We signed up for a nine day tour of the Gobi Desert. To make it cheaper, we grouped up with three other people. Kim was an older (though I’m not sure exactly how old) Korean guy who took tons and tons of pictures. Johan and Jetlse were a young guy and girl (but just friends!) from Belgium. Johan, possibly the most laidback person I’ve ever met, thought everything was “no problem,” and Jetlse was a total sweetheart who could find the silver lining in almost anything. The crew consisted of Gana, our big, jolly driver who would make “cuckoo!” noises at random like he was a General Mills mascot, and Sonje, the more quiet cook.
The beginning of our trip was a little rough for me, to be honest. The roads in Mongolia are so terrible, the van hopped and shook all over the place. On our way out of Ulaanbaatar, there was a paved road, but it was in such bad shape that all the cars drove on the ground next to it instead of on it. The few that did use it seemed to spend more time steering around potholes than driving forward. Most of the country, though, is crisscrossed by dirt roads. Actually, “road” might be too generous of a term. Many of them were just tire tracks through the desert, and sometimes we were even blazing our own trail. Between our slow progress and the long distances we covered, we spent about eight hours in our van each day.
Luckily, our van was somewhat comfortable and up for the challenge of the tough terrain. It was an ancient, sturdy, Russian-made beast that was easy to fix if something broke. We didn’t have anything major go wrong. At one point, the muffler was coming loose, but that was an easy fix for Gana. The van did just fine driving through rivers (which we had to do several times and some were so deep, water was seeping in through the doors), but we did get stuck in the mud once. Gana had to wade through the mud and change something on the tires to give us more traction. There was also one nasty moment when the van stalled at a crazy angle on top of a hill and we almost rolled over, but once again, Gana had it under control. (While we were all freaking out and trying to grab hold of something, Johan remained leaning back in his seat and said, “No problem.”)
We also didn’t have access to modern conveniences, like plumbing. The places we stayed at night had outhouses, but for the most part, we were taking care of all our business out in the great wilderness. At first I was nervous, but eventually looking around for a rock and squatting down behind it became the most normal thing in the world. A few times when our van stopped for pee breaks, we were surrounded by level, sandy ground with no brush or obstructions in sight. In those cases, we either went behind the van or just walked into the distance. We were able to take two showers during our nine day tour. The other days we freshened up with baby wipes.
At night we stayed with nomadic families in ger camps. The gers were quite comfortable and cozy, really. They’re made with a wood frame with canvas wrapped around. Inside there are usually about six beds along the wall and a table, chairs, and??wood burning??stove in the middle. They all had some sort of flooring, either wood or carpets. Our little group of five always had our own ger. Even though we were staying with nomads, we didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with them.
So in a lot of ways, Mongolia feels like the wild west. Besides the tire tracks and herds of domesticated camels and sheep, there are few signs of life out in the country. It’s the least densely populated independent country in the world. While we occasionally went by ger camps, we hardly ever saw other cars. The towns we came to were very strange because they were literally in the middle of nowhere. They seemed completely alien and out of place. And, again, reminded me of an old Western movie. All they needed were swinging doors and strutting sheriffs.
Up next: what we actually saw and did in the Gobi Desert.
The first leg of our train ride across the continent went very well. Our train was clean and modern and we had a whole compartment to ourselves. There were Western style toilets that flushed, soap, toilet paper, and even power plugs. I thought it was nicer than many of the hostels we’ve stayed in!
The passengers were primarily Mongolians and Westerners; we didn’t see many Chinese. My first impression of the Mongolian people was that they were quite large. The men in particular all had gigantic??beer bellies??and seemed determined to spend as much time shirtless as possible. There wasn’t room to go around them in the corridor, so someone always had to duck inside a compartment to let the other pass.
At the Chinese border we had to wait several hours while they changed the bogeys and cleared everyone through customs. The Chinese officials took our passports (which made me nervous), then one of the train workers said something that sounded like, “Shopping god,” and motioned for us to get off the train. We went inside the train station, bought water and snacks, and then discovered the door was locked when we tried to go back outside. I wanted to see them change the bogeys, but the train rolled off, presumably to change them elsewhere.
Once everything was set and they let us back on the train, it was only about fifteen minutes until we had to go through Mongolian immigration and customs. It was already after midnight by then, but at least we didn’t have to get off the train. Soldiers came in and did a quick, half-hearted search of our compartment. They took our passports away again, which still made me nervous, but we got them back without a problem. Then we finally were able to sleep.
Coming into Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we passed buildings with brightly colored roofs, giving a cheerful feeling to an otherwise bleak and rundown place. A driver from our guesthouse picked us up from the train station. In the parking lot, he had to jimmy open the door of the van with a screwdriver. The UB Guesthouse is very small and cramped, especially at breakfast time, but the owners keep it very clean and there’s hot water, so we can’t really complain. Besides, we didn’t want to spend much time in Ulaanbaatar. We were anxious to get out into the countryside for our first adventure: the Gobi Desert.
On our second visit to China, we stuck more to the big cities of the north: Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing. These were very different than our stay in the more rugged, rural south. Of course, there is plenty to see in the north of China, including some of the most iconic and historic places the country has to offer. Here are some closing thoughts on the second half of our jaunt through China.
Top three experiences?
- Visiting the Great Wall. One of the best parts of our entire trip.
- Relaxing in the city of Qingdao, my favorite city in China.
Walking along the Bund in Shanghai.
- Walking on the Great Wall
- Qingdao. With the ridiculously cheap beer, good food, and relaxed atmosphere, this was my favorite city in China.
- Olympic Park in Beijing. The Bird’s Nest is an amazing sight, and just seeing it brought back memories of the 2008 Olympics, which was a really good one. It’s getting me excited for this year’s Olympics, which we’ll be in Italy for.
Bottom three experiences?
- Getting stuck in traffic on a crowded bus in Hangzhou.
- Dealing with Chinese cab drivers. I’ve decided that, as a whole, they are terrible people.
- The usual “China annoyances,” e.g., spitting, staring, pushing, smoking, etc.
- Our first day in Hangzhou. I was excited to see West Lake, but after an hour bus ride to the west bus station, another hour standing on a city bus to get to the train station, stuck in traffic, then waiting 30 minutes at the train station to buy tickets, I was in a very bad mood. The weather was hazy and cloudy, and then it was a couple hours back to Lin’an, where the taxi drivers refused to take us across town so we had to walk.
- The big Chinese cities. They’re very noisy, crowded, and dirty. The people didn’t seem especially nice either, especially compared to the people in Yunnan.
- Public buses in cities. (See #1 above.) Knowing where the buses go is difficult, especially since there’s no English on the announcements or signs. Plus the bus stops are very far apart, sometimes about a kilometer, so it’s hard to know where the bus even stops or what route it’s taking without having taken it before.
Nikki: The donkey burgers we ate in Beijing.
Brad: At a small market in Qingdao: a tortilla-like thing with an egg, which is wrapped around chicken, spicy sauce, and lettuce. With a bag of Tsingtao beer for 25 cents. Then a pastry pocket filled with spicy chicken. And finished with a couple bite-sized cream puffs for dessert. All that for under five US dollars, both of us.
Nikki: Our chicken gristle dinner on Tai Shan.
Brad: Dinner up on Taishan. There was barely any edible meat in the chicken bones and it was very expensive. We also think the overpriced beer didn’t have any alcohol in it.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Once again we were lucky to meet so many nice people through Couchsurfing. I’ll say Sofie because she showed us the donkey burgers.
Brad: We met some really cool people in China. Since Julie was my answer for Southern China, I’d have to say Sofie and Leo who took us out to donkey burgers in Beijing.
Nikki: None that I can think of.
Brad: Nothing disastrous this time around, fortunately.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: Our hostel in Qingdao. It was older and didn’t have the nicest facilities, but it was a fun place to hang out.
Brad: Kiyuae in Qingdao. It has a good bar/restaurant, and the prices weren’t outrageous. It’s also in a perfect location.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: The hotel on the summit of Tai Shan.
Brad: Our room up on Taishan. The bathroom was disgusting. Honorable mention to the hostel in Tai’an, which was overrun by hoards of mosquitoes.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: Seeing the Bird’s Nest and the Cube from the 2008 Olympics! I loved watching the Beijing Olympics and visiting the stadiums was really cool. It was one of my favorite parts of Beijing–I can’t believe I forgot to mention it in my blog post!
Brad: Huixin took us swimming in a pond in Lin’an. The water was so fresh and clear, and the surroundings were rugged and beautiful. After Shanghai it felt great to get back to a bit of nature again.
Nikki: On one of the overnight trains, the sound of a camera woke me up. When I opened my eyes, some Chinese girl had her camera phone shoved right in my face. I gave her a “WTF?” look and she pulled the camera away, but she kept on staring at me. I’m just wondering what on earth she’s going to do with that picture. Put it in a scrapbook? “And here’s me in front of West Lake, oh and here’s a blonde girl sleeping on a train…”
Brad: The creatures on sticks in Beijing. We saw crickets, silk worms, giant spiders, scorpions still kicking, sheep penis, baby sharks, sea urchins, centipedes, and even sea horses. I didn’t see anyone actually eating this stuff, so maybe it’s just there for the tourists’ shock and spectacle.
Statistics for China, Part 2
- Days in the country: 20
- Places we stayed: 6
- Rainy days: 2
- Blog posts: 6
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 6
- Photos taken: 1,149
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 261, 23% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 3
- Hours traveling overland: 96
- Overnight trains and ferries: 3
- Yuan banknote scenes visited: 4 (¥1, 5, 20, 100)
- Distance travelled on train: 3,150km, or 1,957mi
- Subway systems used: 2
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 13
- Days on the road: 269
- Places we stayed: 123
- Rainy days: 51
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 28
- Photos taken: 12,525
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 2,934, 23% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 23
- Hours traveling overland: 555
- Overnight buses, trains, ferries, and planes: 15
- Subway systems used: 12
I always pictured Beijing as this dirty, cramped, polluted, and crowded ??jumble of a city. Basically, I thought we were going to hate it. As it turns out, I actually enjoyed the place. The tourist attractions were crowded, but the rest of the city wasn’t. It’s big in the sense that it covers a large area, but the individual neighborhoods didn’t feel imposing or intimidating. And we were there right after a big rainstorm, so it wasn’t even smoggy! (In a way, that kind of disappointed me, since all I’ve ever heard about Beijing is how terrible the pollution is. Not seeing it was like going to Seattle and not having any rain. You know you should feel lucky, but it seems like you missed out on the main experience.)
First we visited the Great Wall, which was an amazing experience and one of the highlights of our entire trip. After a lot of??hand-wringing and worrying, we decided to just go on our hostel’s tour to the Jinshanling area of the Wall. I’m so glad we did because the area was incredible, there were hardly any tourists or touts, and it would have been very stressful to try and figure out our own way there and back. The “tour” wasn’t even a tour, either, they just took us there and told us when to come back for lunch. The weather was perfect and we could see the wall winding along the mountains way off into the distance. Parts of Jinshanling have been restored and other parts are very ancient, so we got to see what it would have looked like back then, but also walk along the actual wall. If you’re thinking, “It’s just a wall, big deal,” you really have to go there and see it for yourself. It’s unbelievable.
In Beijing we saw??Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world and the site of infamous protests of 1989. Today the square is under intense security and monitoring. There are police and video cameras everywhere. Then we moved on to the Forbidden City, which was home to many emperors over the years. I couldn’t believe how big it was. I guess the name “city” should have tipped me off, but I was expecting just one large building. Instead it’s an entire complex with hundreds of buildings. We rushed through it, because it was hot and crowded, but if you wanted, you could spend all day walking around. Several days, if you were really interested.
Another day we got up very early to see the Summer Palace. There are actually two Summer Palaces in Beijing; the “old” one was destroyed by the British and the French in 1860. This is the newer one and it’s very beautiful. Most of the grounds are along the man-made Kunming Lake. You have to pay extra money to go inside some of the buildings, so we just paid the minimum and stayed in the garden areas. I liked it a lot more than the Forbidden City. After that we went to visit the Lama Temple, which we had read was one of the most beautiful Tibetan Buddhism??monasteries??in the entire country. Maybe I’m just sick of temples, but I wasn’t very impressed with this one. (There weren’t even any llamas!) They did have a 26 meter tall, rather menacing Buddha statue carved from a single piece of sandalwood. There was also an interesting collection of small Buddha statues from all over the place, so the Lama Temple did end up being a good stop.
In addition to all that, we also spent time with some very fun people. One night we met up with Sofie, a French artist that Yoshiko in Tokyo introduced us to. Sofie and her Chinese boyfriend, Leo, took us out to try donkey burgers. I was skeptical, but the donkey was actually delicious! After dinner, we ended up at a bar that was celebrating a major Russian holiday. The owner of the bar was a Frenchman who had lived in Russia for over ten years, so he was very excited when we told him that we were going there. He gave us the ins and outs of drinking in Russia (there always has to be a toast!) and, at some point, a gigantic bottle of vodka appeared. It was so big, it had one of those pumps that are like shampoo dispensers. It was hilarious.
On two other nights we met up with Julie, the girl from Florida that we went bike riding with in Dali. She is teaching in Beijing now and showed us some fun areas in town, including where the crazy street food is. We saw fried scorpions, spiders, sea horses, centipedes, and more! (And no, we did not try anything!) On our last night in China, we walked around Houhai Lake and ate hot pot for the very first time. Hot pot is pretty famous in China, so it’s kind of hard to believe we didn’t try it until the very end. The process is kind of similar to fondue; you put raw ingredients into a boiling hot water pot, then take them out when they’re done and eat them. It was really yummy and we had a lot of fun. Then on our way back to the subway station, we saw a beautiful sunset over the lake. It was a great way to end our time in China.
We found a magical city on the coast where the beer is cheaper than water and the streets are filled with delicious, cheap food. Qingdao is definitely my favorite place in China. It’s very quiet and relaxed. Drivers don’t even honk at each other all the time. Fresh draft beer from the brewery is available everywhere. There are kegs just out on the sidewalks and you can get a mug of beer or you can get it poured into a plastic bag to go. They’ll even give you a straw to drink it.
Our first two nights we couchsurfed with Sunshine, an alternative-type roller derby chick with blue hair and facial piercings. She has lived in tons of different places, including, oddly enough, Wausau, so we had fun chatting about the Midwest. There was a big market and lots of yummy little food shops very close to her apartment and she showed us her favorite spots. I’m not sure what they’re called, but Brad and I both loved these wraps where they put an egg right inside the tortilla when they make it.
Qingdao was a German colony for a short period of time, so there’s lots of interesting architecture and historic buildings to check out. The Badaguan historic neighborhood is almost all German buildings and is a very nice place to walk around. Many couples have their wedding pictures taken there. The large Catholic church with its twin red towers was under renovation, but we did go see the Protestant church. It’s pretty plain and boring on the inside, except the bell tower. We climbed up there and saw the mechanism used for running the clocks and ringing the bell.
Another part of Qingdao’s German heritage is the Tsingtao Brewery. Tsingtao is China’s most popular beer, so we decided to take a tour. They have a large museum about the history of the company and they have old photos and documents from way back when the Germans started it. There were also many old beer advertisements, which I love, and some pretty hilarious captions and explanations for the displays. They had exhibits of the old machinery and then we got to see the current machinery at work. We couldn’t believe how fast the labeling and capping machines move! There are thousands of bottles and most of the time they’re moving so fast, you can’t even see them. Crazy to think of how much beer they produce each day. It was very cool to see.
We also walked along the coast and saw some of the swimming beaches. I guess they’re pretty good for China, but nothing compared to Southeast Asia. There’s a German lighthouse out on Little Qingdao Island and a Navy museum that looks more like a junkyard for abandoned guns and ships. It was just nice to be by the ocean and get some fresh air. We ended up liking Qingdao so much that we stayed there a few days longer than we had planned. I was really starting to dread our next stop: Beijing.