Wednesday, September 30, 2009

hong kong and macau

we've spent about 4 days here in hong kong and have a couple days left, visiting my grandmother and meeting up with my parents. it's nice to regroup, reorganize, refill stuff (ie 20+ new clif bars for erick), but better yet having good food, being taken care off, and being able to speak the language (cantonese).

nothing too exciting to report, we've both been here before and done all the touristy stuff plus it's been very rainy. went to macau with my parents for a day yesterday to check out the crazy casinos there (not quite vegas but they're trying) and checking out some of the more popular tourist sites. one unfortunate thing that happened is that erick got his camera stolen in macau out of his pack on a crowded street... other than that lots of eating, too bad we can't eat enough for the next 3 months and not bother to eat while traveling.

next stop, dubai for a night (erick's birthday) then iran for a couple weeks. we were successful in getting our iranian visas here in HK and amazingly everything's good to go with the tour.

Monday, September 28, 2009

in hong kong, finally posting again!

we made it out of china today and are in hong kong. we'll spend about a week here visiting my grandmother and parents, who timed a trip here to meet up with us. it'll be nice to "relax" a bit, regroup, and restock. we're heading to dubai on saturday and supposedly iran, though we're having communication issues with the travel company and it looks like we may have to change our itinerary, unfortunately.

blogspot and picasa were blocked in china, so i wrote up blogs about the north korea trip and china adventures but haven't been able to upload them until now. also posted a bunch of photos, from the remainder of mongolia, north korea, and china. each album has many pictures (some well over 100), sorry about that, just too many interesting photos...

pics in normal place:

beijing and sichuan, china

our stay in china was relatively short. we first went to beijing to meet up with the north korea tour group. my longtime friend cressica was in town and we met up with her for dinner one night. unfortunately she was extremely busy so we didn't get a chance to actually travel around with her and add to our random china adventures.

after we got back from north korea we took a 32 hour train ride from beijing to chengdu. the china trains are much nicer than the russian ones but the boarding process is also a lot more crazy and chaotic. shared the cabin with a mother and her 2 year old daughter one day, who had lots of energy and was running around trying to get into everything.

hung around chengdu a couple days and got to meet up with our climbing friend alice, who was in town for a conference. it's nice seeing familiar faces after being away for so long. also went to see the panda breeding and research center in chengdu which was really interesting. the pandas were extremely cute, of course, and after
learning more about them it's amazing they've survived so long.

originally we were going to go from chengdu to yangshuo to climb a bit but the weather in yangshuo was really hot and humid which would've made miserable climbing conditions. so we decided to stay in sichuan to explore. found a couple areas with big mountains (mt siguniang) and tibetan villages (danba) but unfortunately all the roads to the to places were closed from the earthquake.

we decided to go to songpan, an area famous for horse trekking instead and hike around. the bus ride there was probably the worst bus ride we've been on. the 8 hour trip took 13 1/2 hours. all the roads were under construction from the earthquake and continual rock and landslides. we had to wait at a few places for a total of a couple hours while they cleared the road. many sections of road were one lane from construction or slides. then at night when the bus pulled over to let someone off it was hit by a truck trying to pass, so we were there for over half an hour while the drivers sorted it out. driving up we saw a lot of the earthquake destruction, entire towns being completely rebuilt (using the same brick architecture) roads, bridges completely destroyed, a car completely smashed by rockfall and abandoned. of course large crews of workers everywhere repairing the roads and clearing everything by hand. pretty crazy.

songpan is actually a nice little town, restored city wall, a restored main area which isn't tacky like many touristy areas, blue sky (rare for china), and a decent number of Tibetans and Chinese Muslims wandering around the city still dressed in traditional clothing. went to mounigou valley (a national park an hour west of songpan, aka mini- jiuzhaigou) one day which was actually really nice. very clean
and well maintained, pretty scenery, and best part no people! we saw two other groups the entire day, something i did not expect in china. we saw zhaga falls (the worlds largest tufa falls), erdao lake (colorful pools of water) and drove through Tibetan villages and two monestaries on the way. very nice day trip.

the bus ride back to Chengdu wasn't as bad, only 12 hours. one blown tire (sidewall blew) which was changed quickly by some guy with a huge pneumatic wrench, lucky it blew as we were driving through a village. the bus driver did not instill confidence though, it seems like he could barely drive (better than the Mongolian monk though). he stalled the bus 7 to 8 times including going into the Chengdu bus station, ground the gears, would shift into the wrong gear or would drive in the wrong gear, all while chain smoking. fun. can't say we'll miss china bus rides, with everyone smoking even though they're not supposed to, people blaring music very loudly because they either don't have or choose not to use headphones, people hawking and spitting into the aisle, and people yelling (talking) at each other for hours.

north korea

the post many have been waiting for, maybe. our trip to north korea. unfortunately china blogspot and picasa so i had to wait until hong kong to post these blog entries and the pictures.

but we made it safely in and out of north korea no problem. probably it really will be the safest place that we will travel, never worried about things being stolen or being ripped off or anything.

we had to go with a tour group, there were 16 of us including our american escort, walter. all of us were american except for one canadian. good group of people, diverse backgrounds and ages, not just one demographic. most were seasoned travelers, many had never traveled with a tour group before. we had two north korean english-speaking guides/escorts who were always with us except at the hotel, a driver, and a video person who filmed a DVD of our trip.

we ended up spending all four nights in pyongyang, the hotel we were to stay at in mhoyang was under renovation by many north korean soldiers.

the first night was the highlight, we saw the arirang performance (aka mass games). it was the best, most amazing live performance i've ever seen. there are 100,000+ performers, including 18,000 school kids who sit on the other side of the stadium and hold up colored cards to make amazing pictures for the background that are constantly changing. almost like a big screen projection. the performances basically tell the history of north korea and the wish for reunification through dancing, singing, gymnastics, acrobatics, and massive choreographed acts. reminded me a lot of the beijing olympics opening ceremony. definitely worth seeing.

the rest of the sightseeing in pyongyang was to the largest kim il sung statue (65 meters tall), many monuments, the metro (yes it's an actual operating metro not fake), an empty department store with lots of expensive items, an impressive library (grand peoples study hall) with free classes and even a madonna cd, the uss pueblo (imperialist US spy ship illegally conducting espionage activities in north korean waters), juche tower, views of the ryogong hotel which is finally being worked in after a 10+ year break and will be the largest hotel in the world when completed, a childrens palace where lucky kids can go after school and learn many types of extra cirricular activities for free, kim il sung's birthplace, the victorious fatherland
liberation museum (about how the north koreans defeated the evil US imperialist aggressors in the korean war). the best was kim il sung's mausoleum, where we had to dress up, go through this huge process of going in, lining up, bowing to the body, seeing all the medals and degrees he was awarded (including a doctorate from kennsington university in california). crazy ordeal, ridiculously large and ornate

the other days we went to the ancient capital if kaesong and punmandong, inside the DMZ. went into the DMZ and into a building run by the UN where the demarkation line splits the building in half- so we "went into" south korea. and saw the buildings the armistice (or surrender according to the north koreans) agreement was signed.

another day went to mhoyang to see an old Buddhist temple with one monk that was partially destroyed in the war but rebuilt and the international friendship hall where a fraction of the 250,000 gifts kim il sung received from other countries are on display. we saw a few rooms including one with a wax figure of him that we had to bow to. unfortunately (i mean fortunately) we didn't see the building with kim jong il's gifts.

all that filled our days in north Korea and it was pretty much non-stop.

so that being said, what was it really like? on the surface everything looked great. people seemed to have good lives in Pyongyang, great resources, city was very clean and no pollution or traffic problems. but reading through the surface these are the
fortunate ones. and even from these 2 million people how many actually have access to these resources? lots of propaganda everywhere (plus side no advertisements), we got told a lot of anti-American propoganda. Pyongyang does have the traffic ladies everywhere and no working traffic lights, everyone wears kim il sung pins.

We got fed plenty of good and meat each meal (erick had lots of problems with the food) but saw very few non- working animals in the country. our guides were friendly and let us argue with them and dispute their version of history but didn't believe our views or have any questions about the version of history they've been raised with
even if it makes no sense.

photos were somewhat restricted but they usually didn't care when we took photos unless it was military stuff. people on the street were friendlier to us than I expected, even some military soldiers and traffic ladies smiled and waved at us. of course they didn't know we were imperialist americans.

at the library there was a free English class and a couple people from the tour group went up to talk to the class. they were warmly received and the students were interested gave us a warm welcome even though we told them we're american. that was cool.

walter constantly pushed the envelope by talking with all the guides trying to convince them the American version of events is the truth, surprised they keep letting him back in.

in retrospect, we both very glad we went and it was worth the price. it was basically what we expected. a very surreal experience, it felt like a trip to Disneyland where everything is glorified and fake, only it's a cult worshipping one person. pretty crazy. don't think we'll ever see another country like this, at least in our lifetime.

trouble with getting into china...

seems like china doesn't want to let me in. both times i entered china (on the train from mongolia and flying back from north korea) i got hassled.

the train was the worst. a woman came around to collect the passports and arrival cards from each cabin. she looked at mine, stared at the picture, told me to take my glasses off (i've learned it's much smarter to take your passport picture with glasses on if you always wear glasses like i do). looked at me versus the picture for a few minutes. i even put my hair down to help match the picture. she asked when i took the picture and i said 9 years ago. she finally accepted it and continued on.

little did i know that it wasn't over. she came back with another agent and asked him if i looked like my passport picture. he looked, didn't say anything conclusive and told me to follow them. i got marched off the train, down the platform (everyone else was still locked in the wagons) and took me to the supervisor in charge. on the way they asked me the last time i'd been to china, why i've been here so many times, and where i was born. in the supervisor's office it was him and three others. i remembered i had my drivers license and pulled that out. he looked at everything and determined it was me in the passport photo and they let me go.

but the fun wasn't over. they ran me back to the train because it was just about to be moved to have the bogies changed (mongolia and china have different gauge tracks). they put me on the last car, i had to go through 7 wagons to get back to mine. first went okay, then I had to deal with a Mongolian passenger who wouldn't let me by, kept turning me back , explain to 6 Chinese guards what happened and what I was doing, three carriage attendents who only spoke Mongolian who wouldn't let me through their carriages and unlock the doors between the carriages and explain to two more Chinese guards what i was doing. finally got to the last door before my wagon and the attendant let me through but the last door was locked. she shrugged and went away and I thought I'd have to spend 2 hours standing there while they changed the bogies. fortunately, two of the Chinese guards i passed came by and got the key and helped me get back to my cabin, just before they disconnected the wagons to change the bogies.

flying back to Beijing was not as bad, though erick got a taste of it too. the immigration agent didn't think either one of us looked like our pictures and had us sign our names and compared it to our passport signatures. guess we both passed because he let us both in. luckily we shouldn't have any more china entries this trip.

Friday, September 11, 2009

khovd trips

now on to our time in khovd. besides the car ride back, this was the "real" mongolian adventure we were looking for.

we lucked out in khovd, not having any plans and not speaking mongolian. we found a guesthouse (only guesthouse in khovd- the big family guesthouse) run by adiya in his parents' house. he spoke english and arranged a couple trips for us and also came along as a translator, though his english wasn't great. also found a great vegetarian restaurant in khovd as well, which was a great find.

khovd power comes from russian so everyday we were there, there was a power outage of some duration, which also meant no water. the day before we left, the power was supposed to be out for 3-4 days...

we did two 3-day trips from khovd. the first one we went to see tsambaragav uul (mountain) and a canyon along the khovd river. the driver had never been there, so we stopped at a ger to ask for directions. got invited in, served milk tea, fried dough, aaruul (dried curds), our first true experience in a ger, which was cool. drove up a canyon and hiked up to a ridge close the the mountain, we could see the glacier, really beautiful. adiya determined it was too cold to camp even though we'd set up the tent, so we drove down the canyon and went up to a random ger and asked to spend the night there. it was a nomadic family, young mother and father and a 6-month old baby. we were probably the first westerners they'd seen. we slept on their floor, they cooked dinner for adiya and the driver (us too if we wanted to eat meat) and didn't expect anything in return even though we showed up unannounced and completely unknown to them. amazing hospitality. second night camped near the khovd river, which was beautiful. on the drive back to khovd, we stopped at a kazakh ger and had tea (just went to some random ger) b/c adiya wanted us to see the difference b/w the mongolian and kazakh gers. the kazakh gers were very colorful and full of embroidery. the grandmother asked if erick and i spoke kazakh since we looked more "european" (at least erick). funny.

our second trip we went to look at some big caves with petroglyphs (didn't really see any), tsenkherlin agui, then drove 6 hours to monkhkhairkan mountain to see a waterfall. again, they didn't know directions so we stopped several time to ask horsemen, people in gers, etc. ended up taking the "bad" road, which was pretty bad, lots of rocks, rockfall, and even a dead camel feet up pinned underneath a big rock. we got to the waterfall area near dark, they still didn't know where it was. luckily there was a ger, we stopped, went in for tea, and it was interesting b/c it was small and 3 bachelors lived there. they said there was a family that live near the waterfall that would be better for us to stay with and one of the guys would take us. drove another 45 minutes in the dark and arrived at a few gers. one family gave up their ger for us to sleep in, we thought they were sleeping in another ger but turns out they slept in their truck that night!

beautiful view the next morning of the mountain. adiya mentioned that the waterfall was close but didn't say where. we waited for him and the driver for 2 hours to leave, they were talking/visiting people and who knows what. we watched the nomads chase the yaks around, played with a couple kids. got in the car with the one bachelor that helped us out and took him back to his place to pick up something then he rode with us to town. asked adiya about the waterfall on the way and he said he told us that morning, it was close to where we stayed and there's no water in it right now. so we drove all that way and no waterfall! who knows if it exists.

drove back towards khovd that day, to khar us nuur (lake) where we stayed with adiya's grandmother. she'd killed a goat that day for us, i tried a little, erick of course not. at night we played cards with her (she's a card shark) and the next day got to watch her distill airag into vodka, boil the milk and make the milk skim, and cook the goat organs. and got to try homemade yogurt. it was a cool experience and didn't feel that bad since it was adiya's grandmother, not some strangers.

so overall, we're very glad we went to khovd and that we got to have there authentic mongolian adventures, staying/meeting with nomads who'd never seen westerners, seeing how they live and experiencing the amazing hospitality. and of course if we never went, we wouldn't have to great adventure of driving back to UB from the previous post...

pictures sometime probably much later, depending on if we can post in china.

driving across mongolia with a monk and drunk driver

so we just had the craziest adventure ever here in monglia. i don't think most people will believe everything is true and not exagerated or from a script of a bad movie, but everything below actually happened to us in the last 3 days... will also write a post about our amazing trips in khovd later on...

we were supposed to catch a flight from khovd back to UB on wednesday. on tuesday we had adiya (from the guesthouse in khovd) call the airline to see what time the plane's departing since it's not really standard/predictable. turns out there was a problem, the plane was stuck in moron because of a runway (asphalt) problem so the plane can't take off and all the flights for the next week are cancelled. problem for us since we had a plane to catch from UB to beijing on thursday morning.

adiya spent the whole afternoon helping us and the best solution we could come up with was to take a car back to UB (~2 days drive), get a refund for the non-used air ticket in UB and buy new train tickets to beijing leaving saturday morning. as long as we were in UB by 6pm friday afternoon, that would be no problem. he found us a car (we thought it'd be more comfortable and get there faster than the bus), a subaru forester (very rare in mongolia), good condition, the driver seemed nice, and pretty cheap (~$35/pp for the 2 day, 1450 km journey).

we left khovd wednesday morning, there was an older monk in the car, the driver, and a mongolian girl. on our way out of town, the mongolian girl decided she didn't want to go so we dropped her and her 70 kg bag of potatoes off at her house and went to the bus station to recruit a new passenger. by chance, there was an american, alex from tennessee, there looking for a bus. he agreed to come along. little did we know that we got him into an adventure of a lifetime...

first sign that things would be fun is the driver let the monk drive shortly after leaving khovd. the monk is learning and doesn't know how to shift very well, the car goes across the road when he shifts. nothing scary, just amusing to see the monk drive.

stopped for lunch a few hours in and the driver drank 1/2 a bottle of vodka with his friend. needless to say he was really, really drunk. the monk also performed a ceremony to bless the house and occupants, which was really cool to see. no one would let the driver drive, so alex took a shot, but hit too many rocks so the monk took over for a bit. then erick drove for a good hour or more. while erick was driving, the driver sat in the back with me an alex trying to "learn" english and asking us how to pronounce the words on the cover and back of slaughterhouse-five. when he deemed himself successful, he hugged me and kissed both my and alex's hand. then asked our names several times and wouldn't believe me when i said i'm american, so i finally agreed that i'm chinese, not american.

finally at a pee spot, the driver wanted to drive and the monk deemed it was okay. we think the monk owns the car and the driver is hired just to drive, since the monk was cleaning the car at every stop and the driver rarely even inspected the car, even after rough terrain or when we hit rocks or a big bump. driver drove, still very drunk, cranked up the music very loud and started singing for along time. alex reached up a couple times to turn the volume down but it just crept back up. we were all dozing in the back and the driver lost control of the car (either fell asleep or b/c he was drunk) and drove off the road, nearly flipping the car. he got it under control, back on the road, and luckily no one was hurt. drove a bit longer until a ger in at midnight where we slept.

next day driver and monk were alternating driving in the morning. on monk's drive, he hit 2 parallel tire tracks (all dirt roads) going 60 km/h and the car flew off the ground and landed hard. end result, both front and back axles bent (back much worse). driver didn't even get out to look at it and monk didn't realize the severity of the problems (erick and alex went out to look at it and quickly realized the severity of the problem). we drove another 0.5 km and the tire blew up, completely shredded from rubbing on the wheel well from the bent axle. since it's a subie, only a donut spare tire, which was actually good b/c a full size spare would've just rubbed and blown up shortly after.

we drove another 600 km on dirt then paved roads on the spare tire, including a little detour when the driver got lost. they looked for a new tire at a town but no luck (no one stocks that tire) so we kept driving on it.

today we were in a hurry to get back to UB to purchase our train tickets by 6 pm. we stopped for lunch and were making pretty good time on paved road, then reached arvaikheer (430 km from UB). the driver stopped at an auto shop (we thought to look for a new tire) and we spent 1/2 hour + getting the car washed and detailed! before setting out on more dirt roads. unbelievable! erick and i were pretty anxious and told them we had to get to the train station by 6 pm and they said they understood.

drove another 250 km or so, driver was getting pretty confident and flying at 130 km/h on the spare tire. even newly paved roads in mongolia still have potholes or else big chunks of asphalt cut out of them for no logical reason. driver hit on of these at 130 km/h and the spare tire blows. we were done for since there's no other spare and we still had a ways to UB.

we were lucky it's a busy road and the 3 of us (erick, alex, me) flagged down a car within 10 minutes, left the monk and driver with the problem car, and got a ride back to UB. didn't make it to the train station in time so thought about flying, but the guesthouse got us tickets to beijing on tomorrow's train and we'll finally be leaving (hopefully). this little adventure ended up costing us $520 in the forfeited purchased train ticket and the non-refunded unused plane ticket (we can't get a refund b/c we won't be in UB when the MIAT office is open). small price to pay though since we made it back to UB in one piece and we're still alive and uninjured...

pictures will be posted sometime, probably not soon since not sure if we can use picasa in china...

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

gobi trip

just got back to UB from the gobi trip. we enjoyed the khovsgol trip more for several reasons but the gobi trip was nice and had a few eventful incidents.

first our driver was a maniac. I'm glad we made it back in one piece. he drove really fast and a few times caught quite a bit if air by not slowing down on bumps. once he decided to pass the other van we were traveling with 1/2 km from camp and nearly flipped the car getting back in the tracks. but we survived, he was a nice guy, and spoke a little English.

the more eventful stuff happened to the other car, one girl in particular. the second day we saw one group of cars the entire day. we passed them no problem. went another hour and waited for the other van but the never showed up. our driver somehow got cell reception and called the other driver and they'd had an accident. so we drove back an hour to the site. the other group of cars was a group of Italian tourons in nice land cruisers. one Italian managed to convince his driver to let him drive. well as the other van approached instead of going right and passing as is customary and what the cars ahead of him did, he swerved left into the van and the collided. the van got the worse deal, front smashed in, engine fire, car needed a couple hours work to get it going. and the Italian didn't apologize though it was clearly his fault and wanted to leave right away. luckily no injuries, just a few scrapes and whiplash and the car was somewhat repaired that night.

incident 2, the French girl from the other car sprained her knee pretty bad playing a Mongolian running game and colliding with a pretty big guy. just when it was getting better, yesterday at lunch she went to use the bathroom (outhouse). directions weren't clear and she went into a neighboring yard and ended up being bitten in the ass by a dog. no teeth marks but an open wound. they took her to a hospital in the town we were in last night and as of yesterday she was deciding if she should get the anti-rabies shots (10 over 10 days) and forget the rest of her trip or take the small risk of maybe getting rabies and dying. must be the worst vacation ever for her.

about the trip, saw lots of camels, desert, some small sandstone cliffs (flaming cliffs), big sand dunes, and road camels. erick and I took the public bus back today, the other couple in our car have two more days in places we've already seen. the bus wasn't too bad (7 hours) except they wouldn't let us put our bags below so we had our bags on half a seat and the floor and we had to share 1 1/2 seats for 7 hours, not very comfortable.

tomorrow we fly to khovd in the west. should be interesting because we have nothing arranged and it doesn't seem too developed tourism wise.