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The Train to UB

October 2nd, 2010 · 2 Comments

Well life has been a bit frantic since we arrived back from Mongolia, but I know I owe the blog a few entries.  After all, there are stories to tell.

I’ve already told you about China (hot and humid, lots of Chinese food, and endless groups of people either taking or trying to take our pictures).  But I haven’t said much about the rest of the trip yet.

So in this episode, I will talk about our train trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar.  Then I’m sure there are entries floating around in my head regarding life in UB, my trip to the biggest farm I’ve ever visited, and probably something to do with the future of Mongolia as we look ahead.  Maybe I’ll even lay a heavy on you to contribute to some of the great projects we visited which are helping Mongolians on the fringes of society.

So let’s get going.

Yes, we took the train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (UB). You might wonder why we took the 30 hour option over the 2 hour option, so I put together a partial list of reasons.  Feel free to add your own:

  1. Travel should also be about the experience of getting there, not just getting there.
  2. We like trains.  We’ve been from Regina (OK, you really have to drive 1.5 hours to Melville and get on at 4 am in the middle of winter, but let’s just call it Regina) to Toronto twice, the reverse once, and from Minot, ND to Chicago to Longview, TX and back before.  So we like trains.
  3. It was half the price of flying this leg, so why not?
  4. You can see more from the train than from a plane, especially when you’re traveling with kids and they hog the window seats on the plane.
  5. More legroom.  And you get a bed.
  6. You can’t use the bathroom on a plane and watch it land on the ground when you flush.
  7. There’s no crazy contraption serving up boiling water (for making tea and instant noodles) just up the aisle in the plane.  There’s just a crazy person serving up some disease into the recycled air.
  8. You can’t lean out the window of a plane and buy drinks and snacks from vendors at all the stops.
  9. You can’t lean out the windows of the plane while it is moving.
  10. When you travel through a desert dust storm on a plane, the pilot doesn’t run through the plane to tell you to close the windows.
  11. When you cross the China-Mongolia border on a plane, it doesn’t have to stop for several hours to change the wheels. 
  12. The interesting adventurous travelers are on the train. (Although the backpackers tend to be running out of money. You never see them in the dining car.)
  13. Speaking of dining cars, when’s the last time you saw one of those on an airplane?
  14. No strip search at the train station, and you can have all the liquids and gels you want!
  15. How often do the locals wave at a passing airplane?

The train was scheduled to leave at 7:45 am, so we got up early and met Tony and our driver at the door.  Due to traffic madness right in from of the train station, they delivered us to the curb about a block away, and we dragged our luggage through the plentiful crowds to the entrance. Right inside the door was a luggage x-ray machine, which everyone jammed their bags into and then pulled them off the other side.  It was mayhem, and I’m not sure anyone was actually monitoring whether illicit liquids and gels were contained in anyone’s suitcase.  We weren’t sure where to go, but Tony said he thought upstairs was the place for international departures, so we pulled our luggage train onto the escalator, hung on for dear life, and rode to the top. 

There were big monitors everywhere with lots of important information written only in Chinese. Fortunately, they use numbers like we do, so we detected our train number on the board and another number.  We wandered around looking for something to correlate this number to, and it turned out to be a gate number, where the beginning of a line was forming consisting of primarily western tourists.  That was probably it, so we joined the line, and then noticed some other signage with a number matching our departure time.  So this must be the place.

While we waited in line, Brad bought some instant noodles and drinks at a shop near the line, and we waited.  Gradually, the line grew to be several hundred people long, including families with children, middle aged empty nesters, and a bunch of hippy-like backpackers carrying the requisite guitars and sacks of what must have been other suspicious substances.

Mostly, this crowd was European. We know this because most of the people spoke German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and French to each other. And usually to other people who also spoke German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and French. Sometimes the people spoke all of these languages (they’re European, after all), and you could see they all yearned for a Heineken or an espresso, and a bailout of the Irish and the Greeks.

The Germans were very organized and had lots of quality cameras and cool electronic gear.

The Dutch were tall and blonde, and had a tulip sticking out of their wooden shoes. If you looked closely, you could see the callous on one of their fingers from plugging dikes.

The Italians spoke really fast and elected a new government before the train boarded.

The Spanish spoke Spanish and seemed very inquisitive. 

The French spoke French we could understand (sans joual), and were preparing for a general strike to protect their right to designer clothing and Gitannes cigarettes.

There might have been some Americans, but if there were, they were too busy borrowing money from the Chinese people in the waiting area to buy cheap shiny Chinese-made trinkets.

 Eventually we boarded the train, which involved descending a large set of stairs with all our luggage, dragging them down the platform, up the steps into the right train car, and upon finding our cabin, finding a way to store our things in a way that allowed us to sit or move around.  That finished, Brad bought some more drinks from a guy on the platform, and ran to get back on the train before it left.

Our first stop was at 40.7529, 114.86343, Alt: 670.0 m.  We don’t know why.  Soon after this we ate lunch:

  • Fried egg with tomato
  • Sweet and sour pork
  • 5 bowls rice
  • 2 cokes + 3 orange juice

Total = 90 rmb = CAD$13.00

Sometime after lunch, we passed here:  40.47925, 114.09649, Alt: 986.0 m at 75km/hr, going SW (heading 227 degrees), which seems entirely wrong, since UB is NNW of Beijing.

We passed through an agricultural area, which consisted mainly of fairly small plots. Being from Saskatchewan gave us a distinct advantage over our fellow urban travellers who do not recognize many foods outside the aisles of Safeway, SPAR, Aldi, or Carrefour. We saw corn, peas, cabbage, tree seedlings (this is not a grocery item for those of you who might get sucked in by the context), potatoes, sunflowers, various root vegetables, some orchards, irrigation (primarily flood irrigation using temporary ditches), poplar trees, canola or mustard intercropped with corn, and more. All of this grew reasonably well in the light brown sandy soil.

We passed towns with lots of old buildings, but lots of new residential (apartment) construction and usually 5-10 construction cranes near the town centre or along the main drag.  Lots of big new gas stations (Sinopec and others), but rarely with customers.  Very few cars were on the road – vehicles were more likely to be trucks, small vans, passenger buses and motorcycles.

Everywhere we looked there was a lot of new infrastructure. In the construction phase, Chinese constructions sites are adept at adopting a look of total chaos, as if no one is in charge. But the finished product (bridges, highways, etc.) seems to be up to any standard once complete.

We passed impeccable toll highways (in Communist China, no less) and thought about the state of our highways back home.  What would the toll be like from Regina to Swift Current?  Would it be less than the toll that trip takes on my car?

New power lines were being strung everywhere, and we saw many high voltage transmission towers waiting for the wires to be strung.

About 6 hours out of Beijing, it was still hazy, but the visibility was gradually improving, and we hoped the humidity was going down as well.  If it was, we couldn’t tell.

At 13:35 (40.11772, 113.45798, Alt: 1118.0 m, heading WNW), we passed some mud-walled housing, just like in Africa. Up to this point, the houses had been brick/concrete with ceramic tile roofing, but these mud brick places had walls in need of much repair.

At 13:50, we arrived in Datong, Shanxi, China.  According to the signs, we were right on time. “Datong” translates to English as “place of many construction cranes”. The Wikipedia entry says the population is 3.1 million. And since Wikipedia doesn’t actually define the units as people, I prefer to think they are referring to cranes.  We saw far more cranes and new buildings and new roads than we did people or cars.

The train stopped for 30 minutes at 40.12004, 113.2965, Alt: 1042.0 m before carrying on.  If you go to that location in Google Earth, you can click on some of the photos posted by other users. Their photos were clearly taken on a different day than us – we couldn’t see the horizon due to the hazy smog.

We figured we must be starting to get close to the Gobi Desert.  Any natural growth seemed to just be short grasses. Most of the trees appeared to be planted.  And there were big coal trains going south. Some were so overloaded, they had their sides built up with bamboo to keep the coal from falling out.

The Mongolian lady in the next cabin started to look out the window, as if she might start to see home.  Her small boy was wearing a Tigger shirt that said “Tiger” on it.

At 16:05, we came to 40.99555, 113.10154, Alt: 1287.0 m.

Looking back on it, I’m not sure why we didn’t instinctively see that this was the twin cities of Malianquxian-Ulanqab.  But somehow we missed that fact at the time. Here, we saw a lot of roadside billboard ads, just as if we were approaching Wall Drug in Wall, SD.  It felt sorta North American, but without all the North American stuff to convince you it might be true.

After a 10 minute station stop in which Brad bought orange juice and ice cold water from a guy on the platform for $1 (in total, not each), the train continued on.  Our notes say we passed through a place called “Genia”, with a notation that the spelling is not right.  After looking at the map, it is clear that something happened with our spelling, because “Genia” looks nothing like any of these places we passed through:

  • Yadefang
  • Houying
  • Lijia Pocun
  • Songquancun
  • Nanwacun
  • Songjia Liang
  • Sansheng Cun
  • Renyicun
  • Hanjiacun
  • Pengjiacun
  • Miaowan Zicun
  • Qujiacun
  • Zhaojiafang
  • Xiwanzi
  • Daliuhaoxiang
  • Hejia Decun
  • Xiajianghexiang
  • Qianshuangjing
  • Gaojia Decun
  • Wulan Hada Sumu
  • Qiaojiacun
  • Hongge’ertuxiang (maybe it was this one)
  • Sangui Room (it’s a happy place)
  • Aguituxiang
  • Tumu’ertaizhen

At 18:30, we had used up all the ink in our pens trying to write down the names of places, so we were glad the train made a quick stop at Zhurihezhen, a mining town in the middle of what was now clearly a desert. The sandy featureless terrain gave it away, and along with the desert, the sky made an appearance in its glorious blueness. We could even see the horizon again.

About 20:30, we pulled in to Erlian, aka Erenhot, Eriyen, or Ereen, the Chinese border city. Wikipedia says it has 16,000 people, but that may have been referring to the average amount of Chinese yuan spent in the grocery store at the train station by each trainload of passing tourists. For a place with the population of Yorkton or Swift Current, it had an amazing array of buildings and development going on.

(43.65436,  111.98083, Alt: 943.0 m – I’m not sure how this reading came about, because I never made it around to the city side of the train station. I believe I was actually about 6,223 cm due east of this location when I took the reading.)

The public address system announced a 1 hour stop in English, Chinese and Mongolian. It said we could get off the train and use a “grocery store where you can relax at your pleasure”.  Our passports were gathered by female Chinese immigration officials and taken away to their own location to relax at their pleasure.

The kids were asleep, so we were clearly not leaving the train, but I decided to try the store anyway.  I made it there and back in just the nick of time before the train left the station and went off to get a new set of wheels better suited to Mongolian rail gauge.  Continuous announcements appealed for us to “Please inform us on our service.”

We went to this building (43°39’51.88″N, 111°58’21.42″E) to change our wheels, which required them to slam the train back and forth in order to separate the passenger cars, jack them up individually, whisk away the old wheels, slide the new wheels into position, and lower each car back down, followed by slamming all the cars back together.  During this time, the cars were locked so you couldn’t get out, and the bathrooms were locked so you couldn’t let other things out.  (Remember, these rail cars have toilets that dump onto the tracks.  The guys jacking up the trains weren’t wearing rain gear, so it was probably a good idea to lock the bathrooms.)

We emerged from the rail shed to the darkness of night.  Every apartment and house (and guard shack) in sight gave off the eerie blue glow of a television set.

We returned to the station, where our fellow passengers reboarded the train, and our passports were returned at about 23:40.  After honking the train horn about 4.2 trillion times, and slamming the train around on the tracks, we departed Erlian at about 00:21 to the pre-recorded sound of a telephone ringing over the platform public address system and a weak vuvuzela horn sound from the front of the train.  This was followed by a patriotic military march and all the immigration and security people standing at attention while facing the train.

I waved.

As we pulled out, we saw that most of the televisions had been turned off, and people had gone to bed (with earplugs, no doubt, since 4.2 trillion honks of anything is bound to keep a person awake).  It is also reported that mosquito repellent sales are very high in Erlian.  Locals have noticed a bothersome mosquito noise in their bedrooms at approximately 00:21 several times per week, and during the recent World Cup, officials were worried when local people would put on mosquito spray prior to tuning in.

[We pause for a moment of informing the Chinese on their service:  The border procedures on the Chinese side took almost 4 hours from the time we arrived in Erlian until we left.  Why did your announcement only say 1 hour?  You should also say something like: "Go shop at the store if you like, but we'll lock you out of your car and make you sit around on the platform for several hours. It might rain on you, but seeing as this is the desert, that's unlikely. (In winter, warn against hypothermia.)  Or if you stay on the train, we'll lock the bathrooms and we'll lock you in your car, and then you can watch us change the wheels, but we'll shut off the power so that your fan quits and you almost suffocate in that there shed over there."  Just a thought.]

By now, most of the televisions had been turned off, and we arrived at the Mongolia border post @ 00:40.

At the Mongolian border, the border guards conducted the routine inspection-under-the-train-with-flashlights to look for people trying to sneak into Mongolia.  Some of the guards were even armed with AK47s.  In spite of Chinese claims that the Great Wall was built to keep out the hoard of Mongolian invaders from the north, it seemed that these Mongolians like the Great Wall too.  It helps hold back the Chinese hoard from the south.

And with a crisp salute to the departing train from the border guys (I waved), off we went to customs and immigration, several miles further up the line. Arrived at 00:55.

Here, well-dressed female Mongolian border officials in spiky high heels and with English language only nametags came on the train.  Their uniforms said “Mongolia Border Protection Services”.

At 01:45, we got our passports back, and the train left at 02:10.  Total interaction with Mongolian border officials = 90 minutes.  Hats off to the MBPS.

At 04:40, the train stopped next to train of logs at a place called Orgon.  We only know this because of GPS. (44.72408, 110.77478, Alt: 972.0 m)  Because of the train of logs between us and the town, we never saw it.  A domestic passenger train passed going the other way, and we sat still until 05:30.

By now, we had drunk the train dry of Coke, which was cheaper on the Chinese side of the border than on the Mongolian side.  One of the kids bought a Pepsi, much to the chagrin of their father.  It cost $1.50 and was from Singapore.

At 12:30 passed through a place MAAHBT in Cyrillic script.  If memory serves, this would translate to something like Manvt.  And by 1:30, we arrived in UB.  Our driver and the person meeting us knew which car we were in, so they dove onto the train, helped us drag our luggage off the train, up some steps, down some steps, across a rough parking lot, up some steps, into the back of a 4×4 right hand drive Chamonix van, and off we went, to the apartment that would be our home for the next four weeks.

Next entry: Life in UB – the coldest capital in the world (thankfully in summer).

→ 2 CommentsTags: China · Mongolia · Travel · Uncategorized

Thinking Back on China

August 22nd, 2010 · 2 Comments

It has been several weeks since we were in China, land of deadened skies. It has been thusly named in contrast to the slogan of the place from which we come.  Saskatchewan – Land of Living Skies.

In China, we never once saw the sun.  Our photos are witness to the fact that the sky remained a smoggy, humid, grey colour, not unlike used bathwater, but without the ring around the edges.

In lieu of a ring of petrified solids ringing the outer edge, China has the Great Wall.  And no amount of scrubbing with the latest descaler or CLR will remove it. It is the product of 2,000 years of history and untold millions of man-hours of labour and sweat.  But more on that later.

Our time in Beijing was enjoyable, within limits.  We would not recommend going in July unless you like wet saunas and grey skies.  October or May sound like promising months, when the skies are clear and the temperatures moderate. 

Our flight to Beijing was uneventful.  Leaving Regina at 8:45 am on the direct flight to Vancouver, we made it in plenty of time to cruise YVR, buy some pizza and subs, and find the gate, oddly placed approximately 2 days’ walk from the closest toilets.

About half of the people getting on the Air Canada plane for Beijing had Canadian passports.  The rest were a mishmash of other places, with an emphasis on the USA and China. We had chosen Air Canada over the slightly less expensive Air China option later the same day for several reasons:

  • Online reviews said the Air Canada in-flight entertainment system was better (and our kids had expectations after last year’s flight to Frankfurt on Lufthansa);
  • It was said that the seat pitch on Air China’s planes is one inch less than on Air Canada.  If you are me (Brad), this is important.  Seat pitch is code for leg room.
  • The rumour mill also stated that Air Canada’s in-flight food was slightly more predictable than Air China’s. While we didn’t expect Air China to be handing out deep-fried scorpions like you can actually get in Beijing, we knew the kids would appreciate something normal in the last few hours during which normal might be available.

After an uneventful flight across the International Date Line (the plane didn’t even have to slow down to pay a toll or anything), we landed in Beijing a few minutes later than the scheduled time. We didn’t actually know we were landing until seconds before actually doing so, because the visibility was so poor.

Taxiing up to the terminal, it was obvious that Beijing’s airport is massive, a theory which is also confirmed by observing the airport from the inside.  Massive and mostly empty translates into a long walk to a short line through immigration. At each immigration officer’s desk, they had a small electronic device facing the incoming passengers.  It displayed the badge number of the officer and requested that you use one of four buttons to indicate your level of customer service satisfaction with your immigration officer. Impression so far – pretty impressive. A communist country was interested in real time customer satisfaction feedback, a concept which would be instantly rejected by any (immigration officers’/city workers’/teachers’) union back home.

From immigration, you go down an escalator and board a train, which takes you several kilometers to a different building where your luggage has already arrived. With nothing to declare except “Wow, these Chinese guys built a nice airport” we zipped through customs and into a throng of placard waving locals. It turned out they weren’t on strike or cheering the arrival of the national ping pong team – they were tour guides waving the names of their customers in the hopes of collecting them quickly and retiring to the air conditioned comfort of their buses and minivans.

We had previously been emailed a photo of our guide, so it was easily to find Tony in the crowd.  His sign displaying a misspelled “Farquhar” confirmed it.  Tony led us to the elevators.

Now one would think that an airport serving a capital region of something like 30 million would have more than two elevators.  And one would think that such elevators would be large enough to carry more than one or two luggage carts at once.  But one’s thinking would reveal one’s roots in the Western World.

Downstairs, we found our driver and van (some kind of Mercedes minivan, unless it has a knock-off hood ornament), and away we went.

They took us to our hotel, the Guxiang 20 Hotel, which was described as a “courtyard boutique hotel” in a hutong, which is a traditional Beijing neighbourhood.  This was correct.  The hotel was indeed in a hutong, albeit a slightly touristified one containing the Beijing Backpackers’ Hostel and the requisite number of surrounding coffee houses and hookah pipe establishments.  And t-shirt shops selling “Oba Mao” t-shirts featuring the US President wearing a Mao jacket and cap.  The alley was very crowded, and sometime hard to navigate.  Anyone on a business trip looking for easy taxi access to and from their hotel should be warned off.

However, the hotel was good.  By good, I mean air conditioned.  Nothing else matters in Beijing in July except A/C.  We had two nice rooms with all the usual amenities, comfortable beds, nice bathrooms, in-room safe (albeit not attached to anything, so an intruder could just carry the whole thing off if he were sufficiently convinced of the value of doing so).

On our arrival day, there was actually nothing on the schedule, so in the interest of staying awake until an appropriate bedtime, we walked the streets to look around.  We had supper at what turned out to be a wonton soup specialty place which had a plaque outside proclaiming the stamp of approval of the Central Committee.  We pointed and waved and somehow ate some things like Cod Wonton Soup and Orange Fanta.  Total cost: 71 rmb, or about $12. 

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a Quik Mart, where we bought BBQ chips, Coke, Lemonade, and ice cream drumsticks.  Total cost: $3.

The hotel included a buffet breakfast, which we ate by ourselves on 2 of 4 days there.  It was not a big hotel (maybe 32 rooms), and for the most part, they seemed unoccupied.  Which meant the staff were attentive, albeit in a language we did not understand.  The breakfast included some things we recognized, some things we didn’t recognize, and some things whose names we recognized, but which we did not recognize upon further examination.  After figuring out which ones were the octopus and the squid, we stuck to the things we did recognize and ate well.  Who knew fried rice for breakfast could be so good?

On our table was a no-smoking sign placed there courtesy of the Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee.  The background music was Bryan Adams (Everything I Do).

 Each morning, Tony and our driver would be ready at the appointed time to take us out into the sauna in search of adventure.

 Day 1

Tienanmen Square

  • Brad bought a Chairman Mao watch for $5 from a street vendor.  It stopped 6 hours later and the stem fell out.  Chairman Mao’s time is running out.  At Tienanmen Square, there were massive lineups of Chinese tourists waiting to see Chairman Mao’s frozen body lying in state.  Many of these were tourists from the countryside who had rarely seen Westerners in their lives.  So our 3-child family of giants with blond-ish and/or curly hair got a lot of attention in this land of 1-child families of short-ish people with black hair.  Many stopped us and asked (much using of hand motions and waving of cameras) to have their photos taken with us.  We are probably featured more often in other people’s Facebook Beijing Trip Photo Albums than our own.
  • Tienanmen Square is so big that even though there were probably hundreds of Western tourists there, you couldn’t find them and they represented less that 0.01% of the people present.
  • There was a significant police presence.

Forbidden City

  • Big, and by the crowds present, no longer forbidden. The Chinese emperors knew how to put on a show.

Peking Duck Lunch

  • Kung Pow (literal translation from menu – The Temple Explodes the Chicken)
  • Beef
  • Broccoli
  • Coke/Sprite
  • Peking Duck

Toy Market 

  • Basically a big mall full of small stands with people selling plastic do-dads with a life span slightly longer than it would take you to leave the building.  However, I did find a new watch band to replace my broken one, and it really is real leather.  At $6, I should have bought several – they always cost me more than $20 at The Bay.

Did I mention it was hot and humid? 

Acrobat Show

  • Thankfully indoors with A/C and expensive snacks.  Background music prior to the show: Sarah McLaughlin.  The only downside was that the theatre was designed by the same people who designed Tajikistan Airlines seating plans.  This was a place for people with short femurs.
  • We bought some Pringles at usurious prices at the Acrobat Show.  They also had chips with some crazy flavours: Mexican Tomato Chicken, Italian Meat Sauce, French Chicken, Seaweed, Crab, etc.
  • Before the Acrobat Show, the announcer asked people to “Please turn down your iPhone”. (Yeah, Dale.)

Supper was in a bar up the street from the hotel.  The kids were falling asleep, but the bacon spaghetti with meat sauce was good, to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel.

Day 2


  • Like yesterday, but with a different group of unidentifiable items

Summer Palace

  • We drove to NW Beijing to the Summer Palace, which maintains all of its charms from the Imperial Era, right down to the parking lot full of tourist buses and a McDonald’s right across the street.
  • We rented a pedal boat (big enough for all of us) and toured the man-made lake, wondering why we were pedaling in the heat.  Although the Summer Palace was 1-2 degrees cooler than downtown, pedaling a boat for an hour in 45 degree temps (with humidex) was a sure way to completely drench yourself in your own sweat.

Hutong Cooking Lessons/Tour/Lunch

  • We drove back to the Drum Tower area (actually near our hotel) and switched to rickshaws.  At two people per rickshaw, it took 3 of them to carry us.  Lynette and Annie’s rickshaw had brakes, but they only made noise rather than actually slowing them down.  This was added to by the sound of them crashing into the back of Tommy & Brad’s rickshaw everytime we stopped.
  • At one stop, we got out and went down a circuitous alley and through a door, where we were motioned to an empty table.  The other table in the room was occupied by people speaking Spanish.  We were served a great Chinese lunch, and then we were given dumpling making lessons along with a Dutch couple.  Lynette and Annie shone at this, and then it was time to leave.

Hutong Tour on Rickshaw

  • We had a fun ride through the hutong on the rickshaws, dodging chickens, children, and Toyota Camrys.

Kung Fu Show

  • After a one hour rest break back at the hotel at the request of the kids, we went to a Kung Fu Show at The Red Theatre.  Fun was had by all, especially when the Kung Fu guys broke things on their heads.
  • In the interest of normal(ish), we got dropped at the McDonalds near the Drum Tower for supper and then walked back to our hotel.  The McDonalds was refreshing, but we were soaked in our own sweat again from just the short walk back to the hotel.

Day 3

Ming Tombs

  • We drove out of the city (or so we thought) to the Ming Tombs.  We visited the Ding Ling tomb (40.29278, 116.22238), which is the only one which has been excavated.  He was apparently one of the worst emperors ever, which is understandable when you look at his name.  His punishment appears to be to have tourists come through his burial site.
  • Then we went to a Chinese restaurant somewhere west of 40.22049, 116.26194.
  • Then we drove toward the Great Wall, getting temporarily lost here: 40.28898, 116.58196.  Our drive took us past endless construction and development, including car dealerships and fancy apartments.

Great Wall

  • Eventually we arrived at the Wall, where we struggled against gravity and sweat and tiredness to walk up to the Wall, reaching the local high point at 40.67805, 117.22912 (alt: 450 m).  Then we walked down and had supper on a road near some kids playing ping pong (you know the place, don’t you?  It’s somewhere just up the road from 40.68457, 117.23707)
  • Then once it was dark, we walked up a different road and paths and stairs to a different part of the wall, where we struggled against gravity and sweat and tiredness and darkness to the Wall.  Then we walked along the Wall to the next tower, and upon climbing to the top of it, we reached our sleeping spot at 40.67632, 117.23962.
  • Our guide unlocked the tower, handed out sleeping bags, pillows, and sleeping pads.  Then he showed us the bathrooms (a blue bucket) and said he’d be back with breakfast at 5:30 am.
  • We were all up by 5:00 am waiting for him to arrive.  We’d been woken by some Chinese tourists in the next tower who were determined to photograph the sunrise.  One never came due to the smog.  The guide said that in July, they had only had a sunrise on July 8th. There was too much smog on the other days.
  • After a quick breakfast of bananas and muesli, we set off on a hike of the Great Wall.  The normal tour includes 30 towers, which is about 6 miles.  Due to construction, we only did half of this.  We are glad, because otherwise we would be dead.
  • Once we reached “the end”, we had to walk down a path of a couple of miles to get to the road.  During this walk, I (Brad) redefined the term “showerhead”, giving myself a shower from the sweat falling from my head.  I have never been so wet in a t-shirt without being in a lake.
  • Once we reached the road, we drove back to Beijing, and most of us (excluding the driver, thankfully) fell asleep.  Upon reaching the city, we passed new dealerships for Jaguar, VW, Cadillac, Toyota & Rolls Royce (somewhere around 40.01833, 116.43821).

Olympic Venues (39.99235, 116.38582)

  • We went straight to the Olympic stadium area and walked from the Water Cube to the other side of the Bird’s Nest stadium.  By the time we got there, we were soaked again.  

Golden Hans

  • Then our guide took us to a “normal Western buffet” called Golden Hans somewhere near the North 4th Ring Road (they have 6).  It was a sort of German-Chinese brewpub with a buffet full of weirdness.  And the AC wasn’t working.  We struggled through and ran back to the van.

I dropped the family off at the hotel and had the guide take me to the China International Travel Service office to pick up our train tickets for the next day.  I had ordered them online and paid for them via Paypal.  Everything worked out fine.

For supper, no one wanted to leave the hotel.  So in desperation, I remembered that I’d seen some McDonald’s delivery guys on bikes.  After convincing the front desk staff that this was conceivably possible, they found a phone number, dialed, and gave me the phone.  On the other end was a clear English speaker who took my order, including all the crazy customizing we have to do to Jack’s cheeseburgers.  When they asked the address, I gave the phone back to the front desk girl who talked for a while.  I was told it would cost $1 for delivery and that it would arrive in less than 30 minutes.

Only 10 minutes after hanging up the phone, there was a knock at our room door, and our food had arrived.  I tried to tip the delivery guy, but he didn’t understand.  Neither did the girl from the front desk.  So I gave up and paid with the right change, and settled down to a hero’s welcome from my family as the best hunter/gatherer in the universe. 

Leaving Beijing 

The next morning, Tony came for us at 6 am and delivered us to the train station.  He helped us find the right gate, and we waited in line with a bunch of other Western (read European) tourists for our train.  Once the gate opened, we carried our bags down a large flight of stairs, searched for Carriage #8, and then Berths #5-9, and installed ourselves for the 30 hour ride to Ulaanbaatar.

→ 2 CommentsTags: China · Travel

Went to the country, ate a lot of mutton

August 12th, 2010 · 3 Comments

So earlier this week, we were scheduled to go visit some projects run by an NGO called FARM.  We were to be guests of the Executive Director, a Mongolian Brad has met earlier, and all five of us were going.

His vehicle couldn’t fit us all, so he arranged a mini-van.  I agreed to pay the driver and for the fuel.  When you rent a vehicle here, it comes with a driver.  How else would they know you would bring it back?

At the appointed time of 8 am on Tuesday morning ,we came out of the apartment and found the van.  It was a Hyandai something-or-other.

There were 4 people waiting for us.  The ED, the driver, an older unshaven guy with a fedora, and a woman.  The van was already riding low in the back end. 

The older guy turned out to be the watchman from one of the projects we would visit, and he needed to be returned there after a few days in Ulaanbaatar (UB).  The woman was the organization’s head agrologist – she spoke some, but not much English.

We threw our luggage in the back, piled in, and took off. 

Halfway across the city, we suddenly stopped on the street and a guy with a Dell computer bag and a sleeping back piled in, filing the last available seat.  I still don’t know his name, but he spoke pretty good English.  We later learned, he had recently joined the organization as a Project Manager, and that this was his first visit to these projects.

A little further along, while still in the city, we stopped in front of a shop and the watchman hopped out and disappeared.  After a while, we came back with a small plastic bag which contained a large can of beer, a big bundle of tobacco, and a pack of smokes. He gave the cigarettes to the driver, and away we went.

About a mile later, the watchman suddenly started talking urgently, we pulled over to the side of the road, and turned around.  Then we let ourselves in to the gated yard of what looked like an abandoned factory. We drove through the compound and around to the back, passing piles of gravel and old bits of disassembled Soviet apartment buildings. At the back, we loaded a bunch of t-bar metal in the back of the van with the help of a guy who appeared from nowhere. On the way out, we were stopped by a woman who lived in an old ger on the property and we almost ran over her children and dogs.

Then we stopped to buy fuel.  I paid 86,000 T to fill up the van with 68.8 L of diesel. They also filled up some jerry cans in the back.  I didn’t get out to check, but I’d be amazed if we weren’t driving on the axles by this point.

300 m down the road, we stopped again – this time to inflate the tires at a tire shop make out of an old blue shipping container with a sign on the side.  Some men were wrestling the wheel off a dual axle dump truck.

So at 9:20, we finally left the city.

Along the way, I took some GPS readings with my Blackberry so I could keep track of where we went.  Occasionally, I will put those in here.  Just copy and paste to Google Earth or Google Maps to follow along.

47.91311, 106.32485

We turned off the pavement for a place called Bayansogt somewhere near 47.91728, 106.13487.

We drove across country, following a dirt track for well over 30 minutes.  Up and over a small mountain range, and through some valleys in behind.  We passed some canola fields with odd seeding patterns.

We can to Bayansogt and visited a 40 ha farm nursery, where they were digging root cellers by hand and some guys were drilling a well with some ancient drilling equipment.  They also had an old circus wagon which they lived in.  48.03669, 105.82162

This location was in a huge valley which would have all been cultivated land back home in Canada.  But it was mostly used for grazing.  In Mongolia, people use fences to keep animals out of cultivated crops.  In Canada, we use fences to keep animals in their pastures.  But that’s what happens when your whole country is a pasture, and there aren’t many cultivated acres.

Bayansogt used to be an old collective dairy farm in the communist days, but it had clearly fallen into disrepair and only about 20 families remained.

After a snack in the watchman’s ger, we hit the road (dirt track with grass in the middle). We left the watchman behind, so we had a bit more seating room.

Something happened at 47.93788, 105.61419 and at another undisclosed location that I am not allowed to talk about.  But it was bumpy and would give anyone with a fragile stomach a fragile stomach.

Then we suddenly saw three huge pigs wander by.  And immediately after, Brad’s seat broke, reducing us to tight seating all over again.  This took place only 500 m before getting back on the paved highway.

We rejoiced at the smooth road, only to have it run out about 25 km later. A new part was being built, so it was back to the track, which ran parallel to the road in a meandering way for the next 30-40 minutes.

47.61506, 104.85452

We stopped for lunch at 4 pm at a place called Altai San.  It was a sort of food stop where the truckers and long distance buses stopped for a break and food.  We had some noodle soup (with mutton), some eggs, and a Coke and hit the road.

A while later, we came to a place whose sign read PAWAAHT, which is actually RASHAANT in English. It looked like a substantial place of sort, with a bunch of old soviet industry. Here we stopped on the side of the road and met some Chinese looking guys in a truck. We gave them some stuff out of the back of the van.

When we went to leave, the van wouldn’t start, so we had to push-start it backwards down a hill.  And off we went.

Shortly after, we stopped at some dunes and got mobbed by kids with camels.  Lynette and Jack rode bactrian (two-humped) camels for 5,000 T (about $4.00 – not each – total).  If you follow the road in Google Earth, this is by the green area the road passes through.

A busload of Japanese tourists was there, and some of the girls were trying to take pictures of themselves jumping in the air on the dunes.

5:30 pm – off we went (again).

6:42 pm – the road suddenly turned to gravel, just like it sometimes does in Saskatchewan.  This took place at 46.95983, 102.93945.

For quite a while, Tommy talked about cheeseburgers.

7:10 pm – Arrived in Khujirt by fording a small stream five times. It is a town of significance (about 8,000 people) in what feels like the middle of nowhere, particularly when considering the condition of the “roads”.

We checked in to a ger camp, where they set our family up in one ger with 5 beds.  Brad’s bed was at 46.9063, 102.76851

Then we went to a restaurant, which was more of a karaoke bar with ping pong & pool tables and a small confectionary.  The woman said she could cook something, but it would take over an hour to make food.  That was at 46.89825, 102.77541

So we went looking for another restaurant and found a ger restaurant, where we waited over an hour for them to make food, but we got to watch.  By now it was dark - we’re not sure how the lady didn’t cut off her fingers cutting noodles in the dark.

It was a cold night.  All but Lynette were warm and reasonably comfortable.  When we woke up, it felt colder inside than it turned out to be outside.

For breakfast, we went to the farm project at 46.90728, 102.76135 and ate in the ger.  We had candies, cookies, scrambled eggs, tea, endless fresh cucumbers from the greenhouse, and bread with raspberry jam.

We inspected the crops (an August 7 frost had really damaged the potatoes) and toured around. Then we used the latrine pit and hit the road.

At 1:40 pm, we came to the Altai San again and stopped.  The bathrooms were locked because the power was off.  While using the outhouse, we saw some guys poking sticks into a big transformer out back, and when we got back inside, the power was on again.

We had some fried beef with egg and some steamed bread with Coke and were very happily full.  It cost 8,000 T for our family (about $6.00).  A bus had just stopped before us, so their mugs were all dirty.  So we drank Coke out of bowls.

A while further down the road, we bought 34,750 T of fuel.  By 4:00 pm, we were obviously going down more than up because the driver was coasting the van down all the hills in an effort to save fuel.  I guess he got to keep whatever was left over, so why not?

We came back to the construction detour:
Start: 47.88438, 105.32483
End: 47.89373, 105.50329

We got back to the city at 6:10, and after fighting our way through traffic and dropping off the new Project Manager, made it home at about 7:00 pm.

For photos, see my Facebook pics for “Mongolia – Trip to the Countryside”.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Mongolia · Travel

Jackie Chan in Ulaanbaatar

July 31st, 2010 · 2 Comments

There will be travelogues of our time in China and our train trip to Mongolia soon, but those take a lot of work and a bunch of photo optimization.

So for the time being, you’ll have to be satisfied with the news that we went to Karate Kid 2 today at the Urgoo Cinema.  English with Mongolian subtitles.

We knew the movie was in town, but we couldn’t remember the name of the theatre (so we obviously didn’t know where it was either).  And we didn’t know the showtimes.

So we texted someone who could tell us the name, and then found the website of the theatre, which had showtimes (thankfully numbers here are the same as our’s, because we couldn’t read much else – see for yourself).  There was a 16:40 showing, so after checking Google Earth and finding the location, we figured we could get there on time.

But first we needed groceries, so Jack & Tommy & I ran down the 5 flights of stairs, past the smoking police officer, and down the hill to the grocery store (dodging traffic and construction equipment), where we bought the following for 13,000 tugruks (just under CAD$10):

  • 10 eggs
  • 4 big potatoes
  • 2 bunches of carrots
  • a 1L box of orange juice
  • 6 yogurts (Cherry & Berry flavour)
  • 1 loaf of bread

Then we ran back up the hill, up the five flights of stairs, past the smoking police officer and the victims of the crime moaning in the stairwell, grabbed our sweaters and womenfolk (Annie & Lynette, and not by the hair) and ran back down the five flights of stairs, past the police (cigarette was done by now) and the victims and the neighbour of the victims who wanted details, and then around the corner and up the hill to the main road.

Dodging cars, we made it alive to the other side, where I stood facing oncoming traffic, raised my outstretched right arm to waist height, and flapped my hand into traffic.  The very first car swung to the curb to pick us up.  (This is how the taxi system works here – there are no taxis because everyone is a taxi.) 

It was a tiny yellow beat up Hyundai Accent, and we all piled in.  I said Urgoo Cinema, the driver nodded, and we took off.  We never reached a very high speed, but after only 10 minutes of dodging potholes, Toyota Land Cruisers, diesel spewing buses, hoards of minibuses, and pedestrians, while paying some, but not much attention, to the rules of the road, we pulled up in front of the theatre.  The guy’s trip odometer said 3.4 km, so I peeled off a 5,000 tugruk note and gave it to him.  The going rate being 500 tugruks per km, he gave me 1,500 back in change, and off we went.

The theatre could have been any modern multiplex theatre back home.  There were 4 theatres, and everything was shiny and computerized.  You could even buy tickets on your Blackberry (see the theatre website for details in Mongolian). The ticket seller spoke enough English that I knew how much to pay her (17,000 tugruks), she handed me the tickets and away we went.  Another 6,000 for popcorn, a can of Miranda Orange (pretty much Orange Fanta, but Jack says Fanta is better), and a can of Mountain Dew (the kind with all the caffeine like in the USA), and we went off to find the theatre.  There was a video arcade, and there were designer-clad young people everywhere, either talking or texting on their mobile phones.

Moments later, a ticket taker opened the theatre, tore her part off our tickets and in we went. The theatre had theatre style seating, really comfortable padded seats that reclined, and arm rests that went up and down between the seats (like on an airplane) with cup holders in the end of them.  A very nice setup.  Obviously new, and obviously professional.

As the on-screen commercials were about to start, a guy showed up and gestured that I was in his seat.  It turned out the funny numbers we couldn’t understand on our tickets were seat numbers – we had assigned seating.  So we moved from Row 8, seats 4-8 to Row 13, seats 3-7, where we should have been.  This was the back row of the theatre – the sight lines were terrific, and the digital surround sound was great.

After the movie, we checked out the bathrooms – busy with lots of people coming and going – just to see what they had done there.  Hands-free sensors on everything, glass tile on the walls, and nice western style toilets to go with it.  I didn’t even see any footprints on the seats or the rims.  (See my Tajikistan blog entries for an explanation – I’ll post the link when I find it.)

Then we went outside and watched some guys thrash around inside clear plastic balls on a large wading pool (they inflated them with a shopvac in reverse and leaf blowers).  Then we crossed the street (6-10 lanes, depending on the mood and volume of traffic at the time) one lane at a time, and made it alive to the other side.  I stepped up to the curb, flapped my hand like a seal flipper, and a guy in a beat up Fiat got to us first. 

I didn’t know how to describe where we were going, so I showed him on the map.  Off we went.  His gas gauge was on empty, but after 3.6 km (he took up right to the door), we were there.  I gave him 4,000 tugruks, got out, climbed five flights of stairs (stopping to observe the quickie repair job on the door that had been done to the door of apartment 115 after the earlier break in (remember those police that were hanging around)), and let ourselves back into our apartment.  We retrieved the boneless chicken breasts (that Lynette bought yesterday from the neighbour’s friend) that we had left thawing in the sun in Annie’s window, and shortly we will eat some fried chicken with potatoes and carrots.  The kids have had enough Chinese food, and it’s time for some comfort food.

So to sum up:

  • Taxi to theatre = 3,500
  • Movie tickets = 17,000
  • Snacks = 6,000
  • Taxi to home = 4,000
  • Total = 30,500 tugruks (CAD$23.99)

And through it all, we never did lose either water or power all day. A fine day in Ulaanbaatar, with Jackie Chan.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Mongolia · Travel

Beijing 2

July 26th, 2010 · No Comments

Internet continues to be a challenge, and when it is not, the heat and humidity tend to suck every bit of moisture, writing ambition, and coherent thought out of one’s mind.  This tends to lead to a shortage of blog entries.

We feel like we barely survived our overnight on the Great Wall, which, when accompanied by the dehydration inducing hike at first light this morning, makes us plenty happy to be back in air conditioned comfort.  We pick up our train tickets today, so we’re off to Mongolia at first light tomorrow.

By tomorrow, I mean Tuesday am local time, which is 14 hours ahead of Saskatchewan.

→ No CommentsTags: China · Travel

In Beijing

July 23rd, 2010 · 4 Comments

Well, we made it to Beijing, along with all our luggage.  Connecting to Twitter and Facebook is a challenge here due to certain Internet restrictions, so those updates will come later.

42 degrees with the humidex today – we guzzled water like there was no tomorrow, and our need of the facilities was not affected.  It just came out through our pores.  That much is just like Niger.  The part that wasn’t like Niger is that we noticed, and our clothes were drenched as a result, and I had to keep wiping sweat off the camera.

Agenda for today was:

  1. Tienanmen Square
  2. Forbidden City
  3. Peking Duck Lunch
  4. Visit to the Toy Market
  5. Acrobat Show

Lots of fun and fluids had by all, but by suppertime, we were ready to crash, which is what I am going to do now.

→ 4 CommentsTags: China

Countdown to Mongolia

July 12th, 2010 · 1 Comment

We are T minus 8 days to departure for Mongolia.  I think there’s not much left to do but pack and leave, except for all the other things that need doing.  And the trouble with having someone housesit for you is that you have to leave the place clean when you leave.  That’s way more challenging than just running out the door and yelling at the neighbour to check your mail while you are away.  You can always email them later to say they’d better drink the milk in the fridge so it doesn’t turn into blue cheese while you are away.

We think that what is going to happen is that we’ll post stuff here and then link to it from Twitter, which will link it to Facebook.  So if you’re already using those tools and you are following me (I saw you – don’t think I didn’t see you) or already my Friend, these buttons below may have some meaning for you.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask a 12 year old.  But you can’t ask mine – I’m taking him with me.


Does anybody have any Mongolian tögrög or tugrik lying around?  I could use some, because I like arriving in a place with some of their currency already in my pocket.  Apparently CAD$1.00 (CAD is the international code for the Canadian dollar, which brings a whole new meaning to “printing from your CAD program – if only!) is equal to 1316.8307 tugriks (sign: ; code: MNT).  Which means that after you change less than CAD$760 into MNT, you’re a millionaire, and you can leave your CAD printer at home.  It’s lighter.

Gotta go – I need to practice milking horses.

→ 1 CommentTags: Mongolia · Travel