Hi Mum, I’m in Mongolia

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It was as we were in the middle of our 30 hour train ride from Beijing to Ulaan Baator, that I started to get a feel for what we might be in for. We had reached the emptiness that starts not too far north of Beijing when the dust started pouring in through any and all opening in the carriage – fine, coating dust that got into everything and didn’t really leave us until we reached Irkutsk. Photographs cannot do justice to the scale of the place and the sheer impenetrable vastness of it. It makes Australia seem densely populated. We’ve only uploaded a few photos of our time in Mongolia, but we’ll be uploading more once we hit London. Please check back for them.

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We arrived in UB, which is possibly one of the world’s ugliest capital cities, and dumped our bags at our hostel. The hostel was located in a soviet-style apartment block and was stiflingly hot (apparently all heaters in UB are turned off on a designated day in May, regardless of the temperatures). After dumping our bags, we spent the next hour trying to find an office about 200 metres from our hostel – the UB government has decided that numbers on buildings and houses pose too great a threat to nomadic sensibilities or national security, or something of the kind. Eventually, we made to the office for our one hour of orientation before spending the next week on our own with nomadic families. The rest of the day left us with enough time to drink too much at the KhanBrau Brauhaus with some people we’d met on the train.

That evening, they were running a ‘beer market’ where the price of various beers fluctuated on the basis of demand. The pilsner was obviously unpopular with the locals that night, as it was selling for about a dollar a pint. Needless to say, there was substantial foreign investment in the market that evening. The next morning, sporting mild hangovers, we boarded the local bus for a 300km ride into the heart of Mongolia. At times, the bus ride degenerated into an off-road adventure for the stretches where the only non-international paved road in the country disappeared, but we arrived safely in what seemed like the middle of nowhere (compared with UB) and then were taken even further into the middle of nowhere to meet our first family.

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Having been left on our own with our hosts for the entire week, we communicated as best we could, which was not very well at all – we had a total of 10 minutes language training and a guidebook to help us. Still, we managed to communicate at a very basic level and avoid any major embarassment or offence (at least, I think we did).

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Not long after arriving at the first ger, we were treated to our first taste of traditional Mongolian nomadic fare – which comprised dried mutton, carrot, potatoes, flour, salt and MSG. Having been warned about the dire nature of the local food I was expecting the worst, but actually found this to be relatively palatable. It was only after we were treated to this same combination for 7 straight meals that we realised why Mongolian food has such a reputation for monotony – and we still had eight of the same meals to go. By the fourth day, our favourite game was “What would you eat if you were at home right now?”. Oh, and did I mention that we went almost a whole week without alcohol? Be proud of us folks.

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Another highlight of our time amongst the nomads was our mode of travel.

The first day we spent with our family, we were to travel to a local sacred site on their camels. These were the most recalcitrant, uncomfortable animals ever to be conceived of. We travelled about 40km in three days on these creatures and if i never have to travel by camel again, it will be too soon. Our arses have only just recovered from the insult.

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Even our guide preferred to travel by foot most of the way. For the rest of the time with our nomadic hosts, we travelled by horse. It was during this time that I understood why Mongol horsemen have the reputation they do throughout Asia. These guys are born on horses and commune with their animals in a way that was completely foreign to us. After a couple of days of having our butts pounded by the iron rings set into the saddles, we were quite happy to walk the few kilometres each way to our final sight – a local buddhist monastery located in a nearby valley.

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With all the bashing of our experience with these families, we actually do them a huge injustice. Amanda and I actually thoroughly enjoyed our week amongst the Bulgan nomads, and developed a deep respect for the way these people live and an appreciation for how easy we have it at home. These nomadic herders live an extremely difficult and austere existence (mobile phones and satellite TV notwithstanding) and it’s hard to imagine packing your whole live into a 5m wide felt tent, spending most of your day inside for 8 months of the year and praying that your flock survive the worst that the Mongolian climate can throw at them. However, these families have done it for generations with a smile and, from what we can gather, a great sense of pride in their traditions. It’s impossible to capture the inhospitable and vast landscape in which the nomads ply their trade, and I can only encourage you to get to Mongolia and see it for yourself while it still exists.

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Hi Mum, I’m in China and 197 other countries

One day, back in 2009, I read a newspaper article about the world-famous Little Mermaid statue, usually resident in Copenhagen harbour, being removed and sent to Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo. This immediately filled Alex and I with excitement. Who doesn’t love a World Expo?

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Of course, our excitement can be directly traced back to the heady days of 1988, Australia’s bicentenary year, and the year when Brisbane put itself in the world spotlight by hosting Expo ’88. We both attended and have individual memories of an awesome time. So when we heard that Shanghai would be hosting the Expo, and that we could squeeze in a visit on day 1 of its 6-month opening time if we reorganised our itinerary a bit, then by god, reorganise we did.

China seems to be in a weird place right now. Countries such as Australia and the US desperately want to be friends with it, and China equally desperately wants to show to its own citizens that it is one of the Big Kids on the world stage. Together with feeling like second best after Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, this meant that the Shanghai Expo had to be big. Bigger than big. It had to show Beijing that it could do this ‘huge event’ thing, it had to show the rest of the world that China is here to stay, and most importantly, it had to show the Chinese that they are important.

What this all meant is that our expectations of a slightly daggy, very welcoming event (such as Expo ’88) didn’t match up with reality. Various estimates of the total cost of Expo 2010 are in the range of USD55 billion. 55 billion dollars! I can’t even conceive of so much money. But once you enter the site, you begin to see where the money went.

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The site, built across two sites on either side of the Huangpu River, is apparently more immense than Monaco. Alex and I entered first thing at 9am, and left, footsore and incredibly weary at 10pm, and we hadn’t covered the whole thing. We maybe covered 2/3 of it. It’s just huge.

China proudly boasts that 198 countries came to the Expo and have a pavilion there, but in reality lots of the smaller, developing countries had a fancy-ish stall, but were empty inside. Many of these were in the enormous African and Carribean nations pavilions. As wandered through desolate and empty stalls purporting to glorify countries like Benin and Chad and Equatorial Guinea, the whole Expo thing seemed to be a bit of a sham.

So we hightailed it to a rich country’s pavilion. Parochially, we chose to queue up for the popular Danish pavilion. It glowed bright white in the sunshine, and from afar you could see happy visitors travelling down its spiral facade on pushbikes. Good fun.

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The theme for Expo 2010 is ‘Better City, Better Life’, and the best pavilions discussed the issues of healthy urbanisation. Denmark did this really well, showing some great short films about life in Copenhagen, addressing the issue of transport (hence the bikes) and painting life in Denmark as quite idyllic.

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We agree. They sold cold, cold beer there, which was very welcome after an hour queuing in the hot sun.

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We also visited the Australian pavilion, which had tremendous queues and pretty good content, although the revolutionary circular rotating screen film thing was only in Chinese – early teething problems meant there were no English headsets available.

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Still, this is an improvement from the teething problems of the trial opening, when people queuing for the Aussie pavilion were apparently getting into fistfights. Anyway, we enjoyed it and especially enjoyed that the people who put it together resisted the temptation to include any cute, furry animals in the pavilion (with the exception of the giftshop, of course). We left and visited the New Zealand pavilion just in time to see a burly Maori guy lead a few scrawny Chinese dudes through the haka.

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The focal point of the whole site is the upside-down Lego structure that is the massive Chinese pavilion (see first photo). It is immense, visible from very far away, and, it seems, impossible to get into. We didn’t even try.

In total, the experience was just as China so often is – huge, frustrating, amusing, amazing, tiring, and with horrible queues. We’re very happy we went.

Hi Mum, I’m in Beijing

Gosh, China’s big, isn’t it?

That’s pretty much the feeling I had almost every second in Beijing.

But back to the start. We arrived early morning in Beijing and faced a horrendous queue at the train station for a taxi to our hostel. The Chinese, unlike the English, are not gifted at queuing, and it was a complete schmozzle. After getting kneecapped a few times (and reciprocating in turn) we finally made it out of the train station and to the youth hostel. We had a great time at the Peking International Youth Hostel and can recommend it. It’s located right next to the Forbidden City, in an old area filled with local food and only a couple of streets away from the insanity of Wanfujing, one of the main shopping streets in Beijing. On our first morning we set out for food, and ate like kings at a local eatery – 7 yuan (about a dollar) will get you a bowl of congee, a bowl of dumpling soup, three small and wonderfully juicy steamed buns and two you tiao, fresh deepfried doughsticks. Unsurprisingly, we ended up back there twice more for hearty and cheap breakfasts, this time getting stuck into the warm, sweetened soymilk.

The awesome food expectations dissipated a bit when we went to investigate Wanfujing’s “Snack Street”, a dire tourist-fest of tacky shock-value foods on a stick. If you want some unhygienic-looking barbecued meat, some (still-wriggling) scorpions, centipedes or lizards, this is the place for you. This was not the place for us; we continued on and ate a late lunch at a restaurant on Donghuamen where the food was great (they served fried slow-roasted meat, similar to the cumin pork ribs at Dainty Sichuan) and the service ridiculously surly. I’ve not seen such sulky and grumpy behaviour since year 9.

That wasn’t the end of the great food, though. We had a delicious meal at an old family-run restaurant in the hutongs (apparently owned by the same family for more than 100 years) and – of course – hunted down some good old Peking Duck. We had this delicacy twice, about a week apart, and each time it was fantastic. Our first attempt was at a very local, middle-class restaurant in the burbs. We waited the requisite 50 minutes for our duck (given that we hadn’t ordered in advance) and the wait was definitely worth it. The skin was lacquered and the fat highly rendered – it reminded me of pork crackling. All the condiments were perfect and it left us feeling appropriately rotund. A great meal.

The following week, we tried the upper end of the scale and ordered the duck at Duck de Chine, a high end restaurant in the expat-heavy part of Beijing. This duck was similarly attractive to look at, and (embarrasingly) the waitress banged a small gong to announce its arrival at our table. This time, the duck sauce was heightened with garlic and sesame paste and the duck itself was surprisingly light. We left the restaurant well-fed but lacking the feeling of being suffused by duck fat that we’re so used to after a meal at Old Kingdom. Verdict: Peking Duck in Peking/Beijing is as good as you’d hope.

Anyway, getting back on track. The rest of our first day was consumed by mundane chores – queuing to submit paperwork for Mongolian visas, picking up train tickets, queuing to collect visas (man, I hate getting visas. The opportunity for a petty-minded bureaucrat to completely stuff up your plans is just too great for my liking). But with all that in order, it was time to hit the sights.

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Wandering around Tianan’men Square was great fun (Alex wanted to change this to “it was a blast”, but I vetoed it). Given the massacre, is that inappropriate? That event did come to mind, but given that it is (unsurprisingly) completely ignored and unmarked by any kind of plaque or memorial, it was pretty easy to forget that this was the site of that event. We were in Beijing for the week leading up to May Day, the big public holiday celebrating the workers of the country, and the city was packed. Huge LED screens were being set up in the Square, plus a soft-focus portrait of this guy. Who is he?

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People, including plenty of kids, carried Chinese flags around with them, and posed for photographs in front of the big Mao portrait, or in front of the huge Monument to the People’s Heroes, or Mao’s mausoleum.

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Of course, this meant that we’re both now in plenty of candid family snaps too.

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That guy on the end thought he was just so cool. And do you notice me sneakily hiding the can of beer I was drinking as I wandered around?

We also visited the immense Forbidden City. Given the impending national holiday, there were loads of domestic tourists and we were a bit worried that our experience of the place would be hampered. But in reality, the place is so bloody huge that it could swallow the thousands of tourists swarming around it and end up feeling relatively empty.

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It’s really an astonishing place, but the word ‘cosy’ most definitely did not come to mind. We were feeling the effect of the Siberian winds that sweep Mongolia (often picking up sand and dust) and buffet Beijing regularly – it was icy out there. I wondered how the Imperial Chinese kept warm in amongst all that stone.

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While in Beijing we thought we’d check out the old Olympic site. Given China’s ability to do things on a grand scale, we weren’t disappointed. The Bird’s Nest Stadium is pretty cool – the structure of the covering ‘Nest’ in intricate and interesting to see.

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But even better stuff was hidden away from the track. We found a huge gift shop, still selling Bird’s Nest keyrings, tea mugs, posters, ornamental pen holders, “authentic” “genuine” Chinese vases, toys, statues… the selection was endless. And people were buying them! The Chinese tourists we came across really are into their souvenirs.

Next to the giftshop was a bizarre little display – wax figures of all the IOC presidents. Now I know where to go when I need a plastic-looking, creepy version of Jacques Rogge or Pierre de Coubertin. It was wonderfully odd.

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Here is a photo of a photo of Juan Antonio Samaranch looking decidedly startled upon meeting Wax Juan Antonio Samaranch.

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We also enjoyed the ‘Do not walk on the grass’ signs outside. How wonderfully twee.

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No trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. Many cities have ‘must-see’ destinations, but this would have to be one of the most ‘must-see’ places I’ve been.

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The wall, segmented as it is, can be accessed from a few different places on day-trips from Beijing, and the most common is the Disneyland of Badaling. We opted instead to head further out of the city and spent a day hiking the ruined and partially-restored wall at Simatai, its most lofty point. The wall curled around the mountains to the west “like a dragon’s tail” (as per the sign) and gave constantly entrancing views. We climbed and climbed, passing about 12 watchtowers and feeling the strain in muscles we hadn’t used for a while. The steps were uneven and often very narrow, necessitating a weird sideways approach.

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We planned to reach the highest accessible point and then catch the chairlift part of the way down the mountain, thrilled that we didn’t have to negotiate the stairs back down (with gravity ever eager to make the descent more rapid). But – bugger it, due to the high winds the chairlift was closed. We carefully crept back down the wall and made it, safe and sound. All along the trip, we stopped constantly to marvel at the sights. After the heavy smog of Beijing we were thrilled by the endless views.

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Finally, when I said at the start that everything is bigger in China, I meant everything. Check out this magnificent mullet.

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Impressive!

Hi Mum, I’m in Chengdu (and Xi’an)

Oh Chengdu, you were the shining light in our itinerary. We had spent many happy hours speculating about what a giant Dainty Sichuan restaurant you were going to be. So why the fuck did I get gastro there the day I arrived!? It’s not fair.

We arrived in Chengdu in the morning, after two days spent on the train and were both eager to hunt down some ma la (that’s the signature Sichuanese combination of hot and numbing) food. We even went so far as to walk in to a local Carrefour and inhale over the huge mounds of Sichuan pepper sitting there. It’s a bit sad I know, but all our fellow Dainty Sichuan devotees/junkies will understand. That night, we had planned to meet up with a Canadian girl, living in Chengdu, who writes a blog on local food and go out for a mouth-numbing and ring-of-fire inducing hot pot. Sadly for me, it wasn’t to be. I’d begun a to feel a bit off colour during the afternoon and tried napping it off, but by the time we were walking across town to the restaurant things were looking bad. We arrived at the restaurant, and as much as I really, really, really wanted to want to eat, the overpowering smells of chilli, pepper and meat made my stomach turn in an ominous way. So I headed for the safety of bed with its proximal porcelain. Apparently the hot pot was amazing. So it goes. I should add that I did get to try the hot pot on our last night in Chengdu, and it was amazing. Hot to the point of chilli sweats and disconcertingly numbing, but a simmering pot of gold that makes everything that goes in come out delicious.

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By the afternoon of the next day, I was prepared to face the strenuous activities on offer at the Wenshu Monastery and, more specifically, its teahouse. These included: drinking tea, having your teacup refilled, drinking tea and watching old people playing cards, drinking tea and having their ears cleaned by roving excavators. The pace of life in Chengdu, while a big city (about 11m people), is very laid back and this place was typical of that – people just seem to spend their days hanging out. It was the perfect place to convalesce.

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That night, I was ready for some good local cuisine. We asked the girls at the hostel where we could get some good ma po doufu – one of our Dainty favourites and usually a good source of chilli and Sichuan pepper. They recommended the place down the road and we arrived with high hopes. We ordered the ma po along with some fish-flavoured eggplant and were disappointed to find a lack of heat in both dishes. Something was wrong. We later realised that we’d forgotten to specify that we wanted the dishes spicy – the default position at restaurants in Asia is to remove all traces of chilli whenever they see a white face. This was a mistake we didn’t repeat.

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Our third day, we were off to see Chengdu’s other tourist attraction – Pandas (aka China’s diplomatic weapon of choice). There isn’t much to say about them except for the fact that they’re incredibly cute. I think the photos say it best. We were lucky that we arrived early, as got to see the pandas in action and they tend to spend the rest of the day asleep after consuming their body weight in bamboo.

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That afternoon, we had another crack at getting some good food into us, and we hit the jackpot, using our Dainty Sichuan menu as an aid to my rudimentary Chinese. The result was three dishes that were hot, numbing and oh so delicious. I could go on and on about how good they were, but that would be cruel. Feeling smug with our discovery, we headed back to our hostel to sleep off our food babies, but our joy was short lived. Amanda had started to feel a bit off colour. So began another round of bed rest and tea house convalescence.

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Our combined days laid up in bed and our tender stomachs put paid to our plans to both eat obscene amounts of Sichuanese food and also to visit the nearby town of Langzhong, but that’s the way things go. The food we did try fell both sides of the benchmark set by our beloved Dainty Sichuan – I have to say that while the Melbourne version holds up pretty well againt its Chengdu counterparts, the local version still wins by a few lengths. Chengdu also boasts a few “Sichuanified” snacks that I wish we could get at home. The first is Lay’s “Numb & Spicy Hot Pot Flavor” chips. These bags of awesomeness are seriously addictive and do an impressive rendition of the actual hot pot taste. If you ever see them, buy them. The second was McDonalds’ “ma la chicken burger”. We had to try this burger (for research purposes only, of course). And you should feel lucky that we tried it so that you don’t have to. The burger does have some hot and numbing flavour, but it tasted really artificial and came with the latent regret that only McDonalds can deliver.

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Having done Chengdu, we decided to make a 36-hour stopover in Xi’an on our way through to Beijing. Xi’an was a whirlwind stop of delicious muslim Chinese food, a drunken evening out with the population of our hostel making dumplings and visiting a local nightclub, and a hungover trip out to the terracotta warriors. The excavated warriors were an awe-inspiring sight, even through our whisky haze, and were our first taste of the massive scale on which Chinese imperial monuments are constructed. If we’d known how much we would enjoy Xi’an, we probably would have spent an extra couple of days there; however, as we were getting toward the big May Day holidays, we needed to book all our travel in advance. Oh well, there’s always next time…

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