Being More Nomadic

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(April 9, 2013)

(Posted by Kristin, embellished by Xavier)

We arrived at Bilgee’s property around 8pm, piled into the ger, and were introduced to the rest of the family: Bilgee’s father, brother, and the wives and kids. By now, after waiting all day, I really had to go. You wouldn’t believe how happy I was to see this lovely toilet facility, even in the freezing weather and under a starry sky. Welcome to the semi-nomadic lifestyle.

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We spent a few hours getting to know the family, drinking milk tea (and vodka, of course), eating delicious soup and a platter of beef delicacies.

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I wasn’t too into trying the funny-looking stuff but Xavier had a field day with Bilgee as they both dug into the beef bone marrow (and I think that’s a heart valve or something on the right). Mmmmm good?

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I guess. One thing for sure, it was all grass-fed, free-range beef!

Exhausted from a long and wonderful day chasing camels in the Mongolian countryside (see Camels, Camels and More Camels!), we finally decided to call it a night. The two brothers and their families went to their shared concrete duplex next door to the ger.

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We stayed in the ger with Oyuka and the father (it was his ger). They piled our bed high with blankets so heavy we could barely move.

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It is so wonderfully warm in a ger when the fire is blazing — I swear the father tended to the fire all night so it was always nice and toasty.

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As everyone stirred the next morning, the family gradually trickled into the ger, and milk tea and food magically appeared from nowhere, as it always seems to do in Mongolia.

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We all hung out in the ger eating and laughing for a few hours until it was time to get the day going. There was work to be done.

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Warm fur-lined Mongolian boots appeared for me and Xavier, so we were ready to go! But the grandfather insisted that Xavier wear his dell (coat) and hat along with his boots. It was quite a scene to see the grandfather dressing Xavier and strapping him in the dell with a long sash that wrapped around him several times.

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I didn’t escape the fashion show either.

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Summer hats

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Winter hats

We eventually got back into our boring clothes — but we both kept those wonderful sheepskin-lined boots on…toasty toes! Out we went to spend the day with the family, tending to the animals (admittedly, Xavier did most of the helping while I documented everything).

The first task of the day was to let the sheep and goats out of their warm shelter.

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Can’t get enough of these baby goats!

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Some kids needed a little extra attention.

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Next task was scooping up the dung — all hands on deck.

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Then it was time for fun with horses! At first they didn’t trust Xavier to ride on his own…

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But then he discovered his inner cowboy!

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My turn next.

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But we had nothing on the man of the house. This is life on the ranch!

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Then there was the other trusty steed.

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But there was still work to be done: goat bellies to be brushed…

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Cows to be milked…

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Water to be pulled from the well…

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And always, a little relaxation, exploration, and play thrown in!

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In addition to documenting the day-to-day activities, we also did a more formal photo shoot with the family.

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We couldn’t get enough of these little cousins (the two on the left are brother and sister).

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The families were excited to have their pictures taken and got all dressed up.

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Bilgee and his family

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Bilgee’s brother and his family (with one more on the way)

They also loved dressing us up.

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As a perfect bookend to a perfect day, later in the evening two guys on horseback came by with some goats in tow…and next thing you know, one of the goats gave birth! Spring!

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We wrapped up a wonderful day back in the ger, relaxing with the family. Throughout the stay we had relied heavily on Oyuka for translation, but also just used a lot of hand gestures to communicate. As we had often done on our trip, we also used photos on our phones to share stories and show them where we come from. Through it all, we really cherished our time with this wonderful family and just remember a day full of laughter and love in this beautiful place.

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During our time there, and many times afterwards, Xavier and I have reflected on our unforgettable experience of staying with a Mongolian family in their countryside ger. No electricity (except for the solar panel), no running water (except for the well and river waters), no indoor plumbing, no central air or heating (except for the Mongolian winds and wood/cow dung fueled stoves), no cable TV, no computers, none of the modern conveniences we are so accustomed to having every day (although they did have amazing cell phone reception) — and these people were by far the happiest, most loving, easy going, and from what we could see, stress-free people we had ever met. What does that say about us in our modern society? We don’t know, but it made quite an impression on us. It will forever make it hard for us to complain about not having enough of anything ever again.

We were sad to go, but at around 8pm we piled back into Bilgee’s truck and headed off to catch our overnight train to Erdenet. It was time to meet the rest of the family.

As a token of our gratitude we sent each family a photo book of our brief stay with them — we hope to see them again one day!

Camels, Camels, and More Camels!

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(April 8-9, 2013)

(Posted by Kristin, embellished by Xavier)

When our Mongolian family asked if we wanted to go to the countryside to visit their cousin Bilgee (henceforth known as Countryside Bilgee, to avoid confusion with brother Bilgee), we said “heck yeah!” We wanted to explore as much of this country as we could in the little time we had. Next thing you know it was all arranged. The next day as we were preparing to head out to the train station, Chimgee pulled out some cold weather gear for us, insisting that we would need some camel-wool shoe inserts… ooh …toasty! We headed out, stopping by Tumru’s shop to pick up some food item gifts for the countryside family, and off we went.

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In a nice change from our usual travel MO, the logistics were stress-free as Oyuka handled the buying of the tickets and getting us settled into the right train car. So there we were on a train with Oyuka and a carload of Mongolians, trundling through the countryside to adventures unknown. All we knew was that we would be staying in a ger (yurt) — yay! — and meeting more of the family.

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After about four hours on the train, enjoying the company of our fellow Mongolian cabin mates (Xavier was really digging the variety of fashionable dells being worn by the Mongolians walking through our cabin), we got off at Zuunharaa.

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We were greeted by strapping Countryside Bilgee — and the Camel Man! It turns out Countryside Bilgee had heard that I love camels and had spent all day calling all over the countryside to find someone with camels! This part of the country does not typically have camels, but he had managed to find the one man who had a herd of them, and he was there to pick us up. Bilgee wore jeans and a baseball cap. Camel Man was a real nomad, straight out of central casting with his del and hat.

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We exchanged greetings and piled into Bilgee’s SUV — only to find more of Camel Man’s family! There is always room for one more in a Mongolian vehicle, so we squished in, with three or four kids in the back. And we were off!

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It only took a few minutes for me to truly understand why the guidebooks said you need a GPS if you are traveling in Mongolia; once you get out of the city there really aren’t any roads (other than the main roads between cities)…if you are lucky there are dirt tracks!

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So there we were driving over the beautiful barren plains, with Camel Man occasionally telling Bilgee to turn left or right. But even he got a little twisted around when we got to a little creek next to a pig farm and he couldn’t figure out how to get across.

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No worries, Bilgee asked the pig farmer for directions and we were off again. This is what a bridge looks like in the countryside! Remember that winter was just ending here and many of the rivers were still slowly thawing.

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Xavier was riding shotgun and occasionally he would glance back at me with a look of “where the heck are we?“ On and on we went, for what seemed like hours traveling across this vast Mongolian landscape of gentle rolling hills, until a ger and livestock shelter finally came into view in the distance.

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Oh, and what is that? It’s a baby camel and mama camel! We had arrived!

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But where were the rest of the camels?

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We got out of the car, eager to stretch our legs, and were ushered into the ger for some milk tea, rice pudding…and eventually some vodka.

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New family members kept appearing out of nowhere.

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We felt bad that we hadn’t brought anything for this family (a must in Mongolian culture!), as we had only found out while we were on the train that we would be visiting them. They still treated us with that wonderful Mongolian hospitality, making sure we were neither hungry nor thirsty (we did give Camel Man some money later on — it was the least we could do to thank him for the amazing experience!). These were humble surroundings but we were attended to as if we were royalty.

At one point after Xavier had mentioned to Camel Man several times how similar the food and customs were to Mexico’s farming communities, the Camel Man was moved, and reached out and told him that he believed there must be a link between the two cultures. We sat there for a while reconnecting our cultural links; meanwhile it turns out we were waiting for the camel herd to get back, and it was taking longer than expected.

No worries. We went outside and hung out with the family as they went about their chores. It was spring and there were lots of baby goats and sheep frolicking around.

Family members were busy brushing the goats for cashmere. It turns out this provides a large portion of their income.

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Of course the human kids were adorable too! I played a little game with this cute cherub who was hanging out with her brother in this old Russian jeep. Every time I pointed my camera at her she would close the window, and when I put the camera down she would open the window with glee. Luckily I am a quick draw, and I got her a few times! These are some of my favorite pictures from the whole trip.

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All of a sudden a herd of sheep and goats appeared, coming home for the day. It was wonderful watching everyone work together to get the animals into the pen. Grandma was a particularly cool cat, with her dangling cigarette.

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It was wonderful to see the kids run across the hillsides herding the flock together. Kids will be kids and it’s the simple joys that always make an impression on you.

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At some point I thought it might be a good idea to avail myself of the facilities, so I asked Oyuka where I should go (partly I was just curious about that aspect of nomadic life). She asked our hosts and conveyed their response with a sweeping arm gesture across the plains.

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Basically, go anywhere you want. Hmm…I walked around the ger to find a good spot, but then just decided to hold it. Maybe I am not cut out for this nomadic business after all.

Meanwhile, Camel Man was getting increasingly stressed out, on the phone with his brother trying to locate the camels. So he decided that we should just go find them instead of waiting for them to come home. We bid adieu to our hosts and piled back into the truck, and off we went in search of camels! Over the plains we wandered, everyone keeping their eyes out for a herd of camels. Soon enough Camel Man’s brother (also a camel man!) appeared out of a thicket of trees and we knew we had arrived! We crossed over a frozen creek, through the thicket of trees…

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And a most magnificent sight greeted us:CAMELS!!!

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They were just beautiful, perfect furry beasts, staring at us in the Mongolian plains. (Note: I exercised a huge amount of restraint in the number of camel pictures here!)

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Camel Man asked me if I wanted to ride one. YES PLEASE! Next thing you know Camel Man’s brother was swinging a rope and immediately snagged one lucky camel by the nose.

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Down went the camel, and I hopped on right between the two humps (this camel’s humps were kind of saggy, depleted by winter). And there I was, riding bareback on a camel in Mongolia!

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This was even better than the tourist camel I had ridden at the 13th Century Village (and we know that was fabulous). I wandered around a bit, then Xavier had a turn.

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By then the sun was starting to go down and we knew we had to start heading out, since Bilgee wasn’t familiar with the area and we had to find our way back without Camel Man — and without roads; we didn’t want to do that in the dark.

A man on a motorcycle appeared out of nowhere to take Camel Man back to his ger, and we piled back into Bilgee’s truck. I was giddy with excitement from a wonderful day; I think we were all pleased with how the day had gone. The amazing sunset sure didn’t hurt.

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Somehow we found our way back to the train station, and Bilgee was back in familiar territory — good thing, since it was already dark. It turns out it was almost another hour from the train station to Bilgee’s house, but he knew exactly where he was going, cruising over hills in the pitch black, onto our next adventure.

Going Back in Time…to the 13th Century Village

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(April 6, 2013)

(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

NOTE: Our blog got stuck in Mongolia, perhaps because we were so reluctant to leave. Nonetheless, a little over two years later, we are going to finish this tale (even though we are back to our normal, less exciting, lives in the US).

From the vast Gobi desert in the south to the shores of Lake Hovsgol Nuur in the north, no name holds a higher seat of respect and honor in Mongolia than Genghis Khan (also spelled Chinggis Khan). Everywhere you look, whether it’s a street sign, storefront, or vodka brand, you see his name.

This is the best vodka on the planet.

This is the best vodka on the planet.

Up to this point our only exposure to Mongolia had been what we had seen and experienced in Ulaan Bataar. But even in the city you had this overwhelming feeling that there was a vast expanse of land beyond. We had seen it traveling across the great Gobi desert as we entered Mongolia on the train, and from the top of Zaisan hill overlooking Ulaan Baatar. This was, and in many ways still is, the land of Genghis Khan.

A few days after our arrival in Mongolia our family arranged for us to go to the “13th Century Village”, where we could experience how the nomadic people of that time used to live. We bundled up (we were finally putting to use all the multi-layer cold weather clothing we had packed), as usual, because the weather was still cold and overcast, and there was no way we were going out unprepared for the Mongolian elements. So eight of us – Bilgee, the second oldest brother of the family, his wife Gerlee, their daughter Dulguun, Chimgee, Oyuka, little Tergel, Kristin and I – piled into a fancy borrowed SUV and set off on our adventure.

By this time we had become one with our wonderful Mongolian family so the ride out into the countryside was full of conversation (despite the language barrier). It didn’t take long to drive out of the city towards gentle rolling bare hills as far as the eye could see; the harsh winter covering over the land was all but melted away. No rain or snow was expected but it was still plenty cold.

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We drove a good hour and a half down the two-lane highway, avoiding the many potholes along the way. My mind wandered off, thinking about what it must have been to ride horseback through these hills in the time of Genghis Khan. All of a sudden we came upon a couple of two-hump camels sitting by the side of the road. And what the heck is that! Are those vultures? Eagles? These birds were damn big! I mean they looked like they would have no problem carrying away little Tergel for their mid-day lunch – luckily they were tied to their perches.

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I wanted to stop and take some more pictures, but as the animals’ owner started to make his way to our SUV, Bilgee said we really didn’t have time for it and he was more concerned about getting to our destination. Anyway, we see this stuff all the time. YOU SEE THIS STUFF ALL THE TIME?! We don’t! I took what pictures I could before we moved on.

We drove on and on until we got to a little grouping of homes, when there was a quick conversation about where to go. Where to go? Well I don’t see any signs and I don’t see any other roads to take so what do you mean “where to go”. Did we miss the turn off?

“Oh no, this is right! Here we go. It’s this way!”

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Huh? Which way?

And with that we turned off the highway onto some dirt track. And off we went over the Mongolian terrain to…. I would like to say where but there were no signs, no roads, just a wide open countryside and we were rolling across it.

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I looked at Kristin with a look of “What the hell are we getting into here”. Now I have to say we were the only ones in the SUV with that reaction. As for everyone else, including little Tergel, they were all acting as if Disneyland was right around the corner.

So we were now driving across the Mongolian terrain for about another hour, and I have to say it’s impressive as heck. And if my mind was racing with images of Genghis Khan’s Mongolian hordes storming over these hills before we got off the highway, it was bursting now. And at the same time I was seriously having some second thoughts about this whole day. Where are we? How the heck are we going to get back? Seriously!?

At one point I asked Bilgee if there was much wildlife out here, like rabbits? After Oyuka translated, Bilgee said, “Oh yes! There are many rabbits here.” And wouldn’t you know it that at that exact time a rabbit ran right in front of the car from right to left. Everyone in the car exclaimed when they saw it and started congratulating me. Huh? What did it do! Bilgee said “It’s a good omen to have a rabbit cross your path from right to left, plus the fact that you predicted it makes it especially good!” Things were starting to look up.

Then off in the distance we saw what looked like a huge partially built wall. As we drove up to it there was an opening in the center of the wall large enough for us to drive through. This wall was about 20 feet tall and extended about 100 yards to each side of the opening.

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It looked like some Hollywood production company had come out here years ago and built this wall for some kind of bronze age blockbuster war movie and then just left the set up. What was on the other side? Yup, more vast Mongolian countryside.

Finally coming around one of the endless hillsides we saw a grouping of yurts (gers). I guess we had arrived! We were the lone car pulling up to these yurts. No sooner had we arrived when some nomads came out to greet us and begin to show us around the yurts.

Before we could step into our first yurt, a man with a big grin and a bag slung over his shoulder rode up on his tiny horse. He stopped in front of us, reached into his bag and pulled out a teeny newborn lamb. It didn’t feel like it in the biting cold, but it was officially spring!

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As soon as we stepped into one of the yurts, we had taken a step back in time. These yurts were well built, elevated a few feet from the ground with wooden plank floors.

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The walls and ceilings were extremely well insulated, thickly layered with wool blankets and animal skin. Around the inside walls were beds, storage cabinets, chairs and all the walls were decorated with Mongolian blankets, ancient clothing, and artwork. In the center of each yurt was a stove for heating and cooking, and with the vent pipe sticking straight up and out of the center of the yurt.

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It was in our very first yurt that we discovered how much Mongolians love dressing up. There were warrior costumes hanging on the walls, and Bilgee gleefully grabbed one and suited up. Next thing you know, they were piling armor on me, and I got my Genghis on!

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There were several yurts with costumes, and the family never missed an opportunity to dress up and take fun pictures (the kids were not quite as enthralled, especially towards the end).

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We were invited to have a Mongolian meal with some of the members of the nomadic family in what can only be described as the dining yurt. Kristin and I were soaking in the entire experience.

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At this point we were getting a clearer picture of the set up here. This 13th century Mongolian village has been set up as a tourist attraction, but the people showing us how people would live and work in the 13th century, were actually living and working here. There was nothing fake about them. This was their daily life. They took care of the tourist attraction yurts, but they lived in their own yurts just next to them (the ones with solar panels).

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They cooked their meals, raised cattle, horses, sheep, goats and their families out here. These were actual nomadic families. No dancing Disney characters here. No scripted tour guide spiel and no pre-packaged fun-time meals. These were real people inviting you in to experience what they do on a daily basis. We understood now why we needed to pre-book for this experience, so that these families would know when we were coming out. We had done that a few days ago, but we had no idea what to expect. Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Six Flags Amusement Park – heck no! This is real, and it was awesome and off the scale.

We spent the day going from one group of yurts to the next, each one another valley or a few hillsides away. You could not see one yurt from the other. Don’t ask me how we found them; I’m just glad we were passengers going along for the ride.

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Not only did we have a meal, but had our chance to ride a two-hump camel! And who got to ride it first? Kristin, of course.

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And in doing so, she got to realize one of her life-long dreams. I have to say, I too got to ride the camel, and it was fun.

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We got to watch the men brush goats’ bellies. It turns out the cashmere from these goats brings in a good income for these families – Mongolia is the world’s second largest producer of cashmere.

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Kristin and I were also falling in love with these wonderful Mongolian people, with their friendliness, their matter-of-fact warmness, and their wonderful faces. We will always remember one such face as we drove up to one group of yurts, and this small Mongolian girl standing there. She was one of the most authentically beautiful nomadic children we had seen, and the setting was perfect as she stood there at the entrance of the yurt with her rosy red cheeks aglow.

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It was just another one of those moments where we had to catch our breath in the sheer beauty of the moment. No sooner had we arrived, her big sister, and soon thereafter her father and big brother, all came riding up on their horses.

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We came across another rosy-cheeked child in another yurt.

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This nomadic lifestyle was really starting to grow on me. There were so many things to take in on this adventurous day. One of them was how marvelous it was to see how many of the men and women came riding up to us on their little Mongolian horses. These horses were small compared to what we typically see in the US—so small that the men riding them seem to dwarf them. And to realize that these were the horses Genghis Khan used to rule his kingdom with…wow, they may be small but these guys are powerful.

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Even Tergel got to ride a horse!

Even Tergel got to ride a horse!

Our time venturing around this great nomadic playground of the 13th Century Village was coming to an end and we needed to set our course back into town. We needed enough time to make one last stop while we still had sunlight. The entire day had been rather grey and overcast, and one of the last things we didn’t want was to be driving around this countryside in the dark. Don’t ask me how we found our way back to the highway, all I know is we made our way back through the hole in the wall, across a road-less, sign-less, slowly defrosting landscape to the pothole highway, and turned left.

So what was our last stop? On our way out to the 13th Century Village we had passed this huge statue of Genghis Khan sitting horseback.

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Impressive not only for its size (it stands over 130 feet high and can be seen from miles away) but also because it is made of stainless steel. Supposedly it is the largest equestrian statue in the world and it sits on the spot where Genghis Khan found a legendary golden whip. He faces eastward towards his birthplace.

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We stopped in and blazed through the museum of Bronze Age artifacts and history of the Great Genghis Khan Mongolian empire.

Xavier and the largest Mongolian boot in the world.

Xavier and the largest Mongolian boot in the world.

With a few minutes to spare before closing time, we climbed up inside the statue (out the crotch!), and out onto the head of the horse to take in the impressive views and snap some family pictures.

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We enjoyed the view of the landscape and what is proposed to be a massive yurt village and resort for tourists to accompany the Genghis Khan museum. Rumor has it that Jackie Chan is a big investor, along with one of Mongolia’s famous sumo wrestlers.

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This had been a special day and I didn’t want it to end. I took a long walk from the statue to the highway entrance trying to take a few more good pictures, but also to take in more of this country. Bilgee drove up in the SUV packed with our family, ready to head home. I reluctantly got in.

For all the pictures we took that day trying to record all the sights and experiences we had enjoyed there is one that got away from me. It left me breathless, but with an image that will live with me forever. During our venturing around the 13th century village we were always seeing these nomadic men, and some women, on horseback riding up to meet us, or just riding across the landscape. I found them iconic: these people of historic lineage in this land of Genghis Khan, this place where no roads are needed—all you need is your deeply-engrained sense of direction.

When we were leaving our last yurts in the 13th Century Village, one such nomadic Mongolian on horseback came racing by us and up towards the rocky peaks of one of the many hills. My eyes followed him until he disappeared behind the rocks. I turned to see the vast landscape ahead of me and wondered how they know where they are going. And then I turned back, and there he was. Sitting atop his horse between two large rocks at the top of the hill watching us drive away. The wind had picked up so his dell and horses mane and tail were waving in the breeze. It would have made for one fantastic picture. Hi Ho Silver and the Lone Ranger? I’ll take my Mongolian nomadic horseman any day.

– This post is dedicated in memory of Aav –

Ulaan Brrrrrr!

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April 4-14, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

Our stay in Mongolia turned out to be saving a grace, and the most unique experience so far in our world trek. Over the first few days Kristin regained her health as the snow covered city warmed and the winter covering melted away. It was so easy to fall into step in our new surroundings. We slowly ventured out to see the city sights arm in arm with our newfound family – and it seemed that with every day we were meeting more and more family members. We felt kind of like American celebrities who had come to visit this Mongolian family since everyone wanted to meet us and ask us questions.

Almost every evening we enjoyed some good old Genghis Khan Vodka with our family – and it is seriously good vodka! There is a proper Mongolian way of drinking it: first the head of the household pours the vodka into a small bowl, usually made of silver or copper, and takes a sip and then passes it to you holding the bowl with one hand, with the other hand holding up the elbow.

Mongolian Vodka Drinking Bowl

You then take sip (actually you should drink it all) and hand it back. This proceeds until everyone around the table has had a turn. Then you start again. Kristin having spent some time in Russia, knows her vodka, and myself? Well let’s just say I try to do my best to accommodate local cultural traditions.

Oh! One unexpected thing that came up one evening was that we found out that the national sport in Mongolia is Mongolian wrestling. Oh, it is big there. Let’s just say it’s baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf etc. all rolled up into one national sport. So they asked me if I like wrestling. Do I like wrestling?! I was a 4-year letterman wrestler in high school! I love wrestling! Wow, instant bond, and the national wrestling tournament was on TV! We got into the whole ritual and scoring of this national sport. It’s nothing like we are used to seeing here in the U.S. It’s a cross of sumo and collegiate type wrestling with a ancient ritual dance at the start and end of the matches. Personally it was a blast to have this mutual enjoyment of a sport with my new Mongolian family. They showed me the ritual dance as all us guys (including little Tergel) practiced it in the living room. Too cool.

We were also pleased to learn that we had wifi at our family’s apartment! After being shut out of a lot of sites in China, we were finally able to do some catching up in Mongolia with our blog. But the best part was sharing our iPad with the family. Almost on a nightly basis we Skyped with Buya back in the United States (we also used these sessions to help translate and confirm a lot of logistics). The family flipped when they saw how easy it was to see and talk with their lone family member in the USA – it was something we all looked forward to every day.

Video Clip: A Song From Back Home

Later on I found that they had two older laptop computers that they no longer used because they could not get them to work. It turns out that neither one of the machines had an anti-virus program and they were both chock full of viruses. I made it my job to fix these machines as best as possible before we would leave. It was the least I could do for all they had done for us.

One morning, Omboo, the brother-in-law doctor, dropped by to give Kristin a check-up. We found out that he was also the doctor who would be performing the surgery on Aav, the patriarch of the family. Aav was already in the hospital awaiting his surgery when we had arrived in town. He had sent word out that he wanted to meet us. So of course going to see him at the hospital became a big family event. We all climbed into a borrowed SUV and headed to the hospital (on our way to the 13th Century Village – more on that in another post). We also found out that Eej, the matriarch of the family, would also have surgery soon after her husband. This was truly a close-knit family and very lucky and blessed to have a family member qualified to do the surgeries.

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About to jump into our SUV. Little Tergel is ready to go as he peeks through the front window.

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Seated in the center is Aav (he’s holding little Tergel) and Eej, the family patriarchs.

Needless to say our evenings were full of family fun. Talking, watching wrestling on TV, and doing the traditional wrestling dance, vodka sharing, Skyping, and meeting other family members who dropped by. One night we even treated everyone to a pizza party to give the ladies a break from cooking – it was not bad pizza!

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One morning I treated our Mongolian family with our favorite breakfast, Pancakes! They had never had pancakes before and they loved them. I left them the recipe.

It was during one of these nights that we were asked to take family pictures of our Mongolian family and that we too should partake. Only our pictures were to be in traditional Mongolian clothing. Okay we are in! I don’t know who had more fun, Kristin and I wearing the traditional Mongolian dells or all of the family members helping us get dressed and suggesting what would look best on us. All in all it was it was loads of fun and I have to say we looked damn good in dells. It would have been real nice to have been able to bring back a outfit or two.

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Looking good in our Mongolian dells.

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Notice what’s on TV in the back? Mongolian wrestling!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                         

But in the day time we got out to see what Ulaan Baatar was all about. Let’s face it, Ulaan Baatar is not going to win any prizes for architecture. Other than the new modern buildings starting to pop up, Ulaan Baatar is pretty much made up of ugly large, block-style, boring concrete structures – clearly influenced by the finest Soviet architects (a holdover from Mongolia’s Communist era).

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On a lighter note, there also seems to be a Karaoke bar on every block in Ulaan Baatar. Our hosts confirmed that it was a very popular activity; we really wanted to check it out one night with them, but we never had the time.

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Not the best of pictures (took it from a moving car), but you can barely make out the Karaoke sign on the left.

Our first observation while being driven around was: Wow! There is some major roadwork that needs to be done here. Talk about potholes! Sometimes there is more hole than road!

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Let’s just say you do not want to be driving at night, especially on the highways. Hit one of those potholes and it’s time for a new axle! But then again they have brutal winters with temperatures hitting -40 degrees C/F, which wreaks havoc on asphalt. In fact, the annual average temperature in Ulaan Baatar is 0 degrees F (-18 C), making it the coldest capital city in the world. (Now we understood why the Chinese ticket agent in Beijing wondered why we were going to Ulaan Baatar at this time of year.)

Oh! And it seems you can get a car here with the steering wheel on either the left or right side. Yup, what side do you want your steering wheel? But they do drive on the right side of the street, except when there is a traffic jam – then all bets are off. Right side, left side, middle, whatever works as long as you can get through and don’t hit any other cars. Just keep it moving. Let me just say that both Kristin and I were very happy not to be doing the driving here. Plus we got to ride with big Bayraa. Yeah, Bayraa is our guy, and we will always remember when he made it very clear who’s in the right, when in the middle of one of those insane traffic jams Bayraa jumped out of the car and almost pulled another guy out of his car to point out who was in the right. Traffic cops? Who needs traffic cops when we got Bayraa!

On our first excursion, we were taken to the large Zaisan Memorial monument on top of Zaisan hill overlooking the city. It was an impressive monument and again, very much influenced by Soviet architecture – probably because the monument itself commemorates the Soviet Union’s friendship with Mongolia. A circular mural on the inside of the monument documents various events in Mongolia’s history which involved the Soviets.

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The Zaisan Memorial Monument atop Zaisan Hill.

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Murals on the inside of the monument depicting the history of the Soviet Union in Mongolia.

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Video Clip: Zaisan Memorial Monument

The 300-step climb up the hill wasn’t so bad except that it was plenty cold, and with the wind blowing, it made it just barely bearable for the time we were up there. The view of Ulaan Baatar from atop the hill is probably the best view of the city.

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The large coal burning power plant dominates the skyline of Ulaan Baatar. We understand this causes severe smoke pollution in the area.

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Kristin and Oyuka with crystal blue skies of the Ulaan Baatar skyline.

We stopped to take pictures both at the monuments on top of Zaisan Hill and at the bottom.

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Chimgee, Xavier and Oyuka at the base of the large buddha statue at the bottom of Zaisan hill.

We also saw a considerable amount of construction of high-rise condos and other development in the area. Oyuka told us that these new condos were going for $1 million – yep, that’s US dollars. Mining money is growing a new elite class in Mongolia.

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Next up was the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan, who was the spiritual leader of Mongolia’s Tibetan Buddhism, and the third most important person in the Tibetan Buddhism hierarchy, below only the Dalai and Panchen Lamas (thanks Wikipedia!) in the early 20th century.

Kristin paid more than all our entrance fees combined to get an official photo pass!

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You’re official now!

From the outside the palace looks in need of some repairs. The harsh weather has taken its toll on the palace but after walking through it, I have to admit, it has held up remarkably well over the 100+ years of its existence.

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It’s amazing how all this detailed work holds up in this harsh weather.

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Icicles everywhere!

It was here where we really lucked out though. While we walked through taking pictures, all of a sudden Oyuka came running up to us all excited. We followed her to the large open area near the center of the palace grounds where a staging area had been set up for a competition of traditional Mongolian throat singing with accompanying musicians. Wow! We hit the jackpot! We had heard about the throat singing (see Genghis Blues documentary for the Siberian version, Tuvan throat singing) and had been hoping to see a performance. This just fell into our laps and we loved it.

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Group picture of all the competitors.

Video Clip: Traditional Mongolian throat singing, part 1

Video Clip: Traditional Mongolian throat singing, part 2

Video Clip: Traditional Mongolian throat singing, part 3

After the performances we got a chance to meet the winners and take some photos.

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We’re the ones with the dull boring clothing on.

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We completed walking through the palace reading about the last Mongolian Emperor’s life, looking at various Buddhist relics and original clothing, furniture and gifts of the Emperor.

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Our next destination was the Gandantegchenling Monastery. As we drove up to it and parked we were taken back by the thousands of pigeons in the courtyard leading up to the monastery. Ugh, pigeons. Our man Bayraa bought us some birdseed and we proceeded to get mauled by the pigeons.

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Bayraa looks over and laughs at me as I’m not quite sure what to make of pigeons eating right out of my hand.

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Ok, quickly out of seeds we moved into the sanctuary of the monastery and were engulfed by the aroma of burning incense and the procession of religious followers. Oyuka took us by hand and showed us how to spin the wheels and fall into the procession. We gladly left a donation and enjoyed a fitting end to a long and culturally filled day.

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Prayer wheels line the walls inside the monastery.

Upon our return from visiting the countryside (see up coming blog entries) we spent one last day out and about in Ulaan Baatar. As usual, we snagged a ride with a friendly driver (their informal taxi system) into downtown – five adults, not including the driver, and a small child piled in…this was our new normal! The first stop was the main plaza of Ulaan Baatar, otherwise known as Sukhbaatar Square or Genghis Khan Square. From the square you can see the National Museum of Mongolian History, State Opera and Ballet Theater, and the Parliament building which houses the magnificent statue of Genghis Khan. In the center of the square is the bronze statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the Father of the Mongolian Revolution, sitting astride his stallion.

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Sukhbaatar Square (Genghis Khan Square).

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State Ballet and Opera House stands on the eastern side of the square.

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The Parliament building stands to the north of the square.

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On the western side of the square stands the Mongolian Stock Exchange and the Golomt Bank.

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The Parliament building houses a large statue of the country’s greatest hero, Genghis Khan.

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A proud Mongolia solider stands guard in front of Genghis Khan’s statue.

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Showing the solider the photo I took; he smiled with approval.

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On the fourth side of the square stands the Blue Sky Tower. It’s a business center and hotel. It is also the most modern and tallest building in Mongolia

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In the center of the square stands the bronze statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar riding his stallion.

We visited Ulaan Baatar’s version of Macy’s department store, they call it the State Department Store, another hold over from the Soviet era. It was pretty fancy!

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We also went to a most original supermarket, made up of many individual booths selling their specific products.

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Supposedly most of the chicken in Mongolia comes from America. But this chicken looks locally raised.

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Mongolian free range, organic beef market!

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Freshly baked goods and cakes booth.

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Every kid’s favorite booth, cookies and candy!

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The cosmetic and beauty supply booth.

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Baking supplies!

The most shocking store of all though was the world’s smallest IKEA (though you won’t find it on their website…). Believe it or not, it was no bigger than your standard 7 Eleven. Aww, we were so hoping to get some Swedish meatballs and lingonberry sauce.

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World’s smallest IKEA

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The main aisle, only aisle, and one and only room in this IKEA.

While walking around in the tourist area, a tour operator person approached me and started to try and sell me his services and tours. His English was pretty good but I told him I wasn’t interested. He still handed me his card and told me to call him for anything that I might be interested doing. It wasn’t until later when we got home and I looked at the card closer that I noticed what this tour operator was offering. You’ve got to be kidding me! I showed our family and they were just as shocked as we were. We figured that the Soviets must have left a lot of military equipment behind. Well I guess if ever I have the need to drive a tank or shoot an RPG I now know where to come.

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We ended the day with an adventure to find some computer and Microsoft software for Chimgee’s ailing computer. Oy! We ended up in a bazaar of individually owned (this seems to be the Mongolian shopping format) local computer geeks and wannabe computer geeks either selling legit or pirated computer software and hardware. Ulaan Baatar could use a well-equipped computer store. Hey, maybe a good business idea for an entrepreneur?

In the end, we just didn’t have enough time to visit some of the museums and felt that we probably missed out on some things. But in return we were able to return to 100% of our health and had some incredible adventures in the city and the Mongolian countryside with some of the most memorable people we have ever met. And that meant so much more to us than any museum could offer us. We love Mongolia and we love our Mongolian family. The best of Mongolia is yet to come.

Our Mongolian Family

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(April 4-14, 2013)
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

Jenny, who goes by Buya in her family, had texted me that her sisters would come find us in our train cabin when we pulled into Ulaan Baatar. Since my phone had not yet switched over to Mongolian cell service I had not gotten the message – so seeing them appear at the entrance to our cabin came as a pleasant surprise. And that is how we met Jenny’s sisters Chimgee and Oyuka. Chimgee lives in Ulaan Baatar, and Oyuka had traveled from Erdenet (370 kms/230 miles away) to stay with us and serve as translator, since she was the only one in the family who spoke English. Moments later Bayraa, the large strapping brother, appeared, introduced himself, and picked up Kristin’s backpack as if it were a lunch bag. Between the three of them they took all of Kristin’s bags and my smaller ones, leaving Kristin to walk freely. Somehow we managed to communicate with hand gestures and Oyuka’s emerging English skills.

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Darkening skies as a light snow starts to fall upon our arrival in Ulaan Bataar.

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Bayraa on the left, as we get off the train.

We walked off the train into a rather blustery cold afternoon with a light snow falling on Ulaan Baatar. Immediately I noticed the signs around the train station and knew, at least for myself this was no better than China in so much as trying to read anything. A backwards N, a letter that looks like a spider, and every word was a jumble of letters, symbols and numbers. Russian, Mongolian? Oy! This was not going to be any easier than China!

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Notice the title of the billboard at the bottom of the picture. One look at that and my eyes went cross-eyed.

Luckily Kristin was a Russian major in college (a looong time ago) so she could at least read the words, even if she had no idea what they meant. Since many adult Mongolians learned Russian during the bygone days of the communist era, Kristin was also able to dust off the cobwebs to converse with our newfound family in Russian.

Accompanied closely by, and almost arm-in-arm with Chimgee and Oyuka (it was as if they were her very own body guards or extremely close sisters) Kristin changed some money at an ATM inside the station. We had no idea how much money to get out…at 1400 tögrögs to the dollar did we need to get one million tögrögs for our 10-day stay?

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Woo Hoo! We’re rich! Not really. What you’re looking at adds up to just a bit over $26.

I stayed with Bayraa watching Kristin and her personal bodyguards rush around. I could see that Chimgee and Oyuka were genuinely concerned with Kristin’s health (they had been warned by Jenny that she was under the weather) and wanted us to get out of the train station ASAP.

We hopped into Bayraa’s little car, drove a few blocks, and in a blink of an eye we were getting out again. In no time we were at Chimgee’s apartment, which turned out to be only a few blocks from the train station.

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No elevator here. Five floors up made for good daily exercise.

They ushered us up the five flights of stairs, introduced us to their mother Eej (Mongolian for mother, that’s what everyone called her), and quickly showed us to a bedroom. They put our bags down, turned the bed down, and turned to Kristin and told her to get in bed and rest. Oyuka, in her best English possible, made it clear to us that this was our room and to please make ourselves comfortable. “This is your home, welcome, please rest.” And with both sisters insisting that Kristin get into bed, they left the room and closed the door. Speechless, Kristin and I looked at each other with an expression of, “what just happened?”

I arranged our things as best as I could in order to not disrupt what was obviously the parents’ bedroom. But the more I looked around to place things in a orderly fashion the more I noticed many children’s belonging tucked away or set up in corners of the bedroom. I finally stepped out of the room and into the combined living/dining/kitchen room to join the rest of the family and try to somehow communicate our gratefulness for their hospitality. I was greeted with warm smiles, which I can only explain as coming from the closeness of a loving family. I was taken back by their generosity and felt that we were already heavily indebted by their kindness. But we had not seen anything yet. Chimgee, Oyuka, and Eej were all busily at work preparing various dishes in the kitchen area. Rolling out pasta, cutting it into noodles, preparing some sort of stuffing, vegetables and offering me some tea or Mongolian beer.

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Eej rolls out the dough.

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So what’s next?

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Oyuka rolling out her version of dumplings.

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Chimgee stuffing and stuffing away. Who’s hungry? I AM!!!!

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Nothing like home cooking. They looked great, smelled wonderful, and tasted – Mmmmmmmmm……

I sat there watching and communicating in simple English as they repeatedly said that I should relax and get some rest.

Let me pause here and tell you a little about these three wonderful ladies. First is the mother Eej, a pleasantly plump motherly woman with a permanent smile on her face who you would instantly walk up to and hug, and without a second thought, call her mom. She would return the hug with a smile and ask if you were hungry. She was always keeping busy making something in the kitchen and making sure everyone was fed and content. Next there was Chimgee, whose house we were staying in. She was the more serious one of the three, but this was only because she had much on her mind. Taking care of her children, husband, mother, sister, and now two complete strangers from a foreign country — that would stress anyone out. The household was a hurricane of activity, but this only enhanced her beauty as she held it all together in stride. Chimgee was always on the lookout for our health and well-being, taking us by hand or arm in arm; we always felt her genuine warmth and guidance where ever we went. Kristin and I would come to love and respect Chimgee as if she were our own mother (even though she was somewhere near our ages). Lastly there is Oyuka, our saving grace. I say this because she was not only our translator, but she more than anyone else, never left our side during our entire 10 day stay in Mongolia. Yes, her English was very rusty but it was enough to get us understood. She too, would take us arm in arm where ever we went and always made sure we knew what we were seeing, doing her best to explain the history, culture and significance of places and things we were doing. She was our guide, our teacher, and our best friend. She was an absolute joy to be around, and we owe her an unbelievable amount of gratitude. These ladies were some of the most welcoming, warmest, good natured, and loving women we could have ever met anywhere. The fact that it was here in Mongolia made it even more memorable for us.

I sat there surrounded by these three wonderful women getting to know them better, and becoming more and more immersed into their kitchen activities when Chimgee announced something and quickly bundled up and left the house. We returned to our meal-making activities when a little while later, the front door opened and Chimgee walked in accompanied by this little wrapped up, bundled up, walking puff ball of a small child. Hat, scarf, ear muffs, boots, thick socks, coat, sweat shirt, layer after layer came peeling off with the help of his mother, Chimgee. I was laughing to myself as I watched in bemused amazement as this little man child turned and raised one arm, and then the next one, then this foot, and the next foot, now the next layer, and the layer after that one. It was a routine all too familiar, more of a coordinated dance between two loving dance partners than anything else. Finally, freed of his wrappings, we were introduced. “Tergel, Havier.” Rosie cheeks and wide-eyed Tergel held out his hand and we shook. He said something to me in Mongolian and I smiled and nodded my head, not knowing what to say in return. I wanted to pick him up and squeeze him he was so adorable. As we studied each other for a bit, then in came a taller, more slender girl version of this little guy. She didn’t need any help in unlayering. This was the older sister, Hulan. Quiet and a bit shy, we too shook hands and exchanged hellos.

The family atmosphere was just about all set as the women of the house were preparing the meal, Hulan attended to Tergel and anything that her mother might ask of her, and Tergel was doing what all 4 year-olds do, playing. The room smelled wonderful, and my taste buds were kicking into gear. Oyuka then told me that they were ready to bring Kristin something to eat. Chimgee and Eej finished putting together a tray of home made noodles, dumpling, vegetable soup, bread and hot tea. Oh man, it looked wonderful, delicious, and smelled of home made love. We walked into the bedroom, to find Kristin stirring and she asks me, “what smells so good?” They made you soup and here it comes. The scene was of a loving family coming together to care for a sick member. Kristin was overwhelmed and speechless. They made sure she had everything to her liking and then left the room. Kristin and I looked at each other as I was a little choked up by what was happening. “Well, eat up,” I said. And she did. And then they brought her a second helping.

Oyuka then told us that another member of the family was a doctor. They had arranged for him to come by and do a check up on Kristin, but in the mean time I could go with her to the local pharmacy to pick up some medicine. Wow. Oyuka and I wrapped ourselves up in warm clothing, but she stopped me and handed me some thick wool inner shoe pads for my boots. I inserted them and quickly made note that here, getting dressed for cold weather was taken very seriously. We walked down the five floors (no elevators here) and out into the cold, windy, grey day with a light snow falling. We walked around the corner to the pharmacy, where Oyuka explained to the pharmacy lady what we needed. I paid the woman and we left to walk next door to meet Chimgee’s husband, Tumruu, who owns a small convenience store. This solid Mongolian man greeted me with a smile, and with Oyuka’s translating skills, an awkward but pleasant moment of introductions was exchanged.

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Tumruu on the left and Bayraa on the right.

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Tumruu’s local neighborhood convenience store.

Tumruu would turn out to be one of the most kind, generous, quiet, mountain of a family man I would come to know in my life.

We picked up a few items and returned to the apartment. I then did my first, and what would soon become a familiar, dance in unlayering clothing once we got home. We all went in to check on Kristin and Oyuka explained about the medicine we had picked up. Kristin was in good hands with three mothers overseeing her wellness.

After a bit Kristin stepped out of the bedroom and met the rest of the family. Tumruu came home for dinner where we all sat around the table to eat together. The home-made meal was wonderful. We all stayed up for awhile getting to know each other and our family’s background.

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Tumruu, Tergel, Chimgee, Hulan, and us.

It came time for bed and Kristin and I realized we were sleeping in the only bedroom available. We motioned that it wasn’t right that we take the only bedroom, but they wouldn’t have it any other way and insisted that it was no problem. We wondered where everyone else was going to sleep – there were six of them!

I can only compare this to times when my parents and I would visit family members in Mexico. Whether in large cities or in the countryside we were always given the master bedroom to sleep in. An old world custom for beloved family members or a level of hospitality lost in our western culture, I don’t know, but it humbled us and made us very aware of our loving surroundings.

For the next ten days the weather would gradually get warmer as the snow melted away into spring. The wonderful clean, crisp, pollution free air and country would gradually work wonders for Kristin’s health, not to mention all the wonderful homemade meals. Our family escorted us around Ulaan Bataar, the countryside, neighboring cities and villages to experience what Mongolia was all about. They hatched plans for us to visit ancient Mongolian villages, stay over night in a ger (yurt), and ride a two-hump camel. All of this arm in arm, and in the care of the most amazing family one could experience. Our Mongolian adventure was only just beginning.

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Mongolian Midnight Express

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April 3 – 4, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

Anyone who knows Kristin knows that she has a long time love for camels. She had ridden on some camels in Asia, Australia, and Egypt and was extremely excited to finally have the opportunity to ride a two-hump (Bactrian) camel in Mongolia. For that reason alone she had made every possible compromise to somehow make this journey into Mongolia possible. We had stayed in close communication with my Mongolian friend Jenny and in her last message she stated that her sisters would be waiting for us at the train station in Ulan Baatar. It was of great comfort to us to know that someone would be waiting for us in this new and exciting country we knew nothing about.

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There was no great crush of people to get on the train to Ulan Baatar at the Beijing station — a welcome change from our usual train station mob experience.

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As the ticket lady had basically told us when we bought the tickets, no one in their right mind would go to Mongolia at this time of year because it was too freakin’ cold. While waiting for the train at the Beijing train station we were approached by a nice older gentleman who asked us (in English!) if this was the train to Ulan Baatar — we hadn’t been asked for directions in a very long time! It turns out he was Mongolian and was returning home. He was quite friendly and since we both had meal tickets (included in the price of the train tickets) for dinner and breakfast, we tentatively made plans to meet up in the diner car of the train later. We were anxious to talk to him about Mongolia.

Undaunted, we hopped onto the K3 train, the first leg of the Trans-Siberian railway (Trans-Mongolian line).

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Trilingual train car placard, great! Luckily Kristin can now put her Russian skills to use.

We settled into our second-class 4-berth cabin, and it looked like we were the only ones in the cabin — the train was probably less than a quarter full. In our train car alone there were only about 2 or 3 cabins being used out of the 10 or so available…just another sign that we were traveling to Mongolia at a not so popular time of year.

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HELLO, Hello..hello….hello….. Is there anyone else on this train?

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Our cabin with plenty of under the bed storage.

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With the cabin to ourselves Kristin makes herself at home, and I have my choice of fold down seats in the hallway outside our cabin to work on our blog.

Kristin had spent the last few days trying to get better by resting and taking whatever medication she could to clear up the severe sinus infection and body aches that had zapped all her energy. She had lost her appetite, and now news of a new bird flu outbreak in Shanghai causing deaths, there and around China, was starting to weigh on us. The news got worse when it was also reported that the outbreak had started during the time we were in Shanghai. We tried not to think of the possibilities and instead focused on a long (30 hours) restful train ride. At the same time Kristin and I did not want to miss out on any sights out the window once we got into Mongolia.

Early on in our travels in China we had been told that Beijing was a failed city on more levels than one. We were starting to see that, certainly from an environmental perspective, but we were not prepared for what we were now seeing out the train windows.

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We had seen the trash (mainly made up of plastic bags) along the tracks as we left Beijing, but we were now in the countryside and there was just as much trash.

As travelers we are somewhat conditioned to accept and see certain levels of pollution and blight in large cities, and probably more so in developing countries, but what we were seeing out the train’s window was off the charts. If ever there was a reason to rid this earth of plastic bags, it was this train ride.

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The livestock just wanders through the landscape filled with plastic. Can you tell where the sheep are?

We had dealt with, as best as possible, the air pollution in Beijing but the land pollution we were now seeing outside the train window was incredible. As we sped out of Beijing we saw trash of all sorts along the railroad tracks, and as the train kept going, hour after hour into the countryside, the situation didn’t get any better. How bad was it? It looked like the people had given up and were now just accepting the millions of plastic bags around them, to the point that in cultivating the fields, they were just plowing the plastic bags into the soil. Maybe hoping that the plastic would eventually breakdown and become part of the soil. Shocking? Yes. Upsetting? Even more so. Depressing? Most definitely. Had the people given up and accepted their situation? From what we could see, sadly so. Was this just another side of what we had been told about Beijing being a failed city? Probably so, but this had extended so far out of the city and into the countryside. I sat there sad, upset, and swore to make every attempt possible to never use plastic bags ever again.

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Plastic bags everywhere, and we were now going on 2 hours out of Beijing.

It was now getting close to dinner time and Kristin and I walked up to the dining car to take advantage of our free dinner meal tickets. The Chinese dining car was nothing to write home about, rather plain, a simple menu, and even simpler service — we handed them the tickets, they brought us the meal of the day.

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Uhhhh, pass the salt please? (Chinese dining car version of a hearty breakfast)

We saw our Mongolian friend and shared a table with him. He asked about us, our trip, and where we were from in the U.S., and we did the same with him. He taught us some useful Mongolian phrases, and then asked us if we knew about the changing of the wheels of the train at the border. Huh? No, please tell us more.

He described it like this: Around 11pm when we get close to the Mongolian border, the Chinese officials board the train to collect all the passports from the passengers — and leave with the passports in hand. (We don’t like to be separated from our passports!). They would return them to us once the wheel sets (bogies) were changed. Once the officials exited the train, the train will proceed to a large warehouse where they will separate all the train cars, disconnect the wheels, lift all the train cars by large hydraulic lifts, wheel out all the Chinese wheels, wheel in the Russian wheels, drop all the train cars onto the new wheels and attach them to the train cars, attach all the train cars back together again, and roll out the train. The officials then come back onto the train and give us back our passports, they leave, we enter Mongolia, Mongolian officials now board the train and review our passports, they leave the train, and then we continue onto Ulan Baatar. That should all take about 3 hours or so. He then ended by saying, “You should stay up and watch it all, it’s pretty interesting.” Huh, yeah! No kidding!

We then asked why they did this, why two different kinds of wheels? He said, all he knows is that in China they had their own set of standards for train wheel widths and that they are different than those in Russia and Mongolia. Because of that, there is now a round the clock operation on the border for all trains traveling between Mongolia and China where train wheel changing is a on going service. Wow! We definitely had to see this.

We returned to our sleeper car now excited to see this unusual aspect of China’s railroad system. By this time we had discovered two other travelers sharing our sleeper car. They too were Mongolian traveling back to Ulan Baatar. We were able to communicate a bit with them as one of them knew a little English. Just before we got to the border, the train stopped and the Chinese authorities boarded the train and took our passports.

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Have your passports ready.

To our surprise our cabin mates from Mongolia exited the train and went off into town. They motioned to us if we wanted to join them, but we said no. We didn’t want to miss this very unusual wheel-changing experience (and getting off the train made us a little nervous). So off they gallivanted into to the night at this tiny border town (Erenhot/Zamyn-Üüd).

For the next 30 minutes or more the train underwent a series of back and forth herky jerky, loud crashing moves. There was no way of getting any sleep now, even if we had wanted to. Finally the train pulled into this large warehouse, more herky jerking crashing around and then the train left the warehouse. Hey what happened? We didn’t see any wheel changing. Oops, spoke too soon. Back into the warehouse we go. Oh! Now we see what’s going on. Seems that the train was too long and they split it in half the first time we pulled in. As we pulled in the second time we could see across from us the first half of our train. We finally pulled to a stop — and spotted our Mongolian friend from dinner at his window in that first half of the train! We waved at each other and for the next hour or two we watched as the workmen proceeded to change the train’s wheels. It was pretty unbelievable.

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Once the wheels are disconnected, the train cars are lifted off the wheels. The red-orange things next to the train cars are the massive jacks use to lift each train car.

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A worker looks on as the Chinese wheels are rolled away. Amazing and crazy to know that this is done for each and every train leaving and entering China, 24/7/365.

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Stacked up and off to the side are all the train wheels ready for use.

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Rolling into position are the Mongolian train wheels for all the train cars.

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A view of how large the train wheel changing building is in Erenhot.

Video Clip “K3 train wheel-changing at the China/Mongolian Border”: http://youtu.be/KOCnX2qxhVc

After all the work was done and the train was put back together through another series of herky jerking crashing moves.

Video Clip “Crashing the K3 back together”: http://youtu.be/njixPYGie4g 

We pulled back into that border town and our Mongolian cabin mates jumped back on board along with the Chinese authorities, who gave us back our passports. Our Mongolian cabin mates were all smiles as they came back loaded down with all sorts of bags. I guess this town, like most border towns, is the last chance opportunity to buy products before you cross over the border. There was one more stop once we crossed into Mongolia. Another passport check, this time by the Mongolian authorities (these guys were stern looking but they spoke English!) and off we went.

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Even though I didn’t make it obvious I still took a picture of the border agents checking our passports.

It was really late, getting close to 3am; we were exhausted and had no problem going to sleep.

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One of our Mongolian cabin mates still sleeping soundly the morning after our train wheel changing experience.

What no one tells you ahead of time is that from about half an hour before the train stops for the Chinese customs officials until after the Mongolians check your passports, you cannot use the bathroom! Because the bathrooms have a hole dropping directly onto the tracks, they usually lock the bathroom doors 20 or so minutes before and after each station stop to avoid making deposits in populated areas. This was no exception — and there was definitely no using the bathroom during the wheel change! This information would have been really useful, say, right before we made that first border stop. We’re just saying…

We woke the next morning and looked out the window to see snow on the ground, rolling bare hills as far as you could see, and a pristine landscape with no visible land or air pollution. What a change from what we had last seen of the countryside in China. We gazed out the window enjoying this corner of Mongolia, the Gobi Desert.

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What a sight, the snow covered Gobi! Visually stunning and a obvious pollution free environment. A welcome change from our last stay in China.

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A view of our train as it takes a sharp turn.

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A treeless landscape for as far as you can see. Breathtaking.

Not one tree for as far as you could see. The occasional wandering herdsman with his herd of sheep or goats, scattered cows and what looked like some yaks.

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Every now and then we pass a yurt (or ger in Mongolian) a typical Mongolian nomad home.

And then all of a sudden there they were, a herd of two-hump camels!!! We came upon them so quickly, and were so flabbergasted and taken by the beauty of seeing them, that we had a moment of panic as we scrambled to reach for our cameras to quickly snap some pictures. We barely were able to take a few pictures of them as the train sped by the herd.

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Camels, CAMELS, CAAAAAMELS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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TWO HUMP CAMELS!!!!

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Kristin all smiles after seeing her first 2 hump camels in the wild.

Afterwards we sat there stunned. The look of joy and happiness on Kristin’s was priceless. We were so tickled with joy that we were glued to the window hoping to see some more, but unfortunately that would be the only herd we would see.

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A herd of wild Mongolian horses.

We walked into the dining car and were taken aback by the change that had occurred. It turns out that not only did they change the wheels at the border, but the dining car too: Chinese car out, Mongolian car in (apparently you get a Russian dining car at the Russian border). Carved wood paneling, drapes, tablecloths, seat cushions — a total upgrade in the menu and service. Dang! I’m starting to really like this Mongolia place.

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Holy smokes! What happened here!

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So far, I’m really diggin this Mongolia place.

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Honey are those camels in your eyes? Are we happy now? Yes!

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This is what I call a meal.

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Now we’re talking! A glass of wine and some Mongolian beer.

We were once again joined by our old Mongolian friend and passed a leisurely breakfast time together. One other thing he mentioned to us was that all the meat in Mongolia is grass-fed, free range, and chemical free. No kidding! From what we could see they looked pretty happy in this vast paradise of open grasslands.

For the rest of the morning and early afternoon we sat in our cabin and enjoyed the scenery out the window. What a joy to see not just blue skies but an absolutely pristine environment. It had been a long time since the last time we had seen clear blue skies. Occasionally we would stop in a small town/village in the middle of nowhere to drop off or pick up someone.

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The faithful train station guard. Posted at every train station we passed, no matter how small it was.

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At one train stop I ran out so Kristin could take a photo of me in front of the train station.

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We loved the multi-colored roofs of the houses we passed in the small towns in the countryside.

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One of the many small village train stations we passed along the way.

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We always found it curious and entertaining to see signs in English.

It was at these stops that we noticed local women coming up to the train to sell their homemade food items. Many of the passengers would rush to open train car doors to purchase from these women what looked like some pretty savory stuffed breads. I really wanted to buy some of those delicious looking meat pies, but I didn’t have any Mongolian money on me. We still needed to get to a bank or ATM.

The end of our 30-hour train ride was coming to an end, we were finally arriving in the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Baatar.

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It was by far the largest city we had seen since leaving China, but it came no where near in size to the megalopolises of China. We slowly started to pack up and load up our backpacks. The train came to a stop at the station and our cabin companions quickly got all their bags in line, bid us good travels, and left in a snap. We were still struggling to put on our backpacks when I looked up, and at the doorway to our cabin stood two Mongolian ladies wrapped up in long coats, gloves, woolen hats and scarves. They looked over at Kristin and me, and asked in a thick Mongolian accents, “Havar? Kreestin?” I looked up at them and responded, “Chimgee?” Yes! One of them responded. And with that we had arrived in Mongolia.

The Great Wall Experience

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April 1, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

To say that we were excited to see The Great Wall of China is an understatement. As poorly as Kristin was feeling she was a real trooper in pulling together enough energy to make this a memorable adventure. The idea of traveling outside of Beijing’s thick haze of polluted air gave us some hope for a breath of fresh air.

We had signed up for an organized tour, which we don’t normally do, but in our fragile states, we just weren’t up for navigating public transportation. We jumped on a bus early in the morning with about 15 other fellow hostel travelers and proceeded to collect other tourists along the way. The ride was about 2 hours to Mutianyu, our choice for our Great Wall experience. We had 3 general locations to choose from to maximize our Great Wall experience, and had settled on this one for several reasons. Firstly, it was not the closest one and therefore it would not be the most crowded one. And secondly, this one had both ancient untouched walls and finished reconstructed wall sections with amazing vistas.

Our tour guide spoke great English and gave us some background info on the bus before we arrived at Mutianyu. Upon arrival he gave us some helpful hints on how to approach our time venturing along the Great Wall. As appalling as it sounded to these intrepid travelers, he suggested taking the chair lift up the mountain so we could spend less time climbing to and more time climbing on the wall. Little did we know we would take him up on all his hints. As the bus arrived at its destination we could see the wall above us as it ran along the mountain spine disappearing behind another mountain only to reappear further away on top of another mountain.

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Wow, just how far does it go, and how far can we walk it? We were anxious to get out and start our adventure. So instead of hiking up the hill to the wall we took the chair lift up to give ourselves that additional hour of time hiking along the wall.

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Woo hoo!!

We bought our tickets, jumped onto the chair lift, and made it up to the wall in short order.

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We’re soooo happy, and the mountain air seems to be agreeing with Kristin!

Breathtaking? Oh my god yes! At first we had to pinch ourselves to make sure we were actually here doing and seeing this. It’s actually one of those times in your life when you know you are experiencing something amazing. We instantly started taking pictures at almost every step. And everyone around us was doing the same. We felt giddy with joy along with everyone else up there.

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We decided to first walk towards the section of the Great Wall where you could go out to the ancient crumbling part of the wall. There were extremely steep steps leading up to this part of the Great Wall. How steep? Many people were either walking up or down the steep steps using both hands and feet to make the climb. It made for some fun picture taking. One missed step here though, and you don’t want to know what happens.

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Yikes! I hope it’s not like this the whole way.

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Stopping to pose for a picture as the other tourists pass me by using both hands and feet to climb the steps.

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Don’t tilt your head you’re looking at this the right way. This is one crazy wall!

Video Clip “Walking the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu”:  http://youtu.be/MJW9fa6fxR0

We arrived at the end of the refinished part of the Great Wall and the start of the crumbling part, and walked onto the ancient wall to a point where we could stop for some unbelievable views. It’s a little redundant to say it was unbelievable at this point because every step of the way was unbelievable. There were posted signs to not go any further: go on into this part of the ancient wall at your own risk – and don’t expect any help if something goes wrong. We decided not to go any further out onto the crumbling wall.

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Looking out onto the ancient wall though one of the rebuilt tower doorways.

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This portion of the wall is overgrown with vegetation, but the wall is solid.

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Don’t look down! You can’t tell but I’m just on the edge of the wall.

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Tourists scrambling around one of the crumbling towers on the Great Wall.

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Absolutely unbelievable!

Once we had taken in the view from that vantage point we decided to backtrack and head the other direction. Walking past the point where we first got onto the wall, the refinished part of the Great Wall seemed to go on forever into the distant mountain range.

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All we can say is, seeing is believing.

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Towers along the wall on a faraway mountain ridge.

The views of the wall along its different twists and turns made for some breathtaking pictures.

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The walk along the wall was strenuous at many points causing many of the tourists to stop and catch their breath.

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Kristin had to take a quick photo of this Chinese lady walking the Great Wall in her neon yellow high heels. Ouch! Guess making a fashion statement comes first.

We too had to pause along the way, and we usually stopped at one of the several towers interspersed along the wall. It turns out that Mutianyu, this location, had several different types of towers not usually found all together in one location.

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Looking over the side of one tower we noticed snow still on the ground at the base of the wall. I guess it was still pretty cold there during the night.

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We thought about the thousands, if not millions, of worker’s bodies that were buried at the base of the wall. Worked to death, collapsing in exhaustion, and buried where they fell. The work had to go on and there was no stopping the progress. In the end The Great Wall was successful in stopping the marauding hordes of Mongol, Turkic, and Huns from invading China, but at a tremendous human cost. But as in all ancient empires, when you have hundreds of thousands of indentured citizens what’s a few thousand (maybe millions) lives lost, in order to complete another wonder of the world?

Our time on the wall seemed to just fly by and we soon had to make a judgment call on how soon we needed to start our walk back to make our appointed time for a late lunch and ride back with the tour group. I decided to go a little further as Kristin, in her weakened condition, was going to need more time to make the walk back. I went as far as I could and took more pictures. It seemed the further you went the better the views got and you just couldn’t get enough.

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Checking the time, I turned back and caught up to Kristin just as we were about to line up for our toboggan ride down to the bottom of the mountains.

Yes, you heard me – toboggan ride down the mountain!

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This was going to be fun. After waiting in an interminable line, we finally jumped onto our toboggans and zipped down the mountain. We both tried to take some pictures of the experience but for some reason the people in front of us had stopped and almost caused a major disaster for us. Averting that near disaster, the rest of the ride was fun and we still got a few pictures.

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READY

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SET

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GOOOOOO !!!!

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WEEEEEEE !!!!

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Notice the snow on the ground. That’s why we’re always bundled up in these pictures. It was a bit cold up here walking the Great Wall.

Video clip “Tobogganing down Mutianyu”:     http://youtu.be/0kErf5zQNAg

We caught up to our tour group, had lunch with a whole bunch of different people from all around the world all exclaiming our joys of our time on the Wall. We had a great time sharing all our stories with our fellow tourists. Then it was over and we jumped on the bus back to Beijing. After a long day of climbing The Great Wall most of us fell asleep on the bus ride back.

Looking back on this day’s adventure it seemed almost surreal and unbelievable, kind of like your first glance of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, Iguazu falls, or Machu Picchu. Some of us have been lucky enough to experience some of these and some of us have experienced other equally amazing sights. This was one of those amazing experiences for us – though man-made.

Kristin was not getting any better and our next destination was to be Mongolia. Luckily for us I had contacted my Mongolian friend Jenny, who lives in Los Angeles, before we had left on our world trek. She was as excited as we were that we would be visiting Mongolia and had insisted that we stay with her family in Ulan Baatar. We had been keeping in touch with Jenny throughout our trek and I had warned her that Kristin would be arriving in poor health.

We packed our stuff and made our way to the train station to catch our overnight train to Mongolia. We had bought our train tickets to Mongolia earlier in our stay in Beijing through CITS, a travel agency located in the lobby at one of the larger hotels in Beijing.

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Cosmopolitan Beijing.

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Kristin had been trying to buy the tickets on-line without any luck, and it had gotten to the point that she thought that maybe no tickets were available. It turns out we were a bit of an oddity – there were plenty of tickets available because no one travels to Mongolia in early April because it’s too damn cold. What person in their right mind would be going to Mongolia at this time of year? Huh, I guess us? This would be our longest train ride yet, at about 30 hours. We would be sharing a 4-bed sleeper cabin and so at least Kristin could rest in some comfort.

We dragged ourselves out of the hostel – the Great Wall experience, and Beijing’s wonders under our belts – jumped on board our train to Mongolia, located our cabin, unloaded our backpacks, claimed our beds and settled in for a long train ride. What we didn’t know is that this train ride would be one of the most memorable travel experiences we would have on our trek.

Hot Pots and Hutongs (Surviving Beijing)

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March 29 – April 4, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

We sped along the tracks in the bullet train heading from Shanghai to Beijing sitting comfortably in our seats, and looking out onto a landscape that was becoming more and more eerie as the late afternoon sun slowly sank away into the growing thickening haze of the nearing soupy evening skies of Beijing.

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We glanced up at the electronic read-out and were mesmerized by the speed we were traveling down the tracks. This bullet train was worlds away from our first China train experience – but that first train ride had prepared us well for whatever situation may come our way.

We had left Shanghai on a high note after a unique experience; our stay with an American couple who had been living there for several years gave us great insight into China. We really appreciated being able to walk around with people with whom we could communicate and have in-depth conversations about our cross-cultural experiences. But now we were back on our own and headed to Beijing to explore the legendary historic sites. For us, as for most people visiting China, Beijing is a must. We were, however, entering Beijing at less than 100%. I had just about fully recovered from the bug I caught, but Kristin was just getting hit with it, and hard. We had been warned about the level of air pollution in Beijing, and from what we could see out the train windows coming into Beijing, all those red flags about the pollution levels were starting to ring true. Our worries now were about just how much that air pollution would affect us, especially Kristin.

It hadn’t helped that we had downloaded the China Air Quality App onto our iPhones to monitor the pollution levels – we now had the knowledge but no power to do anything about it. We quickly discovered the differences between the two measurement sources on the app: one was the official Beijing government measurement, and the other was the US embassy’s measurement – and there was a consistent 60 to 80 point difference between the two (the US embassy’s measurement was always higher).

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We didn’t take a screen shot of the app. while we were in Beijing so this is a more recent rating, but still a good example of the difference between the US Embassy (Hazardous) rating, and the official Beijing (Heavily polluted) rating. Although only a 25 point difference here rather than the usual 60 to 80 point difference.

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Oh! Really? Well out of curiosity, where do you buy those face masks?

From our understanding of the measurements, you want the lowest numbers possible, double digits or less. Once into the triple digits you should be concerned, and above 300 your health and well-being is definitely being compromised. In our 6-day stay in Beijing we probably averaged over 350 points on the US embassy air quality measurement – and Beijing didn’t even have the worst pollution in China.

We arrived at our hostel in Beijing (Dragon King Hostel) without any problems. We had now become accustomed to dealing with similar challenges at each new destination, mainly orientation, sense of direction, and figuring out public transportation. Our hostel was conveniently located down a busy alley around the corner from a subway stop on a major line.

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Beijing’s ultra modern subway system.

We were pleased to find that the hostel had a very good café/restaurant/bar, and the very friendly front desk staff spoke great English. The hostel had wonderful posters lining the main hallway and providing information on all the major tourist destinations in and around Beijing . The posters included information such as how to get there, which subway lines to take, how long it takes to arrive, how much time you should give yourself at each site and what the costs are. Perfect! Why didn’t all hostels have this? We gave this hostel high marks! It was just another example of exceptional hostels that we were starting to find in China.

Soon after arriving, we had to make a run to the local pharmacy to get what we could for Kristin’s increasingly worsening cold, headache, respiratory, and now ear problem. To say the least it was a bit confusing trying to figure out what to get. The Chinese ladies at the pharmacy did their best to help us, as we communicated with hand gestures. They recommended several things we were unfamiliar with but at the same time we recognized the logos on some medicine boxes. Bayer Aspirin and Tylenol! Okay, lets go with that – and why not try a little Chinese traditional medicine as well!

We sought out some comfort food, and conveniently right around the corner from our hostel were a couple of “Hot Pot” restaurants. We had not tried one yet and it seemed liked the perfect day to try it. We were one of the first patrons at one of the larger Hot Pot restaurants, and the staff was very patient with us as we struggled through ordering our meal. At least we now knew the words for beef, pork, chicken and vegetables. This menu didn’t clear anything up at all!

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Mmm…hair belly with potatu hips in competitive product big pot please! (Actually I think we got “clear soup the bottom of a pan”, as it was more within our budget.)

In short order, they placed a giant pot of broth on the gas burner in the center of our table, and it quickly came to a boil.

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We then proceeded to place the other ingredients into the pot and pull them out onto our plates a few minutes later, while the broth got richer and tastier.

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At one point we noticed people at another table putting large noodles into their pot. Noodles! We want noodles too! We made some noodle gestures, pointing at the next table – and so we too got noodles. It was a good meal for our ailing health.

The next morning, all hopped up on meds and hot pot, it was time to tackle our long list of things to do and places to see in Beijing. First up was to make arrangements to see the Great Wall of China, and we decided to book a tour of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. See our following post, “The Great Wall Experience” for more details.

Next up on the list was to find our way to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, and Temple of Heaven. That was just to start with. We walked out to the hostel hallway, reviewed the information on the posters, asked a few questions at the front desk, planned our days and set off to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City first.

The Forbidden City and its accompanying support systems are archeological and architectural marvels of the world. However, there was a staggering human cost to building these structures. The Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420 and took over 1 million men to build, with over 3 ½ million men indirectly involved, and an additional 1 million soldiers to supervise and guard the work. The Grand Canal, the longest man-made waterway in the world, was enlarged and lengthened (1,800 kilometers) from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north, in order to transport the food and grains for the feeding of the massive work force for this project. During this time, the Great Wall of China, which was built by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi (221-206 BC), was repaired and extended an additional 1,400 kilometers, totaling over 6,400 kilometers and running from the shores of the Pacific ocean to the Heavenly Mountains in central Asia. Millions of lives were lost in the course of constructing these mammoth works. This is what awaited us as we headed out to explore the spiritual center of Beijing.

We stepped out of the subway and, after going through security, we stepped into an enormous open plaza – the famous Tiananmen Square.

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The iconic Monument to the People’s Heroes stands near the center of Tiananmen Square.

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We were surrounded on three sides by large buildings and the ancient city gates.

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Near Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, and at the south end of the Square is the massive Zhengyangmen Gate Tower.

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Boarding the east side of the square is the China National Museum.

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A large electronic read-out board stands near the center of Tiananmen Square. In the background and boarding the west side of the square is the Great Hall of the People, the site of the China National People’s Congress.

On the fourth side stood the impressive entrance to the Forbidden City.

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One of the many guards in Tiananmen Square with the entrance to the Forbidden City in the background.

The crowds of people seem to be heading in one of two directions, either to the Forbidden City or towards Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum at the other end of the square, leaving the center of Tiananmen Square sparsely spattered with people wandering around taking pictures and taking in the scene. A few small groups of soldiers marched by in formation every once in a while. They didn’t seem to care if you took their picture, then again, there were so many tourists from all around the world and China taking pictures, it would have been nearly impossible to stop them from taking pictures – this is, after all, one of the top tourist attractions in China if not the world.

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We were told only the best soldiers are chosen to do duty in Tiananmen Square.

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As you approached either ends of the Square, the excitement of the crowds increased and you had to fall into step with the flow. And so it was that we entered the Forbidden City.

We crossed over a bridge over the moat surrounding the Forbidden City, and entered through a large gate with the large image of Chairman Mao looking over us.

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Throngs of people pour into The Forbidden City.

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Several pedestrian bridges cross over the moat towards the main entrance.

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The area directly below Mao’s immense portrait is kept clear of the visiting crowds.

The first large open area inside the Forbidden City is basically a staging area for tourist groups to organize, with tickets booths, a small military complex, and an opportunity for freelance guides to hawk their services to foreign and domestic tourists.

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A gauntlet of tour guides line up to offer you their services as you approach the ticket windows.

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People line up to enter the next set of gates on the left. On the right are some military barracks and a basketball court!

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A large group of school kids tour the Forbidden City.

Once we bought our tickets and made it by all the guides and tourist groups, we passed another set of large ancient gates and entered another large open square. We were taken aback by the immenseness of this ancient complex. Each and every time we passed through these massive ancient gates we were amazed at the size of the open area in front of us.

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To demonstrate the size of these squares here Kristin stands on one side of a square . . . .

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and here I stand on the other side of the square.

This one had a river running through it.

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We climbed the steps at every succeeding gate and/or temple to look at the chambers of different dynasty rulers, then moved on to the next massive complex – each time thinking surely that was the last one.

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The crowds were large enough to make it sometimes almost impossible to get a view of some of these chambers. There were no organized lines here. It was a push and get pushed, first dibs, for chance of seeing anything here.

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The stairs leading up to one of the imperial chambers.

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No organized lines here!

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It was a crush of camera flashing pandemonium at the front of every imperial chamber.

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Finally, a picture of the inside of one of the chambers.

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We were asked several times to take pictures with all the happy Chinese tourist too. Yes, we were the popular celebrity American tourist.

Check out our video “Everyday Pandemonium at the Forbidden City”   http://youtu.be/30w2V6tAQyg

After about the third or so large open plaza complex (actually I lost count of how many we passed through), the Forbidden City then broke down to smaller areas off to the sides containing different kinds of museums, courtyards, gardens, chambers exhibiting different artifacts, treasures, and stories of dynasty figureheads.

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Truly one of the wonders of the world.

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Beautiful roof tile work.

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The work is jaw dropping.

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Amazing craftsmanship.

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9 dragon screen. One of the largest in China.

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Detail of one of the nine dragons.

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Detail of one of the many massive cauldrons used to store water throughout the Forbidden City for fire prevention. These were created after the Forbidden City was nearly completely destroyed shortly after it was inaugurated as the new Chinese Capital.

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One of the many statues guarding the numerous palaces throughout the Forbidden City.

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Tough love?

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I’m standing in front of the largest jade sculpture we’ve ever seen.

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Detail of the carvings on the massive jade stone.

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One of the many walkways running through the Forbidden City.

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A forest of trees from around the world. Transported to China by the emperor’s treasure fleets.

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We had to laugh at the blacked out sponsorship at the bottom of all the plaques in the Forbidden City. More Chinese government censorship? What do you think?

The scope and the volume of this ancient city (not to mention the sheer amount of walking we had to do) fascinated and overwhelmed us, and we had to take several breaks along the way.

We walked out the other end of the Forbidden city, crossed over the moat and decided we had enough energy to hike up a hill to take in the view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park.

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Approaching the end of our amazing journey through the Forbidden City.

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Looking through the large exit gates up towards our next destination, the top of Jingshan Park.

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Crossing over the large moat which surrounds the entire Forbidden City.

From on top of the hill, although the smog was thick, we were able to gaze over the entire Forbidden City and surrounding city of Beijing.

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Approaching Jingshan Park’s hilltop Temple.

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Self portrait of us with the Forbidden City in the background. Another memorable and exhausting day in China.

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As we left Jingshan Park we stopped to take some photos of the dramatic trees surrounding the hilltop.

Check out our video “The Forbidden City from Jingshan Park hilltop”: http://youtu.be/1xdCAu7DxpM

We decided to walk back to our hostel because we wanted to walk through some of the older areas of Beijing, known as “hutongs” – and everything looks a lot closer on the map than it actually is. In one section of the hutongs we noticed public bathrooms and showers on almost every block.

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The community bathrooms on every block.

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Besides the fact that there’s no individual stalls or toilet paper dispensers, its a tremendously spotless clean upgrade for the residents.

We came to the conclusion that the homes here did not have their own bathrooms and that the government had provided these facilities for the residents. The streets, alleyways and homes here were full of working Beijing residents going about their daily lives. We walked among them taking in the scenes and ambience of daily life.

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A familiar sight of tangled wires on telephone poles.

Bouncing onto a major street we continued down towards our hostel walking by other historical residences and walled complexes. We learned of their historical significance from the plaques on the outside walls.

We made it back to our hostel and had another wonderful meal there.

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The western style dishes served at our hostel were well done with a nice presentation.

This day had taken its toll on Kristin, as the bug she had been dealing with had now turned into a respiratory cold and cough – most likely from the high air pollution levels. We both collapsed back at our hostel, but after a rest I set out to look for some medicine for Kristin. Now that several days had gone by and Kristin was not getting better, I sought out some more help from the pharmacy ladies. I bought some additional pills and some comfort food for Kristin and I returned to our room. She was done, and for next few days she could barely leave the bed. I did what I could to comfort her, but at this point, rest and sleep was all that she would be doing. After a day of rest, she was able to summon enough energy to make it out of the city to visit the Great Wall, hoping the slightly fresher air would help her clear her head and chest.

The day after our Great Wall excursion, Kristin dragged herself out of bed to see Chairman Mao in his Mausoleum. She had already seen a waxy Lenin and Ho Chi Minh in their mausoleums, and needed to see Chairman Mao for the Triple Crown of Embalmed Communist Leaders.

We made our way back to Tiananmen Square, and this time we walked to the other end, away from the main entrance of the Forbidden City. Security here was ultra tight. Not only had we heard that the line could be hours long to get in, but if you had bags or cameras on you, it would take even longer because you have to check them in another building. We didn’t like the idea of waiting even longer, or of leaving our cameras with someone, so we decided to travel light without bags or cameras on this expedition. Besides, it had been made clear to us that carrying (but not using) phones with cameras were ok – go figure!

As we walked across the massive square we could see crowds of people already gathering and lining up to enter the mausoleum, but luckily the line was not as long as we had anticipated.

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The front entrance of Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. You can’t see it, but the line continues far off over to the right. We were being extremely careful in concealing our iphone cameras.

Soldiers lined the walkway, manned the security check point and surrounded the mausoleum. Several large super-Communist statues surrounded the mausoleum, depicting heroic scenes of the People’s Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution.

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Even though we had our iPhones we didn’t dare take them out to take pictures once we got to security, and as it was our planning worked out perfectly. Since we didn’t have any bags or cameras on us, we were whisked right through security and into the Mausoleum. The first chamber you enter is a large lobby where people place flowers for Chairman Mao. There was already an abundance of flowers early in the morning — they must have to clear those out several times per day. Then you enter a large darkened high-ceiling room where Chairman Mao is lying in state inside a sealed climate-controlled glass case. An overwhelming sense of national respect quickly engulfs you as the line of people silently and somberly walk by paying their respects, some even weeping. From the time we entered the line and exited the mausoleum it took 11 minutes. I have to say I didn’t know what to expect, but because of the surroundings and the people, it turned out to be one of those moments.

As soon as we exited the Mausoleum we whipped out our phones and started taking pictures. Well, actually I did sneak a little video before we walked into the mausoleum, and as soon as we left.

Entering Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum video:  http://youtu.be/d0ZQ2yD_5i8

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Taking our picture as soon as we exited the Mausoleum. Notice everyone else was doing the same behind us.

Exiting Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum Mausoleum video:  http://youtu.be/fwybdG6BdRc

There was no way of doing anything like that once you entered the mausoleum, as several security soldiers had their eyes on you the entire time you were inside the mausoleum.

For Kristin that was all the energy she could muster up for the day. She returned to the hostel as I walked around Tiananmen Square taking in the sights and more pictures.

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Smile, you’re being watched. Take a close look at the fancy light pole and the amount of cameras mounted on it. These light poles were scattered all around Tianamen Square.

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Returning to the hostel shortly thereafter I found Kristin covered up in bed. She convinced me to go out and see one more sight without her, since she would mostly be sleeping and resting most of the day.

I set out to see the Temple of Heaven. Arriving there easily via the subway I was again surprised at the size of area I would be walking to see all that there was to see at the Temple of Heaven. It’s not really a temple but a palatial estate with a huge surrounding forest. The forest was hand planted so that all the trees are lined up perfectly in rows for as far as you could see.

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Scattered throughout this forest are different temples, palaces, other garden areas, and the main attraction – the Temple of Heaven. The Temple buildings and the surrounding open squares were large and beautiful.

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I could easily image large religious and official dynasty ceremonies being held here.

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It took some time to not only walk through each temple area but to also walk to each temple area. There were marked pathways, some beautifully paved, but you could also just wander off through the perfectly aligned forest to the next destination.

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I quickly found out that I should have left earlier in the day to give myself more time to see all of what the Temple of Heaven had to offer. As I walked out of the walled in grounds of the Temple of Heaven I walked by one other temple area where it seemed like either Temple ground workers or area residents were gathered. Many were either singing in casually organized groups or were grouped around in small circles playing some sort of gambling game.

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It was a fitting end to the day, listening to the singing, watching the older folks enthralled in their games and seeing the sun setting behind the Temple of Heaven.

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Bundled up in Shanghai

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March 25-28, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

Even though I was not feeling 100% in Shanghai (I was fighting off a cold/flu bug) we were still able to get out and see many of the sights in this tremendously historical and influential city. By the time we arrived in Shanghai, Kristin and I had become numb to the largeness of China’s cities. Large parcels of land are being redeveloped with new high rise living communities on the outskirts of Shanghai. But then again we had been seeing this all across China.

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China’s new urban forest.

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Highrise housing construction throughout China.

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A familiar scene throughout China’s countryside. The construction of elevated roadways and railways.

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From the train window on the outskirts of Shanghai.

On our daily commutes into the heart of Shanghai we would usually first drop into our host Lauren’s artist studio. Her studio is in the heart of the historic Xintiandi area of Shanghai. There was a clear demarcation line here, where on one side of the major street there was the “new-old” (this was a phrase Kristin and I started using to describe historic sections of cities and buildings in China where they have rebuilt everything so that it is new but looks original/historic) Shikumen residential architecture, and on the other side of the street still stood the original Shikumen houses. The Shikumen (Stone Gate) houses are a combination of Chinese architecture with western features, built around the late 19th century.

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It was marvelous to walk around the streets and alleys of this old Xintiandi area.

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But we had to wonder just how much longer these historic houses were going to be allowed to stand as we saw signs of impending demolition and approaching redevelopment in the neighborhood.

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There was, however, a definite feel of a younger, even hipster-like, artist community in the area which made us hope that the original Shikumen houses would remain for some time. But you just never know, when the government can come in at any time and decide to raze and rebuild.

It was a short trip on the metro from Lauren’s studio to downtown. Walking around the center of Shanghai we were once again surrounded by the hustle and bustle of an international metropolis, just like we had felt in Hong Kong. We were in one of the largest cities in the world and the explosion of business, shopping, and tourism was all around us.

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We made a beeline to the world famous Bund, Shanghai’s historic riverfront promenade lined with 19th century European-style buildings. On our way there, we walked down a major boulevard, which felt just like we were walking in New York City.

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Apple is everywhere!

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Hop on the tourist choo-choo if you’re tired of walking.

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There were major department stores, a huge Apple store, people on roller skates, tourists from all around the world on shopping sprees, major hotels, restaurants of all types, and hey, what’s going on over there? Oh, just a major fashion magazine shoot. Everyone was walking with a distinct purpose in their step. And for many of them that purpose, like ours, was to walk towards the Bund. Once at the Bund, the view is monumental. On one side of the Huangpu River stand the classic historical European buildings of by-gone days when Shanghai was one of England’s conquered territories.

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On the other side stands the impressive, mind-blowing, and ever expanding skyline of modern Shanghai otherwise known as the Lujiazui or Pudong district.

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Wow!

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In between runs the Huangpu River, host to world-class shipping commerce, with all sorts of cargo ships coming and going at all times of day and night.

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Cruise liners too.

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The juxtaposition is awesome, and at once you understand why this is one of those places in the world that is a must see. The large, wide, elevated river walkway along this side of the river is nothing short of first class.

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By far one of the best and most impressive waterfront promenades in the world.

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This is the place to be whether for a noontime walk or a romantic evening stroll.

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Plenty of seating for those who need to take a break or enjoy the scenery in comfort.

We walked up and down sharing the views with a multitude of people all snapping pictures in all directions. We made a point to experience this scene not only in daylight but at sunset and into the evening too. Each time was better than the last time. It was truly an urban highlight in our trek.

On Brian’s recommendation for a unique (but knowingly over-priced) cultural experience, we crossed to the other side of the river via the trippy Bund Tourist tunnel, an automated tram ride that runs under the river, and supposedly represents the Chinese idea of good fun. The tram ride was indeed impressive and fun, but in a super-hokie way. As we went through the tunnel in our little, driverless capsule, the lights in the tube changed and they projected the story of the evolution of the earth (or something). I would compare it to an old Disneyland ride from back in the 60’s.

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Setting the mood for our underwater adventure ride.

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Yay! We get to ride in a pod.

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Ooooo, pretty lights.

Knowing China, I’m sure they have plans to update that tram ride soon.

We got off the tram ride still giggling from the experience, and popped up on the other side of the river in the middle of a ultra modern Shanghai, the eye-popping Lujiazui financial district in the Pudong area. Three of China’s tallest buildings are located here, skyscrapers of amazing designs and shapes. It was equally impressive to watch other skyscrapers nearing completion.

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Our view as we exited the tram ride and walked into the Lujiazui district of Shanghai.

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What a surprise. More highrise construction.

Our purpose here was to experience one of those world-class skyscrapers with an unique twist, and so we made our way to The Oriental Pearl Tower.

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We lined up for the elevator to take us to the viewing platform where we were to experience a test of nerves. What was it? A see-though floor at the very top of this skyscraper. Yup! Walk out on to that floor and you’re looking down from 263 meters (863 feet) high — don’t ask me how many floors that is, it’s a tower, not a multi-floor skyscraper. Yikes! Don’t look down if you have a fear of heights.

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What you first see when you get to the special viewing platform.

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Yikes! Then you look down at the see-through floor.

After the initial shock, and it is a pretty weird sensation, you know you’ve got to take some pictures. For many it was just too much as they just stood back in horror and hugged the wall. Sure we got into it because everyone around us was getting into it — if they weren’t they were hugging the wall looking for the nearest exit to get off that platform. Overall it was a blast!

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Aaaah, I’m falling! Hehe.

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Checking out the new Lujiazui circular pedestrian bridge far below.

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Too much fun!

On the next floor up we were able to walk around in a comfortable enclosed, opaque solid floor, viewing deck and take in the entire city of Shanghai. In every direction there was a detailed plaque showing and explaining each vista. We were grateful to have chosen the perfect beautiful day to experience these amazing views!

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Breathless!

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The Huangpu river.

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Looking across towards the Bund.

On our way out we almost skipped the Exhibition of Shanghai Urban History and Development Museum at the base of the tower — but we are sure glad we didn’t! The museum was a winding maze, chock full of great information on the development of Shanghai from early times, and gave great insights into the lives of the rich and poor in this ever-evolving city. Don’t miss it if you have an opportunity to go.

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The next day, we got a late start and made our way to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, Kristin’s favorite first stop in any city. Shanghai’s version is tremendously large and educational, with an impressive scale model of Shanghai’s downtown.

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View from the second floor looking down on the large scale model of the City of Shanghai.

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Attention to details was impressive.

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Even the books are big in China.

We lost track of time there and had to be kicked out at closing time. Again, if you ever want a great way of getting a overview of a city and its history, this is a must. By the time you walk out of here you are set to explore Shanghai with a first class understanding and knowledge of the city.

With evening setting in, we decided to head back to the Bund to see it in a different light.

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Holy ___! I said everything is big in China.

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European style buildings along the Bund.

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The view across the river at the Lujiazui district.

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The Oriental Pearl Tower.

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One of the skyscrapers in the Lujiazui district lites up with the image of Comrade Lei Feng, a cultural icon of China.

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More views from the elevated pedestrian promenade along the Bund.

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Back to the Bund meant back to the hustle and bustle of the teeming crowds. And with that also came the hustle of the street hustlers. One hustle, which became comical, occurred when I separated from Kristin for more than 5 minutes. I was always approached, usually by a woman, asking “massage by beautiful lady? Yes? Come, come. Massage by beautiful lady?” Well I guess a beautiful lady would be better than a plain one — and I am pretty sure what they were offering was no ordinary massage. At one point I wanted to walk further down the Bund and take a few more pictures. Kristin was tired and decided to sit and wait for me. Well in the time I walked down and back, about 10 – 15 minutes, I must have been approached half a dozen times. I guess there is no shortage of beautiful lady masseuses in Shanghai!

But beware of more sophisticated hustles! Lauren and Brian had given us a heads up on a classic one, where a young couple, acting as tourists, approaches you and asks if you can please take a photo of them with their camera (which is fine, because in touristy areas we too would ask someone to take photos of us). Well then this young couple asks if they can return the favor. Yeah, no problem. Being all friendly now, they then ask if you would like to join them in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, because they had wanted to do it earlier but needed at least four people for the ceremony. Well if you bite, and go to the tea ceremony, by the time its all done there’s a hefty fee to pay — we have heard people being charged in the hundreds of dollars! Sure enough, when we were wandering around People’s Square, right on cue a young couple approached us and went into their spiel. We, being warned of the hustle, played along for a while, then turned the tables on them and said “Hey, we’ve got a tea ceremony too! You want to come?” They declined, and we just laughed and walked away.

With our usual delusional sense of how close things looked on the map, we decided to walk from the Bund through old town Shanghai to have tea at one of the historic tea houses and then make our way over to the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect market. Huh, you say? Insect market? Why would they have an insect market? Well it so happens that one of the pastimes in Shanghai is to have cricket-fighting matches. What!? You heard me right. They have cricket-fighting matches, much like cock-fighting in other countries. No way. Well we didn’t believe it either and wanted to check out the place where people buy the crickets.

We made our way into old town Shanghai in the dark and unfortunately, as it is all around China, it’s slowly turning into “new-old” old town Shanghai.

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The “new-old” old street Shanghai, not what we expected.

Slightly disappointed, we still meandered our way around and found one of the old tea houses, aptly called Old Shanghai Teahouse (and yes, recommended by Lonely Planet). We walked into the tea house on the second story, and found an establishment that had probably not changed in a hundred years, with old furnishings, a wood floor and decorated with antiques from another era.

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The entire side of one wall was decorated with memorabilia from a gone by era.

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We had the place to ourselves.

It was completely empty, but we needed a break, so we sat down and ordered two different specialty (i.e. very expensive) teas and some dumplings. Having already been through several tea ceremonies by this point in our trek in China, we had a pretty good idea of how to serve it ourselves. We enjoyed the hot tea on this cold night, and the dumplings were truly delicious. Dumplings were quickly becoming our favorite food in China.

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Kristin and the joys of tea time.

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Our tea service.

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Hooray for dumplings!

It seemed that every city and region had its own unique dumpling and we were loving each and every one of them.

We left the tea house and charted our course to find this famous Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect market. It was getting late but we thought we would give it a try. Who knows, there might be some of those cricket matches going on (we were so curious!). As we walked though various dark narrow streets and alleys we stopped several times to ask for directions.

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We had our trusty Lonely Planet book which had the name of the market in Chinese, so all we needed to do was point to it and we would be pointed in the right direction. It was here that it dawned on me just what we had been doing in all the cities we had visited so far in China. Whether it was ignorance, innocence, or just the adventurous spirit we had always had with us since the start of our trek, we had been walking dark, unknown streets and alleys, way past closing time of normal stores, without giving a second thought to the looks and stares of the local people who were just going about their everyday chores.

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Some of the many food vendors along the narrow residential streets and alleys in older Shanghai neighborhoods, just a few blocks from the Bund.

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What were they thinking as they noticed these two foreigners walking their back streets, taking pictures of their every day life and surroundings. “Are they lost? And what are they doing taking all those pictures?” To us, walking among the locals, eating at their places, seeing their shops, and dodging the trishaws, bicycles, scooters, and cars became second nature.

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It’s not unusual to dodge out of the way from one of these coming down the street/alley.

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It was all new to us and exciting to be around. I turned to Kristin and said, would we be doing this in some large city we didn’t know in the US? I don’t know, probably not. And here we were, totally comfortable with it and never did we feel we were in danger. The realization hit us and we just said wow.

I don’t know how many people we asked that night for directions to the market, but we were always greeted with a smile and nod and pointed on our way. We finally found someone who was able to communicate to us that unfortunately the market had closed for the day, and so we turned our attention to catching the subway back to Lauren and Brian’s home.

The next day we once again set off to find this Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect market, and see what it was all about. Along the way we were distracted by Kristin’s quest for a puffy coat. Three months into the trip, Shanghai was the first place we had experienced consistently cold weather (apart from a few NZ mountaintops and glaciers). We had been piling on all our layers, hats and gloves, but Kristin had enough of the cold weather and was coveting these puffy coats everyone else was wearing — and looking very warm and happy in them. So with that revelation (and a look-ahead to sub-zero temperatures on our upcoming trip to Mongolia) we were now on a quest to buy one for her. Not wanting to pay a fortune, we ducked into several stores having a sale only to find the coats either still too expensive or not in Kristin’s size. Much to our surprise Kristin’s size in China was extra extra large! WHAT?! It was XXL in Chinese sizes because Chinese women tend to be teeny tiny. Their extra large would be the equivalent of small in USA women’s sizes. So as a side note, anyone who wears anything bigger than a medium in USA sizes, good luck finding clothing items in China. Finally in a small out-of-the-way shop having a clearance sale, we found a XXL puffy coat that was slashed down to bargain basement price because they hadn’t been able to sell it. Really?! We’ll take it! And so Kristin finally found her warm puffy coat bliss.

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Kristin, ala puffy coat version, with sales lady.

Successfully finding the bargain of our trip we once again set off to find the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect market. We tracked down the market, and yes they do have crickets for sale! All sorts of different sizes and shapes of crickets.

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Seeing is believing.

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The finger in this picture is to give you a sense of the size of these crickets.

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Smaller crickets.

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Big boy cricket.

There were many Chinese men there sizing them up and choosing carefully. Choosing to see who might be the next cricket champion? I guess so.

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Serious shoppers.

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Does he have the next cricket champion in his hands?

The market was amazing, with a great variety of insects, birds, fish, frogs, and other small creatures.

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Birds in cages!

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Single birds!

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Birds in pairs!

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Mice!

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Frogs!

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Salamanders!

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Turtles!

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What is that?

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Nice hairdo?

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How many fish did you want?

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Plus you need hand fulls of worms to feed your new pet.

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Just outside the market they were selling these washed and cleaned walnuts. We saw these all over China. Supposedly they are like Baoding balls which are used to stimulate blood circulation as you rotate them in your hand.

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Prices range on these walnuts and there is a market for them.

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Only the best and most unique walnuts will do.

It was, however, a bit depressing to see all these animals caged up in the tiniest of containers awaiting an unknown fate. It would have been interesting to see one of these cricket fights, but our time was getting short and we had to move on (plus we had no idea where they actually took place).

It was our last day in Shanghai, and we had just enough time to zip over to the People’s square area to visit the wonderful (and free!) Shanghai Museum.

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The building and grounds are beautiful.

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But it is the artwork in the different sections of the museum that is amazing.

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Some of the sections include furniture.

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Sculpture…

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Pottery…

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Textiles…

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O’s fan?

Bronze…

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The design of the Shanghai Museum was inspired by the ancient bronze cooking vessel called a ding. This is an example of a ding cooking vessel.

Calligraphy…

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We could have spent hours in there, but once again we got herded out at closing time and headed back home for our last evening with Lauren and Brian.

Is Shanghai one of the great cities of the world? Most definitely. Overwhelming and large? Yes! Too much to see? Oh yes. Our stay in Shanghai was wonderful, not just because we were taken in by friends but also because they gave us great insight into Chinese culture, and all that Shanghai has to offer. Brian took great joy in turning us on to some of his favorite eateries and in explaining many of the Chinese customs. And Lauren is just a wonderful spirit that has found a real home in the Chinese community. Our last day, Emma even showed up and it was a happy reunion of friends.

We thanked Lauren, Brian, and Emma for all that they had done for us, caught a taxi to the Hongqiao station, and caught the bullet train to Beijing.

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From the taxi the Hongqiao train station. On the other side of the highway is the other half of the station, the Hongqiao airport.

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Walking down a hallway inside Hongqiao station.

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Love the English “TO BEIJINGNAN” on the overhead sign.

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Our typical travel attire.

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Bulletiing our way to Beijing!

By the time we had jumped onto that train my health was just about back to 100%, but for Kristin it was the start of a respiratory illness that would take an even worse turn as we made our way into Beijing

Lauren and Brian

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March 24-28, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

Did I mention just how fast and smooth these bullet trains are in China?

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The difference between these trains and the first train we experienced from Guangzhou is light years away in technology, cleanliness, professional staffing and passenger courtesy (no smoking or spitting). We traveled in style and comfort on our bullet train from Hangzhou to Shanghai.

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Comfy and clean.

We especially liked sitting near the front of the cabin where there was an electronic read out that gave out information on destinations, time of day, exterior temperature, and our favorite one, speed (km/h)!

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WHOOSH!

We arrived at Shanghai’s behemoth Hongqiao combined train station and airport. Even though we only saw the train side of the complex, it was the largest station we had been in. It could have easily fit 3 to 4 football fields side by side, and was several stories high in the interior.

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After wandering around and getting lost in the cavernous station, we finally connected with our hosts, Lauren and Brian, near a Starbucks. We caught a cab back to their place and were quickly made welcome and comfortable. I had finally caught the start of some illness, and was starting to feel the toll of it as we arrived in Shanghai. Brian made me some really good medicinal tea, and I drank it up and tried to get some rest.

Lauren and Brian have been living in Shanghai now for several years, and loving it. Brian is a math teacher at a local private school. Lauren is a fiber artist (mixed fabric art), and has established her studio (thatblackgirlart.com) in the historic Xintiandi area of Shanghai.

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Outside of Lauren’s studio in historic Xintiandi neighborhood.

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In Lauren’s studio.

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Samples of Lauren’s fiber art.

Their two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Shanghai was near both bus stops and subway stations, making easy for us to commute into the center of Shanghai.

We really had a wonderful time with Lauren and Brian as they filled us in with valuable insight about living in China. We took a walk with them through one of the largest parks in Shanghai (practically in their backyard), and to the old neighborhood of Qibao.

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Qibao Neighborhood.

Qibao is an historic area, threaded with narrow streets and alleyways, filled with all sorts of daily activities and wonderful fresh fruits, vegetable and meat markets. But best of all were all the different food stalls one could find at all times of day. It quickly became one of our favorite places to run out and grab a snack or complete meal

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A local restuarant worker making hand made noodles.

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Voila! Noodles!

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Mmmmmm, BBQ pigeons! My hand is in the pcture to give you a perspective of the size of the pigeons.

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Noodle shop!

It was a real treat to let Lauren and Brian pick the restaurants and give us guidance on ordering — we were jealous and appreciative of all the Chinese they had learned.

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Lauren and Brian armed us with maps, guides, and tourist hot spot information we set off to explore Shanghai. On just about every subway ride into the city we would accompany Lauren to her studio, which was only a subway stop or two from the main areas of interest in Shanghai.

It was on those subway rides that we were treated to some really magical moments. One of the absolutely wonderful character traits of Lauren is the c’est la vie, mellow, artist demeanor she exudes in life. In our travels with her on the subway we sat in amazement and watched her as she sat down, took out her small drawing pad and started sketching a passenger she found interesting. After a while some of the other passengers would take notice of her drawing and she would soon attract a crowd of passengers looking over her shoulder with approval and wonder. By the time we were exiting the subway she had taken pictures with, exchanged information, and had left a group of passengers all praising her artistic talents. She was marvelous to observe in her artistic element and how she drew (literally!) people into her world.

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A collection of Lauren’s subway sketches.

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Lauren and Brian were life savers for us, as they opened up their home and welcomed us into their lives as if we were longtime friends and/or family. They were a treasure trove of insight and information on Shanghai and China as a whole. They opened our eyes and gave us a better understanding of the people and culture. In our last few days with Lauren and Brian, Emma had arrived into town from Ningbo, we were like one big happy family.

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Our gang.

I was eventually able to catch up on some rest and recover from my illness with the help of Brian‘s wonderful medicinal teas and locally recommended dishes.

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Unfortunately, by the time we left Shanghai and started to make our way to Beijing, Kristin was now getting the same bug that had hit me.

We will forever be grateful to Lauren and Brian for welcoming us so warmly and helping us on our trek through China. On our next blog we will jump into our Shanghai exploits and our wandering through the backstreets of this historic port city.