Sunday, August 31, 2008

Headed West

A 44 hour train ride delivered me to Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang, a very different province of China. As I rode through the vast countryside West of Beijing, I read the insightful Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler (thanks John Jennison), well in the moments between those in which my fellow passengers were perusing my English book or quizzing me on my studies. I passed a bit of time just reading/reviewing my 2nd Oxford Concise dictionary, and some jamming out to tunes from my new Texan friend Trip, who let me raid his laptop before I left the capital city - where else would I find Austin-local country-singer Pat Green for my listening pleasure? When I reached Urumqi, with little over four days til my visa expired, I convinced myself to cram all my experiences into one afternoon. Hessler had talked a bit about the Uighurs, a Turkish people that inhabit the western most province of Xinjiang, controversially part of China or the Republic of East Turkestan, depending on which side of the line you stand, and I was eager to encounter a few. I barely missed the museum, having closed 15 minutes before I got there, which was said to house three mummies, very caucasian in appearance, that further demonstrated this area as part of something forever Chinese.

Urumqi Museum, originally uploaded by wanders.

My next move was to load up on cheap imitation Olympic paraphenalia and a few DVD's, but my naivety proved endless when I learned that noone dared copy Olympic merchandise, and this area was notoriously low on movies. As I sulked, ate some delicious local grapes, and wandered, I ended up in a nice simple kebab restaurant. I met a man there, a polyglot trader, and was reminded strongly of a character from Hessler's book - sadly though well connected, this fellow was unable to find a place for me to exchange my Mongolian currency - yes, I do still have about thirty dollars worth of tugreeks on my person.

I caught my bus out the next day, sadly saying goodbye already to an interesting city with a good feel to it, and mistakenly bought a can of coffee for my ride. I was nearly in tears when we made out first stop after two hours and ran to the gas station restroom. The sleeper bus was quite comfortable, showing a few awful Hong Kong films, making me regret leaving my poor copy of "Dark Night" back in Beijing. So from Urumqi, I made it to Kashgar, a main stop on the Silk Road, my bus rather than train choice saving me four dollars. I met almost joined a bus full of foreigners headed to the beautiful Karakoul Lake in the next two minutes, but instead slowed down and ate noodles with a few Americans staying in the same place. Turned out they were all outdoorsy English teachers out in Yangshou, which houses the best rock climbing in China. I met my counterpart, Jose, who liked This American Life and TV On the Radio and Harpers and we traded books. I enjoyed following this four person crew around in Kashgar and we spent one or two nights sitting on the steps by the road drinking ice cold local beer. At one point, we all went to a hotel to use the restroom and I found an old battered copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and as my last two books in a row had mentioned this work, I felt it was a sign and bought it on the spot.

One night, following a few beers on the steps, we decided to check out a Uighur dance bar. A traditionally conservative Muslim people, the Uighur's attend a dance bar that translates into a floor, half the time open to the masses, half the time hosting multi-cultural performances (we saw Flamenco and Indian dance performances). When the floor was open, barely anyone touched anyone else and guards stood around watching us look silly, at one point wagging a finger at Colin and a drunk Kyrygz man who were dancing together a little too closely. We followed a crew of Russian speakers to a nice hotel and some secret Karaoke rooms, whereby their leader ordered a slew of beers and everyone began dancing on the tables. We ended the night with kebab from the street.

Uigur Bar, originally uploaded by wanders.

Monday, when the border was once again open, I said goodbye to my friends and caught the bus to... Pakistan. I got my visa back in Beijing after discovering that the cost of a flight was about the same as the travel and visa total, and everyone I talked to said it was a safe place as long as you avoided the Afghan border. I joined two Hungarians and a Frenchman on a two-hour-late bus to Tashkurgan, the border town, to push on til Sost, the Pakistani side the next day. In Tashkurgan, we strolled around, snuck into a fort without paying, got yelled at for not paying but taking pictures anyways, and then ate some noodles while our beers got warm because we were not allowed to drink in a Muslim restaurant. As soon as we got to our hotel, I got a text message, thus using my last chinese SIM card credit, that the Yangshou crew had made it to Tashkurgan! They had planned an elaborate bike trip back to Kashgar - I haggled for their bikes ealier - and it all worked out. Permits and such had become a hassle since the political unrest in Kashgar that started right before the Olympics - rumor had it that there had been 20 more bombs following the one reported that the Chinese media had covered up. I took my friends to the same noodle shop, feeling cold at this high altitude, with my jacket held hostage under straps on the top of our bus, and we somehow found another dance bar, this time with a new Tajik friend, who refused my no's about ordering chicken and covered out table in food after we had just eaten. Strange night ended in repeated goodbyes, and the next morning, our bus cruised over the 4900 meter Khunjerab Pass - my head was pounding during our five minute stop at the the official border where many many Chinese workers lost their lives constructing the tallest highway pass in the world to enable trade across to Pakistan.

IMG_1685, originally uploaded by wanders.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Goodnight Ceremonies

Not going out without a bang, I made it more Olympic event before the disappointing song and dance of the closing ceremonies. Men's mountain biking on Saturday morning was actually more like afternoon so I didn't have to get up that early. I headed out there after some noodles with John Jennison, my kind host, and his friend who was sad to leave his tickets to me so he could catch some track and field in the Bird's Nest that evening. During my 50 minute train ride out to the Western outskirts of town, I rocked out to a remixed War of the Worlds (summer mix series) and rolled up half an hour late but ready to watch some dirt get trampled by high speed bikers. I trekked through the park, pretty full of people and a few cheerleaders doing strange dances near the drink stalls, and finally found the steep section I had been encouraged to view from. I approached two guys wearing USA hats and slowly realized that they were mechanics for the US Olympic team. I lot of gear talk was swapped, and I listened in and picked out half the words, cheering for whoever rode by as they barrelled down a steep section halfway through the course on their fourth of seven laps. After following this more knowledgeable crew to a get a few more perspectives on the race, we discussed the performance of Adam, USA's no. 1 who didn't have a great race. Meanwhile I slowly realized that Mary, my other new friend, had actually placed 7th that morning in the women's race, and Mike, with the USA hat, was on the Olympic Team as an alternate - the couple was headed to Sydney in three days for another race and to check the area before the World Championship was held in Australia in 2009. They let me follow them around after the race ended, discussion which line was the best and actually sounding impressed with China's ability to throw together a startling challenging course in the middle of a park, with the help of some concrete for the looser areas and some logs to spice up the easier turns. I eventually turned down championship baseball tickets (Cuba v. N Korea) to go have a backstage beer with my new friends, eventually realizing that even though baseball bores me I should try to go - alas, the ticket was gone by then, and I strolled on to the unenterable Tiananmen Square, having exhausted my social skills and met some cool people as a consequence - I walked away from the backroom of the bike shop where the US team and friends were hanging out with my second Corona quenching my thirst.

Mountain Biking Turn, originally uploaded by wanders.

That night, I went out to the bar district, hoping to take advantage of the outgoing mood as the Olympics came to a close to meet a few different nationalities. I met some nice people from Greece, a few disappointingly lame Americans, one Lithuanian pentathlete, a guy on the Italian water polo team I had watched a few days earlier, and... I was waiting on some new German friends when I sat down to take a break at a french fry joint. The guys sitting there looked European so I struck up a conversation and lo and behold, I had found three Basques in the middle of Beijing. We immediately started yelling in Basque (they were even from Gipuzkoa, the same province where I had lived and started this journey) and the came with us to another bar. I was so psyched to have managed to find someone speaking every language I knew in the city that I ended up staying out til sunrise, standing on a rooftop bar as the sun started to light the cloudy sky.
Sunday, John invited me out to his friend's place to watch the closing ceremonies, have some food and meet a few kind foreigners - Robbie, from Dallas, ended up knowing some people in India I'm looking forward to contacting when I get there, and hosted a fine collection of interesting people to share the closing ceremonies with - plenty of insight into who was who and what meant what from ex-pats living in China. Monday, I said goodbye to the splendid new Beijing and to my wonderful host, who treated me to some Starbucks by his office on my last morning.

Goodbye Apple, originally uploaded by wanders.
I loaded up my new Chinese memory card with a few fine tunes from John's friend Trip, a Texan, meaning I would later rock out to some Pat Green, ran a few errands, and finally invested in second pair of pants. I made it to the train station just in time to purchase two Snickers bars, three Bananas, and 3 L of water for my 44 hour trip. I walked along counting train cars as directed, to the soft seater car - I didn't see a single foreigner, but was very ready to fall asleep to the sounds of Johnny Cash, who I had recently loaded onto my phone. "I'm gonna break my rusty cage and run..."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Splendid Olympic Games; Fascinating New Beijing

I made it China! They somehow quickly forgave me for arriving in Mongolia with a car and leaving without one - "Your car really broke down?" and a "Yes, it really did" later I was free of that snag - and we stepped off the train in a foreign land, I somehow raised in status immediately by speaking some of the local tongue and led our group of Beijing seeking foreigners around from train station to bus station. Our ride was decently comfortable - bunk beds!; a little surreal - we drove by a dinosaur sculptures in the middle of nowhere?; and slow - five to eight police checkpoints that each checked our passports and two of which had to go through our bags.

I stumbled around Beijing Saturday morning at 4:30 am, eventually calling my new friend John Jennison to help me find his apartment, which I was unlikely to be but in fact located around the corner from when I called. He rolled off to some Olympic tennis and some wrestling match, meanwhile I found some markets (wool sweater and new shades!), a replacement pocket dictionary, and a modern movie theater under a bar district I'd never seen - Beijing has changed. The city surprised me numerous times, differring immenseley from what I came to know just three years ago (a lifetime for this city) but proving very awe-inspiring with its new architecture and attitude. The streets are lined with volunteers (something like 100,000), including "Beijing Old Women Volunteers", every beggar and street pedlar has either been arrested or crammed into some tiny neighborhood I have yet to find, and foreigners pop up like corn kernels at the nearest cinema.

After using my passport to get internet access (freedom of information?), I contacted a few friends and somehow ended up getting into a beach volleyball match (China rocks US), diving (China takes #1 and #2), soccer (Argentina beats Brazil?), and just this morning water polo (Canada smokes China - finally) all in different venues.
The volleyball court was very pretty, though half the crowd left after China won, not sticking around to see Brazil versus Finland. The bikini toting cheerleaders did some funny dances, especially to the 90's mix of pop rock songs (Reel Big Fish?), inviting us to bring back the monkey and a few other simpler dances - China didn't allow cheerleaders til 8 years ago, and making up half of every cheerleading squad, they slow the pace down a bit. Diving was in the water cube, up in the roped off Olympic Green, where I got to see the Bird's Nest by moonlight and their garden, tower, pond, and a million things that I could not have imagined when I visited the site three years ago. My good friend Rob Struck helped me into both events, connected through Coca-Cola who even let him go on the clock to diving.
The soccer game was in the Worker's Stadium, a fun venue that seemed overly infatuated with the wave, and hosted some of the world's best soccer players between the two South American teams we watched with jaws dropped. Had a good night celebrating the game afterwards up around the stadium, meeting someone from an Olympic event and at least five different countries in every bar. Today's water polo was amazing - never seen that before - and after China was done losing, Italy and Australia took the stage only to give us an amazing show that made it past overtime to a shoot out, speakers blasting the Jaws theme between breaks.
Once you've got that ticket, doors open left and right, and you even get free subway passes all day just by flashing your that Olympic VIP pass at the stations. I've heard many stories about getting into stuff with enough sweet talking, but this guy got turned away at Club Bud, which was rumored to be housing Phelps after he broke the gold record - he wasn't there. I'm planning some more adventures still to come, sticking around til Monday to catch some night life and closing ceremonies with the crowds.

Fishing Not Flying Around

Now, much further ahead than I should be, I must recount the wanderings in Mongolia that lead me to this Olympic Paradise I now enjoy. Visa secured, well, receipt in my pocket, which assured me I would be welcome to pay $130 a few days later in return for my passport with its new stamp, I wandered out of the city to find some of the vast Mongolian steppes and mountains and rivers and streams I had driven through but not explored. Finally, after three hours wandering through town in failed attempts to catch the right bus, I arrived, via paved roads - surprise! - to a monastery south of town, carrying my backpack through at sunset and arriving atop the southern mountain just at dusk - I experienced the Buddhist flags and stone piles in the dark and then made my bed under a tree. I walked back to town the next morning, laughing about all the fuss over this visa - they really only wanted to see a few things, ticket in, ticket out, bank statement, letter of invitation from my friend, copy of his passport, copy of his lease, copy of my uncle's youngest daughter's catholic sunday school diploma. In town, I headed to the British pub, rumored to have some Mongol Ralliers, but not before a nap back at the guest house because my tree had been less than five star. I ran into a British chap who we had seen on the road about 1500 km back, arrived and alive and headed out that evening, securing my final picture for Chris, to prove I was still sporting the reverse mohawk.

Next step, buzzers, and it was great to lose the hair beard and grease that had accumulated over the years of not showering. That night I met a Chinese-citizen-British-marine who had hitchhiked across the US to prove to his friend that On the Road was still a liveable dream. We managed to find a really good local rock band jamming out with traditional instruments, followed by a US trouncing of Lithuania in basketball (prelims), which got me excited to get down to some celebrating soon in Beijing.
Despite my attempts to find other climbers, I headed east of Ulan Bataar to the national park alone, staring in awe as we passed boulder after boulder and eventually trotting off the bus when the rocks disappeared behind us. To my rescue, Chook strolled up and convinced me to come to his gher village to stay and fish and hang out with his broken English, scribbling something about two dollars and fifty cents in the dirt. I wandered through stream after stream - bridges were not a luxury expended by this area - and found a fishing pole, kindly offered to me by a man who, as it happens was disassembling a cow with his family when we stopped by. I failed to catch any fish, but I was more interested in standing around than really triumphing over nature, and had the surprise of a lifetime when three white guys rode up on horseback and also happened to be Mongol Ralliers. Whoops?! That evening I was treated to dinner by Chook's family - some delicious noodles fried by his father because his mother had broken her arm in an accident in town. A night in my own gher - I couldn't quite believe it, the coziness, the warmth, my own fire - and it was in fact too good to be true because the next day, good old Chook dropped the bombshell that it was in fact twenty five dollars for my night, claiming that a hangover had impaired his speech the night before... I wandered away after an hour of arguing with seven dollars less - not bad for a gher, fishing and dinner.

I found a boulder - maybe "Turtle Boulder" as someone else's Lonely Planet had recommended but I failed to get to the top of it - my climbing stamina is much weakened and I had nowhere to warm up, but did snap a few pics. I saw a black squirrel as I trekked around, assumed it was good luck, and ran into a local who gave me a ride, advice on where to hike, and dropped me right by some more beautiful rocks. More hills than I had asked for separated me from the final town of destination, but wearily I arrived, stuck out my thumb, and got driven the last mile or two to the Air Adventure Camp, where Alex had promised me an affordable morning of paragliding. This ex-special force sniper told me story after story about taking down animals from far away distances - 1500 meters - and in the dead of winter - a huge red wolf - and with his bare hands - a bear? Not quite.

Alas, it wasn't in the cards and after sitting around for a day, waiting for the right wind, I headed back to town, and found myself a bit under the weather - maybe it was my four polish candy bars that got me through my waiting. I sucked it up, loaded my fancy Swiss phone and its super tiny memory card with mix tapes from my friends, and managed to interview a non-profit (Asia Foundation) about river water quality in Mongolia. The day passed quickly with the help of naps and some conversations in the guest house, but suddenly I was late, somehow with only twenty minutes to catch my train. Stupid twenty four hour clock. I hopped on, just in time, and took off toward the Chinese border with a multicultural car of Japanese, Swiss, Australian, and the newly hairless Texan fellow. China here we come!!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

China Bound, Mongolian Mountains to be Found

The haircut remains, and this lonesome Texans looked like a fool strolling up to the Chinese Embassy for the second time today, only to strut off like a cowboy into the sunset after, what's that? you accept my paperwork? I don't have to bribe you? I'm not being rejected for having too much facial hair? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a visa receipt has been issued, and unless they disqualify me before Monday morning, I shall soon have that stamp and passport in my pocket, arming me with all the weapons necessary to conquer that border and make good on the train ticket I already bought but feared was a waste, but not use the fake plane ticket I showed the consulate.
I have now passed three days in Ulan Bataar, tearful goodbyes to the Kelly-Lieb brothers, and a bhuz later (Mongolian dumpling), I visited every outdoors store possible, found no trekking poles, and a few cheap sleeping bags that I still refuse to buy, but made some progress in seeing rentable canoes and devising a scheme to hit a river for a few days, shut down today by two Dutch women who said the rivers were very low.

Bus ride sunset, originally uploaded by wanders.

I met up with an NY-er living in Dalian, moving to Beijing soon, so I might have more than two friends in Beijing during my stay. We cooked a beastly meal of pasta loaded with three onions and a lot of garlic, impressing my taste buds but also those of our guest house host. We almost got our pockets picked trying to go the black market here, but planned ahead, by bringing only $10 each, and witnessed, as the pickpockets departed at a stop, one rough punch delivered to an old lady's face, something I did not expect from that 12-year old hoodlum. Sounds like Mongolians can be very violent - I've already heard of two people getting assaulted in early evening - so my gruff look and beard might be to my advantage while here. I also smell quite bad most of the time, though I did do some sink washing to rinse out the layers and layers of dirt that a 70 hour bus ride across Mongolia incurrs. I'm off though, enough of this city, to hike and cook rice, and get lost and found, and maybe even climb a rock or two if Im lucky.
Stories to come.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Losers Pay

IMG_1420, originally uploaded by wanders.

Chris guessed the closest on the mileage our odometer would read out when we stopped driving- consequence was too hideous looking travellers.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Kazakh with a Yak

Tai, our older brother host here in Olgii, one of the first cities once you enter into Mongolia from the Russian Altai Republic, has showed us a lot in the past few days. After seeing the city, it's market and some great deals, including a far-too-elegant cashmere hat for me, we headed out of town in a borrowed SUV, to stay with his Kazakh friends in some ghers near the border, the traditionaly Mongolian hut, unknowingly entering a no-entrance zone for foreigners. Along the way we shot at marmots with a 22, hit every bump we could and stopped a number of ghers along the way for tea and some fermented mare's milk, or airag, which was even harder to stomach when ever you spotted horse hair in it.

Shooting Gophers, originally uploaded by wanders.

I became a professional photographer overnight, taking pictures of every family and set of women or old men Tai knew, later to develop and have him return with, but a little to my dismay. I wonderful countryside was not as accessible as I hoped, when we were afraid of breaking some kind of tradition so we rarely ventured out and away from the ghers. Chris and I did get to ride horses for like ten minutes, but it was not as illustrious as my dreams of riding up into the mountains with Tai as our guide. We sat, watched Tai tell countless stories in his foreign tongue and absorbed our surroundings, until some border police came along and started asking what we were doing there. A bit of negotiating slash arguing later, a guy nearly walked off with our passports, not cool, and finally agreed that we could just come by the next morning. We watched as a goat was killed, its throat slit, and they prepared it on the spot, meaning the freshest meat any of us had ever eaten was prepared an hour an a half later. We munched on the freshly stewed meat, trying to avoid bits of liver, and stay awake, now midnight in our gher village. The Kazakh population here is very large, being the Western part of Mongolia, and Olgii is said to be 80% Kazakh. The next morning, we drove all over the place, stopped near the border, and worried as the rest of the crew, including Tai's friend Jurman, my least favorite person on this entire trip, took our passport and walked off into some building for almost an hour. Supposedly all was sorted out, Tai took the blame and paid some $20 to get off the hook and we were off again, back towards town, one adventure and some exotic food under our belts. I stiffled the unhappiness of my tummy for an hour or two, took a few more pictures, and am now back to that semi-normal state I always seem to find myself in when travelling Asia.

Olgi Sunset, originally uploaded by wanders.

So, why the kind hostliness here? Probably has something to do with the fact that we in fact caved and are selling our poor Leo off to this Kazakh businessman, Tai, who is in the process of building a three-story autoparts store here in Olgii. We ruined the suspension and don't want to fix the car, nor do we want to get super lost for three weeks trying to drive ourselves to Ulan Bataar. So rather than trash the thing, which is an option, we are in fact doing something illegitimate and giving this 'broken down' car to Tai in exchange for some money that will help us get to Ulan Bataar. We see this as more of a recycling effort than anything else, since Leo really should be put on the fritz just due to his poor suspension, which gets him around this city fine. So we should roll out this evening, after buying some souvie gifts and a bag to haul our crap to Ulan Bataar, touting the haircuts of imbeciles, that story to come, and a head full of stories. We saw two Mongol Rally drivers on our way back to Olgii, around the time of that solar eclipse, indescribeable, but pictures to come, and hope to find more in the Mongolian capital. More stories and some photos soon, if I ever remember my memory card reader.