Monthly Archives: September 2011

Ulan Baatar

Ulan Baatar (UB), capital of Mongolia, is home to more than a third of the country’s population of three million. The city is busy and amidst the soviet-looking houses there are a number of modern glass and steel buildings. The town was founded in 1639 as center of Lamaism, and belonging to a nomad people, moved around more than 20 times before establishing itself at the current place in 1778.

UB is the central hub for most of travelling in Mongolia, and quite a few foreigners are around. It is also known as the coldest capital in the world, and indeed already now temperatures reach towards zero at night. I will now continue my way through Mongolian steppes and endless grasslands, while Ms. Escape explores the south-east of China and then we’ll meet again.

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On the way to Mongolia

The journey from Beijing to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital, is possible by plane or night train, but much more interesting if split up into a couple of days. Passing through China’s Inner Mongolia province, the countryside changes gradually from forests to endless grassland, and then into a dry steppe.

Language and looks change as well, and more and more signs are written in Cyrillic as a second language. Another change is that no more western faces are seen, and nothing, not even the word hotel, is written in English. The food is great. There is schnitzel and goulash!

People looked at me in a curious but friendly way when I walked through Inner Mongolia’s capital city Hohhot, and later through Erlian, the border town. Another change is the temperature, Hohhot is not hot at all, and Erlian is freezing, but sunny.

Crossing the border was slowed down by the fact that people bring enormous amounts of goods, from car parts over furniture to room decoration, from China into Mongolia. Our bus was held up by customs until after hours and long discussions the passengers stumped up some baksheesh.

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Bowling in Beijing

China’s capital surprised us with its modernity, confidence and grandeur, an americanized lifestyle, nearly five million cars, not much space for pedestrians, six ring roads and sterile skyscrapers. Honestly, we imagined Beijing to have kept more of its historical charm; it seems as if the rapid economic growth and social transformation have wiped out much of Chinese ancient culture and traditions, which you still can find, but you really have to look for it.

So we tried to find it and visited the Forbidden City, one of the largest and greatest palace complexes ever built, and the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor would make sacrifices and pray for good harvest. Monitored by close-circuit TV cameras, the Tiananmen Square with Mao’s Mausoleum presented itself as one of the most unattractive public plazas. Nowadays, the embalmed Mao is raised every day from the refrigerated chamber for public viewings.

Our personal highlight was none of the above, but rather strolling along the hutongs, or winding old alleyways lined with traditional courtyard houses, where the 21st century is kept at bay. We went bowling, made new friends, bounced to a rock concert and visited the cool ’798 Art District’ on a disused factory site – now the center of Chinese contemporary art with galleries, graffiti and exhibitions.

The Great Wall snaking through the countryside over deserts, hills and hills, for nearly 6,000 km, was worth a day trip. The ‘original’ wall was begun over 2,000 years ago, when China was unified under Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Hundreds of thousands of workers linked the separate walls together to defend people and territories against northern nomadic tribes.

We chose to see the wall from Jinshanling, a section less easily accessible. This made the journey quite adventurous, as it included trips by bus, van, motorbike and taxi to get there and back. Few tourists and silence were rewarding enough; the views from sharp peaks were impressive, but one had to work for them! Steep, partly un-restored sections and a stony trail turned it into a strenuous, but breathtaking and spectacular climb.

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At the heart of China’s history

Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi province, is a stop on every China tour. It is most famous for the Terracotta Army, but also boasts a still complete ancient city wall, two important pagodas, bell and drum towers, and tombs of emperors. Xi’an is Chinese history, as it was the center of China during the Zhou and Qin dinasties 3,000 years ago. It was also the biggest city in the world in the sixth century AD, and at one end of the silk road, famous trade route from Asia to Europe.

It is still a huge place, and cycling the city walls is a great idea, even if the rental bikes are crap and thick smog prevents you from seeing further than 200 meters. Unfortunately, apart from the conserved historical sites, not much of the ancient city is left. Like any other major town in China, it is modern, busy, and full of shopping malls. The only place with some more atmosphere to it is the Muslim quarter, where we had our first kebab since we left home.

The major attraction of Xi’an is the Terracotta Army, dating back to the 3rd century BC. A couple of hundred statues of soldiers, archers, horses and chariots can be seen, even if estimations backed by radar measurements claim 8,000 warriors. Each life-size warrior has unique facial features, with ranks and roles varying. Emperor Qin Shihuangdi had the army built and submerged under earth to hold watch over his tomb, and the site was only discovered when farmers digged a well in 1974. Visiting the site was interesting, but did not leave us with mouths open, as the exhibited clay soldiers weren’t as many as pictures all around the world suggest… We envisioned thousands of unique life-sized figures, but those counted in simply aren’t yet unearthed, and we don’t know if this will ever happen, given that tourists keep coming anyway … another explanation might be development of excavation technology.

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Chengdu’s pand(a)emonia

Today we are six months on the road! It’s been half a year since we said goodbye and took the plane towards Southeast Asia. The good news is we’re still alive without serious health issues and we haven’t killed each other so far. There are no household troubles, as in hostels they clean the mess up after you. And the cheap Chinese beer helps to keep the spirit up.

However, our knees and backs have quite suffered from steep hikes and the load of the heavy backpacks. We feel a bit travel-weary and realize that our travels won’t be indefinite. We miss home, Leerdammer cheese, Pinot Gris, the Sunday newspaper, the luxury of our own four walls.

But we won’t give up so easily and here we are, still travelling eastwards through the Sichuan province. Did anyone mention that sometimes the worst part of travelling is quite literally the travelling part? The bus ride to the city of Kangding was a torture, as there was a lot of construction underway – China is building superhighways to Tibet with tons of brand-new construction equipment. The roads were terrible, not to mention our smoking and spitting fellow passengers, many of them nibbling on the best snack you can get in China, fatty chicken feet.

Kangding itself was unremarkable and so a cable car ride and a few days later we continued to see Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, and try out some couchsurfing in China. The funny thing was that we slept in a tent that our host has set up in his living room. The unfunny part was that he keeps two border collies in cages on a balcony and rarely walked them. Once more we realized how animals, especially pets, are treated in Asia.

On the contrary, pandas enjoy a very good treatment, with the world’s attention and the money focused on their survival. Maybe because they draw crowds? People were ready to pay hundreds of dollars just to play a few minutes with the animals. Chinese visitors were making the usual noise talking and shouting despite the “Silence please” signs everywhere.

We enjoyed watching the big white-and-black bears (not raccoons!) and smaller red pandas so close up. The Chinese government has even introduced harsh measures to protect the mammals, as life sentences or public executions on convicted poachers.

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