Friday, August 21, 2009

Day 6 - 15th July 2009

6am - Early start again! I thought this was supposed to be relaxing? This time I was started from a deep sleep with the arrival into a small somewhat insignificant village in the Mongolian section of the Gobi desert. Yet in a way it was the first and most significant place in Mongolia for me. I looked out of the carriage window from my bed to see a row of little wooden houses unlike anything I had seen before in real life. It was like something from the American Wild West. A rough unforgiving landscape of dry brush and houses dotted around a barren platform. There were a few workers in view although most seemed to be nursing the leftovers of yesterday’s drinks. Quite a desolate place and yet at that moment it felt like the richest place on earth to me. China was behind me and who knew what was to come? Although we were officially in the Gobi desert, it was not what most people would associate with a desert type landscape, by Sahara terms at any rate. After the initial excitement of waking up in a new and undiscovered land of unknown potential I couldn’t get back to sleep. I lay looking out of the window and taking in the dry and slaked landscape, took photographs of nothingness and read up on the shape of things to come. Almost immediately I noticed Gers, or felt yurts or tents dotted around the landscape, along with the ubiquitous rolling clumps of bushes, like tumbleweed, you see in the dustbowls of the movies. Coupled with this was he vision of what seemed to be free running wild horses across the plain.
Apart from the obvious facial differences of the locals I wouldn’t have been surprised to see ‘the Duke’ ride into view packing his six shooter and Winchester. Eventually I got up from my daydreaming and tried to do something constructive. After wakening one of my compatriots, we went for breakfast in the, now Mongolian, buffet car as much to let the rest of the compartment continue to sleep in peace as for sustenance. Breakfast consisted of two pieces of dried up bread, a pat of butter, some jam, and a cup of pre mixed coffee, milk and sugar - no choices. Strangely, it also included pickled carrot shreds with garlic shards as well. An unusual combination. A far cry from the delicious Chinese meal a few hours before. Already I could feel a western influence on the diet, but was it a good one? Time would tell.
We had to walk the whole way from the back of the train to reach our carriage at the front. I hadn’t noticed any problem with smoke from our carriage when I got up but as I walked back along each of the other carriages I noticed each one was absolutely filled with smoke! Maybe smoking is ‘de rigueur’ in Mongolia I supposed, but why not in carriage number 1? Was there such a thing as a non smoking car policy? As I moved forwards choking slightly, I noticed a lady whose head was wrapped in a towel covering everything but her red rimmed eyes. Perhaps a Muslim lady sporting a burka? No, just to escape the smoke. I realised as I went further forward that the smoke was coming from the engine labouring to pull us through the desert. For some reason the heavy thick smoke was being redirected into the carriages behind. Being in carriage number 1, we were too close to catch this residue and thankfully escaped suffocating during the night. The more we travelled into Mongolia the more the landscape became desert like. Green foothills struggling to survive in adverse conditions - dry and a blisteringly hot 30 degrees in summer, down to minus 40 degrees or even minus 50 degrees in extreme winters - just beggars belief or understanding from a temperate European dweller like myself. It was still very hot: hot enough to have just a pair of shorts on - and barely that. The only way to survive was for the compartment door to be fully open to the views of all and sundry, and the aisle windows to be open also. What we didn’t realise was that the more we ventured into the country the more the Gobi encroached.
Within a couple of hours the landscape had changed to little villages sparsely placed amid full desert plains. With all the doors and windows open we were slowly engulfed with a mini desert of our own. Some of the party who had fallen asleep looked as though they were testing some kind of new facial exfoliate product on one side of their face, given that it was covered in a fine layer of sand. The sandy layer covered bedclothes, seats, pillows, anyone sitting long enough in one place and just about every other surface imaginable. It was a stark choice. Get hot and uncomfortable, or sand blasted and uncomfortable. Some choice. We opted for the mid ground. We made a brief stop in the dreadfully challenged village of Choir (probably pronounced CHO-EER as opposed to a collection of heavenly voices) and saw some children trying to sell crystals and coloured rocks on the platform. The moral question arises - do you buy or not? I personally think any help is better than no help. The majority of people who sell ‘The Big Issue’ in the UK need a helping hand. As they say, it’s a hand up, not a hand out they want. This is my philosophy also. We bought some of the stones much to the chagrin of our fellow passengers, a French couple. I felt that they disapproved of our haggling for a better price. Still, the kids went away some money in their pockets for what was essentially lying around on the ground in the village.
As we approached Ulaanbaatar in the final 100km or so the landscape began to change again to rolling green hills marking the end of the western edge of the Gobi. Horses and gers began to make their presence felt more noticeably on the landscape. Trees began to appear as we rose slowly higher and higher, to the highest capital city in the world. With each upward curve came a drop in temperature. Shorts alone became shorts and T-shirts, then T-shirts and jeans, then jumpers as well. By the time we began to enter the approaches to the city it was raining lightly and decidedly colder. The most surprising fact about Ulaanbaatar was that the written guides only gave about 10 or 20 main streets on the map of the city. This gives you the false impression that it is extremely small. Actually there is about 600,000 or more people living there - approximately half the population of the whole country. That’s about the population of my home city of Belfast. In reality though, the outskirts are nothing more than hundreds and hundreds of ger camps. The round felt covered tents that the nomadic people favour. The city centre itself - the city centre of permanent buildings that is - is slightly bigger than the maps suggest but is in such a rough state that it’s very hard to consider it as viable for inclusion in the map. Roads are almost as challenging as the driving. I shall never complain about driving in Spain again….
Stepping off the train we gathered our backpacks and extra bags together and looked for the guide who was supposed to meet us. No show. That was okay though, as we had directions as to how to find our accommodation. The regally named ‘Tiara Guesthouse‘. Surely a jewel in the crown of Mongolian guesthouses? Sadly no. We walked with a couple of other travellers who informed us that they already had a run in with bag slashers at the train station. Thankfully nothing of value was taken but it was sobering lesson nonetheless. Never let your guard down. Following the directions to the letter we arrived at an extremely run down and garishly pink coloured apartment block in one of the back streets of the city. A mistake in the directions perhaps? No, over the main entrance door of the post-war communist block of flats was a small sign saying Tiara Guesthouse.
The tour guide company that held our onward train tickets to Russia was in the next apartment to Tiara. The guesthouse itself, and I use that word very loosely, was multiple dorm accommodation. I had no problem with that really but the fact that the front door was in all but pieces and barely lockable didn’t encourage much faith in their security. The toilet facilities were atrocious, with holes around the pipe work, and to top it all no hot water… My party went to complain about this last issue - we had been sweaty and dirty and sandy across one desert and two countries and really needed a shower badly. They were told by the management that there would be no hot water until mid August! Cold showers were had all round but I’m sorry to say I had to complain in person about the situation. I used all my diplomatic skills but got nowhere and am slightly ashamed to say that I felt obliged to mention that I was writing about the trip for a certain newspaper. Instantly the doors of hospitality opened and we were showered - metaphorically - with goodwill gestures. Another young Dutch couple told us they had complained the day or two before had been offered a couple of free trips and accepted them in lieu of hot showers. We were offered the equivalent of a four star two roomed suite at a city centre hotel. I accepted the offer graciously and we were taken by the managers in person to this hotel for top class treatment. WITH HOT WATER! I can’t help but feel that these tour operators take a chance on the unsuspecting young traveller who hasn’t the sense, or the authority of age to argue their point. The operators then charge ridiculous rates for poor quality conditions and make a relative fortune on the backs of the usual student traveller types.
The new hotel room, while not the Ritz, was a dramatic improvement on what had gone before. Why did they bend over backwards so much? Well, we found out the next day, but that’s another story. Back to today - as a traveller you always try to be aware of your surroundings and your first impressions are usually right. The hotel reception was on the first floor of yet another downtown apartment block and the door was guarded by a heavily armed private security guard hired directly after the completion of the latest Rambo film. The upper floors contained the hotel rooms. We were on the top floor and I realised that apart from the main staircase outside out door, there was no other escape route in event of fire. We were so tired by this stage that we just didn’t care any more. We had a hot shower in the new hotel room just because we could! Wonderful. Then out into the Wild West streets of Ulaanbaatar.
In all seriousness, there was a threatening feel to the place. A lot of drunken persons about and most things in disrepair - cars, buildings, roads, paths, people. On day one I felt vulnerable. I had no guide, and a language that I couldn’t read or understand. Streets became alleyways, cars slowed down to look at you, especially at night leading to a certain level of paranoia that was probably unjust. By day two in UB (as it is called by ex-pats) we had settled down and accepted the place somewhat, at least during the day. I would say that after a week it would seem home from home. Learn some of the language, learn to read the signs and the place would open up before you. So don’t always go by your first impressions. The guide map we purchased was so haphazard that you went by pictures of the buildings you were looking for. They tended to be down side streets and alleyways or behind buildings in out of the way places you could never find. We had dinner in a recommended restaurant ‘The Silk Road’, named after the route we were more or less following from China towards Europe. The old camel drivers route for transporting silk and tea to the European teahouses and shops of cosmopolitan Europe. A terrific meal totally out of keeping with the style of the rest of UB and way beyond the normal price range, but on our first night in town it gave us some much needed westernised comfort. After an uneventful early walk back to the hotel while still daylight we retired to bed instead of finding another bar for a drink. Just too many culture shocks for me in one day.

Day 5 - 14th July 2009

5.45am - Early start. Today the real journey begins. A taxi to Beijing central train station and 25 degrees temperature. Already there were crowds of people and major traffic jams en route. The two sets of doors leading into and up towards platforms were opened out onto the street. Each door was cordoned off on either side with barriers to funnel everyone neatly and uniformly through the portal. A young man who was feeling a little tired of so early a start had climbed over the barriers between the doors to have a sleep, head on bag. Literally thousands of commuters and travellers pushed slowly past him and stared. In a strange way I felt this made up for missing the Mao mausoleum. The young man a substitute leader lying in state while we were filed past by the pressing crowds and paid our respects. Once inside, the excitement built as we prepared to move through to ‘Waiting Room 2’ on the upper floor. Surprisingly, at that time we were one of the few people there. In anticipation for boarding and not knowing what restaurant facilities would be available, we purchased various packs of dried noodles, drinks and biscuits to sustain us in the event of abandonment in the Gobi desert. One packet of noodles stands out in my mind especially, as it had a whole, complete boiled egg included in the packet. The egg was dark brown in colour, after having apparently been buried in the ground for a week or so after boiling, to help ferment it’s subtle yet enticing flavours. It was considered a delicacy in knowledgeable circles. I tried it. I wish I hadn’t. It tasted like a week old fermented boiled egg that had been buried in soil.
Waiting Room 2 is a vast hangar of a room capable of holding hundreds of pirouetting passengers. Numbers built up quickly and we were checked onto the platform by unsmiling uniformed staff. On the platform in front of us was the much anticipated train.
The first of many on our odyssey. It represented a mind shift and a new experience of our journey westwards. Photographs were taken and given and we entered the train breathlessly. It’s strange, but over the coming weeks hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs were taken, but the fervour of those first few hours of constant snapping of new images and impressions tended to become a more relaxed affair. The train would be photographed again and again as it turned yet another gentle curve through the countryside. A curvaceous metal coil snaking it’s way across the Chinese suburbs and wilderness of the Gobi desert.
As we left the centre of Beijing, the relatively prosperous areas gave way to makeshift communities made from Blue Peter leftovers and sticky back plastic. Poverty was rife. Detritus and filth covered everything. I have wondered why people in such poor conditions can’t clear away some of the left over leftovers and, if not live in rich opulence, at least try to live in relative cleanliness. Perhaps they were so busy trying to stay alive that they cannot spare the time to keep their habitable space disease free. Perhaps their apathy at their life leads to a resignation and acceptance of fate. Or perhaps it’s simply a case of ignorance and cultural difference on my part as much as theirs. I remember back in Belfast, the middle and upper classes always kept their homes and surrounding areas at a certain level of harmony and cleanliness. Whereas the back streets tended to be less cared for. That’s not the case for all the people living there of course, just a general observation. Humanity works in cycles of social acceptance. The higher the social level, the greater the pressure to be accepted. In China, I saw people standing in Tiananmen Square asking people for empty plastic drinking bottles, that they would then recycle presumably for money. In the hovels on the outskirts, everything that could be recycled had been recycled. Nothing was left but useless waste. I felt to some degree that this included the people as well. Recycling on a human scale.
The suburbs, still, hot, steamy and thick with smog slowly opened onto fields of rice, vines, trees and grasslands. The heavy air, slowly and reluctantly, released us from it’s grasp to be replaced by sunshine and blue skies with fluffy marshmallow clouds, taking the shapes of Chinese dragons riding on the backs of frolicking seahorses.
Quite often, train journeys can be tedious unless it involves new horizons and experiences en route not yet envisaged. Small things become big things, and unusual buildings become monuments of wonder. We passed through a mountainous region and the train sliced it’s way through the rock via a series of tunnels. Fifty at least, of varying lengths. To help pass the time we started a little competition. Each time we would push into the inky blackness of a tunnel one of us would quickly get into an unusual position on the seat, the floor or hang upside down off the overhead beds. Until you came out of the darkness you had no idea what position you were likely to find your travelling companions in. This became more and more outrageous as the tunnels became longer and longer. Virtual yogic flying in the darkness ensued. Anything to help pass the time. Signs in strange hieroglyphs become fantastical words of wisdom, Confusian advice to the unwary. In reality of course they probably said ‘Go to Lin-Chung’s Water Margin Restaurant for the best sweet & sour in the region’ Talking about food led me to the restaurant car and a wonderful stir fry. Sweet and sour pork looked and tasted nothing like what passes for the same thing in the west. A strong pungency of vinegar guaranteed that even a diabetic could be sure there wasn’t an over abundance of sweeteners for the western palate. Accompanied by hot sticky rice and cold Chinese beer, this proved to be a delicious combination. There was a distinct absence of MSG and artificial colouring which meant that the dish didn’t have the garishness of Chino-European dishes but the flavour was fresh and clean to my jaded taste buds. Settling down in the four person sleeper carriage a little later, the tastes, smells and memories flooded back as I realised I would have all but left China by midnight.
“Please return to your carriages!” The English version of the Chinese message was boomed out over the tannoy at around 9pm. We had just pulled into Erlian - the last contact with China on the trip. Piped orchestral music declared that we would be in high spirits and leave with good impressions of friendly Chinese officials. I felt a certain tension in the air. Soldiers filed outside each carriage window to block our possible escape in the event of our papers not being correct. In reality, this was geared towards Chinese and Mongolian traders who used this route to sell their black market goods across respective borders. We had completed customs forms for each country and waited for the various official bodies to come and allow us safe passage. Customs officers arrived and took the forms. “Stay in your carriages!” We sat like lambs facing the unknown. Large peaked caps created authoritative airs that you dared not cross. Entry and exit visas were checked, re-checked and finally stamped. All the while passports were studied by each officer and faces scoured to make sure each passport and face matched. I felt that my face was changing to a more grey shade with each passing minute. It was quite disconcerting when our passports were then taken away by the procession of communist pillars of society for further checks to be carried out. Searches were being undertaken by guards on each carriage. We were ordered out into the corridor while the place was strip searched for contraband. Nothing. Then ordered back into our carriages for the process to happen to the next compartment.
The time had come for a decision. This was the point at which the train was taken to a shed to have the bogies, or wheel units, changed from the Chinese (and European) size to the gauge used by Russia and Mongolia. This would take approximately two hours during which time you could stay with the train and watch the process from your compartment or get off at the platform and visit the local supermarket/shop that conveniently stayed open to sell you over inflated priced food and drink to keep you going until you reached Ulaanbaatar - the capital of Mongolia some twenty hours later. We opted for the latter and stocked up on food and a few cold beers to join other travellers and talk about their exploits around Asia. I find that talking to seasoned travellers is simply a case of checking off a list sometimes and I wonder how involved people get in the cultures they visit. Thailand? Oh yeah - been there - it rained a lot. Vietnam? Yep, but the beer was warm. Phuket? Nah - too many mozzies! Not going back there in a hurry.
The train reappeared to a fanfare of music over the brain washing loudspeaker system and we were ordered back to our compartments. Another search of each carriage took place and then we waited for what seemed an eternity. Outside the window stood an armed guard and we watched an Indian file of Chinese officials traipse from the main building. They entered the train, and with a final check to make sure our faces hadn’t changed from those in our passports in the intervening two hours, they handed our paper lifelines back to us. The final triumphal wave of music signalled for the train to slowly pull away from the station. That’s it, we’re free! I thought. Short lived, as we stopped only five hundred metres up the tracks within sights of the actual border crossing. Yet another set of guards climbed under the train to check for potential asylum seekers escaping from China for the dubious benefits of living in Mongolia. I suppose for those that get out, Mongolia is hopefully the first step into another country and a better way of life. Final checks completed, and we slowly edged our way out of China. More like a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs that with a triumphant roar.
Almost instantly we were stopped at the checkpoint of Zamyn-Uud and the whole process began all over again. This time as we pulled into the station the guards that were posted to stand outside each window, all stood to attention and saluted the train as it pulled to a stop. An incongruous welcome to a newly formed democratic country. Almost as if each was trying to outdo the other. Welcoming music on the Chinese side and endearing respect from the other. All the same checks were completed in more or less the same way. “Into your carriages!”, “Out of your carriages!” Searches, passport checks, re-checks, removals and returns. Process after process which took almost six hours between both countries. When our passports were finally returned to us, we slowly pulled out of the border checkpoint and back into the Gobi desert en route for Ulaanbaatar and the next adventure. By this time it was 2am and everyone was exhausted. Sleep followed fast.

Monday, August 17, 2009

DAY 4 - 13TH JULY 2009

Day 4 - 13th July 2009 8am - Picked up by a local guide for a long drive to the great wall of China. The section we were going to was Badaling, seventy or so kilometres from Beijing. There was a closer section to the city but it would have been full of tourists and stalls where we would have been pestered by stall holders to buy T-shirts and knick-knacks for ‘one dollar - only one dollar!’ No, instead we paid for a more personal experience and went one and a half hours in a private car to another section of the wall that was full of tourists and stalls and where the stall holders pestered us with their one dollar knick-knacks and T-shirts.

The good thing about this location was the cable car that took us all the way up to the wall and back again. The section of wall at Badaling is renowned for being one where you can see mile after mile of wall and tower after tower of each section stretching over hillocks into the distance. Once up on high however, we realised we couldn’t see more than 100m in any direction, such is the smog around greater Beijing. Having walked down a few of the towers and sections, up to maybe three kilometres distance, we started back. There was another cable car further on that you could use as an alternative route back down the mountainside but not knowing exactly how far it was we decided against it. Another hot and extremely sticky day soon made its impression on our clothes and bodies as we perspired profusely. An Indian gentleman who had been leading his mother and father on a tour of the wall asked my travelling companion how much further was it. Being a bit of a wit, she said about 7200km. After the laughter died down he explained that he meant to the next cable car, but how we guffawed! Simple pleasures for simple people, I suppose. I wonder how many times a day that joke is played out on the wall? As we walked we were observed closely by giant but wispy gossamer winged dragon flies. They flitted around the castellated wall with curiosity and moved with an elegant hum that breathlessly whispered a timid ‘welcome to our wall‘. Back on the cable car sweating, we were glad to go back into the heavy mist below. Again, given my fear of heights I was quite happy that I couldn’t see the drop in front of me all the way down the mountainside.
Stepping out of the car we ran the gamut of the T-shirt people. Sidestepping one dollar offers of life changing proportions. Che Guevara images on red stars and hammer and sickle emblems. I didn’t know Che had been so instrumental in China as well as Cuba! We made a quick stop at a pre-arranged meeting spot by a souvenir shop to look for our driver. He had a habit, we later found out, of wanting to stop at restaurants that co-incidentally happened to be next to factories for lunch, pee stops etc. These were of course a ruse to make us go into the said factory to buy something. Presumably he would then get commission on any sales. Okay, so we bought a few things. The fascinating things were the factories. This particular one that we visited was unlike any other we had seen. Maybe only fifteen workers producing these beautiful enamel bowls and other items for sale. The factory was straight out of the 30’s and 40’s and hadn’t changed one iota in sixty or seventy years. Basic hand produced goods, each section completed in a dingy little room in poor conditions. A personal guide gave us the short but extensive tour. Taking a well earned break from hammering out each section of pot in sheets of copper and then soldering them together, the workers sat at their workstations staring at us while eating their lunch of rice with well worn chopsticks. After the joining, the next room was where the copper wire was connected like fretwork, in scrolls and shapes, and fused to the main body of the pots which created a framework for the liquid enamel to be poured into. After each section is filled with enamel in yet another room, it is fired in a fourth room to fix the colour and then begins the slow laborious job of polishing in the fifth room. After various grades of polishes are used a burnished finish to the copper fretwork is completed by using lumps of charcoal as a rubbing agent. The whole process is finally completed by electroplating each finished pot in 24 carat gold. Sounds expensive but in reality the gold is so thin that it takes just pennies to get the desired effect. Once we had seen the process we were taken to the shop across the factory courtyard and tempted to buy a few things from one or two Euros up to €20,000 for vases bigger than the average man. After a bit of wheeler dealing we came away with some small items and also the conclusion that this small factory unit could not possibly complete all these varieties and styles of enamel work. There must have been an industrial sized unit nearby with mass producing machines to create such an array of products. The poor looking factory we had visited was just a tourist sham to make us feel sorry for the poor workers. Still it was interesting, and so was the fact that our driver miraculously re-appeared as soon as we had made purchases. When he saw that we had bought something he disappeared as quickly back into the shop to claim his commission. We returned to an even thicker, pea soup, smog laden and sticky 30 degree Beijing a little shaken as his driving was erratic to say the least. Considering that the other drivers on the road were every bit as erratic, it beggars belief that we arrived in one piece at all. After flying us past the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium and front crawling through heavy traffic past the ’Water Cube’, we stopped at a bank to change Renminbi to American Dollars for use in Russia - bureaucracy gone mad, with quadruplicate forms being filled out by section after section of humourless worker ants with no name, only numbers for identification. We came across that a lot. A number instead of a name badge seemed to rob the worker of their humanity. “So, number two five seven three six six four, did you do anything interesting at work today?” “ Nah, five one six nine four three eight, the same old forms - in quadruplicate of course.” After 45 minutes we finally had all the stamps completed and got our currency. We high tailed it outside before they found another form needed to allow us leave the building.

The driver dropped us off at Tiananmen Square in the beating heart of Beijing to experience the spectacle of Mao’s mausoleum (it was closed and he was out visiting, apparently) , the square itself and the Forbidden City. The heat was oppressive and was compounded by the crowds of people milling around. Hawkers tried to sell you everything under the sun including my favourite - a Mao watch - his arm waved up and down to count off as each second passed. Unfortunately I talked myself out if buying one and waved bye-bye to Mao in return. In hindsight I wished I had bought it. It would have been a nice, if tacky, memento of touristy kitsch. Next, we walked to the forbidden city where the emperors used to live in complete isolation from their people. So called because unauthorised entry would mean certain death for any individual. The emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties spent their days in spectacular surroundings and relative safety inside the walls. Keeping themselves occupied in their Chinese harem of concubines apparently filled their days. After leaving by the back gate the sky looked extremely ominous and heavy with rain. People who knew better were grabbing every available taxi and rickshaw in an effort to avoid the coming deluge. We decided that it would be more fun to walk in the heat and proceeded towards our hostel on foot, approximately 1km away. The skies grew darker and darker and rumbles forewarned of greater things to come. Common sense finally won over and we managed to get a little motorised rickshaw to take us back to the area of the hostel. The rickshaw was a wonderful if unnerving experience. We faced backwards side by side with no cover or door - or seatbelts! Riding by the seat of our pants, literally, we hung on for grim life as the driver crossed through the streets and threaded his way through the traffic like a sewing machine on speed. Cars came within inches of our feet, so much so that I could feel the cooling fan sucking air into the engine. I could have actually counted the flies on the front grill if I hadn’t been concentrating on holding on to the seat so hard. Once or twice the rickshaw hit a bump or pothole and sent us skywards towards the roof of our little motorised metal coffin. I noticed that the roof was filled with upward dents. Unfortunate previous occupiers who arrived at their final locations in a semi-conscious state perhaps? Having been dropped off around the corner from the hostel in Wangfujing Dajie (meaning ‘Well of Princely Places) on the main designer shopping street of Beijing we paid 20 Yuan fare only to be told it was 20 each. As I said, every possible chance to overcharge westerners was taken. The price had been agreed previously so we knew the driver was just chancing his arm. Having been told “On yer rickshaw mate!” he accepted the agreed fare without another blink. We were just stupid white ghosts to be taken advantage of if we were gullible enough to accept it.

Then the skies opened! A curious situation as the temperature was still well into the 30’s. We stood under a shop overhand and waited and waited and waited for it to die down enough for us to walk the 100m back to the hostel. Waited and waited.... Waited some more as the streets flooded and cars stopped with water ingress. People waded through the river and those with umbrellas (not us unfortunately) turned them upside down, climbed into them, and floated down the street. I’m sure I saw Noah go past in a golfing umbrella with a pair of pandas under his arm….
The rain finally eased a little so we decided to take a chance and walk back. My neck was still giving me terrible pain and we happened to be passing a massage parlour. No, not that type - the real thing. We went in and both got a deep body massage that helped sooth away the pressures and tiredness of jetlag. When the masseuse climbed onto the bed and stuck her knees into my back I thought my eyes would pop out under the pressure but the overall effect was a good one and I all but fell asleep. The massage didn’t involve any oils as you would usually expect, but simply a towel placed on top of whatever area of the body the masseuse was working on. Far cleaner and every bit as effective. Another room off the massage room revealed multiple bunk beds where the staff lived when not working. A far cry from our lifestyle in the west. A short hop across mini lakes to our hostel, and an hours sleep put me in form for our next adventure. We were whisked off by our student friend to a fantastic Japanese tepanyaki restaurant curiously on the fourth floor of a skyscraper. Our personal table chef was attentive and dextrous and produced a ballet of hand and arm movements that would have made Bobby Crush jealous. The piano was replaced by prawns and scallops but the melodious sauces sang sweet in the air and were accompanied by strange, exotic vegetables not seen in the west. A feast for the eyes and a first for the stomach. Satiated with satay and the like, we made our way back via the underground for a well earned rest and dreams of Hughie Green, Opportunity Knocks and umbrella juggling rickshaw drivers……

Monday, August 10, 2009

Day 3 - 12th July 2009

I managed to get the odd 15 minutes to half hour sleep which just gave me enough to carry on. My discomfort with flying is just too strong for me to relax completely. I think night time only lasted around 3 hours considering the easterly direction in which we were travelling. With the shutters down the impression of night was extended artificially as we tried to sleep. Eventually people started to stir and we were served glasses of ice cold, fresh orange juice to wake up before being served a cooked breakfast. A couple of agonising hours later and we started our descent. It was ironic that I had covered virtually the same track in 10 hours that I would be covering over the ground in 3 weeks to get back home again. Watching the underbelly camera as the ground approached was amazing, yet disconcerting. As you got closer to the ground you appeared to go faster. By the end it seemed to be too fast to stop. The fields and roads flew past so rapidly! The cloud cover seemed to be total. I had hoped for a sunny day, but realised that that was not to be.
Landing successfully, I released my grip of the lady next to me and apologised for invading her personal space. Strangely, she seemed to warm to me more after that. I was happy to know that I wouldn’t have to fly again for at least a month. As soon as we taxied to our allocated gate we were instructed not to move from our seats until the quarantine people had checked our temperature. Of course, there is always someone who has to get up and try to get a head start by getting their bags down from the overhead locker. In this case they were sharply told to sit down again by the masked authorities who had by now boarded the plane. No messing around here. An electronic device was pointed at our foreheads and bleeped satisfyingly to confirm our body heat to be in the normal acceptable range. I wondered what would have happened if it wasn’t. Is the whole plane, passengers and crew, quarantined for days? Actually no, the offending person is removed to hospital for further tests and all the passengers will receive a different coloured stamp on their entry papers instead of the normal one and will be monitored throughout their journey over the following week. This is one of the reasons that I had to declare all my movements during my time in China.

After that it was off the plane and into the marvel that is Beijing airport. A massive building concept that filters you via internal tram lines to the baggage hall to end all baggage halls. It was around this time that I began to realise the extent of the heat and humidity. Although air conditioned throughout, the high ceilings and vastness of the building couldn’t cope with the body heat of thousands of travellers. Having jeans and a shirt on didn’t help of course. Once I collected my rucksack, which I had had visions of being lost en route, I left the conveyor belt area. Can you imagine explaining about a missing bag to ‘Beijing Lost & Found‘? No, no I will be in Beijing for two days, then if it hasn’t arrived by then you can try to catch me on the Chinese/Mongolian border 36 hours after that. If that’s no good then try Ulaanbaatar two days later. Still no good? Then try a Ger tent in the national park or failing that the Mongolian/Russian border a few days later. In fact just forget it, I will buy new clothes in Beijing and you and your colleagues can share my stuff when it arrives. Sia sia (Chinese for thank you)
Thankfully, this wasn’t a problem I had to deal with and I simply walked through the public area to meet up with my friends. They were easy to find as all you could see was a exotic sea of Chinese faces and black hair, many covered with white masks, and levelled at about my chest hieght. The only tall people were my waiting friends. After the greetings had been exchanged we took a taxi in the now sweltering heat, straight to the art quarter of Beijing - Factory 798.

Remember that although it was 1pm local time, for me it was 6 o’clock in the morning and I had hardly slept for the last two nights. After a change of clothes in a little art cafĂ© toilet into t-shirt and shorts - and two double espressos I felt decidedly better. Well enough to take in the enormity of the art district. A former factory area that had fallen into disrepair, the government had given the area over to encourage the arts. Artists were allowed to take up residence and the result is an incredible array of work, talent and creativity to equal or outshine most of what I have seen in museums in Europe. How on earth they survive financially I cannot work out.
I looked at exhibition space after exhibition space, but no one had any prices displayed. I had heard that when westerners asked the price of anything the sellers would at the very least double the normal price and quite often triple or even quadruple it. However, in this case, although the gallery owners were showing the work of an artist they were somehow taken aback when asked the price and had to root around papers to find any sort of a price list - if there was one available at all! A further double espresso pepped up my flagging spirit and we left to make our way back to our hostel, within walking distance of Tiananmen Square.
Traffic was hectic with cars ducking and diving in between bicycles and rickshaws. Peasants alongside the road at traffic lights begging for money and food were ignored by the constantly moving hordes. No one paid any attention to traffic lights let alone observing lane restrictions. Noise and glaring neon signs, even in daytime, blasted out their messages and sales pitches. Any recognisable letters in signage was restricted to the large multinational companies that we all use in the west. Everything else was a complete mystery. A culture so different from our own. In the hostel, a dimly lit three bed room was home for the next two days. I was tempted to lie down but knowing I would never make it back up that evening I resisted valiantly by having a hot shower and a cold beer.
Using the tube system, we made our way over to Ghost Street, renowned for authentic Chinese restaurants. Rows and rows of lanterns lit up the entire street amid more neon signs which presumably stated the name and speciality of each establishment. One of our friends had spent the last year studying Chinese in Beijing and guided us past all the obvious front of street places with their staff trying to tempt us in, and instead took us down a little dirty alley with out of the way cafes dotted along the passage. We had to hop over muddy puddles and detritus to reach our goal.
One of the front restaurants on Ghost Street had their kitchen door open onto this alleyway when we passed. The scene was one of mayhem and carnage. Chefs standing in horrific surroundings with woks and flames going full blast. Stained walls and dirty floors were a Gordon Ramsey nightmare. What finished it for me was the old man, who was squatting on the floor, disembowelling a chicken carcass and stripping every vestige of recognisable life from it. The amount of possible diseases from this kitchen was staggering! They could have had a separate menu for this alone - sweet and sour salmonella, deep fried typhoid, diphtheria and rice, yellow fevered noodles…. And this was a front of street restaurant! Thank Mao I had received all my inoculations before I left Spain. All free, thanks to the Spanish health system. We took a quick photo and understandably had the door kicked closed in our faces by the chicken man on the floor without even getting up.
Hopping further along the alley we finally came to our destination. A little local restaurant that specialised in skewered meat barbecue. Not clean at all in the conventional sense, it still had a certain charm. On the dark green walls were strips of coloured paper with Chinese symbols that perhaps signified prayers to the gods of the stomach bugs, to be gentle in the advance of the offerings about to be received. I made the mistake of visiting the only toilet in the place before the food was served to relieve myself of the earlier beer and found myself back in the kitchen of the front of street restaurant I had passed earlier. Not actually of course, but the carnage was more or less the same - minus the chicken gutter on the floor.
The expected squatting toilet was in evidence, and so was what the previous tenant has left. For those not aware of what a squatting toilet looks like, think of a small square-ish porcelain shower base flat on the ground, with an oval sink placed in the middle, either side of which are two indentations to encourage you to where to place your feet. Reverse carefully into the footplate, undo your trousers, skirt etc. and squat, trying to hold onto your wallet and mobile phone so they don’t fall into the business end along with everything else. It’s enough to give you severe constipation. Unfortunately the toilet brush appeared to harbour even more germs - and that was just on the handle! So I just aimed a little off centre to avoid the unwanted splash back.
Back in the restaurant I sat down to a fortifying beer as the wine was not to be recommended at all. By drinking bottled beer you could always tell that at least something was drinkable. Eventually the food came out and it was a delicious mix of skewers of spicy mutton, chicken wings with sweet sauces, barbecued meats and pickles and salads that were absolutely wonderful. I shudder to think what the kitchen looked like but at least everything came out well cooked and no ill-effects were felt the next day. A couple of more beers back in the hostel and I had to fall into bed after a virtually sleepless 72 hours and three flight schedule. A deep sleep ensued only occasionally broken by dreams of headless chickens trying to escape down alleyways being chased crablike by squat bald skinny Chinese men who couldn’t walk upright…..

Day2 - 11th July 2009

After going early to bed and not sleeping as expected, I got up on time at 5am and took the bus to Heathrow for my 9am flight to Vienna. I travelled with Austrian Airlines and was impressed with the quality of their service. Delicious food and wine was included in the price. A far cry from the Easyjet and Ryanair flights I’m normally used to. If this was the level of quality of the short flight, I hoped for even better on the long haul as I was continuing my journey with them all the way to Beijing. The flight was uneventful and passed reasonably quickly and soon I was sitting in Vienna airport with another eight hours to kill before the flight to China. I was quickly learning that this journey was going to involve a lot of waiting around and doing very little at times.
Vienna airport was a good size but not big enough to spend eight hours in when not eating and drinking. I had been tempted to take a run into central Vienna for a quick look as my bags had been forwarded through from Heathrow direct to Beijing but I decided against it in case I was held up in traffic and started to panic about getting back to the airport in time. Vienna can wait for another trip. I had a light lunch and walked around the airport. That morning I had pulled a muscle in my neck and shoulder lifting my rucksack and was in agony so couldn’t relax. I walked around and around until I knew every shop and every special offer available. Finally the call came out for the Beijing flight and I made my way to the check in. As this was a long haul flight the waiting area was crammed with passengers. I was surprised by how many European faces were on the flight. China is obviously fast becoming a place to visit.
Once on the plane - the biggest I have ever been on, announcements were given in Chinese, German and English. Each seat had a movie screen and the seating was arranged in a 2-3-2 formation across the plane. I had an aisle seat. I sat beside a Chinese lady whom I heard speaking English to the hostess but she declined to speak to me apart from a hello when pushed. I had decided not to have a drink because I knew I would have to go straight out sightseeing as soon as I arrived and didn’t want to have a bad hangover on top of jetlag. However, when offered a free drink I couldn’t resist and had my usual red wine, followed by another and, over the space of a few hours, finally a third. The third one was sharply curtailed though, by the fact that the lady beside me who wouldn’t talk, was forced to ask me to move so she could go to the toilet. As I shifted my blanket and pillow I spilt the whole of the third glass of wine over the blanket and my declaration cards for entry into China. Oh dear, I hoped that the red stain across the card wouldn‘t cause me any problems with the bureaucrats in customs.
I was impressed by the fact that Austrian airlines had an actual chef on board the flight with white hat et al. We had a choice of hot food and service was very attentive. I decided not to have any more to drink because of my pressing schedule and watched a movie. It was possible to watch different channels on the screen and there was also a channel that let you watch the progress of the plane, the temperature, altitude and distance to go etc. This was great for me as I hate to fly at the best of times so an almost 10 hour flight was sheer purgatory. I spent a lot of time watching that screen and urging the plane onwards. With a tailwind we were doing something like 800km an hour over the ground.

Day 1 - 10th July 2009

A 4am start from Belfast International airport to Stansted began the journey. By 7am I was happy to be off the plane and went straight to the bus for Heathrow. So far so good. After 1½ hours in the bus I arrived at Heathrow and booked my rucksack into the left luggage. I was prepared to sit in the airport for 20 hours, then thought better of it and booked into the Marriott hotel close to the airport. It was a beautiful hotel and meant that at least I could relax later in the evening even though I knew I wouldn’t really be able to sleep very well that night with a 5am alarm call pending.
I took a bus to the local tube station and then the tube into Covent Garden to enjoy a few hours of sightseeing. It seemed a shame not to use the time as productively as possible. Not wanting to overdo it on that first day I went back early to the hotel and relaxed in the central foyer and bar area with a glass of wine and a light sandwich and contemplated the journey to come. A daunting prospect but one I looked forward to.
At least I hadn’t needed to organise a visa for this leg of the trip. Unlike the other countries involved, each of which needed a separate visa to enter their heavily restricted spaces. We had been in Denmark a few weeks prior to this journey to teach a painting course and therefore couldn’t send our passports to the relevant embassies to organise the visas in time, so used a courier company that specialises in visa applications. Problem was, that for three visas they required between three weeks and a month to guarantee everything would be completed on time. We had 20 days… Extra payments were made to each embassy to ensure the paperwork was given priority, yet even then the Mongolian embassy managed to wangle more money out of us by claiming the passports couldn’t be returned before the day of the flight - unless we happen to pay them another €100 that was. It’s strange how the passports turned up first thing the next day after payment was made… All part of the pleasures of travelling I suppose.


QUICK NOTE - Although the trip didn’t start properly until I made the first real move towards Beijing on the 10th July, I wanted to get the ball rolling with some quick notations I made after arriving in Dublin. I deliberately made the notes without punctuation or grammatical correctness to sum up the instant thoughts I had as I experienced them.
I leave it to the viewer to decipher where the breaks are meant to come to make sense of it all…..How very Joycean of me! Don’t worry - the rest of the journey will be more viewer friendly.

Day 1 - walking through dublin streets rucksack weakening back price of food crazy on the bus back to belfast pass street corner backstreets of dublin 2 boys mock fighting to the encouragement of 3 old men in worn clothes sad looks of days gone by and a youth misspent or not spent at all but a high price paid sun shining with dina washington playing and singing beggars on the streets big issues tramp playing on a toy guitar and no chords just strumming tunelessly and making more money than me belfast looms Day 2 - belfast sun shine short skirts and fake tans soft top cars and designer gear wheres all the money coming from catch up with the family exchange money parades and trouble as usual flags on the streets proclaiming sides paisleys in the news again wedding present commissions getting out of the city for the night no trouble in the news again romanians targeted in belfast whole families leave the country see jim and have lunch chasing money tomorrow dollars for russia Day 3 - into belfast mother to hospital the falls road murals from both sides sell paintings in city collect cheque from county meath riots in belfast parades etc eating far too much wine in apartment bar in central belfast over looking city hall paintings on buses glamorous tomorrow dublin chasing money again Day 4 - notes from a train journey 8am double espresso to wake up on my way to dublin on the early train to chase money cold wet and heavy drizzle ushers in the new irish summer morning a soft day as we would say the familiar back streets and garden views as I leave the city yet again the air hangs heavy as if suspended in the globules of raindrops only the train contact seems to agitate them into the action of release passing hilden brewery the smell of early morning hops assails the nose as the next batch of real ale is laid down the green countryside takes over soon after as we push clockwork like towards the borderless line between countries and cultures 61 window empty flashing level crossings are the only witnesses to our arrival at each step of the way then lurgan people dressed in winter clothes drab and black against the sky the strong green of the countryside the only strike of colour in this otherwise drab grey world of blacks and lesser shades numbers I notice that there are countless numbers along the trackside I will make a note of them and see what order man tries to bring to nature warehouse 14 trackside ROCS 20 station platform 61W time 0830 temp +16 car no 3 train no 3309 signal PD48 speed limit 70 no of cows in a field 43 a big field no of fields with cows 27 a lot of fields a lot of cows getting bored scarva flashes past canada 498 newspaper of man opposite trackside XD293 fairy ring dead tree in middle of a field POYNTZPASS fantastic old church tall and narrow looks like there are only six pews inside reminds me of my paintings tall thin finger reaching into the sky I wonder where it was flags and emblems showing the usual demarcation zones NEWRY like trains they cut through the countryside up on high over valleys and through mountains workers out on smoke breaks a friend of my daughters actually took up smoking to get extra breaks at work bypassing traffic jams in newry at a gentle speed 21 lambs in a field with their mothers that’s 84 legs of lamb for icelands special boil in the bag dinners colours on the flags 3 different colours all sides equal 1 punched ticket just over the border CATCH POINTS DUNDALK full speed no one on the platform 52¼ heavy rain streaks across the window parallel to the motorway a red flatback lorry kicks up a large cloud of spray on the cars behind a splash of blue sky at last gone again in minutes another church spire reaching towards the unobtainable lines in fields of bright yellow rapeseed wild rhubarb on the embankment 33¾ the age my mother was when I was small for 10 years she never aged CATCHPOINTS again a bucket impaled on the fence peoples bedrooms and back gardens again tidal waters at laytown sunshine on the sea and over the beach approaching skerries martello tower reminds me of buck mulligan in ulysses stork in the water at donabate while a helicopter flies overhead man flies while bird dreams of flight role reversal trendy malahide dublin life in boxes again Day 5 - no money forthcoming thousands owed and recovery doubtful in the near future damage limitation time new gallery called for owner avoiding me how strange life is flying from spain to ireland and then leaving for china mongolia and russia the life of an international artist last night bohemian bar glass of wine 7 or 8 euros cant afford to live here now in shelburne hotel for glass of wine €8 barman first class super attentive better quality than other one re the gallery 20 paintings counted in two galleries take paintings in lieu of money last resort a changing picture of sunshine today in dublin turned into a watercolour with the frequent heavy showers wee gracie and janet off shopping for a while waiting for phone call of total paintings in stock paintings taken away sold 4 in galway one for 5G