30 September 2009
My post-University years have seemingly turned into an almost permanent lifestyle that friends and family constantly refer to as “nomadic.” Haven’t been in the same place for than a few months, rarely - if ever - have a permanent mailing address, usually don’t know the time zone I’m in and function comfortably with my 40 pounds of existence stuffed into a backpack. Then I came to Mongolia.
For the duration of their existence Mongolians have been a truly nomadic people - picking up camp and moving on with the weather, the herd and the food supply. To this day, with the exception of those permanently residing in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, literally millions of Mongolians continue to live this way. This lifestyle, of course, in stark contrast to the global “norm” that has been perpetuated through the export of western values, politics and “stuff.”
The first questions that came to my mind: But how do they pay taxes? Where do they get mail? How about going to school? Collecting souvenirs? What if something they buy breaks and they need to return it? The seemingly obvious answer: These are not questions that emerge in a nomadic society.
What’s even more fascinating is that Mongolia was - 700 years ago - the World’s greatest super power, which the empire stretching from Turkey all the way to China, including India and most of eastern Russia. Genghis Khan introduced the world’s first paper currency and initiated a free-trade area larger than any that exists today. Indeed, there has never been a ruler or civilization more powerful and there probably never will be.
So then, how does a society once so great exist in today’s age where “tradition” means “settling down, raising a family and compiling an enormous amount of stuff? As far as Mongolia is concerned, it appears those pressures are causing a fracture in society that may very well be irreversible.
One might see me fitting in quite well in Mongolia. This construction of “nomad,” however, is quite different. While mine is almost a negative at “home” and viewed as an escape, her in Mongolia it is simply the norm, with those attempting to “settle” actually going against the grain. What’s interesting, however, is that their nomadic tradition has weathered for thousands of years. While other empires rose and fell, the Mongols carried on living with nature rather than attempting to conquer it.
Maybe the nomadic life, then, is what we should all be striving for. Maybe I - like the Mongols - am not the weirdo after all...
29 September 2009
If anything can be said for present-day Mongolia, it is that the people and the nation pull out all the stops for their visitors. Our 1pm arrival was met by free hostel pick-up (thank you UB Guesthouse) despite our paying a whopping $8 per night to stay. Nearly an hour later (though covering barely a mile in the most painfully grinding traffic I have ever experienced) we reach the hostel, drop our bags and inform the owner - Bobby - of our hope to travel outside the city. She sits us down, flips open a map of the entire country and proceeds to highlight every possible trip in the entire country. “Well, there is here and here to see this and over here for this and...” We interrupt to explain that we only have three days. “Oh, well I’ll finish telling you all of these for when you come back to Mongolia then we’ll talk about options for this trip.” Splendid.
A good fifteen minutes of one-on-one time later and we’ve decided on two nights with a nomadic family in a national park two hours from the capital - Ulaanbaatar. Since we’re leaving the following morning if gives us all afternoon and evening to explore the capital.
Despite a history crowned by the power and prosperity brought by Genghis Khan, the last century hasn’t been to good to Mongolia and - in turn - the capital. They only overcame oppressive Soviet rule in 1990 and a horrible drought led to famine in 1999 that drove nearly HALF of the entire population (just over 3 million people) to the capital, where they set up their yurts, popped open the satellite dish and began looking for work that just didn’t exist. High rises and traditional gers seem to coexist in what can only be described as one of the strangest clashes in civilization I have ever seen.
Despite this fundamental shift in lifestyle, Mongolians still manage to impress and inspire with their history, culture and way of life. In Ulaanbaatar we saw the world’s most preserved and complete dinosaur fossils for 85 cents. That evening we attended the Mongolian culture show (expecting a kitschy, over-the-top, tourist-centric jive) only to be blown away by the nation’s top vocalists, bands, throat singers, contortionists and - wait for it - the 120-strong National Symphony Orchestra playing “Barber of Seville.” It was without-a-doubt the best value for money I have ever spent ($9).
Even at the yurt camp, this same level of commitment shown through in the lack of show and pizzazz. No electricity, no running water, no toilets and no one stoking our fire all night (which led to our nearly freezing when the temperature dropped 45 degrees in 12 hours from a hot and sunny 80 to a frigid and snowy 35). Save for one hot meal a day and hot tea, we got what we wanted - a glimpse into nomadic life.
The history, culture, energy and mystery are addictive. I have no doubt there will be a return to Mongolia in my future. After all, Bobby at UB Guesthouse has already planned my six-week nationwide trek!
28 September 2009
We arrived at the station a good hour pre-departure and boarded to find that we were - in fact - two of only four people on the entire car of the train which is meant to sleep forty. In turns out that there are a total of 26 people on the entire 18-car train and we are in fact outnumbered by porters, cooks and conductors. What’s even more hilarious is that all the foreigners are bunched into the back three cars, which the rest of the folks enjoying the others. To top it all off, some Australians we just met are the only four people in their car as well. What makes this amusing is that there are all in THE SAME CABIN and were told that spreading out is “impossible.”
It seems that the food is country-specific, with different food cars being attached at border crossings. Speaking of border crossings, after a day of napping, reading, blogging, staring out the window, movie watching and game playing we were welcomed to the Sino-Mongolian border by an enormous Chinese army brigade marching ominously along the platform to a German symphony blasting from the speakers. We were then invited to “detrain and shop a little” while the wheels were being swapped (while the entire planet runs on the same size tracks, only Mongolia and Russia continue to use a network that is 3.5 inches wider than EVERYWHERE ELSE (naturally). This means the train cars have to have all their wheels swapped out at the border.
Fortunately, there was an extensive selection of “duty free” to explore that included some fabulous options like “Absolute” Vodka, “Jieku Hueihai” Whisky and “John Work Song” Black Strap Whisky. Note the remarkably similar names and labels, despite being roughly 20% of the cost. It was the perfect farewell to China. Well, that and being allowed to roam freely through the customs area despite having our passports confiscated, left to wait aimlessly on the platform for “two to six hours” with knock-off liquor and an enormous group of foreigners.
Moments later at the Mongolian border we were treated to a form written entirely in Mongolian script and told to “fill it out.” Ten minutes later the border agent reappeared and as I was attempting to mime my illiteracy she nabbed the incomplete forms from my hand, stuck then in her pocket, stuck her tongue out and blew. Where, exactly have I taken this train?
26 September 2009
25 September 2009
Following four days of almost solely touring, seeing and coordinating my life was in need of a major catch-up that just happened to have to take place the night before our Trans-Mongolian adventure began. Needless to say, a 3am bedtime did no wonders for my 5am wake-up call, though it did add yet one more tier of hilarity to our train station taxi ride.
For whatever reason, Shifu our driver was feeling particularly chatty (and vocal); I can only assume this remarkable interest was fueled by his being on hour 17 of what is surely one of the longest work shifts in history. Should people really be operating motor vehicles for 17 hours at a time? I’d have to go with no.
After offering up this this nugget of information, the driver proceeded to play twenty questions. It went something like this:
Driver: So, where are you going?
Me: Mongolia. Have you been there?
Driver: No. First, I have no money. Second, who wants to go there?
Me: Oh, um, I hear it’s very pretty.
Driver: Yeah, if you like that sort of thing.
Me: Do you...
Driver: I have no money.
Me; Oh, um, okay, well...
Driver: Where are you from?
Me: The United States.
Driver: What is your job?
Me: I was just a student but before that I was an English teacher in Shanghai.
Driver: Oh, Shanghai is crap too. Beijing is the best.
Me: Uh huh, okay. Well...
Driver: Does your friend understand Chinese?
Me: No, he doesn’t.
Driver: [Laughing] Well then, lets talk about him in front of him.
Me: Oh, um, I’d rather not.
Driver: Boring! Do you like karaoke?
Me: Yeah, it’s great fun.
Driver: [Puts fist to mouth and proceeds to sing into it] Shenme shenme shenme shi hao (What what what is good...}
Me: Well done. You’re very talented.
Driver: Thank you. Thank you very much.
We’re now on the train and I’m contemplating what just happened. Either way, it makes for a fantastic story.
24 September 2009
Last time I scaled The Real Freaking Great Wall was three years ago with my Aunt Robin. It was mid-February, which meant no tourists due to the usually cold weather. Thanks to a fluke heat wave we had temperatures in the mid 60s and I scaled the Mutiyanu region of the wall in jeans and a T-shirt sans crowds of Chinese pilgrims enjoying the circus environment of ski lifts and toboggan runs that carried you to and from The Wall.
This time around, it was going to be sunny, hot and possibly more hectic. Wanting to step even further off the beaten path, I convinced my travel companions to opt for the “adventure hike” from Jinshaling area to Simatai area. At just over 6 miles it seemed like a reasonable day-long adventure. Thanks to insane traffic in Beijing, our 70-mile bus journey ended at our starting point just before 10:30am after four hours in a bus full of foreign tourists and our “English Guide” (who did very little guiding). We hopped off post-naps, post-iPod sessions and post-sunscreen spreading prepped for the big hike ahead.
We clipped on our matching “Happy Travel” group tour name tags (sweet) and hopped the cable car to the top. Having been before I thought this time around would be more of a “yeah, isn’t it awesome? indeed” type of experience. Turns out the darn thing is completely and utterly breathtaking every time you go, leading to more of a “WOW, I MEAN, HOW INCREDIBlE IS THIS? I KNOW! TOTALLY AMAZING” reaction.
I could go on and on but suffice to say, it was incredible. Unlike Mutiyanu or Badaling (the Chinese equivalent of Disneyland) this section of The Wall is both partially restored and partially in ruins, giving some incredible perspective to both the scale and intensity of the structure itself. At points we were crawling on our hands and knees down perilous slopes, wondering how they built the darn thing in the first place. By mile six our legs were shaking from the near constant up and down, around and about, inside and outside hike, making the zip line run back to the ground a fantastic (albeit kitsch) end to an incredible day. Of everything I’ve seen in these wild 25 years, this is no doubt THE highlight. Visit The Really Freaking Great Wall if it’s the only thing you do.
23 September 2009
22 September 2009
In my nearly eight months living in Shanghai, I never fully appreciated the wonder and majesty of the parks. My gym was physically in a park, which meant I was going in and out almost daily. While I noticed the “happenings” I guess I didn’t really “see” them as when I was with both Stacey and Matt. We wandered both Zhongshan Park in Shanghai and Jingshan Park in Beijing. Within five minutes we witnessed:
A man holding himself up on a walker singing live to an audience of dozens sitting on plastic stools.
Two men in a Kung Fu battle - one gettin’ it on and one “warming up” with fantastic arm spins and a deathly stare.
A group of people ballroom dancing in no particular semblance of order. Men with women, women with women and yes, even women alone. It was brilliant.
Old men having a kite fight like in the movie “Kite Runner.”
A gaggle of both men and women standing around a small video monitor and stack of speakers, belting out some incredible notes.
Multiple accordion players, each with their own unique style and fan club.
A gospel choir (yes gospel choir) of nearly thirty women and men absolutely rocking the grounds.
Finally, men and women of all shapes and sizes using nature’s fitness center to bend, stretch and kick up against trees, shrubs and small children.
Did I mention that all of this happened in the park? Man, our BBQs and baseball games just seem a little bit lame, no?
21 September 2009
Over the past several years I’ve heard many a tourist talk about getting the “authentic” experience somewhere because there were a) not too many foreign tourists b) tons of locals who were so “real” or c) no guidebooks on the place, it was SO remote and “authentic.” I’ve decided I really don’t understand this concept of authenticity.
What does one mean by authentic to begin with? Does it mean that it’s just like it has always been? There’s no way for us to know if it is changed or not because we weren’t there “before” whatever “before” was, so it’s a futile point to argue. Plus, our presence as tourists, foreigners or just other people inherently changes the nature of a city, village, town, bar, etc. It is thus no longer “authentic” (again, whatever that means).
I think it has become a western notion of “real travel” to find somewhere that is truly “authentic” which seemingly now means “unchanged” or “non-western.” The irony is that our very ventures to these distant and far-off places in search of our own authenticity inherently de-authenticates them, further fueling a more uniform and arguably less interesting world. So then, what’s the solution? Stop traveling? Never. Tread lightly? Better. End the pursuit of “other,” accept your own role in affecting a place and a people and take it for what it is rather than what you want it to be? Perfect.
Take Shanghai and Beijing, for example. Numerous people talk of Beijing as more “real China.” While I’m not going to debate that argument, what I will say is how any of us have any clue as to what “real China” is. Did we live through thousands of years of dynastic rule followed by sixty years of communism followed by quite possibly the greatest societal “opening” in history? No. I think what we’re really saying is we want to see pigs on the back of motorbikes, total chaos in traffic patterns, street food outlets and mystical “Chinese” structures because it’s what we expect China to be. That attitude implies some level of dominance, which is the first thing to shed when you hit the road.
Rather than judging based on our own notion of what to expect, try to take it all in context. It’s not only more realistic, but more fulfilling in the end, as there is far less disappointment. Speaking of disappointment, I was so sad to hear they banned amplified sound in parks. It’s just “so China.”