Tuesday, August 12, 2014

10 things I've learnt about Mongolia

1. Meat is good, vegetables are bad
2. The pop music is strangely enjoyable
3. Knuckle bone shooting is surprisingly interesting
4. Mongolia has the worst driving I have ever seen
5. You'll end up with more bruises from being elbowed
5. Mongolians are the kindest and loveliest people
6. Mongolia is responsible for some of the most stunning scenery you'll ever see. 
7. The yak is my new favourite animal
8. Mongolia has a population of 3 million half of which live in Ulaan Bator. 
9. Three days is just not enough time to see Mongolia
10. It is not unusual to see the Mongolia Army dancing

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Day 5, 6 & 7: How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?

Day 5 - crazy horses

After putting on all out warm clothes on to go to breakfast we enjoyed a nice and relaxed morning. We took a short pony-trek around the hills and if Mum was here I would probably have a few photos on the horse to share on this blog. My pony was very sweet, although Paul had a few problems controlling his with the basics; stop and go.
Later that day we went back to Ulaan Bator with an evening to explore the city.

Day 6 and 7
Our first full day in UB was an early one, with a pick up from our inherited guide from the yurt (ger in Mongolian). We managed to arrange our stay to coincide with the opening ceremony of the Nadam Festival. Tickets were hard to find but we managed or get some without being ripped off (we later met many tourists who had been). Our ticket had 'free' seating, which meant that we could sit on any of the wooden crates. As we were early we had a good choice of prime crates to sit on. After an hour of waiting we realised why our guide insisted on us being so early. The whole area became so crowed with most people having to sit on the floor. The ceremony included processions from the army, officials, dancers, musicians and the president gave a speech. A personal highlight was the army dancing; a sight I never thought I'd see. The dancing can be most likened to the zombie Thriller dance.

Nadam Festival opening ceremony stadium

After the ceremony we took time to find some lunch. Ere had been a power failure across the whole area, which meant that the only places serving food were the few stalls wig gas stoves. The wait for lunch took about 90mins and lunch consisted of deep-fried pancakes with slices of meat inside (a bit like Findus crispy pancakes).
Other events we saw that day was archery, wrestling and the highly thrilling ankle-bone shooting (the anklebone of a sheep is flicked to knock down counters; a Mongolian tiddly-winks!).


Ankle bone shooting (you can feeling the excitement!)

The following morning was an evening earlier start with our guide and husband taking us to the races. This was about an hours drive out of the city. The 5 year old horse racing is the most popular type of horse racing in Mongolia. It was quite an unusual sight as the jockeys are between the ages on 7-10 (a law has been passed to protect children under the age of 7 from riding). The horses walk for 25km and the then race back 25km. Needless to say the 25km walk was not the most enthralling entertainment. Not to worry, the army were on hand to show us some impressive moves in their horses. Finally the horses were running the final part of their race and the excitement of seeing the horses pass lasted about 5 mins and then in true Mongolian style, everyone tried to leave at the same time result in a lot of chaos, pushing and shoving.

An official at the horse racing

Spectator's selfie with our guide and her husband 
Underage jockeys racing for the finishing line

The next challenge was finding where we had parked the car. after about an hour of looking it was eventually found. Next was to leave and join the traffic. Bored of the queues on the track, it was far more productive to drive through a field and race with the other cars. Relieved to still be alive we made it back to our apartment, ready to check out.
With five hours left before we had to catch our next train we went in a mission to find the vegetarian restaurant. I never thought I would be so sick of meat but with a lack of vegetables and eating just dark meat,  the thought of a vegetarian restaurant was quite appealing. When we found the restaurant (incidentally it was the No. 1 restaurant in Trip Advisor) we discovered many like minded tourists in need of the some vegetables.

Back to the train station. Next stop Irkutsk, Russia.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Day 4 ...and I say hello (Mongolia)

We arrived into Ulaan Bator at around 2.30pm, where we were greeted by a guide and taken straight to our yurt in the National Park. The surroundings here are so beautiful and peaceful.

Although it is pretty cold. We had a lovely dinner in the big yurt and then collected some wood for our stove. Dad, you would be very proud of my fire making skills. I used Beijing Lonely Planet photocopy pages to make paper-balls and  got the right size sticks and logs so it never went out until we went to bed! It's surprising how cold it is here and the log fire was a welcome addition to our yurt. Unfortunately, we awoke in the early hours because the fire had died and it was so so cold!

Day 3 - you say goodbye (China)

Beijing Train station; busy and large queues to enter the station. We found our platform easily enough and with time to stock up on important train supplies; water, apples, beer and mama noodles (well the Chinese equivalent).  

Beijing Station

We had a 4 berth cabin and we found ourselves sharing a cabin with two lovely Mexicans; Arturo and Eduardo. Time went quickly as we passed through Chinese scenery, chatting about life and eating the only dish left in the food carriage, scrambled egg and tomato.

Enjoying the Great Wall wine

View from the back of the train

We arrived at the Chinese-Mongolian border around 9.30pm to all the staff lined up along the platform and being greeted by some rousing military music. Passports were taken and then we all had to leave the train. In the immigration centre everyone was delighted that the was a little supermarket and warm beer and chocolate was stocked up. We then had the choice to get on the train or wait at the centre whilst they change the bogies. The tracks in Mongolia are different from those in China. We decided to stay on the train, which was great. We stood in our carriage as we were lifted up whilst they changed the bogies. This took about 2 hours. Once everyone got back on the train, passports were given back and eventually we left at 1.30am. Then we reached the Mongolian border. Sadly no music. Passports collected again and fortunately we could all stay on the train  we got to stay in our beds, but we're regularly woken up with officials coming in and turning our lights on. We eventually left at 4am and finally we could go to sleep.

Waiting at The Chinese border

Changing the bogies

Day 2 - Alll I need is the air that I breathe...

An earlier start today and we went to the Summer Palace via the metro. A beautiful day despite the pollution and heat.

We decided that it was essential that we had Beijing duck whilst in Beijing. I'm sure there's probably even a law that dictates this. Out comes my photocopied pages of the eating section of the Lonely Planet. There were two duck restaurants, we chose one and took he metro to the area. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring with us the pages with the map. So we spent an hour walking up and down a road looking for the restaurant. We eventually decided to ask someone and we found out we were on the wrong road. Restaurant found, very busy and we had to wait 30mins for a table. The hour walk and 30 min wait was worth it. We ordered a duck between us. Starting with pancakes, and hen they brought us duck soup, more duck (surprisingly) and a lovely dessert. The meal was finished with the traditional Chinese restaurant lycées. However, unlike the Chinese restaurants from the 90s, these were not in syrup from a tin, but instead beautifully fresh.
Full and satisfied we waddled back home.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Day 1 - so if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao..

We arrived at our hotel in Beijing at about 3am. After a long flight with Air Asia (the highlight was seeing the new Air Asia airport in KL, no really, this was a genuine highlight!), long queues at immigration and a drive with a taxi journey with a driver who didn't know where we were going, we finally made it. Our hotel, Michael's hotel, is probably the friendliest place I've been to in China. Despite arriving at 3am, Michael was there to cheerfully greet us.

Sleep, breakfast and we took the 22 bus to Tiananmen Square. We didn't quite make it early enough to see Chairman Mao, but that's something I can probably live with. Walking through to the end of the Square we visited the Forbidden City. Originally a palace during the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty.        

We left the Forbidden City via park. As we walked through the park we notice that there were mostly older women, advertising or selling something all along a great stretch of the park. We took a closer look and they have sheets of paper, with writing on them. They only thing we understood was a year on it. We realised this was a date of birth, ranging from 1978 -1989. Some had photos of women on them, and very occasionally a man. There were other women taking down notes or discussing with the 'owners'. When we got back to the hotel I googled (no wait, Google has been recently be blocked, I yahooed) to find out what this was about - www.atimes.com/atimes/China/JG10Ad02.html So the younger generation are frustrating their parents by not getting married, therefore the mothers are taking it into their own hands to find a suitable husband for their daughters. This happens every Sunday in the park.

After an exhausting and sweaty day we may have accidentally had a brief (or not-so brief) afternoon nap. Realising it was late we found a local restaurant to eat at. We grabbed our menu, entirely in Mandarin, Paul takes his Mandarin phrase book and we work out key words such as; pork, beef, steamed. After 30mins of studying he menu and With this exciting new vocabulary we tried to order some food. After some time trying to order the food, the waitress suddenly remembers she has a menu in English. Sigh. Food was delicious, especially the dumplings!

The Great Train Adventure; trains and boats and plane(s) and buses

So...I think it is about two years since I last wrote my blog (oops), I blame Facebook. Anyway, it seems a good opportunity to start it up again as we make the big journey from Beijing to Shrewsbury, UK over land this summer. Also, apologies for the terrible layout, I'm finding this quite a challenge on the iPad. The blog has been slightly delayed due to the recent banning of Google in China and then lack of internet on the trains, so I shall be posting an update today...