Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sept 19 - 20: Goodbye Mongolia, Hello China! (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Datong,China)

First of all a note about our blog. We are in China right now and all non-chinese blogging sites are blocked by the government, so we can't access our site to post which is why we are behind. We think we may have figured out how to post via email, but we cannot check to make sure it formats correctly. So if the formatting below is off drop us an email to let us know. As long as this posts properly we will continue to post over the next few days and get caught up! 

So picking up where we left off...

Although we loved our time in Mongolia, 10 days in Ulaanbaatar was definitely enough time to make sure we were excited to get going. We had plenty of time to see some sights, visit many many excellent restaurants and then slowly get a bit antsy to get back out of the cities and on our bikes. So we were more than ready to go by the time Saturday rolled around and it was time for our train to China.

This time getting our bikes on the train was even more painful than usual, but it was our own fault. Each time we've taken a train or bus, we've asked ahead if bikes are allowed and how to go about it. This time, we weren't going to but our hotel manager suggested we should, so we did.... after much unnecessary hassle and no results whatsoever, we learned our lesson, yet again, and next time we will definitely just show up with our bags and our bikes and argue until they let us on.

Anyway, as we were getting on the train it started to snow. Turns out we timed our Sept 19th exit perfectly and left Mongolia just before winter hit! (This was a surprise, as the day before it was about 20C, but apparently that's how it always is...)


As we arrived in China that night just before midnight, we noticed some changes immediately. All of a sudden looking out the window there were more neon lights, more large apartment complexes and none of them were empty. We hung out at the border town Erlian for awhile, as the train cars were lifted onto new wheels to fit the Chinese rails (the width of the tracks are different in China than in Mongolia, we were told this was to slow advancing armies, but this could be a myth?, either way the pic below is of the massive lifts which lifted the cars while we were inside).


As this switch took place, the very friendly Chinese customs officials came around, inspected our bags and took our paperwork. (Their English was fantastic, better than any border officials we've met so far.) They did a couple stereotypically Chinese things, including asking about the subject of some books some passengers next to us brought in... I guess maybe to check if it was anything politically subversive? Of course, they never asked about the 320GB hard drive we were bringing in, nor the book reader including one electronic book that is fairly critical about the last 60 years or so of China's history.... Anyway, the second interesting tidbit we learned later is that one unfortunate traveller developed a bit of a temperature after eating at the on-board restaurant. We all filled out forms regarding our health and contact with people with flu-like symptoms and had our temperature taken.... apparently his was a little higher than it should have been, so they checked it a couple more times and booted him of the train. :( Glad we were feeling well on the trip, and didn't eat that pinkish chicken at the restaurant!!

Finally, at around 8AM the next morning, we arrived at our final destination of Datong. We decided earlier in the week to stop here instead of Beijing, so we could see the two major attractions of the area - a Buddhist monastery that hangs from the side of a mountain, and a series of over 50 caves that contain the earliest Buddhist carvings in China - and then continue on with some French cyclists we met in Ulaanbaatar and cycle to Beijing instead, all in time for the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party on Oct 1st, which looks like it will be quite the shindig (LINK HERE).

We started our day in Datong by looking for some breakfast. After being turned away by a number of places that still weren't open, we had a delicious but sometimes startling (see pic below) meal of chicken & mushrooms in broth with sides of jiaozi (chinese dumplings).


After this we hopped two buses, walked a bit, argued with some motorcycles trying to pick us up, hired a taxi and walked a little bit more though a construction zone and finally got to the Yungang caves. We tried to buy our tickets, but they said there were "no tickets today"... we thought maybe this meant that it was free today (it was a Sunday.) Once we got to the gate, we realized that it wasn't a free admission day. Turns out that protesters were blocking entry into the caves. Luckily, we were in line beside a Beijing resident who works for BBC (formerly also of the CBC) who explained that they were local peasants who used to live all around the caves, but were relocalized for the construction that was currently underway. This took place some time ago, but they were supposed to be compensated and were now protesting something to do with their compensation agreement, or the fact that it wasn't materializing. He said they were given 5,000 Yuan (less than $600) per square foot for their homes that were demolished, but were relocalized to an area where they had to pay 25,000 Yuan for their new homes. It was a very small protest keeping out a very small crowd, but even though the Caves were supposed to be the local "cultural heavyweight" (according to our guidebook) we thought we had likely experienced something even more representative of the local culture, the modern one at least.

This picture below is of the blockade that the people had made at the entrance to the caves.


These ladies below were two of the most vocal blockaders and did a damn good job keeping anyone out of the caves.


After taking a taxi back into town, Mike and I walked back to the hotel through most of the city's downtown. As we had also experienced earlier in the morning, we continued to get alot of attention. All through the trip we have had our fair share of curious onlookers, especially each time we rolled into a new village on our bikes going through Mongolia. That said, we've found it to be the same if not more so here, and we hadn't even been on our bikes yet! There does seem to be a bit of a difference - until now, it's been curious glances, now it's just plain old all-out gawking. The large majority of it is very friendly... lots of "Hellos" from people on the street and hanging out their windows. Sometimes after a long stare we'll say "Ni hao" and get nothing back but a continued stare, but most of the time I think the gawking is just because they are curious but too shy to talk or think we won't be able to communicate with them. Either way it's quite funny how curious people are about us. It's a great icebreaker, as I have long adopted the philosophy "if you stare at me, then I am going to go ahead and randomly talk to you without feeling the least bit awkward about it..." So far, that philosophy has lead to a very few frowns or shy giggle and run-aways, but almost all of the time gets at least a friendly hello back and often a full-on conversation about what we're doing here and so on.

Only one less-than-friendly anecdote to recount, but an interesting one nonetheless....In Ulaanbaatar we had the interesting experience of visiting their local black market, which even the advertisements warn is full of very skillful pickpockets. (One guy we met had money stolen from his front jacket breastpocket with two buttons, which was unbuttoned, emptied and done back up without him noticing!!) This is probably why when we saw a young guy pulling at a lady's purse, opening it up and trying to get some money out of it, we thought he was her son bugging her to buy something. Turns out it was just a very sloppy attempt to pickpocket her, so we went and told her, with a mix of a clumsy explanation and gestures, that the boy had just opened her purse and grabbed some cash. He didn't run away or anything, just threw the cash on the ground when he was caught and a couple seconds later yelled "F*%$ you America!" at us with a very angry look on his face. If he wants to make a living as a pickpocket, he definitely needs to improve his skills - maybe some tips from the Ulaanbaatar black market folk would help. Judging by how well-dressed he looked, we didn't think he needed to make it his day job, anyway.

The rest of our day was quite uneventful but we went to bed very happy and excited. China, it seemed, just may meet or exceed our expectations. In just one day in a fairly "boring" city, we had already seen so many things that were new and different to us. The people so far all seemed so friendly and helpful. I was on a bit of a high, after having spent so many months practicing Chinese by myself in preparation for this trip finally getting to use it and seeing that it actually worked! (I had strong suspicions that it might all be for naught, some uncrackable code - I'm still quite surprised everytime I use a new word and am understood!) And both Mike and I went to bed with gloriously full bellies and tongues still lingering with tasty spices. The food here, oh the food! Whether it's the fresh fruit stands in the street, the ridiculously cheap and tasty fresh bakery pastries or the amazing soups and stews and dumplings and stir frys, there is just simply too much good food for the amount one can eat in a day. After many weeks of meals consisting only of milk, meat and white flour in rural Mongolia, the freshness and the flavour of the food here is more than we can handle!



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Salut à vous deux,
Vos photos sont merveilleuses. Merci de partager ça avec nous. Ça me donne le goût de repartir en voyage d'aventure!
À bientôt!
David C.