A Travellerspoint blog

October 2012

Beijing - A Tale of Two Cities

sunny 14 °C

It was the best of times: it was the worst of times… Nowhere else on earth is the contrast between the haves and have-nots so great as in China, and nowhere is the division more starkly observed than in the capital, Beijing. The growth of Beijing has been truly phenomenal since Sheila rode her Flying Pigeon bicycle through the streets here in the early eighties, but a few iconic buildings remain. This is the Beijing Hotel – once the top spot in China…
But today it is eclipsed by numerous palatial joints like the super snazzy Legendale Hotel…
There are many mega-rich in China today so it’s not surprising that the streets that used to teem with bikes are now flooded with Bentleys and Beamers and the stores are chock-a-block with luxury goods from all over the world – with five Rolex stores on Wangfujing street alone!
But hidden behind the gleaming facades of the office towers and five star hotels; facing away from the ultra-wide tree lined boulevards...
...decorated with fabulous floral displays…
… are the hutongs – the narrow lanes of old houses where life for the poor has barely changed in a century or more...

To determine the relative difference between rich and poor we apply what we call the Starbucks Equation. Wherever we go we equate what the average man in the street can buy for the cost of an American coffee? For instance: In Beijing a small latte at Starbucks costs 30 Yuan, ($5 Cdn or about £3.50), and there are no shortage of takers. But that’s rich even for us. So what have we bought for the same price?
How about a complete dinner for two, including a large beer, at a restaurant in our apartment building offering such interesting items as…
Though don’t ask us for the recipe.

And for the same $5 we bought a basket of shopping including a dozen eggs, a papaya, a kilo of clementines, a loaf of bread, four custard tarts and a package of serviettes.
What about a trim…?
Actually we both needed tidying up after six weeks of travel, and James’s beard was completely out of control. Both haircuts, and a beard trim, cost the same as just one large latte – 40 Yuan (Less than $7 for both).
So, while life at the top may be rich and getting richer, for millions of poor Chinese a cup of Starbucks is something to dream about. Sheila lived here for three years in the early eighties when almost everyone was poor, and cabbages were a staple winter food, so this young television reporter in Tiananmen Square was very interested in getting her views about the amazing revolution that has occurred in this country...
Stay tuned, dear blog reader, and you will be as astounded as we are at this fascinating city.

Posted by Hawkson 06:37 Archived in China Comments (5)

Mongolian Yak Herding

semi-overcast -3 °C
View Through Siberia to China and Beyond on Hawkson's travel map.

Ulaanbaatar has long been on James’s bucket list so it was a little disappointing to discover that it’s a bit of a dump. However, all is not lost. The guidebooks are unanimous that the highlight of any Mongolian odyssey is the jeep safari deep into the Gobi to dine with locals in a traditional ger, (yurt); to ride the Przewalski horses across the wide-open steppes; to round up the yaks; and to watch the eagles soaring in the perpetually blue sky. So we have booked an all inclusive tour - although it specifically excludes the cost of rescue if we break down in the desert!

It is snowing this morning but the sight of a safari jeep with authentically costumed driver in the parking lot cheers us. “He’s early,” we say as we wolf down breakfast, but by the time we get our coats on he’s gone and our man turns out to be a couple of guys in jeans and leather jackets with an old beat-up Nissan Sunny. Dodge the guide, (Dodge really is our guide’s name and this is not a game invented by us because we’re disgruntled that we didn’t get the costumed guy with a jeep), learned English in Delhi so we have to re-translate – this could be fun?
First stop – the nearest gas station for a fill, but, to be fair, they only had three days to prepare for this trip. Then to a supermarket for bottled water – ditto. Finally we’re off – to the call of the wild.

The road falls apart completely at the city’s edge, (though we hardly notice the difference), and the desert should stretch endlessly ahead of us – but it isn’t as deserted as you might expect. Real deserts don’t have gated estates of Canadian-built monster homes and belching smokestacks of smelters and factories. Real deserts don’t have gas stations every five hundred metres – although our nameless driver, (christened Dodgee by us), drives through the forecourt of every one to escape the rotten road. And then, our first eagle…
O.K. So he’s tethered to a post by the roadside so his owner can fleece tourists for a photo – but he is one handsome bird.
Next stop – an ancient looking Buddhist monastery on a hill… a very high hill. The rusted-out cable car stopped working years ago, (if it ever did), so we have to climb: past the Tibetan flags and the junkyard of broken machinery and old water barrels…
…across a scary suspension bridge…
Up, up and up we climb…to a crumbling monastery with faded frescos built in 1998. (and that’s not a typo).

Now to meet the locals…

This ger looks authentic enough, positively archaic, but is that a satellite dish? And did we spot a new Toyota in the driveway? And where is the traditionally garbed yak farmer and his rotund wife? Dodge and Dodgee usher us in, but what’s this…
This ger has all mod cons: enormous fridge, chest freezer, washing machine, rice cooker, microwave, and a giant flat screen T.V. that loudly pumps out Mongolian soaps throughout our visit.
Our host is the least traditional Mongolian we are ever likely to meet, but she serves a nice lamb stew from an iron pot on a traditional looking stove…
But no smoke – maybe it’s actually the latest induction stove. Nothing would surprise us here anymore. Her cellphone rings: our mounts are at the door…
At last - what we’ve been waiting for - and as we saddle up we picture ourselves galloping across the endless steppes to round up the herd. But there’s only one yak and he doesn’t feel like being herded anywhere…
There is also a rare wild Bactrian camel - definitely not for herding…
So we trot gingerly around the outside toilet a couple of times (and quickly discover why Mongolians build their outhouses as far away from the ger as possible)…
… until Sheila decides that this yak herding thing is about as exhilarating as riding a donkey on the beach in Brighton when she was three and we call it a day. Dodge and Dodgee seem relieved that it is over and we race back to the city in time to hit rush hour. After two hours in a traffic jam we get back to our hotel to find the heating has broken down again… no wonder the Mongolians lost their empire.

Posted by Hawkson 18:17 Archived in Mongolia Comments (9)

The Fallen Mighty

sunny -1 °C
View Through Siberia to China and Beyond on Hawkson's travel map.

There’s gold in them thar Mongolian hills and Ulaanbaatar is today’s Klondike, but no amount of international investment in the mining business can put a gloss on that fact that at heart it is a scruffy third world city. If one measure of a country’s wealth is the degree to which it venerates its past, and preserves its historical artifacts, Mongolia is as poor as a monastery mouse. This is the country’s leading Buddhist monastery, the Gandan Khiid, home to the spiritual leader of Mongolia’s Buddhists…
It may appear old but it was actually built in 1938 to replace the one that the Communists destroyed.
The 90 foot high statue of Buddha is impressive…
‘No Photos – No Video’ warned the widely ignored signs, maybe because the whole place is very tacky and the temple and its ancillary buildings are thickly coated with guano. Bird seed sellers outnumber the monks ten to one, but the pigeons aren’t here to pray…
And this was the palace of the last king, the Bogd Khan, who died in 1924…
The palace is now a museum with an eclectic collection of junk and moth-eaten stuffed animals and it is completely overshadowed by rampant development and surrounded by a dusty weed patch. There are more ‘No cameras’ signs here than you would expect to find at a Berlussconi Bunga party, yet there was really nothing worth photographing. So here’s some pictures of some of the locals instead…
Mongolia holds a unique record in history – it once ruled over the largest contiguous empire that the world has ever known. In the 12th and 13th centuries under Genghis Khan and his sons and grandson, Kublai Khan, the Mongolian Hordes ruled 33 million square kilometers of Asia and Europe; from the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea in the east to the Mediterranean and Black Sea in the west. The whole of China, together with most of Russia and numerous other countries from Korea to Turkey, were all conquered by the ruthless and brutal Ghengis and his warriors. Here’s the statue of Ghengis – known here as Chinggis Khaan – at the parliament building in Sühbaataiin Talbai Square…
You may consider us intrepid travelers but our travels are child’s play compared to Belgian, William of Rubrick, who travelled from Istanbul to Mongolia on an ox-cart in 1253 as an emissary of King Louis IV of France. William of Rubruck’s report to the king is a masterpiece of medieval literature and includes details of a 1254 formal debate between Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims, to determine which faith was correct. You might think that we would have an answer for that nearly 800 years later!
So, if Mongolia was the centre of most of the known world in the middle ages – what on earth happened? Why is it that unlike the capitals of other great empires like Istanbul, Rome and London, virtually nothing exists of the Mongolian empire? The history of the empire and this land is far too complex for this blog, but one thing is certain – just as Lance Armstrong, Conrad Black and Bernie Maddoff have discovered – the mighty nearly always end up falling.

Posted by Hawkson 04:03 Archived in Mongolia Comments (3)

Unfathomable Ulaanbaatar

sunny 12 °C

We thought we knew about Russia, (until we got there), but we had no idea what to expect in Mongolia, and we weren’t thrilled when we got a frosty reception from the Gestapo-trained immigration officer when we crossed the border on the Trans-Mongolian. However, our papers were in order and we didn’t pose a threat to national security so she had to let us in – though she didn’t look happy about it.
Mongolia is a faraway place with an exotic sounding name and after a couple of days here we have found it is as confusing as the many different spellings of its capital’s moniker. Is it Ulan Bator? Ulan-bator? Ulaanbaatar? or, as the ex-pats simply call it, UB?
Getting to grips with UB has been as difficult as herding yaks.
At first glance it has civilized vehicles – more SUV’s and stretched Hummers per capita than California…
… and even some that have defected from California…
But it has some of the most uncivilized traffic we have ever encountered. In Russia: red lights were obeyed; the only angry outbursts were directed at jaywalkers; motorists stopped to let us across a road with or without a marked crossing. But here in UB drivers have absolutely no consideration for pedestrians. The pavements, (or the chewed-up, potholed dirt tracks that pass for pavements), are clogged with parked vehicles; motorists play chicken with pedestrians especially when the ‘walk’ sign is green; and a red light is like a red rag to a bull even when a cop is standing at an intersection.

Ulaanbaatar’s architecture is as confusing as the traffic. Magnificent glass towers rise above a jumble of crumbling concrete buildings...
…while large numbers of traditional felt gers are squeezed into dusty corners…
Finding the best local food is always a game in a new city and UB has proved bewildering in that aspect as well. There is no shortage of restaurants. Here are just a few…
Spot the problem?
Since the collapse of Communism the world has come to Mongolia in search of its natural resources and they have brought their cookbooks and espresso machines with them. Canada is apparently a big player in the mining industry, though we have yet to meet any Canadians or spot a ‘Tim Hortons’. However, Alice from Rotterdam serves a great cappuccino made with real Dutch coffee at the Amsterdam Café…
After much searching we found a true Mongolian restaurant hiding in a run-down building almost next door to our hotel and enjoyed marinated lamb’s tongues, shredded beef with scrambled eggs and fungus, and a mountain of baby lamb’s ribs, for about thirty dollars, including beers, steam buns and rice – all delicious...
So far we’ve had Korean, Indian and Mongolian – all excellent – but each time we’ve eaten alone. Ulaanbaatar’s restaurants and hotels all seem to be virtually empty. Our hotel has only two other guests in its 25 rooms, so if you’re stuck for something to do this weekend why not pop over for a visit? We’ll happily buy dinner.

Posted by Hawkson 06:13 Archived in Mongolia Comments (4)

From Russia with Love

sunny 11 °C

Snow capped peaks overlooking Lake Baikal float on a cushion of mist as the morning sun turns our watery vista blue and wakens the forest, and we are at home. When we are at our cliff-top house on the west coast of Canada we too witness the daily miracle of the sun climbing over the mountains, shimmering across a blue ocean, and lighting our tree-scaped island. It is a different ocean, different trees and a distant land, but the unvarying sun is a reminder, not of the chasm that separates us from the rest of the world, but of the golden threads that bind us together as mankind. Unfortunately, and for far too long, Russia has been cloaked in a McCarthyist mantle – a negative stereotype promulgated to this day by right wing Republicans. But if there is an evil empire you will not find it on the main streets of the Russian cities we have visited, or on the faces, or in the hearts, of the people we have been privileged to meet.
Forget all you have ever read or heard about Russia and its people. If we have worried at all about our lives on this journey it is only that we have been concerned that we might be killed by kindness. With the sole exception of the brusque customs officer on our arrival, we have received nothing but help and good guidance – often from strangers without a word of English. Of course, as we’ve previously mentioned, people in the hospitality business have a vested interest in keeping us happy, but in Russia we have been overwhelmed by people’s kindheartedness: people who have carried our bags; given up their seats on the metro; stopped to offer directions when we’ve looked lost; shown us the right bus, the right train or pointed us in the right direction.
Not everything is rosy here: we have seen ramshackle houses, broken down cars, dilapidated buildings, and even the odd beggar, (though certainly no worse than in North America). But most young Russians seem to be living the American dream: they wear Levis and Nike; hang out at MacDonald’s and coffee shops, drive Fords and Beamers, and Google and tweet on IPhones and IPads. They are slimmer, more sophisticated, better dressed and better looking than many of their Yankee cousins, and if we were young Americans today we might consider defecting to Russia in search of a better life.
If we have any criticism at all it would be the lack of English information in some museums and places of interest. This may seem unfair - after all how much Russian information might we find in a North American or European museum – however, English is very pervasive in all walks of Russian life. Adverts on television promote all kinds of branded products without consideration of the fact that ‘Domestos, Ariel, or Fairy Liquid’ may not translate. And the well-appointed stores are bursting at the seams with immediately recognisable European and American products.
Loudspeakers in the traditional pedestrianised shopping streets, (known as arbats) which, according to Hollywood movies, once blared stentorian commands to work harder for the motherland, now soften the air with the music of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan. Musack is everywhere, but it is anything but Russian. Halloween is coming – and it’s in the stores here too - and, judging by the fairy lights being strung across the arbats, Russian kids will soon be waking up to see what Santa has brought them.
This is us at the Russian border station at Naushki and our train to Mongolia is waiting. We have many more places to visit and lots to see, but we will not forget Russia and its people. We will return one day and we would encourage you to come and see this fascinating country for yourself – you will be welcomed.

до свидания (Das Vadanya) Goodbye Russia and thank you very much.

Posted by Hawkson 00:33 Archived in Mongolia Comments (8)

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