Alright, borders. Like real borders. I never been to a real border, only airport border controls and what counts as a land border in Europe. At the Chinese/Mongolian border we were kicked out of the train when it was already dark outside. The border was just a half renovated government building. On the other side were a bunch of random buildings with shops and restaurant for the waiting crowd. And yes, waiting we did. For about 6h. First problem was food. All restaurant menus were Chinese only. And I didn’t recognize the standard dishes (like eggs and tomatoes). The only think I recognize was the symbol for goat. So we got 3 goat dishes. Surprisingly delicious. Afterwards pretty much just waiting until the border guards let us back in. And waiting. And waiting. There is only so much things you can do at an empty border station in the middle of the night in the Gobi desert …
Finally on a train. Beijing to Ulan Bator. The train wasn’t the newest Chinese model (no A/C), but pretty comfortable. I also made my first contact with a train samovar. The train had so many Europeans, the whole 1st and 2nd class was full. 1st class btw was just 2nd class with nicer wood panels and A/C, but nothing special. All cabins have only 4 beds (2 stacked on each side) in opposite to Indian train (which had 3). I didn’t see the 3rd class, so I can’t say for sure. So yes, packed with Europeans, all bound for a vacation trip to Mongolia, in organized tours. My backpacker heart flinched a bit. Our compartment had only one quest, an older Dutch lady, traveling by herself, but not at all talkative. I mean I counted the words, she said 8.
The mountains in the Inner Mongolia were lovely, especially when you could see the Great Wall in the distance. Afterwards the Gobi Desert! I found the climate in the train rather nice, Amy on the other hand was not happy. So we were riding with open windows the whole time. Amy, the Dutch lady and me learned a valuable lesson. Train + Open Windows + Desert = Bad Idea. There was dust everywhere. Everywhere!
Walking around in Beijing today made me finally realize something I subconsciously noticed the moment I arrived: There has been enormous progress made regarding the English language.
I mean, 5 years ago, there was no way I could order a Latte in a coffee shop in English and the lady behind the counter would tell me the price in English. It was amazing. This used to be a complicated process of bad pronunciation and pointing (on my site). I mean student and business man, that was different, they always spoke some English, but waitresses and coffee shop girls? So much progress in such a short time.
We also met an interesting traveler in the hostel, a Spanish women about my age who’s been traveling for 12 years (with the odd stint in Spain to get money). She had some pretty good stories. Unfortunately she was also upset: She is forced to go back to Spain because she has no money left and her parents put there foot down. I always find the permanent travelers amazing. I guess because I got bored of non-working after two month in India or because I have no idea how that would work out money-wise.
Another interesting thing, I finally attended the Shangri-La of Beijing Duck, the famous Quanjude. Never been before (it’s rather expensive), but it was totally worth it. Not only did they have the duck quite perfectly done, there were also all those side dishes: duck in aspic, multiple variations of duck soup, etc. Need to come back to Beijing just for that.
I need to stop with the “Again” posts. So, in desperate attempt to relieve my late childhood, I tried to do the 10km hike on the wall again that I did 5 years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t remember precisely where I went for the hike. I thought it was Jinshanling to Simatai, but when we arrived (after a long bus ride with tons of tourist and McDonald’s for breakfast ), it didn’t look at all as I remembered. There were restaurants and a lift. I had a vivid memory of hiking up a hill passed huts to reach the wall. On top of that, the tour was advertised as a hike, but when we arrived we were told Simatai is closed and cannot be reached. Great, how about saying that when we booked?
After we actually arrived at the top, I was relieved. It was the same cool section of the wall I remember. A lot of parts not restored. I guess I took the back entrance last time. No souvenir stands in sight, luckily. It is still very amazing, even the second time, to see the different sections of the wall and how it moves up and down the hills. We managed to do a small hike before we got worried that we wouldn’t make it back in time and turned around. Next time the full length! Also, during dinner afterward, we met a guy that spend several months at a Shaolin temple to train kung fu (12h a day). Not bad, which I had the condition for that…
Amy found the coolest hostel so far in Beijing: Qian Men Hostel. Beats even the one I had 5 years ago. That one was an old double courtyard building (I assumed teared down by now). This one is a double courtyard building with multiple floors and great common area.
Beijing, Forbidden Palace, Again. Still great, though, and this time way less people. Below Tian’anmen Square, a whole part of the city I remembered (including my former hostel) is gone. There is now a chick shopping street (Qian Men Ave). Still, most of the character in the surrounding streets is still there.
Also, I managed to loose the replacement sunglasses I bought for the ones I lost in the forbidden palace. Bought another pair (it’s hot and sunny here). Next time I plan a bigger sunglass budget.
There are those days were everything goes wrong …
First, bad planning: We (Amy, James and me) needed to be at the bus station at 9:00 to get the bus to the factory we try to visit. We wanted to meet at 8:30 in Jin’an, but half an hour was never enough, at least 45min was needed to get to the bus station.
Second, bad execution: We couldn’t find a cab and then the cab took more than 45min to find the meeting place in Jin’an. So we didn’t arrive until 9:00.
After we bought the train tickets for the 11:00 bus, we realized that this was already too late (we would arrive a 13:00). So we canceled the visit and got a refund for the bus tickets.
What to do? As the Germans say: Wait and drink tea. So we went to a tea house instead and relaxed a bit.
Finally, plane to Beijing at night. Trains were of course already booked out, so a plane was the only option. In the chaos of all this, I manage to loose my prescription sun glasses. One of the two things that cannot be replaced (the other being my passport). Finally after some cab problems we arrived at the Beijing hostel around 2:00.
P.S.: Apparently they also closed Xiang Yang Market (the famous fake market). It was only a building ground there.
As said before, the lines at the Expo were crazy. Every Chinese and their grandmothers (and great grandmothers). We had the choice between waiting for hours or pick less popular pavilions. So we managed to only get into buildings of say less liked nations: Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, North Korea, Lybia, Syria, Timor-Leste and Mongolia as well as the African and Pacific Island Joint Pavilion etc. So essentially countries who are either war zones or have barely any economy at all. Some of those were rather weird: Mongolia’s chief export seems to be dinosaur eggs?! Iran had Ahmadinejad posters in every direction but played funky Persian music. Timor-Leste had big screen TV with a nature doc and 10 chairs in front of it (It’s only 8 years old as a country, so I guess that’s ok). Palestine, Lybia and Syria all blend together, as they looked almost the same (expect Palestine’s chief export seems to be name plates saying: “Jerusalem, Capital of Palestine”). North Korea had a little river, a little bridge and a little cave. And tons of pictures of smiling kids with the slogan: Paradise for People.
On way to get people (especially kids) interested in all countries was the Expo passport, where you had a space for each country. Of course you had long lines in every pavilion just for the stamps (in some, the people were not interested at all in anything but the stamps). I’m guilty myself of getting a couple of interesting ones. I really wanted to get the Palestine and the Israel one next to each other. But I couldn’t get into the Israel pavilion, so I couldn’t see the face of Israels official stamper either. Would have been fun.
Crowded! My main impression here at the Expo (for Americans: World Fair). We arrive at opening time (9:00) on a weekday and there was still nothing we could do to avoid the crowds. To get into the quite impressive Chinese Pavilion, you have to get a reservation at 4am. Most other pavilions had a wait of 2-5h, depending on popularity. I was nice just to wander around and see the different ways each nation represents itself. Some impressions:
- UAE (golden sand dunes)
- Nepal (temple/castle replica)
- Saudi Arabia (gigantic UFO/upside down hill with palms on top)
- Spain (some crescent shaped wood/straw thing)
- Germany (weird shaped metal)
- France (some form of glass building behind what looked like bars)
- Sweden (white building with bike lane on top)
- North Korea (Slogan: Paradise for people)
- Iceland and Greece (amusingly both ran out of money midway, their buildings were metal frames with big posters)
- USA (a bland metal building without any interesting feature. The USA managed to be beaten by Iceland’s and Greece’s posters )
- Serbia (a lego building ?!)
My favorite: Spain.
It has been a while since I’ve been in Shanghai. Not since living there in 2005. And I haven’t been in Asia at all since Japan 2007 (which I somehow never got around blogging about).
Shanghai suppose to change a lot, so is said. I was more surprised by the things that didn’t change. Pudong Airport is still the same, but now 5 years later, it doesn’t look as sparkly new anymore. Same for the Maglev (which looked a bit crappy inside). The Middle Henan Road subway station is called East Nanjing now, but not at all different, saying I don’t remember it looking very good in 2005 either (but it still had the nice bakery right in the middle). The Bund is and will always the Bund. I honestly couldn’t see much difference after several years of construction. So far I have a greater feeling of “dejavu” then of “what’s that new thing”.
P.S.: After I never manage to stay at the Captain’s 5 years ago (but everybody else did), I wanted this time. Of course I picked the wrong one (apparently two on the Bund now).
“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle