (and the sun off), it's meant to be much more impressive.

But none of this was enough to blemish my fond feelings for the Chinese capital, or it's overwhelmingly generous and friendly people.

Even eating bullfrog (my choice), and several charred whole sparrows (not my choice - don't think you can guess food from photos folks!), couldn't change the way I feel.

I'm gonna come back one day, and hopefully for a lot longer than nine days next time.

Posted by Serge78 21:47 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

This is ger life

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Out of Ulaanbataar, and into the wide open Mongolian countryside.

The Gobi Desert, perhaps the most famous geographical feature in Mongolia, is nowhere near the capital city. It's a good couple of days solid bump and grind in a jeep to reach the Gobi, and with only limited time at my disposal I was forced to limit my expedition to the immediate area around UB.

So, after hooking up with two couples staying at another guesthouse, we headed east to Terelj National Park. Yep, I know I've been relying on Wikipedia a lot in this blog, but thought you'd like a bit of background. And i've been kinda lazy when it comes to taking photos. So check the linky.

We stood next to Turtle Rock (check the wiki), and you know what - it really does look like a turtle. Even more than in the pic. What isn't shown on the Wikipedia page is that there's a pool table next to it, albeit on a slope that renders most games unplayable. Seriously random.

With a cold, crisp and sunny afternoon at our leisure, we set out on a two kilometre hike up to the monastery set back into the mountain side.

You can make it out just beyond the gate:

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The climb was well worth the effort, greeted as we were by a scene straight out of Lord of the Rings:

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Arriving at the monastery we were met by a local guy, in his late 40s but looking a lot older, totally obsessed by my arm hair. Mongolians are pretty much bald when it comes to limb-fur, and he was so taken aback by mine that I think he actually wanted a couple of strands as a keepsake. I offered, but was politely declined.

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Semi-nomadic life in Mongolia means living in a ger - a one room tent with a coal or wood fired stove in the centre, around which everything revolves.

A ger can be taken apart pretty quickly if needed, in readiness to move to a new location.

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Just remember not to leave anything, or anyone, behind.

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If you're a bit posh, you have yourself a multi-ger (nope, that probably isn't the proper term) - two or three of the tents linked together.

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And this was to be our home for a couple of nights. Very spacious, warm and clean inside, life in a ger for permanant residents seemed solely dedicated to mealtimes. People were either preparing and cooking some grub, or they were munching away, or it was post-scoff clean up time.

And we were the lucky guests, so had the plum job of just sitting and eating. Diet was meat with noodles or rice, or meat in steamed buns, or just plain old glorious meat. All was washed down with Mongolian milk tea - probably nine parts goats milk to one part tea with a large dollop of salt for good measure.

The local semi-nomadic convenience store is located right next to the ger. Not bad if you're in the mood for meat or milky tea.

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On our final morning in the ger, we were rounded up and called outside to take part in an event common for all who live out in the Mongolian coutryside - the butchering of a sheep. We watch it all. Before, during and after.

It may just about be the first time I've ever seen a living thing die in front of me. Something that isn't an insect anyway. I didn't take pictures, but for those with an interest (and a sense of imagination), here's how it was done.

Having first selected the fattest, plumpest sheep for slaughter, Mr Butcher (sorry, can't remember his name) brings the animal over to a plastic sheet no larger a coffee table. It's then flipped onto it's back, with the handy help of a tourist holding the rear legs. Sheep's, not the butcher's.

Mr Butcher then makes a vertical incision in the sheeps abdomen, probably about 4 or 5 inches in length. He plunges his hand and arm inside the animal, locates and then pinches shut a main artery. The sheep dies in seconds.

It is all incredibly quick. There is surprisingly little struggling from the sheep. There is hardly any blood or mess. It is probably about as effective and efficient a way of killing an animal for food as i've heard of.

Next it's time to take the sheep apart. Skin is removed, bones broken and organs removed. Blood is drained, bodily waste is chucked, and almost everything else is retained for eating. Even stomach lining. Wish I'd found out what that was for. Absolute minimal wastage.

Some of us help remove the skin and coat from the carcass, others transport meaty bits to the 'freezer' area (basically a shed alongside the ger) for storage.

It's just honest, necessary killing. For foods sake. It felt like a privilage to witness it.

But I hope I never have to watch it again.

Posted by Serge78 14:45 Archived in Mongolia Tagged food Comments (2)

Mongol meat massive

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I've eaten horse.

I'm now a bonafide equine-munching barbarian. I doubt i'll be able to watch the Grand National in future without seeing several servings worth of prime fillet parading round Aintree. But, the thing is, I was in Mongolia. At a barbeque. And if you don't do meat in Mongolia, you don't eat in Mongolia. Meat meat meat. Eat eat eat. And besides, it was cracking. Tasted summit lovely.

Ulaanbaatar, the Mongol capital and home to over a third of the country's population, truly is the city that you can taste. Spend an hour or two walking round and the back of your throat feels like you've been sipping low grade petrol all morning. Decades-old buses, every single one filled to bursting, fight for road space with blacked out 4x4s and the odd humvee, all throwing out gunk to be swallowed by those walking the streets alongside.

The average traveller, however, is less concerned with particulates and emissions, and more with negotiating the 'mean' streets of Ulaanbaatar without being pick-pocketed, bag-slashed, mugged or beaten up by randoms.

Long before you get to UB, you hear the stories. All the guidebooks warn you. "Don't walk around by yourself", "Don't carry a bag", "Don't look like a tourist" (some hope of that). And then you arrive, and find that the guesthouse rumour mill is in full flow, and the Mongolian-whispers between backpackers are growing louder and more elaborate. Everyone's heard the one about those travellers, two (three?) Kiwis (or were they Spanish?), staying at that guesthouse over there (not your one, that other guesthouse), who were set apon by a modern day horde of Ghengis's whilst stepping out of the Irish bar (no, not that Irish bar, the other one), who called the police - but instead of the local coppers coming to their aid they instead decided to give the sorry travellers another right royal kicking.

Now, not saying that these stories are all total fiction, and it's gotta be common sense to realise that you stand out like a walking cash machine in places such as this, I just don't think Ulaanbaatar deserves it's rep among non-Mongolians as some kind of lawless free-for-all where danger lurks round every corner.

I may still be comparing everyone and everything to smileless European Russia, but I found the Mongolians (like their Buryat cousins in Siberia), to be open, generous and welcoming. All of them.

But it's a big old place, Mongolia. Staggeringly humungous in fact. So I got myself booked up on a 4 day excursion out of the capital and into the real reason to come to this part of the world - the stunning countryside.

And as soon as I can find a pc that'll let me upload a few pics, i'll tell you all about it.

Posted by Serge78 19:31 Archived in Mongolia Tagged food Comments (1)

All on Olkhon, in pictures

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Accommodation on the island - Nikita's Homestead
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The first evening, sunsetting soon after we arrive
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The next day, and it's excursion time. A day's trip to the north of the island for three from England, and one from Holland and one from the US - both heading westwards after time spent working in Beijing
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Our transportation was this legendary piece of kit
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No matter who we met on the island, they certainly didn't mind having their picture taken
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Ribbons, coins, and pictures are often tied to trees on Olkhon. The thought behind this particular pic remains a mystery
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Back at the ranch, and we catch up with two lads from Limerick and three German carpenters - real life journeymen
who travel and use their skills in return for board alone
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Shortly after this last pic was taken the booze ran out. Cue all ten of us wondering out of the homestead, in the dark and in the snow, trying to find anyone in our corner of the island that would supply us with more. A fruitless, but no less hilarious, mission and a half.

Posted by Serge78 00:45 Archived in Russia Tagged bus Comments (1)

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