Trans-Siberian: Beijing to Ulan Bataar

By: leelefever on September 22, 2006 - 6:30am

Leaving Beijing was a momentous occasion – we were beginning one of the world’s great overland journeys – the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Our first impression of our train compartment was one of amusement.  Two couches facing one another, a small table, a window and lots of metal clips, hinges, handles, ladders and switches that did not appear at the time to have any utility. What made us laugh was the decoration – I would call it Russian Grandmother style.  Darkish floral print that was perhaps dark with age and usage with gold satin frill.  The curtains matched the beds and the diagonal tablecloth really tied the room together nicely. Ugly but certainly sufficient for the 1.5 day journey.

It wasn’t long before we realized that we were on the way out of China. The attendant brought hot water and tea and when we said "shay shay" (thank you in Chinese) and she said forcefully  "No shay shay! Mongolian! Bajarlalaa!"  OK, we get it bajarlalaa is “thank you” in Mongolian.  Later we learned that “shay shay” means to urinate in Mongolian – probably not something you want to say when someone brings you tea in any country.

After the first 12 hours, we went to the dining car and returned to walk through a train filled with a dusty fog.  It had a sweet smell, not like fire, but a bit like freshly cut wood.  You could feel the air on your eyes and it your nose and it settled near the floor.  The air was crunchy.  At dusk we looked out of the window across the hall through a dust covered window.  Through the dust spattered glass, we could see sand - the very beginnings of the Gobi Desert which had crept into the train while we ate.  Mongolia was not far then.

Border crossings are a bitch.  Since the toilet flushes directly onto the tracks, the toilets on the train are locked during the border crossing into Mongolia - a 6 hour ordeal.  We were encouraged to stay on the train for the first three hours and then get off once we cross into Mongolia, around midnight.  We abstained from liquids for a few hours in anticipation of the wait.  Meanwhile, Gobi dust continues to collect in our noses and eyes.

In some strange turn of railroad evolution it came to be that railroads were connected that didn't match in width. Such is the case with the Trans-Siberian train which must be refitted with new wheels or "bogeys" before heading into Mongolia.  We had a choice - stand outside in the cold for 2-3 hours or stay on board while the train car gets hydraulically jacked-up as new wheels are put on.  We stayed on board and got the unexpected treat of seeing the whole process on the train next door.  As I write, our train car is being lowered onto the new bogeys that will carry us into Mongolia.

12:30am: After crossing the Mongolian border, the train pulled up to Zamyn Uud, where we expected to get out and use the bathroom.  Instead, the border guards boarded the train, took our passports and left.  Soon after, amidst yelling and running down the halls, the train left the station without our passports.  After leaving it then stopped and then rolled very slowly toward the station once more before going back two more times.  Like everything else, no explanation is given. Later we received our passports and all was well.

8:12 Sunday, September 10 Mongolia

We awoke with the anticipation of a school kid on a snow day - what would we find when we opened the curtain for the first time?  It turned out to be a scene of absolute nothingness - more nothing than we had ever seen anywhere.  We looked out over an ocean of pure sand - the middle of the Gobi Desert.  I've never been more excited and more interested to see nothing in my life.  This sand could swallow you whole.

Soon after waking we rattled into a small stop at the edge of the desert called Choyr, where eager Mongolian kids greeted us selling stones of quartz and amethyst.  I expected to be mobbed when I stepped of the train, but they were polite and not tenacious on a level that I expected.  I suppose Asia changed my expectations.  One little boy on a bike told me his name and said that he is fine before scurrying off. Maybe he had reached the end of his conversational English.   I wondered to myself about these kids - how long has their family been in Choyr? Were they previously nomads?  What do they know about America? What do they want to be when they grow up?

 The run into Ulan Baatar was grassy rolling steppe - no vegetation over a foot high and gers that dotted the horizon along with their sheep, horses and cows.  Disturbing the landscape on the train side were barbed-wire fences and electrical poles which are well used by White Tailed Eagles - certainly the most entertaining wildlife in view. The scrubby steppe is surely home to bite sized rodents that teased the eagles from their perches.  It was not at all odd to see an eagle swoop down and attack just outside the window. It's nice to know this desolate place is feeding something so effectively.

Signs of Ulan Baatar slowly start to appeared from the window in the form of Gers that seem to be moving closer and closer together.  A ger is a traditional Mongolian nomadic home – basically a round tent made of white felt or canvas. Most have no electricity or running water.  Outside of the city you noticed gers as a white dot on the horizon, surrounded by livestock.  It seemed that in the outskirts of Ulan Baatar, the nomads are inching their way towards stationary city life by planting their gers in more permanent positions around the city.  In fact we would see them in downtown too.

The most immediate and striking aspect of Ulan Baatar was the women, many of whom were quite beautiful and dressed in the most up-to-date western fashions. I didn’t expect this in Ulan Baatar.  The city itself is not beautiful and I described it at the time as appearing to be part refugee camp, part abandoned construction site and part modern city.  It had all the conveniences that anyone would need – Internet cafes, supermarkets, movie theaters, restaurants, etc.  The city has a reputation for lawlessness and aggressive pickpockets, but we saw no evidence of them.

Within an hour or so we boarded a mini-van and departed the city for Elstei Ger Camp, about 50 kms outside the city.  Within about 30 minutes we reached the steppe – the land of absolutely endless rolling hills of grass.  This is where we would spend the next two days.

Here are a couple of my favorite photos from our stay here...



This video is about our stay at the camp…

Leaving China for Mongolia

By: leelefever on September 8, 2006 - 6:48am

We are  about to begin the first legs of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first stop: Ulan Baatarr, Mongolia, where we will spend two nights at a Ger Camp (I'm not really sure either).  We are both so very excited - this trip marks the end of Asia and the beginning of perhaps the most anticipated journey of the year. Woo hoo!  Here's the plan:

  • September 9th: Depart Beijing, China
  • September 10th:  Ulanbaatar, Mongolia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 14th:  Irkutsk, Russia (Lake Baikal-Siberia) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 18th: Ekaterinburg, Russia (Urals) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 21st:  Moscow, Russia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 24th:  St. Petersburg (3 nights)
  • September 27th:  Helsinki, Finland

Of course, this also marks the end of China, which has been amazing in so many ways - mostly unexpected. There is something I'd like to share about China before I go (with more coming later).  

Tomorrow (September 9th) is the 30th anniversary of Chairman Mao's death and today on CNN International (one of two English stations) there was a segment on Mao.  Two different sections of the segment were blacked out and we can only guess that the government was involved.  There was a specific woman that spoke in the segment and whenever she came on the screen, it went black.  This appeared to be blatant media censorship right before our very eyes.

I doubt I will ever be able to reconcile the contrasts that appear in China.  It seems to be going at light speed into the future and stumbling backward at the same time. Amazing.

Video: Scorpions for Dinner

By: leelefever on September 8, 2006 - 2:08am

I'm not sure what I've gotten myself into with this whole concept eating strange things in foreign countries, but the ball is rolling... downhill. I fear that I may not be able to top this one.

Also, yes, I know a scorpion is an arachnid and not an insect.

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Sometimes I Have a Bad Attitude

By: leelefever on September 7, 2006 - 6:54pm

 I have a bad attitude sometimes, particularly regarding sightseeing and the tourist experience.  It’s a necessary and often rewarding part of the trip, but we’re both learning that we don’t really like sightseeing.  It often seems like the many of the things we see are significant because someone with dollars in their eyes decided to make it significant.  Either that, or the significance that is experienced by others is lost on me.

Maybe I am shallow or cynical or unsophisticated, but I will be just fine if I don’t see another “important” image of The Buddha for many years.  The same is true for many temples.  Long before we reached China, we started to recognize that we rarely leave a temple saying “that was so great!  or “I’m so glad we came!  Usually it’s more like “Hmm, another temple.” We call it temple fatigue.

Another example occurred just today at the Summer Palace in Beijing, which is, by all accounts, an impressive sight of imperial grandeur.  Inside the palace grounds (and also in the Forbidden City) there are very important rocks with names like the “Blue Iris Stone” which are accompanied by a story of an who emperor found the rock and had it shipped to the Palace at great expense.  So there it sits, surrounded by a railing and sitting on a pedestal – a rock.  It’s not sculpted, it’s not shaped, it has never been used for anything or changed in any way, it may be in the shape of something recognizable and is certainly a rockish, yellow/gray hue (despite being described as “black and sleek”).  There is no doubt that it is a rock that someone could have found at any moment in history and is one of about 1 gazillion such rocks in the world. To the admittedly undereducated like myself, it appears just as it sounds – a rock – on a pedestal - surrounded by a railing.   I’m not sure how a rock becomes an item of Chinese culture, but many have and people quite literally line up to have their picture taken in front of it.

(photo of the Blue Iris Stone is from this travelouge)  

I have to wonder though, am I being cynical and shallow or am I being realistic?  We’ve seen it happen before in tour groups – the guide makes a big hairy deal about something and the group eats it up and prepares the cameras without thought.  This is where the tourist experience blends a little too closely with dollar signs.  Tour groups need sights and the more the tourist is convinced that they are seeing something significant, the more likely they’ll actually find some significance.  So, from my perspective, a strong percentage of what a tourist sees is filler – something to make the tourist feel like they are having a great experience in between the things that are really impressive and important to them.  I think this gets to the heart of why I loath tour groups – too much filler and not enough time to independently figure out what is significant to me.

The tour guide is very in tune with photo taking opportunities as well. He has surely observed the hoards take pictures of a sight and assumes that everyone should have one – including me. Sometimes I snap a quick picture just to make friends but at the same time I’m thinking “If you really want to know what I want to take a picture of, it’s the grotesque and barely alive condition of your toenails, Mr. Tour Guide.”

It reminds me of Las Vegas and seeing people very excited to take a picture of a replica of Michael Angelo’s masterpiece “David” at Caesar’s Palace.  I just want to say to them “That is not art you know, it is not historically significant, it is a piece of plaster put here for decoration alone.” But it doesn’t matter, they think it’s great and who am I to judge?

All this is leading to the realization that I don’t like sightseeing.  I yearn for reality or a historical and observable connection to the reality of a city or country. Modern history is endlessly fascinating.  The spread of Communism in Asia, Mao Zedong, Pol Pol, Ho Chi Minh… I cannot learn enough about that part of history.  Anything before about 1900 becomes somewhat opaque to me.  I can’t see as much reality in it or how it is affecting a country now.  What really does it for me is learning the modern realities of a place – the politics, the social issues, the transportation system, food, what locals do, say and wear day-to-day.  For me, this is endlessly real and represents something that I can grasp in my view of the world. Rocks and temples?  Not so much.

I will gladly continue to see sights and learn about history, but I’ll do it recognizing that there is a curiously real, entertaining and interesting aspect of tourism and tourists that can be quite rewarding to observe, even if the sights are not.

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Mutiny on the Way to The Great Wall of China

By: leelefever on September 7, 2006 - 6:26pm

We went into deciding that we would laugh and find humor in the situation - no matter what.  Being in Beijing, we needed to see the Great Wall and really didn't feel like working out the details for an independent trip to Simitai - a part of the wall 150km from Beijing.  So, we just booked a tour from our hotel and hoped for the best.

It started with a nice surprise - a minibus with 8 well-travelled and youngish Italians and some a few rows of spare seats.  Italians are so fun and full of life.

Anyway, after sitting in ridiculous Beijing traffic for about 2 hours (where we witnessed car-to-car turtle selling), our Tour Guide "Prudence" announces a stop for 40 minutes at pottery factory - a famous "Factory Tour", the often loathed-but-required element of group travel.  Usually a busload of tourists are led through a “factory” where crafts are made by hand – pottery, woodcarvings, rugs, etc. and then presented with a giant gift shop. The tour operator likely gets a kick-back for every person who visits, so the traveler is a pawn in the competition for the tourist dollar.  It's basically a stop at a gift shop with a bathroom that wastes time for the disinterested.  Our group was clearly disinterested and the seeds of mutiny were sown.

Prudence is a very nice and gentle tour guide and it was hard to conspire against her.  We huddled together to plot our resistance - we would not be taking the tour and we would demand to get back on the bus and proceed to the Great Wall.  Stephania was our leader and the negotiations began while each of us used the bathroom and returned to the sidewalk by the bus, sure not to be lured into the fold.

Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that an espresso machine was present and the discussions were moved to ensure that Italians could get an espresso fix in the midst of the overthrow.  A lesson in espresso-making ensued.

Prudence put up a valiant fight for our time spent in the factory, insisting on 40 minutes, then 30, 20 and finally 10 before capitulating completely and allowing us to board the bus to the Wall.  Stephania was our rock and the insurrection was complete before too much time was wasted...and there was much rejoicing.

I encourage all travelers to call bullshit on the factory tour scheme when they travel - you will rarely find it on the itinerary before you buy the ticket, yet it will waste time that could be spent at the actual destination.  If the group is small, ask about interest and organize your mutiny - remember that you are paying for the experience.  Viva la Résistance!

Oh, and we saw the Wall too... 




Sachi is Allergic to China

By: leelefever on September 7, 2006 - 6:21pm

I do love my wife – but she is such a huge nerd.  Did you know she has a degree in microbiology? You’d think with such knowledge, she would be more in tune with her own health.  Before we left, Sachi saw an allergist and learned that she has allergies to trees and grasses – it affects her every year at home and her allergy medicine, which helps immensely, is in her backpack now.  Sometimes Sachi needs a reminder about this fact. 

For nearly the entire time that we’ve been in China so far (3 weeks) Sachi has had cold-like symptoms.  In fact, I have acquired a cold and gotten over it while her symptoms persist.  Just today, I asked Sachi about the possibility of her symptoms being related to her allergies and a light bulb went on.  After weeks of sneezing 50 times a day and wiping a chapped nose, the cure seemed so obvious – in fact it was not much further than the pack on her back. As of this afternoon, Sachi has fully recovered from the “cold”, thanks to Zyrtec. DUH.

I do not know why Sachi can’t recognize her own allergies, but I am now on allergy alert on her behalf.  Never again will I watch her suffer through weeks of a “cold” only to find that we’ve been sharing the room with the cure the whole time.  So much for microbiology.

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Meet Chinese Bob

By: leelefever on September 5, 2006 - 10:25pm

There is a very particular and interesting type of Chinese gentleman that I’ve been observing for a while now.  He is perhaps the Chinese everyman, or the closest I can find to the type.  He is an everyman in China, but to me, the American visitor, he is quite foreign.

I do not wish to comment on his character or personality as I have not been able to communicate with him in any meaningful way.  I can only comment on observing the multitudes of his kind from afar.  For purposes of creating a meaningful persona, let’s call him Chinese Bob.

Chinese Bob is about 50 years old, about 5’5”, has a mildly receding hairline and a serious look on his roundish face, sometimes with a hint of consternation.  His serious look is deceiving as he may break into boisterous laughter at any moment.  His physique is rather stocky, with a plump midsection and a thick neck that extends from his ears.

I’ve sat next to Chinese Bob in movie theaters, subways and park benches and can only describe the experience as a cavalcade of bodily noises.  Bob has acute respiratory problems, causing him to groan out throat clearing half-coughs every few minutes and burp loudly without conscience.  Chinese Bob can also been seen performing the very common snort-hock-spit routine on China’s sidewalks, again, without conscience.  This may be a symptom of his continuous smoking or general Chinese air quality.

You might see Bob while leaving an elevator.  He will be part of the group rushing into the elevator before you have time to get out. On the streets of China, you might recognize Bob on a hot day by his exposed belly – he may be the one walking around with his shirt rolled up from the bottom or unbuttoned completely. 

The one tried-and-true method of identifying Chinese Bob is by his footwear.  Bob always wears the same shoes and socks.  They are pointy-toed dress shoes with very thin, light-colored socks.  You might even see Bob wear these shoes with athletic shorts as he ambles down the street with his posture laid back and his feet flopping forward.

The other sure way to identify Chinese Bob is by watching him talk on a mobile phone.  Actually, it’s not something you observe so much as hear.  Bob will seem to be yelling into his mobile phone without regard for his location. You can picture him saying “BIG BUSINESS HERE.  I’m talking BIG business everyone, BIG TIME.  Bob is quite a big talker, I imagine.

I also imagine that Bob is a family man and a dedicated worker.  Despite his foreignness and actions that sometimes seem repulsive to me, I know that Chinese Bob, if I could talk to him, would be a friendly and helpful person who might try to convince me to have a cigarette with him as he tells me about English football, Yao Ming and the upcoming Beijing Olympics.  Unfortunately though, I don’t speak Mandarin Chinese so I can only assume that, on observation alone, he finds me equally or more foreign and strange.

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