A Travellerspoint blog

Meanwhile in China...

semi-overcast 20 °C
View Year out on Huw's travel map.

There is the old excuse."Time flys when your having fun".

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I guilty slunk into a sofa at a local coffee house. Damnit, Pingyao had been months ago now and I'd still not touched a blog or diary since. In truth it had never been as easy to write as I'd first hoped. Sooner or later you discover that the few hours downtime it takes to keep it up, is a few hours you could be off finding yet more interesting things to avoid writing about. The cycle continues and for me in China times not so much flown as soared.
So... Meanwhile, In China...

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Once again I'd continued south, fleeing the rapidly freezing north as winter grasped at my previous stops. I'd later meet another traveller, in Mongolia at the time, who bitterly recalled the -30 degree Celsius temperatures. As for me, I was sick enough of the low positives in the Chinese north and reckoned if I went far enough south I'd eventually hit summer again.

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Bowling off the train at the station we were welcomed by the Grand walls of Xi'an. Completely encircling the city they stand like the monolithic sisters of Pingyao. Unfortunately they don't share its shielding effect. In places vast holes have been blasted through the walls, then artfully bridged to allow in roads and highways. At first glance Xi'an appears just like any other Chinese city, a sprawling growth of modern buildings blanketed in Smog, but it too has its treasures. I'd had no idea until arriving that Xi'an has always been a major stop on the Silk road. From this lingers a lasting impression of middle western culture. Not in least its Muslim district. Filled with distinctly un-han looking Chinese amongst the sounds and smells of central Asian food. We'd run into a few Brits at the hostel (We're an unexpected minority amongst travellers) who’d mentioned the Great Mosque as well worth a look. Nestled in windy lanes and a maze of trading alleys and halal kebabs the great mosque seems wholly attached to the area that surrounds it. There are no shapely white towers to distance the building from those around it, instead there is it’s an unquestionably Islamic take on a Chinese temple. Covered in symbolism from the placement and shape of buildings to the presence of the crescent moon

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But all this is just a side note in Xi'an, overshadowed by the immense attraction just a half hour ride outside. The City’s main claim to fame is the tomb and death guard for China’s first emperor. The Terracotta army. You get a lot of build up before seeing the army itself. Comically poor acting in the intro movies, the vast ornate park it lies in and the looming size of the hanger itself. It all suggests your about to see something grand. I for one, found the spectacle did not disappoint. Organised by unit and rank Emperor Qin’s undead clay army is still partially buried. Only a few of the front units have been repaired and propped up to their original standing positions. The rest lie crushed, shattered or even still buried under the massive slabs of unexcavated mud, such is the fear of losing a cultural relic. The site still draws amazement even despite its current condition. Rather than detracting from the greater whole it instead hints and alludes to an even greater original vista.

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Beyond this though lies the far less visually striking area of Qin’s tomb. A huge man made mountain, easily the size of any Egyptian pyramid, lies fairly quietly by the road in. Covered in grass and trees, it seems nothing more than a park with a steep hill and marginally impressive view of the area from the top. All is not as it seems here however, and the key to this place lies in buried potential. Qin’s tomb is un-excavated. It has never been opened by archaeologists and studies of the mount seem to suggest it’s never been broken into and robbed either. You suddenly realise that just below your feet lie caverns filled with treasure and artefacts befitting of an Indiana Jones film. Along with the remains of the great man himself. The site has experts polarised from all over China and the world. With the oriental equivalent of Giza, known to all but sealed off, its tempting forbidden fruit for archaeologists and many are hungry to take a look inside. Stopping them is the largely held belief, that with such a massive site and such delicate materials, in opening the tomb there would be no way of preserveing what they find inside. Once exposed to air and sunlight things may just start to fall apart again. Behind this debate is also a lasting respect and fear for man. A great Tyrant who united China into the country we know today, who unified the writing system effectively giving as many language as Europe the ability to communicate in a form that still exists and the man who committed an unspeakable number of horrific acts to forge a power which has lasted millennia. Some feel such a man deserves his rest some few even fear his ghost.

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A sudden whiff of Caffeine brought me back. I suspiciously eyed the glass of Jet black Jet fuel the waitress had just placed in front of me. A few forced gulps later and i was awake again. It was starting to get dark and I felt drained. I had to finish though. Apparently, memory dims with worrying speed. Already I struggle to remember parts from the start of the trip, a dangerous fuzz which obscures the funny details that make travel so worthwhile. Last night I'd taken a flick through another travellers diary, meticulously kept for years back the joy he'd taken from seeing pictures and reading old entries was evident, opening the flood gates for old memories. You can lose a couple of hours here and there or you can lose a few days or possibly more much further down the line. Thumbing through a trove of pictures, notes and blogs gave similar satisfaction.

Thus goes a guilty psudo-apology and rational for why I will attempt shorter gaps between following blog posts. More soon… honest.

Posted by Huw 01:19 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites

City in the Mist

overcast 14 °C
View Year out on Huw's travel map.

I am not a morning person.

I should admit now, I regard the entire process of waking up as an entirely unhealthy activity. Just to complicate things, I'm also not very good at it. Mornings tend to feature a solid spell of zombied stumbling whilst I grapple around trying to remember exactly where... (and some mornings who) I am...

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But this one was different. From the outset I knew exactly where I was. The small city of PingYao. The warm wooden rafters of the dorm were instantly recognisable, a clear contrast to the concrete cell that was the previous hostel. Drawn to the door by a cool current of air I stepped out into the balcony above the Ming-era courtyard. Wispy fog bowed out of the morning grey coursing around stony dragons and rendering everything even a few steps distance in a muted haze. This was different allright... I knew where I was, The question was when?

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Pingyao's ancient center is encircled by the old city walls. Twelve meters high, they run one and a half Kilometers on each side, broken only by the high guard towers and cavernous gates. These on their own would make the place an impressive historical monument but Pingyao's real magic is what they still manage defend. Safely sealed off from the high rises and encroaching sprawl of modern China, the center holds its original architecture, uninterrupted within the defended zone. Stepping out into the streets its easy to get sense of the history, Cafe's and shops shelter under the old rooves and behind the beautifully carved frontings. A facade-less city, the architecture extends all the way back through courtyards and mazed alleyways and into peoples homes.

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Stepping out onto the cloudy streets I notice the quiet hush of background noise. The constant hustle of cars, trains, bikes and the ever present honking horns are all sealed off by the buffering walls. Instead voices rise out of the grey,
shop owners chant their wares to passers by, schoolyards scream with playing children and tour groups are shepherded by the shill drone of their guides microphone. It all fades in and out of the mist as the each passes by. Once a great center of banking and wealth Pingyao housed many impressive temples and mansions. Today these remain as museums, preserved with a genuine care. Our walks through the many Taoist or Confucianist temples are overseen by great guarding statues and giant Murial's depicting the religions teachings. Its hard to ignore the calm and tranquility of these places.

One back courtyard is filled with training equipment. Wooden stakes for balance practice, punch bags for strength and giant diagrams on form and technique are littered around. A reminder that the great caravans of gold and wealth that used to leave here needed protection outside the walls.

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And that really is the key to the place. Protected by its walls and with only a few key points in and out, Pingyao holds a definite sense of security, you feel lullingly safe here. The main center is small enough to explore in a day and has a relaxed charm. Drifting through its narrow alleys you get a strange mix of old and new. Donkeys pull carts for the charcoal men, who announce their wares in an echoing chant. Pitched against these you dodge the zippy golf carts ferrying tourists blaring squeaky horns at anything that moves. But these streets are straight out of the past, you can always find one too narrow for the swirling flow to follow. A trip down these finds quieter residents, where women peel potatoes from doorsteps and kids bounce around you for cover in games of hide and seek.

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I find a bit of down time to relax, a holiday from my travels. My dreamy peace a break from the city rush of Beijing. Sunlight fades into its ghostly dusk, the ornate buildings and lofty gates turn from a shroudy grey to dark shadows. All along its streets the famous red lanterns come out in force. Spilling off the main paths the light creeps into the alleys leaving pools of red in a sea of darkness. This beauty has been recognised in cinema, the setting for "raise the red lantern".

I didn't stay long in this ancient city. A few days shared between relaxation and exploration leaves little to do or see here, it being such a small place. However while it lasts it truly does this well. A dreamy place of respite from the unending urban spread. Its easy to get idealistic about places like this. Mistaking peoples poverty for some sort of "simple life", believing its the last bastion of some great happier time lost in a modern world, forsaken in the west. Memories can get obscured in the same misty haze that fills the streets. Like anywhere here, Pingyao faces its problems. Its lifeblood is obviously tourism, the double edged sword. In summer I'm told its flooded and my "quiet charm" suitably drowned. This in turn maintains the city to ensure another years good harvest travellers cash. But for now and at this time of year a sense of dormancy holds strong. Tucked in a blanket of mist its peace holds fast.

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For now, Pingyao remains very much a town worth getting up for.
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Lunch: Really nice Chinese Egg and Tomato dish, Simple and damn tasty

Posted by Huw 23:54 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world

When the Dust Settles

sunny 16 °C
View Year out on Huw's travel map.

On the fifth day the sun broke through.
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I'd been woken by an unusual sensation. The sunny shafts piercing the curtains seemed disconnected from my last few days in Beijing. A siege of smog was under-way, darkening the daytime sky and rendering all in a murky grey. I'd held back on some of the tourist trail waiting for good weather, partly in hope of those blue sky postcard views and partly to minimise exposure to the throat grinding pollution. Indoor attractions had kept me busy. I'd padded around a few unexpectedly good museums, seen Beijing acrobatics, done aquariums and art exhibits. The murk even held a strange beauty, obscuring skyscrapers into peering shadows and blowing calm wisps across the Summer Palace lake. But I grew restless for blue sky, realising time was ticking by and I'd still not seen many of the capitals treasures. So looking down at the warm patchwork playing out on my duvet I could tell I'd caught a break.

The sun had broken through.

So we pitched together, grabbing our stuff we headed north of the metropolis, making a B-line for the mountains. Nestled about an hours drive away is an area known as Jinshanling. A further 10k on from there is the destination of Simtai, and connecting the two is a mixed and jagged stretch of China's Great wall.

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The track wound past mountain feet and up into narrow valleys. Shepherded by their guides tour groups march up the steep slopes to enter the wall, finally hitting its giant stone steps. Once you'd leapfrogged the herded masses the way ahead lay clear. Snaking magnificently through precarious hills the wall really is a sight to behold. One of the first things that becomes clear is the insane route it takes. Riding up ridges, on cliffs and teetering on mountain peaks the construction of this stretch really didn't stop for any geographical barriers. Often it would be impossible to even approach the wall from below, let alone invade through these points.

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Broken every few hundred meters by towers and even walls on the wall, the place is bristling with defences. The name in Chinese translates as “long castle”, which really is what it boils down to. A great linear fortress. Jinshanling's pristinely renovated section soon gives way as you pass the cable car escape route. From there you walk on the crumbling remains of the original renovation dated from the Middle ages. The steep stairwells decay to a shifting rock scramble but its obvious that even in well kept areas that the gradient is difficult. Lumbering along with only a backpack you've got to feel something for the guys who built and guarded this place.

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From up here you get a good view of the landscape. Miles out of the Beijing sprawl the hills lie like the great duvet of some sleeping giant, bumped and rolling. Even here though its plain to see the development going on. New petrol stations dot roads, great plantations and construction projects can be seen and the distance hints at a massive lake and dam. The sheer manpower that went into building the wall is now at work building a new China. Westernisation is plain to see and shocking my expectations from this “communist” country where you're never more than 400 meters from a MacDonald, internet cafe, Starbucks or KFC. Great adverts hang around and play on buses, selling diamonds and tailored suits, executive cars plough the streets, the wealth of the cities is clear. It is however in plain context, amongst it all the poverty of the streets and the Hutongs is still present. This city mixes an interesting combination of enormous wealth and a population around that of an entire quater UK, making for a gigantic workforce. The world is becoming flat. A more even playing field. Though China may still be playing catch up in some respects, its very obviously gearing up to take the ball... and run with it.

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All the way back in Amsterdam another traveller had talked to me about the Beijing Olympics. One line really resonated at the time. That China was aiming to use these Olympics in the same way Berlin did in 1936. This is China's coming out party, a show of its enormous power and sneak peek at the next decade. Whilst the good weather lasted I decided to take a look for myself.. North of the city centre is the enormous Olympic park. Huge trucks sweep in and out of the place filling the air with dusty clouds. I again find the sun hazed and the air thick, but this time its all dust kicked up by the enormous construction area. With no official public access I decided to skirt around the miles of plated fencing, to find a good place to take a look. A pile of breeze blocks finally gave me my in. Hoisting myself up I peered over the fence. The only word I can really use to sum up what I saw was, crater. Far from my expectations of a place nearly complete with little over nine months to go for until the games... it looked more like it had been hit by a meteor. China's great birds nest stadium and bizarrely beautiful water cube are framed by open soil and spindly cranes. Workers dig, push, move and build all around the place. A sense of action is everywhere. The graceful web of the national stadium's steel nest now sits with a thick coat of dust. Its a fairly surprising sight. Still I'm assured by the adverts and releases that this is merely the final stage, laying the aesthetics, pathways and trees, the main work is already over. My untrained eye just lingers on the massive earth works, such a scene of emmence wasteland even if it is only a stones throw from the paradise illustrations for the final site. I can't help but wonder if this is a sign of things to come for my own home in 2012. But those will be a very different games. When the dust settles it will be interesting to see what state China and indeed, the world, lies in. All I could do now though was gawk.

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Clambering up the final hill we could see the last of our wall down to Simtai. From there the long castle takes on a vertical mountain and wins, riding over ridges and peaks across the horizon. But our hike ended at the sparkling river. Beyond here you cannot continue, its too dangerous to walk. Its worth noting the wall ultimately failed. The Mongols broke through somewhere less well defended , conquered and ended up founding a dynasty here. The wall changed hands. There's a saying, "the wall is strong because its built on the bones of its people", a great effort that was in some places practical defence and in others far more a show power, a definite statement of “because I can...”, but that is China's past. The question that lingers on my mind, is what will the China of tomorrow be built upon and ultimately what it will look like.

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Lunch: Wall top "Cucumber & Cherry tomato" flavoured Crisps stuffed in a Sandwich

Posted by Huw 23:52 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world

Shafted

sunny 15 °C
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I was fuming. Heart kicking in my chest, beating a racing pulse. Bastards. How could they?! I stormed on, totally oblivious to the ancient beauty that surrounded me. How could I have been so stupid, so naive. Cheeks flushed as red as the fortress walls around me and I barreled through the arches of the forbidden city, blowing off steam and trying to out run my thoughts, my shame.

I got shafted.

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Several times now I'd been approached in the street. Friendly Beijingers, inquisitive as to where I was from, what I do and who I am. I found it charming, and a little flattering. Here was I, standing in the midst of thousands of years of history to find people who seemed more interested in what I had for breakfast (literally). Russia had served me well, the first few times I was on my guard. Broad smiles and "Hello! Where are you from?" started the engines of fight, flight response. People don't just ask this stuff. I prepare for the worst. Yet soon enough these sunny conversations had melted my Siberian guard. These people are just friendly, and interested. How fantastic that in a city this diverse people still care. Sure every now and again they tell me of a friend who's got a nice art gallery just across the road, I politely pause and then excuse myself. Even then they'd be friendly, give some useful advice.

And that's how it went this time too. We walked and talked on the way to the fortress. They were Ernest, they were art students. They showed me their gallery. They didn't mind i didn't buy anything. I thought I'd finally broken through the wall from tourist to traveller, I was blending in. Wasn't I? Inviting me for a cup of tea sealed the deal. We sat, we talked, we drank. All three we. It has turned out that this was a little more than a cup of tea. This was a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. But hey, the bill was going in thirds... right? It arrived, painfully more than expectation.

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"So, how's best to divide this up." I asked
Blank faces and silence.

Had I used colloquial English? One of those many expressions I churn off so often, leaving foreign speakers so vague. I check myself. No... all good. So whats the hold up? The shop owner is insistent, I must pay now. But... but? Expectant eyes and awkward silence. I try again. Nothing. There's a flicker in the back of my mind. I'm not seeing something here. But still. Surely nothings too amiss. These people are decent. Right? In some hypnotised half though i shell out for the tea.

"Thank you!" They chant, breaking the stony silence.

It was about then I realised my mistake. This was not going three ways. We leave. They talk. I walk double speed my Brain runs over the last five minutes. They offer to take me to another "gallery", continue this tour, on my tab. I insist I need to go.

"Here's my number! Come to my house tomorrow we'll make dumplings!" I suddenly feel I've become a painted target. A western foreigner, Inherently rich by nature. A vein of cash to be mined by the cunning and crafty. At the city walls, we part ways.

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I was fuming. Bastards. Traders try and sell off Olympic tat on my route. The usual comedy of their attempts, in persistently broken English, is lost on me. How could they? I shove past people. Barging tourist and locals out of the way in a stormy trance. So stupid. So naive. Then under an arch and into the light. The sun had broken out from the cloudy smog, bouncing warm light of the cities red walls.

The worst part about an experience like this is never what you physically lose. The materials worth fades with time anyway. That's merely the bite. The venom is how it changes you. Suddenly the vast crowds around that surround me are hording bandits, their sole purpose to cheat, steal and rob. I pour all my anger out against Beijing. What a vile, horrible city.... I... I hate... I... Damnit. Despite my best efforts. Despite the entirety of my strength poured into making the place my metropolitan scapegoat, I can't. I don't hate Beijing. No longer can I ignore the Majesty of the giant gate before me and in that moment I catch myself. If you don't let it go. You'll always lose more than just what was taken. The entire trip risked being painted with one ugly brush. At least this time, I can see it coming.

A deep breath. I got Shafted.

On the way to the gate a girl and an old man approach me.

"Hello!"

I felt like running. But couldn't. I answered politely, yet on my guard. They ask a few questions, comment on me traveling alone and how i should be careful. I wait for the strike. The one thing i just must visit with them. Suddenly the old man turns.

"Sorry! Our tour group is leaving. We've got to go! Very nice to meet you!"

And they were gone. I was left. Alone and un-shafted. Everyone is Not out to get you. Its the few not the many. I force myself to be watchful, now i know the signs, but no longer bitter. I find the phone number in my pocket. crunched in my hand I sink it with a satisfying ark into the nearest bin.

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That night, I speak to a kindly Norwegian man, traveling away his retirement. He tells me of his day. How he met some locals. They talked and went to an art gallery, and had some tea... It was a shame about the bill though. Still they were nice... It was like looking in a mirror. I notice the same story on the notice board of the hostel. Yet another... and another.

We got shafted.

So here's one for other fellow travellers. Enjoy the city. Its worth the visit. But be on your toes and watch out for the tea, it can end up tasting bitter.
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Lunch: "Complimentary" Fruit and Nibbles... served with tea

Posted by Huw 07:10 Archived in China Tagged tips_and_tricks

Run Out of Rails

sunny -9 °C
View Year out on Huw's travel map.

Time fails to work properly out here.

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It seems like months ago i went to a small stationers on a Surrey highstreet to buy a diary. Pocket sized it's tiny strip like pages have a space reserved for every day. So it began, writing in my destination for each day. My timetable. Beijing a wad of pages away, entries stop on November second where my smudged writing reads "Wooh! Arrived in China".

Crossing the Chinese border I stare at this page. Wait... that's today. I'm in China... today. The reassuring wad cushioning my arrival date had melted page by page the last days and weeks. All at once the past weeks had flown by like a short lifetime. Seemingly too long to have been just one month... yet when i count back the hours, the experiences, It's clear to see. It has been a month, and I'm here already.

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So my Trans-Siberian travels come to an end. I've made it! This is China. Looking back already I can't believe the ride its been. Travel seems to condense life. Amazing experiences get crammed into such small amounts of time. From exploring abandoned churches, to my own fresh water paradise, it all happens in such short time. Even mundane chores have a new life. My usual robotic responses to daily events just don't work out here. Meals no longer come from my wonderfully static fridge. Failure to switch on is likely to land you with a triple quantity of microwaved Muscovite meals (voice of experience), so you just, do. There's so much going on anyway, slumbering through days just isn't on the menu.

My eyes wander from that last celebratory page to the next. The scrawl that had insisted where I'd be the next day for the last thirty-something previous is conspicuously missing. No trains await me in Beijing. No tickets are booked. No solid dates to meet. Two weeks or more to my own devices. A heady cocktail of exhilaration and panic hit. I haven't planned any further than this. Now I'm here. No music to off, I've just got to play it by ear.

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I bid a fond farewell to the last leg.

But that was just the entree and this thing's only just beginning.

Welcome to China.

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Lunch: Still on the mutton... starting to crave green veg, (what has the world come to)

Posted by Huw 07:09 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train_travel

Of Kindness and Customs

sunny -11 °C
View Year out on Huw's travel map.

That pack of cards was all that kept me sane.

The train had ground to a halt at the Russian border some nine hours ago. Within 15 minutes the burly customs staff had turned the the train inside out, quickly pursued by grim military officers reaping our passports and papers with black expressions. Then... nothing. For hours. Nine of them to be exact.

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My carriage turned out to be conspicuously full of foreign travellers. A fact which proved a blessing in disguise allowing for conversation, mutual complaints about border crossings and the explanation of complex rules for card games. A life saver that held the gnawing urge to garrote oneself on the emergency stop cord until the last moments before the train shunted onwards. Rattling forward a few meters we unceremoniously crossed the border... straight into Mongolian border control. The brakes screech on and I once again began eyeing the dangling cord.

"Hello!" Comes a voice. "How are you?" Looking around I realise the sound emanated from a jolly plump man at the door to my compartment. There's an awkward silence before i notice the military insignia on his badge.

"May I see your papers please?" Perhaps I'm being mugged, surely this beaming man isn't customs. I reluctantly hand them over. "That looks great." He says returning them quickly. Before disappearing i notice a his mouth contort into a strange upward expression... It almost looked like... nah, couldn't be... did he just smile? I enter a trance that's only broken by his interrogation of the group next door.

"Are you carrying any weapons or drugs?"
"No." Comes a startled answer.
"Why not?" He laughs the reply.

This was my first introduction to the strange phenomenon of friendliness that seems a raging epidemic amongst the Mongolian people.

Ulaanbaatar is a strange place. A big city in a small country it holds over half of the entire population. Even then its only at a million people. At first glance the center appears nothing special, dusty partly run down streets don't quite hold up to the sheer grandeur of cities like St Petersburg. Fortunately this is a city with personality by the bucket-load.

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A stroll through the suburbs leads me past construction sites for shiny new apartments that spring up out of the traditional Ger districts. Gers being the fold up felt tents traditionally used by nomads that now cluster in city districts. Amongst this I find religion. The first Buddhist temple I sees a six story gold Buddha staring benevolently down. Peace descends on the place as tangibly as the pigeons who calmly flop around after the generous monks who cast bird seed their way. We peer in on morning prayer, a hypnotising chant that floats about the place. Lost in the music i fail to notice a monk detach himself from a back row and make for the door. As he brushes past i notice him take out, not one, but two, mobile phones, texting on one as he calls on the other. Mongolia is a country on the move. Progress its newly glistening office buildings hint towards. I move on to a second temple.

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A quieter affair to the south where i discover Buddhism may not be all it seems. The peace loving, chilled out religion-for-personal-enlightenment I'd always thought I'd known seemed in vast contrast to the murals covering wall and ceiling. Pictures of terrible tortures being exacted upon screaming people. Disembowelments, eternity of nakedness in a freezing cave and being eaten alive by giant worms. This grim procession is presided over by monstrous gods, who stare down with wrathful looks at the entire scene. Slightly lost i ask the caretaker what these people could have possibly done.

"Oh!" she beams back, "they're people who refused to believe in the Chochin lama."
"I see..." Again suspiciously eyeing the pictures
"You are Christian?" she continues.
"No, actually I'm Atheist."
For my confessions i get a sad, its been nice knowing you, smile before returning to sweep the corner.

Paranoia turns the eyes of angry deities towards me. I resolve to move on to pastures slightly less blood soaked. Which in turn leads me to the cities wacky museums. I happy regress into visiting the dinosaurs at the natural history museum. The Gobi is a treasure chest of fossils, a wealth which is displayed impressively here. At the "museum of international intellectuals" (known to us as the puzzle museum) I am shown the expert works of a man who started making puzzles and games at the age of 11. He appears out of no-where at the end of the tour and happily shows me a mix bag of slightly obvious magic tricks before taking me away from his impressively carved pieces to show me his collection of toys. Only on the way out do i see pictures of the man shaking hands with US presidents and other world leaders. The puzzlemaster himself a strange enigma.

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Our hostel owner turns out to have a cousin with a farm. He sets up an excursion out there. A bumpy local train and some rough tracks later and I find myself camped up in a woolly Ger nestled in a the sweeping landscape. Hidden in a mountainous valley just above the rolling steppe the landscape holds a grand beauty. The first frosts of winter only intensify this, crystallising the nearby river with blooms of Ice as it starts to freeze.

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We ride Mongolian horses (who i discover... don't speak English, a slight problem when you've learned the words for "go" but not "FOR CHRIST SAKE STOP BEFORE WE HIT THAT RIVER"), climb the nearby mountains and explore the creepy ruins of the nearby sanatorium. All the while our host gushes Mongolian hospitality, A hearty laugh, Delicious food and blazing stove make the whole thing feel comfortingly homely. Add to this the good company that I'd now been travelling with since Baikal and the whole experience proved deeply satisfying.

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In the evening our host teaches us a Mongolian card game. A shaky start is soon smoothed as we pick the game up, the mongolian measures of "scotch" whiskey also helping the process along. Eventually having lost my share of Twenty Togrogs (two pence, we wasn't quite big money) I escape the biting cold by digging into a camel hair sleeping bag and without quite noticing slip off into a deep sleep.

Mongolia was worth the nine hour wait.

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Lunch: Mutton, Mutton and even more Mutton

Posted by Huw 02:16 Archived in Mongolia Tagged round_the_world

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

sunny -5 °C
View Year out on Huw's travel map.

Faced with the situation I could only muster two answers. Either I'd managed to get myself terribly, ridiculously lost or that last mince filled pancake had left me vividly hallucinating this paradise. Only one thing seemed clear. In no way shape or form could this possibly be Siberia.

Let me backtrack.

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So Irkutsk. My third taste of urban Russia had yet again proved to be a contrasting experience. Having escaped the relative bustle of the Capital and St Petes, a more relaxed pace immediately made itself clear when stepping off the train. Whilst the average Russian greeting still proves stony and you're still very much taking your life into your hands on the many bizarrely placed pedestrian crossings, its all to a far lesser extent that the previous big cities. The 24 hour Russia I'd grown to know and love also seems conspicuously absent here. Trawling the streets not so late on a Saturday night produces a limited haul of open bars and haunts. It would appear the Siberians, having discovered the mysterious properties of sleep (unlike their western siblings) put it into effect... and early too. The so called "Paris of Siberia" draws a variety of opinions from the other travelers i meet. Whilst some profess their love for the city, others comment on a certain sleepy surrealism. I fall into the latter camp. Buildings looking like giant dolls houses sit next to small wooden shacks. In all the dust, it holds the air of an old movie set. Needless to say I wasn't too torn about getting a little beyond its boundaries.

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Weeks of museums, cathedrals and high art had left me feeling distinctly cultured but hankering for a little more activity. Luckily Irkutsk is a stones throw Lake Baikal. Though from where I stand it looks more like an ocean. For a bit of perspective here, its the worlds largest lake, it goes over a kilometer and a half deep, more than 600 kilometers long and contains roughly 20% of the entire worlds supply of fresh water. Its frigging massive. Add to this the fact the water is perfectly pure, drinkable right off the shore, and crystal clear (Divers are said to experience vertigo from the 40m vis you can experience below its surface) it leads to a pretty stunning sight.

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So I set off, grabbing a local bus and heading four hours up the coast to the remote Island of Olkhon. Cut off from the main land by a small straight of water the Island was only connected to the electrical grid in 2005. After a short tour of the local Burat villages, and... unfortunately finding out the football results Russian style (a Process involving the words "Moscova", "Anglisky 1" Roosky 2" followed by roaring laughter all round) I make it to the ferry. Cutting across the glassy surface and over the dizzyingly visible depths we continue onto a further hour of bumpy dirt tracks and grassy planes, Finally reaching Khuzhir. This place feels very remote.

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Here i find Nikita's guest house. Its friendly staff laugh as i fill out the check in form and tell me not to take it so seriously, its just paperwork. I think i had a mild stroke there and then. Where'd the Your-Life-Depends-On-This-Form Russian bureaucracy go? They set me up with fantastic excursions to the north and east extremities of the Island which range from bouncing through forests in a rikkity bus to hiking through the mountains. The sheer number of landscapes such a small area is astounding. Nikita's sits atop a rocky cove where the clean water laps the pebbled beaches and jutting rocks. Over the next hill lies a sand beach which stretches for kilometers north. Khuzhir backs onto the grassy steppe, and further up the mountain sees the start of the dense forest which blankets the northern tip.

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I break from phrasebook Russian for the guilty pleasure of English speaking conversation. Nikita's holds an eclectic bunch of other travellers, featuring many characters and all great company. They casually reel off tales of their travels, having spent a year teaching here, nine months there. Some returning home for the first time in five years others still undecided about if they'll return at all. They're fantastically welcoming though yet again i notice I'm slightly under the average age here, if not single handedly lowering it by a few years. Gap year students seem non existent on this route and bravado aside, as i head up the hill to catch the setting sun, i honestly cannot work out why. I can only incoherently babble about the beauty of this place, its mind numbing.

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The only sobering fact is the thought that all this might disappear. Russians, both local and tourists are effectively trashing the place. The best vantage points and covered in fag ends and empty beer cans. Quality camping spots are filled with the entirety of a weekends rubbish, leaving behind bottles, smoldering fires and plastic packaging in abundance. Even more worrying is news of the lake itself. In building a dam they've raised the entire height of this mammoth expanse by seven meters, flooding the shores and harming much of the unique wildlife it contains. The delicious fish i feast on over my time here come from a stock which is rapidly being over-fished. Companies pump all manor of industrial crap into certain corners and the latest plans will place a major oil pipelines around Baikal's shore. Potentially costly in a region prone to earthquakes.

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As i reach the top of the hill I'm instantly rewarded with the Baikal vista. The sun now bathing the glittering water in a fiery orange its hard not to think its anything other than criminal to threaten this place, and even more inconceivable that such a threat could come from the innocent little village behind me, serene in the sun with its merrily smoking stoves. However for the moment such dire thoughts escape me. The lapping waters provide a great sense of peace and make it difficult to do much other than relax. And so, sitting on top a hill i reach my crisis point. This just cannot be Siberia, my imagined bleak wasteland. Beauty on this scale is reserved for the tropical views of Thailand or perhaps some magical desert Island. Could I have possibly found it here, in the frosty east? As the sun sets into frosty cold and still I haven't sobered from this view. I count my fingers... brain appears to be working clearly. I check the map again. Not lost either. So I resign myself to reality and retreat back to the homestead.

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A fantastic end to my three weeks in the country.

But the show must go on. Next. Mongolia
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Lunch: A Unique Local fish, Omyl. Delicious stuffed with curry paste and roasted over an open fire... Yum.

Posted by Huw 07:14 Archived in Russia Tagged backpacking

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