China is big, and other observations

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.

Continue reading “China is big, and other observations”

China, Part 1: Of becoming a zoo exhibition

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.)

thumb_img_8917_1024
Luke tries to cook, Jerome looks bemused, and four Chinese men look on FROM THIS ANGLE. There were probably 10 others standing around our campsite at this particular moment.

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.

thumb_dsc07655_1024
People taking pictures at Tiananmen Square, probably interested in Tine’s hair

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.

thumb_IMG_8620_1024.jpg
We used to take selfies on our phones too, like with this gas station attendant, but now we’re too tired.

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.

thumb_IMG_8626_1024.jpg
See that phone? 

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.

Chinese skills

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).

thumb_dsc07634_1024
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. But the Chinese fellow with the maroon shirt, glasses, and backpack is Jens.

How this thing works

thumb_img_8916_1024
Our friendly campsite, no current onlookers (that we can see, the creepsters)

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.

thumb_dsc08306_1024
Jo gets excited about the best meal ever, skewers that the fellow hot pots for you, plus a bowl of peanut sauce to dip it all in.

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.

Miscellaneous sheep

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.

Modern Beijing

thumb_dsc07625_1024
Our first glimpse of the Forbidden City (and the iconic Mao) through the smog

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.

thumb_dsc08093_1024
This is how the sun always looks. So obstructed by smog that you can look at it directly without hurting your eyes.

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.

thumb_dsc07617_1024
The subway crush

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.

Badaling

thumb_dsc07519_1024
See? 10 bajillion people.

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.

thumb_dsc07529_1024

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.

But wait, there’s more

thumb_dsc08267_1024
The Hanging Monastery. Not so much “hanging”, as “precariously clinging”

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)

The Great Wall (Badaling)

Beijing

Yungang Grottoes and Datong (Shanxi Province)

Hanging Monastary (Shanxi Province)

Pingyao, Shanxi Province 

Mongolia: Gobi and UB

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.

Gobi time!
This photo owes it’s existence to Jo. Thanks Jo!

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.

Chinggis is clearly disapproving of our selfie.
Chinggis disapproves of our selfie.

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.

Eating lunch in the freezing wind in Terelj.
Eating lunch in the freezing wind in Terelj.

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.

In the black market - not particularly threatening. Also people totally wear these in Mongolia, even some young-ish people.
In the black market – not particularly threatening. Also people totally wear these in Mongolia, even some young-ish people.

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 seem quite fond of group selfies.
We seem quite fond of group selfies. Also this was totally safe. No safety issues at all.

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.

One of the Ovoos
One of the Ovoos

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.

Get in my pocket, jerboa.
Get in my pocket, jerboa.

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.

Jo made a snowman, smokin and drinkin like a real Mongolian. See below for the beautiful Gobi snow pictures.
Jo made a snowman, smokin and drinkin like a real Mongolian. See below for the beautiful Gobi snow pictures.

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”

One of my favorite photos ever. Checking out some dodgy bolts on our wishbone in Dalanzadgad.
One of my favorite photos ever. Checking out some dodgy bolts on our wishbone in Dalanzadgad.

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.

Recording street view for an enormous patch of dirt that people drive across however they choose. Tracks aren't even necessary in much of the Gobi, most of it is flat enough to be a road.
Recording street view for an enormous patch of dirt that people drive across however they choose. Tracks aren’t even necessary in much of the Gobi, most of it is flat enough to be a road.

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.”

UB
UB

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
whoooaaaa-oh, whoa-oh.
Dog!
Packs!
Dozens of dogs at nighttime

They will live on without you
without your tooouuucch
ohhhh-ohhhh
na na na na, na na
whooooaaaa-oh
whoa-oh

Ulaanbaatar

Chinggis Khan and Terelj National Park

Gobi Trip: The drive South, and Yolyn Am

The Gobi Trip: Sand Dunes and first ger camp

Gobi trip: SNOW on the road, and Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag)

Gobi Trip: Coming home, including a stop in Dalangadzad

Russia, Mongolia, and Israel

Since you’ve last heard from us, we’ve traversed the Russian Altai Mountains, arrived in Mongolia, and skirted the Gobi desert for 1,600 kilometres to get to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. As you may well guess, we have some adventures to report.

dsc06157
The Altai Mountains: there are mountains!

The Altai Mountains are spread over Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Russia, making them an interesting cultural destination to say the least. Much of the mountains are only open to tourists who have a special border permit from the country of their choice. However, we avoided the necessity for a permit by staying on the Chusky Trakt, the famous road meandering south through the mountains from Barnaul, Russia, to Mongolia. This road was mostly exciting due to there being actual, real, mountains, a thrilling novelty after the Kazakh steppe. We free-camped and enjoyed stopping at roadside shops to select yak-wool products and sample fast food. We now know that whenever we see Uzbeki dumplings advertised, we should eat ‘em. More stories about the Altai Mountains later.

Getting through the Mongolian border did not take 8 hours as we had feared. It did, however, include about 20 kilometres of moon-like no-man’s-land between Russia and Mongolia, with not even an animal in sight. (You realise how odd this is if you know that Mongolia has only 3 million people but 65 million heads of livestock.) It tops our list for the eeriest place to stop and pee.

These girls hung out in the ger complex. The one on the left followed me around, smiling madly, and tugged me on the arm if I didn't pay attention to her. At one point we were running around the ger camp, playing a very loud and boisterous game of "red light, green light" with no English and much more giggling.
These girls hung out in the ger complex (that’s a ger in the background, by the way). The one on the left followed me around, smiling madly, and tugged me on the arm if I didn’t pay attention to her. At one point we were running around the ger camp, playing a very loud and boisterous game of “red light, green light” with no English and much more giggling.

Once in Mongolia, we arrived in the border city of Ulgii and checked in at a guest ger complex. This is totally a thing in Mongolia. A ger is a yurt, by the way, but Mongolian language has to make everything sound scarier and harsher than it actually is. There are gers everywhere – nomadic Mongolian people live in them, and people in the city often do too. Anyway, Ulgii, along with a few hostels in Ulaanbaatar, is a gathering place for travellers in Mongolia. There are many more than you would think – Mongolia is great for trekking and adventure travel. The travellers – and I’m totally including myself here – are all the “too-cool-for-school” types who aren’t content with merely travelling to Paris. We need to brave wolves, freezing temperatures, and bizarre food for an “unique” experience. Despite my cynical description, I actually really enjoy this subculture of travellers. So much so, that we picked up a couple of them and took them with us.

Luke and the caretaker. I never heard him speak, but once he laughed at something I did (in a nice way), and his laugh was just an airy wheeze. Fabulous guy.
Luke and the caretaker. I never heard him speak, but once he laughed at something I did (in a nice way), and his laugh was just an airy wheeze. Fabulous guy.

We met Matan and Iftach at the breakfast table at the ger camp in Ulgii – there weren’t enough tables, so we shared. They are a couple of Israeli brothers in their 20’s who are doing a month-long tour of Mongolia, and maybe Russia. I knew from before that I love Israeli people – straightforward, polite, disciplined, prone to real conversations and deep thoughts. Matan and Iftach are certainly, as Anne of Greene Gables would say, “kindred spirits”. A few hours after breakfast, Luke and I (with the help of the guys and the ancient caretaker of the ger camp) had converted our car back into a four-seater. The four of us were on the road for the 5 day trip to Ulaanbaatar.

They were excellent travel companions, cheerily agreeing to any plan we came up with and laughing away the freezing temperatures and dust storms. We free-camped two nights – the guys had a whole camp set on their backs – and stayed in slightly sketchy hotels for two nights. (Matan and I did check them out in advance of paying to see if they had “murdery” vibes.) They cooked Israeli food for us and thoroughly answered all of our invasive questions about their home country. They even volunteered a few historical and cultural lessons for us. They made what would have been a long and boring 5 days into a very interesting and fun chunk of time. And for all we’ve learned about Israel, I feel like we’ve added another country to the list of those we’ve visited on this trip. An unexpected bonus of a trip to Mongolia.

Our new buddies
Our new buddies

We were also happy to have Matan and Iftach with us for the feeling of camaraderie and security. As you may know, all Israeli people must serve in the military. These guys had gone above and beyond by extending their service by a couple of years and by volunteering for combat units, which you would never guess by their calm, warm demeanours. This was comforting to Luke and I, owing to an experience from our first night in Mongolia.

I wasn’t totally forthcoming when I said that Luke and I checked into a ger camp when we got to Mongolia. We did, but not until 2am. Our first attempt of a sleeping place was at the house of a fellow who we met in an insurance office at the border – a cheery guy named Joy, who invited us to stay at his home. We had heard that this is common in Mongolia – you give someone $15 or $20 to stay in their house for the night and eat dinner and breakfast. Joy had stickers all over his motorcycle that had been given to him by travellers – an Australian flag, a Mongol Rally sticker from last year, a British car parts company.

In his cosy house on the edge of Tsaaggannuur, we met his charming elderly mother, his sister, and her adorable toddler daughter. We had a few gallons of tea and some food. All was well, and we felt comfortable. Luke skooted off to bed early, owing to his flu, but I felt safe because there were no doors and I could still see him. I stayed up for a while, playing with the baby. Some of Joy’s friends came round and had a couple of jovial beers. Joy bragged that one of the fellows was a champion wrestler, and I jokingly asked for a demonstration.

This is a video! Press to play. The Grandma and I played this game of “Where’s Koala?” with the little girl for about an hour. 

I didn’t notice anything amiss – I was showing the little girl videos of Rory and James in the ocean – until Joy grabbed his wrestler friend by the scruff of the neck and dragged him outside. I heard shouting, and figured they had had a bit too much to drink and decided to get dramatic. No big. I hung out with the baby. Luke heard the shouting and got up, and then mom and grandma went outside, leaving us with baby. It was midnight. The shouting escalated, and mom and grandma came inside, sitting on the bed next to Luke, baby, and I. It started to sound scary out there – there was no laughter in those shouts. Luke and I clearly weren’t involved in their fight in any way, but we were worried that someone would remember we were around and get us involved. We decided to leave. Grandma protested at first, but finally, when the group of men outside quieted and seemed to have left, she seemed to give us her blessing to go. She walked us to our car, kissed our foreheads, and waved as we drove off into the bright night.

We drove for an hour to get to Ulgii. We rolled up to the ger camp at 2am, and called the office phone number. They blearily admitted us and showed us to some comfy beds. In the morning, we apologised, paid for the room, and took a nice steamy bath in the aromatic wooden Russian bathhouse. (Basically a private sauna where you sit on a wooden bench and pour buckets of hot water all over yourself – magic.)

So, you can see why we would feel better having a couple of trustworthy, entertaining, military officers with us after that.

Perhaps feeling risk-averse, we decided to take the southern route from Ulgii to Ulaanbaatar. This meant avoiding the deep river crossings and mud of the northern route, but missing the mountain charm. Instead, we drove next to the Gobi desert, in a bizarre and maybe gorgeous lunar landscape. The road, blessedly, was paved half of the time. The other half, Luke enjoyed testing out our new tires on some excellent off-road terrain.

Which way to go?
Which way to go?

We only had two small river crossings and never enough sand to get stuck in. We did enjoy choosing our tracks – there were usually 6 or 7 running roughly parallel through the grass. And it was fun to navigate by saying things like “We need to drive to the right of that rocky hill” or “We’re heading too far north, bend south at the next available track” or “Stay with the main track – there’s a river crossing in a kilometre”. From a navigator’s perspective, this really beats “Turn left in 300 metres onto Union Street.”

We had a couple of interesting “city” moments along the way. In one town, we stopped for lunch. We usually made our own lunch out of stores in our “cupboards”, and we wanted to add some cheese to the mix. So we stopped at a small store – no cheese, but there were instant cup-o-noodles which were perfect for cold bones on a rainy day. We went outside to make our food by the car (with interested locals looking on), until Matan called, “Hey guys, um, I think she wants us to eat in here.” So we cooked our instant noodles on the shopkeeper’s living room/bedroom/kitchen floor, and shared our Israeli coffee with her and another fellow who showed up for the action. We gave her an Australia-themed tea towel before heading back out into the rain.

In another town, we were quite happy to find a hotel for the night – it was a tiny place. Seemingly every window on the building was broken, but inside, the place was quite charming. We paid for our rooms, and then, as an afterthought, asked where the toilets were. They were a pit out the back of the building – so Mongolia. And the shower, boy, that was an adventure. The shower was a 5 minute walk away, to the other side of town, past cattle and goats being herded down the dusty main “street”, through the gates of the boarding school, into a small building with 3 shower stalls and a student collecting money. We paid for our showers and, on the way back, waved at all the students calling to us from their dorm windows.

We're not in Kazakhstan anymore, Toto
We’re not in Kazakhstan anymore, Toto

 

The camping was no less interesting. Our first night, we camped in a vast, empty plain. It was still as a crypt, until 4am, when the quiet plain became a whirlwind, threatening to carry us and our little dog Toto far into the Gobi desert. It was unsettling. Luke and I got up at about 6:30, packed our tent away, and rested in the front seats of the car.

dsc06488
Digging ourselves into a pit

The next time we camped, we found a pit. Like, an actual rock quarry that had been dug by excavators. Luke and the guys used our collapsible shovel to dig us a way through the dirt barrier, also created by excavators, and we drove right down into our cosy, windless, campsite. This is the sort of thing that happens when Luke gets all excitable about an idea and won’t give up.

And finally, we make it to Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar is the type of city where meandering livestock slow traffic on multi-lane roads, but there is also a Pizza Hut. Sadly, we’ve seen very little of the town as I’ve got an awful flu, and Luke is just getting over one. Add to that my body’s decision to have my first, ahem, digestion, issue of the trip while waiting in line at the Mongolian immigration department to extend our visa. Blessedly, there was a toilet. However, the stall door was 6 inches from the end of the toilet, so I had to sit sideways. The bonus was that this made it really convenient for leaning my sweating forehead against the nice cold tile wall. If you are disturbed by this picture, I will remind you again that you exercised your free will in reading a blog post about budget travel in Central Asia. You have only yourself to blame.

So, we’ve been spending most of our time here in UB (as the cool travellers call it) holed up in the the most cozy hostel. Our room opens onto a friendly kitchen, dining room, and living room with big fluffy couches. Travellers, mostly Israeli, hang around at meal times, when we chat about where we’ve been and where we’re going, and swap advice about visas, roads, tour companies, food. It feels a bit like the Peace Corps houses, where volunteers get together to feel a slice of home. It’s quite comfy.

In addition, Israelis seem to have an instinctual understanding of not bringing up a country’s embarrassing politics if not first invited. As a person who currently is enjoying hiding under a rock regarding American politics, I appreciate this camaraderie.

Your friends, the dummies

We’ve found that stupidity is an excellent tool while travelling. Our favourite example (so far) is when we were stopped by some Russian cops in the Altai mountains. There are lots of routine checkpoints set up on Russian roads; a cop just waves you over and looks at your paperwork. We passed one, and the cop waved, but we were pretty sure it was for the person in front of us, who stopped.

However, the next cop, 200 metres down, definitely waved for us. It turns out, through the cop’s very limited English, we were supposed to stop before, AND we were speeding. It was pretty clear. But, you see, getting a ticket in Russia is a pain in the butt. You have to drive to the station and pay your ticket, and you have to go during office hours. So, Luke and I snapped straight into our super-friendly touristy stupid mode. This is unnervingly easy for us.

We smiled a lot, and happily exclaimed “Australia!! Tourist!!” a lot while pointing to ourselves. We heartily agreed with the cop when he said the word “stop”, pointing to ourselves and him and agreeing that we stopped when he told us to. “Da! Stop! Us!” He was pretty good natured about it, but clearly thought we were the biggest, happiest, idiots he had ever met in his life. He started doing charades for writing us a ticket, probably to tell us he could if he wanted to. I said, “Pen?? You need pen??” and cheerily went into the car to get one. When he saw me emerge with it, his eyes got wide with realization and his shoulders slumped, and he said, with all the exasperation you can imagine, “Oh. Pen.” He then shook his head and walked away. We, the cheerful idiots, were free to go.

The next time we employed our stupidity enjoyed less success. As you probably know, land borders require you to both leave your current country (Russia, in this case), and enter the new one (Mongolia). Leaving Russia, we got our most thorough car search yet. Usually we see local cars getting searched, but we just open our doors, smile, show them our bed, and get waved ahead.

This time, we had four Russian police search every item. This was ok until one, the mean one who never smiled, said “Medical. Doctor.” We couldn’t play stupid for too long on this one; he wanted to see our medical kit. This was not that fun – we have all completely legal drugs, but we have a lot. Cold and flu drugs, regular medications, pain meds, antibiotics, our prescription meds, everything for any type of stomach bug you can imagine. And all of this in large quantities for a year of travel.

dsc05932
Kitten break! At our campsite in the Altai Mountains

The officers were not amused by our stores. That is, they weren’t until they asked what one particular bag of drugs was, and Luke launched into charades for diarrhoea and vomiting. This elicited smiles and giggles from most of them. The charades took a sour turn with Luke’s vitamins, however, which we described by flexing our biceps. The officer looked shocked and said “Anabolic???”, which we quickly denied (they really are just magnesium tablets). I laughed and looked appalled at the suggestion, which actually wasn’t feigned stupidity – it really would be incredibly dumb to try to smuggle big bottles of anabolic steroids across the Russian border.

Interactions with the locals

We have mentioned previously that people in Russia are not particularly ebullient. This does not extend to the Altai region, where people are super nice.

For example, we stopped at a little stall along a shady wooded section of the Chusky Trakt to get some lunch. A fellow was barbecuing some pork, which turned out to be delicious, by the way. He told us to sit on a little picnic bench while he got our food together, and, once it was done, he came and sat with us. We had a pleasant chat without any English. Turns out the tea we were drinking was made of 7 herbs, harvested by hand by this fellow, from the forest we were sitting in. He was very interested in us, and how we came to do our trip. He asked (by miming “fat pockets”) if we were rich, which is a pretty amusing and common response when we tell people what we’re doing. It’s hard to know what to say. We usually just laugh.

Another time, at the Mongolian border, I was reminded of what it feels like to be a spectacle in a place where one is very, very different. My blue hair probably doesn’t help that much. Luke was with the car, and I was waiting for him to pull around to pick me up. There was a group of about 30 people waiting, looked like they had all been riding in the same bus. One of them said something friendly to me, and the whole group stopped talking and turned to look. I smiled that I didn’t know what she was saying. They all laughed. Someone said “Kyrgyzstan!!” and pointed to the whole group. Someone else walked up to me and handed me two pears, and they all watched while I ate one. It was all very good natured, and made me want to go to Kyrgyzstan.

Less good-natured were the stares we received when we walked into the breakfast lounge of a truck stop hotel in Russia. We accidentally decided to have breakfast at the same time as a Russian football team who were staying at the truck stop too. They were not hostile, but they were certainly unamused by us.

Till next time

We look forward to several more days relaxing here in Ulaanbaatar, until Luke’s sister Jo joins us next week. She’s made the brave decision to join us on our drive through China – a whole month of Felice and Luke, lucky her? We’ll keep you posted!

Bonus feature: A map of where we’ve been this time, because no one should be expected to know the geography of Central Asia off the top of their heads.

The Altai Mountains

Mongolia