Back to China

Well I’m back. On August 31, I crossed the border from Mongolia back into China. And…Mongolia worked like a charm. Its big sky, pure nature and hospitality cured me of the China Blues.

This time around, China isn’t trying to rip me off. It’s not 100 degrees and oppressively humid. The people are helpful and friendly and curious.

Of course, the Internet is still unpredictable. Getting around the Chinese restrictions only seems to work sometimes, and never for Facebook. But I guess there’s no easy cure for the Chinese government. At least not in Mongolia.

Anyway, what of the Gobi? In the end, the so-called sights were a disappointment. The exception was Khongoryn Els, 300-meter-high sand dunes that sprout from out of nowhere. We got caught in a sand storm, made an unscheduled stop in a dusty provincial town to see a concert by Haranga (“Mongolia’s greatest rock band!” according to our tattooed interpreter), ate a ridiculous amount of mutton, and drove a *lot*.

I need to write more, but at the moment I’m, trying to type quietly while the other three people in my dorm try to sleep.

So, where am I, who am I with and where am I going?

At the moment I’m in Hohhot, the provincial capital of Inner Mongolia. I’m here with Karly, the Austrialian I met in Russia and happened to run into again in Ulaan Baatar. We did the Gobi trip together, and in a few hours we catch a train west.

Today we’ll go to Xiahe, a town with a Tibetan monastery. Then we’ll continue west go to Turpan, a leafy grape-growing city. It’s nearly harvest time, so it should be lovely. Then it’s Urumqi, the provincial capital, and finally Kashgar, the farthest west you can get in China, and a famous Silk Road town. Then we head back east, following the so-called “southern Silk Road” along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, skirting Tibet. We’ll end in Xi’an, see the Terracotta Warriors, and then make our way to Vietnam. We imagine all this will take about 6 weeks, depending on the number of bus breakdowns.

I’ll try to write more on the train an post from Xiahe. Happy September, everyone!

Gobi or bust

Hello friends!

In a few hours I am at long last leaving for the Gobi. Karly, the Aussie I met in Russia, and I have hired a van and driver to take us to the Flaming Cliffs (where archaeologists keep finding dinosaur bones, eggs, etc) and the great sand dunes. Then he’ll take us to the Chinese border.

I don’t want to leave Mongolia, but Karly’s visa is up on the 31st. and since we’re going to travel to western China together (Urumqi, Kashgar, then loop back to Sichuan province) I gotta go.

This means that, assuming my previous experience with shitty internet in China still holds, I won’t be posting extremely often.

The general plan is to go to western China, try to get to Xian, and then head for Vietnam, probably near the end of September.

I wish I could write more, but there’s no time. Sometime soon, however, I’ll need to find a place to sit for a few weeks and just write and think and write. I am, as they say, all backed up.

Bagged my first peak

I never would have imagined myself going to a place called “base camp” by my own choice and on my own dime. Base camp means cold, and I like warm. Base camp means mountain, and I like sea. Base camp means uphill, and I’m more of a coaster.

But there I was, trudging along the top a 3000-meter mountain pass, head down against the icy gale hammering hailstone pebbles into my forehead. I was about 130 km and nine days into a 168-km, 14-day test of my physical and mental endurance. I had passed all the stages of exhaustion and had entered absurdity and resignation. I started singing ““”We’re Off To See The Wizard.”

We were headed to Tavan Bogd, a group of peaks in Mongolia’s section of the Altai mountain range. Tavan Bogd means “five peaks,” and the itinerary from Mongolian Expeditions had us climbing Malchin, at 4051 meters the lowest of the five, the following day.

Gundei, our guide and one-third of the “us,” didn’t know that I had already decided to beg off the climb. “I don’t have proper climbing shoes,” I would say. “And my legs are too fatigued to haul my khushuur-enhanced butt up there.” The best laid plans…

About two weeks earlier I had sent an email to Batbayar, owner of Mongolia Expeditions, asking if his company had any trips to the west that I could join. He called about 30 minutes later. “You’re in luck,” he said. “We have a trip going in a few days, and all except one of the confirmed guests canceled at the last minute.” He was willing to give me a big discount on the price – after all, any money I paid would be money he wouldn’t be losing on the trip. I reviewed the itinerary. “I’m not exactly a mountaineer,” I said. “No problem,” he assured me. “There’s an easier hiking option if you don’t want to climb the peak.” I agreed to go.

A few days later I was standing outside the Golden Gobi guest house at 3 am, waiting for my ride to the airport. Donna, a remarkably fit 50-year-old Canadian and experienced climber/trekker/mountain-sports person, and I would take a three-hour flight west to Olgii, the low-slung capital of Bayan-Olgii province.

BO is home to a large Muslim Kazakh population stranded here during one of the many sudden border changes in the area over its history. They live in perfect harmony with Mongolians as well as Tuvans and other minorities. The Kazakhs look like…well, Kazakhs. Their hair, eyes and skin are lighter than Mongolians’. Their cheekbones aren’t quite as high. They are taller and bigger – as are their gers.

I’m not going to give a day-to-day travelogue, cuz that’d be boring and too long. The heavily edited version:

– drive west from Oglii to Khurgan and Khoton twin lakes. at a petrol station, meet two cars at the tail end of the Mongol rally. stop along the way to meet a family who hunts with eagles in the winter. hold an eagle. they’re very heavy and have sharp, sharp claws.

– camping and easy hiking along lakes. go swimming in freezing water. vodka, beer and singing by a bonfire. (37 km in 2 days)

– hike to the mouth of the White River valley. from here our driver and Russian van will be replaced with two Tuvan camelmen and their camels. (23 km)

– hike up the White River valley. go over a 3500-meter steep mountain pass during a brutal 8-hour hiking day. consider throttling guide, who rarely chooses the trail in favor of difficult “short cuts.” come up with the idea for “steppe aerobics.” (40 steep km in 2 days)

– arrive in camp 7 early enough to attempt a “shower” in (believe it or not) a shower tent. the hair wash was great, but the sudden winter gale that sprung up as soon as Donna finished her shower kinda ruined the overall effect. woke up the next morning to the remains of overnight frost and hail. sat through a snow squall during breakfast. made snowmen. it was cold.

– hike to camp 8, near our camelman’s ger and the entrance to Tavan Bogd Nat’l Park. enjoy a much-needed rest day. share a liter of fermented cow’s milk (the local spirit) with our camelman, named Olonbayar. “Olonbayar” means “many celebrations.” (16 km)

– hike 17 km to camp 9, Base Camp

Which brings you up to date.

As we started a long, gentle decent toward base camp we saw the peaks glowing in the distance. The clouds over them had parted, revealing a bright blue sky and shockingly bright sunlit snow. Hail was still falling all around us, collecting in the depression of the path. (This pic doesn’t do it justice.) I was reminded of a scene in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions had fallen asleep in a field of poppies – a trap by the Wicked Witch. But the good witch Glenda made it snow, waking them up. In the distance shone their destination, the Emerald City.

They ran through the snow along the yellow brick road towards the glimmering green spires of Emerald City.

We walked (no energy to run) along the white hailstone path towards the glowing blue and white of – let’s call it Sapphire Mountains.

Did I mention that I was a bit out of my head by this time? (I blame altitude sickness.)

By late afternoon the sky had cleared and the sun was shining. But clear skies mean cold nights, and that night was freezing. Worst of all, we were out of vodka. Thank god for Gundei, who had been rationing beer.

In the morning we woke up relatively early and started for the peak. It was an hour-long hike to the base of the mountain. And somehow during that time Gundei and Donna convinced me that I could, in fact, summit. No problem. Feel free to quit anytime. Just see how it goes. Etc.

Halfway up Donna almost quit. The climb was *very* steep, and there was no path. We were scratching our way over rocks that often moved or slid down as we scrambled over them. It was irresponsible and dangerous – at any time I could have loosened a boulder that would crush my finger or break an arm or leg. But by that time my competitiveness had reasserted itself. “I’m gunna bag this peak!” I declared, glaring up at yet another false summit. I may as well have scratched my balls and spit. I was being a dumb man.

Happily, Donna found a path (still very tough, but safer) and we followed it to the top.

We spent about 30 minutes at the peak (not the actual peak, which was a further steep, snowy 100-meter climb – too dangerous for our lacking-in-equipment selves, but close enough). Then I sent Gundei and Donna down ahead of me. I had to pee, and was determined to cop a squat with my butt facing China. Gross? Not really – we had spent 2 weeks relieving ourselves behind rocks. Immature? Probably – but not nearly as gross or immature as, say, pressing your bare penis against monuments and large buildings. (You know who you are.)

The descent was like skiing, but on rocks instead of snow. The technique involved stepping with your heel and letting your foot slide down as long as possible. It was kinda fun. I had to stop twice to empty my shoes.

We rolled back to base camp around 5 pm. Our prize for summitting was marmot – shot by our camelman the day before and boiled up by our cook. (Marmots, by the way, are carriers of Black Plague. Gundei assured us that care was taken to ensure that this was a healthy marmot. Besides, Malchin hadn’t killed us. Why would a marmot?)

A few days later we drove back in to Olgii, where we were promised a hot shower and a *bed* in a ger. The shower was more of a trickle, but it felt so good to wash off a thick layer of accumulated shit – we felt sure that over the previous 14 days our panting mouths had inhaled cow, sheep, goat, yak, horse, camel and human shit, and that it was also embedded in our hair. We *smelled*.

As for the bed, it was wonderful – though after the two bottles of vodka with dinner, I could have slept – well, in an icy tent in a place called “base camp.”

Back from western Mongolia

I just got back to UB after a two-week trekking and camping trip to western Mongolia. I’ll write all about it by tomorrow, but I wanted to drop a quick post to answer the “where the hell are you” emails that have clogged my Inbox during my absence.

It was a last-minute decision to join a trip organized by Mongolia Expeditions, an “adventure travel” company. On August 8 I flew to Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Olgii province in western Mongolia. On August 21 I flew back, having spent exactly one of the intervening nights in something other than a tent.

At the moment I’m rather hung over (lots of farewell vodka last night) and sleeepy. So instead of writing I’m catching up on my photo-uploading (China’s done – now I’m on Mongolia).

Also, BTW, here in UB I happened to run into Karly, one of the Australians I met waaay back in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. She has recruited me to join her on a Gobi tour (finally!) starting Monday. Then we’ll cross back into China and travel together to western China (Urumqi, Kashgar), etc. It’ll be good to have someone to share the difficulties of travel in China. Yay.

OK now I gotta run to take a shower and meet Donna (the Canadian who was also on the western Mongolia trip) and Batbayar (the owner of Mongolia Expeditions) for dinner.

The nomadic sloths

Last night I returned from my Ger-to-Ger (G2G) trip smelling of sheep, horses and sour milk.

As the bus rolled west towards Ulaan Baatar from the hills of Terelj National Park, a dramatic thunderstorm rolled east, dropping gallons of water that turned the streets of UB into muddy streams.

I was joined on my 6-day/5-night holiday by Bjorn and Kjersti, a lovely Norwegian couple. I use the term “holiday” deliberately, because we spent a good portion of the trip lazing around. The idea of Ger to Ger is for you to stay with real nomad families as they go about their everyday activities – milking cows, herding sheep and goats, and so on. The families are not there to entertain you, though in theory there are activities planned – crafts, horse riding, playing shagai with the kids.

In reality, a typical days goes like this:
– wake up around 8:30
– eat breakfast
– hang around doing nothing for a few hours
– eat lunch
– hang around
– get invited by wife of the family to “herd sheep” or do crafts
– pack up tents (which means the kids pack the tents and we stand around)
– horse ride/ox cart to next ger
– drink milk tea
– pitch tents (again, the kids insist on doing most of the work)
– eat dinner
– in bed by 9
– rinse, repeat

After five days of this we started referring to ourselves as the sloths.

Yes, it was interesting to observe the dynamics of the four different families we visited. Yes, we had one ~10km horse ride and another 23km ride between gers. But six days was enough. Neither my Lonely Planet guide nor the language section of the G2G guide gave us the right words to have a meaningful exchange with our host families. There was a lot of awkward smiling, amusing miming and long, long silences.

Some highlights and observations:

– we were picked up from the local bus stop by two boys, roughly 11 and 15 years old, in an ox cart. We spent a good portion of this first ride debating whether they were scammers bringing us someplace else, or if they were really family members of “Chukha” the man who was supposed to collect us. (they were the real deal)

– we helped some of Chukha’s boys (he has 4 daughters, but many nephews/friends/random local boys helping him) “herd” sheep and goats from one side of a mountain to another. To get them to stop climbing the wrong hill we howled like wolves. The animals froze. As we approached we baa’d like sheep. The animals followed us. Pretty cool trick.

– one morning we watched Chukha slaughter a sheep. that afternoon we were treated to a large bowl of boiled sheep entrails as a snack after a 10-km horseback ride. for dinner we joined various neighbors around another bowl of grilled/boiled mutton – just reach into the bowl, grab a hunk, and tear into it with your teeth. after dinner were toasts with a variant of aimag, the local rot gut. Normally made of fermented mare’s milk, this version was made from cow milk.

– hunting for wild strawberries during a rest stop on our 23-km horse ride to the second ger. mmmm, so sweet.

– happening upon a wedding during our ox cart ride between the 2nd and 3rd ger. wedding ceremonies are community celebrations, complete with mini-nadaams: a horse race, wrestling, etc. Not only is the community celebrating the (presumed) continuation of the Mongolian people, but also a continuation of their traditions and way of life. It seemed the perfect way to celebrate a wedding: the bride and groom were guests of honor at a community party.

– the madly in love, happy couple who hosted us at the last ger. And their baby son was adorable.

– on the way back to town to catch our bus to UB, something went wrong with a wheel on the ox cart. So what do you do – change the tire (so to speak)? Nope – you stop at the nearest ger and borrow the ox cart of a “neighbor”. that’s the nomadic culture.

There’s a lot more, of course, but since I lost a day to technical problems (I started writing this post yesterday. in the middle my computer froze, necessitating a 3-1/2-hour stay in a local tech shop reinstalling XP) I’m a bit behind.

More in a bit (plus photos!)

Change of plan

I got voted off the Gobi.

Yesterday around noon one of the people on the Gobi trip called to say that, “Sorry!” there wasn’t enough room for me on the Gobi trip. The max number for a tour is 6, and the guide wanted to treat the kid as a person (fair enough). So the rest of the group (who are all staying at a different guest house than me) had a meeting and decided I was out. Fuckers.

That means I spent the day yesterday scrambling to find another trip to join. So today I’m going on a 6-day/5-night trip to the nearby Terelj National Park with Ger-to-Ger. Unlike other local tour operators, G2G says, it gives travelers an authentic experience (no English-speaking guide or “western” food), focuses on sustainable tourism, and gives 85% of the so-called “community fee” directly to the families.

So I and two others will take a local bus to the park (no private jeep), where we’ll meet a guy who will bring us by ox cart to the ger (called a yurt in other cultures; it’s a felt nomad’s home) of a nomad family who will let us camp in their yard. The next day we move to another family’s ger, etc. for 6 days.

The trip I’m going on is called “Nomadic Challenges” or something. It’s going to be like an episode of the Amazing Race – we’ll compete with each other in dung-collecting, water-hauling, etc. The only difference is that there’s no $1 million prize for the winner.

We’ll also learn how to do some other basic things in a nomad’s life: milk a cow, saddle a horse, sew traditional clothes. We’ll travel mostly by horse (Mongolian saddles are wooden, so that should be fun) though there’s one day of trekking as well.

Anyway, that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few days. I’ll still get to the Gobi – I’ve got a few people looking to hook me up with a group when I return to UB – but it’ll just be a bit later.

OK…time to saddle up…

I’m already in a better mood…

Greetings from Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. HooRAY. Arrived early yesterday afternoon from Beijing, and I already feel the difference. China and I were just not on the same wavelength. We’ll see what happens when I go back in a month or so.

One piece of exciting news is that I’ve published another story – this one about last year’s trek in Burma/Myanmar. It’s in an online travel mag called The Expeditioner. It’s not the NYT (and doesn’t pay as well), but I think it’s more my style. Plus Matt Sabile, the man behind the website, edited very lightly – this story is in my own voice, whereas the NYT piece was in NYTspeak.

And speaking of exciting treks, I’ve been on one and will leave for another tomorrow. On Sunday I visited the Great Wall, hiking the 8 km section from Jinshanling (about a 3-hour drive from Beijing) to Simatai instead of the Disney-fied section at Badaling. The way was very steep and mostly unrenovated – I sweated bucketloads. At every watch tower (the only place to rest in the shade) extremely annoying women shoved bottles of “ice watah!” in our faces and generally harassed us to buy stuff…no matter how many times we said “no, no thank you, please go away, please get out of my face” etc. Other women would hike along with you, telling you about “short cuts” and, at the steepest bits when you had to concentrate on where your foot would go, they’d step directly in your path and offer their hand, to “help.”

But despite this nonsense, the hike was beautiful.

Tomorrow I leave for a 14-day trip to the Gobi Desert and central Mongolia. The tour is organized via the Golden Gobi guest house here in UB. I’ll be with 5 other adults: two French dudes, a Swedish woman, and a French couple, plus their 10-year-old son.

I’m pretty sure there’s no WiFi in the Gobi, so you won’t hear from me again until at least August 12 (though I’ll probably post again before I leave).

OK, I need to go make some preparations for the trip.

The shortest longest eclipse

I haven’t really posted much about China. Yeah, I know. Between the Great Firewall, slooooowwww connection in Shanghai, and a lack of a computer, it’s been painful even to check email.

There’s much to say, but I shant say it now. Because I know what you’re wondering: How was the eclipse? So I’ll postpone more general China posts and tell ya.

This eclipse was unlike the other two I’ve seen. Of course, the other two (Hungary in ’99 and Ghana in ’06) were also different from each other. As I told a TV reporter from a local Wuhan news network (!), eclipses are like children (I suppose): You love them all equally, but as individuals.

In the days leading up to July 22, the SEML (solar eclipse mailing list) was manic with worries about a storm (’tis the season) and extraordinarily detailed weather reports from Jay Anderson, the eclipse-chasers’ Al Roker (sans annoying cheeriness and yoyo weight loss).

As it turns out, people’s fears were justified: Shanghai got rained out. As you read before (in my NYT article), I was joining Rick Brown, a native NYer who runs eclipse tours on the side. He had arranged a private viewing area at the Wuhan Bioengineering University. (A big huge THANK YOU to Rick for inviting me to join them. Fun times!)

Though we didn’t get rained out, we did get cloud cover that seemed to thicken right at totality. In other words, we saw the early stages (where the moon slowly moves across the sun) fine, because the sun’s rays were strong enough to pierce the thin clouds. But when the eclipse went total, we couldn’t see my favorite part: the firey black hole in the sky.

However, about a minute before totality ended, the clouds thinned and – gasps, cheers and roar of the crowd – we saw it. I grinned like an idiot and stared. Al Drew, a decorated officer and ex-Special Ops in the US Air Force, ex-test pilot, and current NASA astronaut who flew STS-118 and spent 13 days in space (including 10 on the International Space Station), was flabbergasted. “There it is!” he chirped, like a wide-eyed child who’s meeting a real live astronaut. “That’s it! Is that it?” (He was much more eloquent when interviewed later by the swarms of local media, which was thrilled to have a real live astronaut (and a black man to boot!) in their midst.)

So yes, even if you’ve been in space, and spent your down time on the flight deck of the space shuttle, with all the lights turned off, watching the stars and the earth – even then, a total solar eclipse blows your mind.

I was disappointed, of course. But we still saw all the key moments: the odd underwater light, a 360-degree sunset, the edge of the moon’s shadow hurtling towards us as totality neared its end, the diamond ring, and then the truly remarkable speed at which late dusk returns to mid-day as the moon moves away from the sun.

I do not regret traveling all this way to see it. Neither did Al, who flew from Moscow (actually Star City, where we met via Esther) via Beijing on a 36-hour turnaround for the occasion. It’s funny – any “New York Times writer” fame I might had had with Rick’s crowd was quite easily trumped by “real live NASA astronaut!” So while Al patiently dealt the the swarm of tour-groupees and local media I got to take in the whole scene.

Of course, spending 36 hours with Al was fascinating in its own right. We drank Tsingtao by the Yangtze, discussed everything from US foreign policy to farting in a space suit, and ate a lovely meal at a table for 10 in a local restaurant that was roughly the size of hangar.

So yes, I’d say that the eclipse was a success.
Now I’m back in Beijing and leaving for Mongolia early Monday morning, having cut short this leg of my China time. I’m still getting too frustrated here to have a good time on my own. I’m hoping that a month of cheering up in Mongolia will provide me with a good reset with China. I’ll try again when it’s cooler and when I haven’t been ripped off as I cross the border. Reset my Chinese karma, if you will.

Sleepless in Irkutsk

Providing a neat book-end to my time in western Baikal, I am again awake at 6:30 am, sitting at the kitchen table of Baikaler hostel. In two hours I’ll be on a train to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia and the biggest city on the east side of Lake Baikal.

This time, instead of my sinuses keeping me awake it’s my brain. Last night I visited with Anton, my hiking guide and (I hope) new friend. We talked about many things, including the birth of his truly adorable 3-month-old named Polly. But the thing that’s kept me awake most of the night is sustainable tourism and Russia (I’m trying to put together a story proposal), and his very convincing pitch for me to go to Severobaikalsk (on the north shore of Baikal, and difficult to get to from Ulan-Ude) and to come back for an ice trek across the lake for my birthday in March.

All of a sudden I’m seriously considering skipping Mongolia entirely and just doing it next year, after coming back to Baikal. Because I need to be in Wuhan for the eclipse July 22, I’ll need to go straight from Vladivostok to southern China, then back up to Mongolia, then back down through China to Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. Pain in the ass. If instead I just do Russia/China/Vietnam/Malaysia for the diving season/back to Russia in March/Mongolia….hmmm. But that means Mongolia in April/May time, which isn’t ideal weather.

The other option is to skip Vladivostok this time and head straight to Mongolia after UU/Severobaikalsk, stay in Mongolia for just two weeks and then hightail it down to Wuhan. Then I can hit Vladivostok when I come back next March. This has the benefit in Mongolia of being the right season for and overlapping my time there with Nikkie, Nikki and Russell. But then only 2 weeks (instead of a month) in Mongolia. And…I *have* to make sure I go to Vladivostok, which (rather oddly) has been on My List since I was a little girl.

Someone, please tell me what to do!

Also, after all my ambivalence about Russia, I trust everyone is making note of the irony of me planning a return visit so soon?

As I said, Anton is very convincing. But also…I’ve realized that Baikal has me hooked. It’s beautiful and difficult and rugged and complex and intriguing and always-changing and grumpy and breathtaking and boasts a list of superlatives: biggest freshwater lake, biggest unfrozen fresh water source, deepest lake, oldest lake, home to a number of endemic flora and fauna, and so on. You can swim in it, dive in in (in theory), search for sunken treasure, drive, walk or bike across it, rock- or ice- climb along it, etc.

And most people have never heard of it.