Sunday, 27 February 2011

Beijing, 21-28 December 2010 - Part Two – The Forbidden City, Jingshan Park and the Food Street

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (also known as the Imperial Palace) is the heart of China's imperial past and was home to the Emperors and Empresses from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Construction started on the palace in 1406 and finally became inhabitable for the Ming emperor in 1420. The English colloquial name 'The Forbidden City' is a translation of the Chinese Zijin Cheng which means 'Purple Forbidden City'. Purple referring to the stars and Forbidden City meaning that it was forbidden to enter or leave the palace without the emperors authority. The Emperors themselves did not leave the city unless they really had to.

Puyi, the last Emperor of China, did not leave the Forbidden City until he was evicted by war lord Feng Yuxian in 1924. As I discussed in a previous post, he was crowned Emperor in 1908 when he was a mere two years old until the Republican revolution of 1911 which resulted in the abdication of five year old Puyi. The Xinhai Revolution was a result of a general feeling of resentment amongst the Chinese Han population to the corruption within the Qing government and how it favoured Manchu ethnicity over theirs. Having taken control of the country, many revolutionaries were in favour of a constitutional monarchy similar to the United Kingdom, where the Royal Family remains in place but the political focus is handed over to a democratic government. Therefore, under the agreement Empress Dowager Longyu signed on behalf of the Emperor which brought the Chinese imperialism to an end, Puyi was allowed to remain in the Forbidden City as monarch but had no political power.

Puyi remained within the walled confines of the palace but I'm sure Puyi was too young to understand his importance in China and what was happening with the revolution. Under the abdication agreement he was allowed to retain all current staffing levels and his Eunuchs, although no new Eunuchs were allowed. The year of 1917 saw a extremely brief revolt by warlord Zhang Xun who remained loyal to the Qing Emperor and he returned Puyi to the throne for twelve days. During this extremely brief period of restored imperialism a republican aircraft deployed a bomb over the Forbidden City which caused very minor damage but is believed to be the first aerial bombing in East Asia.

Puyi, Emperor of Manchukuo
In 1924 another warlord took control and evicted Puyi and his family from the palace and of Beijing. Puyi lived in the Japanese embassy until he was relocated to the Japanese quarter of Tiajin. A few years passed and his desire to be restored to the throne and resurrect the Qing Dynasty grew, he wrote the the Japanese Minister of War and stated his wishes. In 1932 the Japanese began to grant his wish and made him ruler of Manchukuo and two years later he was crowned as the emperor.

Although he had the title of emperor, he had no real powers and acted as a puppet to Imperial Japan who maliciously and vindictively made him sign new laws and attend ceremonial occasions. The Japanese were constantly increasing their influence in Manchuria and were trying their hardest to destroy all Chinese culture and society from the area. This must have been hard for Puyi as his family were Manchurian. In August 1945 and at the end of World War Two, Puyi was on an aircraft fleeing from the approaching Soviet Red Army but was caught before they had a chance to take off and imprisoned in Chita, Siberia.

China is full of hawkers selling their wares and I thought that maybe the Forbidden City would be a sanctuary where you could escape the constant bombardment of “What do you want?” and “Buy this!” but I was wrong the whole outer court is completely full of these annoyances. However, once you are inside the inner court, things become calmer and the peacefulness of the Forbidden City materialises. As mentioned before, the astonishing large area of the Forbidden City was built on a North-South axis and it's major buildings and gates are positioned on this with passageways winding their way around the different temples and buildings used by the Emperor's and their staff. In 2007 a Starbucks opened up inside the centre of the Forbidden City which is strange for a 'communist' country to have a global capitalist giant in the very heart of their country's history. It created outrage amongst the people of China and so it closed within a year.

Although the history of the city and what it stands for is impressive and intriguing, I'm not sure if I was completely blown away by it's architecture. The series of grand halls are beautiful but they quickly become 'same, same'. My favourite part of the whole city was the Imperial Garden at the North most part of the complex. It's leafy trees and strange rock formations give it a lovely calming feel and so I spent a while sitting there reading up on the Forbidden City and planning on what to do after I left the confines of the peaceful place.

I finished off my trip to the Forbidden City with a trip to the clock exhibition which is an amazing collection of clocks from around the world. I was lucky enough to get there in time for the afternoon show when chosen clocks are triggered and you watch the incomprehensible mechanisms within the clock put of a highly entertaining performance of moving objects with musical accompaniment. When I first read the guide book about this showing I thought it was going to be lots of clocks going off creating a symphony of chimes and movements but disappointingly it was only three of them. The exhibition is highly recommended though and was a highlight to my trip to the Palace.

Jingshan Park

I left the city through the Northern gate and headed up the hill in Jingshan Park which gives you an excellent overview of the Forbidden City and beyond. On my way up the hill I had my first photo shoot in China. A Chinese gentleman came up to me and pointed to his camera and then to me followed by his wife, which I took for him wanting to take a photo of me and his wife. I of course love being the centre of attention and agreed, so he took the photo and then passed the camera to his wife for a photo of me and him. Whilst posing with the Chinese classic 'two-fingers up for peace sign', he said to me that I was very tall, which completely shocked me for two different reasons. A. I've never been described as tall in my life because I am not and B. He was clearly half an inch taller than me anyway! I continued wearily up the hill to the top where a pavilion sat on the peak with a golden Buddha residing within the walls. The winter sun was low and the light was bouncing off the red roof tops of the Forbidden City and I thought this was more beautiful than being inside the city's walls.

The park used to be a part of the Imperial Gardens until it was handed over for public use. The hill, popularly known as Feng Shui Hill, was artificial and was created by the earth excavated from the moat surrounding the Forbidden City and nearby canals. China has a long history of abiding to the laws of Feng Shui and the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park is of no exception. Both are sitting on the main central North-South axis of Beijing and The hill was created as Feng Shui dictates that it is preferable to build a property South of a hill, which did not exist when the capital was moved to Beijing. The hill is comprised of five peaks which represents the compass points in which the city was built. The last Emperor of the Ming Dynasty hung himself up here in 1644 whilst looking over his empire.

After sitting on the top of the hill taking in the serene surroundings, I decided that I should push on and explore the park further so I descended down the North face of the hill. I reached the bottom and the grassy park surrounded by green trees was buzzing with a social atmosphere that Chapelfield Gardens doesn't have. There were many elderly people there talking, story telling, playing chess, singing, dancing and playing Jianzi (kicking a shuttle-cock type thing about). The calming and pleasing atmosphere was overwhelming and it showed me that the Chinese people have a much better social atmosphere than we do.

Food Street

I returned to the hostel via the food street where I saw some strange foods like snake, cockroach, scorpion and general bugs of all shapes and sizes. I wasn't sure whether this was just something for the tourists or if they really do like that kind of thing. It makes me wonder who first thought about eating a bug, 'oh look, there's a unknown bug there flattened on the floor, I'm going to put it on a skewer and munch away.'. Walking down through the busy street I became aware of the skewers and felt a sense of fear as they could easily poke your eye out!  I passed the bugs and settled for some bananas in tofu balls which were nice although I'm sure I got overcharged and when I queried this with the lady she became aggressive and shouted “15! 15!! 15!!!” I paid and made my way back to Tienanmen Square to catch the flag ceremony where I stood amongst countless number of Chinese tourists all wielding a camera or two in their hands, snapping away as the soldiers appeared from within the Forbidden City. The soldiers cross the road in full ceremony, paraded around the flag pole with their rifles and stood there still as the flag is lowered and removed before heading back across the road into the Forbidden City.

Once I was back at the hostel, I was greeted with a surprise. Yves, the Luxembourgian, I had met in Yekaterinburg was there and we spent the evening catching up with what we had done. He had gone through Kazakhstan and entered China on the Western border near Urumqi.

I think I've prattled on a bit too much in this blog about history, but I found it interesting so thought I should share it.

Next time I promise to speed things up and tell you about The Great Wall of China on Christmas Eve, my music lesson on Christmas Day and getting severely drunk!

Monday, 21 February 2011

Beijing, 21-28 December 2010 - Part One - Arrival

The taxi moved unhindered through the suburbs of Beijing with me in the back, half asleep and clueless to where I was in relation to the hostel. One thing I don't like when arriving in a new city is the not knowing where you are or how much a taxi 'should' cost you. I always surrender to the unfortunate fact that you will get ripped off. The taxi took a sharp right turn and I was confronted with my first sight of the walls surrounding the Forbidden City and soon after the taxi turned left and passed by the world's largest public square, namely the infamous Tienanmen Square. Leo Hostel, where we were bound, is in the Qianmen district just South of the square and even though they said it was in a good location, I was pleasantly surprised how good it was. Qianmen literally means Front Gate in Chinese and is in fact just that. The building housing the gate still remains and the gate itself sits directly on the central North-South axis of Beijing. The car passed the right side of Qianmen gate and headed South for a few hundred yards before hooking a right down a small pedestrianised street and pulled up outside the hostel. I woke the night attendant up and wearily registered and paid for a few nights. He showed me up to my room and I finally collapsed into a bed, the likes of which I hadn't seen for a couple of days. Even though I got a lot of sleep of the bus, it wasn't good enough for my body to recover the trauma of the luggage rack and I was constantly being woken up by the lady beside me shouting down her mobile phone which she really didn't need as I'm sure the pandas could have heard her in Chengdu!

After a couple of hours sleep, I woke up had a shower and headed downstairs to explore the hostel. I walked down the steps to find Justine and Eric, whom I had met in Mongolia, enjoying a nice pot of jasmine tea. This wasn't a surprise as we all planned to meet up in the hostel for Christmas celebrations. We were soon joined by June and Karin who were accompanied by Sam, a London girl teaching English in a small village outside of Guangzhou in Southern China near Hong Kong. Although it had only been a day since we last saw each other, it was really nice to see them again and I looked forward to sharing Christmas with them.

Tienanmen Square
I decided that my first day in Beijing should be used to explore the local surroundings and get my first real taste of the city. I walked outside and was initially struck by the pleasant temperature that did not bite the skin so I removed my hat and gloves that had become part of me through Russia and Mongolia. I felt as though I was in paradise and walked with my jacket unzipped towards Tienanmen Square. It should have been a simple walk to the square, but I was confronted with multiple barriers between me and the Square. I descended into the subway which looked as though it would get me across the road and present me into the square. However, I found another barrier with armed guards restricting access to my intended route and forced to divert to another exit which brought me up on another road still the wrong side of the barriers. I pondered for a second and then noticed a pedestrian crossing up ahead where people looked as though they were entering the square. I followed them like a sheep and had to go through a security checkpoint where people were subjected to metal detectors and their bags being scanned before heading freely into the square.

Chinese government are so scared of an uprising that many plain clothed police officers roam the square, listening into people's conversations and remove any liabilities at the first sign of dissent. Everyday at sunrise and sunset there is a flag ceremony where soldiers will come out from within the Forbidden City and raise and lower the flag. These ceremonies obviously attract a large number of tourists into the square and you can see that they don't like large amount of people in one place at one time. As soon as the ceremony finishes and the soldiers have taken the flag away back through the Tienanmen Gate into the Forbidden City, the police urge you out through the nearest exit to disperse the crowd. Historically, Tienanmen Square has been at the very centre of revolutions and protests over the last century. Even though the Chinese government has done a good job at censuring their citizens to The Tienanmen Square Massacre of 1989, no one outside of the country will forget the iconic image of the 'Tank Man' who halted a line of PLA tanks outside of the Forbidden City or the hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed protesters killed ruthlessly by soldiers who open fired against them in a nearby street.

Tank Man
***As I write this blog there are series of protests and uprisings across countries North Africa including Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Libya. I was surprised that the news of these uprisings were shown on the news around China as I thought it may provoke the same thing here. This morning my thoughts became a reality when a number of protests were thwarted around major cities in China. The protests were organised via the internet and called for people to gather in specific locations around China and protest for jobs, housing and fairness, it was called 'The Jasmine Revolution' mirroring the Tunisian protests which overthrew their government under the same name. President Hu Jintao today spoke out against the protests and stated that there needs to be tighter control on the internet “to guide public opinion” and “sole prominent problems which might harm the harmony and stability of the society”. It was reported that people had been arrested before the protests took place and a number of people were forcefully removed with them claiming they have done nothing wrong. China today have implemented their controls on the internet and have blocked searches for the word 'jasmine'. China had previously blocked social websites like Facebook, Twitter and blogging websites like Blogger because the websites had been used to spread revolutionary ideas and organise protests. It is know as 'The Great Firewall of China'. I have spoken with young Chinese people who have told me that they need to be very careful about what they say online because everything is filtered.***

Screens with propoganda and Mao's Mausoleum
Once in the square, I was struck by the enormity of it and the sheer communist feeling of the grandiose buildings flanking the square on either side accentuating the powerful heart of the People's Republic of China. Mao Zedong envisioned the square's full potential and ordered an expansion to create the world's largest public square which is a massive 440,000m2 stretching from Tienanmen Gate (Southern entrance to Forbidden City) to Qianmen (Front Gate). After Chairman Mao's death, the People's Government erected a mausoleum where his body lies in state like Lenin in Moscow. At the same time the square was enlarged to enable 600,000 people to congregate, although I couldn't imagine them being very comfortable with this amount of people now.

For the first time on my trip I have had to be aware of potential scams. It is well known in Beijing that young people, usually 'female artists', roam the square and will start talking with you and then ask whether you would like to go for a drink as they would like to 'practice their English'. They will then take you to a tea shop where you will be presented with a ridiculous bill or you will guilt tricked into paying an obscene amount for a painting as you are told the money goes to poor students to go to England and learn English. During my time in Beijing I had met several people who had fallen for this scam. One French guy got conned by a 'Tibetan Monk' and paid 200RMB (£20) for a cup of tea, a Dutch man got coerced into buying a painting and two German men met a group of 'friendly' Chinese people who took them for a drink and the bill came to a huge amount of money. Luckily I learnt from these peoples mistakes and ignored anyone who approached me which was very hard to do as I usually like to say hello to people. Now I say hello but remain vigilant and trust nobody. If they want you to go for a drink, make sure you choose a place and see the price list before ordering anything or you will get into the same situation. It's unfortunate that these people exist as it tarnishes the reputation of the generally friendly and helpful Chinese population. To a certain extent I can understand why they do it as China is a very competitive nation with so many people and not enough jobs to go around. There are so many people selling the same things on the streets and it's very hard for the average person to go elsewhere to earn a living. The difference between the poor/homeless people in the East is that instead of begging, they will try to sell something whether food, shoe shining service or touristy crap. However annoying their constant badgering is, I can respect their persistence.

The NCPA Building
Having strolled around the square I thought it was time to leave and head further afield so I took the North West exit and headed away from the Square and Forbidden City. It must have only been a few hundred yards away when I was stumbled upon a huge glass dome surrounded by an expanse of water. It looked out of place, as though someone had dropped a gigantic marble from the sky into the centre of Beijing. The magnificent building was in fact the National Centre for Peforming Arts (NCPA), another vision Chairman Mao had in the late 1950's and part of the project to build a series of public buildings to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic. Even though the plans were drawn up in 1958, construction only started in 1998 and was finally completed in 2007 but as they say 'good things come to those that wait'! I visited the building a few days later with a Danish man and was utterly gob smacked by the sheer size of the building inside. The outer shell acts as protection to a Concert Hall, an Opera House, a Theatre, an Experimental Theatre and several museums depicting the history and culture of Chinese art. It's a fantastic place to wander around and managed to walk in on a rehearsal of Marco Polo with the two main leads on the stage being coached by their choreographer. I felt a greater pleasure seeing them rehearse than I may have actually watching the show. We later tried to watch a rehearsal of an orchestra in the Concert Hall but was stopped when the window magically frosted up. The architectural design of this building is absolutely mesmerising, you enter the building by walking through a tunnel with water flowing above which creates awesome shadows on the floor and each level intertwines providing access to each auditorium. I think it's better this building took nearly fifty years to complete as the technological advancements in theatre have grown exponentially in the last century and have provided this building with the highest technology (made in China no doubt) available. I would advise any theatre/music/architecture lover to go there and spend the day exploring the different performance spaces within the dome.

Inside the NCPA

I returned later that evening to Leo Hostel and met Thom and Hannah, a couple from London who were travelling around the world. Together with Sam, they were the first British people I had met since Moscow. We spent the evening sucking down a few bottles of Tsing Tao and watching 'The Last Emperor' which is an insightful account of Emperor Puyi's life who ascended to the throne in 1908 when he was only two years old. The revolution in 1911 and the creation of Sun Yatsen's republican government that overthrew the dynastic rule making Puyi the last emperor of China.

Next Time... The Forbidden City, A Bloody Big Wall, Food Street, Acrobatics and Christmas

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Moving on from Mongolia to China, 20-21 December 2010

I arrived in Zamiin Uud around 7.30am and waited for everyone else to frantically leave the train before I grabbed my bag from the luggage hold and followed them as I was advised to do. It was actually very good advice as the people led me straight to a compound full of Jeeps that were hopefully taking everyone across the border. I got to a black Jeep and settled on 60 Yuan for the journey across the border. There are also buses that take you across the border but I was advised by Christian that he had a bad experience doing this and that I should spend a little extra and get the Jeep. My bag was taken off my shoulders and slung into the boot and I was escorted round to the left hand passenger's door, the driver opened it and I was stupidly shocked to see three people in there already. I wasn't sure how I could fit in there with them as they weren't small people and I'm not the smallest person either but the driver insisted that I got in, which I did. The driver then forced the door shut, slamming it several times against my hip sending a sharp pain through me. I just hoped that it was going to be a quick journey but I remembered that the border didn't open until 9am so we had around an hour to sit in the back, squeezed together like sardines.

My fellow sardines

The vehicle moved off and the driver had the heat on full which made the four of us sardines sweat but luckily had relief from the windows that were, to my surprise, working. The driver seemed to be a wild card and didn't seem to follow the rest of the Jeeps heading to the checkpoint. He pulled up besides the guards hut at the checkpoint and got out for a smoke with the officials leaving us imprisoned in the back of his car. I wanted to get out but the door release handle had been broken off inside the car and the window wasn't lowered far enough for me to reach out and open it from the outside.

The driver suddenly bolted back into the car and fired up the engine only to hear a big bang and plumes of white smoke erupting from beneath the bonnet. The clouds of smoke filled the car through the vents and I was sure that I was going to die as there was no escape but the driver opened the doors and we all baled out gasping for fresh air. I couldn't believe my luck. There were hundreds of Jeeps to choose and I had to choose the only one that had to breakdown. The white smog soon dispersed and we all squeezed our way back into the car as someone arrived with more water to replenish the coolant. We began to move off once again but were stopped by an official who stood in front of the car, my driver did not like this and began to shout at him which did absolutely nothing so he decided to just drive into him. With the guard sitting on the bonnet, we moved our way back into the queue of vehicles heading across the border.

I gave up. I had been sitting in the back of this Jeep for well over an hour and the pain became too much for me so I raised my voice and told the driver to let me out and explained that I wanted to relocate to the boot. He understood perfectly and released me from the back and opened the boot but told me that I could wait outside and walk along beside the slow moving cars which I chose to do. After spending a night on the luggage rack and over an hour squeezed into the back of the car, I was relieved to have fresh air and freedom for a while. The sun was still only resurrecting itself over the Mongolian wilderness at this point and bounced off the long queue of vehicles that cut through the exit road.

The traffic started moving faster and it was obvious that the checkpoints had just opened up for the day. The driver instructed me to get into the boot and began to drive off. This was such a relief and we soon arrived at the Mongolian side to repeat the third land border crossing off my trip. The other people in the car decided to take it upon themselves to look out for me and escorted me through passport control, pushing me to the front of the queue and making sure I got back to the car. We then got to the Chinese side and had to repeat the whole thing again. My fellow sardines were still helping me through but I got separated from them as the Chinese customs official pulled me aside and asked me where I was going and what was in my bag. I told him clothes, electrical stuff , toiletries and a bottle of vodka. He wanted me to open my bag but when I reacted hesitantly you could tell he wasn't too bothered and just sent me on my way to the others. The car started up and drove out of the border area.

I finally arrived in China.

As the car passed through the last checkpoint we had picked up a couple more people who sat on the passengers in the back seat. I was so relieved to be in the boot. It may have been a little dirty but at least I had space to myself. The town of Erenhot was thankfully clinging onto the border which meant I did not have a long drive. The driver asked me through an interpretor where I would like to go and I replied that I needed to get a bus to Beijing. As we drove through the maze the wide streets of Erenhot dodging the mass of cycles he stopped to let people out. When the last person had left the back seat I tried to get out of the boot and into the car but he wouldn't have it and told me to stay. I felt like a dog in the back clinging on as the driver made crazy high speed turns. We pulled up in a bus station car park and he released me from the boot, put my bag on my shoulders and said goodbye before he zoomed back to the border to carry out the whole process again. I have no idea how many times he crosses the border in one day.

As I walked into the bus station I got my first experience of the Chinese touts who buy up all the tickets and sell them on for profit. There was a see of them forcing themselves upon me and thrusting tickets in my face. I entered the empty ticket hall of the station and went to order my first Chines ticket. A sleeper bus to Beijing costing around £12 leaving at 6pm which meant I had a lot of hours to kill so I went for a walk to get my first taste of China.

Travelling over land means that you are constantly being immersed in a cultural transformations, some of which are so small they go by unrecognised. In Russia, the social customs mainly stayed consistent throughout the country but you could notice the people change. The further East you travel the more Asian the people become but the Russian customs and ideal remain in tact. Mongolia is very much like Russia but more Western friendly. China however was a slap in the face. There were masses of people everywhere, ridiculous drivers aiming at me and stopping to shout at me asking if I wanted a taxi. I can cope with those things but the one thing I was hit by and don't think I could ever get used to was the constant spitting. I saw a elderly woman with one finger on her nose closing her left nostril whilst excreting a huge long flow of slimy green snot from her right nostril. I felt my gut wrench and overwhelming nauseousness pass through me, I turned away and tried to ignore it but it repeated through my head and everywhere I looked people were hocking up. Even if you close your eyes, the sound of spitting is still there. I'm sitting in Starbucks writing this blog and the coffee machine is making a similar noise.

I turned around and headed back towards the bus station whilst dodging the bodily fluids on the paths hoping to find a nice restaurant to get some food in and rest for a couple of hours reading the lonely planet and plot my journey through China. I found one across the street from the station and settled into a seat. I was presented with a picture menu, the type of menu I had been looking forward to for a long time as you can just point to what you want. I ordered but was appalled by the waited immediately turning around entered the kitchen and expelling a huge ball of spit along the way.

I finished my meal and had a few more cups of tea to elongate my stay in the restaurant until I had enough and had to leave. I wanted to find a internet café as that is always a good way to stay occupied for a while so I asked where the nearest one was. The manager over heard this and invited me to use his computer which I gratefully accepted. I went into a room which had a suite of computers in and a couple of young men listening to music and discussing various tracks. There was microphone stands leaning up against the wall and cameras sitting on the desk. I came to the conclusion that they were movie and music enthusiasts and it was great to just be sharing the room with them whilst they were editing their tracks.

I had exhausted the internet after 2 hours and had my first experience of the Great Firewall of China which blocks websites like Blogger and Facebook. I crossed the road and returned to wait for the remaining hour in the bus station. The hour soon passed and it was time to get on the bus. I had never been on a sleeper bus before and was pleasantly surprised and excited to have a bed for the next 10 hours. The bus is split into three rows of bunk-beds and I was lucky enough to be on the right hand side on a lower bed with a view from the window. The bus moved out of the station and headed out of the city and into Inner Mongolia but I didn't see much as my sleep deprived body immediately shut down.

Inside a typical sleeper bus
The journey was long and the bus had mechanical issues and was forced to pull over a few times for the driver to tinker with the engine a little. The man above me was eating boiled sweets extremely loudly and the lady next to me intermittently shouted down her mobile phone. I took refuge with my MP3 player and slept for the majority of the trip apart from the quick stop for snacks and the driver's thirty minute snooze. I was shocked to find the ladies who I shared my Mongolian train adventure with were also on my bus and was invited to sit with them whilst they sucked down some noodles.

The bus arrived in Beijing at 4am in the pitch black. The bus station didn't resemble anything of the sort and was just a piece of wasteland in the suburbs. As soon as I left the bus I was confronted by touts yet again, this time I gave in and negotiated for a taxi to the hostel. It was 60 Yuan, I know I got ripped off but at that time I didn't have the energy to care as long as I got to the hostel.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Mongolia, Lactation and the Luggage Rack, 19-20 December 2010

Having spent nearly two weeks in Mongolia, it was unfortunately time to move on as the winter had set in and there was no more exploration possible. The temperatures were on average -30c and whilst looking at the weather forecast for Beijing we got excited for the -4c temperatures. It was sad to leave Mongolia not being able to see all that it offers but unfortunately that is the risk you take when travelling through the winter months. Hopefully I will be able to come back one day in the spring and be able to explore the farther reaches of the country, especially out to the west to see the lakes and the Gobi Desert.

I was convinced by the East/West guy to take an alternative route to Beijing which would work out a lot cheaper than taking the Trans-Mongolian train. The route was to take a train from Ulan Bator to the border town of Zamiin Ude, from there I was to get a Jeep across the border into China and from Erenhot I would get on the bus to Beijing. It sounded quite convoluted and I asked the guy for reassurance and clarification on what I needed to do when I reached the border but he just replied “Follow the crowd. Don't worry about what you need to do, just worry about the people.” I shouldn't have expected a response that actually resembled something helpful!! Despite this, Christian had in fact followed the same route before me and had sent me an email saying that he managed it easily, however he didn't give me any other information. It was just one of those occasions that I just had to go for it and solve any issues when they come up. So I headed to the station to buy my £5 seat-only ticket to the border which I was later informed by the staff at the hostel would not guarantee me a seat.

Sunday morning soon arrived and along with it a massive hangover from the previous night of drinking. Caué, Cyrus and I decided that it would be good to have one last drink in a bar before I left Mongolia so we went to a local bar. The bar was a small and trendy place with a bohemian feel to it. There was a band there who apparently were quite successful in Mongolia and after our one drink turned into another, they invited us to drink some vodka with them. The difference between drinking vodka in Russia and drinking vodka in Mongolia is that the Russians like to eat after each shot and these Mongolians did not. I personally am not a big fan of straight vodka and it was quite difficult to drain the bottle with no nibbles. After the bottle was drunk, we were invited by the owner of the pub to continue drinking with them at a local club. I ignorantly ignored the fact that I needed to check out of my hostel by 10am which was only 8 hours away at that point. So we made the trek to an underground night club very close to our hostel. I never noticed it before as it was so well hidden. The club was very big and had a fair amount of locals in there. I remembered that Mr Kim had warned us about nightclubs and said that the men get very jealous and angry as the ladies pay more attention to foreigners.

Whilst in the club the owner of the bar ordered a pitcher of beer for us all which we split the cost for. Caué handed our share over the the owner so that he could pay but when the waiter showed up with the beer he turned around and angrily asked for more money from us. The owner was joining in and became very aggressive towards us and we could not make him understand that we had gave him the money for it already. The final straw was when he called Caué a liar which he did not like and became very angry. I can't remember how the whole scenario resolved itself but it did and the night continued a little scared from the ordeal. I left the club a couple of hours later and made my way across the road back to the hostel. After a climb over the fence, stumbling up the stairs and waking up the night attendant to let me in I crashed onto my bed around 5am.

The next morning was a struggle to say the least. I woke up briefly at 6am to bid farewell to June and Karin who were heading to Beijing on the early morning 'sensible' Trans-Mongolian service along with the French couple, Eric and Justine. The next time I looked at my watch through blurry eyes was just before 10am and there was no way I was going to be able to get ready and leave in time so I made the decision to stay in bed for a few more hours and pay for an extra half a day for the pleasure.

I soon got out of bed with a dizzy head and not looking forward to my long journey ahead. The train was scheduled to leave a little after 4pm which gave me enough time to grab something to eat and get to the station. An American guy whom I met the previous week returned from his regular Peace Corp training wanted to join me and I found Caué who had not yet been to sleep and dragged him along. We went to the local restaurant that we had gone to nearly every night since we had been in Mongolia and had a great big meal which provided huge relief to the hangover pangs I was suffering from.

With the meal filling the void in my stomach and a bag full of snacks and drinks for the journey, I was ready to head to the train station. Mr Kim and his son, known to me as 'The Driver', drove me to the train station which was quite far from the hostel and I was not going to attempt the walk in my state. Mr Kim was concerned that I had chose to travel seat only and had warned me about the thieves that roamed the train carriages looking for easy pickings. He told me that I should take my important things with me everywhere I went and slipped me a couple cans of Korean beer and said “You'll need these!”, which concerned me. The car pulled up on the bustling pavement and I quickly said my goodbyes and headed into the railway station.

The station is very small and it is representative of the Mongolian rail network as it only has one line from Russia and the North to Beijing and the South. I suppose with a small population like Mongolia there is not a great need for an extensive network. I found the correct platform and waited for the train to arrive. Once it did, a crowd of people descended upon the train with huge amounts of boxes, bags and crates of merchandise that were bound for China. I got on board and was shocked to see berths in the carriage as I thought it was only going to be seats. The compartments were open with four berths inside and two in the isle. My seat number appeared to be over somebodies bed and it was later confirmed to me that I would have to leave when they want to go to bed.

To begin with I was all alone but my hopes of getting an empty bed were soon dashed as I was joined by five ladies all in their forties and a young man in his twenties. None of them spoke English and I was squeezed up against the window with my lower leg burning on the hot water pipe that fed the heaters. The whole carriage filled up far beyond capacity and the train slowly moved out of the station and the modern concrete capital of Ulan Bator. The train sped up as we passed through the suburbs made up of Ger camps which are a far cry from the suburbs of London or any other capital city I've ever visited.

The encampments soon diminished and the train cut through the national park as the sun began to sink below the horizon. The lady opposite me produced soon sort of meat from her bag and offered it to me. Whatever it was tasted nice but a little tough on the gnashes. A lady passed though the carriage with a selection of items and a packet of cards were purchased by one of the ladies. The packet was opened and I was dealt a hand of cards. I had no idea what game they were playing and my pleas for assistance were ignored, the young guy sitting across from me took my cards from me and I hoped that he was going to help me, instead he placed the cards within the pack and the game continued without me. I had genuinely felt ignored for the first time on my journey but didn't have enough energy to insist on joining the game and actually preferred to just watch them enjoy themselves. I watched on with great intrigue, trying to ascertain the rules so I might have a eureka moment and be able to join in at some point in the evening. Every time I thought I had understood what was happening, something complete unexpected would happen and a cry would explode from one of them expressing their win or loss. I surrendered to the fact that I was not going to understand the game and decided to get some sleep whilst I could as I knew it might be a long uncomfortable and sleepless night ahead. I crossed my arms on the table in front of me and settled my head semi-comfortably inside one of my elbows.

I woke up intermittently over the next few hours to find that the card game was still in full swing with no signs of hiatus. My leg was still painfully avoiding the boiling hot pipe and every now and again I would feel a singeing feeling and violently jerk my leg which made me bump into the lady beside me. As I slept, I was regretting the night before and continually plotting where and how I was going to sleep tonight if all the beds were taken. After a couple hours of rest and recuperation, I sat up and retrieved a book from my bag. I was reading ' The Great Railway Bazaar' by Paul Theroux which is a recollection of his travels around the world by land. Whenever you bring out a book amongst foreigners it's bound to attract interest, especially if it's got an interesting picture on the front cover. I was surprised how quickly the ladies' attention moved from the card game onto my book. One of the ladies took hold of my book and was asking me questions in Mongolian. Luckily there is a good map in front of the book which I used to move the conversation away from the book and onto my journey and where I had been and where I was going. It's just typical though, after a long time of isolation and when I wanted to read they would not let me. I felt rude but I continued to read on for the next thirty minutes until people started going to bed. This was the moment I dreaded but the lady whose bed I was sitting on pointed towards an empty bed and I grabbed it whilst I could. I settled in and suddenly felt relaxed and thankful that the remainder of the journey, I would be asleep on a short but still horizontal bed.

After a hour or so sleeping I was woken by a short poke in the side. I opened my eyes to be greeted by a young lady saying something in Mongolian which I took for “This is my bed, sling your hook!”. I thought that it was a fair cop and removed myself from her birth to find myself bedless once again. The floor space had already been taken and so I looked to my ladies for help again. They simultaneously all pointed up to the luggage rack which hung high above two births and resembled a table that you sell your goods off at a car boot sale. I was uncertain and weary about the strength of the small brackets that kept the rack against the compartment wall. I looked around to see if there was anyone else sleeping up there and found one guy who was definitely bigger than me sleeping soundly in the compartment next to us. I took this as a satisfactory safety test and clambered up and squeezed my way onto the rack. There was only about a 50cm gap between the shelf and the ceiling of the carriage and I couldn't believe that I had made my way up there. Although it was uncomfortable, I was grateful to be lying down. I tried to get some sleep with my bag, hat and scarf acting as my pillow but it was impossible. Every time the train jerked I would slip and slide around the rack fearing that I would fall off and break my neck. I was clinging on for dear life and just hoped for the best. I couldn't wait for the journey to finish, but I knew that I still had a very long way to go when I reached the border.
A blurry vission of the carriage

Two hours of excruciating anxiety later, I was beaconed down off the luggage rack and offered a bed in the aisle from a young guy who had been asleep for the majority of the journey. Even though I had made my way up there, I really wasn't sure how I would get myself down but I did and sat down next to the guy who had explained to me he was getting off at the next stop. The man looked slightly shifty and I wasn't sure whether he wanted to rob me or was genuinely being kind. That's the problem with people telling you stories, you never know which ones are true and it makes you paranoid about everyone. During the journey my bag full of the most valuable items I have was in my hand at all times. The man told me to lay down and I soon went to sleep with him sitting by my feet.

I woke up soon after to a scene that I will never forget. The middle aged lady whom I was sitting next to early in the evening had her breast out and was expressing milk into a cup. This would not be an issue to me if she had a baby but she was alone so I thought she might have a baby at home and just needed to keeping the milk flowing. Then next thing I saw was her offering her milk around. One man in his sixties who had joined the group whilst I was asleep had taken the cup, drank the milk and returned it to the lady for a refill. The man sitting at my feet then had his go and I was dreading being offered the milk so I pretended to be asleep with one eye slightly open. I wouldn't ever want to drink an unknown lady's breast milk and I wouldn't want to turn it down either as that may be a big insult. Luckily I was never offered the milk but was left with an astonishing memory of generosity from a lady to two men unbeknown to her before the journey.

The young man who had offered me the bed started to speak to me and I was still unsure of his intentions but was shocked when he had forced two thousand Tugriks into my hand and said that I should get something to drink on him. My preconceptions were completely shot down and once again my faith in humanity was increased. The train slowly pulled into a barren station and the man stood up, said goodbye to me and left the train.

The rest of the journey I spent asleep with a whole birth to myself and I was so grateful to the unknown man for rescuing me from the perils of the luggage rack and gave me his bed.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Terelj National Park, 14 - 16 December 2010

Water splashing my face as I swiftly move through the sun drenched South China Sea.  I look behind me at the dimishing coastline of Ha Long Bay and the magical landscape rising out of the sea.  The sun was beating down and it was time to head back for a refreshing drink.  As the beautiful Vietnamese waitress took my order I was feeling like I was in paradise, but I got a strange feeling that somebody's hand was on my face, it was cold, dead and rubbery... 

My eyes opened and I was instantaniously thrust back into reality, however the hand still appeared to be on my face.  Who has their hand on my face?  I pulled my left hand from the warmth of my sleeping bag and reached for the foreign hand on my face.  I grabed hold of it only to discover that it was mine.  It was completely numb from the cold night air and I needed to get it warm, fast.  I looked around and discovered that the fire that had been raging all night filling the tent with unbearable heat had gone out subjecting us to the harsh sub-zero temperatures of Outer Mongolia. 

With me in the Ger were two Scandanavian girls, Karin from Sweden and June from Norway whom I had met the previous evening at the UB Guesthouse and had convinced me to come with them to the Terlj National Park for a couple of nights.  It didn't take much persuasion, especially after a few bottles of beer!  I could have done with a little more sleep though as we, accompanied by Caué and Cyrus, stayed up until 5am drinking and subjecting a Romanian/American/Russian/Chinese guy to the third degree.  This man of unknown name was a strange guy who had apparently been teaching English in China for a year or so and was obsessed with the differences between the East and West.  He would repeat "East is horizontal, blood on soil and West is vertical, now, now, now."  throughout his whole conversation.  He would never provide a straight answer to anything.  When I asked him one evening whether he had a good day he replied "That's a very Western question.".  He would never divulge where he was from but would say that "He is from four countries equally."  The way this man spoke reminded me of Lucky from 'Waiting for Godot', he would talk and talk for hours without breathing but couldn't actually make a point. A very interesting character indeed, he would sit there peeling and chipping potatos all day long.  The one thing he didn't hesitate to tell us was that he was once a professional tennis playing, was once on the team that beat the USSR in the Davis Cup and played with Andrew Castle at some point.  I'm not sure if this was true but I am so thankful I met this guy as he truly was a unique person and I'm sure I won't meet one quite like him.

Our Ger
After the interrogation and a couple of hours sleep, Karin, June and I got in the car and made our way out of Ulan Bator and towards the National Park.  The road to the park was paved however the wind was strong and the snow from the fields either side was drifting across the road making it difficult to see.  We arrived at the park around two hour later and headed onto dirt tracks.  The Mongolian Nomads still leave traditional lives like their ancestors did.  Some Nomadic families pack up their belongings in the winter months and leave the park for the warmth and safety of Ulan Bator as the settlements become isolated.

Our settlement was home to a family of four, Mother, Father, Son and Daughter.  They were all there apart from the daughter who had moved away to university.  As the Father greeted us and showed us inside their home to meet the Mother, my first reaction was shock.  In front of me was not what I was expecting from a nomadic life.  I was confronted with a plasma TV with DVD player, Playstation2 and a huge stereo system.  Obviously they were not completely nomadic as they had tourists in and out of their home all year round.  The Mother quickly invited us to sit down and thrust cups of tea into our hands and gave us our first meal of potatos and meat.  I was surprised that she insisted that we kept our shoes on as I thought the etiquette was to remove them and it was a great insult if you did not.  Later I felt the floor and understood why we couldn't take them off.  The floor was absolutely freezing cold as the fire burning in the middle only heated above the floor and left a 30cm freezing pocket of air from the floor.

The family had settled between three mountains which provided protection from the gale force winds that sweep across the barren land.  They had several ger tents, one for them and a couple for their guests.  Down the hill there was a long drop toilet which I could only imagine being unbearable to be around in the summer heat and a stable with horses, goats, a camel and several other species.  Our ger smaller than the family's and did not come with a TV or PS2 but the beds were comfortable and the fire pumped out a vast amount of heat.  The whole settlement was protected by a pack of dogs that roamed freely and huddled against the tents to get warm. 

The first afternoon was spent exploring the surrounding area of the camp.  I climbed one of the hills and discovered that it was a lot further than I anticipated.  Nevertheless I continued up the hill and half way was confronted with a migrating cow heading towards me, I stepped aside, stood still and waited for it to pass me by as I didn't want it to hurl me off the side that plumeted quite sharply.  The temperature was plummeting and I could feel my eyelashes freezing and my scarf becoming part of my face.  I pulled out the thermometer and noted that the mercury had disappeared well below -30c and I felt it.  Once I reached the top, or the furthest I was prepared to go, I was rewarded by the sun setting over the stunning scenery of the park.  The sun was bouncing off the bouncing off the snow capped peaks and being there on my own, I could truly understand the saying of 'Hearing Birds Fly'.  The only sound I could hear was my breathing and the sound of snow compacting beneath my feet as I moved.  I sat there for a while taking the breathtaking scenery in and suddenly realised that I needed to get back before the sun completely disappears.

I reached the bottom of the hill just as the sun disappeared fully behind the mountain casting a darkness across the wilderness of Mongolia.  I rejoined the girls back in the tent and was overwhelmed by the intense heat that was extruding from the fire in the middle.  I immediately had to take off my outer layers right down to my thermal vest.  I was interested in finding out the temperature inside the tent, so I once again produced my termometer from my pocket and the mercury slowing surpassed 0c, 10c, 20c, 30c and finally rested a little under +40c, that's an 80 degree difference with the outside world.  I was not surprised by this as I have been subjected to this temperature difference ever since St Petersburg.  They certainly have no shortage in oil or gas and make sure any indoor space is heated to the maximum which makes going in and out of underground networks unbearable.  Throughout the evening the Son would come into our tent and put more wood on the fire to keep it burning until we couldn't stand the heat any longer and asked him to stop, hence the fire eventually dying out and freezing us to the bone.

The following day we were joined by a French couple, Justine and Eric, who had travelled very much the same route as the girls and me.  The Son came into our tent and dragged us outside and toward the horses which he had saddled up and prepared us for a horse riding experience.  I have very limited experience of riding animals.  I once rode a pony years ago in Scotland on a family holiday and all I remember is continually sliding down it's neck as it went for a drink and my brother's pony gallaping off into the woods by it's own.  And last year I rode a camel in the Sahara desert which was the most painful thing ever!  I'm not entirely comfortable trusting a huge animal as it can quickly turn against you and do what it wants.  I mean look at poor Christopher Reeve, may he rest in peace!  I got on regardless and became aquanted with my new 'best friend'.  The five of us were ushered out of the family's settlement by the young boy who must have only been thirteen or fourteen at most but had quite good English and looked after us like a true champion.  I can't imagine a boy of this age in the UK being mature enough to look after guests and carry out the tasks he does.

The horse ride was absolutely amazing, although my horse decided to keep doing his own thing and not listen to the boy's instructions.  The experience of galloping through the snow covered planes and struggling to remain on the horse was second to none, I could really imagine me becomming a nomad herding livestock and travelling across the countryside.  Although it was cold and we weren't able to stay out for too long.  I would love to come back in the Spring and spend longer in the wilderness.

Later that day we collectively decided that we should attempt to climb the mountain to the East of the camp.  So we headed off a clambered our way through the snow and found a track that animals had left.  Even though the snow makes the mountains look beautiful, it also hides the animal dung that litters the trails so you have to be careful where you tred and not to fall over.  After slowly ascending through the tree, the trail reached a peak which gave us a great view of the camp from above but it also revealed another trail heading up further up the mountain.  This is where Karin and June decided that they had had enough and said that they would go back down as their smoker's lungs couldn't handle the exercise.  I accused them of having a poor excuse but they were insistant and retired back to the camp.  Justine, Eric and I continued up the mountain and found that every peak revealed another trail heading up and like a drug we became addicted to conquering the climb and strived for higher and more stunning views. 

We reached the top of the mountain and were awestruck by the astonishing view of the Terelj National park stretching out to the horizon.  The sun was low and the orange and red light tinted the breathtaking landscape that was presented in front of us.  Eric was not satisfied with the peak we had reached and managed to find a rock to climb and insisted that we joined him.  I am glad I did as the scenery changed again and the face of the mountain on the other side dropped more steeply providing us a greater sense of perspective in how far we had climbed.  The views and feeling of satisfaction I had on top of that mountain will remain ingrained in my memory for a long time.  It was hard to tear ourselves away from the peak but the sun was rapidly sinking below the horizon and even though the moon keeps the land relatively light throughout the night, we did not want to become lost in the mountains over night as there is not a mountain rescue and we would most probably lose our lives to the cold.  So we quickly descended the mountain, so quickly I am not sure my feet actually touched the ground.  Personally, I was disorientated but luckily Eric had his navigational head on and knew the way back to salvation. 

Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, we could see the father's car headlights approach us.  I was quickly bundled into the car where the girls and son were waiting for me.  We were being driven to the Turtle Rock, which aparently was famous.  The snow drift was incredible and the road completely disappeared from view.  The father continued like a true professional.  He knew the whole tracks like the back of his hand, including the pot holes that littered the road.  We arrived at the Turtle Rock, which did infact look very much like a turtle, however it was dark, windy and cold so we weren't too interested in hanging around taking photos.

Our last night was spent in the tent eating, drinking beer and some kind of spirit Eric had in his hip flask which completely destroyed my taste buds.  The father came in and shared a drink with us which was nice as they never seem to stop working.  From early in the morning they are tending to the animals and you can hear them late in the evening chopping wood and moving things around.

The next morning we were collected by the driver to take us back to Ulan Bator.  We bidded farewell and thanked the family who had looked after us with excellent hospitality over three days we were there.  Our smooth and easy journey back to the UB Guesthouse was interuppted by the traffic police who seem to pull anyone they like over to check their details.  I honestly think this is a great idea, but the locals think it's an invasion on their liberty and absolutely hate the traffic cops.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Magical Mystery Tour of Mongolia - 10-19 December 2010

Ulan Bator

Mongolia and Ulan Bator Mongolia, fascinating and mysterious country. Once a powerful goliath in the world, Ghengis Khan led his army across Eurasia and created the biggest empire the world has seen. Stretching from the Sea of Japan across Asia, Siberia and well into Eastern Europe. The Empire fell as politics and it's people were in turmoil and it was too difficult for the rulers to control.  Now, Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated country and the largest land locked country in the world. How does a country go from the superior power ruling half of the world to relatively unknown? This is what makes Mongolia special, it's natural beauty and it's nomadic life still continues today despite pressure from the west to become a capitalist stronghold, which the capital, Ulan Bator, has become.

Mongolia has a long and interesing history. Ulan Bator hosts the National History Museum which guides you through the complete history of Mongolia, it's rises and falls.  I would recommend this museum as a must to any visitor to Ulan Bator.  I went along with a French guy from my hostel only expecting to be in there an hour or so but ended up being there for three and came out malnourished and in need of natural sun light!  The museum helped me understand how the modern day Mongolia came into existence.  The Mongolians, alike Estonia, were stuck between a rock and a hard place during the early 20th century due to an  invasion from the Chinese.  They were unable to fight them off as they simply did not have enough man power.  They were forced to ask for help from countries like UK, France, USA but nobody was able to assist them.  So having exhausted all of their ideal options, they had no choice but to  go with their contingency plan and approach the USSR and of course the power hungry Soviets were only too happy to help them and thus, the Mongolian Peoples Republic was born.  The traditional Ger camps that surrounded and made up Ulan Bator were soon eradicated and the communistic concrete tower blocks emerged.  If you go out into the suburbs of Ulan Bator, you can still find Ger encampments.

Although we are made to believe the Soviets and communism were a bad thing for society, we cannot deny that there were certainly good things that came out of the USSR.  For example, an education and health care system available to everyone including mobile units that visited the nomads that lived in ger encampments out in the wilderness.  It was recorded that prior to being a socialist republic only 2% of Mongolians could read and write, now it's 98% thanks to the Soviet's education push.  This is why the Cyrillic alphabet is more widely used in Mongolia than the traditional script. 

Ulan Bator is now transforming itself out of the Soviet blocks and into new high rise buildings.  There are banks appearing left, right and centre, multi-nationals moving in to stake their claim to a new capitalist land.  It reminds me of Tesco and how they jump into the new European Union countries with both feet in their bid to dominate the European supermarket industry pushing out the local shops as they cannot compete with prices.  Sukhbaator Square is the heart of the city and where the marvellous Mongolian Parliament sits and the enormous statues of Chinngis Khan accompanied by statues of horses reminding us of the country's powerful history.  The square itself has been an important place for Mongolia's history, similar to Palace Square in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, it has seen people demonstrate and recent call for democracy saw people go on hunger strike.
Talking of hunger strikes, we found an amazing local restaurant just around the corner from the hostel.  The restaurant had no name, just a single Coca Cola sign illuminated in the window pulling customers in.  Christian is adamant that if you want to find a good restaurant, you need to look out for the coca cola sign and plastic tables.  This was not a disappointment.  The menus were in Cyrillic, the staff spoke no English but were happy to show us the kitchen and what they had so we could point at it.  A meal would set us back around 1300 Tugs, which is well under a quid and compared to the other Western restaurants in Ulan Bator, you get a decent meal.

Whilst in Ulan Bator I wanted to go to the theatre to see what the Mongolians call entertainment, but alas I was disappointed twice.  On the first occasion, Mr Kim and his son drove me to the theatre on the way to the petrol station to fill up, which was fun however, I'm pretty sure I would have got to the theatre a lot quicker by foot.  We got there only to find the theatre shut.  Mr Kim said it was because it was a Sunday and that I should try another day,  A few days later I headed for the theatre again.  This time the door to the box office was open, so I walked in and was informed that there were no shows on until the following week!

Despite not going to the theatre I did go to the amazing Mogolian Theatre Museum which was.... interesting...  The theatre was situated on the third floor of a builing in a side street just off the main square.  I paid my entrance fee at the bottom of the run down stairwell and was unsure whether this was a scam or not as it didn't look very much like a museum to me.  I climbed the stairs up to the museum and was greeted by a dark passage way with set boxes on either side.  The lights began flickering, illuminating the displays and the lady who turned them on.  It looked as though this museum doesn't have many visitors at all.  The lady approached me and asked me in very broken English if I would like a guide, to which I replied yes.  She then went away to find one.  I continued to look at the hundreds of photos from previous performances at the National Theatre, which were on most part unremarkable remakes of western classics.  Another lady soon joined me and said that she was there to be my guide.  Not sure what her definition of guide is though as she just said what she saw, "Photos...Opera...Puppets...." and when I asked her questions she would reply "I can't tell you about that."  After walking with me pointing out the obvious and not telling me anything, she said "sorry" and ran away.  The rest of the museum was much the same, not telling me much, just lots of photos.

So from what I've heard, Mongolian traditional theatre is more like Chinese, with acrobatics, wrestling, dancing and throat singing.  Unfortunately I was not in the place at the right time to witness any of this so cannot provide my opinion.

Taxis and Cops

One day Christian, Caué and I thought it would be a good idea to flag a taxi down and go to the Manzshir Khiid Monastery just outside of Mongolia.  In Mongolia and Russia any car is a taxi, you just need to flag it down and haggle with the driver.  After an hour of freezing cold winds blasting our faces and umpteen drivers turning us down we finally found one who was prepared to take us there, wait 2 hours and bring us back to UB.  After negotiating we managed to secure the ride for 60,000TUG which included the waiting time.  The monastery was 60 km out of town, so that was a fair price to pay and splitting it between three of us was relatively cheap and certainly easier than the bus.

We set off in a worn out black hatch back with an unhealthy amount of smoke bellowing from the exhaust pipe leaving a trail behind us.  I personally wasn't sure whether we would actually make it out Ulan Bator's scarce suburbs into the national park and to the monastery.  We soon pulled into a petrol station and was asked to hand over 20,000TUG so that the driver could fill up, which we didn't mind at all.  The suburbs disappeared and to our pleasure the desolated snow swept national park scene appeared all around us.  The road was not the best quality and the snow was creeping in from both sides rapidly covering the tarmac forcing the drivers to swerve around them as they cover the numerous pot holes that could easily cause a broken suspension.  Along the way the driver was chain smoking his way through the remainder of his packet of cigarettes which forced us to crack the windows open and feel the fresh winter air.  Once he finished, he threw his empty packet out of the window which shocked and appalled me.  I have noticed that in Ulan Bator, they don't care about their environment and have no problem with throwing litter onto the floor.  This surprised me as I thought Mongolian's were respectful of nature and their country.

Around an hour of driving through the beautiful landscape of outer Mongolia we pulled off the main highway and headed towards a small town.  Unfortunately we had no idea where we were, but it turned out the driver didn't either.  He slowed down and opened his window and spoke to two pedestrians hopefully asking where the monastery was but we couldn't be sure.  The driver seemed satisfied with their response and we headed off round a series of corners, started to ascend up this long steady hill and stopped.  The road was covered in a thin layer of snow for the next 10 meters to which the driver deemed unsafe to travel and refused to take us any further, to which we replied "No monastery, no money!" as we were not sure whether he was just lying to us or not.  He seemed to understand our ultimatum and began to drive back down the hill and back towards Ulan Bator, this was disappointing as we were hoping to convince him to take the risk and get us up there.  Our main idea of the trip was to have a look around and have something to eat and drink whilst watching the sun set over the beautiful country as the sunsets in Mongolia are absolutely amazing, especially with the rays bouncing off the snow peaked mountains.

Alas, an hour or so later we ended back up in Sukhbaator Square, hopped out of the car and walked away without paying any more money.  However, the driver was not happy about this and stopped us by grabbing a firm hold on Caués backpack restraining him from moving any further.  We tried to tell him that we agreed that if he did not take us to the monastery, we wouldn't give him anymore money.  He had already got 20,000 from us for fuel which meant he wasn't out of pocket so we thought it was fair and didn't feel bad about this.  The man became more aggravated and became physically threatening, we knew we wouldn't be able to negotiate any further with him so I ran over to the Policeman in the square and inlisted his negotiation skills.  The policeman did not speak English and was looking annoyed that I had interupted his quiet afternoon on the square.  He instructed the driver, Caué and Christian to cross the road and come to him as he was obviously not prepared to use any extra effort than necessary in this incident.  The Policeman was no help and ordered us to get back into the car and to go to the police station to sort the problem out.  I was not happy with this and refused.  I was not prepared to go back into that car with a man who now hated us even though the policeman tried to reassure us by taking down his details.  Luckily a man pulled up in a faded gold car with his wife in the passenger seat and his daughter in the back, he showed us his ID and it turned out to be a more senior police official who could speak English.  After thirty minutes of arguing back and forth about who was right and wrong we finally negotiated to pay a further 10,000 and call it quits.  Christian wasn't happy with this and insisted we had two further options, to go to the police station and continue negotiations or to go to the embassy.  I was personally freezing cold and just wanted to end the situation quickly.  It was the first time the cold has really affected me, but standing still in the minus whatever and not moving seriously is not good for you.  So we gave the driver a further 10,000 and left the square.

Keep looking for some more on Mongolia.  Photos will also appear soon, it's just that I'm still battling with the Great Firewall of China!  Until then, farewell!