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!

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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!)

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.