Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Adventures in Mongolia

We got back from the Mongolian countryside a few days ago and I've needed some time to recover before writing this! On the first day, we got taken to a ger from where we went camel riding for a back-breaking 10km to a Buddhist site. The site was a little disappointing, consisting of rocks, much rubbish, and some blue silk scarves hung up. Then it was back on the camels for the 10km back to the ger. Another couple, who had also come on the camel ride, was staying at the same ger. We'd been given a lesson before the trip on what not to do when visiting nomad families - sit only on the west side of the ger, never step on the doorway threshold - but this seemed to make the other three so nervous that I was the only one who tried talking to the family. The family didn't seem that interested in talking though.

I slept reasonably well and the next morning, Kristen and I went by horse to the second family's ger. We were both already sore from the camel ride the previous day so the ride involved some excruciating pain! We also went through marshy land and there were moments when we felt we were about to fall off. Arriving at the ger, the family made no effort to welcome us but eventually gave us some lunch. We waited around because we were supposed to be being taken to a religious site but with no sign of anything happening, Kristen and I set off for a walk in the sand dunes. We'd seen a campsite on the other side of the dunes earlier and when we got there discovered a place where we could have drink a beer each and Kristen was able to get some vegetarian food. Then we set off into the sand dunes to go back. Somehow we got lost, as the dunes seemed to last a lot longer than the first time. We walked and walked and eventually came out of the dunes but not before some worried moments. We also came out miles from our host family's ger but luckily a nearby family gave us a ride on a motorbike back to where we were staying.

After visiting some buddhist stupas the next morning, we made our way to the third family's ger. This involved a horse-ride again and this time through the sane dunes! It was pretty tough going and Kristen dismounted to walk most of the way. At one point I felt very like John Wayne as I rode my horse down a steep sand dune, with the horse slipping and sliding, me hanging onto the saddle with one hand and pulling back on the reigns with the same hand while pulling the lead of another horse behind me with my other hand!

By the time we reached the third ger we were too tired to do anything the rest of the day. There were other tourists staying at nearby gers and in the evening we all ate together. This ger site was very unhygienic though, more so than the others, with animal feces surrounding the tents. The next day I was hit by the most severe stomach upset I've ever experienced. There were no toilets (or showers) at any of the gers, so I had to trudge off into the desert steppes to go to the toilet, having to dig and fill in a hole each time (and I lost count how many times). We got a jeep ride back to Ulan Bator that afternoon and I've been resting up since.

Overall I'm glad we did the trip though at times it was very challenging. But I guess that's the point. We've booked tickets on the train to Ulan Ude in Russia on August 29 so until then we will explore UB a bit more. Not sure if we'll be taking any more trips to the countryside though!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ulan Bator

We’ve been here for a couple of days now and the first thing I noticed was the absence of the humid heat that I’ve been in almost constantly since I was in northern Australia in late April. It’s warm here but it’s a dry warmth, so I don’t get tired as quickly.

We’ve explored some of the city which has a large square in the centre with a huge statue of Genghis Khan at one end.

Tomorrow we set off on a four day tour into the Bulgan province where we will travel by jeep, camel, and horse, staying with nomadic families in their gers. We’ll visit the ruins of monastry and a swan lake, and learn how to milk goats. This tour is organised through an eco-friendly organisation called Ger-to-Ger.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Trans-Mongolian Railway

August 15

We’re on the K23 which left Beijing at 7.47am (on the dot) yesterday and will arrive in Ulan Bator at 1pm this afternoon. There are plenty of Westerners aboard, though they are outnumbered by Chinese and Mongolians. Some spectacular scenery of rocky mountains and valleys.

The train arrived at the border at about 10.30pm where the wheels had to be changed because the rails in Mongolia have a narrower gauge. This gave us a couple of hours in the border-town of Erlyan (on the China side) where we managed to find a restaurant that was still open -- the train food was average. After we set off again, we crossed over to the Mongolian side of the border to be checked by immigration officials. Kristen and I didn’t have our visas for Mongolia because we had read that it was possible and pretty easy to get them at the border. It turned out that we were the only passengers not to have them, so there were some stern-looking faces among the train staff as we got off the train at about 1am and walked to the office to get our visas. At first, we were told it was not possible, then possible only for five-day visas. After a few panicky moments - our Russian visas are only valid beginning August 27 so we weren’t sure what we were going to do between end of the five days and that date - the official said she would give us 15-day visas. With sighs of relief we got back on board.

I slept pretty well last night, though Kristen didn’t. The Mongolian landscape (I think it's the Gobi desert) reminds me of Canterbury - lots of dry grassy plains, but the plains are bigger. Actually, they seem almost endless.

PS: now that I've left China, I have full access to my blog again and can post the photos of China that I couldn't before. Scroll down to the 'Beijing' entry to see some photos from Shanghai.

Last night in China

August 13
Tomorrow we start on the Trans-Mongolian railway, the beginning of a two-month journey from Beijing to Moscow. (Although the railway from Beijing to Moscow is sometimes referred to as the Trans-Siberian, we don’t actually get to that until we join it at Lake Baikal in Russia. The Trans-Siberian railway goes from Vladivostock on the east coast of Russia to Moscow.) As well as the sights that I’ve written about on here, we also visited Tiannamen Square. Chairman Mao’s mausoleum is in the Square’s Centre but the queue was too long for us - even though it seemed to move fairly swiftly, we weren’t that interested in seeing the body of the mass-murderer... oops, I mean the founder of the nation.

This seems an appropriate point to make the progress of my trip so far. It’s been six months since I set off from Lyttelton. Highlights so far are the Java volcano, the Malaysian jungle-trek, and Angkor Wat. Hopefully just as many and spectacular adventures are still to come.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Great Wall of China

We went to the Huanghua section of the wall, for which my Lonely Planet guidebook has an excellent description:

"The ever-popular sections of the Great Wall at Huanghuā, 60km from Beijing, have breathtaking panoramas of partially unrestored brickwork and watchtowers snaking off in two directions. There is also a refreshing absence of amusement park rides, exasperating tourist trappings and the full-on commercial mania of Bādalǐng and other tourist bottlenecks. Clinging to the hillside on either side of a reservoir, Huanghuā is a classic and well- preserved example of Ming defences with high and wide ramparts, intact parapets and sturdy beacon towers. Periodic but incomplete restoration work on the wall has left its crumbling nobility and striking authenticity largely intact, with the ramparts occasionally dissolving into rubble.

It is said that Lord Cai masterminded this section, employing meticulous quality control. Each cùn (inch) of the masonry represented one labourer's whole day's work. When the Ministry of War got wind of the extravagance, Cai was beheaded for his efforts. In spite of the trauma, his de- capitated body stood erect for three days before toppling. Years later a general judged Lord Cai's Wall to be exemplary and he was posthumously rehabilitated. The wall was much more impressive before parts of it were knocked down to provide stones for the construction of the dam.

Despite its lucrative tourist potential, the authorities have failed to wrest Huanghuā from local villagers, who have so far resisted incentives to relinquish their prized chunks of heritage.

Official on-site signs declare that it's illegal to climb here, but locals pooh-pooh the warnings and encourage travellers to visit and clamber on the wall. Fines are rarely enforced, although a theoretical risk exists."

It may be 'ever-popular' but when we went, there were not many other people there which was great. As you can see in one of the photos, we found a cat paw-print in one of the wall's stone slabs. We wondered if it is 2000 years old but much of the wall is more recently restored so it might not be.

Summer Palace

This isn’t a single palace, but actually a large area with many buildings and gardens spread around it where the Chinese royal families used to come to escape the heat of Beijing in summer. Like the Fordidden City, it was incredibly crowded but also well worth the visit. You can hire little pedal-boats and pedal about the lake.

Forbidden City

This was where Chinese emperors lived for over 2000 years, up until the country becoming a republic in the twentieth century. It was incredibly crowded but still well worth the visit.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


I finally have my Russian visa. Everything went very smoothly. I couriered the documents to my contact in Hong Kong, he took them into the Russian consulate there who accepted them without problem, he picked up my passport with my visa the following day, and couriered it back to me in Beijing. Absolute smoothness compared to my battles at the Shanghai branch.

I'm incredibly grateful to my friend's friend in Hong Kong who did the legwork for me. He runs a bookshop so if you're ever in Hong Kong, please drop into HK Readers at 7/F, 68 Sai Yeung Choi Street South, Mongkok and consider buying something. Its website is http://www.hkreaders.com/?page_id=47

My girlfriend has arrived from NZ and we will spend a week or so exploring Beijing before starting on the Trans-Mongolian Express. Mongolian visas are relatively easy to get apparently and we will aim to cross over into Russia on 27 August.

The only difficulty that occurred was when I tried to check in to a hotel in Beijing without a passport. One hotel didn't have a problem but the next one, where we had pre-booked, would not accept me despite me having a photocopy of my passport and Chinese visa and despite several phone calls to the authorities. In the end, my girlfriend checked into the hotel alone and I 'visited' over the next couple of days until my passport came back. The first night a very officious reception staff member knocked on the door to check that I was not staying there. I hid in the bathroom. The next day my girlfriend went to reception to check-out, saying that we'd find somewhere else that would let me stay. Suddenly there was much conversation at the reception as the hotel stood to lose quite a bit of money as we had booked in for a week, the end result of which was that we stayed and the staff were a lot less adamant about making sure my 'visits' were only brief.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


I'm in Beijing while my passport is in Hong Kong. Kind of risky I know but I think it'll be all right. A friend of a friend is taking my documents into the Russian consulate there (where it is possible for non-Chinese passport holders to get a Russian visa, unlike in Shanghai and Beijing) and I hope to get them back by the end of next week. I phoned the Russian consulate in Hong Kong and they assured me that I need not apply in person, that it was okay for someone else to do it for me. I guess if problems arise, I will go to Hong Kong in person to sort things out (though I'll have to get my passport back first!) but I'm really hoping it won't come to that.

Much of my time in Shanghai was taken up with these visa issues and I also got sick for a couple of days. But I did see some of the sights: the Bund, West Nanjing St, Shanghai Museum, and Yuyuan Gardens. Didn't make it to the World Expo though. Even though I've bypassed the Chinese government's block on blogspot websites to post this message, the loophole doesn't seem to let me post pictures, so my photos of Shanghai will just have to be posted later, perhaps from Mongolia. They include a dog dyed pink and orange and a Ming dynasty sculpture that looks just like Kojak.

Update: here are the photos!