“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Friday, October 17, 2014

Visa Saga: Getting a Chinese Visa if You're a US Citizen born in Taiwan

Usually I am the one with the suspect travel documents.  My old passport still had my married name on it so I would travel under that alias and not my current legal/maiden name*.  When I need an entry visa, I prefer to apply in Chicago beforehand so I'm confident I have all my travel documents in order and have time to fix any speedbumps that might appear.  So for the China portion of our next trip, we were a on our guard that we may run into an issue with F's visa.  F was born in Taiwan, moved to the US as a child, was naturalized, and is now a US citizen with a US passport.  You'd think this would be enough, but little did we realize what we were about to get into.

The first issue to arise was Danielle's passport.  When she bought her plane ticket, her passport was about to expire so she applied for a renewal and expedited the process.  She had a new passport in her hands in two weeks.  Excellent.  Then she mailed it via USPS to Carrie in Chicago (certified, signature required) at her office because Carrie was going to take care of her and Danielle's Chinese visas at the local consulate.  This is where it went off the rails.  The downtown Chicago post office lost Danielle's passport package.  Someone signed for it at the post office, but they couldn't locate the package.  We were 6 weeks from departure.  Danielle was distraught and Carrie was on a mission.  She opened a case file at the USPS.  She called daily.  The office manager at her agency said sometimes it takes a few days for packages to go from the local post office to the office buildings... sit tight, it'll come.

It didn't.  Carrie stepped up the pressure.  I don't know how the post office did it, but they found Danielle's passport a week later.  When they realized it contained time-sensitive, legal, and highly personal information, they increased their search.  Carrie was then able to get their visas.

Lesson learned: Send via FedEx or UPS.

While this was going on, I was responsible for getting my and F's visas.  When I arrived at the consulate, they accepted my paperwork.  They handed F's back to me.  No dice.  Since she was born in Taiwan, they considered her a Chinese national so we had to change her application to read original nationality as "China" and not "Taiwan".  "Taiwan is not a country.  China is."  Duly noted.  And since she was a former Chinese national, they wanted a copy of her original Chinese passport and birth certificate.  F said that she nor her parents have these anymore.  And a birth certificate was back in Taiwan.


Could F get into China??

Carrie and I were making a brief road trip to Cedar Point, so in the car we mapped out backup plans to how we could get F into China if she couldn't get an official visa.  72 hour visa waiver?  Change flights?  We had a decision tree.  We had a backup plan.  I filled F in when we returned and told her we'd start with the paperwork and tackle the hard part first: priority was getting that official entry visa!!

I combed TripAdvisor and other travel sites for others in the same position: US citizens born in Taiwan.  Over and over I read that it couldn't be done, they couldn't get a visa.  I wasn't giving up.  There HAD to be a away.  The mission for an entry visa was becoming a full-time job.  F wasn't the only person the planet in this position.  I happened upon a post by a woman who said her husband had the same predicament and was able to get a visa using alternate paperwork, expediting the application, and applying in person.

F and I got together, we combed through her documentation.  She had a copy of an endorsement stamp from her mother's Chinese/Taiwanese passport from when F was a baby, with F's Chinese birth name.  Not the entire passport or the data page, but just the stamped endorsement page.  She had her certificate of citizenship, and the legal paperwork for her name change.  The name on her endorsement match the name on her citizenship certificate which matched the name on her name change document which matched the name on her passport.  We were going to try this again.

As a precaution, we threw money at the problem to expedite the process.  We had enough time, but we wanted to give this priority in the consulate's eyes, plus it was a sign that we meant business.  Additionally, I made 6 more versions of her visa application, noting her original nationality as China and not Taiwan, and adjusting other little details.  If they said an application was incorrect, we had 5 more versions of it in our back pocket signed and ready to put on the table.  This time, F joined me at the consulate.  A sympathetic face may help.

The same gentleman that granted me my visa was at the window again when F and I stepped up days later.  I explained that we were on the same itinerary and they had given me my visa, and I couldn't go alone (white lie).  We walked him through the chain of F's paperwork, from Taiwan to the US, and through her name changes.  He asked her to pronounce her Chinese name so he could write it in Chinese characters on the application.  She was a baby when she left Taiwan so she never learned to write in Chinese.  Good thing she came along because I had no idea how to repeat her name properly.  We told him we were expediting as well, he stamped the application, handed us a receipt and told us to come back in 2 days.

One step closer!  I returned on Monday to pick up the passport and pay for it.  I nearly fell on the floor with relief.  My dad was in town visiting and I brought him with, finally jumping and cheering with joy on the sidewalk when we stepped outside.  F was able to join us in China!!

And, well, if you read the Mongolia and Beijing entries, you'll see she made it.  :)  I didn't want to write about this escapade until we had returned safely and uneventfully from China.  You never know who is monitoring the interwebs so we were playing it safe in case we were stopped/detained in China.  In, out, done.

Lessons learned: When it comes to visas, especially for notoriously strict governments, give yourself PLENTY of time.  Visit the consulate in person, if possible.  Have backup plans.  And don't give up.

* Regarding my own passport issues, my book was full upon returning from China.  Thailand is the next stop in a few months and it wouldn't fit any more stamps.  It was high time to get a new passport and change to my REAL name in the process.  I applied in late September and had it back in a couple weeks.  Well, the book as come back, now I'm waiting for them to return my old passport and supporting ORIGINAL documentation.  I requested a double book of 52 pages instead of 26, which is no extra charge.  You've all been warned, help me fill in this new book!

Beijing Day 4: 798 Art District and Hot Pot

After the a week in the wilderness, Forbidden City, Tienanmen, night market, shopping, and the Great Wall hike, I was exhausted and my knees were in pain.  It was time for Fay to return to the US the next afternoon.  She, Carrie, and Danielle decided to venture out for some more shopping then return in the late morning to finish packing.  After breakfast I climbed back into bed and relaxed with my iPad.  I didn't have the energy.  The plan was to escort Fay through the subway to the airport express train, then the remainder of us would visit the 798 Art District in the northwest of the city.  Knowing we'd be walking all afternoon, the girls went ahead of me and I rested.

Before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing only had two or three subway lines.  Now there are 15 and growing.  The stations are clean, spacious, modern, and everything is written and spoken in Mandarin and English.  Once you've ridden a subway line outside the US, they're really the same everywhere.  And at 2 Yuan, it was only a few cents to get to the airport line, which was another 25 Yuan.  We found our way easily to the line and bid our farewells to Fay.  Off she went down the escalator, out of sight... and then there were three.

Beijing is an interesting city.  Dogs don't bark.  They're well-behaved on their leashes.  Kids aren't running around, they stay near their parents and are barely heard.  We only saw two strollers all week: parents carry their children in their arms.  No diaper bags.  Beijing fashion is no fashion: If it fits, put it on.  Mixed patterns, mixed colors.  Pantyhose.  Parasols to shade from the sun.  Bikes, mopeds, and scooters.  The mix of old and new.  It was charming, adventurous, so very different from Western society.  If there was a place that was opposite of America, we were standing in it.  For the beginning of our visit, we remained in central, old Beijing.  We wanted to get out of the neighborhood and see how the rest of the city lived.

The 798 Art District was formerly an area of factories which had been converted into low-rent artist studios.  Nestled behind modern apartment buildings and suburban office complexes, the art district had an intimate feel about it.  Graffiti, public art, sidewalk cafes, galleries, shops, and ice cream stands.  Since none of the three maps we had on hand were up to date (the city is developing so rapidly), the subway stop we wanted was actually closed (or did it even exist?), so by the time we walked from the next nearest stop to the district, it was mid-afternoon and we were famished.  We had identified a cafe mentioned in the Rough Guide with rave reviews so our initial focus was to find food, then explore.

@ Cafe was just what we needed.  The outdoor patio had large umbrellas that would shield us from the rain that had been teasing us all day.  The decision was swift: we were ordering a bottle of champagne and three glasses.  And roast duck.  And pizza.  And broiled fish.  And bruschetta.  it was perfect.  The noodles and rice of recent days were delicious, but we're Americans and need variety in our lives.  We topped off lunch with a visit to the ice cream stand across the street and began exploring the district.

I loved this neighborhood.  Jewelry designers, galleries, fashion designers, wall hangings, fabrics, pottery and ceramics, and random brick-a-brack.  From one shop I ended up with three beautiful painted glass plates of different sizes, with a heavy stylized image of a pack elephant.  With plate stands, which weren't originally for sale, but EVERYTHING is for sale in China, and I walked out with the plate stands after some haggling.

The rain and a weekday had kept most people away so it was lovely to wander the alleys without the bustling crowds of central Beijing.  The rain had increased and the consensus was to take a taxi home.  This would be our first taxi ride since we had been in the city.  Rain + rush hour = not easy to hail a cab.  Those that we initially stopped didn't want to take us downtown.  Eventually after a few tries we found one.  Chinese taxis: No tipping!  The fare is also calculated by the kilometer, so when you're sitting in traffic for ages you're not worrying about racking up a steep bill.  50 Yuan back to the city center and we were still dry.  The days of rain had started to sweep the smog from the city basin and we were finally able to see the mountains that ring the metropolis.  That night we were finally able to see stars and were hopeful that the smog would be kept at bay for our final day in Beijing the next day.

The Chinese eat later in the evening than we do, around 6pm, so by the time we get hungry at 8 or 9, most restaurants are closing down.  Our options were limited.  One place that was still open was a hot pot restaurant around the corner with the most fabulously gaudy exterior and giant red paper lanterns hanging over the front parking lot.  The lot was always full of cars and people so we figured this was as good a place as any to try; crowds = good.

Oh, and was it!  Thankfully Carrie and I had done a hot pot run in Chicago's Chinatown weeks before so we were able to gauge how much food we needed and how hot pot actually worked.  Here, instead of a giant single pot, we each had individual pots.  This worked out well for Danielle who had her vegetarian pot to herself and it wasn't contaminated with our meaty goodness.  I spiced mine up quite a bit with red chili peppers.  Carrie went the Goldilocks route and her hot pot was just right.  The service was quick and efficient, and we had another round of the plum drink that we first sampled at the night market.  How do you know what to order?  And how do you eat hot pot?  Between the three of us, we picked a plate of sirloin, some fish tofu, tiny dumplings, and squid.  It was just enough, and we could have spared leftovers if we weren't forcing it down.  We also added cabbage and mushrooms.  Add red chilis and some green onion to the broth to adjust spiciness, and cook the meat thoroughly, which only takes a minute or two in the boiling soup.  Dip in sauce and enjoy!

We had one more day to go in Beijing.  The Summer Palace was definitely on the list, including a hopeful visit to the Temple of Heaven and the CCTV building.  We still hadn't had Peking duck or dim sum.  In a city this vast, we were finally sobering up to the reality that there is too much to see and eat for only 6 days.  We would see how much we could accomplish on our final day.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Beijing Day 3: The Great Wall (and Rainstorm) of China

This trip was organized around the theme of Genghis and Kublai Kahn, to see the Mongol empire at its heart, and to see it from the other side of the Great Wall in Beijing, and points in between.  All the reports of the Great Wall excursion were those of a carnival-like atmosphere at the largest tourist access points, such as Badaling.  Gondolas, toboggans, vendors, souvenirs, food carts.  On top of it, I had read so much about signing up with a tour company and being brought to other vendor points in between or gently coerced into purchases at shopping stop-offs, so I was weary of how we'd get to the Great Wall and avoid any headaches.  I wanted to feel the essence of the Great Wall without all the hoopla.  So our plan was to find a driver, a guide, and get out to the wall headache-free.

Huanghuacheng Great Wall

Once again, TripAdvisor delivered and we found a guide and driver.  It was [again] drizzling in the morning but we hoped the weather would hold out at the wall for our hike.  Joe our guide met us at our hotel and we had a 2 hour drive ahead of us through some rush our traffic and more rain.  It was a comfortable ride, glad to have a private minivan to ourselves.  Fay and Carrie nodded off in the backseat and eventually I did, too.  It was an uneventful ride, and after another hour of winding through hairpin turns, our driver dropped us at the side of a road with some small signage above a path.  Our plan was to hike the Huanghuacheng section of the wall, which was reportedly away from any tourists.  This was indeed true.  The "entrance" to the wall was from the roadside path, up to someone's house, where we walked around to the back and up a small but steep path to the wall.

It was already beautiful as we stood at the top of a hill on the wall, looking down at a reservoir, dam, and small town.  We could see the wall stretching out before and behind us.  Aside from a couple of Chinese male tourists making their way down off the wall ("Take a picture with us!"), there was no one else in sight.  This was perfect.  Exactly what we wanted.  Us and the Wall.

The hike up to the wall was steep, no lie.  Carrie and I took our time going up and I took a preventative hit from my inhaler.  I haven't needed it yet in the Beijing smog (which was still present up here at Huanghuacheng), thank god.  Note, I had been pretty worried about the level of smog in the city and how my asthma would react to it.  The smog was just as bad what I'd heard and pictures I'd see.  My doctor advised me to wear a mask daily and take Prednisone when needed.  I didn't do either and was fine all week, so I hope this was because my daily inhaler was managing my condition well.

It is a steep wall.  I recommend hiking shoes.  The grip was necessary.  Heck, sometimes even walking backward up the wall was helpful, using other muscles.  We spent hours on the wall, 4 in total.  We anticipated a 3-4 hour walk so I was glad that we weren't slowing Joe down.  Between the 5 of us, we alternated rhythm and position, sometimes not consciously... at times I wanted to take my time and be in back, at times I would get into a hiking/breathing rhythm on inclines and didn't look down, choosing to stay in the rhythm in whatever position I was in.  For anyone that was taking more time to reach a rest point, it wasn't an issue because someone else would rest and take in a snack.  We were all moving at a perfectly fine pace and I'm glad we didn't feel rushed.  This was no place for a competition.

The wall was crumbling, at times we almost couldn't tell if we were even ON it.  Sections were overgrown with shrubbery and decades of silt.  Where we first entered the wall, it was generally restored, but deteriorated quickly once we were well off the road where we started.  At one point we had to climb off the wall and follow a path alongside it because it was too risky to remain on it.  Ancient stones were slippery from the smog/fog combo... there were few level places to walk, our legs were hit by branches, our footing uncertain, so a guard tower every few hundred feet was welcome.

I was fascinated by the construction of these parapets, built with random uncut stones placed as the inner fill wall, and finished stones with mortar creating the facade and inner walls.  Few keystones were used, only slivers of a keystone present in places with arches inside the towers.  Some towers had roofs that were accessible from inner stairwells.  Some were ruined nearly beyond recognition.  In many places, Chinese graffiti littered the walls.  The Ming dynasty section of this wall had a stone plaque mounted, written in ancient script, detailing the number of soldiers, length of time, and commanders in charge of building that section of wall.

It was truly beautiful, standing atop the wall, greenery blanketing the mountains around us, the wall stretching out and tracing the ridge tops in two directions.  We were alone with the Wall... then save the four European travelers we encountered in another section... they climbed ahead of us, then stopped where we finally did, and followed us and Joe down the mountain.  Having a guide wasn't a bad idea, and they used ours for a bit.  They were taking a bus or taxi back to Beijing, so we were thankful once again for hiring a car that would be waiting for us at the bottom of the wall.

The four hour hike came to an end where the wall jaggedly wound down a very steep mountainside and fell off into another lake and dam.  From here, we walked down the mountainside along another pebble-ridden path that had a few of us on our rear ends at least once.  Walking down mountains always seems to be just as difficult walking up them, as experience told us from Huayna Picchu.  It was like holding a squat for 40 minutes.  What propelled us along was the prospect of lunch at the end.

It was a small village, a roadside restaurant with just the owners inside.  We collapsed into chairs on
Best meal of the trip.
the patio outside, under an umbrella, when the rain started again.  We didn't care.  The hike was over and the rain held off until we were done.  And lunch... lunch was... This was my favorite meal of the trip.  Joe ordered for the table, dishes arrived, and were placed on the lazy susan in the middle.  Fried potato slices inside spicy boiling oil, cabbage with sesame oil with a side of red bean dipping sauce, sweet and sour pork, stewed tomatoes with egg, another pork dish, green beans with spicy red pepper chilis (my favorite), steamed rice, hot tea, and cold Coke.  I was famished.  It was 3pm and we hadn't eaten since breakfast, and I hadn't really eaten much in quantity since this entire trip started.  This time, I couldn't keep my chopsticks out of the plates.  I had seconds of rice to finish off one of the pork dishes.  The spicy red chilis with the green beans were like candy.  I used to be a spicy wuss years ago, but Thailand started to adjust me to a spicy meal, and this time I wasn't disappointed, nor did I find the food outrageously spicy.  Just happily spicy enough.

...Aaand.... it kept raining.  A formidable deluge once we made it back to the city.  Central Beijing doesn't have any drainage system, so the streets turn into rivers.  There's no real way to fight it.  If you can't beat it, join it.  One woman had.  We saw her riding down the street on her bike in a bathing suit... complete with swim cap.

China certainly has its share of quirkiness to the Western eye.  I'll delve more into that in a future entry, but note that it includes squirrels on leashes and tridents.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Beijing Day 2: The Forbidden City and Tienamen Square

We went halfway around the world to find out.. we were the tourist attraction.  Many a time we found people taking pictures of us, next to us, and even WITH us.  As a traveler who prefers to blend in, this made me very uncomfortable to stand out.  I didn't feel this amount of attention in Mongolia, Thailand, or Cambodia, so I wonder why in China... It took about a day until I noticed it, when it became obvious in The Forbidden City.

The tourist capital of China.  The seat of government.  Forbidden City, Great Wall.  I imagine it's like the Washington DC of the East, with citizens making a pilgrimage from far and wide to see their nation's capital.  At first I was tentative of walking around with my camera out, but soon realized that 1) I cannot blend in here, and 2) Everyone else also had their cameras out.  We were all tourists together.

The day began with The Forbidden City, on which we went on a Sunday.  We entered from the east Tienamen entrance with four metal detectors and bag scanners.  It was the only way to get into the Forbidden City and Tienamen, and I would hope there would also be an entrance on the west side opposite us, as well.  Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds it was, about 10am on a Sunday morning, a weekend, so it was thick, crammed into a barrier corridor.  Don't get anxious of impatient, the shoving and tightness of the crowd is normal, so just go with the flow and don't worry about apologies.

Also known as the Imperial Palace, it is vast.  Once inside, perhaps veer to the left or right to get around the
crowds, then double back at the end of the day when crowds are thinner to see some of the marvelous central buildings.  The day was almost sunny.  That is, we saw apparitions of the sun through some thinning fog.  Perhaps it was the rain that had started to part the blurring smog.  The level of smog was just as I had seen the pictures, but seeing it for my own eyes was almost beyond belief.  I thought I could just come to accept it, but after the next few days of seeing peeks of the sun and clear skies, within only days I could fully appreciate clearer air.

Visions of Peter O'Toole overseeing a tennis match between Puyi and his wives had flashed through my heads, references to The Last Emperor filling in the holes of my guidebook.  It was worth dashing into some of the side buildings that housed small museum collections, if not for the fine art, but for the air conditioning and a break from the throngs outside.  Through the alleys we roamed, taking more peeks around corners than we did covering every inch of the palace.  We had already been there two hours and had already started to feel the exhaustion of the walk to the City, the security line, ticket line, more gates and lines, and the heat.  Highly advised to tuck a snack into your bag with a bottle of two or water.  Thankfully there were plenty of tiny concession stands inside and we took a well-deserved ice cream break from a vendor.

A few important notes about The Forbidden City:

  • The gardens by the north gate are worth spending quality time
  • You cannot exit through the south gate
  • Once you have exited, you have to go back around to the south gate, back through the security line
  • The same security line is also necessary to enter Tienamen (so perhaps visit here first, then Forbidden City), or even to get back to the FC gift shop
  • The east gate doesn't exit through a gift shop.  And here I thought the Chinese government was embracing capitalism.

By the time we were done with the Forbidden City, it was well past lunch and we tucked into a small restaurant a good block south of the east gate.  We tended to look for places that appeared to have a picture menu so we could point at what we wanted.  The interesting part of this is that one of our party is a vegetarian, so we sure hoped that whatever she ordered was at least tofu and not mystery meat.  Lunch was cheap (about 25Y each), tasty, and even a little stray kitten wandered in and pranced about with discarded napkins and dangling shoelaces.

A couple of us had thoughts of tackling the Temple of Heaven after visiting Tienamen - after just leaving the Forbidden City - but as we nursed our aching feet under the lunch table, visions of a third sight to see started to drift away.  We had just enough energy in us to visit Tienamen... well, I don't think even all of us wanted to go that far.  But listen... we were already south.  It was just one last thing.  It was still the afternoon and a few hours until dinner.  We could just squeeze in the public square, walk home, and still be able to rest a while before figuring out dinner plans.  I know, it sounds like a long day by anyone's standards, and it was... but push on because lord only knows if/when we'd be back.  I felt I should see Tienamen for myself, a sort of personal responsibility to bear witness to a glance into the past.

To get into Tienamen, one has to go back through security then underground through tunnels to surface within the square.  Signage isn't entirely clear, so if you're heading to the square, don't follow the "Exit" signs.  Those are real exits, not exits from the tunnels.  If you exit, you have to back through security underground.

So, yeah, we learned that the hard way.

Frustrations behind us, we surfaced opposite the portrait of Mao across the street, standing in the infamous Tienamen Square.  And honestly, it was eerie.  Perhaps we all had our own pensive moments.  Thinking back of what happened here 25 years ago.  Quietly we spoke together about what did happen, in so few words, and contemplating that an entire generation of Chinese citizens exists right now that has no idea what took place those weeks in 1989.

On return to the hotel, Fay smartly hopped into bed for a nap as the rest of us propped our feet up on a small table while nursing some cold beers and updating Instagram.  The skies opened up again with rain.  Happily it held off through the day and we were safely back at the hotel - DRY - and exhausted as we were, decided to eat in the small restaurant on the premises.  It was acceptable, and inexpensive, and steps from the front door.  The next day ahead would be the hike on the Great Wall so I think we were all happy not to venture far and take it easy for the evening.  Perhaps the rain was a blessing in disguise.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Beijing Day 1: Jingshan Park and Night Market Food Tour

Hutong by our hotel
Part Two of the trip was about to begin, from Mongolia to China.  I was looking forward to Beijing after spending a week sleeping in tents or gers, at least we'd have a hotel room, bed, linens, and a shower.  Our hotel was tucked away in a hutong in a traditional Chinese courtyard-style setting by Jingshan Park.  After meeting Danielle and Carrie at the airport in Bejing, we rode together to the hotel and formulated a plan for the next day.  They would likely still be acclimating to the time change so we figured we'd go easy, get a feel for the neighborhood and take it easy before our night market food tour.
Jingshan Park pagoda

First stop was Jingshan Park since it was just across the street and only 2Y entry.  We initially had thought the day was overcast or that our contacts were dirty, but we soon discovered that it was smog.  It was a lovely warm day and a bit nice not to have the hot sun beating down on us, but a bit disconcerting to know that we were staring through smog and not fog, since the atmosphere lacked humidity yet was still hazy.

Jingshan Park
What was immediately noticeable was that it seemed Everyone in Beijing was out for the day.  It was Saturday, and the park was packed with revelers.  People dancing tango in one corner, others playing instruments while women danced.  Hackey sack, table tennis, singing, and other activities were taking place.  I've never seen a park so full of people just enjoying themselves and each other.  Even parks in Chicago people just walk around, lie in the sun, or picnic.  In Beijing, people were busy DOING things, active things.  No children running about yelling, but mostly adults recreating.  It was lovely.

We mounted steps to the top hill in the park that overlooked the Forbidden City and the whole of Beijing.  Again the smog was a presence, but it did give us our bearings on direction and distance.  Danielle and I would be the main wayfinders so we were glad to be up high to get a lay of the land.  As we left the park and walked north to explore more, we passed what appeared to be a playground, but was full of middle-aged and elder adults exercising on various machines, and every table tennis station was occupied.  This was a week-long trend, to see adults exercising every day.
Forbidden City view from Jingshan Park... and the smog.

Next on the list was lunch at Mr Shi's Dumplings, nestled in a hutong up north.  We finally found it, but the majority of patrons inside were Westerners.  The walls were drawn upon by other visitors from around the world.  I would like to think that in a city as large as Beijing we could find a perfectly fine dumpling shop that wasn't full of tourists, but the dumplings were good just the same.  I was a big fan of the fried mutton dumplings.  The smoked tofu salad I could do without.  As a matter of fact, I could do without any kind of tofu salad.  I don't mind it in miso soup or hot pot, but I have limits (foreshadowing: apparently sheep testicles are perfectly fine, but I had my fill of tofu).

The roads to and from the dumpling shop was full of small shops we so stopped in a few of them to see what piqued our interest... the silk shop was a hit, but as an American size 8, a Chinese 2XL was still too small for me.  I practically laughed myself out of the dressing room.  I had to come to the conclusion that shopping for clothes in Beijing was going to be a challenge, but I easily settled on a few pairs of shoes.  Also distracting us from our hunt for dumplings was my curiosity of street food, so we also made a stop at a shop front selling cheese-stuffed fried chicken (under-cooked, but I survived), and Danielle ordered fried squid balls.  These were delish.

Hutong shopping
We quickly passed by the Drum and Bell Towers but learned they were closed for renovation through October, so a peek through the gates sufficed.  We still had plenty of time before our evening food tour, so more shopping was at hand!  We didn't have a mapped plan of where we'd go, just in the direction of our hotel, when an archway into a very crowded hutong attracted our attention.  It was a pedestrian street full of shops of all sorts.  I was in haggling heaven.  As we roamed about, I remembered on the map that perhaps we were in the area of a lake and nightclub district.  An obligatory Starbucks stop was made when one was spotted, and we enjoyed a walk around Qianhai Lake, noting all the restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that lined the neighborhood with rooftop seating, karaoke, and hookah bars.  We made a mental note that we should come back one evening to enjoy a few cocktails... spoiler: it rained every other night and we never made it back.

Sure enough, down another side alley, a large lake made its presence known.  Throngs of people walked along the lakeside, took pictures, paddled boats, rode bikes, and snacked on food on sticks, enjoying the lovely Saturday afternoon.  Street food curiosity struck again when I ordered something from a stall, which turned out to be balls of chopped octopus in an egg batter, topped with eel sauce and fish flakes.  It wasn't half bad.  Better than the cheesy chicken.

Qianhai Lake
After a bit of rest at our hotel, our night market food tour was to begin.  One lesson we learned from Istanbul was to schedule a food tour at the start of vacation instead of at the end.  This way we can identify what we like immediately and have the rest of the trip to enjoy what we learn.  And this is exactly how it turned out, perfectly.  We were to meet in the Wangfujing shopping section of the city, which was less than an hour walk from Jingshan and pretty easy to find.  Tiny alleyway shops of the hutongs were replaced with the glittering neon signs of Chanel, Prada, and Hermes, with Zara and H&M thrown in.  Knock-off shops these were not, it was Times Square-esque in its flashiness.  And it felt a little bit like home.

I love me a good night market.  The Food!  Oh, the glorious food.  Such an adventure.  We met Mao, our guide, and he walked us through the Wangfujing Night Market and the Donghuamen Night Market.  The former was tucked away in some small alleys off to the side of the pedestrian Wangfujing stopping street.  We hadn't met a single Chinese person all week who had ever tried a scorpion on a stick; I'm convinced they're only there for the photo op and novelty.  First, to drink, which I loved, was a sort of plum juice in a short, stout bottle.  Then we moved on to the food: lamb skewers with red chilis, (a staple of the Muslim Uighur community from northwest China, now a popular street food item), grilled squid on a stick (yum!), dumplings, triple spicy meatballs (and fish balls, loved the spiciness but it wasn't overwhelming), stinky tofu (not as stinky and foul as I'd heard about on TV), cold spicy Sichuan noodles (my favorite), candied fruit, pineapple rice (reminded me of mango sticky rice), jackfruit, vodka made from sorghum, and sheep testicles.  Now, Carrie and I are adventurous eaters.  When Mao suggested these, she and I were completely on board, and he had to ask a couple times because he thought we were joking.  But really, they were good.  Not my favorite of the night, but perfectly acceptable.  They were a bit heavy on the iron flavor of other organ meats, but just fine.  
Scorpions on a stick

Lamb skewers

Wangfujing Night Market

Calling for patrons

Bubbly drink with dry ice

Soup with a tentacled creature that seemed a favorite

Donghuamen Night Market


More lovely food on a stick

Sheep testicles. A bit irony, but good.


Even the locals enjoying the night market

Extra spicy foodstuffs on a stick.  Delish.

Centipedes, snakes, silkworms, and other delicacies.

Pineapple rice

Carrie wrote more detail about our foods on her blog, so for more info...
The tour came to an end, and it was still a pleasant night, until we felt a drizzle.  Should we take a taxi home?  It wasn't a far walk.  But I was uncertain how taxis worked here and if we were easy marks for a scam (see also: Bangkok and Buenos Aires).  Eh, we'd walk.  I had a rain jacket, Fay had a poncho, and Danielle and Carrie shared an umbrella.


Until we needed an ark.  Oh how the skies opened up.  Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did.  I was starting to get concerned for the camera in my bag, which was water resistant, but not waterproof.  Every shop we passed, I glanced into for umbrellas.  I finally found one and ducked inside to inquire.  45Y for an umbrella??  Phooey, we were already soaked.  I'd take 2 for 30Y and call it a night.  The lady agreed and I handed one over to Danielle.  We were already halfway back to the hotel.  But did we get washed.  Bathed.  Soaked.  There is no drainage in central Beijing, so the streets were flooded with at least 6" of water.  Down the water gushed out of the alleyways into the main streets.  Puddles with nowhere to flow to.  Fay and I had Crocs and flip-flops so walking through small seas wasn't an issue, but poor Carrie and Danielle were wearing legit shoes that I'm pretty sure took 3 days to dry out.  Fay struck gold with her Maid of the Mist poncho that I toted along from last year's visit to Niagara.  She was dry.  On the bright side (?), it was a warm night, the rain wasn't cold, there was no traffic and no people in our way, and we were safe.  Mao had said that Beijing was safe to walk around at night: the penalty for owning a gun was death, only police carried guns, and women should feel perfectly safe.  And in a practical monsoon, taking a dive off a curb into a makeshift river would be the most of our worries.

We can laugh about it now.  Little did we know that it would rain every night for the next 3 nights... but the rain always held off until we were done with our daily activities.  So, y'know, there's that.  A good first day in Beijing overall.  We'd need our beauty rest, for the next day we were headed for a long day of sightseeing at The Forbidden City and Tienamen Square.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Mongolia Day 5: The Hills are Alive

Two years ago Galdan was in a serious car accident.  His car rolled 25 meters and he flew through the windsheild.  His tailbone shattered.  The doctors couldn't even put steel rods in to stabilize him because of the numerous fractures.  He spent $10,000 and a year the hospital to heal.  I said he was lucky to be alive.  He said, "Lucky? I'll live to be 100!"

He lost his driver license as a result of the accident, but he can still ride a horse.  This is how he makes his living.  Last night he found us a place to make camp, and this morning started a large warm fire in the chill of the mountain shadow.  The sun was peeking over the mountain tops and mist was rising.  The distant valley was full of fog.  But the sky was clear and it was going to be a beautiful day.

I wasn't as sore this morning as I had anticipated.  We rode off up the mountain through the pine forest.  We were barely an hour into the ride when my left knee was in excruciating pain.  The old skiing injury left it vulnerable and this was a more inopportune time to happen.  The angle of the leg when riding a horse is such that my knee feels as though it is twisted.  So I couldn't trot with the horse without more pain.  We rested at the top of the mountains where I could take some Tylenol and gave some to Galdan for his back, which still can bother him as a result of the accident.  

But what a view.  It was the best view of the trek.  On the mountaintop we stood, overlooking the valley with the river running through, and forested mountain peaks as far as we could see, perhaps a 100 miles. Gers dotted the landscape and horses grazed below us.  Fay and I twirled like Maria VonTrapp. She picked wildflowers and we laid them atop a pile of rocks where other travelers had passed.  

We walked the horses down the mountainside and headed for the river which was another hour's ride.  Flies were abundant and the horses were feisty with itchiness.  They were tough to control and it made for a challenging ride.  The sky was blue and the sun shining warm on our shoulders.  We couldn't have asked for a better day.  Lunch was a welcome relief by the riverside.  

It was the final stretch home.  Or Geldan's home, that is.  Another hour ahead of us, and we broke into song... Oldies, goodies, Spice Girls, Michael Jackson, BeeGees, on we went, delirious.  Wind in our hair and song in our hearts.  Okay, a bit sappy, but we were happy.  Tonight we would be spending the night in the ger from two evenings ago.  And so here we are... Our final night.  We made it.  Tomorrow we have a couple sights to see in the morning then we end at the hotel in the afternoon.  

Once we made it back to the ger, Fay, Eku, and I walked into town.  I was craving a cold Coke.  The mini market only had cold beer, but room temperature Coke and bottled water would do just fine.  We crossed some makeshift bridges and made a stop to soak our feet in the river.  I couldn't resist rinsing my arms.  We were sweaty and hot from hours in the sun, and the cold clear mountain water was a welcome relief.  Cold water on my feet... Which surprisingly didn't hurt after the 5 days of activity we've had.  This is my ode to my Merrill trekking shoes.  I learned a lesson from the book Wild (I hear Reese Witherspoon is starring in the upcoming movie). Buy hiking shoes a half or full size larger.  It was necessary.  And blessed... Mud, water, rocks, tall grass, heat, you name it, my feet stayed comfortable, dry, and free of blisters.  Yay!  Along with my backpack, I love these two purchases. 

Randomly, did you know that horses lay down when they sleep?  I didn't.  

Fay's horse took the lead again today, she was merely the passenger.  Her horse was grey with a black mane.  She was wearing a grey sweatshirt and has black hair.  They matched.  Poor Fay, though, kept trying to make her horse go faster and catch up with the group but it preferred to lag behind.  Tchoo! Tchoo! (Go! Go!) she repeated and finally resorted to slapping the horse's ass to make it move.  By the end of the day her right hand was filthy from spanking a dirty horse.  Take that as you will.  We had some good laughs over it. 

At any rate, tonight we rest.  Eku is making our final meal and I can't wait to start up a fire and relax.  We've been talking about where to eat in UB when we get back.  After a shower and some relaxation, of course.  Tse Pub, perhaps, a cold drink and some pub grub sounds delightful. 

Mongolia Day 6: The Final Days

late start was had on our last day in Terelj and we were already tired of living outside.  We were eager to get to the hotel in the afternoon.  It would be a relatively easy day, with our first stop at Turtle Rock in Terelj on the way to UB.  The rock was a massive boulder in the shape of a turtle - representing longevity - standing alone in a valley surrounded by rocky cliffs.  It had to be at least 15 stories high.  We climbed up the back of it, into crevices and sat overlooking the valley.  Below lay a village and a children's summer camp.  Another beautiful day of clear, sunny skies.  

Our final lunch was alongside a brook before we headed to UB. The drive was uneventful, through small towns and industrial areas in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. We took a left turn south of the city which appeared to be newly-constructed and a bypass around downtown.  It was the nicest road we had been on all week.  Soon we found out why.  A massive iron fence with decorative painted stone pillars enclosed an estate in a valley full of evergreens.  Through the trees we spied a complex: the president's palace.  Lucky dude had brand new roads paved right up to his front door. 

The Ramada in the city center was a sight for sore eyes.  One of the nicest in the city, although it is showing some age.  Regardless, the beds were soft, the linens fresh, and outfitted with robes and a Japanese toilet to boot.  I may have taken the the longest shower of my life and scrubbed a few layers of skin off.  We were going to meet Eku and his friend for drinks later so Fay and I first went to a neighboring shopping center where I picked up some nicer shoes than just my flip-flops for the evening, then a quick stop at the grocery for additional supplies.  

Dinner was nice and basic, some sheep and beef skewers with rice, and also a sheep patty with fried egg and sauce.  I loved that dish the best.  We polished off a round of drinks and a bottle of wine, then capped it off with another round at a nearby jazz club where we sat outside in the warm summer breeze.  We were exhausted then crashed in our hotel.

Oh what a fabulous sleep.  Fay was dreaming that she was still fighting with her sleeping bag and forgot where she was when she woke up.  I slept like the dead.  And woke up with a hangover headache.  Breakfast was free and possibly, definitely, the best free hotel breakfast EVER.  The selection was enormous, from dumplings to traditional American breakfast foods, to Chinese and Japanese, salads, soups, breads, meats, cheeses, on and on and on.  We both made numerous trips back to the buffet.  A nap was in order afterward before we had to check out and head to the airport. 

We needed that one day to do just nothing, nothing at all.  Nothing in the luxury of a hotel.  We actually wanted to stay another night because the bedding was so comfortable and the breakfast amazing.  It has been a tough week.  A tough, amazing, adventurous week.  It tested both of our limits.  We are ready for the comforts of modern civilization. Onward we move to the other side of the Great Wall.

But we did it.  We made it.  Through the tough moments and the laughs.  Through the cold and the heat of the evening fire.  Through sunrises and sunsets.  And throughout the vast green landscapes.  A truly amazing country, indeed.  Not for the faint of heart, but for the strength of the soul.  We made it.

Mongolia Day 4: This is "Roughing It"

Doing the laundry in the river.  Dipping a tin pot into the river to boil and use for tea dinner.  Setting off to find a place to camp.  Bug spray.  No shower.  Using the resources at our disposal to make do... Washing up, airing out, keeping warm.  Fay has been good at gathering firewood; she sets off immediately to find good, dry timber.  Today I helped Eku set up the tent in the rain.  He's been making hearty, delicious meals every night.  The kid is young but has skills.  He might be about 23. This is his third year with Tseren as a guide.  He's a movie buff.  I think he's seen All of the Movies, which is impressive since he's never left Mongolia.  We talk about movies and The Simpsons and Family Guy. 

Today began our horse trek.  We had two pack horses.  Fay rode the same horse as yesterday. I rode a beautiful tan horse which is much more responsive and has been good for my skill level.  Very easy to ride up to a trot and loves being at the head of the pack.  I'm glad we took some lessons before we went, but the style of riding here is much different and the horses are trained differently.  The reins are held in one hand and the commands and body language also differ.  But it was good practice for balance and basic skills.  Fay said she thinks her horse is riding HER.  It follows along and randomly trots when it feels like it.  They seem suited to each other.

What a fantastic feeling, being in the open valley surrounded by evergreens and winding rivers.  At times we'd run ahead with the wind in our hair, riding openly in the wilderness.  THIS is riding, not some nancy trail back home with one horse behind another.  There is a degree of paying attention, guiding the horse through bogs, around rocks, under trees, through herds of cattle and sheep.  Then trying to keep the horse going when it wants to stop for a snack.  Eku's horse is feisty, a former racehorse that sometimes just takes off in a zip with him on the back.  His hands are red from pulling on the reins and I wonder how long until they're raw.  But he seems a tough kid.  Geldan is funny... One of the pack horses has some serious gas, and he likes to point to someone and blame it on them.  He was kind enough to carry my camera under his jacket so it wouldn't get damaged on the pack horses, and so I could ride openly.  He is weathered from the countryside and his life as a guide.  I enjoyed riding alongside him as he sang Mongolian songs.

We passed other tourists along the way, really the first ones we've seen days.  They were taking pictures of us and we waved back.  Geldan always greeted everyone we passed.  We saw other tourists riding past yelling Allez! as the horses galloped past.  It's been raining on and off all day, but only when we stop for rest.  I'm at least glad it hasn't rained while we've been riding else our pants would have been more damp than they already are.  Speaking of pants, by the time this week is over, these jeans will be able to stand on their own.  I'm doing an entire load of laundry when we get to Beijing.  My knee is sore from the ride, my inner thighs tender, and my calves bruised from the stirrup straps, but not in nearly as much pain or ache as I had anticipated.  But let's see what tune I'm singing in the morning. 

First, I'm glad we brought half chaps.  Geldan gave us a smile and a thumbs-up when he saw them on us.  Eku also donned a pair with his boots.  Geldan has the original Uggs, really.  Leather boots with wool lining and toes pointed and turned up with Mongolian markings on the calves.  I'm also grateful I brought a rain jacket, as bright yellow as it is.  So thank you, Nat Geo Channel, for the Wicked Tuna raincoat.  I'm not entirely sure I'd wear it often in Chicago but here it's godsent.  And thank GOD for the gloves that I brought, which I first used when I learned to ride a motorcycle, and now are doubling as riding gloves.  Yes, I have a lot of Things, but they've all been useful. 

This is tough. This is a mentally and physical tough trip.  It's the most adventurous I've ever done and definitely not for everyone.  Fay is holding up incredibly well considering she's never been camping.  And good lord, I'm not sure she was certain what she signed up for.  If she had known the details, she may not have come.  I purposefully didn't want to know the details because I didn't want to set any expectations.  But I knew we'd be camping.  It didn't phase me.  

Last night was spent in the ger and I slept reasonably well.  We built a nice fire in the stove also this morning.  Tonight we're back in the tent.  There are no cots.  We sleep on a thin pad with two sleeping bags.  Third thing I'm grateful for is bringing my sleep sheet/sleeping bag liner.  It's clean and it's mine so I feel a bit of comfort.  I also have a small travel pillow that I brought along with a fuzzy blanket tucked inside which I'll use tonight for more warmth. It is very cold at night.  I could have been more prepared, but I'm far more prepared than I expected so I'm faring okay.  But oh how I dream of a hotel at the end of this.  And a 30 minute shower.  And a clean toilet.  ANY toilet.  

Two things keep running through my head: Dances With Wolves and Long Way Round.  Like Dances with Wolves, we had a pack of dogs follow us out of camp, then a couple hours later another pack followed us for about an hour.  Like Two Socks the wild wolf.  In Long Way Round, Ewan MacGregor and his best friend Charlie Boarman ride motorcycles across Europe and Asia, my favorite reality program.  They found Mongolia to be one of the most difficult stretches of the journey.  They considered giving up but found the country so beautiful that they wanted to conquer the trip and push on.  So they did.

And so do we.  I chose this trip for many reasons.  One of them is that I knew it would be hard, but lately I have enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment I get after facing a hardship.  Overcoming fear and comfort has been my latest journey the past few years.  This is yet another.  It puts my first world city life in perspective, when things get rough, I can look at the time I spent here, sitting in this tent with the rain tapping at the roof, muscles aching, sticky with bug spray, and know that I can overcome almost anything. 

Today's entry can be summed up in two beautiful little passing moments.  First was Fay on her horse, yelling out MONGOLIA!!  And the other was Eku exclaiming to me, "I love my mother country!!"

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mongolia Day 3: The Real Adventure Just Began

Terelj National Park was only a hour away on mostly paved roads, along which we passed a few army bases and a military radar station.  As well as a Kazakh cemetery and Buddhist cemetery with a massive golden Buddha near then entrance.  We passed yaks, falcons, a Bactrian camel, Mongolian restaurants inside gers, and toll booths.  Into the park we headed As the landscape changed to more mountains with smooth boulders, rock faces, and more evergreens.  

Just outside a village we had to cross a river, but stopped just on the riverbed where we saw a car stuck that had also tried to cross.  A family had waded to shore, and the father was still at the wheel, door open, and water filling the inside.  We all hopped out of our vehicle and Achiro and Eku leaped into action.  Achiro our driver turned our van around, backed into the river, and undid the tow line.  I stood on shore and took a selfie with one of the girls who was wearing a Yankees cap, with me in my Cubs visor.  The men of the group (including Geldan, who turned out to be our horse guide for the upcoming trek) rolled up their jeans, waded into the river, and tried to find a way to attach the tow line to the other car.  Surprisingly the engine wasn't entirely washed out so they attached the line under the front bumper, and Achiro towed the car back to shore, everyone cheering and clapping. When they opened the car doors, water flooded out to the ground, the entire inside soaked through.  We were able to cross the river in our van with no consequence.  And this was just the morning. For reference, the car was a Toyota, and our van was a Mitsubishi. 

We would next make camp for the night in a ger of our own.  Inside we have 4 beds, a small table, and a little wood burning stove in the middle with a pipe through the roof.  These gers can be assembled and disassembled in under 2 hours, as we had seen some families do this morning so they could move into the mountains for the winter.  The mountains offer protection from the cold winds, then they move into the valleys in the summer for their animals to graze. There are no nails used in the construction: some of the joints are either pegs, or hinges made out of horse hide, which is incredibly tough and durable.

After settling in we walked over to Geldan's family ger to say hello.  In this country it is perfectly acceptable to walk up to a home and invite yourself in for a visit, even to a stranger.  Inside were two young teen girls and one teen boy.  They offered us milk tea, which is twice-boiled milk.  In this case, cow's milk.  It was homemade, unpasteurized, and delicious, just like warming up milk before bedtime.  I'm curious what this will do to my digestive system, but no maladies to report as of yet. They had three beds, two chests, a desk with a small computer and stereo, and a light bulb, all hooked up to a car battery. They also had a small solar panel outside near the kitchen tent for supplemental power.  

The young boy invited us out to a ride on the family horses, so this was our chance to practice for the next few days of riding.  Southward we rode for a couple hours with our little teenage friend, who looked to be about 9 but was actually 13, and had been riding his horse since he was 5. He was a chatterbox.  Adorable.  It took Fay and I a little while to get acquainted with our horses, meaning, just to get them to GO.  We got them up to a trot a few times but couldn't sustain it.  The weather was gorgeous, the sun warm but not oppressive, the breeze gentle, and the countryside peaceful.  On the way back we were all getting more comfortable in the saddle and with each other so we began singing songs... Old classics, The Beatles, modern songs, mostly out of tune.  We rode over hills, through rivers, and under low-hanging branches.  When we returned to Geldan's ger and hopped off the horse, my legs felt like spaghetti.  That was just two hours.  We have three days of riding ahead of us.  

Geldan's wife had returned home and invited us inside for a snack.  We didn't turn down her hospitality and went inside to find more children.  Some were Geldan's and some were just "neighborhood" kids.  The youngest was an adorable boy of about 5.  The milk tea was served in bowls and they offered us bread and orom, which was the consistency of butter.  I had a sense that we were in surreal surroundings, yet at the same time felt completely normal and comfortable.  

Geldan's son, the eldest with us on the ride, had been kicked by a bull a couple weeks ago and his knee was very swollen and he had difficulty walking (yet apparently no problem happily riding  a horse).  Geldan asked Eku if he had a bandage, so Fay and I rummaged through our supplies.  Between the two of us we were able to flush the wound out with hydrogen peroxide, clean with an alcohol wipe, and apply bacitracin to a tough bandaid. He winced as the peroxide bubbled in the wound, but I gently blew on it as I told him what I was doing and Eku translated. He was a good sport.  We believe his mother will finally bring him into town to see a doctor tomorrow.  I hope his knee will be fine again soon enough to play basketball again... Which seems to be the national pastime here.  Outside nearly every ger and inside every village is a basketball court. Eku knows more about the NBA than anyone I've met.  

Night is upon us and we're in our own ger now with the wood stove glowing red.  We have firm beds but are happy to be less exposed to the elements.  Tomorrow we begin our horse trek up into the mountains.  Every day is better than the day before.  We are roughing it for sure, but I love the simplicity and I'm so glad that Fay is just as adventurous and having a marvelous time.  Although I won't deny I will bask in the four-star luxury of the Ramada at the end of the week.  For the time being, we are feeling Mongolia through and through.  

Mongolia Day 2: A Road is an Opinion

The air is fragrant with the scent of juniper and eucalyptus.  The air chills quickly when the sun sets.  Dinner was beef noodle stew, the beef so tender and, well, beefy as it should be, since cows here actually eat grass.  Free range, roaming, pasture-fed beef.  Every animal around me has the potential to be dinner.  It was welcome, with cups of hot tea simple snacks for dessert.

I crossed the river opposite the camp, finding a trusty stick to help steady myself as I skipped across the rocks and climb up the opposite hill.  Below was our camp, and from the top of the hill the setting sun was casting shadows upon the mountain ridges in the valley, the silence so absolute I could nearly hear the blood pumping in my head.  A cow's skull lay nearby, bleached by the sun.  Dusk was upon us.
Along Khustai National Park

We lit an impressive fire after dinner and Eku recounted a Mongolian fairy tale about 8 brothers that made up the stars in the Big Dipper (here called the Big Spoon) and the North Star.  Eventually we retired to our tents.  Night one.  It was cold.  I'm sure that each night that passes we'll find better methods of settling in, making up our beds, and staying warm.  Fortunately the weather is supposed to continually warm up through the week.

I awoke at sunrise just as the orb was peering over the horizon.  With my camera in hand and still in my pajamas, I slipped on my jacket and hat and went exploring.  Back toward the river, the remains of a sheep were scattered in a field.  A hoof here, leg bone there, a jaw... Someone else had also camped here recently, as a cow's skull was hung up on a tree staring into the rising sun.  The quiet of the morning, rippling of the river over rocks, and the skull standing sentry lent an eerie sense about the place.  

I continued back over another river, climbed up another hill and onto a vast plain with mountains in the distance.  Once again I was overlooking the valley and able to see for at least 50 miles.  Alone again with only the sounds of the the birds to keep me company. When I returned to camp after crossing back over the river, I discovered my pajama pants were covered with dew and mud.  After breakfast I took the pants and a bottle of shampoo down to the river to wash them.  This was roughing it.  Was this how the locals did their laundry?  It was a successful venture, meaning I didn't fall into the river, so I had half the mind to do the rest of my wash.  The pants are hanging to dry in the sun and breeze, and all is well again.


Outside Khustai National Park
After packing up camp we headed out on a 4 hour drive through the steppe toward Madsujir monastery. Before I get into detail about our hike, it is worth devoting space to discuss the road situation here.  I use the term "road" loosely. Very, very loosely. Not even a dirt path.  Sometimes tire markings to follow.  Sometimes, just turn.  Right there.  Turn.  No road.  No markings, just drive wherever.  If the animals roam free, so do the vehicles.  Where there is a dirt road, part of it can become washed out and a new path is made around it.  There could be an number of trails woven and cross-crossing the countryside.  At one point as we neared a strip mining area, there was no telling what was a road and what looked to be bombed landscape.  Construction vehicles, cows, and ravines.  When we finally did hit tarmac again, Fay and I cheered.  I didn't care where where we went next, as long as we stayed on pavement.  Just trying to hold on inside the car was exhausting enough.  Turns out this is all completely normal for Mongolia.  

We followed a river through the valley for a while and passed an army base where a female legion was running drills.  Instead of driving through the madness of UB again, we took a "shortcut" south of the city through an industrial zone.  More mining and factories.  Burning tires.  This time the "road" was a dried out ravine.  Eventually we made our way into Tov province into the provincial capital of Zoormud.  A quaint little town where we stopped for some reinforcements.  There was pavement! 

Right outside this town was where we stopped for the afternoon to visit the Madsujir monastery.  The landscape changed from grass-strewn steppe and hills to mountains of rocky cliffs and tall evergreens.  The higher the peaks, the more plentiful the conifers.  Buddhists set up a monastery on a cliff side because they believed the site was magic: trees usually grow in a valley along a river, not in reverse.  We parked for a quick lunch and began our hike.

Madsujir was built in the 18th century but destroyed by Stalin's thugs in the 1930s. By the 1990s it started to get some restoration attention, but work has been slow.  The site used to host 1000 monks.  A large iron cauldron set nearby, once able to feed the entire community.  Ancient stone carvings stood nearby, either figurines or writings in Sanskrit or ancient Mongolian script.  

Mandshiir Monastery
We hiked throughout the site, up to the main temples, then upward yet still to smaller temple huts with rock paintings of Buddhist spirits.  Each site was blessed with gifts of colored scarves, money, milk, and other offerings.  We decided to head yet higher up the steep cliff face.  There are no railings, no steps, no signs, no direction.  This isn't America. This was the wild East.  We made our own path until we reached a section of the cliff where we could sit, rest, and soak in the vista.  We were high above the site where kids below we're shouting up to us and we'd whistle in return.  We could see for miles and miles, mountains of grass and evergreens.  Eku said it was one of the most beautiful places in the country.  And there we sat, the three of us, the only ones a thousand feet above the ruins, relaxing.  We wouldn't be able to do this with a tour group.  

The climb down was adventurous, being careful to find our footing amongst the boulders and pebbles, our grip against other rocks and minding some of the plants that were itchy to the touch.  Instead of heading straight down, we marched diagonally across the ruins, leaping from rock to rock of what were formerly foundations of the buildings.  Into the evergreen forest we went until we found a white temple topped with gold scimitars and the Mongolian mark.  We were again alone amongst the pines, just us and a shrine and the sunshine peeking peeking through the branches.  We paused to take in the silence, then made our way back to the car.  Nothing here is straightforward.  On the walk back, we encountered a herd of horses amongst the trees, and the local tourists were just as giddy as we were, if not more.  We finally made camp that night in an open valley just outside town and watched young boys on horseback herd their animals back to their corrals.  Eku once again delivered a delicious beef and rice stew.  The night was silent, and Fay and I slept  a bit better now that we're getting the hang of how to configure our sleeping bags.  The next morning we would set out for Terelj National Park, but not before we were awakened by the neigh of horses surrounding us.

Mongolia Day 1: Truly the Middle of Nowhere

Rolling green hills and mountains.  Jagged rocks.  A bright blue sky dotted with cotton clouds.  A crystal clear brook cuts through the flood plain.  A ger.  A herd of horses, branded by the nomads nearby.  A wild takhii trots through camp, more interested in the other horses than by us, and pauses to stare at me.  A wild cow keeps watch.  The sun is setting over the hills casting long shadows behind the few trees that line the brook.  

This is Mongolia.

A breeze sweeps over the steppe, the only sounds those of the wind in my ears and the grasshoppers holding court.  A small lunch of bread, cheese, Nutella, and tea.  The sun warms our shoulders and we relax, nettles nipping our legs.  This land is vast.  

As early evening sets in, we have made camp by a river in a flood plain, dried out for months after the rainy season.  The tents are pitched, dinner is being prepared, and I'm sure we'll sleep like the dead in the silence of this truly wild wilderness.  

It was two days of traveling to get here, and we flew into Chinggis Khan Airport with no consequence, into the cool air that was a refreshing break from the stuffiness of Beijing.  A new language, a new alphabet.  We didn't sleep long as our schedules haven't synced with the new time zone, now 13 hours ahead of Chicago and our internal clocks are upside-down.  As I write this, I've had three days to acclimate, but I am finally exhausted and have fought off a nap, saving it for after dinner when I'll surely begin to doze in front of the campfire.

Two years of planning went into this trip.  I am fortunate to have friends that also love adventure and travel, so Fay is along for the ride to Mongolia.  We snoozed long and hard for moments at a time and for the final flight into Ulanbaatar.  Neither of us remember takeoff.  Checking in and heading to bed was uneventful.  But I was a little on pins and needles until our guide Eku and driver Achura picked us up.

I had been planning with Tseren Tours since the winter.  Things were going well until two weeks before the trip when their email was hacked and the hacker had attempted to steal my email password, and tried to get me to wire funds through Western Union to an account in Texas.  I could no longer communicate with Tseren through email, but fortunately I finalized details with them via phone during late nights in Chicago when I was awake and they were open for business half a world away.  All went according to plan when we met at the tour office in the morning to pay our deposit and begin our journey.  

And we did, rolling out of Ulanbaatar and into the countryside.  The open road was fine enough but we shall never complain about potholes in Chicago again.  We stopped on occasion to take pictures, in one case pausing by a shrine and ceramic statue of a Mongolia shaman by the roadside.  As we pulled off the main highway, the side roads quickly deteriorated to nothing but washed out dirt paths and a couple tracks.  Now I know why there are handles inside the vehicle.

We spent the bulk of the afternoon exploring Hustai National Park, home of the ancestor of the modern horse, the takhii, or Prezwelski horse.  A few were sent to zoos in the late 19th century, then the were finally extinct in the wild.  In the 1960's, a dozen were re-introduced into the wild of the park, and today nearly 300 roam free.  They are beautiful beasts, with short manes, a milky coffee coat with black legs and tail.  We sat for a while to observe a few herds in their watering hole.  Water of which is so clear one can't see where the surface begins, where nearly a whisper of a breeze is the only indication that water is present.

Camp has been made, the sun is setting, and a chill is seeping into the air.  Mosquito bites mark my initiation.  It is quiet, the only orchestra that of the birds and toads, the occasional thunder of hooves nearby.  

Behind me Fay is practicing her karate into the sun, breathing the fragrant air.

This is Mongolia.