Xi’an

I put Xi’an on my itinerary for three reasons: The Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin, the medieval walls and bell tower of central Xi’an, and the well-preserved Muslim quarter. All three exceeded my expectations.

On my first morning in Xi’an, I walked around part of the outside of the city wall where older folks practiced Tai-Chi or ballroom dancing (the Chinese seem to love ballroom dancing in city green spaces as I saw it throughout China). Afterwards, I paid my small admission fee and climbed to the top of the wall.

The wall was initially built in the mid-1500’s and has been rebuilt and restored several times since then. On this day, it was chilly and smoggy and not very crowded. I walked about half of the 9 mile rectangular wall which used to protect the central part of Xi’an. Along the way are various watchtowers and gates as well as views both inside and outside the walled part of the city of the non-stop construction of high-rises. Xi’an has a population of about 4.5 million and I wouldn’t be surprised if it doubled in 5 years based on the vast amount of construction going on.

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I then headed to the Muslim quarter. Xi’an was once an eastern terminus of the Silk Road as well as one of the Ancient Imperial Chinese Capitals. As such, Muslim traders have made the city their home for hundreds of years. Stepping into this part of Xi’an was like stepping back in time 500 years. If it weren’t for the LED signs and motorbikes it would be hard to tell what year you were in. The number of food stalls, markets, and tiny restaurants seemed endless. The streets were packed with shoppers, tourists, and porters carrying fruits, vegetables, or whole animal carcasses on their backs.

After lunch of lamb stew, I finished wandering around, stopping occasionally for a fresh squeezed glass of pomegranate juice, fresh roasted nuts, or sticky sweet honey-date cake.

Muslim quarter market, Xi'an.

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The next day I contemplated just heading back to the Muslim quarter to eat some more. Better sense prevailed and I headed to the bus depot to take the local tourist bus to the site of the Terracotta Army. As I was headed to the bus, I met two Australian students, one spoke a little bit of Chinese. When we got to the admissions window of the site, he talked to cashier into giving all three of us student discounts.

About 40 minutes from central Xi’an, the Terracotta Army was discovered by villagers in 1974 while they were digging for a well. The army was created around 200 BC as part of the vast burial ground of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The site consists of a park, museum, and 4 pavillions. The pavillions remain an archeological site as only a small percentage of the warriors have been excavated and re-assembled. The main pavillion contains the spot where the warriors were first discovered and is the largest part of the site with several thousand warriors excavated and on view. Amazingly, each warrior has unique facial features and each warrior was hand painted. Unfortunately, the paint used disintegrates when exposed to air during excavation so most of the statues are displayed unpainted. However, this in no way diminshes the incredible amount of work and artisan craftsmanship that went into creating these warriors over 2000 years ago.

Terracotta warriors.

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The area between the bus drop-off and the ticket office is a gamut of newly-built touristy restaurants, jade shops, tchotcke emporia, etc. I quickly strode through this area, ignoring the constant barrage of touts, and headed to a smaller set of food stalls just across the street to enjoy a delicious bowl of hand-pulled noodles with beef. As I was eating, I noticed a stranger watching me as he smoked a cigarette. After I was done with lunch, he asked me if I enjoyed my meal. I said I did and he pointed to the newly-built area, shook his head and spat. He then said, more people should come here and I nodded in agreement just then noticing that I was the only westerner around. He appeared pleased that I enjoyed lunch although I wasn’t quite sure if he worked there or not.

My third day in Xi’an was spent checking out the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. Sadly, smog was heavy that day and kind of ruined the views.  Shaanxi Province of which Xi’an is the capital is also the heart of Chinese coal country so smog was a constant presence.

There was no Uber in Xi’an and taxis ignored me so, on the way to the train station, I got to ride in my first tuk tuk; my butt was sore for the next 2 days.

All I Wanted Was Some Spicy Noodles

A slight look of panic swept over the face of the girl at the counter. She quickly smiled and put up her hand in what I assumed was a non-verbal request for me to wait. She then did an about face and hurried into the back of the restaurant.

A minute or two later a smiling lady emerged from the back and, in serviceable English, welcomed me to the restaurant. This was in Xi’an’s bustling and cramped Muslim Quarter where I had endeavored to seek out Paomo, a local soup consisting of mutton and broken up leavened bread garnished with pickled vegetables.

My English speaking helper led me to a table, took my order, and showed me how to break up the bread before placing it into the hot broth. While I was getting the deluxe table-side treatment, everyone else had to order and pay at the counter. This wasn’t a fancy restaurant, it was a small place with about 10 tables.

That was a relatively easy transaction as the menu was prominent on the wall and had pictures and I was lucky enough to have picked a place with at least one English speaking employee.

Although English language education in China has been stressed since the early 80’s, most people I talked to felt that what is taught in state-run schools and universities is inadequate. There remains a bustling industry of private English language schools in China to fill in the gap and many international companies routinely send employees to these private schools to improve their skills.

On my 24 hour train ride from Chongqing to Guilin, one of my fellow compartment passengers was a young university student who spoke decent English but relied heavily on a translator app on his phone. He was excited to be able to practice English with me but frustrated that, after being taught English since primary school, he couldn’t speak it better and hoped to one day go to an English language school to improve his skills.

Language barrier or not, it’s a fact of life when traveling alone that reliance on strangers is a constant. In China, I was never once let down, led astray, or met anyone who didn’t make it their immediate goal to provide me with whatever assistance they could.

In Chengdu, I had arranged to have dinner with two Canadians sisters that I had met on the train the day before. They had gotten a recommendation of a nearby restaurant from their hotel. One of the sisters spoke a small amount of Chinese but it wasn’t enough to get over the language barrier at the restaurant and, it turned out, they didn’t even have a printed menu. Not that it would have mattered since it no doubt would have been in Chinese.

As we struggled to communicate, a young Chinese lady started speaking to us in English. After letting her know what we were looking to eat she pulled out her phone to give us directions to a different restaurant. She quickly realized that we’d never find the place on our own, so she led us through the streets of Chengdu to the restaurant, sat us down, summoned a waiter, and ordered for us. Despite our pleas to join us and let us buy her dinner, she politely demurred and left. We had no idea what she had ordered for us but soon plates of fresh steamed vegetables, spicy mapo tofu, and delicious kung pao chicken arrived.

Chongqing was the city where I encountered the most speed bumps in terms of communicating but that just meant I had to work harder for success. After arriving at the train station, I got into a cab and showed the driver the name of the hotel I was going to in both English and Chinese characters but he didn’t seem to know the location. Unfortunately, the cab stand was in an underground parking garage so I didn’t have a phone signal. The driver had a police officer come by and all three of us did our best to mime, gesticulate, and talk our way through where I wanted to go. But, after a couple of minutes, it was useless and, even worse, I was holding up the taxi line.

I decided to head up to the street level and use Uber. I immediately got a driver and, better yet, I had a phone signal so I could pull up the map. The driver, however, had no idea where I was going and had apparently never seen a map so egregiously flawed as the one I was showing him on my phone. Worse, the phone number I had for the hotel wasn’t working. I started to question whether I was even in Chongqing and thought for sure he was going to kick me curbside and speed off, cursing the day China opened itself up to dumbass Western tourists who couldn’t even bother to learn even 10 words in Chinese before visiting.

Just as I thought I was doomed to live out the rest of my days around the Chongqing North Railway Station, the driver jumped out of the car, buttonholed a couple of passersby and, after about 30 seconds of discussion, we were off. The traffic from the station to central Chongqing was hellacious but I arrived at my destination without any further trouble.

Later during my stay in Chongqing, I went into a small noodle shop looking for a spicy noodle soup. I pointed to the soup in the menu that was the most red in color which resulted in an eruption of chatter from the three or four people working behind the counter.

As I waited, it became apparent that I had not, in their collective view, chosen wisely. The woman taking my order smiled and starting waving her hand over her mouth to indicate that what I was ordering was spicy. I nodded my head in agreement but I must not have looked convincing enough.

After a few more moments of trying to impart to me that this spicy noodle dish was only for the heartiest of Chinese diners and would surely cause immediate death to any uninitiated Westerner, one of the workers ran outside and came back with a uniformed gentleman (I couldn’t tell if this was a police officer, parking attendant, or just the local English speaking good Samaritan).

He chatted for a minute with the restaurant workers and then turned to me and said “No, this too spicy. You order this,” as he helpfully pointed to something else on the menu. Then he nodded his head, waved goodbye, and quickly left.

Having no other choice, I took his recommendation and ended up with a perfectly fine bowl of hearty broth, chicken, boiled duck egg, and noodles.

The entrance to my hotel in Chongqing was on a narrow side street and across from it was a tiny convenience shop. My first morning, I stopped by to get some fruit and water and the woman working in the shop summoned her young son of about 8 or 9 to handle my transaction.

He was eager to try out his English and carefully counted up my items and counted out my change in English. After that, he smiled and waved goodbye to me as I disappeared into the crowds of the Changjiang 2nd Road. That was the only time except at my hotel’s front desk that I heard English in Chongqing. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Forbidden Cities and Marble Boats

The first place I visited in Beijing was the Forbidden City. From my hotel it was about a 15 minute walk to Tiananmen Square, the main square in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the main entrance into the palaces area. The smog was heavy so I couldn’t even see all the way across the vast square.

Pedestrians are subject to bag x-rays and metal detectors before entering Tiananmen Square and it was here that I got my first taste of how the Chinese queue up; spoiler: they don’t. Thankfully, I’m big and intimidating and foreign looking so most people gave me a wider berth than I think they normally would. After about 10 minutes getting through the “line” I was in Tiananmen Square and headed to the ticket office for the Forbidden City.

Gate of Heavenly Peace, entrance to the Forbidden City.

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The Forbidden City is overwhelmingly large, consisting of one large palace after another. Mostly built in the early 1400’s, the entire complex consists of nearly 1,000 buildings.

I sprung for the audio tour and was glad I did as there were very few signs and fewer still were in English. It was a Sunday morning and the crowds were thick but the place is so enormous it was easy to move around without too much trouble.
The palace complex consists of a series of gates and squares built around a series of palace halls. The most important palace halls are built along a central axis. From the first gate (The Meridian Gate), I proceeded along the central axis through enormous courtyards and high, intimidating gates to the Palace Of Heavenly Purity.

This is the innermost building, where Emperors resided during the Ming and early Qing dynasty. During this time, access to the Palace of Heavenly Purity was strictly controlled and only the Emperor and a select few ministers and servants were allowed anywhere near the palace. From the late Qing dynasty onward, the palace was redeveloped into a banquet hall where the Emperor would receive guests and emissaries.

In the afternoon, I headed north to Beihai park. A former imperial park, it consists of an island (Jade Flower Island) in a lake called the Northern Sea. Like many imperial parks, it was built as a replica of a rural Chinese landscape and was a welcome respite from the crowds in the Forbidden City.

Beihai Park.

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On day two, I hopped on a tour bus and headed to the Great Wall of China. It was awesome. Here’s a picture I took.

Forgot the name of this place.

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My last full day in Beijing was spent at the Summer Palace. Located about 15 miles from Central Beijing on Lake Kunming, this is the site of several palaces, pavilions, and a large Buddhist temple built on Longevity Hill. The hill itself is about 200 feet high and completely man-made. Similar to Beihai park, the parkland around the Summer Palace are a replica of rural China.

Summer Palace Park, Beijing.

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Also part of the complex is the curiously named Marble Boat. Not really made of marble but painted to look so, this version was built in 1893 at a time when China was intending to build an imperial navy. Rumor has it that most of those funds were re-directed for use in building this one boat.

 

Beijing Part I

Stepping off the train and into the cavernous Beijing Railway Station was like setting foot on another planet. I had spent the last couple weeks in sparsely populated Siberia and Mongolia and the shock of people and noise was exhilarating if not a little overwhelming.

My first lesson was that Chinese railway stations keep arriving passengers completely segregated from departing passengers so, as an arriving passenger, you don’t really get to avail yourself of the station’s amenities, including getting to an ATM. The prime directive is to get arriving passengers out of the station as quickly as possible. So, up I went through the arrival tunnel and outside to thousands of Chinese people in the station’s outside square. I then spent the next half hour just marveling at the size of the station and watching the crowds of people coming and going from the station.

Remembering that I had zero Chinese Yuan to my name, I headed over to the nearest ATM which was across the street from the station. Across the street is a bit of an understatement, it was across an eight lane motorway that, thankfully, sported several pedestrian overpasses. Cash obtained, I contemplated whether to take the subway to my hotel or summon an Uber car. The prospect of negotiating the subway with my large backpack made my decision easy.

I decided to walk a couple of blocks away from the train station to somewhere quieter to make it easier for the Uber driver to find me. This was a futile exercise as, walking down the street, each intersection I passed seemed larger and busier than the last. After a couple of blocks, I found a hotel forecourt and within 10 minutes my Uber driver had arrived. (Not to turn this into an advertisement for Uber, but it really is a handy service. This is especially true in a foreign country where trying to avoid getting ripped off by taxis or explaining where you want to go can be frustrating.)

After checking in to my hotel, I wandered around the neighborhood. Wangfujing is a massive shopping street with several giant malls. Further towards my hotel were several hutongs (alleyways) that I wandered in and out of. Hutongs are old neighborhoods, usually with a small courtyard in the center and housing built around communal water, toilets, and often kitchens. They are characterized by their low stone buildings and narrow alleyways.

Beijing used to be a city comprised of thousands of hutongs but they continue to disappear as they are leveled to make way for high-rise buildings. As I walked around, the noise and bustle of the city completely disappeared in these alleyways and you feel like you are seeing a way of life that hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. There is a movement to preserve many hutongs and some are being spruced up for the tourist trade and pedicab tours are available everywhere around the main tourist sites.

That evening, I headed to Siji Minfu restaurant for Peking duck. It was a Friday evening so the wait was over an hour but well worth it. The restaurant is popular with both locals and tourists with about a third of the patrons being Westerners when I was there. I ordered half a duck and Beijing style noodles. The duck is served with thin crepe-like pancakes and a variety of condiments and sauces. When first served, the waitress assembled one of the pancakes for me like a small taco so I would understand how to assemble them myself. Everything was delicious, the crispiest duck skin I’d ever had. My first meal in China was a prelude to the extraordinary food I would encounter throughout my time here.

Beijing style noodles.

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My 2nd evening in Beijing included a trip to the Donghuamen Night Market where I feasted on an assortment of dumplings, spring rolls, and a serving of fried baby scorpions. The scorpions were just Ok although, this being my first serving, I didn’t have much to compare them to. The night market was a mix of locals and tourists, most of the stall hawkers seemed to delight in which one of them could freak out the Westerners the most with their fare of fried starfish, tarantula, and whole baby birds.

Donghuamen night market.

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A little later, I splurged on a meal at Din Tai Fung. This is a popular upscale chain of Taiwan-style dumpling restaurants found throughout Asia and the West Coast of the US. I wasn’t disappointed; I feasted on crab, pork, and vegetable stuffed steamed dumplings enough for two or three people.

In addition to the restaurants, food is for sale from vendors on seemingly every street corner. Some of my favorites were steamed sweet potato cakes, dumplings, duck tendon on a stick, and small apples on a stick dipped in sugar. These apples were the size of American crabapples but not nearly as sour. It seemed to be the season for them as they were everywhere.

On my third day in Beijing I went to Wangfujing snack street where I had grilled chicken and baby octopus on a stick. Both were delicious but I liked the atmosphere of the night market just a bit better. The night market only sells food where snack street also has more touristy folk art shops interspersed with the food stalls. All those cheap tchotchkes just get  in the way of the excellent food.

China Train Travel

The train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing was about 30 hours on a Chinese-owned train. I had a first class ticket and had the compartment to myself. These trains are relatively new and each first class compartment has a comfortable easy chair and a bathroom/shower. This would be the last train I took that wasn’t 100% full.

Mongolia does not have electrified tracks and most of the route in Mongoila is single track. About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, the train makes its way up through the Khangai Mountains and then into the Gobi Desert. The route is slow-going with many sweeping switchbacks.

By mid-day, the train was chugging along the sandy landscape of the Gobi Desert where the occasional horse, Bactrian camel, or dirt bike interrupted the monotonous desert view. The train made only a couple stops in southern Mongoila, in towns whose only connection to the outside world seemed to be the train. These towns were typically only small clusters of low cinder block buildings being constantly sandblasted by the desert wind.

By around 11 p.m., the train had reached the Chinese border. Customs and passport control was surprisingly quick and efficient, but, because the rail gauge in China is narrower than in Mongolia and Russia, the train trucks (wheels) have to be switched out. So the border stop actually takes about 4 hours. Why they don’t just have a Chinese train set waiting across the border to cut down on the voyage was a bit baffling.

At any rate, I thought this process was going to be more interesting than it actually was but you aren’t allowed to leave your train car to watch and it was the middle of the night so I slept through most of it.

The process works like this: The train set is broken up and each car is separately shunted into a large shed. Then the train trucks are detached from the chassis, the cars lifted up onto jacks and the Chinese gauge trucks are rolled under the cars. The cars are then lowered and attached to the new trucks, the train set is put back together and sent on its way.

It must have been a quiet and smooth performance because by the time I woke up it was mid-morning and we were just outside of Datong, China; a city of over 3 million people that I had never heard of.

The route from Datong to Beijing runs through incredibly steep, mountainous terrain. The railway goes through hundreds of tunnels and runs along the Great Wall for a brief period.

Once in China, rail travel continued to be comfortable, easy, and efficient. From Beijing to Hong Kong, I took 5 train trips, three of them were high speed. The two conventional overnight trains I took will be replaced or supplemented with high speed service in a couple of years. China boasts the world’s longest high speed rail line which currently connects Beijing and Guangzhou, a route that covers over 1,300 miles in 8 hours at a top speed of 185 miles per hour.

G87 Beijing to Xi'an.

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I took the high speed train from Beijing to Xi’an, a distance of 725 miles, and it took 4.5 hours. That’s just short of the distance between New York City and Chicago, and it took 4.5 hours. On a train. Currently, the quickest train service from New York to Chicago takes about 20 hours.

Getting tickets for train travel wasn’t quite as easy as for Russia where I ordered and printed tickets online before I left. In China, you have to have a Chinese bank account to order tickets directly with the railroad so I used a travel agency that specializes in Chinese rail travel. They charged a small fee but I’m glad I used them as trains fill up fast and, if I had waited to get tickets once I was in China, I may have gotten delayed or stranded. Once in Beijing, I went to the closest train station to my hotel and picked up all my pre-purchased tickets at once.

In addition to building high speed rail networks, many new railway stations are being built to accomodate the newer lines. Some of these stations rival airports in size and number of people passing through them.

By zh:user:danielinblue - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22616072

Xian North Railway Station. Photo by zh:user:danielinblue – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22616072

In order to ensure security and prevent a complete gridlock of people, you are only allowed to enter a train station if you have a ticket. Checkpoints outside the main entrance of stations check your passport and ticket, then you and your bags go through a metal detector; over half of the time, I was also wanded down before entering.

Once inside, most stations have 6-10 waiting areas, you are allowed into a designated waiting area based on which train you area taking. Waiting areas usually have small shops where you can buy snacks and reading material and hot water is available for free. All tickets have a magnetic stripe in them and access to the platform is controlled by automated ticket readers. The train platform isn’t accessible to ticket holders until about 30 minutes before the train departs.

Stainless Steel Horses and Stray Dogs

One full day in Ulaanbaatar was more than enough so, on my second day, I hired a car and went out to the countryside. Before we left the city, we stopped off at the Gandan Buddhist monastery. Built throughout the 19th Century, it is one of the oldest monasteries remaining in Mongolia. During Mongolia’s Communist era, hundreds of Buddhist sites were destroyed; Gandan, however, survived and was revitalized during the 1990’s.

Mongolia’s dominant religion is Tibetan-style Buddhism, and the Gandan monastery includes several temple buildings and a very tall (some say the tallest indoor) statue of Buddha. The statue was dismantled by overzealous Communists in the 1930’s but was rebuilt in the early 2000s.

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We arrived just in time for the morning prayers that my guide told me can last all the way to Noon every day. As we stood in the vestibule, people from the neighborhood cycled in and out, grabbing on to the large, interconnected prayer flags and leaving an offering for the monks. We watched for about 30 minutes while the monks continued their near non-stop chanting and intervals of short horn and drum break that resembled, to me, like the trumpeting of elephants.

It would seem that Gandan is also benefitting from Mongolia’s improved economic situation as brand new monastery dormitories are being built in the neighborhood.

Gandan Monastery. #ulaanbaatar #mongolia

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Next stop on my day tour was to the Chinggis (Ghengis) Khaan Equestrian Statue. About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, this statue was completed in 2008 and is 130 feet tall. Made of stainless steel, you can see the statue from miles around. At the statue’s pedestal is a small museum that contains quite a few artifacts from the Bronze era, as well as a run-down of the many Khans that ruled the area. There is a small viewing platform on top of the horse’s head that affords spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.

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After the statue, we continued further east into Gorkhi Terelj National Park. First stop was a look at Turtle Rock and then on to the Aryabal Buddhist monastery. The national park was virtually empty during my mid-November visit except for the occasional nomad with his herd of goats or sheep.

The entrance to the monastery is at the foot of a hill and it is a somewhat steep walk up to the meditation temple. Along the path are about 200 signs of Buddhist sayings. The main temple is designed to look like an elephant and the steps leading to the entrance resemble an elephant’s trunk. The views from the top were spectacular, the landscape had turned brown in the drier autumn months and there were patches of snow in the surrounding mountains. The quiet was only occasionally interrupted by the barking of a distant puppy. The area around the monastery contains a couple dozen semi-feral dogs that the monks look after.

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On the way back to Ulaanbaatar, we stopped by a large cairn (or Ovoo in Mongolian). These are piles of rock and wood with prayer flags attached that are found everywhere. My guide insisted that I circle the Ovoo three times clockwise to ensure a safe journey through the rest of Mongolia and China. I must have looked silly doing this alone so this black puppy accompanied me. I almost scooped him up and took him with me.

Mongolian cairn. #ovoo #mongolia

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Ulaanbaatar

I had two days in Mongolia and spent one day exploring Ulaanbaatar and one day being driven around the countryside. Mongolia’s countryside is breathtaking; it’s capital city, on the other hand, is one of the strangest cities I’ve ever visited.

Ulaanbaatar has an official population of just over a million but it’s clear that people are migrating to the city at an astounding rate. The city is a strange amalgam of “ger” districts (ger being the Mongolian word for tent or yurt), soviet era concrete buildings, and new apartment block high rises. With the increased population comes the increased strain on infrastructure; traffic is a nightmare and pollution seems to be a constant fact of life.

For most of the 20th Century, Mongolia was not only isolated by geography but also politically. Allied with distant Moscow from 1924 to 1990, relations with China have only recently improved and with that has come increased investment, mainly in natural resource extraction. Mongolia is rich in gold, coal, and copper and China is their biggest customer. This increase in investment has seen an acceleration in the population shift from the nomadic countryside to Ulaanbaatar over the past 10 years.

#ulaanbaatar #mongolia

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The first thing I had to do in Ulaanbaataar was find the travel agent who issued my train ticket for my onward trip to Beijing. The instructions to their office were not very clear and the accompanying map looked like it was created using MS Paint. After about 45 minutes of wandering around, I finally found it in a run down apartment block.

With that task out of the way, I then went to check out the very fine National Museum of Mongolia. Afterwards, I walked around Chinnggis Square and the parliament building. Walking around proved to be occasionally hazardous due to the horrific traffic, poorly planned sidewalks, and lung strangling smog.

Chinggis Square, Ulaanbaatar. #ulaanbaatar #mongolia

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Misc

I saw firsthand three traffic accidents in the short time I was in the city. No surprise since driving for most people seems to be a newly acquired skill and the majority of cars are from the used car market in Japan. This means that the steering wheel on most cars is on the wrong side.

I went into a grocery store that appears to have been built twice as large than needed as half of the space was cordoned off by a glass partition. There wasn’t much in the way of fresh fruit or vegetables but there was a whole section of small Kirkland brand water bottles. Finding Costco’s house brand of water in one of the most remote places on Earth was exceedingly puzzling.

In most places, I’ve been able to quickly acclimate to the currency. The Tugrik, however, was a little difficult. I think this is due to 1 dollar equaling about 2000 Tugriks and that the numbers on the bills are very hard to read.

There are very few western style franchises in Mongolia; one of them is a Round Table Pizza. Apparently the other two are KFC and Cinnabon. Gross.

 

Dasvidanya, Russia

The train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar takes about 24 hours, the first quarter of the trip skirts the southern shores of Lake Baikal before turning south towards Mongolia.

The train on this part of my trip was sparsely populated, so even though I was in a 4-berth 2nd class car, I only had one other person in my compartment. He was a young German student from Munich who was headed to Ulaanbaatar after spending several weeks trekking along the shore and in the mountains around Lake Baikal. It had turned cold and snowed heavily over the previous days so he had decided to move on to Mongolia. I was happy to have someone around with which I could practice speaking German.

In addition to the two of us, the rest of the car consisted of 4 other people: two English tourists headed to Beijing and two businessmen, one Ukrainian, the other Mongolian.  It was unclear if these businessmen knew each other, despite the Ukrainian’s gregarious nature with all of us, our Russian and his English meant communication was limited.

As the train lumbered along the Baikal shore, snow and sleet began to fall heavily.  Despite the nasty weather, I knew I was going to miss  Russia. My visit had exceeded all of my expectations and, before I was even out of the country, I was already thinking about returning.

For tourists, Russia can be tough; there is little in the way of tourist infrastructure and the language barrier is a challenge, particularly with the added complexity of dealing with a different alphabet. Even Moscow, a city of nearly 12 million, has no official tourist information office.

When I got off the train at St. Petersburg, I was struck by the complete lack of tourist help that one generally takes for granted at ports of entry. There are no information desks, no one hawking tours, no one handing out maps, no one asking if you need a ride to your hotel; all of which I found immediately pleasant and relaxing.

This general absence of overt tourist provisions would be a running theme throughout my time in Russia. For the most part if you’re not a part of a tour group, you are truly on your own. If you need something, it’s up to you to ask or to figure it out. You may be met with indifference or confusion; but more often you will be treated warmly and graciously.  This won’t always happen but I never really cared; I don’t need a toothy grin and a “how are you doing today?” when buying a subway token or a cup of coffee.

Back on the train to Ulaanbaatar, I wandered into the dining car for one last Russian meal. The car was empty but I could hear a TV and two people chatting in the kitchen. After about 6 or 7 minutes, an attendant strolled by, noticed I was there, and handed me a menu. I was grateful for having been forced to wait as it was a last chance to enjoy the Russian scenery out the window.

Once the train pulled into Ulaanbaatar and passengers began to disembark, swarms of locals appeared on the  platform offering transportation, tours, hostel rooms, money changing, food etc. I had unwittingly passed back into a place where tourist money is more vigorously pursued and it took me a few moments to re-acclimate.

Lake #baikal from the train. #siberia #russia

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Overdosing on Omul in Siberia

Looking at a map, Lake Baikal seems significant but its surface area is dwarfed by the Great Lakes. However, due to it’s depth, it is the largest lake in the world by volume. Baikal’s superlatives seem to have no end:

  • It is the world’s oldest lake.
  • It is the deepest at over a mile in depth in some places.
  • It contains nearly 20% of all the world’s unfrozen freshwater.
  • It contains more water than all of the Great Lakes combined, nearly twice the water volume of Lake Superior alone.
  • If all of the world’s other freshwater were to disappear, Baikal could supply the world with drinking water for 50 years.
  • It contains over 2,000 unique species of animal life, including the delicious and ubiquitous Omul fish.

I had two days in Irkutsk, the closest city to Lake Baikal and took a day trip to the lake at it’s southern tip. It was mid-November, so my tour consisted of myself, a shy Frenchman, and our informative tour guide Maxim. Maxim spoke very good English and, to my relief, was an even better driver.

The drive from Irkutsk to Listvyanka on the lake is about 90 minutes along what some locals still refer to as Eisenhower Highway.  In 1960, during a short window of improved US-Soviet relations, Eisenhower had planned a visit to the Soviet Union including Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. Up until then, the road from Irkutsk to Listvyanka was nothing more than a dirt track. Upon the announcement of Eisenhower’s visit, an arrow straight, paved road was built in just 2 months. Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s trip was canceled after the downing of the U2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers. Thankfully, the  well-maintained road remains.

The first stop on our tour was to a traditional Siberian village that had been recreated on a high bluff overlooking the Angara River. The Angara has been dammed at several spots and these buildings were moved before they were flooded by the reservoirs filling up. Among the buildings was an old church, a one-room school, the mayor’s office, a store, and, of course, several saunas.

Afterwards, we stopped at the headwaters of the Angara River which flows out of Lake Baikal and eventually heads all the way north to the Arctic Ocean. We then stopped at a small ski resort and hiked up to the top of a hill overlooking the lake and Angara River. Resort is perhaps generous as it was really just a small chair lift, and two or three ski runs. The scenery, however, was gorgeous and along the way, nuthatches would perch on our hands and eat the seeds that Maxim had provided.

#baikal

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

We then drove into the small lakeside village of Listvyanka for lunch and a look around the market. The market consists mainly of two things: Omul fish prepared in several different ways and cheaply made tchotchkes.

The fish is what we came for and we weren’t disappointed. The three of us bought different preparations and shared with pieces of flat fried bread and boiled potatoes. My favorite was the raw salted and smoked preparations. Omul is similar to lake herring but with a sweeter flavor.

Full of fish, we then walked along the lake shore watching families finishing up their afternoon picnics and strolling along the shore. Listvyanka is a tiny, remote village but tourists do come as evidenced by the newly built hotels and guest houses.

Lake #baikal. #russia #siberia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

The next day, I wandered around Irkutsk. A fresh foot or so of snow made walking around somewhat difficult. It seems Russians aren’t as fastidious about plowing and shoveling as I would have thought. Either that or a foot of snow just isn’t enough to bother with.

Irkutsk’s most interesting feature is it’s well-preserved Siberian style wooden houses. Dotted around the city, it’s not uncommon to see a 10 story Soviet era concrete apartment block and a small 100+ year old wooden house standing side by side.

Siberia wooden houses in Irkutsk. #irkutsk #siberia #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

Irkutsk was a city of exiles. After the Decembrist uprising of 1825, the instigators were sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Irkutsk was the exile’s jumping off point to the Siberian hinterland where they worked in mines, factories, or forts. Often, these exiles’ families stayed in Irkutsk and several exiles decided to stay in or around Irkutsk after their sentences were up. There is a small Decembrist Museum in Irkutsk but it offered little more than a re-creation of the house and furniture of the more prominent and rich exiles.

In addition to the Decembrists being exiled to Siberia, Poles were sent to Irkutsk and surroundings as well. In 1863, Poles began an uprising against forced conscription into the Russian Army. The instigators were either executed or deported to Siberia. Part of the legacy of these Poles in exile is a large Polish Catholic Church in Irkutsk.  All-in-all, over 20,000 Pole were sent to Siberia for punishment.

Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk

Yekaterinburg

About 1000 miles from Moscow, Yekaterinburg is on the eastern edge of Europe at the foot of the Ural Mountains. Surrounded by the iron rich Urals, Yekaterinburg was an early industrial center and gateway to Siberia to the east.

I arrived early in the morning to fresh snow and decided to walk the couple of miles from the train station to the hotel. I only had about a day and a half before moving on to Irkutsk.This was just enough time to explore the central part of the city. The Iset River runs through the city and widens to a large lake which was already half-frozen over during my visit in early November.

By the time I had gotten to Yekaterinburg I was a little burned out on museums and Russian Orthodox Churches, so I decided to just wander around the city. The river front was mostly pleasant, dotted with small quiet parks. I also took the opportunity to go to the top of Visotsky Business Center. Even at 52 stories high, the views above Yekaterinburg aren’t breathtaking by any stretch but it was interesting to see the hills of the Ural Mountains (the Urals are really low and basically just hills this far south) and the massive industrial areas surrounding the city.

Yekaterinburg with fresh snow. #yekaterinburg #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

I also visited the Cathedral on the Blood which was just recently built on the site where the Romanov family was murdered during the Russian Revolution. The site of the Romanov murders was a house that had been fenced off and neglected for most of the 20th Century until then governor Boris Yeltsin had it torn down in 1977 to prevent it becoming a shrine.

Yekaterinburg is a large enough city that it did have a more cosmopolitan feel compared to Kazan. There were definitely more franchise fast food places (Subway, McDonald’s, KFC, and a Carl’s Junior of all things) and international hotel chains. Before leaving I also went shopping at what I would imagine to be one of the fanciest grocery stores in Russia, so I was well stocked for my epic 50 hour train ride to Irkutsk.

Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk

Irkutsk is about 2,200 miles from Yekaterinburg and a 50 hour train ride. During this leg of my trip I booked a first class berth which meant I had the possibility of sharing with just one other person. The trip, however, was one of the least crowded trains I would ride. There were long stretches when I think I was the only person in my entire car.

During the trip, I was able to finish the Russian history book that I had started the week before and about a dozen Chekhov and Gogol short stories. Reading material that was a perfect fit for the Siberian scenery rushing along outside the window. As we headed further east, the dense birch forests gave way to more and more evergreen trees and the terrain became hillier. The most striking detail was, even in the most remote, tiniest village, the houses were painted in bright pastels of green, yellow, or blue.

Occasionally, the train would pull into a station where hawkers would sell everything from smoked fish to children’s books and toys on the platform; I guess you have to find some way to occupy your kids on such a long train ride.

What do you do on a 50 hour train ride?

In no particular order:

  • Sleep
  • Read
  • Drink Tea
  • Look out the window
  • Walk up and down the cars
  • Read
  • Look out the window some more, until your eyes get tired
  • Sleep
  • Drink Tea
  • Read
  • Drink Tea
  • Look out the window
  • Eat
  • Drink Tea
  • Read
  • Sleep

 

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