Lake Baikal: Scenery and Saunas

As enthusiastic as I am about efficient public transportation, our train out of Ulaanbaatar had been making such good time that it was actually ahead of schedule, and we arrived in Irkutsk almost a full hour before the expected time. Normally that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, but we had been due to arrive in Irkutsk at about 8am, which meant we ended up waking up at 6am for our arrival at approximately 7am. No matter the season, Siberia is still extremely cold at 7am. It was hard to believe that only two weeks ago I had been sweating it out in South-East Asia. To top it all off, the fact that we were early meant that our guide wasn’t even at the train station yet, so we all sat around in the terminal building, shivering and shaking and waiting for him to arrive. I had made the mistake of not changing out of my thin material Thailand fisherman pants before getting off he train, so my legs were feeling ridiculously cold.

Eventually Konstantin arrived to meet us at the station. He was a tall, board-shouldered guy, and his face was almost always sporting a wide, slightly goofy grin. He was particularly upbeat and cheerful that first morning in Irkutsk, which was a stark contrast to how the rest of us were feeling. That didn’t dampen his spirits though, and he herded us off into the bus and took us to our first stop – our registration. Even now I’m not entirely sure what this registration business is all about, but it involved us having to part with our passports temporarily, and a small sum of money permanently, in order to receive an official stamped slip of paper with the details of our accommodation. We were told this would happen in every city, yet when he asked Konstantin – or Kostya for short – he shrugged his shoulders and through a sheepish grin replied, “I am not sure. My country does some strange things sometimes. Maybe in case you are a spy?” He chuckled, and there was nothing we could do but laugh along with him.

***

While we had gotten off the train in Irkutsk, it wasn’t where we would be spending the bulk of our time in Siberia. After our registration, we travelled for about an hour on the bus to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. At its deepest point it is 1642 metres and tip to tip it’s 636 kilometres long, with a surface area of 31,722 square kilometres. Tim explained to me that it is so big it has a trench at the bottom, caused by the gap between two tectonic plates. As we emerged from the forest and into the small town, the lake stretched out and off into the horizon. The morning was a little overcast, and the clouds hung so low that the other side of the lake was hardly visible, and we could have easily been looking out onto the open ocean. After stopping to shower and refresh ourselves at the hotel, which was more of a quaint little B&B, we met back down by the lake for lunch. Russian cuisine isn’t too different from Mongolian, especially out here in Siberia, but I had a traditional Russian salad that absolutely blew my mind. It was essentially just a salami salad that was drowning in sour cream, but both creamy food and fresh vegetables were things that hadn’t featured too heavily in my diet lately. Dan commented that I practically inhaled it. I asserted that it was a talent.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

After lunch we went on a short walk to a nearby lookout with good views of the lake. Or at least Kostya told us it would be a short walk. “Not far, just… hmm… 10 minutes.” Maybe we were all just walking a lot slower than he was used to, because it took us about 20 minutes to walk down the long main road to get to the base of the hill, which we had to walk up in order to get the chairlift which would take us to the very top. The sun had finally showed up at this point in the afternoon, but we were all rugged up in our warm Siberian clothes, so the result was a bunch of hot and sweaty tourists slowing undressing as we ascended the hill. Once we reached the chairlift, we were also given the option of walking to the top. Given all the walking we had done just to get there, and the fact I played my hill climbing card back at the Great Wall, I felt that I was well within my right to cop out and take the chairlift. Regardless of how we got up there, I was glad we did – the view of the lake with mountains bursting out of the horizon in the distance was well worth the small effort to get there. “I’m kind of glad he lied about how close we were,” Alyson commented as we soaked in the view. “I feel like we we’re all so tired that we mightn’t have done it if we’d known.” The sun had well and truly emerged from the clouds, and the afternoon was brilliantly picturesque. Despite the effort, it was ultimately relaxing, and as we sat down in the sunshine with some cold beers, I was thankful that we were staying in remote countryside again, rather than a bustling city. The downtime surrounded by nature was doing wonders for us all.

Chairlift up the hill.

Chairlift up the hill.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out - its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out – its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

***

My favourite thing about our entire stay at Lake Baikal was probably the sauna at our hotel. After the trek back from the lookout, Tim, Dan, Claire, Matt, Jen and myself all got changed into our swimmers and headed for the steam room. It grew a little chilly as the evening rolled around, although it would remain a bright twilight for hours, but inside the sauna we were sweating it out at temperatures of about ninety degrees Celsius. Kostya joined us, dressed in nothing but a skimpily clad towel, to help operate the sauna, but he also had another surprise. Traditionally, in Siberia they use soaking bunches of birch leaves to throw water onto the hot coals and create the steam, and the branches have another purpose. After soaking them in hot water, the bundles of leaves could be used as tools of massage. We all took turns to lie down on one of the wooden benches while Kostya brushed, tickled, and gently whipped us with the birch tree branches. The smell of the foliage also seeped out from the leaves and hot water and mixed into the steam, creating a pleasant aromatherapy atmosphere in the sauna.

After a little while the heat would become overwhelming and we would have to step outside to cool off a little. Sometimes we would just step out into the outer room, where there were showers to rinse off, and other times we’d leave the building in which the sauna was located entirely, to let the Siberian chill tingle our hot steaming skin. When it came time for my birch leaf massage, we’d just returned from the outside air, and so the heat of the sauna enveloped me and dragged my body movements down to a crawl. I climbed up onto the wooden seat, laid face down, and waited for the massage to begin. Obviously it wasn’t a hard or deep tissue massage, but the feeling of the warm, wet leaves being dragged across my back was a peculiar sensation, somehow simultaneously relaxing and invigorating. Though the highlight was when he got to my feet – we had been standing out in the cold, and my feet had probably lost more warmth than anywhere else in my body. Normally my feet are quite ticklish, but as Kostya covered my feet with the dripping birch leaves they were filled with a warm sensation that felt so good it was almost paralytic.

After getting me to roll over and continuing the massage on my chest and arms, Kostya threw the branches back into the bucket of water and said, “Okay, let’s go shower!” By this, he meant step out of the sauna so he could douse you with clean, fresh water. Now, I’m not saying that I was exactly attracted to Kostya, but it had been a while since I’d been half-naked and sweaty with another man after getting a massage, and he did have quite a good physique – as I’d been unpacking that morning, I’d watched him and another guest have a push-up competition and let me tell you, the boy’s got guns. So I may have been a little flustered when the two of us stepped outside.
“Cold or hot?” Kostya asked me. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Cold… or hot?” I repeated back to him like a parrot.
“Water for shower,” he said as he pointed to the buckets. “You like hot or cold?”
“Um, warm?” I put my hand in the bucket he’d indicated to me hot, and instantly pulled my hand back out. “That’s cold!”
Kostya laughed. “Is not cold, just feels cold, ’cause… hot from sauna.” He made me feel to cold one, which felt like ice in comparison, to prove his point. “So, cold?”
“Yes but… that cold,” I said as I pointed to the warmer of the two buckets.
“So you want hot?”
I couldn’t believe how much I was stumbling through my words for such a simple decision. “Sure, bring it on,” I finally said. I was most likely going to squeal like a little girl either way, and the cold shower was quickly becoming more of a necessity.

“Okay – one, two, three!” Kostya said as he reached over me and tipped the water over me. No matter how warm he said it was, I was still a shock to the system and I’m fairly confident I let out a loud yelp as he doused me with water, washing away the bits of twigs and leaves that had stuck to me during the massage. Kostya just laughed and threw some more water on me. Cold as it might have been, it was actually amazing – the drastic change in temperature does wonders for your pores and skin, and leaves you feeling like a whole new person. I skipped away from the sauna slightly shivering in the Siberian air, but on the whole feeling like a million bucks. It was the highlight of my time there, to the point where I even went back the next night with Kaylah, Alyson, Rach, Marti and Tim.

***

Dinner also proved to be a new traditional cultural experience. On the morning we arrived in Irkutsk, Marti had attempted to pump us all up a little bit. “You guys ready to eat some dill-icious food!” She’d explained that Russians love putting dill in all their cooking – I didn’t know how I felt about that, as it wasn’t a herb I could recall coming across too often, and so couldn’t think to whether or not it was a taste I enjoyed. As we sat around the table to eat a meal that the hotel owner had prepared for us, there was a ripple of laughter around the table as the plates were set down in front of us, the generous servings of chicken and rice topped with an even more generous serving of dill. “Looks dill-icious!” Marti said through her big smile, and we all laughed along and enjoyed what was actually a delicious home cooked meal. I actually use the word ‘delicious’ a lot in my general everyday discussion of food – yes, I talk about food a lot – so the rest of the group probably thought I was intentionally overing-using the pun and persistently beating the dead horse. I swear I wasn’t, guys – it was just was delicious.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

But it wouldn’t have been a night in Russia without vodka – and we’d stocked up. We started at dinner and kept going into the night until it finally got dark, which actually wasn’t until after 11pm. There wasn’t exactly anywhere to go and party though, in this remote town, so we just sat around the dinner table talking. Slowly but steadily, the numbers began to wane as people headed to bed, and as the group become smaller and more vodka was consumed, the conversations turned a lot more deep and personal. In the end it was just Tim, Alyson, Kaylah and myself, and I feel like that night was a pivotal point in our group bonding. We’d all been together for over a week, and while it was surprising how well you get to know people when you spend so much time with them, I feel like it was those moments of candid confession and revelation that turned most of us into not just travelling companions, but also good friends.

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Russian Around

The next train on our journey would see us crossing another border, out of Mongolia and into the Siberian wilderness in Russia. We were all on a bit of a high after enjoying our time in Mongolia so much, so this two night journey would be a chance to debrief and prepare ourselves for our entry into Russia. Armed with two minute noodles and bottles of red wine, we said our goodbyes to Oko on our final evening in Ulaanbaatar and climbed aboard the train bound for Irkutsk.

***

The order of the cabins had been changed around since last time, and as the tickets were passed around I realised that I wouldn’t be isolated from the rest of the group this time. I was bunking with Tracy and the other British couple, Matt and Jen. The best word I could use to describe Matt and Jen is ‘organised’ – nothing was left spontaneous or unplanned, and they always liked to be two steps ahead of the game. I’m usually more than happy to play things by ear and go with be flow to see how things turn out, so sharing a cabin with the two of them was something of a juxtaposition, although there are definitely shorter straws to draw when it comes to close confines roommates.

Crossing the border to get into Russia from Mongolia was never going to be a fun ordeal – it took approximately four and half hours at the check points in both countries. To do what, I’m not entirely sure – Mongolia and Russia share a common gauge on their railways so there was no need to change the bogies. I know it’s necessary to check paperwork and visas and do the routine check for stowaways in the luggage compartment, which we’d all become very used to, but 10 hours just to cross a border just seems a little excessive. Not that it affected us very much at all – you could still do all the things you usually do on the train, with the exception of using the toilet, which you could use the station for – it just feels a little more frustrating to be sitting at a train station platform rather than watching the rolling hills of the countryside pass you by. I found myself pacing the corridor of our carriage, popping my head into other people’s cabins to say hello and see what they were doing, unable to sit for too long in any one place while the train was stationary, almost as though I was trying to make up for the lack of movement that was going on.

When the train finally did get moving again I joined two of the Australian girls, Rachel and Martina, in their cabin, along with Tim, Kaylah, Alyson, Dan and Claire. Rach and Marti were actually a couple who both work in travel and tourism, and have been travelling around the world together for the past several years. They both had their laptops and hard drives, so we set up a little theatre, cracked open a few bottles of wine, and watched a few episodes of Family Guy,The Amazing Race, and An Idiot Abroad, with the vast landscape of Siberia stretching out and beyond behind the screen. The Amazing Race was fun to watch with a group of travellers, as we speculated how we would fare in the challenges if we were contestants, and the episode of An Idiot Abroad was in China, so we pointed out all the familiar places we had been earlier in the week. Combined with dark chocolate and red wine, it was a fun and effective way of passing the time – after a while we realised we’d been there for about 4 hours. It was almost eight o’clock, yet the sunlight outside was deceptive, and back home the daylight could have passed for three or four in the afternoon. It was something we would all quickly get used to, but this time it had caught all of us by surprise.

***

Our interaction with the train staff was probably the most eventful part of our trip. On the previous trains we’d hardly spoken to the uniformed women who marched up and down the corridor, cleaning and tidying and I suppose helping anyone who needs assistance. The attendants on this train were Russian rather than Mongolian, and on the second day of our trip, before the border crossing, the woman who had been working on our carriage came in with a basket of chocolates, chips and drinks that she was selling. She started speaking in Russian and motioning to her products, but obviously none of us understood.
“No, thank you,” Tracy said slowly, and I shook my head to indicate that we didn’t want anything. Matt and Jen were contemplating some of the chocolate bars, and asked if they could borrow some Russian rubles, as they hadn’t managed to exchange any currency yet.
“One Twix, please”, Jen said, pointing at the Twix bars and holding up one finger. The lady took the 100 ruble note and gave her two bars.
“No, one,” Jen repeated, holding up her index finger to try and communicate the number. The woman said something in Russian, took away one of the Twix bars and replaced it with a Snickers.
“No, I have allergies. Nut allergies,” said Matt. I don’t know if the train attendant understood, but if she did then she certainly didn’t like what she heard. She started rambling again in Russian, pulled the Snickers back and then put three bottles of soft drink of the table in front on us. She placed her hand on each one, each time saying something in Russian, then motioning back to the chocolates, all the while speaking Russian at us.

“We don’t speak any Russian,” Matt said, before turning to find his Lonely Planet book. “Maybe we can get some translation happening.” The Russian woman liked that even less. Her voice got louder, and she picked the book up out of Matt’s hands, and slammed it back onto the table.
“No,” she said, the first word of intelligible English so far, and then pointed at the book, said something that sounded like “your culture”, then motioned back to the chocolates and said “Here in Russia.”
Not only were we a little confused at what was going on, but it was a little annoying to know she had been screaming at us in Russian when she clearly knew some English words – no matter how small they had been, it would have been better than our almost non-existent knowledge of Russian. The drift of the conversation seemed to be that Matt and Jen would not be getting any change from the transaction, so they just settled for taking two Twix’s and letting the grumpy train attendant go on her way.

Later in the afternoon, in a conversation in Rach and Marti’s cabin, I learnt that everyone else had gone through a similar ordeal, with the attendant threatening to cut off our access to the hot water on the train if we refused to buy anything. The hot water was a boiling urn that could be used to make tea, coffee, and two minute noodles, so naturally it was a key ingredient to us surviving these long train treks. Personally, I was just surprised that they had managed to get even that much of a translation, although Marti is originally from Slovakia and does have a bit of a knack for European languages. When I relayed this story to the others in my cabin, Matt said it was just part of a more general bribe that is probably a regular occurrence. Whatever the case, after the train attendant had acquired her fee, she became one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever met, even talking to us a couple of times in nearly perfect English. That annoyed my slightly, however, because it meant that her initial tantrum and almost definitely been a complete sham. It was a small amount though, and in the end didn’t come out of my pocket, so it was easy to write it off as just another cultural custom to recognise, familiarise ourselves with, and get used to.

***

Our short ride from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar felt like nothing after the amount of time it took from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk. I don’t think the distances are all that different – it was just the time spent at border crossings and the time of our departures that had made the second trip seem longer, given that we’d spent two nights on that train rather than one. It was a sweet, freezing breath of relief as I stepped off the train and onto the platform at Irkutsk, and I tried to not think about the fact that our next train journey would be at least twice at long, both in distance and in time.

A Nomads Life For Me

Luckily we were only staying in Ulaanbaatar for one night, because there didn’t appear to be a great deal of tourist attractions left to see in the city. The rest of our time in Mongolia would be spent at a ger camp about two hours away, far off in the Mongolian wilderness. A ger is a sort of semi-permanent tent that the nomadic people of Mongolia live in – while Ulaanbaatar does have a population of about 3 million, there is a remarkable amount of people who still live the nomadic life out in the wilderness and the Mongolian national parks, moving from place to place with the seasons and taking their home with them, as well as their herds of livestock.

***

We had one stop in the morning on our way to the ger camp. The Gandantegchenling Monastery was a beautiful structure, and Oko explained that Buddhism is one of the major religions of Mongolia. It’s quite interesting how the landlocked country has so many different cultural influences from the surrounding nations, yet it truly becomes a melting pot that breaks all of them down and recombines everything into their own culture that is quite unique. We walked through the temple, silently moving around the people who had come to light candles and incense and to pray, before stopping at the monastery to watch the monks begin their morning rituals and listen to their chanting. I hate to admit it, but ever since my bizarre incident with the shady Buddhist monk in Lop Buri, I’ve been unable to look at any monk the same way again, and even just seeing one creates a rising anxiety within me. It really is such a shame, because I used to hold such a fascination for ideals and spirituality behind the religion, and now those beliefs have been well and truly tainted. I listened to the chanting for only a few moments before stepping out of the low-hanging canopy of incense and into the fresh morning air.

The main building of the monastery complex.

The main building of the monastery complex.

Outside, in front of the main temple, there was a big pair of golden feet. Oko explained to us that the Mongols were attempting to build the worlds largest human structure, a Buddha even bigger than the Statue of Liberty. However, all of the money for the project comes from donations, so there is no scheduled finish date because no one really knows when they will be able to finish it. Oko had also mentioned yesterday that the weather in Mongolia only allows for construction to be done for two or three months every year, which is why there were so many construction sites and unfinished buildings in Ulaanbaatar, adding to the ugly, incomplete cityscape.

Golden feet - all there is of the statue so far.

Golden feet – all there is of the statue so far.

However, the most interesting, or at least entertaining, part of the monastery visit was the swarm of pigeons outside. As we first approached the monastery, we heard the low cooing noise steadily growing louder, and we soon found ourselves in front of a formidable sea of feathers. There were thousands of pigeons, and their call almost seemed to have an eerie echo as it rippled through the flock of birds in the courtyard. Some people were feeding them with seed they had bought from a little old lady wandering through the birds, while other children ran through the crowds to scatter the pigeons and sent them flying. They always came back though. Someone asked Oko about their significance. “The pigeons? No… They just live here, I don’t know why. But they are not special, not at all.”

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

***

After the monastery it was onto the ger camp. The place we were staying at was in a region called Terelj National Park. It was more of a permanent set up that was obviously designed for tourists, but they were the same style of ger that the real nomads live in. Each circular tent was several metres wide in diameter, and had a wood-fire stove set up in the middle, which were traditionally used for cooking all the meals, but would serve only as a heater for us during our stay. I was sharing my ger with Tim and Don, the other Australian guy on our tour, and after we unloaded our bus and settled into the gers, we went for a short drive to a small landmark known as Turtle Rock.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Turtle Rock.

Turtle Rock.

We climbed to the top of the rock to appreciate the view. The Mongolian countryside really is beautiful. I spent a lot of time with my family in the Snowy Mountains as a child, and it was a familiar feeling of watching the virtually untouched landscape stretch out for what seemed like forever. Such sights always remind me of my fathers words about cities being similar from country to country, and I was even more pleased that we’d escaped Ulaanbaatar to explore the rest of Mongolia. After Turtle Rock, we visited the ger of a real nomadic Mongol, and got to see what the inside of a truly inhabited ger looked like. The walls were lined with rugs to retain the warmth and heat, there was a TV and a fridge and a whole kitchen set up, and it felt like an actual home compared to our gers, which were essentially the hotel versions of the traditional Mongol dwelling. There was only one woman who lived in this ger, and she had prepared some food for us, so we asked her questions about Mongolian nomadic life, with Oko as translator, while we nibbled on homemade cheese and bread, dried yoghurt, and sipped on warm milk tea. I didn’t care much for the tea, and the dried yogurt was so hard I thought I was chewing bone, but after spending so long in South-East Asia it was quite a treat to have some hearty, homemade cheese.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

It was definitely surprising how permanent the set up looked – apparently when they move, the nomads travel anywhere from a few kilometres down the road to hundreds of kilometres to a new region, usually for reasons of weather and climate or the availability of grass for their herds of cows, horses, goats, sheep or camels. It only takes 8 hours to completely dismantle the ger, which was deemed an impressive feat by our group. “It took me 8 hours just to pack for this trip!” Alyson exclaimed. We all had a bit of a laugh, but I suppose it was a reminder to all of us just how content people can be with so little in their lives. It feels like I have one of those epiphanies every time I visit a non-Western country, but I do think its important to retain that perspective throughout life, so I never end up taking for granted all the things I do have in life.

***

Our days at the ger camp were mostly spent outside, doing things like horse riding and archery. The warriors of the fearsome Mongolian Empire did both of those things are the same time, though horseback archery isn’t an easy skill to master in a few days, so we kept our attempts separate. We also made several small hikes up the hills and rocks that created the valley that our ger camp was in, and admired the awesome views. The hills rolled on in every direction, and in the neighbouring valleys we could see more clusters of gers, demonstrating just how common this nomadic way of life really is in Mongolia. The food in the ger camp was also amazing. Traditional Mongolian soups, salads and meat dishes, broths full of mutton and meat that melted in your mouth right off the bone, and hearty fillets of steak served with rice and potato. I wasn’t sure if there were any Mongolian restaurants around where I live, but I made a mental note to find out when I go back home – the cuisine is absolutely delicious, and I didn’t go to bed hungry once.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Trying out my archery skills - there's a reason there's no photos of the target...

Trying out my archery skills – there’s a reason there’s no photos of the target…

However, on one of the nights I did go to bed a little tipsy. As a group we’d decided we might get on the piss and have a little bit of a party in one of the gers. Some brought vodka, some brought beer or wine. I myself brought a semi-dry red that was made in Bulgaria, surprisingly delicious for the price that I paid for it. The conversation flowed freely, as is always the case when alcohol is involved, and I chatted a little more to some of the Australian girls who I hadn’t seen much of during the course of the trip. It was incredibly warm and toasty with the fire going inside the ger, and we frequently had to prop the door open for a little bit of relief, sometimes even stepping outside to cool off a little. The wine went to my head pretty quickly, but I remember standing outside with Dan and marvelling at the stars that were spread out across the dark blue night sky, thinking back to my night of stargazing on Koh Rong Samleon in Cambodia and still being a little bit excited that the constellations were all different in this hemisphere – and I don’t even think that was the wine talking.

***

While the Mongolian countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, there are a few things about it that are a little upsetting. When you’re gazing out from the peaks of a rocky outcrop the land looks untouched, but the reality is that the life of the nomadic people takes a toll on the land. Some people burn or bury their rubbish, but there is still an incredible amount of pollution. You’re just as likely to see a plastic bag take flight into the wind as you are a native bird, and at regular intervals there are huge mounds of trash that are most likely the remnants of a ger camp that has since packed up and moved on. I remember as a kid going out on Clean Up Australia Day and picking up all the trash in my local area – I think realistically this country would need a Clean Up Mongolia Year. I absolutely loved my time in Mongolia and out in the ger camp, but it was always a little bit disheartening to walk past what appeared to be a small forest of plastic bag trees, the skeleton of what was once lively greenery smothered with black and blue and translucent plastic.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

***

When we finally returned to Ulaanbaatar, we had an afternoon to kill before jumping on a train to Siberia that evening. We had lunch at a buffet style Mongolian barbecue, which was amazing – I ate so much I felt sick – and then spent some time at the National Museum. The more I learnt about the native Mongolian people and the mighty empire of warriors they had once been, the more I suspect that they as a people were the inspiration for the Dothraki tribes in Game of Thrones. Fierce warriors with highly revered leaders and a lifestyle that revolves largely around their horses, they were nomads that travelled across their vast country and were constantly at war to expand their territory. Modern Mongolia is a different story though, but I still got a little kick out of my geeky comparison. I also saw some exhibits about musical instruments – the name of the Mongolian instruments I’d seen in the show last time we were in Ulaanbaatar was morin khuur, a name that translates to ‘fiddle with a horses head’. The end of each instrument is finished of with a carved wooden horse head, and the morin khuur is considered something of a national treasure for Mongolia.

As I wandered through the museum, I realised that most of the signs and information boards were in Mongolian, with no English translation. I hate being one of those tourists who just expects everyone to be able to speak English, and get angry when they can’t – I frequently struggle silently through awkward language barriers rather than go on a “Can anyone speak English?” spree – but I have to admit I was taken aback. Almost everywhere in South-East Asia had had signs in English, which I suppose I completely took for granted while I was there. English is a common and widespread language, but it’s by no means global or universal, and I think it took being in an official building like a museum, yet there still being very little English, for that fact to truly sink in.

***

Overall, my time in Mongolia was incredibly interesting and unique. Combined with the fact that I wasn’t scammed, tricked, injured or molested, I think I can safely say its been my favourite place on my journey so far, and my only regret is that I couldn’t stay for longer. But the tour schedule was pretty set when it came to transport, and we were due to catch our next train into the heart of Siberia.

One Night In Ulaanbaatar

The sky was bleak and overcast as we disembarked from our 36 hour journey and found ourselves on the platform at Ulaanbaatar train station. Most of us were still dressed in our pajamas and our comfortable clothes from the train, so the lack of sunshine was particularly chilling. “Spot the people from the Southern Hemisphere”, Tim joked as we stood around shivering, waiting for our tour guide to make themselves known. It didn’t take long before we found Oko, a stylish looking Mongol woman who did a quick head count before ushering us out of the station and into the car park. As we climbed onto the minibus that would take us to our hotel, Oko started the round of introductions, and it was refreshing to hear her voice ring through the entire vehicle. Snow’s rather timid nature meant that anyone sitting at the back of the bus generally had absolutely no idea what she was saying, as she was just so soft-spoken. We arrived at the hotel and all rushed upstairs to take our much needed showers. I was sharing a room with Tim, and I let him shower first. “Just a warning,” he said as he emerged from the bathroom, “the hot and cold water symbols on the tap are the wrong way around, and it took probably that whole five minutes for the water to get slightly lukewarm.” He looked refreshed, to say the least. However, I was lucky enough to find that Tim had been heating the water up for me, and consequentially enjoyed a nice hot shower. So much that when I decided to get dressed, I thought shorts might be a suitable choice. I looked out the window to discover the sun had come out, so anticipated it might get a little warmer. On the way down the hotel stairs, I ran into Tracy, one of the Australian women. “Oko just told us its gonna get to about two degrees,” she warned me, while doubtfully eyeing my attire. “Ah.” I turned on the spot and marched straight back up the stairs to change into my jeans.

***

Despite opting for the warmer clothes, it was still an absolutely freezing afternoon in Ulaanbaatar, yet we still trekked it out to do a little bit of sightseeing. Even Lonely Planet books describe it as an “ugly cityscape”, and I don’t feel as though I’m one to challenge that description. There are a few cool looking skyscrapers, but on the whole it’s a fairly dull and plain looking city. We trudged through the windy streets until we reached Sukhbaatar Square, probably one of the few pleasant looking places in the city. It was the main city square, and despite it being dark and gloomy, the space was full of children riding bikes and roller skates, as well as family groups and other pedestrians. However, because it was an open square the wind chill was absolutely horrendous, and there more jokes about the obvious Australians in our group. I myself could not stand still, overcome with involuntary shivers and shudders, cursing the fact I’d left my thermal shirt back at the hotel.

The "ugly cityscape" of Ulaanabaatar.

The “ugly cityscape” of Ulaanabaatar.

In Sukhbaatar Square, with the Mongolian Parliament House in the background.

In Sukhbaatar Square, with the Mongolian Parliament House in the background.

Statue of Chinggis Khan in front of Parliament House.

Statue of Chinggis Khan in front of Parliament House.

Statue of a horseback archer the Mongolian Empire was infamous for - this sculpture also depicts Chinggis Khan's son.

Statue of a horseback archer the Mongolian Empire was infamous for – this sculpture also depicts Chinggis Khan’s son.

We crossed Sukhbaatar Square to the Mongolian Parliament House, the outside of which is adorned with statues of Genghis Khan, the famous Mongolian leader, and his sons and grandsons. It was interesting to learn that his Mongolian name is actually Chinggis Khan, and that the English translation that the Western world is more familiar with is completely non-existent in Mongolia. We went through a short tour of the small building, but there wasn’t a great deal to do or see, other than a few small facts about the history of Mongolia that Oko shared with us. After that we got in some taxis and went to a nearby monument called Zaisan Monument. It was a structure that, like many buildings and cities in this country, was built for the the Mongolians by the Russians. We had to climb up quite a few stairs to get to the top, which was rather unpleasant in the wind, but despite being quite a dull city the vantage point provided a good view of Mongolia’a capital city.

View of Ulaanbaatar from Zaisan Monument.

View of Ulaanbaatar from Zaisan Monument.

Standing with the actual monument.

Standing with the actual monument.

Detailed mural that ran around the main platform of the monument.

Detailed mural that ran around the main platform of the monument.

At the base of the stairs to the monument was a man with a huge trained eagle perched next to him. I was reminded of the leader of the Huns from the Disney movie Mulan – it seemed that the reliving the films from my childhood wouldn’t end in China. For a small fee you could wear the heavy protective glove and hold the eagle on your hand. I was captivated by the powerful bird of prey, and wanted to give it a try. The eagle was remarkably heavy – it took most of my strength just to hold it up. The birds owners began waving his hands up and down and saying something to me in Mongolian. Oko translated: “He is saying to move your arms up and down, to make bird fly.” Using the remaining strength in my arm, I dropped it down and raised it back up as best I could under the weight of the eagle. It’s wings flew out to catch the air, and it flapped them a few times, as though it was about to take flight at any second. Luckily it was well trained, so it didn’t, and I handed back the eagle and removed the glove. My forearm still felt sore from the grip of its talons – I couldn’t imagine how painful it would be to feel those claws on unprotected skin.

Making the eagle fly.

Making the eagle fly.

The last attraction we saw that evening was a performance of traditional Mongolian music and dancing. I was unable to take any pictures, but many of the dancers wore elaborate costumes, though it was the music in the show that I enjoyed the most. The Mongolian folk music was created from an orchestra of drums, horns, and what appeared to be their cultures versions of string instruments such as harps, violins and cellos. The songs were actually quite beautiful, but the most remarkable and culturally diverse part of the performance was the singers. Throat singing, where vocalists are able to create and sing two notes at the same time, and quite literally play their throats like instruments, is a common feature in traditional Mongolian music. I wouldn’t exactly say that the sound was beautiful… but it was definitely interesting. After the show came dinner, which I was extremely excited for. Let’s just say I have an enthusiasm for meat, and Mongolia would be a difficult, or at the very least boring, place to be a vegetarian. We sampled the local draft beer, named after the one and only Chinggis, and I probably ate my weight in different traditional Mongolians foods. I didn’t try the horse meat though – it wasn’t offered in very many dishes, so I figured it must be quite a delicacy.

When we ordered a draught beer, the waiter asked "Big Chinggis?" We nodded enthusiastically.

When we ordered a draught beer, the waiter asked “Big Chinggis?” We nodded enthusiastically.

***

As we were walking home it began to snow a little bit. It was exciting for the first few moments, as we saw the white flecks flutter down to land on our clothes – then it sunk in just how absolutely freezing it was. We scurried back to the hotel to warm ourselves up. Once Tim and I were up in our room, I cracked open the Chinese ‘good health’ alcohol – that became its official name, since the entire label was in indecipherable Chinese characters – and mixed it up with with some Coke. “I think it might be a kind of whiskey, maybe?” I said as I took a few tentative sips. It had an herbal aroma to it. “Kind of like the Vietnamese make Mekong whiskey?” I took a swig from the bottle to get the full force of the flavour. I must have made a face, because Tim laughed and asked for a taste. He sniffed the bottle at first, and scrunched up his face as the aroma filled his nostrils. “Wow, okay…” He poured a small amount into cup and threw it back. After a moment of contemplation, he said “It almost tastes a bit like echinacea, doesn’t it?” I had to laugh – he was right, but the taste was growing on me. Tim and I sat up a bit later into the night, chatting about travelling and our lives back home. During a few group conversations back in China, we’d both casually revealed that we were gay, although this was one of the first times we had really gotten to talk one on one. It hadn’t really occurred to me before now, but now I was thankful that I wasn’t the only token gay person on the tour. We talked about our travels, about turning Grindr on in foreign cities, and I shared some fears and concerns about the official Russian stance on homosexuality. We even talked about home in Australia – Tim was from Melbourne – and discovered we had a few mutual friends, as is the small world that is the gay scene. After initially holding myself back a little bit for the beginning of the tour, it felt good to open up a little more and really be myself during the whole ‘getting to know you’ process, something that would only get easier from here on in.

All Aboard

So far in my journey, the only train travel I had done was the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani – the rest of South-East Asia had been traversed via bus, boat and plane. When it came time to board our first train of the Trans-Siberian adventure – the Trans-Mongolian leg of the trip fro, Beijing to Ulaanbaatar – I was quite excited, unsure if it would be similar to my experience in Thailand or something completely different. Snow met us at our hotel at 6:30am, and we piled into a minibus that would take us to the station. After a few security checks and little bit of waiting, she showed us to the platform and talked to the train attendants who took us to our cabins. We would be getting a new guide in every city of the tour, so we said our goodbyes to Snow as we climbed aboard. She had been a peculiar little woman, soft-spoken and shy but very polite, and had been quite helpful during our stay in Beijing.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

***

As a group, most of our time had been spent sightseeing, wandering around streets and temples and other attractions, and eating together at meals. However, we would be departing Beijing at around 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and wouldn’t be arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, until about 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the Monday. If ever there was going to be a time to properly get to know my fellow travelling companions, it was going to be during the periods of transit where there was not much else to do other than talk to each other. It was interesting to get to know a little more about everyone: where home was, what they did there, where they were going after this tour, how long they had been travelling for, and how long they still had to go in their travels. I also discovered that I was the youngest of our group – the tour was for 18 to 35 year olds, but majority of the group was at or around the 30 mark, with a few in their mid-twenties. Most of them were also seasoned travellers, and listening to their stories made me realise that despite my travels extending right around the globe, there would still so much more of the world left to see once I finally arrived home.

I’d also been wondering who I would be sharing a room with, after having spent my nights in the Beijing hotel alone. Yet as Snow gave us our tickets for the train, she said to me, “I think you will be on your own. Each cabin has 4 people, but there are 13 people. Your name is last on ticket, so you might be with strangers.” She had seemed concerned, but I had assured her that I would be fine. I’d been sleeping in dorms with strangers for most of the past 6 weeks – another night on a train wasn’t going to kill me. The cabin set up was quite differently from the Thai train though – instead of single seats that lined the carriage and transformed into beds, the Chinese train was divided into cabins, each one equipped with two sets of bunks, which served as seats during the day and beds at night. I spent most of my time during the day in the next cabin over, with Kaylah and Alyson, the American girls, and Claire and Dan, a British couple who had been temporarily living in Australia and were returning home to the UK.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

***

While I loved getting to know my tour companions, acquainting myself with the fellow travellers in my cabin was a different matter. When I’d first been shown into my room, I found a couple sitting on the end of my bed. Snow said something to them in Chinese, but they stared back at her with blank, uncomprehending faces. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Snow ventured out and asked “English?” The woman of the pair slowly shook her head and said, “No… not well.” Snow turned to me, a little frustrated.
“They are Mongolian, so I cannot speak with them…” She peered out of the carriage and down the corridor, looking for assistance from the attendants, but I assured her that as long as I had a bed in the cabin, I really wasn’t too concerned with where I slept. After a short while another older man joined us, and placed his things on the bunk above mine. Shortly after departing the station, he climbed up into his bed and settled down, and the couple seemingly disappeared. It was a 13 carriage train with a dining car at the end, so I figured that that’s where they had relocated to.

A few hours later, when I decided to do a little bit of exploring myself, I wandered down to the dining car, where my suspicions were confirmed. The Mongol couple was sitting at one of the tables, with about six or seven cans of beer sitting in front of them. The woman had her back towards me, but her boyfriend must have recognised me and said something, because she whirled around in her seat to face me, her beehive of hair flying all over the place, and shouted “Hi!” in a long, drawn out way that made me sure she was at least extremely tipsy. I said hello and waved back, but I had only come for a quick investigation, and didn’t stick around long enough for any other kind of exchange. It was still fairly early in the afternoon at that point, and we would be crossing the Mongolian border later during the night. I silently hoped that they wouldn’t cause too much trouble for our cabin during the border crossing and customs procedures.

***

Fast forward to about 8:30 that evening, and we had finally reached the Chinese side of the border crossing. I had been moving around freely at that point, but now we were required to return to our cabins to clear Chinese immigration and customs. Gramps and I sat patiently on our side of the cabin. The young Mongol man sat on his bunk, stumbling through a hangover after an afternoon nap and frantically trying to fill in his departure card. The Amy Winehouse look alike was no where to be seen – I would later discover that she was sleeping in the neighbouring cabin, which had thus far remained empty. An austere Chinese man came and collected passports, and we were ordered to stand up so that the under-seat luggage compartments could be checked for stowaways. However, he was speaking in English, which my Mongol companions failed to understand, and he must have started yelling in Chinese after that, because what followed was a lot of exasperated sighs from the border personal as they snatched up passports and shouted orders at the travellers. It must have been more of a nuisance than an actual problem, because they eventually moved on to inspect the rest of the train.

After that ordeal came the time for changing the trains bogies. The railway tracks in Mongolia have a different gauge of thickness to those China. Travellers were given a choice – get off the train and wait for three hours while this happened, or stay on the train for three hours while this happened. Whatever your choice, you had to stick with it, as you couldn’t come and go during the procedure. While most travellers chose to get off the train, everyone in our group decided the stay – there didn’t appear to be a lot to do so far out in the Chinese countryside on a Sunday night, and I was curious to see the bogie changing process. It just involved each carriage being jacked up and sliding out the old ones and slipping in new ones – though some other more interesting things occurred during that time…

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

I had been sitting in one of our other group cabins when I heard Alyson call out to me. “Robert, I think you’re locked out of your cabin.” I stuck my head out into the hallway to see at my cabin door was indeed shut, and they were the kind that could only be opened from the outside with a staff key. At first I thought it had accidentally shut, but after a while we heard noises coming from inside the cabin.
“I think your Mongols are having a bit of couple time, Rob”, Dan said with a slight chuckle that was sympathetic but still quite amused.
“Really? Eww, no they’re not… They can’t be, surely? Right?” I didn’t know whether I should be laughing or crying. There were a few muffled shrieks, and from inside Alyson, Kaylah, Dan and Clair’s cabin, we heard banging against the wall.
“Oh yeah,” Alyson said, her eyes widening in horror, not wanting to believe what she was hearing, but unable to unhear it now it was happening.”Definitely some serious couple time going on in there.” I was just hoping that Gramps had actually left the train for the bogie changing.
“Oh my God, can’t they just wait?” someone else had said, perhaps Claire. “It’s just one night!”
The entire group, all thirteen of us, stood around in our cabins and the corridor, half laughing and half standing around in a stunned silence. I was almost at a loss of words, but I tried to remain optimistic.
“Well… as long as they’re not on my bed, right?”

***

The Mongol couple hadn’t been on my bed – but it turns out they had been on someone else’s. After the bogies had been changed it was well past midnight, and after we went through the Mongolian side of the border and had our passports collected, most of our group began to fall asleep one by one. In the end it was only Dan and I left in the corridor, watching the hallways as the train acquired more passengers. A train attendant came to my cabin and started having a very heated discussion with the couple, though it was all in Mongolian so I have no idea what was actually said. Then, rather abruptly, they gathered their things and stumbled out of the room. I exchanged a look with Gramps – he obviously knew what going on, but his expression gave nothing away about how he felt about the situation. Like me, he was probably just waiting for everyone to settle down so he could go to bed. But the couple had obviously been in the wrong cabin for the first leg of the journey and had to be shifted, because the space that Amy and her lover had vacated was quickly filled with some new Mongolians.

Our two new roommates were a peculiar duo – I nicknamed them the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar. They had luggage that looked like it weighed about 30kg, or at least sounded like it when they clunked the bags down onto the floor, and they tapped away on their touchscreen smartphones with their flashy acrylic nails while the shiny metallic decorations on their t-shirts caught the light like a disco ball, sending flecks of glare all around the cabin. They exchanged a few words with Gramps – I may as well not have existed to the , so after the official business had been conducted I slipped out of the cabin to rejoin Dan in the hallway. It would appear that the Real Housewives were not the only new passengers in our cabin – Dan and I had to duck out of the hallway and back into our cabins to make room for a group of six men, all of whom were incredibly filthy. You could see the dirt that lined their clothes and caked their faces, but the worst thing was the smell. The pungent aroma of raw fish wafted down the corridor, sending the cabin attendants running down the hallway, shrieking, covering their faces and spraying air deodoriser every time they had to open one of the two cabins which these men occupied. It was quite amusing, but would have been more hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that our carriage was now stained with the unpleasant stench.

However, the cabin doors appeared to be fairly airtight, and managed to either block out or, more importantly, contain the smell. So long as the doors to their cabins stayed shut, the smell didn’t bother us too much. I had to chuckle to myself though, as I realised that the Mongolian lovers who had soiled my cabin had been relocated to one of the two rooms occupied by two of the dirty fisherman. To me it was fitting, almost as though the universe had matched and raised them on their attempt to get down and dirty. As I bid my group goodnight and headed back to my cabin, I made another discovery. In the space of about half an hour, the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar had also been relocated – I’m still not sure to where – and in their place was a single Mongolian woman, sitting on the bottom bunk and quietly arranging her things. She looked up as I walked in and gave me a small smile, which I returned before going about setting my bed up. I had laid out the bottom sheet and was about to climb into bed with just the top sheet to cover me, when the woman motioned to the blankets that were piled onto the top bunk above her, which now appeared to be empty.

“It will be very cold,” she said to me as she pointed. Pleasantly surprised to learn to spoke English, I thanked her and pulled one of the blankets down, making sure my actual body came into contact with it as little as possible – I still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened in this cabin earlier. I laid the blanket down, climbed under the sheet, and waited until the woman was ready for bed. Gramps had already been waiting patiently above me. When she finally moved to turn off the night, she turned to me with a smile and said goodnight.
“Goodnight,” I replied as the lights went out and we were thrown into darkness. After the confusing game of musical chairs that my day in this cabin had been, I was quite happy with how the evening had turned out, and I drifted off to sleep to the gentle rocking motions of the train.

***

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

The following day went by rather uneventfully, watching the Gobi desert and the surrounding landscapes pass us by. It had felt like quite a long time, but it was a little daunting to think that the Trans-Mongolian leg of our journey was actually the shortest trip of all, with the exception of the train between Moscow and St Petersburg. Having well and truly left China behind us – other than a bottle of alcohol the shopkeeper had described as “good for health” – we climbed off the train Ulaanbaatar, eager to see what Mongolia had in store for us.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

Bird Flu and Beer – Chicken in China

While my days in China were spent doing typical tourist activities, at night Snow took us out to eat at some authentic Chinese restaurants. Most of the waiters at the places we went to had fairly limited English, so we had to rely on Snow to do all the ordering. We ended up getting a range of dishes and splitting between the group – it was amazing how much food you can order for a group of thirteen and still only end up paying approximately $7 each. Needless to say, nobody went hungry, and I feel I can safely say that some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had, I had in China.

One thing that made me uneasy at first, however, was that Snow ordered a chicken dish. Alarm bells went off in my head immediately – all throughout my travels in South East Asia I had been following the news and tracking the progression of the new strain of bird flu. At the time I arrived in China, I knew there had been the most cases in the city of Shanghai, and even a few confirmed reports in Taiwan. Some people had suggested I not go to China – others, including my mother, had just strictly warned me to stay away from live poultry and to not eat any chicken. At this point in my trip, I can safely say that I am yet to handle any living poultry. As for eating chicken… well, to be honest, I completely forgot. The alarm bells didn’t go off until after we’d finished our meal, at which point I had eaten a substantial amount of chicken.

But so had everyone else in the group, and no one seemed to give the danger of bird flu the slightest thought, and if they had then they certainly hadn’t mentioned it. Snow hadn’t seemed too concerned, so I took that as a good sign – I figured the local people tend to know more about what’s going on in their areas then CNN, although with China you never really do know…

Tim, one of the Australian guys, had been travelling throughout China for the last three weeks on a different tour before joining our group. He was telling us a few stories about his travels and some of the places he had been, and at one point mentioned something about Shanghai. Alarm bells did instantly go off this time, and when he finished his stories, I leaned over to have a one on one conversation with him.

“Did you say you were in Shanghai?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“Yeah, probably about a week or so ago.”
“For how long?” I continued to quiz him, with the nonchalant façade probably failing miserably.
“Just three nights,” Tim replied, quite matter-of-factly. I thought maybe the direction I was going might have been apparent, but he didn’t appear to have any idea where I was taking the interrogation. I leaned over further and spoke a little quieter, suddenly feeling a little silly about my paranoia.
“What about bird flu?” I asked in a low, hushed voice.
“Bird flu?” Tim repeated. “What about it?”
“Wasn’t it a problem? Like, weren’t you kinda scared going through Shanghai?”
He looked genuinely surprised, or at the very least confused. “Umm… No, not really. I mean, it might be around, but… no, I wasn’t worried. It’s mostly fine, really.” His tone carried the nonchalance I’d tried to attain in my original question, and I very much believed what he was saying.

So between Tim having survived a visit to Shanghai and our entire group eating chicken seemingly without a second thougth, I decided that perhaps bird flu wasn’t as much of a serious concern in Beijing as my loved ones would have me believe. I know most of them will be reading this either sighing, face palming, or rolling their eyes, but in my opinion it just really shows how a little bit of media hysteria can go a long way, and terrify the on-lookers more than the people actually living the experience.

***

The other part of Chinese night life I experienced was the Hou Hai Bar Street, where a bunch of different small bars lined a riverside street. I visited the street after dinner on our last night in Beijing with Tim and Alyson, the other American in our group. As we strolled down the street trying to decide on a place to have a drink, Tim made a comment on how unlike the rest of China this street was, or more precisely, how much American influence there was. Almost every bar had live music and karaoke, with many of them butchering Western music with their limited English vocabularies. Most bars had people outside trying to beckon you into their venue, but we kept walking until we found a place that lacked the hecklers. We ended up taking a seat at a Jamaican bar, sitting outside so that we could hear each other talking over the live music inside, and sampled some of the local draught beer. It was nice to get to know some more members of our travel group, though we didn’t end up staying out too late, as we had to get up early to get the train to Mongolia the next morning. But it was nice to catch a glimpse into the Chinese nightlife.

Beijing's riverside bar street.

Beijing’s riverside bar street.

China’s Greatest Hits: Sightseeing in Beijing

My overland trip through Central Asia was going to have one major difference from the rest of my travelling – I was going to be on a tour, travelling with a bunch of other people. After travelling solo for so long, I was actually quite excited to be returning to some sort of a schedule where there was a little less uncertainty at the beginning of each day. I was also going to be going through some countries where English is not as common as it is in places like Thailand and Vietnam – in that sense, they’re not places I’d be able to visit at all unless I was under some sort of guidance.

When I arrived back at the hotel after my trip to Beijing Zoo, I was greeted by our guide, a Chinese woman whose English name was Snow. She led me into another room where some of the other travellers were waiting, so I took a seat and waited for everyone to arrive. There were thirteen people in our tour group – two girls from America, two couples from the UK, and then four girls and two guys who were Australians. Snow briefed us all about the Chinese part of our trip, and talked to us about what we wanted to do. The tour I was on was a little different to most – there was no strict set itinerary, and each individual was allowed to chose whatever they wanted to do, and decide how they wanted to fill their time in between the train journeys between cities. However, there was a unanimous vote to see China’s most popular tourist attractions: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China.

***

The following day was supposed to be quite cool and overcast, so we decided to hold off on our journey to the Great Wall until we had better weather. So on our first morning as a group, we met Snow at the hotel and then walked to Tiananmen Square. We were told it was the largest city square in the world, and could hold at least one million people. There’s also a flag pole where a flag raising ceremony is held at sunrise every morning – Snow told us we could attend it tomorrow morning if we wanted, but I decided that after Angkor Wat I had already played my “awake at sunrise” card for this month. The square itself was an interesting space though, not dissimilar to places like Martin Place back home in Sydney, although exponentially bigger – I was informed that the vast space in front of us was only half the square, and that it continued on the other side of the central monument, a memorial dedicated to the people who died in the Chinese Peoples Revolution, and the mausoleum of Chairman Mao, which has thousands of visitors every day, coming to pay respects to the former leader. However, I was surprised to find that many Chinese people still don’t know about the fatal student protests that happened in that very square in 1989. For me, it was a shocking example of just how much censorship the Chinese government imposes on its population – and here I was thinking how terrible it is that they block Facebook!

Myself in Tiananmen Square.

Myself in Tiananmen Square.

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City.

After having a wander through Tiananmen Square, we crossed the road to the Forbidden City. The name sounds more intimidating than it really is – it simply comes from the fact that the Forbidden City was former the home of the Chinese Emperor, and therefore the common people were forbidden from entering. Snow took us through the City, pointing out some of the finer details in the architecture and design, and telling us stories about the history of the buildings and the people who once resided in them. The Chinese royalty haven’t lived in the Forbidden City since 1912, and it was opened to the public about a decade later. I also noticed that many of the buildings had scaffolding around them, indicative of reconstruction and repairs that were underway. It reminded me of places like the palaces in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, and the temples at Angkor Wat. When you see pictures of them, they look like impressive buildings that have withstood the test of time, but in reality they are in a constant state of upkeep and conditioning, something that you can only really see if you visit the places for yourself – or see amateur photographs that don’t make it into the advertisements or guidebooks.

Standing with a lion statue inside the Forbidden City.

Standing with a lion statue inside the Forbidden City.

The Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City.

The Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City.

After spending a couple of hours wandering through the Forbidden City, Snow took us to a garden behind the city called Jingshan Park, where there was a tower from which you could have a wide, panoramic view of the Forbidden City and the surrounding areas of Beijing. From that vantage point we could see just how bad the city’s pollution really is. Part of it may have been due to the overcast weather, but there was still an undeniable thick smog that clogged the horizon. It was still an interesting view in its own weird way, and didn’t diminish the enormity of the city – buildings and civilisation stretched on in every direction, as far the eye could see.

The view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park tower.

The view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park tower.

***

After lunch, we caught the delightfully efficient subway system out west to visit the Summer Palace, another ancient building that housed different members of Chinese royalty throughout history. We walked along the banks of the artificial lake while Snow told us stories and explained different aspects of the landscape and buildings. Within the Summer Palace was a building called the Tower of Buddhist Incense, a large tower which also provided us with spectacular views of another area of Beijing. Even though the air was thick with clouds and smog, we could still see quite far into the distance over the lake, and the weather gave the whole place a sacred and mystical feeling.

Inside the ground of the Summer Palace - an area about 4 times the size of the Forbidden City.

Inside the ground of the Summer Palace – an area about 4 times the size of the Forbidden City.

View from the Tower of Insence.

View from the Tower of Insence.

One thing I began to notice, after having it pointed out by some of my other companions, was that Chinese people just love to get photos with white people – whether or not they have your consent isn’t really even an issue. As I stood at the top of the tower, looking down at the scene beneath me, a noticed someone standing a couple of steps below me. She was a Chinese woman who had been standing next to me just moments ago – she had repositioned herself and was now holding her camera up to take a photo of herself, clearly angled to have me in the background. My reaction was one of both amusement and annoyance, and I rolled my eyes as I side-stepped out of the picture. It wasn’t the first time it had happened – sometimes they’re even quite direct and simply approach you and ask if they can have their picture taken with you. Sometimes I oblige, other times I can’t be bothered, but I found it kind of rude to try and take pictures like that without even having the decency to be discreet about it. The local Chinese tourists love to pose and have their photo taken in front of everything – from the biggest landmarks to the most basic and insignificant details. I just wondered how they would react to one of us coming up and shoving a camera in their faces and calling it a holiday snap.

***

Our second day in Beijing would see us headed to the Great Wall of China, which is about a two hour drive out of the city. There are a lot of different locations where you can visit and climb the wall, but Snow had suggested we go to an area called Mutianyu, which was a little further than the other more popular tourist section of the wall, but was supposed to be one of the most beautiful spots. All I can say is if Mutianyu wasn’t the most popular section, I’d hate to see how many people were at the bigger tourist area. There were lots of groups of Westerners, but there was also huge amounts of domestic tour groups from other parts of China, including a massive group of school children.

There were two options for getting to the top of the Great Wall – riding a cable car or climbing the steps all the way to the top. Most of the group wanted to get the cable car, but I kind of wanted to walk. “I want to be able to say ‘I climbed the Great Wall of China’, not ‘Yeah I took a cable car to the top ’cause it seemed like a lot of stairs'”, I had said, and luckily Kaylah, one of the American girls, had shared a similar sentiment. So the two of us set off to climb the stairs while the rest of the group piled into the cable car. I quite enjoyed the walk up with Kaylah, because it was the first time I’d really gotten to get to know someone from the group one on one. Since we had an uneven number of people in our group, I had ended up being by myself in my room at the hotel. While I loved the little bit of privacy, it meant that I’d only really interacted with my group members in group situations. I hadn’t really made new friends or gotten to know anyone since meeting Laura back in Cambodia, so it was fun to talk to Kaylah and get to know a little more about each other, making jokes here and there and motivating each other as we made the steep ascent up the hill to the Great Wall.

Snow had said it would take about half and hour, but together Kaylah and I managed to conquer the steps in just under twenty minutes. We thought it was an impressive achievement, regardless of how out of breath we may have been once we reached the top. We stopped for a moment to catch our breath, and take some photos of the magnificent view. It was completely different from the kind of views we’d had back in Beijing – the sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky, and you could see the Chinese mountains and countryside stretch on in all directions. The wall itself was an interesting structure – after the trek from the ground level up to the top, I hadn’t expected there to be more stairs. But as the wall snaked up and down the contours of the hill, there were old flights of stairs going up and down, made even more peculiar by the fact that many of the flights tilted either left or right, as well as having vast variations in steepness from flight to flight. It made for an interesting and somewhat challenging walk along the wall, though the real challenge was trying to take a photo without a horde of other tourists in the picture.

Feeling very proud of myself after claiming the Great Wall of China.

Feeling very proud of myself after claiming the Great Wall of China.

At the highest point of the wall with our guide, Snow.

At the highest point of the wall with our guide, Snow.

We walked along a section of the wall, enjoying the views and taking photos, until we caught up with the rest of the group who were on their way back down. Kaylah and I continued on until we reached the highest major outpost that was accessible to tourists, and then made our way back to the bottom of the wall. However, instead of walking down, we decided to take the fun option and ride the toboggan down. It was a similar set up to theme parks in Australia like Jamberoo – a metal half-pipe tube that snaked down the mountain, which you rode down on a toboggan with a single lever to control acceleration and breaking. It was a fun way to reward ourselves after all the walking we’d done on the way up, even though we were slightly stifled by the Chinese tourists who weren’t as enthusiastic about gathering speed as Kaylah and myself. We just laughed it off and puttered along behind them, enjoying the fresh air, amazing views, and the fact that we’d just walked along one of the great wonders of the world.

***

The last stop of the day was the Ming Tombs, a huge mausoleum complex where thirteen of the sixteen emperors of the Ming dynasty were buried. We went down into the tombs to see the coffins, and visited the several exhibitions and museums, before piling back onto the bus and heading home. While we’d had two full days of sightseeing in Beijing, looking at maps and guidebooks and seeing all the other things we didn’t see made me realise just how huge a city Beijing is, let alone the enormity of the country of China. I’d had a couple of unpleasant experiences, but on the whole my visit to Beijing was interesting and enjoyable. Despite that, I definitely felt I was ready to get up early the next morning and begin our trek to Mongolia.

Huge coffins in the Ming Tombs.

Huge coffins in the Ming Tombs.