Sunday, March 24, 2013

Word vomit part 2

I never planned to visit Hong Kong (well like most countries I have visited) but due to visa reasons it was a crucial stop. I was planning to cross overland to England from China and wanted to stop through Russia. At that time the only place in the world where you could obtain your Russian visa was your home country and the only other exception was Hong Kong.

So I arrived in expensive Hong Kong, applied for my Chinese visa, had to wait a week whilst I stayed with an awesome couch surfer in the outskirts of the city.

I realise now would be a good time to introduce you to couch surfing. When I often tell people what it is, I can never explain it with justice and it always comes across like some seedy internet dating site. It is an internet site designed to help travelers. You set up an account (much like facebook) and you can tell people where you are travelling to, for how long, what your interests are etc. People can then contact you, or you can contact them by searching through different profiles until you see someone interesting you may want to meet. It is kind of like having a friend in every city that you visit. People can then offer to host you on their couch, where you pay nothing. Or you can simply meet up with a local for a coffee where you can have a more “non-touristy” experience of the city and get shown around by a local. It is absolutely brilliant.

Like I often say travelling for me is all about the people. Some of my favourite memories and greatest friends from the trip have been a result of couch surfing. I honestly couldn’t have traveled this long without this website. Staying in hostels every night is not only expensive but you can miss really strong relationships not only with the people of the city, but the city itself. When a local shows you around and explains what the city means to them you begin to understand the place on a deeper and less touristy level.

Anyway back to Hong Kong. Then as soon as I picked up my Chinese visa and my passport I went to the Russian embassy and applied for my visa there. I was then told to wait three weeks for my Russian visa.

Hong Kong is not such a big place to travel for one month. But I made the most of it, trekking on different areas of the islands, camping on remote beaches and taking nice boat rides around. Hong Kong is such a magical place once you get past the high rise buildings and can breathe the fresh air. There is so much to explore off the main tourist circuit which is so rewarding.

Upon picking up my Russian visa from the embassy I realised that they had changed my set dates of arrival and departure, meaning that I had almost a month’s less time to get there as I had originally planned. Oh well, serves me right for forging some of the documents I gave in upon application.

With my passport and visas done, I bid farewell to Hong Kong and crossed the border into China, commencing the start of my overland crossing to England.

China was blur of fried rice, weird MSG drowned meat dishes, edible chicken feet, dodging people spiting and gorgeous views. The landscape is so diverse (not surprising considering how big the country is) and even once I left after a month I felt that I only just saw a fraction of what it had to offer.

I saw the amazing toblerone looking rocks at Yuangshuo, which was also the place where I left my newly bought laptop on a bus. Saw what all the fuss was about at Shangrila and why is it said to be such a beautiful paradise, trekked the tiger leaping gorge and was blown away by the amazing scenery, visited the terracotta warriors, sampled the ridiculously spicy hot pot in Sichuan, bought a new computer in Chengdu, found out the new computer was a counterfeit in Beijing and then climbed the Great Wall Of China.

Most of what I remember about China is transport of some sort, and this is not surprising considering I worked out that 1/3rd of my time in China was spent on some form of transport whether it be local bus, hard seat in a train or hitch hiking! But this total of 138 hours have some of my fondest memories of China. I traveled up through so many different areas of China accompanied by a lovely American (Doug) who certainly made the long tedious hours of travel somewhat more bearable!

Hitch hiking in China
Trying to somehow sleep on the long train journeys in china

Leaving China (for now) I headed up into Mongolia. The country with the world’s least dense population, the complete opposite to Japan, South Korea and China. The crossing into Mongolia didn’t perhaps go as smoothly as I had wanted it to. I crossed the border with a fellow traveller and good friend, Tim, and of course did research to find the cheapest way possible which involved long hours on buses, hitch hiking and an uncomfortablenight on the train up to Ulaan Bataar where we had to share a sleeper bed and the only way we could both fit was if I had my legs dangling out of the window.

Originally I had this crazy idea of buying a horse and going with a group of people on our own independent horse trek in the Mongolian mountains of the north. Well, as you can expect there were a few little holes in my plan.

Not only did I not really know how to ride a horse, take care of it, or how to navigate the Mongolian mountain ranges (or any sorts of flat, obviously marked routes for that matter) but after talking to some people who had just returned from the same journey, we decided to change our mind. What seemed to be a common occurrence with those who bought horses was that their horses mysteriously went missing when they were in the middle of nowhere. It was suggested that the people selling the horses were then following them and waiting for the right moment to steal their horse back, leaving the poor travelers stranded.

Didn’t sound like a lot of fun, so I decided to join two other travelers. Tim, a well traveled English guy with a sense of adventure and Mike, a creative guy from San Francisco making his way overland on a mission to bring a little bit of music and creativity to different areas of the world. Really inspirational and like minded people.  

We then trekked into the Mongolian mountains, luckily with Merv (a nickname we gave to a local whose name we still can’t remember today) who knew the Mongolia landscape like the back of his hand. And so it was over a week of galloping across steppes and picking wild mushrooms, herbs, onions and rhubarb to make our own food. I personally can’t eat any more bulgar after those weeks, I have reached my quota.

It was an amazing experience. There is nothing like being out in the wilderness exposed to all the elements, on a horse, wind in your hair, eating from a camp fire, washing occasionally in streams we found, but more importantly enjoying a simple existence. One without electricity, internet, hot showers etc. Just you and nature. Although having said that, a hot shower when we arrived back into civilisation was probably the best I have ever and probably will ever have.

With the East in mind I decided to do the illogical thing- look at a map, draw a line and decide that was the route I was going to take. The only problem is that Mongolia is THE least population dense country in the world and is full of steppes and vast areas of nothing-ness. But of course a simple search on google maps doesn’t show you that. So I drew a line across the country and decided to follow it across, luckily joined by Mike. How hard was it going to be?

Well I can tell you that since that trip I have looked a little more closely at maps! The difficult thing in Mongolia was that they aren’t very creative with their town names, so they seem to repeat the same town name multiple times. Which, as you can imagine, makes things a little bit difficult when you are standing on the side of the dirt track holding a sign for a place that has multiple directions.
“where you go?”
“which one?”

Another difficulty is that Mongolia does not have main roads. Say goodbye to highways, road signs, truck stops etc Mongolia has areas of vast nothingness where the cars are allowed to roam free as they please. So to hitch hike you kind of just have to pick a spot in the field somewhere and hope that a car decides to drive close enough to you to read the sign, or pick you up.

But our main problem was the flow of traffic. As the winter was beginning to close in, all the nomads, their families, their gers, their livestock etc were all moving East into warmer areas, such as Ulaan Bataar. But we were moving West. Finding a ride was possibly the most difficult thing, so some days we ended up having to camp out in my tent, stay in random family’s gers or even sleep in make shift tents in car parks.

After the horse trek we arrived in a little town (so small in fact that not only have I forgotten its name, but can no longer find it on google maps!) now joined by two hard core hitch hiking Polish girls we had met on the road, or dirt track I should more correctly say. We were ready to get a wriggle on and cross back into China from the Western border. But this town seemed to be a dead end, no one was going in our direction. We were stuck.

Sitting down on the step, slumped over and feeling defeated we considered our options, go back to China through Ulaan Bataar and continue west through there, or stay another night and try again tomorrow. There wasn’t much going on in this deserted town. To be honest we were the most exciting thing there, or so it seemed with the locals all standing around smoking, staring at us.

A police officer then took and interest with us and got out his “English-Mongolian Police Handbook” to try and help us. This book does not cater for situations like ours, with the phrases limited to:
“Where did you shoot the victim?”
“What hand did he hit you with?”
“What did the weapon look like?”

So instead using the best charades we could, I’m not gonna lie, I have had quite the practise over my travels, and we managed to communicate that we were stuck and wanted to get to the next town to make it easier to get a ride to Ulaangom in the very west of Mongolia.

The police officer was very entertained with our pathetic attempt at explaining our situation in what appeared to be a mix of bad disco moves, but he was nice enough to offer us a lift.

So there we were, four foreigners; Mike, Polish girls and myself being escorted by the only two police officers in town. Talk about VIP. And we were on our way, but not before a few rounds of town, picking up the local drunks, and a tea stop off at the Police officer’s house. Here he showed off his wife and newly born son, sharing with us a private morin khuur performance (traditional Mongolian bow stringed instrument, much like a guitar).

And so with traditional Mongolian tea and rusks in our stomachs and too many hard cheese ball things the size of large gobstoppers lodged in our mouths as we attempted to let them moisten to make eating them easier; we were on our way. Off to Tariat!

After a whole 30 minutes of driving, they pulled over.
Police Officer, rather enthusiastically: “let’s go!”
“We’re here?” We all chime in chorus, a little confused.
“Nyet, vodka” And with those two words he revealed two large bottles of vodka and ten bottles of Genghis Khan beer.

Before long he started pouring out the vodka into a communal bowl that was then passed around. Before taking a sip we were soon taught how to properly drink vodka the real Mongol way.

Here is a step-by-step in case you ever come across this situation:
1. Take the bowl (you can’t be rude and refuse it)
2. With your ring finger dip the finger tip into the bowl and then flick it out. I don't know what his means, but you should do it. 
3. Repeat this several times
4. And then finish off the bowl of vodka. There is no room for pretending as the bowl is inspected as you pass it back, and any drops left inside are not acceptable
5. This process will need to be repeated multiple times no doubt as the bowl keeps circulating around, so its best to line your stomach with some bread or something.

After more stops like this we picked up a random guy who claimed to be a shaman (traditional Mongolian doctor) who then treated a bee sting I got but rubbing mud into it, only to ask for proper medication and a bandaid when he got stung by a bee an hour later.

As the night was creeping closer the vodka stops started becoming more and more frequent, and the driving was becoming more and more zig-zagged.

On another stop we managed to find a random horse, which we all then took turns in riding bare back.

The journey ended up taking all day, probably over 13 hours, even though the distance was around 40kms. But with terrible dirt track conditions that were all pot holed, bumpy and went up a steep mountain pass, that and having a drunk guy driving the car we couldn’t have expected it to be any quicker really.

We finally arrived into this little town and Mike and I had nowhere to stay. Luckily we tagged along with the two Polish girls who had organised accommodation with a friend of a friend or something like that. Clearly didn’t really know each other in person when we arrived and the night felt a little awkward sleeping on their lounge room floor. We were told to pitch our tents in the backyard the next day, but Mike and I didn’t stay around, we were determined to keep moving west.

After trying to hitch for a while we realised our chances of getting a ride were pretty slim, everyone was moving east to escape the cold bringing with them whole families, gers, clothes, everything. So we started asking around and some people seemed to think there might be a mysterious bus that comes past going all the way west. Most people were unsure about the departure point, when exactly it left, what days it left and how much it was. But this was all hearsay and we had been stuck before due to “rumours” of such things. We couldn’t hitch a ride, and this seemed to be our own option. So taking someone’s advice we just waited at the local petrol station hoping that the bus did indeed go through there and that it went by that day.

We waited at that petrol station all day, and into some of the night realising that it probably wasn’t coming anymore. So we gave up and set out again the next day to try again. The thing that was a little difficult was that the day before the guy that worked at the petrol station had tried to push me into the store room and lock me in there when I was helping him load some stock into the back room. Not the friendliest of things to do, and someone who we really didn’t want to see the next day. So we waited on the corner of the petrol station waiting, waiting, waiting for this bus that still didn’t come.

Annoyed we gave up and walked into town. Suddenly a car pulled up with a whole family full of people in it all screaming at us and waving. Whatever it was they wanted it seemed urgent. The young boy, the only one who could speak English then told us that the bus was there and they had asked the bus to wait for 5 minutes for us. We realised that we had asked them for ways out of the town the day before and since then they had been running around trying to do some research for us. Amazing people.

So we bundled all our stuff in the already overcrowded car, me sitting on top of an old lady with my backpack sitting on top of the young boys head, only just able to shut the car door behind us. And off we zoomed to try and reach the mystery bus in time.

As we clambered on the bus and waved farewell to the kind family who had just saved us a lot of trouble we assumed our seats at the back of the bus on top of a bag of onions and a dissembled ger, that was drenched in ammonia. So now smelling like a mixture of onions and urine we sat on those onion sacks for the whole over 24 hour bus ride, finally arriving in Ulaangom.

From there it just seemed like a little hop skip and jump before we could cross over into China, which to be honest was a relief as the transport there was very tedious and difficult. Another 3 packed carload rides and we were at Bulgan, the border town with China, and had added another three travelers to the pack, rare considering you don’t see any tourists at all.
Tight squeeze in a minivan in Mongolia. Even though it may not look like it, we fit 24 people in that car.
When we arrived in town we walked towards one of the only hotels in town to stay there the night, planning to head off early the next morning back into China. Upon arriving at the hotel I turned around for one second to get a menu, and when I turned back my jacket had vanished. It was such a weird thing. I looked everywhere, asked the hotel staff if they had seen it and they said they saw a homeless guy come in and steal it. They also claimed they went to the police to report it, which they didn't as I checked. Bizarre things were happening in this hotel.

Mongolia was hard work, I’m not going to lie. I honestly didn't know what to expect from this country but felt that I got a lot of experience, especially in how to read a map! But upon crossing that border into China I was ready for a new country. 

Here's a video I compiled which may give you a rough idea of what traveling across Mongolia was like.

Stay tuned for part three...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great travelogue Hannah. It makes me feel 21 all over again. Oh so foot loose and care free. Keep traveling. And please, keep blogging.