As I write this final post, the red light of the Australian outback is intensifying. There’s a storm coming through Boggabri, and it will whip the elastic branches of the gum trees into a frenzy. The kookaburras will take a break from all the laughing they were doing this afternoon, and the hares will flee into their hidey-holes. The hail will push to the ground through the heat, and we’ll all count seconds to see how close the lightning is to the farm.
So, if this post has a trace of melancholy, you’ll know why.
Let’s start by getting real deep. The result of my self-psychoanalysis is: I’ve taken so long to write this last blog post because it signals the end of this grand adventure. No revision is required from my previous post; we are indeed still “totally cool with” the trip being over. That being said, there’s a kind of sad contentedness about it. I think we are afraid that we will just slide into normal life and forget that the trip ever happened. Getting messages from our friends – all of whom are still traveling, or who live overseas – is like getting a text from a character in a dream. Surprising, surreal, and lovely.
Our re-entry into Australia was something. It’s boring to hear flight details, but it is pertinent to say that I didn’t sleep on the flight, and Luke barely did. Our friend Jason picked us up at the airport, and took us to his house in a brick-and-bitumen southern Sydney suburb. Long story short, the day’s highlights included me sitting alone in the nicely set up guest bedroom, racked with sobs because Luke had gone to the grocery store to get me fresh salad ingredients whilst I slept. You see, ever since Russia I’ve been dreaming – not just night dreaming, but daydreaming – of the produce section of an Australian grocery store. How could he, how could he, betray me by visiting this wonderland without me. It was terrible. Despite his bewildered protests on the day, it took me days to learn that it’s actually quite a nice thing for one’s husband to prepare a fresh salad for his wife while she sleeps.
But seriously, our grocery stores are AMAZING, and it’s not even like I’ve been living in rural Africa for 2 1/2 years like my cousins Kim and Doug. I remember Kim’s reports of being bewildered by American grocery stores upon her return; for me, it’s a joyous adventure. I practically skip through the aisles and literally let out gasps of delight when seeing things like perfect Mexican asparagus and $2 jars of sugar-free peanut butter. Aisles and aisles of every vegetable a body can dream of. It’s… it’s… Disneyland.
Our approach to food is an unexpected life change arising from this trip. We always wondered how our dear Hindmarshes had the self control to cook their own food for almost every meal. Now we realize that a long overland trip (such as they do on bicycles) builds self-catering into a habit and a joy. I can’t handle too much restaurant food; I like to have more control over what I eat. We even sometimes find restaurant food to be not as good as what we would would cook, and our’s isn’t covered in sugar. Luke and I now enjoy cooking together and have learned the pragmatic art of chatting whilst cleaning up.
You might notice that there are more “I”s in this post, as opposed to “we”s. Another aspect of coming home is that we have more time with other people present, and, *gasp*, have even spent hours at a time apart from one another. We miss each other, but it’s probably healthy.
Speaking of Luke and I, we’ve been delighted to find that the trip has had an excellent influence on our relationship. We’ve always heard that these overland trips lead to either a rock-solid partnership or divorce. Whilst we were unsure of the outcome at certain points, we are pleased to announce that our final result seems to be the former. Of course, this stuff was not always easy. There were tears, and repetitive, deeply emotional, repetitive conversations as only we as a couple can do them. Sometimes they involved the nature of our relationship and our selves; sometimes they were deeply divisive quarrels over where to buy a blanket. In any case, souls were searched, feelings were had, lessons were learned, etc., etc.
Let’s go with the ol’ bulleted list to let you know the other things we are surprised by:
We have been pleasantly surprised by how much people let us talk about our trip. We thought people would be rolling their eyes and telling us to shut up already after the 14th consecutive story about our bowel movements in such-a-such country. But, really, our loved ones have been very accommodating.
We didn’t realize how many friends we would make on this trip. And not just acquaintances, but people we will love for as long as we remember them. We’ve got a long list of people in countries that we’ll fail to visit as often as we’d like. In addition, we spend a lot more time on our various messaging apps.
I was surprised that I had a sense of judgey exoticism to lose. I thought, being an anthropology student, I saw all of humanity as one entity with beautiful, subtle differences. Well, turns out that I didn’t, because as we went, I felt more and more that people are all the same. Sure, some folks wear enormous colorful headdresses. Some people sacrifice goats of an afternoon, and some people work in offices. But really, we’re all the same. We all gotta make dinner, we have to help grandma stand up from the couch, we have to pee, we all like a hot beverage on a cold afternoon. And a lot of us work in offices.
In a shocking twist, we are excited about working again. I feel ideologically refreshed. Luke is all reared up to start the next part of our lives, especially as he’s looking to change up the way he earns a living (working on his own property projects rather than working for clients). It helps that today isn’t really the end of the adventure. After all, we are moving to California, starting a life in a new city with new jobs, new setting, new worldview.
Rather more unexpected than surprising is the way that we seem to remember our trip. It’s like a delightful psychosis. We’ll be sitting around, minding our own business, when suddenly, boom, we’re looking through the leftovers of a gypsy campsite in the middle of a sparse forest in Russia. Or perhaps it will be a sudden vivid memory of a warm breeze blowing across our faces as we look out at the ocean from an ancient fortification in southern Spain. Maybe it’s a shudder as we remember sitting in our car at 5am on the Mongolian steppe, waiting for the wind to die down as Matan and Iftaq snooze in their better constructed tent. I’m making it sound like these are tandem memories. That would be super cool and kind of like a super power. But we do mention it to each other when we remember random things, which generally leads into a cascade of reminiscing.
Despite all of this misleading debriefing, you haven’t quite heard the last of me. Stay tuned for a lil’ post updating you about our beloved Pajero and the work you’ve made possible for the good people over at Jhai Coffee House.
Back to normal posting real quick
I do actually have a small amount of Vietnam still left to report upon. You last saw us in Hue, in central Vietnam, very close to the DMZ. From there we took a very short flight north to Hanoi, where we spent a few days. We took a side jaunt to Ha Long Bay for a week, and then flew out of Hanoi back to Sydney.
We didn’t really like Hanoi because we were just over traveling, we think. Hanoi takes Ho Chi Minh’s traffic and raises it narrower streets and more tourists. So much traffic in tight places, and absolutely no sidewalks in the central old town. Even the legendary Bia Hoi – locally brewed, living beer sold
on the street for a pittance – is not what we expected. It’s just mass brewed now, by one of four huge companies, apparently. It is still cheap, but to get it you have to sit with all of the other tourists. These things absolutely would not have bothered us if we weren’t just ready to get home. Home, to where sidewalks are wide and flat, and vehicles actually recognize the existence of traffic lights. Home, where we don’t feel like cynical jerks when we don’t LOVE ALL THE THINGS 100%.
However, Luke did get to go into a rarely-touristed geology museum in Hanoi, which he had to himself. He found it very interesting because he is one of those hot nerds. Meanwhile, I sat in a nice cafe and nursed a pooping problem.
Ha Long Bay is as beautiful as they all say it is. We stayed on the lovely Cat Ba Island instead of basing ourselves out of Haiphong City, a good decision. Cat Ba is set up for mass tourism, but we were there over Tet (Vietnam’s biggest holiday), so it was quiet and peaceful. So peaceful that we sat in a beach resort for four of our days on the island, doing very little. I know I listened to some podcasts, and Luke reports that he “doesn’t know” what he did those four days. Otherwise, we just drank in the cool ocean breeze and ordered fake Pringles from room service.
Even with all the lounging, we did all the things there were to do on the island – a hike in the tiny national park, a scooter ride covering every road on the island, a walk up to the observatory. Of course, we also booked the classic Ha Long Bay boat tour for cheap tourists. This included a fun game of “dodge the drunk Brit” in kayaks, set in stunning would-be quiet waters bordered by towering karst mountains.
And yet again, fate gave us Annie. There she was, just walking down the street in front of our dinner table, the day after we left our beach resort. We spent a few days together, doing our hiking, swimming, kayaking, and scootering, and she made the end of our trip joyous.
We’ve already planned our next adventures. I have literally bought some of the guidebooks, just to stave off non-travel situational depression. We don’t know a lot, but we do know a few things. There will be a motor vehicle. The trip will be long, but maybe not quite as long. We will drive out of our own Californian garage/carport/driveway/tiny carspace/goat enclosure directly into our adventure. God willing, small human(s) will be in tow, or, more accurately, safely secured in the vehicle.
And now, as I reach the end of my final post, the storm has failed to materialize. The sky is back to a silky blue, the winds have calmed, and the animals and people have relaxed. Luke and I are sitting on the couch where, 8 years ago, Luke watched a silly TV special and decided he wanted to do an epic overland trip. The deed has been done, the dream is achieved, but it’s whet our appetite for more.
An Bang tombs (near Hue, Vietnam)
OK, so this is a cemetery.
Each of these structures is for one family – and sometimes only 1 person, or just a few people within the family.
It’s funded mainly through remittances from Vietnamese people who have moved to Western countries, often the US.
The monuments are all mosaic’ed by hand.
They cost about USD$50,000 each.
They are so crazy, that even our driver was taking photos. He kept saying “wow! wow!”.
Hardly any tourists go out here. We saw not another soul. But the tombs go for miles and miles and miles – farther than the eye can see.
It’s about an hour’s drive out of Hue, and it was totally worth it to see it in detail.
Some of the tombs are Hindu, some Buddhist…
And many of the tombs are Christian. Here’s Jesus!
They are just extraordinarily detailed, and all completely different.
Most of the homes in the area are pretty nice too, but some seem to have put all their cash into the tombs. Case in point.
Luke and our guide marvel at the tombs.
His and hers burial tombs.
The tombs are built very close to the beach – you can hear the waves from them.
And out at the beach, there’s a very different picture. Yep, that’s all trash.
We were in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay just before and during Tet, the biggest holiday of the year. Folks get yellow and orange flowers and fruit trees for their homes during this time. Hence, lots of orange trees on mopeds.
And flower trees on mopeds.
Hanoi is nice, I admit.
Ok, Hanoi is actually really pretty.
This lake in the middle of town has walking paths all around it. They are traffic-free.
And there’s this sweet little temple in the middle of the lake.
And more flowers.
And orange trees.
And nice scenery.
Outside of the temple, back in normal Hanoi, there were flowers displays all around, for Tet.
And these types of flowers everywhere, too.
A cafe we lounged in.
Balloons for sale
Our last night in Vietnam, meaning, our last night on our epic adventure.
Ha Long Bay/Cat Ba Island (Vietnam)
On a boat on the way to Cat Ba Island, our gateway of choice to the famous Ha Long Bay
Our little cabana room that we paid 10 gajillion dollars to rent.
This is one of those photos that we’ll look back on and wonder why we didn’t stay forever. (Our beach resort on Cat Ba Island)
The view from the beach resort. This is a private beach.
Out in Cat Ba Town
Cat Ba Town
This town has a couple thousand people, yet they still thought this tall skinny building was the way to go, town-planning-wise.
An unexpected fellow on our walk up to a nice viewpoint on Cat Ba Island.
Luke attempts to get the baby goat to hug him.
Walking to the viewpoint.
The viewpoint is actually an old military outpost from before and during the Vietnam/American War – here’s a creepy reproduction.
And, we’ve reached the view.
Here’s more view, looking over Ha Long Bay.
And more view.
On our scooter ride on the island.
More scooter ride.
More scooter ride.
The scooter ride took us past the hospital cave. Like many places in Southeast Asia, people were force, during the war, to take their lives into caves to avoid the bombs. This one housed a hospital for the area, and also has a nice viewpoint from the cave entrance.
This is not real. Just more creepy reproductions.
The hospital compound, all underground within an enormous karst rock.
Within the hospital cave.
Hike time! With Annie in the national park on Cat Ba Island.
A view over the island
A selfie over the island
Now onto the boat ride.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay, as seen from the tourist stop Monkey Island
The majestic monkeys from which Monkey Island draws it’s name, majestically trying to get the last sips of beer out of a tourist’s discarded beer can.
A view of Monkey Island
The other side of the view over Monkey Island. There’s more tourists where they came from, on the other side of this photo.
The light changes as we make our way back through Ha Long Bay.
Back to Australia
Golden light welcomes us as we head up the driveway to the farm.
Trying to set up for a photo.
A crop duster circles over the farm. Note the flawless blue ombre of the sky. Excellently executed, God. Top job.
Back in Boggie: a view of the farm that Luke grew up on.
Rain and sunset over Bennelong. (Nope, folks, that ain’t fire.)
I have this daydream that I defer to, when my teeth are chattering with fear on one of those awful transpacific flights that we so often subject ourselves to. I pretend that the airplane is driving on the ground instead, and that I have a whole room with a flat bed to lounge on. There’s s big window and lots of interesting things to look at as I fly along the ground. It can still be a long trip, that’s ok, even overnight, but it’s soothing, even cozy.
About a week ago, I found myself sitting on a lawn chair in the middle of a big white van, rocking from side to side between the clothes closet and kitchen counter. Our friend Arne was in control, speeding down the bumpy Cambodian highway, and I realised something. We have significantly relaxed since the beginning of our trip. There’s no way I would have done all that back in Belgium.
Luke got the front seat, because he’s huge and didn’t really fit in the back. So, for the week that Arne and Jenny ferried us around Cambodia, Luke sat up front while Jenny reclined on the bed and I braced myself on the spare tire whenever we braked hard.
Before we said goodbye to our car, we took one last joy ride, down to Si Phan Don, the 4,000 islands on the Mekong in the far south of Cambodia. There are three islands that are slightly larger and thus have some tourist infrastructure. They come in three flavours: most party, middle party, and no party. Of course, we went for the no party island (Don Khong) because we are old people and we hate fun.
Unfortunately, upon reaching said tranquil and peaceful island (accompanied by our friend Jocelyn, by the way) we were confronted by a Festival. People everywhere, laughing, playing carnival games, buying sizzling fish from street stalls that lined the whole island town. Too many joyful tourists to even find a free guesthouse within 500 metres of the river. Colourful, exciting longboat races on the Mekong. Terrible.
I’m choosing to think of the theft of our computers as either cosmic retribution for all of the shit that America did to Laos in the 60s and 70s, or perhaps just our fault for going to a place like Vang Vieng. In any case, our initial despair and annoyance at the loss of our two MacBook Airs has paled quite significantly – after all, we got to see the Lao justice system at work. And, we no longer have to worry about putting our computers in a safe place so that they don’t get stolen.
I write this post from the deliciously tropical Luang Prabang, Laos. We’ve been in Laos for four days and have only just had space to breath from our non-stop driving adventures in China.
We experienced joys and frustrations on our journey through the heartland of China. Amongst the unpleasant experiences, we count the sudden and unexpected disappearance of our beloved street food egg wraps (attributed to “cultural differences”, bah), having wailing children hoisted on us for photos, and having the crap beaten out of us by tiny, vindictive Chinese masseuses. Joys include finding peanut butter, binging on said peanut butter, and having the crap beaten out of us by tiny, vindictive Chinese masseuses.
I’ve been to China twice before. There is one observation about the country from this trip that stands out to me because I just don’t remember thinking it last time: the people are DELIGHTFUL. They are quick to laugh, they pull no airs, they are intensely inquisitive in a good-natured way. I feel safe around them. (Famous last words, etc.)
But what astounds us all the most, given our globalised world, is how unbelievably curious they are about us. Granted, we are pretty interesting, sitting with the big vans pulled in a circle, orange hi-tech tents pitched in the middle, perched on small camp chairs, hair colours ranging from blonde to blue – but does that really justify 10-15 people standing inside of our campsite, silently watching us for minutes and minutes? At one point, at this particular parking lot campsite, some passing people realized they could see through a camper window into where the 5 little children were relaxing. A dozen people crowded around and craned their necks to get closer to the window.
When I was getting ready for bed at the above mentioned campsite, a couple opened my tent flap. They felt the interior lining of my tent, tested the firmness of the mattress with their palms, and watched me swallow my allergy medication. They wouldn’t have said hello if I hadn’t given a friendly Ni hao first. People who stare at us in close quarters like this seem to be surprised when they hear human language coming out of what I believe they must assume are extra-pale, mechanically advanced monkeys. They seem delighted by our sudden humanity. Embarrassment for their actions does not occur to them.
Perhaps I can understand wanting to see the white people’s campsite. But on the supremely touristy section of the Great Wall we visited, or in the world-famous Tiananmen Square, you’d think folks would be used to Westerners. Not so. We take so many photos in a row that it becomes exhausting. Photo after photo after photo. Photos with their children, photos with their grandpa, photos with their group. We take turns, to give each other breaks. As Luke says, 20-30% of people within sight are taking photos with us or waiting in line to do so, and the rest are staring while it happens.
When we see we’re being included in a covert selfie, we smile and flash a peace sign. One time Luke was feeling generous and really posed for a covert selfie, wrapping his arm around the shoulders of the selfie-taker. The whole group got in the photo. They turned out to be a group of people with hearing impairment (they were signing) who seemed to be out on a group excursion to the Forbidden City.
People even take photos of us from their cars. I like to take photos back.
All of this changes from amusing to infuriating – like a buzzing mosquito at night – when you are trying to pack up your tent at 6:30 in the morning. Our travel companion Jenny tried to get some of her morning watchers to help with dishes; they declined.
It can be a bit scary how the old people handle the children. They just break through our protective and/or conversational circles, grab a child, and try to, I don’t know, tickle them? Pick them up? Play with them? It’s certainly not malicious or weird from their standpoint, clearly. They think the kids are delightful (which they are). But from our cultural standpoint, it is awful. The youngest, Felix, who is 3, waves is pointer finger side to side and says “no!”.
All of that said, I still think people are delightful. They mean no harm, and I really appreciate that.
An example. While waiting in line at Badaling, the most touristy section of the Great Wall and a personal hell for many (more later), a middle-aged couple pushed in front of us (Jo, Luke, and I) in line. This is pretty normal, but for some reason it annoyed us. We pushed forward in front of them when we reached a strategic corner-section of line. They tried to get past again, but we put our elbows out and took up the entire physical space, hopping left and right to block them. It occurred to me that we were being asshole tourists, only to find that they were laughing and giving us a thumbs up. We had mastered Chinese line cutting skills. But the joke was on us: they still beat us to the front of the line. We saw them a few times on the wall, and we all smiled, waved, and laughed each time.
Our jolly crew
I suppose I should let you know just who our travel companions are, as they’ll likely be important characters in our stories for the next month. There are five groups total, plus our guide, Jens. There’s a Belgian family with 3 children ranging from 3-7 years old. The mother of the group, Tine, is an anthropology person like me, but she did her masters so actually got to do field work. They all speak Dutch, French, and English, and probably other stuff too. Then we have the French family, with two children, who are 7 and 9. The parents are both psych nurses, so there’s a lot in common with Jo there. Jenny and Arne are German and hilarious; Barbara and Kevan are Dutch and British, respectively, and are sensible experienced travellers. Sometimes Susan and Axel, a German couple, join us with their separate guide, a delightful fellow named Martin. Our guide, Jens, is from Chengdu. He’s 26, and thankfully he’s got an excellent sense of humour and a solid dose of resilience. Important for managing group dynamics. And then there’s us, “the Aussies” (as we’ve been dubbed).
How this thing works
As for our mechanics and movements (not of the bowel variety, we’ll get to that later), things are working pretty smoothly. Each night, we have a group “conference” in which Jens lays out the plans for the next day and we democratically decide upon leaving times and optional extras. We drive each day, though we will have a couple of rest days later on. So far we’ve seen a major sight each day, including one day of taking the subway into Beijing. The rest of the group camps each night, but we’ve only joined them once because it’s a pain to set up tents. Plus, it would be unpleasant to sleep in a tent in an urban parking lot. So we go to a hotel with our guide, and with the other guide, Martin, if he’s around. Sometimes we get dinner with the two of them as well. They are cool guys and we definitely get the local flavour with them. One time, we got so local that we couldn’t find a hotel that would take foreigners at all. We did finally find one, after waiting around and eating street food.
Memories of meals past
Speaking of food, we are in heaven here. It’s a huge change from Mongolia, where mystery meat pastries and oily hot yak milk reign supreme. Our first restaurant in China actually made Luke and I intensely homesick. It looked just like a Chinese restaurant in Sydney, which makes sense, seeing as the Chinese restaurants in Sydney are often run by recent Chinese transplants. The menu, the tables, the decorations, the people, and the delicious food were all the same. The main difference was that people were smoking, despite the “no smoking” sign.
We’ve also been eating whole meals from street food, or rather we just constantly eat as we go. So far we’ve had no life-threatening issues arise from this habit. However, we have, as Jo says, developed “an obsession with plumbing”. The occasion of finding a Western toilet (as opposed to the squat variety) produces jubilation amongst our little travel trio.
We are, of course, enjoying the English here. Even amongst other countries where English is not prominent, China still has the most hilarious translations. Our favorite so far is “Miscellaneous sheep,” seen on a menu. “Don’t drive tiredly” and “Warm suggestion” (aka “hot tip”) aren’t bad either. There was a clothing shop called “Pet Woman” (insert cringe emoji). We thought that “Super long tunnel!” was a funny one too, until we drove in it and realised that, actually, it was quite lengthy, and thus their description was really quite accurate.
I remember that when my sister came back from several months at Beijing University 10 years ago, she had the “Peking cough” for months and months. The smog was oppressive then. The smog now, though, obscures the sun. It reduces road visibility like a thick San Francisco fog. It burns your eyes and your throat. Luke broke down and bought a face mask, and borrowed an inhaler from one of our travel companions.
In Shanxi provence, where we are now, it’s equally bad. Shanxi is known for it’s coal production. A local of Pingyao, in Shanxi, told us that the smog is worse in winter because the poor people burn coal to keep warm. We’re only in October. I would hate to see January, or, rather, I would have difficulty seeing January through the smog.
Daily gratitude: intact chest cavity
We also had the good luck to experience another staple of Beijing local life, the chest-crushing subway system. I understand now how crushes happen, and how they truly do kill people.
The subway stations we saw (4 or 5) were beautiful and new. There were lines on the tile to direct foot traffic, glass panelling between the platform and the tracks, uniformed “public transportation guides”, and lovely shiny new trains.
But none of this stopped the wave of anxious panic that swept over the crowd in the 20 seconds that a new train approached and readied to open its doors. The train arrives already full, so packed that faces are smooshed against the glass doors. The push to enter the train sounds like a swarm of locusts, the frantic shuffling of feet, rustling of people silently shoving their neighbour, and curses muttered under the breath. With 5 children in the group, I was legitimately scared. The parents of the group are, however, incredibly capable, and the children were in no real danger. In the end, one of the “public transportation guides” worked with Jens to find us a route across the subway map that didn’t require us to enter as intense of scrums. But we still pretended to fight our way on, the 15 of us, when we entered our first near-empty train. This was much more amusing than the real thing.
I think that if a communist party leader in the 1970’s was on the fence about whether or not to implement the one-child policy, they needed to have simply visited the Badaling section of the Great Wall, and this would have made up their mind. The place gives the feeling that there really are just too many people in China.
According to Jens, Chairman Mao once said that one is not a real man until he’s seen the Great Wall. Seemingly, every person in China wanting to take his advice does so at the Badaling section, as well as a significant amount of foreign tourist busloads too.
We went there because it was on the itinerary from our tour company, and we were so new to China, and we didn’t do our research in advance. This was stupid, as there were some beautiful sections of “wild wall” – as in, unrestored and less touristed – not far away. This section gave us packed lines, an expensive cable car ride, throngs of people pushing each other on the recently built stairs, and a wall that is actually a Disney-ish reconstruction perched upon a strip of land that once held the crumbled original. There was one part, in which we had to descend, narrow, steep stairs with walls on either side, people pushing from all sides – where Jo and I exchanged looks that said “F*** this, this is the worst place in the world.”
Then, there was beer. We had ascended to the wall with Jenny and Arne, the German couple with a particular fondness for this particular beverage. We all decided that the best course of action was to sit at a little kiosk on the wall and drink overpriced cans of terrible beer until the situation became fun. And it did! We snacked on weird fake pringles and a sweet, bubblegum pink “sausage” while we waited. After a while, the wall emptied out, our other friends arrived, and we had a leisurely stroll. The wall was shrouded mysteriously in a celestial cloud of coal-smog, and we snapped photos. All was well in the world.
China redeems itself with Pingyao
But all of the smog in the world couldn’t ruin Pingyao. The oldest and most authentic walled city surviving in China, Pingyao is delightful. Sure, it’s got tourists, but it’s also got lots and lots of locals. There are bustling markets outside the city walls, and beautiful buildings inside the city walls. The town is 1500 years old, and some of the buildings within are still ancient. I spent hours wandering the town by myself at night – it was alive with lanterns and sizzling street food. If a person had time for only one site in China, we would (thus far) recommend Pingyao.
Our hotel in Pingyao, can you believe it?
Pingyao at night
A neighborhood street in Pingyao
But wait, there’s more
We’ve packed in a lot more touristing with this tour than we would have on our own. We’ve seen the amazing Hanging Monastary, perched on the side of a cliff (not the edge, the side), and which we are all quite pleased to not have died on, crushed by falling tourists from above.Jo reckons it was engineered to withstand months, not centuries and gajillions of tourists. We’ve gone to Yungang Grottoes, famous for having lots and lots o’ Buddhas. We’ve visited the Forbidden City and the hutongs (traditional neighbourhoods) of Beijing. These two really gave me flashbacks to going there with my family over 10 years ago. It’s much tidier now, but with more smog. I got an intense flashback upon seeing a particular decorative staircase in the Forbidden City – I actually remembered my Dad reading to us about it from a book while we looked at it. I don’t remember what I learned, but I do know where I got my habit from, at least. I’ll leave the rest of the sight descriptions to the photos, below.
Erenhot, Inner Mongolia Province (China)
Lovely, modern Erenhot at night. Erenhot, a border city in China, is the first thing people see when crossing from Mongolia. Thus, it gets heaps of money from the central government in Beijing so that it looks good and sets good first impressions.
Luke tries to get a dog. Look at how nice the sidewalk is! We are not in Mongolia anymore.
Our hotel. Plenty of glitz and glamour.
The kids in our group look at pet birds that are having their daily outside time (this is totally a thing.) An old lady came out and watched the kids nervously and eventually shoo’d them away.
Kids going to school
The brand new dinosaur museum in Erenhot. So new, it wasn’t even open yet (to our surprise)
But we still got to see cool dinosaur sculptures.
With our guide, Jens
Brand new apartment buildings
Luke and Jo making model faces?
An olympic park
There are heaps and heaps of little dogs all over China. Look at this little fellow sunning himself.
A nice market
Super fancy store includes space-age data board
The edge of Erenhot. They have a thing about dinosaurs.
These life-size sculptures dot the plains on the edge of Erenhot
There are dozens!
The attendants at this gas station were so excited about us and all needed to take selfies. Here they are posing with the rest of our group.
The Great Wall (Badaling)
The cable car up
Luke and Arne. Not sure what Luke is thinking here.
See? 10 bajillion people.
After the beer stop. Much more manageable.
Looking over the wall
The subway crush
Our first glimpse of the Forbidden City (and the iconic Mao) through the smog
Our group (minus a few) at Tiananmen Square. We couldn’t even get a group photo without people inserting themselves. Seriously, we don’t have a group photo without other people crouching in front.
Mao’s tomb (on Tiananmen Square)
I remember my dad taking this photo 10 years ago
Getting mobbed by admirers/zoo-goers at Tiananmen Square
More zoo-goers, probably interested in Tine’s hair
A creepy military exhibition outside of the Forbidden City.
The smog clears to reveal Mao
The throngs enter the Forbidden City
More Forbidden City throngs
More Forbidden City throngs
Pause for an egret!
More Forbidden City throngs
More Forbidden City.
More Forbidden City
The throngs begin to dissipate as we go into less popular spaces of the Forbidden City
The stairs that my dad taught me about!
Forbidden City roof
The famous 9 dragon screen in the Forbidden City
Posing in front of the dragon screen
Beautiful musical instrument at the Forbidden City
Jade sculpture at the Forbidden City
A courtyard that I want to live in at the Forbidden City
Luke and Jo looking pleased as punch at the Forbidden City
Above the Forbidden City
Travelling in style to the Hutongs (traditional Beijing neighborhoods)
With Jo and Jerome in our fancy method of transport
En route to the hutongs
Look at how nice and clean the neighborhoods are. Very different than my memories from 10 years ago.
Fancy smart car driver
The kids watch as a vendor makes us delicious fried egg sandwiches
Walking with Jens in the hutong
We saw these little stools at a restaurant. We wanted them. Jens, the miracle worker, convinced the restaurant to let us buy two. So we did!
And we found a marvel figurine store!
This little girl leapt in front of my camera. I think it only fair that her enthusiasm be rewarded by a spot on the blog.
Our group rests from a big day in Beijing
This fantastic person was sitting on the street in the hutong, watching Michael Jackson videos. Bless you, person, for making the world more interesting.
10 points to whoever can come up with the best story as to who is riding this tiny bike
SO many tiny dogs
Crowding around a food vendor.
Walking back to the subway on the way home, we saw public ping pong tables
And we walked on a lovely manicured pathway. So different than the Beijing of 10 years ago.
Yungang Grottoes and Datong (Shanxi Province)
Datong, the coal-choked city nearest the lovely Yunang Grottoes
Entrance to the grottoes
The first temple, where we listened to monks singing and ringing bells
Fall colours in China
At the grottoes
The temple complex at the grottoes
Where the Buddhas live
A particularly large Buddha
A particularly old Buddha
A particularly imposing Buddha
Temples cut into the mountainside
They say this paint, being mineral-based, is actually the original from 1,500 years ago. That is very old paint.
Many Buddhas. Apparently, folks put Buddhas here because they believe it will get them closer to attaining enlightenment. So the grottoes are just thousands of years worth of different individuals popping in their own idea of enlightenment-getting aids.
Oh hi there, Buddha head!
More ancient paint
Grotto selfie! You could say it’s culturally inappropriate, but 100% of the Chinese visitors were doing it too.
People peer into the children’s window at our campsite near the grottoes.
Leaving Datong through the misty morning smog
Hanging Monastary (Shanxi Province)
A view of the monastery
And, in the interest of honesty, here’s what instagram travel photos won’t show you. Tourist hordes. Ever present at Chinese places of interest.
At the bottom of the monastery
And thus we begin.
Oh hi Luke!
A view across the valley. I wonder how they painted those rock faces.
Way too many tourists on this thing for comfort.
No monks live here anymore, sadly.
I found the whole situation terrifying. Chinese tourists saw my face and tried to help me several times. There was only one instance of covert selfie taking. I grimaced and did not give a peace sign.
Away from the Hanging Monastery and back to everyday life world
As many high rise apartments as tiny dogs.
Surprisingly, a big church along the freeway! We also saw a mosque!
Pingyao, Shanxi Province
Luke and Jo enjoy some street food
Men play mahjong on the street outside the city walls
The market outside the city walls
Getting a delicious sandwich made. All ingredients fried, including bread.
I think this is a reaction to too much attention.
There seemed to be a communism-themed bachelorette party happening in Pingyao. You do you, Chinese ladies.
A doorway inside the city walls.
Inside the city walls, pretty things start appearing
The stores inside the city walls are decorated beautifully, and are often quite trendy by Western standards.
Nighttime street food
Darkness falls on PIngyao, and the lanterns get turned on
The souvenir shops were even a delight. They sold unique and cool stuff.
Jo and I doing the Chinese pose
Even the tourist trap jewelry is nice, and much classier than it was 10 years ago, I can say that for sure.
Pingyao at night
We just wandered into this courtyard because it was pretty, and the owner indulged us because we were so obviously complementary
We found our guesthouse by all being attracted to the pretty lights of the lanterns.
I love the red light everywhere in Pingyao. It is very warm. I used to light my rooms like this, and I think now I will start again.
Our hotel in Pingyao, can you believe it?
The owner explained to us that the building is 200 years old. There are two courtyards because the owner would have had two wives, so each wife’s family got a courtyard. Daughters slept on the ground floor, sons on the top.
Luke fans himself with a tiny fan.
Morning time, and we’re back at the markets for breakfast (this is outside of the old city walls)
This little guy is sunning himself
Jo’s hair is radiant in the sunlight
A neighborhood street in Pingyao
Excellent translation. It makes sense when you think about it.
PIngyao in the day
We took a walk through the quiet, less ostentatious residential sections of the old town (which is only a couple kilometres wide, by the way)
Another courtyard that we invaded
As always, hanging laundry means a real, lived-in community (I think)
An incredibly wonderful coffee shop that we stopped in. So very, very western.
Clearly catering for Western tourists, this coffee shop could easily be in San Francisco.
It’s just so great I had to put in a third picture.
The “City Tower”. Super Duper Old.
More pleasant interior decoration
Neat dried flowers for sale
And sweet little handmade ceramic vases
Jo bought some paint brushes, which were made by the man right outside his shop. However, he did insist the brushes were made of hair from wolves and badgers, amongst other things, so his credibility is questionable. Also we laughed about how he acquired this hair. “Oh, there goes Lee again, shaving the neighborhood badger”
Inside the bar of our hotel.
Our hotel – just as pretty in the daytime.
Our courtyard in our hotel
Getting ready to leave our hotel
Inside our beautiful hotel
Mocha, the extremely sweet and friendly golden retriever at our hotel. She loved pets.
Golf carts are the main mode of transportation for tourists inside the city walls (no non-resident cars allowed). Not so fun when they take you onto a multi-lane road outside the city walls, though.
Since our last blog post, we’ve finished up 10 fairly comatose days in Ulaanbaatar, welcomed Luke’s sister Jo to Mongolia, easily survived 4 days in the snow-covered Gobi desert, and successfully entered China with our new merry band of travellers. I’ll tell you more about China in the next post, so it doesn’t steal poor Mongolia’s spotlight. In summary, we are travelling for 27 days with a lovely Chinese guide named Jens, and 4 other groups, all Europeans travelling in huge camper vans, including 5 children under the age of 9. It’s going to be an adventure.
First, let’s talk about our feelings. Jo, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in her first week of travel, has a lovely enthusiasm and energy. If it weren’t for her influence, Luke and I probably would have sat on the couch in our cozy Idre Guesthouse in UB rather than schlepping our lazy butts to the Gobi. (By the way, she’ll be riding along with us for the 4 weeks in China and a few days into Laos.) Luke is tickled to see his sister, but is otherwise, in his own words, “getting a little tired.” I’m hoping that the novelty and thrilling gastro issues of China will cure him of what I think is *temporary* ennui. As for myself, I’m stubbornly insisting on enjoying myself, as you probably would have guessed.
After about 6 days of recovering from our colds and eating french fries and toast in our UB guesthouse, our friends Matan and Iftaq returned from their little expedition to the centre of the country. We were inspired (unintentionally shamed?) into getting ourselves up to do something. Another lovely Israeli person, a girl named Ossie, joined us for a day trip to the supremely touristy Chinggis Khan statue and Terelj National Park, both about an hour outside of UB.
The Chinggis Khan statue is 8 years old. It’s a big horse with a big Chinggis on top. It was supposedly built on the place where ol’ Chinggis himself found the materials for his riding crop, so that’s a big deal. There are lots of Mongolians and foreigners alike taking selfies. That’s about it.
But actually, Chinggis Khan is a really big deal to Mongolians. Besides the whole raping and pillaging thing that we’ve all heard of, he did build a mighty empire in the 1200’s that still persists in a smaller form today. He was the first world leader, apparently, to implement what we now call diplomatic immunity. He established a country-wide postal system. He generally is someone who Mongolians seem to be super proud of. According to Lonely Planet (don’t judge me), Stalin made all Mongolians renounce their clan name (last name) during the 20’s. In the 90’s, everyone came to realise how terribly impractical it is to have a nation of people with only first names. I am going somewhere with this. So everyone was made to either find their clan name or make up a new one, and 20% of people chose Chinggis Khan’s clan name. That’s a lot of people.
As for Terelj National Park, it’s filled with ger camps. Like, dozens and dozens of little collections of friendly tourist gers. But, there is a rock shaped like a turtle. And life-size dinosaur models, which are actually to be found all over the country. This is bizarre for a country with very little other public art. But lots of dinosaur bones have been found here, so I guess that’s why people are all excitable about dinos.
As soon as Jo arrived on a Monday morning, we whisked her off in a “taxi” to the “Black Market”. In explanation – “taxis” in UB are just anyone with a car who stops to pick you up when you put out your hand. It’s about 50 cents, USD, per kilometre. And the “Black Market” is just the enormous market (the biggest in Asia, they say), which does have a real name, but everyone just calls it the Black Market. Jo had heard scary things about pickpockets and theft in the market, and so was a bit wary. However, we left the market with our wallets only intentionally lighter, and got a “taxi” home.
We always negotiate price in advance of getting in the car, even in sub-zero temperatures, because people are inclined to screw clueless tourists. We did so with this guy, but he was wily. He changed the price midway through the trip – he was going to charge us 10,000 instead of the standard 3,000. This is crazy pants and it made us MAD. He offered to charge us 5,000 to drop us off half way. We refused to pay, and he turned around the car, taking us back to the market. Knowing the reputation of the market, the last thing we wanted to do was go back and get roughed up by his buddies.
We decided to exit the car in stopped traffic rather than suffer the injustice of being screwed. He put the child lock on, trapping us in, but Luke got out the front seat and let us out, and we piled out of the car (there were 4 of us in the back seat). Dude even tugged on Jo’s arm to try to keep her in. We ran across the street and started frantically power walking to safety. 3 minutes later, who do we find running after us, but driver guy. When he started to grab Luke’s bag, and Luke looked like he was going to punch someone for the first time in his life, I remembered that folks in UB like to carry knives. To Luke’s horror, I handed over 5,000. Situation defused, we went on our way. We grabbed a more ethical cab driver soon after.
This was probably not the best introduction to UB for Jo. Oops.
Perhaps this is part of the reason that Jo convinced us to promptly drive 8 hours south, into the Gobi desert, far away from the humans of UB. It turns out there are oodles of tourist destinations in the Gobi, they just aren’t signposted and roads don’t go to them. And there are no real toilets anywhere.
We did the tourist circuit in the Gobi – Yolyn Am, the glacial canyon, Khorgoryn Els, the sand dunes, and, finally, Bayanzag, the Flaming Cliffs. We stayed in gers (yurts) and rode camels. It was all very Mongolian, but the nice kind, not the scary drunk/swindling tourists kind.
The most Mongolian moment of all was the family that adopted us in Yolyn Am, as we walked through the canyon in the freezing cold. For some reason, they took a liking to us and we walked with them. Grandma was 83, but the most sprightly little thing you ever saw. She daintily hopped from rock to rock to cross streams, she scrambled up a dirt canyon wall for one of our highly orchestrated family photo shoots, and, once, leaped over a wide stream, illiciting cheers and clapping from Jo and I. She was really quite impressive. She also insisted on giving us handfuls of Mongolian candy (which Jo and I have nicknamed “camel poo”, for it’s striking likeness in shape and taste), and blocks of the typical bitter, hard sheep cheese.
Photo shoot #1
Photo shoot #2
The family didn’t speak any English, but they were seemingly in the canyon on a spiritual journey. They had also travelled far to get there. At the two ovoos (rock piles) we encountered, the family circled the piles three times, spraying milk. This is apparently an offering to the sky spirits, though I’m sure there is a much more eloquent and accurate way of describing the ritual. My anthropology professors would be disappointed. Anyway, it was a very special experience.
I should also mention that in this canyon, there are dozens and dozens of hamster-sized fluffy rodents that scamper around the rocks and across the path, and they CHIRP. I think they are called jerboas. As we walked I fantasised about getting them and putting them in all my pockets and taking them with me.
We got extremely lucky on our Gobi trip – the temperature dropped well below freezing (I’m getting to the lucky part), and it SNOWED. A lot of snow. Over the sand dunes, covering the plains. It was truly magical.
Magical in it’s own, not particularly magical way, was the town of Dalanzadgad. This is the largest town in the Gobi. We drove in at night, greeted by a pack of 20 wild dogs. We stayed in a hotel with no door handle to the room. When we stopped at the mechanic on the way back to UB, we sat on the concrete for 3 or 4 hours and wrapped Christmas presents. We took breaks to go to the local “public toilet”
by someone’s ger, which is of course just a whole in the ground with two pee-covered slats to stand on, just a little timber keeping you from the poopy abyss below. Luke and Jo both got walked in on, both by the opposite sex no less. Jo also interrupted a guy peeing on the toilet building, as in, outside of it. She reports that she simply avoided eye contact. But we did give out koala toys to two little kids, one of whom physically jumped up and down in excitement. Oh, memories of Dalanzadgad.
In a strange coincidence, we saw the Google Street View truck in the Gobi not once, but twice. Look out for our car the next time you pull up a street view shot of a dirt track in the Gobi desert.
In UB, we said goodbye to many of our traveller friends. Matan and Iftaq went off to hop on the trans-Siberian railroad to Moscow. Ossie caught a flight to Ulgii to do a snowy trek in Western Mongolia. A silly guy name Tom is buying two horses and trekking, solo, east to west in northern Mongolia. Silly Tom, good luck to you. The Brits headed off to their guided tour and the Japanese girls are by now back to Tokyo. It feels like the end of a feel-good coming-of-age millennial movie that would do poorly at Sundance.
To close off this blog post, I would like to leave you with a song. We composed this while driving into UB at night, fresh off the Gobi. Please sing to the tune of Journey’s “Lights.”
When the lights go down in UB
and the smog shines on the knife fights
oh I want to go dooooown
to a ger camp
by the trash heap
Dozens of dogs at nighttime
They will live on without you
without your tooouuucch
na na na na, na na
A market with actual vegetables. I went crazy over the broccoli.
At the mechanic, as per usual.
We got new shocks and springs!
And we got the car cleaned! They even did the inside. There was loud Mongolian hip hop on and all the car washers were young people, who seemed to be having a great time.
UB. The view from our guesthouse.
We parked our car across the street in this guarded car park in the children’s playplace, because the parking lot behind our guesthouse was full of permanently drunk people, at least 5 at a time.
Great street art near our guesthouse
Celebrating Jewish new year with our Israeli friends! We even had scrumptious deserts and apple dipped in honey for a “sweet new year”.
Shopping at the black market.
Saddles at the black market
Traditional hats the black market
Traditional shoes the black market
Traditional furniture the black market. Orange for the sun.
Fancy ger fabric the black market
Shopping in the black market prior to Jo’s arrival.
This is how smog is made. Just wait, it will look less beautiful when it’s coating the inside of my lungs
Chinggis Khan and Terelj National Park
The Chinggis Khan statue
Some folks dressed up in traditional outfits in the museum accompanying the Chinggis status
This is the turtle statue in Terelj National Park
Eating lunch in the freezing wind in Terelj.
Camels at Terelj making funny faces for the camera. Perhaps they’ve been trained specially for instagram-ableness
On the way to Terelj
On the way to Terelj
A town near Terelj
On the way to Terelj
On the way to Terelj
On the way to Terelj
On the way to Terelj
Gobi Trip: The drive South, and Yolyn Am
An amazing view of the Gobi
We think that grey goat is a cashmere goat! Look at how soft and distinctive-looking he is.
Jo is about to experience her first drop-toilet. We wanted to capture the moment.
The drive into Yolyn Am
Google truck at Yoyln Am!
Jo trying on some fur at an actual tourist shop at Yoyln Am.
There was no sign off the road to Yoyln Am, and, at that, no road to Yoyln Am, but there was a tourist shop.
A lovely decorative ger
A museum at Yoyln Am
It mostly contained stuffed dead animals.
Like this little guy
And this, probably mythical, animal, called the Death Worm, which supposedly spits deadly venom. It has never been photographed.
These are actual dinosaur eggs!
A souvenir seller goes to his post at Yoyln Am
Luke looks at a rock
It was cold. Frozen grass in a stream
Photo shoot #1
The whole family scrambles down a very slippery rock
Grandma scrambling up a crumbling pile of dirt
Photo shoot #2
This waterfall was frozen, and you could see water trickling under the sheet of ice.
Jo helping our family hop across a stream.
The Gobi Trip: Sand Dunes and first ger camp
The inside of our first ger
Getting tea ready. We drink a lot of tea.
Our ger host. His wife and kids live elsewhere so he was alone, so he just hung out with us.
And he also had a dog with 10 tiny puppies! Mama was a little protective so we couldn’t cuddle.
Our scenic toilet at the first ger camp.
Most gers have solar panels or even generators, so they can run satellite TVs or charge their phones.
Jo gets on her camel!
Here we go!
Our guide took this photo, excellent photo skills.
Camels from the top of the dunes.
We did a photo shoot.
Ice on the dunes.
My super affectionate camel. It bent it’s head around to lean on me.
Ice on a plant in the desert, when we woke up in the morning.
Gobi trip: SNOW on the road, and Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag)
Snow on the sand dunes
Jo taking photos
Adorable sibling snowfight
Our second ger camp, near Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs)
The gers were being taken down as it was the end of the season.
Here’s what a ger looks like in it’s component parts. A door, a bundle of sticks, some rope, and canvas. Perfect for a nomad life.
Our car at the second ger camp
People in the area are super excited about this “saxual shrub forest”. It’s a lot of greenery for the Gobi.
View of the Flaming Cliffs
We pretended this was a dinosaur egg.
The Flaming Cliffs themselves.
Back in our ger.
Gobi Trip: Coming home, including a stop in Dalangadzad
Jo building her snowman
Hay on the road.
Getting the car looked at, of course. Got the alignment done, some new parts for the wheel, and our battery died when we tried to leave, so we popped in a new one of them as well.
Wrapping presents in the parking lot.
Jo reclines on our mattress.
Everyone decorates the gates to their private ger camps