Monthly Archives: November 2012

Píngyáo The Hard Way

Since travelling on a budget, I’ve normally opted for the cheapest possible way to do anything. When I realised I could get a ‘hard seat’ ticket from Beijing to Píngyáo for half the price, it was snapped up. Twelve hours overnight, can it really be that bad? When I first boarded the overcrowded carriage, I wondered why it was called hard seat because the seats aren’t actually hard, in a few hours I found out why, it is actually hard on your sanity. I would say, hard seat is more like some kind of military training program, not a mode of transport, the overcrowding can get ridiculous during some periods and it is almost impossible to sleep, at one point I lay on the gangway floor and used my boots as a pillow to catch a few winks, and believe it of not, it was actually more comfortable than sitting. The comfort didn’t last long though as I was woke by the cold smokey air coming in from between the carriages and the sound of those who weren’t strong enough, looking for their marbles. Got talking to an old man next to me, it turns out he was younger than I was, he had just been on the train a few hours longer, that is what hard seat does to people. So when we arrived in Píngyáo destroyed, it really did feel like that was the hardest £7.50 I’d ever saved!

Píngyáo is China’s best preserved ancient walled town, basically China’s version of York except a little bit rough around the edges. The Shambles magic ball man was nowhere to be seen though…


We walked and cycled the streets aimlessly. Watched the locals playing cards and other games, stumbling across a bizarre funeral ceremony taking place in a narrow alley and attempted asking ‘where’s a chemist? I’d like to buy some cold sore cream’ in mandarin…



Píngyáo was a thriving merchant town during the Ming dynasty, but boomed during the Qing when the nation’s first banks were created to facilitate the vast amounts of silver being transferred from one place to another. To me, it really was like stepping back in time. During one pointless saunter we came across an oddball pet shop, selling caged monkeys. I didn’t agree with what I saw but couldn’t help but wonder if these animals were to be the newest pet of a spoilt child, or the next meal of a rich business man. The practice of eating monkey brain is not unheard of in Asia within the underground circle, and some believe it can cure impotence.


Píngyáo has been a nice place to do nothing in particular but submerge into Chinese culture, will be looking forward to seeing some more weird and wonderful things. After ten days in the land of the rising sun I have learned two things that the Chinese love. One, standing in doorways, it doesn’t matter if the room or train carriage is empty, someone always stands in a doorway. Two, pandas, they love everything panda, panda pants, panda hats, and like mackems, blue panda pop…



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Beijinger Style

Beijing’s summer palace was once a playground for the imperial court. Filled with pavilions, gardens, lakes, bridges and temples, it provided some nice views of Beijing. I couldn’t help but purchase a pointless item from one of the hawkers for one yuan…


Beijing hosted the Olympic games back in 2008, one of the main reasons why the city has become the modern wonder it is today. From the outside  the Olympic park looks like it has somewhat been left to rot, it was hard to imagine the spectacle that had taken place here four years ago. And by spectacle, I mean Boris Johnson waving the Union Jack around on the stage inside the bird’s nest like a dooly. It made me think how long this place could keep attracting the tourists in their droves, and whether the London Olympic park will suffer the same fate. Nevertheless, this marvel of architecture was great to see.




The leftover ‘friendlies of fuwa’ toys, a sad image of what the park has become

Jingshan park was made from the earth extracted from the moat around the forbidden city. It offers a good panoramic of the city itself for those too tight (or frugal) to go inside. The forbidden city is the very heart of ancient Beijing and so called because it was off limits for 500 years. Back then the price for uninvited admission was execution, now it’s about four quid and a couple of quid for each other building inside…


The Forbidden city from Jingshan park

He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man – Mao Zedong

The Great Wall of China for me, was a must-see sight, we opted to take the three hour drive to the Jinshanling section of the wall to avoid the hoards of tourists.
Fact one on the wall – it is not actually one continuous wall, but sections of wall built during different Chinese dynasties.
Fact two – it cannot be seen from from outer space, this was confirmed in 2003 when China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei failed to spot it on his mission. The 10km round trip along the wall was both tiring and rewarding, taking us through fourteen different towers and provided some fantastic views. The only down side was the few hawkers pestering us to buy cheap souvenirs, I didn’t let it bother be too much though, all in all they’re just a few pricks on the wall…





What other way could we finish our visit to Beijing, than with some beverages around the main drinking scene, Sanlitun’s bar street. The main drag is more like an area in Bangkok, where I got the feeling that most of the girls inside, were actually ‘workers’. Around the side streets and back alleys though, there are some cool hole in the wall watering holes with cheap beer. I particularly liked the St. Andrews golf shop street bar. Mingling with expats, locals and travellers alike, we finished the night off with some delicious street skewers. Over the last few months of travelling, I have been largely shielded by what is going on at home, but tonight I was fully exposed to the worldwide phenomenon that is…..Gangnam style. And quite frankly, I’m repulsed…

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Borders, Bicycles and Beijing

Getting from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing was, as border crossings normally are, eventful. The cabin on the Mongolian train was rather plush by our standards as of late. We shared with two Chinese men, one of which growled the whole fourteen hours as if he had smoked one cigarette a day for each and every person in China. We spent a few hours in the border town Erlian trying to figure out what would be the best method to get to Beijing. We opted for the sixteen hour overnight bus. So after spending the entire journey sleeping above a bunch of giggling old men, we were dumped in the middle of Beijing at 6am. Finally after waving the phrase book around at the bus station for a few hours trying to find out where we were, taking a few rickshaws followed by a metro, we arrived at the Sanlitun district of Beijing, welcome to China.

They say there are 9 million bicycles in Beijing, well now there are 9 million plus two. A Beijing bike ride had to be done. There were no bicycles to rent around Tiananmen square, but luckily the kite woman was willing to lend us hers. The cycle route took us around the tranquil forbidden city moat (didn’t go inside as I forbid myself to pay their prices), past the lovely Quinhai lake and back through the old city hútong (narrow alleys).





Quinhai lake kite seller


Tiananmen square in the centre of Beijing, is the world’s largest public square. Named after Tiananmen, the gate of heaven north of Beijing, the square is home to the embalmed corpse of chairman Mao. After the disappointment of missing Hô Chí Minh and Lenin’s remains on my visits to Hanoi and Moscow respectively, I struck third time lucky. The Chinese almost treat Mao like some kind of god during this surreal experience, which I was sadly not allowed to take photos of. The people buy flowers at the bottom of the stairs only to place them at the entrance of the hall to be sold again. Once inside the display room, speaking is off limits and the guards wave the hoi poloi along, giving me roughly 10 seconds and a twisted neck to see the man himself. After exiting the hall there are rows of hawkers selling Mao post cards, plates and other memorabilia. Mao plates? Would have been a good buy if I had room, imagine, a tyrant themed dinner party with Gaddafi napkins, Mao plates and a Hitler a cutlery set…


Outside Mao memorial hall

First impressions of China on a whole are pretty good, mental, manic and charming at the same time. More modern than I’d imagined but I guess it’s to be expected with a capital city. The food is oily, the air is smoky, but I love it!

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You Know What I Don’t Understand…

Chinese writing…. The term ‘Mandarin’ actually refers to the largest of the Chinese dialect groups, and is more accurately described as modern standard Chinese or Pûtōnghuà meaning ‘the common dialect’. Spoken by over 800 million people worldwide, thus making it the most spoken language on planet earth.

To make life easier in China, we decided to buy a book in attempt to learn some Mandarin, it was only then I realised what a mammoth task I face. We all know that Chinese writing is completely different to the Roman alphabet we’re all used to, the bulkiest of Chinese dictionaries can consist of tens of thousands of characters or ‘pictures’, but they say you only need to know a few thousand to get the gist of a basic newspaper. Thankfully in 1958 the Chinese created a way of writing using the Roman alphabet, Pinyin was born.


Typical menu in a Chinese cafe

Obviously I wasn’t going to learn the Chinese alphabet as quickly as Cyrillic, but the Pidgin writing system give me some hope of learning some phrases from the book. Then came along the proverbial spanner in the works…Chinese is a tonal language.

To put it simply, Mandarin raises and lowers the pitch of certain syllables to identify words. Pinyin uses diacritic marks to distinguish tone.

For example the word ‘ma’ can have five different meanings distinguished by tone

Mā – Mother
Má – Hemp
Mă – Horse
Mà – Scold
Ma – Question marker

A change to what I’m used to where ma only mean ‘ma’.


So, I’m aware that a lot of languages have these tonal qualities, just to a smaller extent, even English. Let’s not be too precise just yet and see how the natural contours of my voice work out. Until then ‘Māma qí mă, mă màn, māma mà mă!’ (mother rides the horse, the horse is slow, mother scolds the horse).

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This One, Central Mongolia

We left southern Mongolia without seeing the snow leopard, Gobi Yeti, Death Worm or the Albas. Into the final third of the trip, we found that eating mutton everyday can get a little sickly. We’ve had quite a few variants of mutton such as; mutton noodles, mutton rice, mutton soup, mutton dumplings, battered deep fried mutton, sizzling mutton, scotched mutton and mutton mutton. The phrase ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ just doesn’t make sense as there’s no disguising the fact that however mutton is prepared, mutton will always be, mutton.


All muttoned up

As we left the Gobi and headed back into something that resembled civilisation, we called into the Ongiin Khiid monastery. What was once home to over 1000 monks now lies in ruin after almost 200 lamas were wiped out during the 1939 communist purges.


Erdenezuu monastery is situated in the Mongolian ancient capital. Built on the ruins of Kharkhorin in 1586 on the orders of Abtai Sain Khan, a distant relative of Chinggis Khaan. One of the nation’s largest monasteries, it was interesting to see some of the young monks walking around with iPhones.



Throughout this Mongolian trip we have been accompanied by our driver, Lawyer, what a complex character he is. With only basic English under his belt, it’s amazing that we can still somehow manage to communicate. His most used phrase is ‘this one’ which he seems to use at the beginning of every sentence. For example ‘this one good’ or ‘this one no meat’ or ‘even just pointing and saying ‘this one’. You can image how confusing things got when I showed him my Dolce and Gabbana aftershave named ‘The One’. Top guy though.



It would be rude to come to Mongolia, a land where the horse is king, and not partake in any horse riding. At Orkhon river valley the snow was very heavy, but for me, this added to the experience. We rode across some beautiful landscape, waded through freezing cold rivers and stopped off to see a frozen waterfall, amazing. With my new moustache and outrageous robes, it was easy to imagine Chinggis himself taking on this very land by horse back. We nicknamed our horse guide Gazza, because of the uncanny resemblance he had for the fallen soccer star. Maybe this is the reason why he hasn’t been spotted drunk in any of Newcastle’s drinking haunts lately…





The Frozen Fall


The Fog on the Tyne is aaal his

Back in Ulaanbaatar we were tired, had a list of ailments as long as my arm, and probably never smelt as bad in my life (including the morning after the night of my 24th birthday at the Rupali Indian restaurant, curry hell anyone?), but the whole thing was well worth it and I’m happy to say we survived the brutal Mongolian nomadic winter!


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The Land Of The Blue Sky

As the UAZ headed into Southern Mongolia, the landscape became abode of snow from a blizzard a few days previous. Although still incredibly clear, it’s no surprise Mongolia is nicknamed ‘ The Land Of The Blue Sky’. Passing through tiny ‘middle of nowhere’ towns, I witnessed some rural Mongolian life and wasn’t sure which direction we were heading. In a world where smart phones and Facebook rule, this is one of the few places I’d felt completely off the radar.


A short stay in Dalanzadgad town, then enter the Gobi desert, home to the extremely rare snow leopard. I was informed that the snow leopard is almost as rare as a Mackem in Milan, so decided there’s no point in even trying to spot one…

What we may have a better chance of seeing is one of Mongolia’s mythical creatures, the Death Worm or the Gobi Yeti. The worm is said to reach lengths of 4-5 feet, shoot deadly acid and discharges powerful electricity, I cant help but think of that 80’s B-movie Tremors. The Yeti features in a number of legends, one in which it kidnaps a wrestler. More on Mongolian wrestling later…

We settled for a couple of days at the giant Khongor sand dunes to partake in some camel riding. As usual we ended up with the most disobedient beasts from the herd. Mine in particular defiantly had the hump. If I said left, he said right, if I said go, he was more content on dropping his bait. Thankfully they calmed down and there was no more horse play (or camel play) in the afternoon.




Another windy afternoon stop off at the shamanic flaming cliffs, or Bayanzag in Mongolian, was the classic desert surrounding of complete emptiness. I wondered if it was an Aussie who coined the name of this prehistoric archeological site ‘here mate, come and check out these flaming cliffs!’.



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Let the Ger Times Roll

Twelve days of little showering, staying with nomadic families and eating goat every day while travelling in an old soviet UAZ, not your typical winter getaway.



The first leg of the trip, takes us towards the Eastern Mongolian steepe, across baron plains, frozen streams and herds of wild horses. Nothing could drag me away.


Along the way we will be sleeping in traditional Mongolian dwellings known as gers (pronounced yert, if you’re from Rothbury then just say, ‘goat’). Gers are simple, round, tent like structures with a wooden frame and a textile exterior that can be assembled and dissembled quickly for the constant movement that comes with the nomadic lifestyle. Very simple inside, the gers consist of a stove in the middle which is used for cooking and warmth. Dried dung is the fuel of choice in Mongolia. Mix the smell of burned dung with the smell of mutton and there you have it, the smell of ger. The only thing a ger lacks is a naughty corner, but I suppose there’s always the naughty steepe…


Tsaagan Suvraga is an area that can be described as ‘badlands’. This eerie, eroded landscape was at one time beneath the sea and is rich with fossils and clam shells. The huge limestone formations stretched for as far as the eye could see, it was also a little bit windy…




Michael Jackson dance moves practice



Inside the gers can get unbelievably cold at night if the stove is not maintained. This was the case on the second night of the trip when I didn’t sleep, just waited, Chuck Norris would be proud. Now I know why these nomads are always moving around, brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘cold feet’.

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