Photos from India

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Trans Mongolian Railway

Words cannot describe the landscape that is passing by my window right now. A poet could do this a lot more justice than I but I will try and make an attempt. It's ten o'clock in the morning and I boarded the train 27 hours ago. I am bound for the capital city of Mongolia, Ulannbaatar. The sights from the train have been some of the most amazing that I have seen on my trip so far. We departed smoggy Beijing and four or five hours later on an overcast and gloomy day, the horizon began to show it's face. Even thought the clouds were covering the blue skies, the sight of the horizon after being in Beijing was a welcome and refreshing site, restoring my mental state back to the happy nature that it usually is in when I travel to unique and beautiful places.

The sky gradually began to clear and the landscape turned to rolling hills that eventually dissipated into flat plains extending as far as you could see. With the sun setting last night, I thought we must be passing through the most beautiful part of the journey. I was wrong. I awoke this morning in the middle of the Gobi desert. Rocky and dusty plains extending everywhere only broken up by the occasional camel wandering the harsh desert landscape in search of it's next source of fresh water. After several hours of the dusty plains of the Gobi desert, the earth began to reveal small patches of grass, usually surrounded by wild horses, camels and cows. The patches of grass became fields and the fields began to stretch out as far as your eye could see. The occasional camel was now replaced with herds of wild horses, sheep and even gazelles. With an enormous blue sky overhead extending out over a sea of green, this is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my life.

Polluted Beijing

After three days in Beijing I am ready to move on to Mongolia where I can actually see the sky and breathe the air without a burning sensation in my throat. I imagine all of the beautiful buildings and sites of Beijing would have been amazing to see on a clear day, but looking at the city I cannot comprehend that ever happens. It is the only place in the world that I have ever been where you can stare directly at the sun for a full minute and it doesn't even burn your eyes. The smog is so thick that on my way to the great wall, the bus I was on got off the interstate about an hour outside of the city and I noticed the faint outline of a mountain range nearby. Not too long after, we were right beside the mountain and it was only a couple of kilometers away. Here I had been just two or three kilometers from this enormous mountain range and could hardly even tell it was there! This smog is disgusting and it's sad to see that we are so capable of doing so much harm to the world we live in.

Trekking the Great Wall of China

What an incredible day! I never could have imagined it would have turned out to be as beautiful as it did but I have to say, it was fantastic. I boarded a bus in smog filled Beijing looking up at the white sky and thick atmosphere that enveloped everything around. As the bus drove on, the smog continued and I accepted that my day on the great wall was going to be filled with the same disgusting atmosphere that I have been trapped in since leaving Western Yunann. About an hour and a half outside of Beijing, I started to notice the slightest hint of blue in the sky. I thought that my eyes must be deceiving me as I haven't been able to see the sky through all of the pollution since leaving Yunann. Gradually, the blue began to become brighter and more brilliant. Mountains started appearing in the distance and even the hint of white pillowy clouds began to show up. Two hours away now and suddenly there was a drastic change. It was like emerging from a long dark tunnel that cuts through a mountain pass. The sky was the brightest shade of blue and the hills a rich color of green. You could see for miles in every direction and that is when I got my first glimpse. The Great Wall was crawling along the ridge of a nearby mountain. Like the spines on the tail of a dragon it stretched into the distance as far as your eyes could see.
I chose to visit a couple of sections of the great wall that were a bit more remote than the main tourist destinations. They haven't been restored like most of the tourist spots and you could actually walk for about 8 miles between the two sections all on top of the wall. It sounded like a great way to experience the Great Wall and now at the end of such a wonderful day, I can say it was everything I imagined it to be and more.

As a child, I remember learning about the Great Wall of China in history class and it brought up all kinds of visions of how work on the wall was done. I pictured what it looked like and how anything like it was humanly possible. I think we tend to build up a lot of sights in the world to be something more than they actually are but the Great Wall more than exceeded my expectations. Stretching to the horizon along the ridge of the mountains and still slowly crumbling beneath my feet, it was a spectacular experience to be following in the footsteps of time and history. There were hardly any tourists where I was which made it the type of exploration you conjure up in your mind when you picture something as ancient and grand as the Great Wall. Old guard towers were still crumbling down to the rugged path on top of the wall while grass grew between the mortar and all the while the whole structure just sat clinging to the narrow ridge of the mountain where it has stood for the last thousand or so years.

A weekend in Xian with Allison

There is not much more I can ask for out of a long weekend in China. Lots of good food, climbing an absolutely stunning mountain and I was able to spend four adventurous days with Allison! I can't ask for much more out of China! Well, maybe that they actually clean up some of the pollution in the air, quit spitting everywhere, be more helpful, more polite and try not to run over me every time I cross the street. We won't get into all that for the time being however.

After I picked up Allison at the airport, we dropped her bags off at the hotel and headed out on the town to find some dinner. Since she had been here before, she recommended we head into the Muslim Quarter where we could find numerous great places to eat. There are all kinds of different food vendors, stalls and restaurants lining the narrow cobbled streets of one of China's oldest Muslim populations. It was a beautiful area to walk through and the smell of all of the tasty foods filled the air. After eating a bit of “street meat” as Allison calls it, we noticed a popular restaurant that spilled out into the streets. It was filled with Chinese people sitting at tables with piles of meats and vegetables all cooking them in a dish with a couple of kinds of boiling liquid. It looked familiar to Allison from her previous trip to Xian a couple of years ago and to me any place where you cook lots of meat in a big pot at your table is always a good pick.

Dinner turned out to be pretty good and a great time as well. We cooked all kinds of things in the pot and but seeing as how we were in the Muslim District, there was no alcohol to be consumed. A few bottles of sprite and a fanta for Allison was all that we could find. With our stomachs swelling, we asked for the bill. Fortunately, the Muslim owners of this place spoke good English so there shouldn't be too many questions about it. The bill came and I glanced at it and thought there must be some mistake. It looked like it said 295 RMB which is about $45. This is crazy for China. I mean, I haven't asked the price on any food I have eaten here and I have never had a meal that cost me more than 40 RMB. That too would have been an expensive one. Normally, 20 to 30 is a safe number including a beer or drink of some sort. I asked the owner about the bill and he pointed at the table and said it was correct. It was so obscene that I was in shock. I couldn't even begin to argue with him. I think if it had been less I would have most likely put up a fight but being so high, I just laughed and gave him the money. This simple meal which is similar to food I have had so many times in China costs me almost as much as the room in the four star hotel! I have been scammed! After three weeks in China of never asking the cost of food, I am officially changing my policy! I refuse to believe that all of the Chinese people in that restaurant were paying the same for their food. With prices ten times higher than everywhere else in town, I refuse to believe this place could still be in business.

After a leisurely morning and an enormous breakfast in Xian, Allison and I hopped on a bus and headed out to Hua Shan. I have wanted to climb this mountain for the past eight years or so. In fact the day I met Allison in the Hanoi airport, she mentioned that she had been to China before and I was anxious to find out more about the mountain. She hadn't been there but was definitely intrigued about it from my descriptions. If she ever made it back to Xian, she would definitely climb it. Who would have ever guessed that sitting there in the airport talking to her about the mountain the two of us would be climbing it together a couple of months later!

I mentioned wanting to climb this mountain for the last eight years. I am sure that everyone reading this at some point in time has gotten an email showing the ridiculous photographs of the journey up this mountain. In fact, I received the email again just a few days after climbing the mountain. It starts with something showing a ridiculously long cable car ride followed by a climb up steep granite slopes and ridges, some planks and chains hanging off the mountain thousands of feet in the air and concludes with a small tea house on the mountain top. While the email shows a lot of the mountain, I have to say, it makes things out to be a bit more difficult than it actually turned out to be. It was however one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen!

It was a strenuous climb to the top with a multitude of vertical stairs cut into the rock with only a chain to hold onto but we managed to survive the journey. Sheer granite cliffs lurked around every corner and the higher we climbed, the more incredible the views became. Allison held up pretty well on the journey up. No complaining and she kept up a pretty good pace as well. What more can you ask for? I think I will have to keep her around for a bit longer. Every day that we are together, she surprises me again at how great we travel together! Someone needs to convince this girl to take some time off law school! Well, no, lawyers make lots of money don't they? Someone is going to have to support me when I run out of money!

We spent the night on the mountain and were forced awake for sunrise by the yelling Chinese tourists that were also staying in the guest house on top of the mountain with us. While the sunrise was quite uneventful, sipping coffee in the cold breeze with Allison while the first light of the day appeared was something I will remember for the rest of time. Moments like that are so much better when there is someone around who you care about. I would have enjoyed it alone but with Allison there, it was a truly unforgettable experience. I wish I could keep her around for the rest of my journey.

With our mountain climbing experience behind us, we headed back into Xian for an afternoon of recovery for our now very soar legs. I had investigated some places to stay before Allison arrived and as I can't afford to continue staying in four star hotels, I found us an amazing room in an International Youth hostel right in the heart of Xian. This is one of the best rooms I have stayed in anywhere in the world. Filled with oriental character and charm, our home for the next two days would be more than adequate and definitely put our four star room a few nights before to shame. The rustic granite floors and intricate wood work stained a deep brown hue combined with the rich burgundy drapes shrouding a bed that was about 10 feet across and built into the room taking up it's entire width are just a few of the things that gave our room so much charm. On the bed was a small oriental table with a tea pot and some fancy little tea cups waiting while in the bathroom we found all the surfaces clad in a jade and black colored marble complete with a shower big enough to house a small Chinese family!

Our last two days of in Xian turned out to be pretty relaxed compared to the first two. The most difficult thing we did was a bicycle trip around the city walls of Xian that lasted just over an hour. With legs still soar from the mountain climb, that was about all we had left in us. It wasn't such a bad thing as it started raining shortly after returning the bicycles which gave us the opportunity to rest and enjoy the comfort of having such a wonderful room. Other than that, the next day and a half were filled with walks around the city and trying out the different foods that seemed to lurk around every corner. It was a perfect way to spend my short time with Allison. No pressure to see all the major tourist sights or over exert ourselves with climbing any more mountains, just time to spend together and take the opportunity to get to know each other a bit more. It turned out to be an incredible time with Allison and now I am in Beijing and she is back working in Hong Kong. While I will get to see her in a month or so back in Hong Kong, I can already tell how much I am going to miss having her around. She adds so much to my trip and when she is around it enhances every moment of the day. For now however, she is gone and I am left to make the most of this solo journey around the world that I have chosen for myself.

Waiting on Allison

Just a few more hours till Allison flies in to meet me! I can't wait to see her! We had such a wonderful time in Laos and Vietnam that I wish she could come along with me for the rest of the journey. Unfortunately she is interning in Hong Kong for the summer and then heading back to Canada for two more years of law school. For now however, we have a chance to spend a weekend in Xian climbing Hua Shan, one of Buhdism's five sacred mountains in China. I spent the entire day preparing for her arrival. A good bottle of white wine (hard to find in China), some fresh fruit and a room in a four star hotel for her first night in town. It should turn out to be another wonderful weekend in China!