A Travellerspoint blog

This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.

Preparations

2 days to go

I've named my blog "Making Connections" because, to me, travel is all about connecting - both literally and metaphorically. Through travel, one makes connections with people, with places, with self ... and with flights and trains and so on. No matter how you look at it, you can't travel without connections.

"You're going where?" "You'll be camping?" "Seriously?" Questions Cilla & I have heard many times over the last 18 months or so. Yes, we're going to Mongolia. Yes, we'll be riding for 10 days, 5-7 hours a day on a wilderness adventure. Yes, we'll be camping. And yes, as far as I know, we will need to shit in the woods. All this as a result of a connection with my dear friend Helen, who has been working sporadically in Mongolia and, when visiting me over Christmas 2016, showed me pictures of a beautiful and totally exotic country where horses are simply a fact of life. Almost immediately I wanted to see it for myself.

So here we are, leaving for Beijing, en route to UB in 2 days. Rather than simply take a connecting flight to Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, we'll be touristing in/ connecting with Beijing for a few days, then flying to UB. Getting excited!

We're clearly on the homestretch now. But what a ratrace it's been getting here. I'm not one for surprises or hassle (who is?), so the seemingly never ended hiccups in our planning and prep for this trip have stretched my patience on a number of occasions. Without going into massive detail (ie, a rant), a few things I've learned: 1. never, ever, try to get a Chinese VISA by going through the website of the Chinese consulate. While "click here for VISA" seems straightforward, it is not! Unless you enjoy endless loops of links that don't work, phone numbers that don't connect, and requirements that are impossible to meet, if you're going to China, enlist the help of a travel professional to get your VISA; 2. Do not assume that simply because you have bought train tickets for a certain date and time to travel from China to Mongolia, that the train will actually run at said date and time. Fortunately we learned early enough in advance that the train segment was no longer available as the train was being rerouted to Moscow to take people to the World Cup, but it meant scrambling to make alternative plans; and 3. sending payment to Mongolia can be bafflingly difficult as my payment kept disappearing into cyberspace - not received by the vendor, but also not received by VISA (I called the VISA people to confirm they weren't blocking payment. It took 4 attempts, combined with multiple phone calls and emails before the payment actually connected. Never before have I had to work so hard to spend money!!!

But now, all is well and the countdown is on! 2 more sleeps...

Posted by Liveitup 06:15 Comments (1)

Beijing

Random thoughts and observations

How time flies - six days ago, Cilla and I left Toronto for Beijing and now we've arrived in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. This means that once again, we have access to Internet/ wifi so I have no excuse for not updating this blog.

What will likely be my most lasting memory of Beijing? - HEAT. I mean really, really stinking hot heat!! Each day was around 40, dropping to low 30s at night - plus humidity. We both sweated in places where I had no idea nor desire to know that sweat glands reside.

Second memory, closely related to the first - smog. There is an almost constant foggy haze hanging over the city. Many people wearing facemasks. We saw blue sky for the first time yesterday. Our guide, Ray, told us that blue sky is unusual, particularly in the summer; the sky is normally shielded by smog. In 2017, Beijing experienced about 150 smog alert days.

Third memory - internet access...or not. I knew going over that our internet access would be limited. For example, I knew that Google would be inaccessible, which means that receiving or sending emails through my gmail account wouldn't be possible. But I hadn't realized so much would be censored - and in a seemingly inaccessible manner. I could get BBC and CNN but not CBC. Huff Post but not Maclean's. And, of course, no Travellers Point. I can't help but wonder what the algorithms are that block certain websites - and even within accessible websites, block certain content. From my side of the screen, there seems to be little if any consistency.

Fourth memory - huge economic growth, and its positive and negative consequences. Clearly, many Beijingers have money to spend - and there are no lack of places to spend it. High end stores abound. Cars are everywhere and traffic is crazy. Rush hour starts early and ends late (think Toronto traffic on speed...or should I say on absolute standstill). Everyone has a smart phone and seem to be on it constantly. It's really interesting to see how a communist country can grasp consumerism by the balls...but it clearly has.

And finally, greater respect for shift workers. Only now, heading into day 7 of our trip, am i starting to feel reasonably adjusted to the 12 hour time difference. While it's really convenient not to have to adjust my wrist watch, I have yet to sleep more than a few hour at night. Each night, i've been in bed at about 9 and then wide awake at around 11. Being awake most of the night is very conducive to reading and playing euchre on my phone, but not great for mental acuity the next day. Looking forward to full recovery from the jet lag asap!

Posted by Liveitup 07:02 Archived in China Comments (0)

Beijing places - day 1

Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace

Cilla & I had the privilege of having a private guide and driver during our time in Beijing. This was really great, as we got into places easily and without hassle and had the advantage of instant translation (we had one day without our wonderful guide Ray and found just how difficult it is to get along with absolutely no communication skills, either verbal or written!)

Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, located in the centre of the City and built in 1415. I was surprised at its size. Yes, we've all seen it on TV but until you're actually there, it's hard to grasp its size. Apparently it's one of the largest city squares in the world at 109 acres. Impossible to visit without making some sort of connection with the students in 1989.

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But there's also beauty in the Square. The flowers, the colour - a sense of brightness and hope

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Across from Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City, built in the 5th century as the palace of the Ming emperors and now a UNESCO heritage site In one word, stunning. The structure consists of close to 1000 buildings and covers over 180 acres. It is a huge rectangle divided into two parts. The Outer Court was used for ceremonial purposes while the Inner Court was the residence of the Emperor and his family, and was used for day-to-day affairs of state. And, like much of Beijing, it is very commercialized. While the Starbucks presence has been eliminated due to protests, there is no lack of opportunity to spend money. (Interestingly, our guide Ray never took us to the gift shops, etc. though.)

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After lunch, Cilla & I were taken to the Summer Palace, which was an imperial garden during the Qing Dynasty with origins dating back to the 1100's. The Summer Palace is also a UNESCO heritage site.

Our visit to the Summer Palace was, literally, a breath of fresh air after the heat, humidity and smog of our Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City visits. The highlight for both Cilla and me was the Long Corridor, which contains 273 sections stretching 728 metres. The entire corridor is beautifully painted in watercolours depicting Chinese history, folk tales, historical and legendary figures, buildings, landscapes and flowers, birds, fish, and insects. In total, there are over 14,000 pictures - all of which are meticulously maintained.

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But while the Long Corridor was amazing, the water alongside was peaceful and refreshing, creating a true sense of serenity.

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The walk along the Long Corridor ends with the Marble Boat, another stunning site that is hard to describe. The original boat was built in 1755 but was destroyed in 1860 during the Second Opium War. It was restored and enhanced in 1893 on order of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the Dragon Lady (a whole blog could be dedicated to her - will leave it at "she was a woman who did not hesitate to create and grab opportunities....)

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And after a full day of touring in the baking heat on very little sleep, we headed back to our hotel for a cold beer and a nap....

Posted by Liveitup 13:27 Archived in China Comments (0)

Beijing places - day 2

Great Wall

Our original schedule for our visit to the Great Wall of China had Ray (our guide) and Mr Sun (our driver) picking us up at our hotel at 9 am - but Ray wisely suggested that we get an early start to the day and get ahead of both the traffic and the heat so we left the hotel around 7 to head north. Good choice!! The traffic was just starting to build and the air was still relatively cool (ie, only mid 30s).

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My friend Wikipedia tells me "The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China to protect the Chinese states and empires against the raids and invasions of the various nomadic groups of the Eurasian Steppe with an eye to expansion. Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BC; these, later joined together and made bigger and stronger, are collectively referred to as the Great Wall. Especially famous is the wall built in 220–206 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Little of that wall remains. The Great Wall has been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced over various dynasties; the majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)."

In short, it's truly gobsmacking to comprehend how the wall was built and how there is anything left. I managed to climb to Fortress 10 (see photo below; it's the pagoda in the distance on the far right) - up many, many very steep stairs in temps that were by then (about 9 am) approaching 40 degrees and with the smog rolling in. But, it was the downhill climb that was harder. A number of times I was thinking "knees, don't let me down now!" And, I'm glad to say, they didn't! In short, a huge sense of accomplishment for me, and gave me the opportunity to view the world from a perspective that very few of us will ever have the privilege to make.

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Posted by Liveitup 14:44 Archived in China Comments (0)

Beijing

Ordinary people doing ordinary things

Spare time:
On our 3rd day in Beijing, we visited a lovely park in Beijing where residents gathered, danced, played games, enjoyed themselves and the presence of others. Unfortunately I didn't take note of its name, but both Cilla & I found the atmosphere in the park a welcome change from the overt commercialism that seems pervasive in the city.

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We then walked through the park enjoying the sights. A really pleasant way to wrap up our Beijing tour.

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In the afternoon, we went for a rickshaw ride to see some of the housing and micro businesses that enrapture more of the "real" Beijing. We stopped to visit a local artisan who paints inside bottles. I gave it a try. Her work is beautiful. Mine was not.

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Food:
Overall, we found the food excellent. Fortunately Ray, our tour guide, ordered for us whenever we were with him. Any challenges we experienced occurred when we were on our own and incapable of understanding what was on the menu and/or how to communicate with the servers. For the most part, menus had pictures - but a picture isn't always worth a thousand words. Sometimes words, too, are necessary.

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After encountering this delicacy, and given we weren't terribly hungry anyway, we decided just to go to McDonald's. I can't remember the last time I had a Big Mac, but sometimes predictability is worth a lot....

Interesting fact: Using chopsticks with one's left hand is apparently considered very rude. However, as a confirmed lefty whose chopsticking prowess with her left hand is pretty tenuous, I decided to go for rude rather than starve.

Toilets:
I think most of us have heard of Beijing's squat toilets - and, yes, I can say I've now experienced the challenge of squatting over a hole in the ground and doing my business without missing the hole and/or peeing on my pantleg. But, having said that, Beijing is currently undergoing a "toilet revolution", particularly in the tourist areas, and so (thankfully), sit down toilets that flush can be found in a number of places. In fact, hotel toilets are stunningly appointed with buttons to activate various levels of spray activity to wash your nether regions and another set of buttons to activate the heated blow dry. Seriously! (ok, I admit it, it felt pretty good...)

And with that, on to UlaanBaatar.

Posted by Liveitup 03:14 Archived in China Comments (0)

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