And We're Back!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Yesterday was our final day in Beijing, and the final day of our trip. We left the Beijing Airport at 4:15 pm on April 1st, and after a 13 hour flight, arrived at Chicago O'Hare at 4:00 pm on April 1st. Nifty, eh?

Now we just need to work on getting our sleep schedule adjusted back the 12 hours difference between China and Boston. Wish us luck!

Great Firewall of China

Thursday, March 31, 2011

We're here in Beijing, safe and sound after our final train trip. However, it turns out this it's harder to post to our blog here than we expected. The Chinese government decided a year or two ago that it wasn't ok for Chinese citizens to view any blogs on the domain name, and that includes ours! Bridgit found a way to make new posts, but we won't be able to upload pictures for now, so you'll have to make due without them until we get home in a few days.

Following in the Footsteps of Emperors

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ah, what a relief. Yesterday, we rolled into Beijing shortly after noon, excited to check in to our 4 star hotel. Of course, before we could get there, there were the usual hassles of arriving in a new country: money, and transportation. We intended to change our Tugriks at a bank on the border, but everything was closed when we rolled through at around midnight. Fortunately, it didn't take us long wondering through the crowded square outside the Beijing railway station to find an ATM, where we pulled out the nearly the maximum amount (not knowing what the exchange rate was, except for a general guess, we were a little concerned, but we knew we had things to spend the money on). Then it was off to find out how to get to our hotel.

I had looked it up on our maps prior to our arrival, and knew it was only 1.8 km away, but didn't want to hoof it all the way there. So, we decided to find a taxi. We couldn't figure out how the taxi stand works, so we ended up corralled by a guy offering us a taxi ride. After some discussion with his associates, he figured out where our hotel was, and offered us a rate of 150 yuan (which we thought was about 20 or 30 dollars). He took Bridgit's rolling duffle, and we set off. However, by the time we'd walked well past the taxi stand, I started to get a bit uncomfortable. I finally put a stop to it when he was starting to load our stuff into his unmarked car (quite different than all the obvious taxis we had been seeing). Unwilling to try again, we braved the subway instead, and were able, for a measly 4 yuan, to get within a 15 minute walk of the hotel. A much better deal!

The hotel itself was a wonderful change. It was impressively nice looking even just walking up to the entrance!

We checked ourselves in, and headed up to the 10th floor where our room was. The hallways were decorated in keeping with the lobby ...

... and the room itself didn't disappoint. A full sized bathroom with both a tub and a shower, king-sized bed, bathrobes, and all the amenities. After coming from gers, hostels, and trains, this was luxury!

We were pretty beat, and wanted to just relax, so we didn't venture out of the hotel for dinner. We had a pleasant surprise in the hotel restaurant, which had very tasty food at quite reasonable prices (we got way too much food last night, because we didn't know what the portion sizes would be).

Today, we were ready for some sightseeing. Our first stop was the Temple of Heaven, a park complex that was used by the emperor for a yearly harvest ritual. The park itself was very big, and we had several more things on our agenda for today, so we hit the primary buildings (which were arranged on a line at the center of the park, running north to south). Before we got to them, though, several things caught our eyes (besides the hawkers preying on all of the tourists). In one spot, we saw a group of people dancing with what looked like badminton rackets with feathers on them. As we got closer, though, we noticed that the feathers that looked like they were attached to the rackets were actually attached to a ball that was cradled in the racket, and that it was just the smoothness of their dancing that kept the ball in contact with the racket itself.

It reminded me a lot of people doing tai-chi, and in fact, as we were watching, a hawker tried to get us to try it and called it a tai-chi ball. (Doing some searching around later, I think this is what we were seeing: Taiji Bailong Ball). There were also large groups of people singing, and some doing tai-chi with swords. All in all, it was a happening place!

The first building we visited was the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, towards the north end of the park.

One thing I found amazing about this building is that, at least according to the guidebook, it's constructed entirely of wood (and has no nails securing it). The building itself was also marvelously colored and carved. Sadly, we couldn't actually go inside, but we were able to peer in and look around a little bit over a hand rail.

Our next stop was south down a very long stone bridge to the Imperial Vault of Heaven. This was a miniature version of the Hall we visited above, surrounded by a round wall that was supposed to conduct sounds well. We weren't able to figure where to stand to get the wall to work for us, but we saw several groups of people talking into it, so it must work somehow.

We kept going south, and arrived at the Circular Altar Mound, a huge white marble structure, decorated with posts carved as dragons.

At that point, we'd walked most of the way through the park, so we left out the south side, and headed back towards the subway. It was then that we figured out that our Beijing maps were at a very large scale. What looked like a short walk on the map turned out to be quite a hike in reality.

We took the subway up several stops closer to the center of the city, where the Forbidden City, the Emperor's ancient palace complex, stood. We came in through the Tienanmen Gate, decorated with a picture of Chairman Mao, on the southern end of the palace, just a small part of crowds of people looking to do the same tour.

Inside, we were treated to huge bronze lions ...

... and fantastic views of the palace structures.

This first building is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and was where the Emperors hosted entertainments. Like the structures in the Temple of Heaven, it was built entirely of wood, and sported some impressive columns inside. On one corner of the courtyard in front was a sundial, symbolizing the Emperor's ownership of the privileges of time and measure.

Around one side, we found a huge gold covered urn, that our audio guide informed us was a fire extinguisher. They even kept it heated in the winter so that it didn't ice over.

As we made our way north through the palace, we saw carvings on many of the staircases. This was the longest, and the stone for it was brought to Beijing over an ice-road during the winter.

We also saw the throne room of the Emperor!

At the far northern end of the palace was the Imperial Garden. It was quite a beautiful space, a mix of trees, walks, and small buildings. One of the first things we saw on entering it were two trees, twisted together, symbolizing the Emperor and Empress joined in marriage. It being our honeymoon, we had to get a picture of us with it as well!

Further on in the park, there was a huge stone mountain, all from imported rock. The rocks were crazy! They had a very distinctive shape, all twisted and full of holes. The mountain even included a gravity fed water fountain (but it wasn't on while we were there).

We would have kept going (there was so much more to see in the palace), but it closed (at 4:30... it seemed very early to us), so we headed back home to the hotel to rest up for our trip to the Great Wall.

Goodbye, Mongolia (and winter)!

Monday, March 28, 2011

After our 4-day/3-night adventure in the Mongolian countryside, we were in desperate need of doing laundry. We also had a few errands to take care of before moving on to China (sending postcards, picking up a few souvenirs, and stocking up on supplies for our last train journey of 31 hours). As a result, we only really had time for one major sight so we decided to check out the Mongolia National History Museum. We were happy with our choice since the museum had lots of interesting displays ranging from hundreds of thousands of years BC all the way through the 20th century - and, to make things even better, nearly everything had English descriptions!

The first room contained reaaallly ancient stuff, like these "tools" from the Lower Paleolithic Age (8,000,000 to 100,000 BC). The labels indicated the supposed functions of the tools, which I have no idea how they determined. They all look like rocks to me - and what the heck is a "pre-nucleus" anyway??

I really liked the displays of ancient stone carvings, like these two from the Bronze Age (approx. 3000 BC)

Upstairs was a room dedicated to the age of the Mongolian Empire in the 13th century. I knew it was bit, but man, it was HUGE! It pretty much covered most of Asia and Eastern Europe.

Of course you can't have a room about the Mongolian Empire without the requisite tribute to Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan.

Other fun items in the museum's collections included money from 1921 (more colorful than Monopoly money!)...

... and a traditional Mongolian wrestling costume. Sadly we didn't get to see any wrestling since it's more of a summer activity, but apparently it's a big part of Mongolian culture and from the pictures we've seen, seems much like Japanese sumo wrestling.

Our final train journey from Ulan Bator to Beijing has been one of the more interesting (in a good way!). We left yesterday morning at 7, and we're scheduled to arrive at 2pm today. The train is from the same era as the last two, but the first class compartments are a bit more upscale on this one. The layout is different, with two bunks on one side...

... and a chair and shower on the other - basically a closet with a sink and handheld shower fixture. We didn't actually use the shower since there didn't seem to be any hot water, but it was convenient having such easy access to a sink.

Like several of our other trains, this one quickly became uncomfortably warm, but our carriage attendant unlocked the windows in the corridor so we could get some fresh air. This also allowed me to get some good pictures since the windows were quite dirty.

Much of yesterday was spent traveling through the Gobi desert.

One of the things we hadn't done yet on any of our previous train trips was to walk to the back end of the train and see the train tracks curving off into the distance behind us.

We crossed the border into China last night, which was pretty painless, and we were treated to a bogie-changing show. The tracks in China are a different width than the ones in Russia and Mongolia, so at the border station, they use hydraulic lifts to raise the train cars off of the wheels before rolling in the new ones.

This morning we've been spending a lot of time at the open window, admiring the gorgeous mountainous landscape in northern China, including loads of tunnels.

After a few days of squat toilets, questionable eating establishments, frigid temperatures, and dung smoke, we are more than ready for our 4-star hotel in Beijing. And we are so excited about the perfect weather forecast!

Woes in the Ger

Friday, March 25, 2011

Our second night in a ger suffered from the reverse problem of our first. Rather than being like a sauna throughout the vast majority of the night, we were instead in something of an icebox. The ger at Karakorum that we stayed in was significantly larger than the one at Terelj (there were a total of 5 beds around the edge, and all were further from the central stove). This made it much harder to maintain the level of heat in the ger, especially since we didn’t know how best to bank the stove to keep it hot and lit. So, after we went to bed, the ger very quickly got down to perhaps the 40s (we didn’t check the clock), although it was still passably warm inside our sleeping bags.
Nonetheless, the next morning we were very grateful when our hostess came in and stoked the fire properly. We had a breakfast of bread, peanut butter, and jam from our supplies, and discovered, much to our amazement, that the boiling water from the night before was still hot enough to make coffee with, despite sitting out all night protected only by a thermos. As we were about to leave, our hostess brought in some cookies and bread as well. We appropriated the cookies for the road, and headed out to Erdene Zuu.
This collection of monasteries was surrounded by a long wall of stupas, which according to Buddhist tradition contain deities (I think?).

Once inside, we were led on a tour by a very helpful and informative guide, who spoke pretty much perfect English. Our first destination was the museum housed in the three main prayer temples, East, Central, and West. Inside each were sets of three very large Buddhas (each of whom represented a different thing). This is the Buddha Siddartha Shakyamuni as an old man.

In front of each of the Buddhas were sets of offerings, with the 8 symbols of Buddhism.

Each of the temples contained one or more statues of protector deities as well, which were pretty intimidating to look at.

Pictured is the only female of the 8 protector deities. She always rides on a mule, and is sitting on the skin of a great evil that she conquered through her wits (after all the other protector deities were defeated by it while using strength alone). She married the evil, and bore him a son, and then once he trusted her, she was able to kill him. She also had to eat the son, as he took after his father (if you look closely, you can see him in her mouth). She has three eyes, for protecting the past, present, and future, and her headdress is adorned with five skulls, one for each of the five sins in Buddhism. (These last two features are common amongst all of the protector deities).
In another part of the museum, we saw several amazing appliquéd silk tapestries of important figures for the monastery (unfortunately, I don’t recall their names).

Before we left, we also had the privilege of visiting the only running temple in Erdene Zuu. We removed our hats and didn’t take any pictures inside at their request, but we did get a shot of the outside.

Inside, most of the monks that we saw were quite young, ranging from pre-teens to early twenties, I would guess.
After we finished exploring Erdene Zuu, we had lunch at another local eatery. I had some mutton dumplings in soup, which were rather tasty. Bill was warning me beforehand that the flavor was pretty strong, since Mongolians cook most of their meat with a lot of fat still on it, but I didn’t find it very strong. In fact, the most objectionable thing about it was the heat, as a scalded my tongue a bit biting into the hot dumplings! From there, we were back in the van, headed to our ger at the semi-Gobi.
The car ride itself was several hours long, and uneventful. As is common in Mongolia, the last part of the trip was over unpaved tracks across the open desert (in a little bit of snow). In general, any time we drove anywhere, it was a long stretch of time on a single paved road, followed by a shorter journey across hard, rutted ground and snow, following one of the several beaten paths in the direction that we wanted to go. These unpaved sections were generally pretty exciting/scary, as our vehicle would slide, tip, and bounce as we tackled the variety of changing terrain (this was especially true, and especially scary in our 8 person van, which tipped and bounced quite dramatically on the larger ruts).

Once we settled in at the semi-Gobi ger, we went out for our second horse ride of the trip. (We were a little disappointed, because as we left the guesthouse in UB, Mr. Kim, the owner, said that our driver could arrange us a horse or a camel ride, but when we actually got to the ger, there were only horses.) As we were waiting by the saddled horses, the man of the family rode in with a British tourist named Kimi. She hopped down to get a quick drink of hot tea, as she had already been riding for a while, and then we all saddled up and headed out. It turned out that she was doing a tour called Ger-To-Ger, where she spent single nights at a series of gers, and was ferried between them during the day by the locals on horse- and camel-back. We were both very impressed by the fact that she was doing this trip (and had been travelling since Moscow) on her own.
Our horses during this ride were the same stocky, hairy type that we’d ridden before.

Bridgit’s horse had to be led (we weren’t clear why, but it had its bit out of its mouth the entire time), and my horse had to be led about half the time, as all it really wanted to do was to hang out and dig in the snow for grass (or, towards the end of the ride, entire stumps). However, we managed to keep the pace slow enough that neither of us were thrown off the backs of our horses this time! We rode for 15 or 20 minutes, and then my horse decided that he had had enough of walking in a straight line with the other horses, and went off to find some more grass. Despite my pulling on the reins, he wouldn’t give over, even going to the point of walking backwards instead of following my directions. Our guide tied Bridgit’s horse, and then came and led mine over by the front leash. However, at that point Kimi and Bill had wandered off into the distance, so our guide left us hanging out with the horses, and rode off to retrieve our two stray travelers.

While we waited, my horse tried to dig more in the snow and dirt for some food, spent some time scratching an itch with the hitching pole, and neighed up a storm. All of that must have settled him down, though, because once we were mounted up and heading back ger-wards, he was much better behaved, only wandering off the path occasionally to try and forage for food (although, at one point he stopped and pulled up an entire stumpy shrub, waved it around trying to separate the one mouthful he had, and then dropped it.)
After we returned to the ger, Kimi headed off to her next sleeping spot, and Bill, Bridgit and I decided to take a walk out to the sand dunes that we could see not too far distant. We had been informed that there were rabbits about, and so when they started scurrying near a nearby building, Bridgit was able to snap a couple of pictures.

The trek to the dunes turned out to be longer than we expected, and was slowed by very irregular snow depths. It was definitely worth it, though. It was a lot of fun to see the small animal tracks in the dunes …

… and to feel very fine, very cold, dry sand. Such a change from the usual warm beach sand! We climbed up to the peak of one of the dunes, and Bill got a nice shot of us with the beautiful surrounding mountains in the background.

Dinner was the one common meat in Mongolia that we hadn’t yet tried: horse. Bridgit felt a little strange to be eating one so soon after riding them, but I thought it tasted quite good. (It was in with rice and vegetables in pretty much the same meal that we’ve been eating the whole time out in the countryside.)
That night in the ger was probably the worst so far, unfortunately. Like the night before, it was a larger ger, so we had trouble keeping it warm (by this morning, the water in our water bottle was slushy!) However, it was compounded by the fact that unlike the others, there wasn’t as much wood, so the family had to use dung in the stoves as well. This dung burned very poorly, gave off only a little heat, and smoked terribly. Every time we opened the top of the stove to put in more wood, acrid smoke would pour out and fill the ger. By the morning, we were only too glad to get out in to the subzero temperatures, just to escape the cold and stink of the inside of the ger.
After we left the semi-Gobi, we were subjected to some of the most terrifying driving to date. We were going out to the Hustai national park, and it was quite a ways from the main road. Hustai national park is one of the few places in the world where the wild takhi, or Przewalski’s horse is found. The taki is the only remaining wild horse. It has a different number of chromosomes than the domesticated horse, but otherwise looks pretty similar. In total, there are only a couple thousand left on Earth, although their numbers are growing due to conservation efforts.
There were a number of times as we were going around corners over ruts on the way to the park that it felt like the van was going to go over onto two wheels or even tip over entirely. We made it safely to the entrance, and picked up our guide. Then it was back in the van to track down the takhis. The park road wound in between two fairly steep hillsides, so we spent a lot of our time craning our necks upwards. Finally, though, our guide spotted a group of seven, three mating pairs, and we stopped the van and hopped out.
The takhis were very calm as we approached. With the 20x zoom on Bridgit’s camera, we were able to get quite the close-ups!

All of them have the same coloration, with the large dark heads and lighter bodies, and were very pretty. On our way out of the park again, we also saw a wolf trotting away on a distant hilltop.

The rest of the day was full of the tedium of driving spiked with the terror of driving in Ulan Bator. Drivers there don’t seem to care that much for rules of the road, and weave in and out of traffic very aggressively. There were a lot of times that it seemed like we were going to barrel in to one of the other cars.
Back in the city, we were really ready to have a break from the Mongolian country fare, so we hit up the Loving Hut Organic Vegan Café, directly around the corner from the guesthouse. Our meal there of beets, grilled tofu and veggies, and fried veggie patties really hit the spot after all of that meat, rice and cabbage for the last few days!

Accidental Saunas and Throat Singing

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We had quite a steaming hot night in our ger last night. Our Swiss travel-mates filled up the stove with wood before going to bed, with the aim of keeping the ger warm as long as possible so we wouldn’t end up freezing in the middle of the night. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but since our ger was fairly small (and apparently well-insulated) the result was that our ger quickly reached sauna-like temperatures and remained that way for several hours. We had to open the door to let in some of the sub-zero air from outside (We tried to find out how cold it was by putting our travel clock outside the door, but the temperature was below the range of the clock’s thermometer so we only got a reading of “LO”). Sometime in the early morning hours, the temperature finally became comfortable, but it only lasted a short time before the man of the family we were staying with came in and re-loaded the stove, and we were back to the sauna! We ended up getting dressed and going outside to escape the heat. Despite the less than restful night, it was hard not to start the day in good spirits, with a view like this out our door.

Most of the day was spent in the car, getting from Terelj back to Ulan Bator (1.5 hours), then from there to Karakorum (8 hours), the ancient capital of Mongolia (with a brief stop to shower at the hostel in between). We passed through some beautiful desert (we think?) landscapes, and I even saw what looked like some kind of sandstorm – I’m sure there’s a proper term for it, but it looked like a dirt-tornado. Cale was sleeping so he missed out but I did manage to get a few snapshots.

Our drive was frequently interrupted by herds of various animals (sheep, goats, horses, cows) crossing the road at various points throughout the day.

Eventually the dry, sandy, grassy terrain we had been passing through for much of the day became snow-covered once again. Other notable sights that we encountered along the way included a flock of (huge!) vultures…

… a group of Buddhist stupas on a snowy hill…

… and herds of camels.

We arrived to Karakorum right around sunset. For one of Mongolia’s more famous places, I expected there to be a bit more to it, but it’s hardly more than a village. The main attraction is the Buddhist Erdene Zuu Monastery, which was built in 1586. At its height, there were 100 temples and over 1000 monks lived there. Now only 18 temples remain (many of the rest were destroyed during the Soviet era), only one of which is active. The rest has been converted to a museum, which we will visit tomorrow.

Our ger for tonight is much larger than the one we had at Terelj last night, but otherwise it’s very similar. Mongolian gers are quite standardized when it comes to the construction, decoration, and even the layout.

The outhouse here makes the one from last night seem luxurious, with its raised toilet seat and even a lid. Here we have small shed-like structure built into the fence with wooden planks across the floor, but instead of a center plank, there’s a gaping hole. There you squat (or stand and aim, if you’re lucky enough to be male) and do your stuff. Not a pleasant scenario anytime, but particularly so when it’s freezing outside.

By far the highlight of today was a completely unexpected surprise. Shortly after we arrived, while we were settling in, we heard a knock on our door. The gentleman who entered introduced himself as a musician from the town who plays three traditional Mongolian instruments, signs, and even does “throat singing.” Our travel companion for this part of our trip, Bill, is a retired schoolteacher / amateur photographer from Connecticut, and he had been telling us earlier that day about throat singing earlier that day and recommending that we try to catch a show at the theater in Ulan Bator. Even better, though, this local musician offered to perform for us in our ger for 5000 tugrik each (less than $5). So of course we said yes, and he returned an hour later dressed in his full ceremonial costume.

We were well entertained for a good 40-50 minutes, and I was able to get great video all of the songs – nice thing about private concerts in your ger is that there’s no bad seat in the house! Here’s a sample of a few of the songs.
A folk song about the Gobi desert and a baby camel, played on a traditional Mongolian harp:

This one is a song about horse racing, played on Mongolia’s iconic horse-head fiddle (the strings are made of horse hair). I love how parts of the song actually sound like a horse neighing.

And, finally, throat singing!

We thoroughly enjoyed our mini-concert, and were happy to support our entertainer by purchasing his CD, which he graciously signed for us with the date, location, his name (printed and in the ancient Mongolian script), and his signature.

Tomorrow we go to Erdene Zuu, and then we are off to the semi-Gobi for the last night of our countryside tour.