I know I haven’t posted a while, but I had a couple of posts planned. Due to poor internet connection I haven’t got them posted. At this point just to catch up I am going to do mostly a media blog post. Lots of pictures- Yay!! If you click on them a nice viewer should appear and you can scroll through them. I will have explanations in the captions. I will also keep them cronological.
This group of pictures is from Fes and a lot of the shots of the market we’re typical in any Moroccan city.
This second group of photos was of my adventure spending two nights in the desert.
This group of photos are of crossing the Atlas mountains and the city of Marrakech.
This last photo was of the journey to Agadir. That’s the Atlantic ocean, and riding along next to it, in a lot of ways, it felt similar to the Californian coast, but maybe a little less beautiful.
I am currently in Agadir enjoying some beach and relaxing before I head to Laayoune which is actually in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. I fly from Laayoune to the Canary islands. The flight is a grand total of 45 minutes. I had to book it since I didn’t have any luck at the major port cities in Morocco. I have a feeling my luck will be better in catching a cost from the Canaries!
From Paris, after one bus transfer from 6-7:30am I made it to Barcelona at about sundown. From the bus station I had to walk to my hostel. Even though I didn’t do much I was pretty tired so I checked in and did some grocery shopping nearby and then chilled the rest of the night.
I had the whole following day to explore Barcelona and I first headed to some buildings nearby from a famous architect. I’m sure the insides were cool, but it cost 21€ to get in one and 25€ for the other. With the US dollar losing value that would have been closer to $60, so I wasn’t really that interested in the architecture.
From there I wandered to the old gothic district. The streets were really narrow and a lot of buildings had pretty neat old style architecture. Then I got to the cathedral of the city. Like most cathedrals in major cities, it was huge! Going inside was free, so I wandered around inside and admired the high ceilings, ornate altars, and stained glass.
Then I bought an apple and chowed on it before taking a walk along the beach. The beach was okay. To be honest I expected a little more from Barcelona. It was interesting to see a bunch of nude old men laying out… I guess that’s the European style.
The rest of the day was walking around and seeing a smattering of different monuments and local sights. In one park center I saw some of the protests (people were camping out in the park) in favor of creating a new country around the Catalan culture there. It’s been in the new I guess, but I didn’t know much about it until I witnessed it. I was pretty suprised to find out that there are apparently many small regions in Spain that speak their own languages and have distinct cultures.
The next morning, early, I set out with Alvaro, the driver I found using a ride sharing app. It was cheaper than a bus and much more comfortable. It was nice company as well. Luckily, Alvaro spoke decent English and he explained the Catalan situation and culture to me more. For the first leg of the 10 hour journey we had a French woman and a Brazilian guy, but for the second leg we dropped them off and picked up a Spanish lady. I actually slept probably 4 hours, but when I was awake there was some beautiful scenery. It reminded me of when I was out west towards Utah. We even drove through the “Sierra Nevada,” as they called it.
Malaga was the destination. It’s further south for my journey to Africa. I actually liked it a lot more than Barcelona, though I wasn’t there as long. Barcelona, to me, kind of had a high class attitude that I wasn’t a fan of. Also the sights weren’t that extraordinary either. Malaga was more laid back and just walking around I saw a Spanish Castle on a high with some Roman ruins below it. There were other cool Roman ruins, but the picture didn’t turn out through the display glass. I was kind of surprised by the Roman ruins. It didn’t really occur to me that I might see them there.
Then at night I had a really nice walk along the beach! I took my shoes off and walked along the water, but it was actually quite cold. The harbour was pretty beautiful as well.
The next morning I woke up and Oscar, another ride share driver, took me to San Roque. He didn’t speak any English, so my request to get dropped off closer to the Gibraltar border didn’t get through. So I decided to hitch hike the rest. I walked about 5 minutes to a good spot headed in the direction I wanted to go with ample room for a car to pull off if they did want to stop. Then I guessed all that was left was just to stick my arm out. I did that and tonmy surprise within 5 minutes a car pulled over and a guy offered to take me there. He looked pretty trustworthy. He was a little older, a retired high school principal if you had to make me guess, and he drove a nice BMW.
Then he dropped me off near the border and I walked through. The borders were pretty lax, they just glanced at my passport and that was it. Then, interestingly, you walk acrossed the airport runway into the country. If there is a plane you wait on either side for 15 minutes until it passes. As soon as I crossed the runway it was like being in England! I was on Winston Churchill Avenue.
I wandered I to the city center and ate some lunch in the park. After that I hiked up that big old rock they have there (the Rock of Gibraltar). I saw a Moorish castle and some other old British settlement stuff. It was interesting to see the Gibraltar flag with the British and EU flag flying in the wind. I wonder what consequences Brexit will have on Gibraltar?
Then I wandered further up the rock and found a nice view I was also apparently in a spot we’re Queen Elizabeth had stood. Then I hiked down and crossed back over the runway back into Spanish just as easily as I had came. I probably only spent 2 or 3 hours there, but it’s not a big country anyways.
Then I got on a bus to another port city where I am now sitting waiting for a boat acrossed to Africa. So next post I should be in a new continent and in Morocco!
I was able to get in a little excursion to the Berlin Wall Memorial during my 2 hour bus layover. It was kind of odd. Just a small little park with some plaques and pictures. You could walk along the path of the wall, but some places did show much besides the sidewalk and some new historical markers. There was, however, some more original segments as you can see in the picture above.
Then it was back on the bus after a quick two hour bus transfer. I’m glad I was able to make it to the Berlin Wall and back. On the bus I sat next to a really nice German guy who was studying in Paris. His English was really good and he helped me make some plans for seeing Paris. It’s odd how asjusted I am for the road at this point. I was able to sleep soundly through the night for 8 hours or so without waking up. I felt refreshed as we pulled into the Paris bus station.
First thing I noticed in Paris was the traffic. The German guy had told me how condensed and packed the city was. Off the bus I headed first to the Notre Dame Cathedral. I really liked it’s awesome gothic architecture. That baby had some nice flying buttresses. Inside was spectacular as well. I liked the dark colored stained glass and there was just so much nice stuff in there. The whole inside was ornate and beautiful. It also made you again marvel at it’s architecture.
Next, I continued my tour by walking toward the Louvre. There, as I was starting to notice everywhere in Paris, there was some serious security. Lots of army and police patrolling with heavy weapons and then airport-like security to get in. Sure wasn’t the best situation for me to have a giant black backpack on all day.
The Lourve is absolutely huge and to really appreciate it I think someone would need a couple of days. It’s so huge I got lost a couple times and everytime I got lost I ended up seeing something new. I wandered through the halls and eventually, at the end of one of the biggest, came to the Mona Lisa engulfed by visitors. Pretty neat to see such a renowned piece of art in person. The other painting in the collection above is a summary of it felt like to be at the Louvre. Only downside is that in costs 15€ which is over $18 thanks to the falling value of the US dollar recently.
Then after the Louvre I took the metro North to one of the highest points in the city. There I enjoyed the view and walked around the shops. The prices in Paris are astronomical compared to what I was paying in Thailand, and are even high by US standards. To cut down on my expenses I ate cold hotdogs and a baguette for lunch at the Louvre. I went, by metro, then to the Arch or Trimuph built for Napoleon’s victories or something like that. Then I was headed to the Eiffel tower, but not without picking up a dinner of canned sardines, a baguette, and some cookies which still cost me over $6.
Seeing the Eiffel tower was really cool, but I was actually a little underwhelmed by it. I think it’s hard for things like that to live up to the standards set for them. In the park near the tower I sat in a pavilion on a bench ready to feast on my sardines and baguette when I made friends with a couple of Afghani refugees. They were there enjoying some food in the sight of the Eiffel tower as well. They offered me water, yoghurt, and clemtines making sure I wouldn’t go hungry. It was really interesting to hear their perspective of Americans and then of countries allowing them in as refugees. There was a part in the conversation where one of the Afghanis was talking about how he hated all the Pakistani tourists that come into Afghanistan and how it’s bad for the country. I was pretty confused why this was a bad thing. If anything it should be good for the economy I thought… A little later in the conversation I figured out tourists was mistaken for terrorist, and then things started making more sense. After my main meal I shared some cookies with the guys there and they asked for a picture with me and then I got one with them as well. Always interesting to meet people from places where you assume there might be some tension or at least some political differences.
I said the Eiffel tower was underwhelming, but that was only during the day. Luckily I planned on coming back at night, and when I did it was beautiful! When it’s lit up it’s much more beautiful in my opinion, and now I see what all the hype was about. On the hour it also does a dazzling light up show where it appears to be sparkling from bright white LEDs lighting up all the across the structure. It was on this visit that I decided to brave security and enter the area under the tower. For anyone reading this who’s visited in times past, bit never used to have to go through security to do this. Since the Paris terrorist attacks there has been a border set up around the base and strict security with army and police patrols. After another airport like security screening I got in, and decided to save my money and just look from underneath rather than buying s ticket to go up. I figured the best view was of the tower, not from it.
After that I headed on the metro to my bus station. I was desperately cold since it was about freezing and I had ditched my winter coat in Budapest where it was 60° at the time. I should have kept it, but I didn’t expect the unusual cold for this time of year. Regardless, the station wasn’t that warm since a lot was open to the outside. So I headed for anywhere warm and I found a mall with a huge food court open late. To get in there, I once again had to go through security. I waited at the mall for about an hour and a half before catching my bus to Barcelona.
Once again, I was super blessed to have some amazing experiences in Paris even with only 15 hours to explore. I plan on actually staying a couple of nights in Barcelona just to sleep in a real bed, but I also have to figure out traveling in Spain as the popular bus service doesn’t serve further south and traveling is appearing to get expensive. I got myself signed up for a ride sharing app and should be able to hitch a ride further south to the straight of Gibraltar so I can get acrossed to Morocco!
Spent 3 nights in Poland. First night was on a hostel on Katowice. The next morning I got up early to tour Auschwitz. Fittingly, it was gloomy and rained the whole time I was there.
I got there around 8:30am and there wasn’t an English tour until 10:30am. So I decided to take it on by myself. I pretty much followed the Polish tour guides just so I had a general path to hit all of the camp. Luckily most signs were in English so I had some context when exploring. On a train ride, even before I decided I would go to Auschwitz, I read Night by a Holocaust survivor (Ellie Wiesel). I was really glad I had that narrative in my head because it made the camp come to life. I think without reading that book many things wouldn’t have resonated quite as much.
I had a lot of friends ask me how it was and how it made me feel. Honestly, I expected to be a little more somber afterwards. There were something, like seeing the room full of human hair they literally harvested from people, that hit me pretty hard. However, for the most part it was pretty cleaned up and seemed a little removed from the horrors that once happened there. At least in my perspective after seeing the Killing Fields in Cambodia (http://www.wildboom.us/2017/10/15/cambodian-adventures-part-1/). There I saw piles of human skulls and even saw bone fragments still in the grass…
After going through the first camp I took a shuttle bus from that camp to the other main camp that was constructed once the original Auschwitz camp was filled. The other camp was huge… There were horse stables (designed for 52 horse) everywhere that were used to house around 400 prisoners. You could see these stables almost as far as your eye could see. This camp also had a replica train car on the tracks were the prisoners first came in.
After I finished at Auschwitz I hopped on a train north to Leszno, Poland. Here my friend Z picked me up at the station. We are friends back from working together at CMU. He came to the university from Poland on a track scholarship. I guess for a time he was the fastest man in Poland in a certain event. Everyone at Central called him Z because no one could pronounce his real name, Ziemowit.
It was a real chill visit and I spent two nights on the couch in his living room. It was really fun to see his son! His wife was pregnant while he was in his last semester at CMU and I remember him trying to work extra hours to provide for his family. I remember thinking how hard that must have been to be on another continent while your wife is pregnant. So it was a joy to see them all together and happy!
I didn’t do a whole lot with Z besides talk and catch up since he was on daddy duty all day. He did go to the mall with his son and played with him at a play park. I also have to say Polish KFC is much better than American KFC. They have some really awesome chicken sandwiches and they had a promotional Oriental menu as well.
Now, I’m on a bus to Berlin. In Berlin I have a two hour wait before I transfer to another bus to Paris. I intended on meeting up with some of my German friends from my high school foreign exchange program, but with my poor planning we were unable to make it work. Instead I’m going to see if it is possible to get to the Berlin Wall quick during my bus layover.
I learned pretty quickly that the Grand Budapest Hotel is a fictional fabrication and not a real building, but fortunately Budapest has many other “Grand” sights to behold.
Firstly, my journey from Kiev, Ukraine to Budapest, Hungary was an anomaly by backpacking standards. I have gotten used to long waits and inconvenient departure times. The only wait was for the roughly 5pm departure time from Kiev which brought me to the utmost edge of Ukraine in Chop, arriving at 9am. The approximate 16-hour train ride cost a mere equivalent of $5.75 US. That included a sleeper berth, which at this point has become quite common for me. I am usually able to sleep soundly despite the crowdedness, maybe even better than a hostel bed, in thanks, part to the rhythm of a moving train. That train was a pleasant surprise for the price and then upon arrival in Chop, Ukraine I only had to wait 20 minutes for a train to take me across the border to Záhony, Hungary. The immigration and passport control went smoothly and I arrived in Záhony with my Hungarian entry stamp and my official entry into the EU. While the 20-minute wait seemed like a quick turnaround, upon arriving in Záhony I had 5 minutes to quickly purchase a ticket taking me straight to Budapest. My receipt showed a 10:01 purchase with the train leaving at 10:03am. I doubt I could have even planned it that perfectly! It’s very rare that things line up that perfectly especially when flying by the seat of your pants, as I usually do.
My first day in Budapest was greeted with the visit of my Summer camp friends Mark and Veronika at the train Station. Veronika had to quickly get back to work, so Mark took me to grab some food since I had ridden through lunch. Mark then had to leave for soccer practice, leaving me to wander the famous Danube river at night. It was gorgeous with the Parliament, a cathedral, and a castle all lit up along the river walk.
The next day after a nights rest in a downtown hostel Mark, Veronika, and now Balazs gave me a tour of the city! I really didn’t have any expectations for Hungary since I really didn’t know much about it, but I was really impressed with how nice it was. Super nice public transport, very clean, and all sorts of nest old buildings.
We went inside the St. Stephen’s Basilica and it reminded me of the grand cathedrals I visited in Italy on my first trip to Europe. Not sure when from China to Russia to Hungary that I officially entered Europe, but I can be sure I’m there now!
Then at night I met back up with Veronika and we climbed to the top of the Citadel. I guess that statue there in the picture above is the Hungarian equivalent of the statue of Liberty. The views from the top were great as well!
After, that I said goodbye and I made my way by public transport to the bus station. It was a quick trip, but a good one!
Now I am in Czechia after a 5 hour bus ride. Through the night I went right through Bratislava, the capital of Solvakia. My layover here was from 4am to 8:30am. Luckily I’ve been camping out in a 24/7 bar and cafe. I witnessed drunken fights at 5am and then almost immediately afterwards the crowd changed to older folks getting there 5:30am coffee. Kind of interesting to see…
Tomorrow, I plan on touring Auschwitz and then I’ll head a little further north in Poland to visit a friend from University.
There are some more pictures from Lake Baikal. As you can see my Russian friends are excellent photographers. I’m sure there are still yet more photos coming. Nicolai made a trip video, but I will have to figure out how to get it off the Russian equivilant of Facebook.
In Moscow I stayed with Natasha and Ivan at there house. Being recently married they furniture is a little lacking so I got a sleeping bag on the floor which was perfect for me. We took the metro and trains a lot to get around. The metro stations where usually quite beautiful. We went to the red square. I saw where Lenin’s body is and I got to see St. Basil’s! I guess Ivan the Terrible had the architects eyes removed after he built so he would never build anything as beautiful again. After the red square we went and visited Nicolai at his house and he had a giant monitor lizard in room. It’s apparently 4 meters long.. Nicolai is super interesting. He was at the best University in Russia, but dropped out and started the countries largest reptile supply company and he just recently co-founded a biotech accelerator. For the biotech accelerator he will be speaking in San Francisco this summer at a conference. I helped revise his English bio for the conference website.
Next day I went to the WW2 museum. It is always fun to see the perspective of other countries in historical events. A lot of the museum was in Russian, but from what I could get they felt they had a pretty big role in the victory. I’m not saying they didn’t, but they made Britain and the US seem like merely cheerleaders at times. The Soviet, by far, had most casualties and were the ones responsible for liberating most of the Holocaust camps. What they withstood defending the siege on Stalingrad was a real example of fighting spirit as well. On the other hand, it was actually really interesting to see some acknowledgement of the downfalls of the Soviet government and how they lead to some hardships in the war.
Then, the next day I took the bus to Kiev, Ukraine. That’s where I am at now. Waiting to head towards Budapest. I’ll have a couple connecting trains and tickets can’t be purchased in advanced so it’s all one step in front of the other! I kind of prefer that to planning ahead anyways.
The inside of this train station is pretty beautiful! I’m guessing built during the Soviet era. I also made it out to a cathedral just to see some of the city.
Now, I’m going to hurry to a market to buy some snacks for my journey before heading out! Until next time!
I totally forgot about my experience at the border when I originally posted so here’s a little story on getting out of Russia and into Ukraine. The story comes straight from my personal journal.
The Russian border exit was rough. At first my backpack got stuck in the scanner and the guy there was yelling at me in Russian which I obviously didn’t understand. Then at the passport control I handed my passport to the lady and she didn’t even look at me before before saying a couple Russian phrases. Not understanding, she sent me back to the other side to wait. After waiting a couple of people I was called back and a young Ukrainian kid, about my age, translated. She was pretty mean right from the start. She asked where I got my visa and I told the translator Thailand. She looked at it again and the translator said, “She doesn’t believe you that you got it in Thailand.” Well great, I thought. I told the translator, “I don’t know what to tell her. I got it in Bangkok…” I laughed because she was being a little ridiculous. Then she says something in a harsh tone in Russian which provokes my translator to say, “She asked why you’re smiling.” Now I am getting a little irritated as she seems to be trying to belittle me.
(Look, you’re being totally rude and I am smiling because I think it’s ridiculous that you are going to keep me at the border after I just spent my tourist dollars in your country.)
I’m obviously a backpacker. Check my passport. Do a thorough search of my backpack… Then she continues the interrogation asking what I did in St. Petersburg. I tell the translator I never went to St. Petersburg. She’s all wound up and says that’s what it says on my visa information. I tell her that I didn’t go there so I don’t know why it says that. She doesn’t like the answer… I explained about taking the train from Irktusk to Moscow. She spends a while going back and forth through the passport pages and typing on her computer. I finally get passport back. Upon inspection the St. Petersburg confusion came from my inviting travel “sponsor” which is required to get a visa in the first place. The travel company is based in St. Petersburg. Don’t know how she didn’t understand that..
Funniest thing of the whole ordeal is that I was supposed to “register” my visa as soon as I could within getting into the country with penalties incurring after 7 days. I stayed 10 and never registered… You are supposed to register at the hotel or places where you are staying, but every place I stayed was unable to register it. I even rode a bus an hour the wrong way only to miss the immigration building hours in an attempt to register my visa. However, my only true offense was the one not brought up. Russian bureaucracy…
It just occurred to me after looking through social media that it is now most college’s spring break. For me that means heading north to Siberia. Not typical, but since I missed out on winter I guess I’ll just try to cramp it into a couple week span here.
Above is a picture of a wintery Siberian morning after crossing the border at 1-2am. Mongolian border wasn’t that intense, but the Russian border brought on some military personnel to check bags. They mostly left me alone probably because my fanny pack screams tourist. Apparently, in the past the railroad was used for transport ingredients drugs, guns, and counterfeit goods. That would explain the drug sniffing dog. However, as far as I could tell I didn’t see any signs of the Russian mafia. In fact, my only bunk mate was another Japanese tourist.
Fresh off the train I wandered around Irktusk and saw some of the buildings and what have you. I eventually made my way to the bus station. An hour and a half about got me to Listvyanka. Here I got my first glimpse of Lake Baikal! Lake Baikal actually has more water than all the Great Lakes combined. However, even lake Huron has a bigger surface area. Baikal it’s noted for it’s vast depths and for Omul. Omul is a fish that only lives in Baikal. It tasted pretty standardly fishy. At least I can say I’ve had Omul though now.
At the hostel in Listvyanka I met 4 young Russian travelers about my age. They invited me to have dinner with them. The dinner was a simple pasta dish since we we’re back at least a half an hour walk from the main town on some snowy back roads. It was late and a lot of places might not be open in this small town as well. I think they could tell that I miscalculated my dinner plans! I really appreciated that and they were so nice. They invited me to go exploring with them the next day. It was pure serendipity that they had one seat left in there rental car. We did the road and drove 6 hours to the island in the more nothern portion of the lake. I guess the island is the largest lake bound island or something like that. On the way we saw some awesome views and made some frequent stops to take pictures and explore.
They had planned the hostel ahead of time and with some more serendipity one of the rooms had an extra bed. So that worked perfect. Nicolai, Alexander and I were in one room and Natasha and her husband Ivan were in the other room. The room was super cozy and we made another make shift dinner in the cabin’s kitchen. The next day I saw a PPV boxing match for the heavy weight title during breakfast around primetime in the US. Somehow what is pay per view in the US was being broadcast on public stations even to remote dirt road secluded Siberian cabins.
That first night near the island we went i skating at midnight. It was so awesome under the full moon and to hear the ice cream and crack through the silence of the night. However, I can not compete ice skating with Russians… The next morning we headed for an adventure on the ice road to the island! That in itself was a cool adventure! My Russian friends have a drone, so eventually I’ll have some drone footage, along with a bunch of awesome pictures, to show our journey on the ice. We also had a snowboard and a rope. You can guess the fun we had getting towed by the car.
We stopped for a late lunch on island. I had some Omul and some Borscht, the typical Russian soup. After lunch we cruised around the island. The whole island is dirt roads and some of the roads turn into haphazard trails rather than roads. Of course, that’s where my friends planned to go. I have to say it is slightly terrifying how fast they drive on snowy roads, but also comforting knowing that they Russians and snow and ice roads are typical. However, these trails are a different story. Nicolai punched that Toyota down the rough trails through rock strewn stretches and snow enveloped paths fully aware that it was a rental car. I can only imagine the horror of the rental agent if he could see the places we took that Toyota at those speeds. At the end of the night we we’re planning to ice skate in this secluded part of the island. Nicolai even had a firework in his backpack. But the wind was pretty wild through there which caused the ice to be way to rough, plus it was super cold! So we headed back to the hostel for another group dinner. This time I was able to at least contribute by buying groceries.
The next morning I got taken to the bus pickup location. I then spent 6 hours getting back to Irktusk. Then I got my train ticket. I’m sitting at the train station waiting for my 4am departure right now. 4 days from now and a lot of miles of rail later I’ll be in Moscow. Plan is to meet back up with my Russian friends (comrades), who are Moscow natives. They will spend a couple more days at lake Baikal before flying back and arriving there the same day as me! More serendipity.
After two not so fun Chinese commuter trains I made it to the border town. In the border town I got out off the train to a notable weather change. It’s starting to get pretty chilly as I move north! In the border town I started to notice some changes. It wasn’t like the typical Chinese towns I had seen. It seemed more Russian… There was Russian writing under the Chinese on the sign as well.
As I walked through the town I finally made it to the bus station and got my phone charged and used the suprising fast wifi there. After a couple hour wait my border bus was ready to depart. I got on the bus with some Chinese and likely Mongolian people and we headed for the border. We got to the Chinese border and got out of the bus to proceed with the exit paperwork. A Chinese soldier seemed really curious to see a foreignor at the land border crossing since they probably don’t get many. He asked to see my passport and spent time turning through each page of my passport. Often when I see officials do this they seem very procedural, but he had a glimmer of genuine intrigue and interest in the places I have been. He smiled at me and said, “American!” as he handed me back my passport.
Back onto the bus and then a stop at the Mongolian entry point. More paperwork and more waiting. Then onto the bus one last time and then we we’re shuttled to the center of the Mongolian border town. In all it took probably 2 hours to get through.
Immediately, I started to notice some things about this Mongolian border town. It wasn’t at all like I expected. It seemed more Russian then Asian, and really it wasn’t much of a town. Historically, the Mongols are a nomadic people. Town and city building isn’t really their thing and it shows. Most of the buildings here are left over from the Soviet occupation it seems. Mongolia was a Soviet satalite state from 1924-1990. During that time Russia pumped in money and built hospitals, schools, theaters, and a lot of public services that were previously foreign to the Mongolian people.
Even today 30% of the countries population maintains a nomadic lifestyle. That is one of the reasons Mongolia is unlike any country I have ever visited. The picture above is a “ger.” Gers are homes made easily transportable for when the nomadic people move to a different pastures. It’s said there are 10 sheep for every person in Mongolia. This nomadic culture and reliance on horsemanship is apparent in most respects when observing the country.
There is a huge respect for the great Genghis Kahn and his likeness appear everywhere from posters to cigarette and vodka brands.
I said the border town initially made me think of Russia and Soviet times, and that isn’t helped by the dilapidated look of the public park. Then picture makes it look like a depraved town during the dust bowl, but these are the realities when towns flirt close with the Gobi desert. The majority of the country’s land isn’t arable, but is a grassy steppe. This is one of the larger reasons why the nomadic lifestyle still prevails.
The train station in this border town looked like it was built by the Russians probably in the 50s and then closed when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. However, in fact, it was still open. It was ornate, almost like a church. You could tell it it’s hay day it would have seemed extravagant, right on par with the the image of Trans Siberian Railroad when it first opened. By looking at the building, however, one would ha guessed it hadn’t been used in years. The majority of the doors were barred shut and you actually had to go to another building, a more modern one, to buy tickets. Stepping into the old station revealed a waiting room and a luggage room and not much else. Walking into the waiting room was like stepping into a time capsule. There was a cigar lounge and and a bar. It was the type of bar you could imagine Western travelers enjoying a scotch at during one of there stops along their Trans Siberian journey.
The train itself was like something straight out of the Polar Express or Harry Potter. While, the steam locomotive wasn’t quite on par, the cabins and the carriages carried an aura of excitement for the coming journey. I couldn’t help but grinding the whole time.
A 6pm departure got us out of town and into the vastness of the Gobi right in time for sunset. Out of the East window you could see the vast stretches of uninhabited plains. Out of the West window you got a spectacular view of the sun setting over the desert. I couldn’t have asked for a better send off on my first official leg of the Trans Siberian Railroad. Though Beijing is generally considered the start (or end) of the railroad, I could hardly consider that a proper start since this train was my first experience with a sleeper car.
I slept like a log through the night, and only awoke once when I gained two roommates at a stop along the way. I barely noticed and continued sleeping. In my 8 days in China I had only slept in a proper bed 3 times. The rest was either on a train or a bus. So to me this 2nd class sleeper car feels like luxury. I awoke in the morning to rolling hills and the desert blanketed in snow. From time to time we would pass a little settlement with a couple buildings and numerous gers.
At around 9am we pulled into the station. Yet another climate shock. We are getting colder and colder as I go! The picture above shows the trusty stead that carried us through the night. Now I am in Ulan Bator! This is the cpaital.of Mongolia and by far it’s biggest city. In fact this city makes up 45% of the countries population.
I first got to a hostel and then connected to WiFi to organize my next moves. I still needed to go back to the train station in the afternoon to book my train ticket taking me to Irktusk, Russia the next day. I stepped in and made plans to go see the famous monastery in the city. Inside there was this massive shrine of some person or god. I tried to discretely snap a picture since I was the only tourist and everyone else there was performing rituals and worshipping. I failed to get the whole thing, but it was massive and quite impressive.
The city has some mountains out to the South and to the East there is a national park and the world’s largest equestrian statue built in Genghis Kahn’s honor. Due to my time restraints and the steep price to take a tour there I unfortunately won’t get to see Genghis in his future glory. However, that just shows the true legend status he maintains in this country. I read about how Mongols are the best horseman in the world and learned that they start so young that they actually become deformed and have a hunched over back from riding so often at such a young age. By the monastery was the first time I observed this. I saw several old men in the traditional winter coats and boots hunched over to an average height of around 5′. It was crazy to see that in person. I reckon the older generation grew up in those traditions and some of the last who will experience that deformity.
My first day in Ulan Bator was literally freezing… During the day it was 0° Fahrenheit not including the wind chill! It’s a little bit of a shock coming from the 90°s of Thailand so recently. Luckily, my hostel owner was going to the black market and invited me to go along. I’m not sure why it’s called the black market, because it’s essentially just the popular local market. You probably have to know someone to get the black market items. But my purpose was warm close. For a grand total of $26 I came away with a sheep wool sweater, camel wool socks and a hat, and yak wool gloves. Mongolia is one of the largest producers of wools products and if I was heading home I would have loaded up on the cheapest cashmere clothing I have ever seen. If you are into wool, this place would be heaven for you.
I started the day by leaving my hostel at 9am. It was -12°! I sure am glad I have all this wool gear now otherwise I’d be in trouble. I started out towards the National Museum of Mongolian History with a pit stop at the city square. The city square, once again, reinforced the cultural significance of Genghis Kahn and the nomadic lifestyle. Below you can see a sculptures of (probably) significant men on horse back and a sculpture of Genghis Kahn ruling his empire.
At the museum I got a real glimpse of the rich history of Mongolia. The one thing traveling that has struck me is how much history is in some of these civilizations compared to the United States. Mongolia has one of the richest histories of any. There were the early people who were hunter and gatherers. However, then I found it interesting to see that some early cultures of Mongols developed cities and towns. That is especially interesting considering even today 30% of the country still lives as nomads with out permanent cities or town.
I got a better understanding of gers and how the nomadic people thrived in them. Then looking at the political history it was awesome to follow the rise of Genghis Kahn forming the largest empire in the history of the world. The Mongols essentially controlled all of Asia and as far as Italy in Europe with Poland and Hungary in it’s reigns. Genghis’s grandchildren even started a new dynasty in China.
Somewhere in there the Huns come out of the mongols and they have a rich history as well. More recently Mongolia was the second ever communist country and then recently in the 90s transitioned to a free market economy. So much history!
The owner of my hostel talked about how Mongolia was a special country and used the metaphor of the world being a body. “If the world were a body,” he said. “Mongolia would be the brain.” Not entirely sure what he meant by that, but he talked about how the land is so pure from the way people have used it for centuries. He talked about the pureness and how spirits rest everywhere in the country unlike most other places. From what I gathered that was supposed to be a good thing. Nonetheless, though I didn’t spend a much time here as I would have liked, Mongolia is one of my favorite and definitely one of the most interesting countries I have visited.
To put it simply, Mongolia is special. I look forward to returning for some more adventures some day! However, the journey home leads through Russia. Now, to start the train journey through Siberia.
I got off my 26 hour train ride to Beijing at 4:30am and then took a subway to my hostel. I had to wait outside in the cold amongst a hold of Chinese for the subway to open at 5:15am though.
I have to say I am getting pretty good at just picking up the public transport systems wherever I go now. Beijing’s system is like most big cities, but before this trip I’d barely ever, if ever, been on a subway. These are big steps for a kid from Pigeon.
I got to the hostel easily enough and then put my luggage in the luggage room because 6am is a little too early to check in I guess. Then I got my phone charging and used the WiFi. Caught up on somethings after a while without my phone on or internet. I figured out my Great Wall plan and left at 8am.
The plan was to not do a tour, because those cost more money and they are limiting and drag you to tourist traps and shops were you don’t want to buy anything. I took the subway to a bus station and caught an hour and half bus out to a town closer to the Wall. That cost $2. Then from there I was going to head to Jiankou. Jiankou is a more wild and unrestored portion of the wall. Here, I figured I would get a raw taste of the wall and I wouldn’t have to deal with the crowds. The ride from the town to the start of the Jiankou trail was about $9. I had to take a car by myself because it’s a pretty tough hike and this is low season so there weren’t any other tourists. Most people just take the tours.
The hike was pretty crazy. In the first picture you can see only a small portion of the hike to the Wall. It started in a small town with no signs or anything. The driver, who didn’t speak English, pointed me towards the trail and pointed me in the direction to hike. Then he took off and I was alone… After one and a half to two hours I got to the wall. I was expecting some grand entrance and all sorts of people around. Instead, I got the picture above. It only made me laugh. I asked for wild and that’s what I about to get!
There were a couple of Chinese people around, but for the most part seclusion. I was holding in a bathroom break for a while and I took the opportunity, once I was all alone, to relieve myself off the edge looking over the mountain side where Mongols attacked from centuries before. It’s the small things like that, that really get me going and make me feel alive!
Jiankou was wild though! There were over turned rocks and rubble everywhere with trees and other brush growing in the middle of the wall. Online it said it would be dangerous, but I figured it wouldn’t be there bad. However, since it’s built following the ridge of the mountains there are some seriously steep sections of the Wall! I was slipping down the rubble strewn 45° path! That is what I’m talking about!
Along the hike I stopped to appreciate all the amazing views! If you look at the second picture above that should give you an appreciation of the hike I made to even get to the wall. I started at the base way below out of the picture. The hike made me think how crazy Genghis Khan must been. He had the Chinese so scared they built thousands of miles of walls to stop them through terrain like this, and Genghis still conquered them. I can’t even imagine a horse taking on the terrain there so that really put the tactics and skill Mongol horsemanship in perspective.
Eventually, as I hiked I made it towards the more restored parts of the wall of Mutianyu. Here I started seeing way more people and eventually over the rolling mountains I saw the cable cars leading up to the Wall. While I appreciate the accessibility and the accommodations I really enjoy seeing sights from different perspectives. The wild portion to restored tourist portion was an awesome contrast.
At the tourist portion a middle aged lady from Taiwan was sitting on a step with a good view and I stopped there to enjoy the view as well. We started talking and she told me how she was afraid of heights and had struggled up the higher region I had just came from. She had to turn around and come back. Long story short, I coached her up the steep portion of the wall telling here, “The steps aren’t any different than in a building,” “One step at a time!” Eventually, after mild hyper ventilation, she made it up and I made a new friend. I talked with her and then some of her other friends as well.
I told them how I hiked from Jiankou to Mutianyu. Then they mentioned that they came in a 15 person van and they only had 14 people. I ended up with a free ride back! In total, besides the snacks and water in my bag, I only spent $11 to visit the great Wall from downtown Beijing! Not bad!
After the Great Wall I throughly enjoyed a increasingly rare night in a bed after a full day and some rough sleep on the train. That came in a 4am. The next morning I headed out at 10wm to do a quick scan of Tianamen Square. I walked around the square and saw Mao’s mausoleum and some other stuff. I didn’t spring on tickets to tour the Forbidden city since I was kind of on a time constraint and after spending so much time in Asia the temples and palaces are no longer that appealing. Probably should have gotten up earlier and done it, but I won’t regret it.
Then got myself to the train station just in time after buying some snacks for the journey. I took a train 6 hours from Beijing to a city closer to the Mongolian border. Now I am sitting at a train station waiting until 1am for my train to the border. I’ll save a little money taking local trains to the border and then getting acrossed the border independently from the trains. It will also save me some time since I would have had to wait another day for a true Transiberian railroad sleeper car from Beijing.
Next post I might be in Mongolia or already on to face the cold in Siberia! It will be nice to enjoy some really sleeper cars!
Due to the frustratingly and painfully slow internet in China it has taken me a couple extra days to get these photos uploaded. I spent Thursday and Friday (February 22 & 23) exploring the park. I think it’s just easiest to do this post as a gallery with each picture having captions explaining details.
Found some nice internet and some time to write! Just a note that my latest post and likely most following lost are being written, usually in haste, on a smartphone. So please have mercy before you criticize my spelling errors.
I thought I would talk a little bit about my initial perceptions of Chinese culture and China in general.
I enjoy reading in my spare time and I like to read about the places I’m traveling in, so in my book relating to China I learned it has 22% of the world’s population… That’s incredible. However, they only have 8% of the world’s arable land. Farming is a big concern of the government in China and as the population increases they are trying to make sure land is used as efficiently as possible. Connecting the dots, I reckon that’s why any small town smaller in land area than Pigeon (my hometown of about a thousand people) has several 60 story apartment buildings.
These little villages with massive apartment buildings would be in the middle of mountains with the tiered farming land scaling up and down the mountain sides. Then as my train zipped by I’d see another similar town appearing to be a mini city in the middle of no where. When we finally would stop at a station these cities that no one has ever heard of outside of China or maybe even outside of that region of China are pretty massive. I’m really starting to get why there population is so high.
Overall, the land was so mountainous. I was really surprised to learn that the majority of the country and surely most of my train rides were mountains. From Laos all the way to Beijing mountains. Almost everywhere with the occasional flat lands. That explains the lack of arable land.
Now, to the Chinese people. It’s been very interesting. There are a couple of things that have caught me off guard. The manners are a little different. The old lady taking care of my hostel, who spoke no English, constantly burped and farted without a second thought. Also Chinese love to spit.. Its weird, but apparently they have this philosophy that you need to get the bad stuff out of you. It’s just shocking to me to see them hacking it up on a train car right next you.
To me it’s all kind of gross, but hey it’s their country so I won’t judge them for their cultural norms. I like the idea of them not caring what anyone thinks and just farting when they want, but that’s not how Americans are typically raised. In a country of a billion people you probably can’t count on some privacy for these things so I guess you just go for it. However, there are some things that were really frustrating for me. I would really appreciate them covering there mouths when they couth or sneeze. I’ve seen a covered mouth for a sneeze, but rarely ever for a cough. On my 26 hour train ride to Beijing the lady acrossed from me coughed constantly right into my face. I didn’t not appreciate that…
Yup, that’s what’s up! Next post is my time in Beijing!