Saturday, April 30, 2016

Random Musings from Mongolia

Though they drive on the right in Mongolia, most of the cars are set up for driving on the left; that is, they are right-side drive cars. And driving here is really an open frontier. People don't seem to be particularly affected by things like traffic signals, signs, or whether there are pedestrians potentially in the way of their path when making their driving decisions. So if you are a pedestrian, the best thing to do is GTF out of the way in every circumstance, because you are at the bottom of the food chain. It's not like I haven't been in that circumstance in other countries before. I am just surprised I haven't seen more accidents because of it.  Also, people will just park in the most nonsensical places, like the only entrance to a crowded parking lot. Then someone will pull behind, and just sit on their horn, even though there is nobody in the parked car. But Mongolian tow trucks get a lot of work due to this...I've seen cars towed in circumstances like this on a few occasions. Intersections can just be complete gridlock, as people will just pull into the intersection from all four sides, and not cede way to anyone. And then everybody will just sit on the horn. But there doesn't seem to be a lot of driving on the sidewalk, like there was in Beijing. And there aren't a ton of bicycles and scooters like in China, either.

I mentioned earlier that I don't have data in Mongolia. So I'm dependent on WiFi to get on the Internet at all. Which means that when I'm walking around the city, I have no Internet access at all. But a couple at one of the hostels I stayed at in Beijing turned me on to an android app called that does just about everything Google Maps does, but offline. Google Maps claims they allow you to download offline maps, but it doesn't work in some countries. It didn't work for me in Mongolia at all, so I downloaded when I was on the hostel's WiFi. After I downloaded the map data for the entire country of Mongolia in about a minute or two, it has worked great for me offline; about as well as Google Maps does online.  And it is open source and free.

I've heard a few people answer their phones here in Mongolia, and every single one of them has said something that sounds almost exactly like "Bueno" when they answer the phone.  It surprised me to hear that,  because I hear that all the time among Spanish speakers back home.  And I answer my phone like that occasionally, too, especially when solicitors call, and I can then pretend I don't speak English.  Of course, one of my favorite phone greetings has always been to put on a voice sort of like Lt. Worf, and answer the phone with, "Speak freely, with no fear of retribution."  Somehow I don't imagine that happens in Mongolia a lot.

The bathroom in the hostel has a toilet plunger with a bicycle pump-like mechanism on it. What a great idea...haven't seen that in the States.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Money in Mongolia

I haven't seen any coin money here in Mongolia at all. Even the smallest denominations are represented by paper money. There are about 2000 Mongolian Tugriks to the dollar, and I have seen bills for as low as 10 Tugriks, which would be about half a cent. Whenever anyone gives you change, they seem to want to get rid of as many small bills as they can (e.g., rather than give you a 1000 tugrik bill, you will get a stack of 10s, 20s, 50s and maybe 100s), so you can end up with a half-inch thick wad of currency that is worth very little. So I've been trying to pay with exact change whenever possible, and doing the same thing; that is, getting rid of the smallest bills possible. Otherwise I'll just end up with a pile of tiny bills. And I hear that once you are outside the country, nobody will want to touch Mongolian currency, so it will be hard to trade it for something else. But sometimes I can't pay with exact change, so I'll end up with another huge pile of small bills, and the cycle starts again.

Genghis Khan (or, as he is called here,  Chinggis Khaan) is on the 20000, 10000, 5000, 1000 and 500 tugrik bills. I have no idea who the other guy is who is on the 100, 50, 20 and 10 (OK, I just looked it up, it is Damdiny Sühbaatar. You can look up who he is). Apparently there are even smaller notes, corresponding to 1 and 5, and even change for a one, but they are no longer in common usage, as they are pretty much worthless. I would bet they are not worth the paper they are printed on. It seems strange that there are no bills available bigger than 20000, as that is about ten bucks. In China, Mao was on all the paper money that I saw. 

More Goings On in Ulaanbaatar

I wonder if I should be worried about the fact that Mongolia has a Department of Pickpockets. There seems to be a lot of information about how there is a lot of pickpocketing here. So far, I haven't had any problems. I have to watch out for the maneuver whereby someone blocks you in front, someone blocks you in back, preventing retreat, and a third person rips you off. Or variations on that theme. The main thing is that there are apparently people working in groups to steal stuff.

Yesterday, I picked up my train tickets for the next leg of my journey. Finding the place was relatively difficult, but I gave myself the whole day to do it. In fact, I found it by early morning. There were no street names in the directions I was given, and a crudely drawn map showed the place as being directly behind Sukhbaatar Square, when in fact, it was over a kilometer behind it. I couldn't figure out how to get the door open to either enter or leave the building (upon leaving, I was trapped in a small, completely dark chamber for a bit between an inner and an outer door), but in both cases, I just followed someone else who obviously had expertise in opening doors.

But I had a good time wandering around and taking in the sights of the city. Ulaanbaatar is relatively compact and easily walkable. When I first got here I was overwhelmed and disoriented, but now I have a pretty good handle on how the city is set up. There are visible mountains to the north and south, so once one becomes familiar with them, it is easy to become oriented.

After picking up my ticket, I just wandered around for a while. I ended up finding a vegan restaurant that was attached to a Buddhist temple near one of the museums. It had really delicious food, and I got to experience traditional Mongolian food done vegan. Everything on the menu looked delicious, and I wish I could have just sampled a little of everything.

I met an American guy a couple of nights ago who is a visiting scholar from Albuquerque working with one of the museums. He was telling me about an effort he was working with to save a Mongolian horse from extinction, and that it had been brought back to viability from only 11 known individuals. I told him that it seems that the remaining individuals would be pretty genetically homogeneous, but he did that wasn't the case, as the ones remaining had been scattered around the world in zoos, rather than being a small band in one place.

Every once in a while I will hear people speaking English in public, but this is rare. Yesterday, I ran into a couple of German guys I had met on the train in the city, and we were surprised and glad to see each other.

More wanderings on the agenda for today.  It was below freezing when I woke up this morning around sunrise, but it warms up really early morning, it will probably be at least 8C (around 50F), and the high is supposed to be around 19C (maybe 70-ish F).

Arriving in Ulaanbaatar

Well, crap. I was counting on having data in Mongolia, and was kinda blindsided by not having any. I thought I'd have a problem in China due to their blockage of websites, but in fact, I had no problem there. Now I don't know where my hostel is, if they will pick me up, or how to pick up my purchased tickets for the next leg of the Trans-Mongolian Railway. And I can't get online to find out. If I had realized that, I would have looked that all up ahead of time.  Gotta either find some WiFi pronto, or find a tourist bureau or something. Or both. I'm about a half hour away from Ulaanbaatar.

On top of that, I've been fleeced for every little snack I've bought since the train dining car changed to the Mongolian car. It's not too bad, it's just mildly annoying.  People can really use exchange rates against you if they are prepared and you are not. When I first walked into the dining car, the waiter just started bringing me stuff. Just coffee and snacky stuff, and then presented me with a bill that was about three times what I had paid for a full meal in the Chinese dining car. Then, later, I ordered a drink that was around four dollars, and paid in US currency with a twenty (he gave me the choice of paying with Chinese, Mongolian, or US money), and he was going to give me fifteen in change; a ten and a five. I told him he could give me Mongolian money as change, so he comes back with the equivalent of ten dollars in Mongolian money as change. I just can't stop doing things that get me ripped off more.

So I get to the train station. The hostel is definitely not there to pick me up. Everybody else I have been traveling with has a ride, and nobody has heard of this hostel. Shit. I go in the train station, ask at the information desk, they have no idea what I am talking about. I have nothing other than (thank god! otherwise there is no way I would have found the place or remembered the name) the address in English and the phone number and name of the place that I had entered in my calendar app. Nobody can decipher it; I ask if I can use the phone to call them by putting my extended thumb and little finger up to my ear like a phone cradle, but they shake their heads to indicate no.

I am getting nowhere fast. I sit around for a while, and then some lady takes me by the hand and leads me outside. There is a taxi there, I show him the stuff I have in English, and he is perplexed. BTW, Mongolian addresses have no street name in them. They might be something like "Room #39, Entrance 2, Building 10A, Sukhbataar District, Ulaanbaatar." And the English versions are completely indecipherable to someone who doesn't speak English.

He tries to make some calls, including calling the number I have for the hostel, and gets nowhere. I don't think they are answering the phone. He motions me to get in the cab,  so I do.  He starts driving, but I don't think he knows where he is going.

He keeps trying to call the hostel, but gets no answer.  So he is just driving around, I'm pretty sure. Somebody calls him, it is the proprietor of the hostel. He talks to her for a few minutes, and he looks at me and says, "OK," and makes a thumbs-up gesture. He wants me to talk on the phone; the manager speaks English. She says she is in the country, and will be in town in about two and a half hours. She says I can wait at the first door of the State Department Store. I repeat this back to her vacantly. I have no idea what is happening.

We drive a pretty good distance from the bus station, and I have no idea where we are. This is the first hostel that I have not had any means to follow where I am and where I am going. He drives up to a place, and motions me to get out. He will take me to it. 

I follow him into a building, up the stairs, to the third floor.  There is a sign there with the name of the hostel. Good, we are at the right place. I pay the guy, he leaves me there, and I try to go in, but the door is locked. 

I knock on the door, but there is no answer. So I sit in the narrow staircase with my pack. There is a small child who is playing in the staircase, and she is curious about me. She tries to speak to me, and doesn't seem to understand that I don't speak Mongolian. All I can do in reply is smile kindly.  After a while she gets bored and goes to play upstairs. I keep sitting in the stairwell for a while, and then someone shows up with a key to the hostel, and lets me in. She speaks very little English, but is able to show me my bed. She tells me the owner is on her way. But at least now I know that I have a definite place to lay down.

I wait another hour and a half or so, and the hostel proprietor shows up. She speaks English, and I pay for my room. It's about twenty bucks for four nights.  I relax at the hostel for a while, then set out to check out the surroundings.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

From Sadness to Excitement...From Beijing to Ulaanbaatar

I always get a little bit sad when I am getting ready to leave a place. And it was a little bit sad to leave Beijing. I had met some friends there, and we all had hung out in the lounge at the hostel to chat. But it turned out we were all leaving at the same time. The city was interesting, and I hadn't even scratched the surface of what there was to see.

But that bit of sadness turned to excitement as I prepared to take the Trans-Mongolian Railway. I mean, crossing into Mongolia on a train! I had booked my tickets far in advance (back when I was in the US), and had picked them up at a travel agency in Beijing. So I was ready to roll on this new adventure, and that was exciting.

I decided to walk to the train station, which was about 1.6 kms away from the hostel.  On my way to the train station, I met Simon, who was also taking a train out. We walked together to the train station, and then I tried to cash in my subway card with no luck. Simon decided to go on to the station while I did this, because he would have had to go through a security check.  Theoretically, it was possible to cash the card in, but at the two subway stations where I tried to do it I encountered an impenetrable wall of Chinese bureaucracy, so I gave up.  There was only about three dollars left on it (plus the card deposit), and I would have had to go to a third station, and I had no idea where it was. And my train was getting ready to depart. Maybe I'll be able to find someone down the road who is heading to Beijing who can use it.

I boarded the Trans-Mongolian train a little before noon. The cars were nice; I had a sleeper seat/bed all to myself. There were four sleeper berths in the compartment; two upper ones and two lower ones. I have what they call the hard sleeper and I believe it is second-class, though it is plenty comfortable to me, and I would not see any reason to pay more for the first-class soft sleepers. But maybe that's just me. I saw some compartments that looked like they had fluffier cushions, and only two berths (but still top and bottom), and then a plush chair on the other side. Having a top berth has got to suck significantly more than a bottom one, and I'm glad I don't have one, but expect I might at some point. There is no ladder to get up to it (like there is in hostel bunks), so you just have to clamber up to it. You can't really sit in it all that comfortably like you can in the bottom berth, so you would have to lay down, or share the bottom seat with the occupant until bedtime. Or maybe you could just hang out in the dining car. I hope they are cheaper than the bottom berths, because if they are the same price, it would suck to lose that lottery. But it would be tolerable if it were the only choice on a packed train.

There were also electricity outlets in the compartment (but only in the bottom berths), which surprised me; stuff I had read online had led me to think the trains would not have electricity,  or at least it would be limited to the attendant's compartment.

I shared the compartment with Klin, a Thai woman who was a student, and we both occupied the lower berths. It was strange that we were sharing a compartment, since there were only three people in the whole train car, which consisted of nine compartments with four beds each. But I guess those were the tickets that had been booked. I had been led to believe from stuff I read online that these tickets were hard to get but it sure didn't look that way. A bunch of us on the train compared what we paid, and most of us paid in the $200-$300 range (not bad for a train ride of about 26 hours), but one Belgian guy only paid about 50 Euros. I would wager that it would be significantly cheaper than an international train if you could take a domestic train to the border, walk across the border, and then take another domestic train.

The first area we rode through was a spectacular mountain range a little ways outside Beijing. We snaked in and out of mountain tunnels frequently, which sometimes messed with the pictures I was taking, as just as I would get a shot lined up, we would enter another tunnel.

Then we entered the province of Hebei. This area was flatter, and not as majestic as the mountains. Every area from here out was flatter, there were no more beautiful mountain scenes.

Then we entered Inner Mongolia, a region in China, which had some nice views, but was terribly littered in some areas with trash, and it looked like some rapacious strip-mining and resource extraction had taken place, even within some of the cities and villages. The biggest city we passed through in Inner Mongolia was Ulanqab, a city of more than two million inhabitants.

The sun set over Inner Mongolia, and I took a nap for a short time. There was nothing to see in the dark anyway. Earlier in the day, I had met up with a bunch of tourists in the kitchen car who were playing a dice game that was a Hungarian variant of Yahtsee (called Yahtzi, had somewhat more complex rules), so I joined in for a few games.

Then the train stopped at Erlian (also known as Erenhot) a Chinese town on the Mongolian border.  All the wheels needed to be changed out underneath the train to accommodate a different gauge of railroad track in Mongolia. As they prepared to change the wheels, the lights flickered, and the electricity outlets stopped working throughout the process. I suspect that they turned off the electricity throughout the train, but then connected the lights to a generator or some external electricity source.

We were stopped here for a little over three hours while they accomplished this task, and some of us went outside for a while. The train had been truncated at some point.  When we left Beijing, it was quite a long train, but now it was down to just nine cars. I guess the other cars must have been domestic train cars, and had been removed at stations along the line. But then they added more cars at this station, so the train was longer again going into Mongolia (I found out later that I could not get to some of the new cars they added in front, as the door to the new section was locked). It was fairly chilly outside, and I had to get the down shell jacket I had purchased in Beijing. Some of the passengers were having a wine party outside the train. I had read online that one could explore the town whole this was going on, but they herded us back on the train after just a few minutes, so there was no opportunity to do so.

Chinese customs agents boarded the train, made us fill out departure forms, and took our passports for about an hour before returning them. After a short bit, Mongolian customs also boarded and did a very cursory check. But, strangely, they didn't even take the customs form we had to fill out. They just stamped it and have it back to us.

I had been drifting in and out of sleep while all this customization had been going on. I did watch the changing of the train's undercarriage from the inside of our car, which was interesting. They separated out all the cars from each other, jacked the cars way up, very slowly, and rolled the new wheel assembly under each car. We could see all the newly stranded passengers in the next car pressed against the window at the back of the car while they were doing this.

I also got a text from T-Mobile telling me that I didn't have data or texting for free in Mongolia as I had in the other countries so far. I've been somewhat spoiled by having free data, even though it was slow. So I turned off data on my phone (so I don't inadvertently get charged some enormous roaming fee), and now I'll only be able to connect to the Internet in Mongolia when I can find WiFi. No big deal, it will just be a new adventure. Humankind has only had WiFi for about a nanosecond of our existence anyway, and somehow we managed to survive.

After sleeping through the night, I awoke just in time to watch the sun rise over the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Shortly after that, the train arrived in the village of Sain-Shanda, where it stopped for about half an hour. I was hoping to get out and wander for about fifteen minutes, but the train doors were locked, so no such luck. After that there were sparsely spattered small structures in the desert very infrequently, punctuated with the occasional yurt.

Early in the morning, I went back to where the dining car had been, and it was not in the same place. I just kept going, and it was way back at the end of the train. But they had replaced the Chinese dining car with a Mongolian dining car. I sat down, and the dining steward immediately starting bringing me stuff, even though I didn't order anything. I had wanted coffee, and I got that, but all sorts of other stuff arrived too. Oh, well, I was a bit hungry. Then he came to collect the bill, and it was much more than the Chinese car had charged for food. Maybe it had something to do with the exchange rate, since I had Chinese yuan, and no Mongolian money. He offered me the choice between paying with Mongolian, Chinese, or American money. I wonder if I would have gotten a better deal with dollars.

The Gobi Desert in Mongolia is enormous, and mostly flat, with some undulating dunes, sparse grasses, and low shrubs. Periodically cattle, horses, or sheep will appear on the landscape.  There is also the occasional resource-extraction environmental nightmare. But it doesn't seem to have earth-destruction machinery and open sores on the land, or rampant trash piles, as often as Inner Mongolia did in China.

Mongolia will be colder than the places I have been so far. It may get down to freezing temperatures at night. Good, that will give me a chance to use some of the cold-weather clothing that I have been lugging around that takes up so much room in my pack.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Why Don't the Dogs Bark and Other Things

I am really curious as to why none of the dogs I've seen in Beijing bark. I've only seen little bitty dogs, and they are usually really fluffy, or really hairy. The cats seem to be extra hairy too, with long, wild-looking fur.

Actually, I saw ONE dog bark. It was being walked on a leash, and a street sweeper came up behind the dog and really freaked the dog out, and it gave out a neurotic trauma bark. But that was the only one, all the other ones have been completely silent. You wouldn't see that in the US at all. Every dog barks, just about.

And I haven't found a single supermarket in Beijing yet. There are places that call themselves supermarkets, but they are sort of a cross between convenience stores and produce stands, usually packed into really small spaces in a hutong, or alley.  I did see a place that called itself a "hypermarket", but I didn't go in, and it didn't look like it had a very expansive amount of space.

The last couple days were pretty busy for me as far as sightseeing is concerned. I'm leaving China soon, so I guess I've wanted to see as much as I could. Yesterday, I spent a good portion of the day at the Forbidden City, which was called that because nobody was allowed in or out without the Emperor's permission for centuries. Nowadays, anyone who pays the entrance fee can get in.

Today I went to Beihai Park in the morning,  and the Summer Palace in the afternoon. Now I'm really tired, because I walked over 29 kilometers today, which is my record on this trip so far. So I may crash soon.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dumplings and Markets

I was talking the other night to Daniel from the Philippines, who works in an American Express call center there, and saves up diligently to travel every chance he gets. He was a very talkative, friendly guy who occupied the bunk opposite me. He has traveled throughout a great deal of Asia, and hopes to visit the US someday. His words of wisdom to me were that you can visit a place and do nothing. You don't have to set an agenda, you can just lay in bed if you want, and get out and see stuff whenever you want, and do whatever you want. Because that's what traveling should be about, doing what you want to do, and enjoying travel the way you want to enjoy it. Right on.

Yesterday morning, a couple from England who had been in my room came up to the rooftop garden while I was letting some clothes dry up there. I like to let my clothes dry outside until they are no longer dripping, and then bring them inside to hang near my bed frame to dry the rest of the way. So we talked for a while while I was monitoring the drying of my clothes. 

They were spending their last night in the room at the hostel, and were going to camp out on a secluded spot on the Great Wall. We got to talking about politics, and they said they loved Bernie Sanders (I find that a lot of the young people in the hostels really dig Bernie).  I told them I had done some work to help Bernie get on the ballot in Texas, and they were thrilled. I also told them about my congressional campaign a couple of years ago.

I was surprised to see them light up a spleef on the rooftop. To me, it had seemed like China and weed might not be compatible, though I really hadn't thought about it. But apparently it is possible to score weed in China. I didn't ask about the particulars.
Yesterday, I just wandered around Beijing aimlessly, as I have mostly been doing. There was a brisk wind, which helped with the pollution, as the wind seemed to blow it away and the sky was relatively clear. The day before, the pollution had been awful. But apparently on days when there is rain or wind, the pollution is chased away.

Then I got back to the hostel in time for a dumpling making party. They had the dough and fillings made, and we all rolled out little circles of dough, and then filled them with whatever fillings we wanted, and folded then in half, and sealed the edges. Then they took them off and boiled them, and returned them to be served to us. It was a great way to learn about Chinese cooking and to meet people at the hostel.

Today, I set off to the Silk Market with Simon from the Netherlands, who I met last night at the dumpling party. I needed to get a packable down shell coat for cold weather, and I had been waiting to get to China to get one. But, stupid me, I screwed myself in bargaining...things were happening fast,  and I wasn't paying attention to the exchange rate, but, rather, concentrating on how much the price had come down from the original. I ended up paying about three times what I could have bought it for in the US online. Oh, well, another expensive lesson. I didn't even realize it until afterwards when I calculated the exchange rate of what I had paid.  Next time, I'll figure that out beforehand, so I'll have a benchmark. And I'll only carry the amount I want to pay in my wallet.  But I really don't need to buy any more goods, except for maybe a warm neck ring.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A New Team

Well, I moved to a new hostel today. I don't know why I booked two different hostels in Beijing...I just wanted to see if there were any better amenities that I was missing out on, have some point of reference, etc.

The last hostel was fairly nice. The rooms were super quiet, and there were some nice common spaces. The solitude in the rooms was quite a change from the conviviality of the rooms in the Australian hostels. As a matter of fact, the light was almost never on in the room. Everybody kept to themselves, and I never even met my roommates. The beds were all shrouded with privacy curtains that were always closed. The staff was nice and helpful; I could have stayed there, but I just wanted to experience something different.

At the new place, it's quiet also, but at least I've met some of my suitemates on the first day. The rooms are a little cheaper, but almost everything else is a little more expensive. Including laundry.

I had been waiting to do a load of laundry until I got to China, because it was so expensive in Australia. But it turns out that laundry is even more expensive in China, because they don't have laundry machines, but, rather, they send laundry out to a service. So I decided to just do laundry in the sink, as I have been doing.

All throughout Australia, I alternated between two sets of clothes, team blue shirt, and team gray shirt. I would either wash one in the sink and change into the other, or wash one and put it on damp and let it dry on my body. But, as I was leaving Australia, I neglected to wash team blue shirt in the sink, so I lugged it along with me as dirty laundry. So, now, when team gray shirt got dirty, I had to wash two sets of clothes in the sink. Now I had to turn to team dark blue shirt. It's the first time that I had to use a third set of clothes.

So I washed the two sets of clothes in the sink, and used my bungee cord clothesline for the first time. It is hanging diagonally over my bottom bunk (yay, I got a bottom bunk!) right now as I type this and the clothes are almost dry.

Before, with just one set of clothes, I could just hang them on the slats of the bed. But two sets are just too much to do that with. So I strung up the clothesline.

That is all probably much more detail and minutia than you care about regarding my laundry, and it's not as exciting as The Great Wall of China or anything, but, hey, it's my deal.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Great Wall

When I get together with a bunch of people around a table, often I feel like one of the least traveled people at the table.  There are always people who have traveled extensively in the country I am in, and know every nook and cranny, as well as the surrounding countries, and can regale you with tales of just about every continent that you name. I sometimes feel like I have just hit a few highlights, or whatever I have happened to stumble across.

Yesterday morning, a very drunk woman stumbled into the hostel at about 6 in the morning while I was sitting in the common room. She said she had been out partying all night, and had just got in. She was very talkative. I never caught her name, but she was from a small village in Japan that only had about 200 people. She was telling me that in Japan, if you leave your cell phone in a public place, and go back to find it the next day, it will still be there; nobody will touch it. She moved to Chicago to go to medical school, and ended up dropping out of medical school, but stayed in Chicago for ten years. She said that Chicago was astounding to her after coming from a small town in Japan. When she was 22, she married a man who was 55, and she said he was a kind and gentle man, and good to her,  but he was poor and became sick.  After they were married three years, he died of cancer. He didn't have much, but she didn't want to take what he had,  and gave all his possessions and money to his son. After a few years, she started traveling the world.

She said she was 30 years old and completely broke, but had just been traveling around the world for two years. She would stop in places occasionally for a while to make some money giving piano lessons. I told her I was a piano player too, and she said I should give lessons, it was an easy way to make money on the road. I talked to her for a while until it was time to leave on the bus, when I went up to my room to get my day pack.  As I was heading out the door, I heard her pleading with the front desk to let her stay, she would have the money tomorrow. I think they did.

One of the people at the front desk walked me over to where the bus to the Mutianyu Gate of the Great Wall of China stopped. Our bus driver and guide said his name was Tony. He was very animated. He drove us to the location, and told us what to do and where to go, but left us all to explore on our own and did not lead us up the mountain.

Tony strongly suggested that we take the cable car up to the top. He said that was the best way to get to the steepest parts of the mountain, and it was the only way to see the older parts of the wall in the time we had. He said we would be walking the whole time anyway.

Tony told us that this would be a very strenuous climb even if we were in good shape. And he was right. The mountain was steep, he said we would be going up at least 5000 steps. He gave us three and a half hours to meet back at the restaurant for lunch, and sent us on our way.

The cable car I took up the mountain had emblazoned on the window that it was the same car Michelle Obama took up to the Great Wall. The views were spectacular.
The hike was very strenuous. In some places, the steps were almost knee-high, and only half as long as my big feet, so I had to go up the steps with my feet turned sideways.

I walked quite a ways on the wall, and passed through many of the gates along the way. The first part of the wall had been restored in the 1980s, and was well-constructed and solid.

Then I got to a gate where the through corridor had been bricked over. The only way to get past this gate was to scale the wall. I sat there for about ten minutes, thinking, "do I really want to do this?" I watched people go over the wall on the right side, which was lower, but had a direct drop off a cliff and only about a two-inch ledge (with a one-inch pipe on it) to walk on the other side for a few meters, and the left side, which was higher, but didn't have a huge drop on the other side, and had a safer-looking landing. Most people didn't scale this wall and turned back here. I made a couple of attempts on the right side, but there were no good footholds and the drop REALLY freaked me out. Also a fucking stone came loose that I was using as a handhold, and I scraped myself up falling when that happened.  I psyched myself up a little more and climbed the left side successfully. But coming back, I took the other side.

After the wall I had to climb over, I arrived at an older section of the Great Wall. This part had not been restored and was crumbling and falling apart.

But then I got to the "oh fucking holy shit" section of the Great Wall. There is a warning sign telling people not to go there because there is serious danger.  And, yup, there is. It is about seven hundred years old, steep, unmaintained, crumbling, and overgrown with vegetation. There was only a narrow place to walk, crowded out by aggressive bushes, with loose stones to walk on, and sheer drops on either side. 

Sometimes I had to walk only on the edge of the wall, because the overgrowth crowded out the rest of the space. But I kept on anyway until I had to turn back barely in time to get lunch and scurry back down to the tour bus.

I had turned around exactly at the right time; I took up all three and a half hours and walked into the restaurant the minute we were supposed to meet there after hauling ass back. I had walked up about two hours and ten minutes, and took about an hour twenty to get back down. Then I took the cable car back down again, and walked the rest of the path to the restaurant.

We had a delicious lunch, consisting of different dishes on a carousel along with a big bowl of rice, and you could turn the carousel to load up your plate with whatever you wanted.  There were a lot of vegetable dishes, including this really delicious eggplant that was my favorite. I am terrible with chopsticks, but I muddled my way along clumsily. There were a bunch of women from Uruguay at our table who decided to ask for Western implements, but I decided to soldier on with the chopsticks.

Heading back on the bus, I met a guy named Joey who was also from Austin, and teaching in China. It turns out he is staying at the hostel I am moving to today. I had booked two hostels here in Beijing so I could have some comparison, and because I figured one or the other would have some different amenities that I could take advantage of.

So, soon, I'll get my pack, and take the subway and walk to the other hostel.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Beijing Bound

So now I find myself in Beijing. It's been quite a whirlwind over the last couple of days.

Two days ago, I flew out of Melbourne, Australia in the afternoon. I arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia, where I had a layover of about three hours. Then I took an overnight flight to Beijing.

Overnight flights are miserable. You want to sleep, but, personally, it is hard for me to sleep in a chair. So I tossed and turned, sleep-deprived, all night, maybe getting a little bit of sleep.

Then I arrived in Beijing around six in the morning. I was exhausted, and had to figure out how to negotiate my way to my hostel in a place where nobody (or, at the least, very few people) speaks any language I know.

I manged to get on the subway, changing trains twice, and snaking my way through the network of alleys that led to my hostel. It was still early though, I had no confidence that they would let me check in until later in the day. But they did let me check in, only my bed was not ready yet, because it had not been cleaned up from the last person who was there.

That was OK...I could at least leave my backpack there, and hang out in a common area to rest. But then someone showed up to change the sheets right away, and I was able to rest.

I couldn't really sleep, just rested for a while.  But then I felt invigorated and ready to go. Then I looked online, and my brother sent me a photo from Tiananmen Square that he had taken on a visit last year, and he asked me to take the same picture, so we could share footsteps in the same place. So now I had a destination.

What I didn't realize was that there are random security checks, like at the airport, at subway stops, on the street, and pretty much wherever the authorities feel like putting them. And you don't necessarily get to go where you want, because there are security barriers and corridors set up everywhere.

When I got to Tiananmen Square, it was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. It was right across the street, but I couldn't just cross the street. I had to walk for about a half hour in a maze around, above and below the street, through security checks, until I got there.

So I took the pic from the same spot as my brother, and walked around snapping more pics. But sometimes there are uniformed and plain clothes folks who don't want you to take pics. And sometimes they don't want you to walk in a certain direction, or to go back in the direction you came from to exit. So I had to be herded through the approved corridors for several hours before I could get out, with no clue as to when or where that would happen.

At one point one of the many guards caught my eye, and motioned to me to come over to him. I did so, and he proceeded to interrogate me quite efficiently for about ten minutes in really good English. Whenever I have a vague answer, he followed it up with skillful cross-examination to get the answer he wanted to extract from me, until he was done, and he sent me on my way with a smile and good wishes.

I did see some really cool stuff. I saw the Mao mausoleum, the area around the Forbidden City (which I couldn't get into because it was closed on Mondays...I didn't find that out until later; I just got an outstretched palm from a guard indicating prohibited entry, with no explanation. Then when I tried to turn around and go back the way I came from, two plainclothes guys who looked like high school kids yelled at me to stop and motioned me in a different direction. I asked them how I get out, they just kept pointing in that direction, which, yes, eventually led out once I followed all subsequent directions).

Finally, I emerged from the Tiananmen labyrinth, into a shady neighborhood. I say that, because the first thing that happened was that a really beautiful young woman who spoke good English sidled up to me, made small talk, and than asked me to have a beer with her, because she was by herself visiting from the north of China. My scam radar went up; I don't know what the deal was, but it really did not seem right at all. I started being alert for pickpockets, undulating my body slightly as I moved, but that was not the con here. I started thinking about things like spiked drinks, and waking up in an alley with a jagged scar along my side, and I begged off, saying I was tired and needed to get back to where I was staying.

As soon as I gave an unequivocal no, she left almost immediately, with none of the social graces associated with a goodbye, obviously searching for the next mark for whatever the hell was going on, which I'm still baffled about.

Then the tour guides stayed coming on strong. I really didn't want to book tours in the street, so I got away from their extreme persistence as soon as possible, taking their cards.

Then a second woman started walking along side me, with almost the same spiel as the first, almost word for word, except this time she wanted to have coffee. Only this time, there was a snatch-and-run right in front of me as she was talking, as some guy grabbed a bundle of goods on the sidewalk and hightailed it out of there, and another guy started screaming after him as he disappeared into the crowd.

I said no again, and she immediately exited. I was thinking, I've got to get the fuck out of this neighborhood. Obviously this place was a net at the funnel opening from Tiananmen, and I didn't want to be a speared fish. I started walking really fast. And then a THIRD woman pulled the same "want to have a drink with me" thing.  I was really firmly negative about it,  and just walked off rapidly.

I'd like to think I'm just a superbly charming guy, and women just approach me on the street because of my magnetic personality. But experience tells me otherwise. I don't think it was prostitution, either. It was some kind of lure into something bad, and I don't really know or care what, except that I don't want to be part of it.

So I walked around some more in some other areas once I got out of the scary neighborhood, having experienced both the security scene and the criminal scene, superimposed right over each other.

The next day, I went to an office across town to pick up some train tickets for my further journeys, and I stumbled across the Beijing inner city wall from the Ming Dynasty in the 1400s. More security stuff, but lighter than yesterday. Or maybe I'm more used to it now.

Anyway, I'd just like to say that the glorious People's Republic of China is like my kind, generous, loving uncle. The more than twenty airport-style security checks I have undergone in the past 24 hours are for our collective good. When somebody tells me not to walk in a certain direction any more, it is to protect the motherland and glorious fathers. And when I can't simply cross the street, but must walk through a two-hour maze to get five meters from where I was standing, surely it is because of dangers that a mere peasant like me can't possibly be aware of. When I am ordered not to take photographs, it is on the part of the generous leaders of this glorious and strong nation realizing that every story must be told the correct way.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Waiting at the Melbourne Airport

So here I am sitting at the Melbourne Airport waiting for my flight out of Australia. It is about four hours until my flight leaves. I had to check out of the hostel at 10 am, so I had the choice of waiting at the hostel or the airport; I decided to wait at the airport.

As I knew I would, I left a lot of stuff behind at the hostel that I knew I wouldn't be able to take on the plane. I left a whole bunch of food in the free food bin at the hostel; a good portion of that was produce, but I also left a nearly full jar of Vegemite, some peanut butter and jelly, and bread. I scarfed down as much food as I could for breakfast, until I was bloated, and left the rest. I also left some shampoo/body wash (which I had used as laundry soap too), and some hand sanitizer, in the bathroom.

I took the tram into town and then took the Skybus to the airport. It was pretty easy to find the check-in counter for my flight, but it doesn't open until three hours before the flight, so I'll just wait.

Penguins At St. Kilda

Today I wandered around the Shrine of Remembrance, the Royal Botanic Gardens, upstream on the Yarra River, and the bohemian neighborhood of South Yarra. I did a lot of walking today, as usual.
But today's highlight was seeing the penguins on the St. Kilda pier. There were penguins all up and down the rocks on the pier. 

I thought I was going to miss it, because a comedy of errors happened before I got there. First, three scheduled trams in a row failed to show. I was getting nervous, especially since it was getting dark, and I thought the sun was not going to go down for a couple of hours. But it turned out that when I Googled "sunset in Melbourne", the search engine had given me the time of sunset in Melbourne, Florida!

So I thought the venture was doomed. But, luckily, a local on the tram (that I finally caught) told me the penguins stayed out long after sunset.

I got off the team and scurried down the long pier. All I had to do was find places where there were clusters of people, and there were penguins there.

After watching the penguins for a while, I walked back to the hostel, which was not far away. This is my last full day in Australia; I fly out tomorrow.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Ocean Road

Well, I just typed a humongously long blog post, and it evaporated when I checked another window to get a place name. Aargh. So I'll type as much of it as I can again on my phone, along with all the attendant corrections of misguided autocorrects. Sigh.

I've just been lazing about the hostel this morning. It's almost 11:30 am, and I've just been taking it easy. I guess after moving and moving and moving every day, I can use a rest. But I'll be getting out and about soon.

I'll be leaving Australia soon. Now I know a lot of the things I'd want to see in a later visit, should I return, and I hope I will. But I'll move on to the next adventure, which should be even wilder and rougher.

I am just about out of the cash I've gotten, and I'm going to try not to get more if possible. I don't need to spend money...I have a transit pass and plenty of food. In fact, I probably have more food than I can eat before I leave. So I'll leave whatever I have left in the free food bin, since I probably can't take it on the plane, and don't really have room, even if I could. That will help out new hostelers, and repay the karmic debt I incurred from partaking of free food left behind by others.

Yesterday I went on The Great Ocean Road, which runs along Australia's southern coastline with the Southern Ocean, also known as the Antarctic Ocean. Funny how I tried to get to the Arctic Ocean twice, and had to turn around due to attendant circumstances, but getting to the Antarctic Ocean was relatively effortless.

The Great Ocean Road has a widely varying topography. A lot of it runs along the coast, with gorgeous beaches, stunning cliffs, and a variety of artistic rock formations. But much of it also runs inland, through rainforests and gently rolling, striated hills. There are some castle and sheep ranches also.

I took a tour bus, led by Toby, our charming, capable guide, who somewhat resembled a redheaded Brad Pitt. I could have taken a public bus, but with all the stops, it might have taken more than one day. Or I could have rented a car. But getting native guidance and traveling with a group of people made it worth it.

We stopped in a few towns and vistas (I wish we could have made more stops, but it was already a long day with what we did). We took a hike through the rainforest, with massive Southern Ash trees (a type of eucalyptus that grows to stunning sizes, not unlike the California redwoods), and huge ferns with cuplike structures at the top to capture moisture from the rains.

The capstones of the trip were Loch Ard Gorge and the Twelve Apostles, magnificent limestone formations along the beach. Loch Ard is a massive shipwreck tap, and there was a famous shipwreck of the ship Loch Ard that the choice was named after. I hiked all around the area and down into the gorge.  At the Twelve Apostles (which are really much less than twelve, and some have collapsed into the ocean, making even less), we stayed until sunset and got great pics of the sun setting over the rocks.

Pics are on Facebook, sorry I can't post then here. It got dark quickly, and we stopped for dinner, whereupon I spent almost the last of my money, other than a small amount of change. Then I got back to the hostel, and hung out for a short time before crashing.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Well, here I am in Melbourne. I've been here a few days, and have done my usual walkabout through the city. I've checked out the city center thoroughly (referred to here as the CBD), have walked along the river, Victoria Harbour, many of the beaches, and random areas of town. Yesterday I just jumped on a random tram and got off at a random place, and I wasn't disappointed. I'm able to do that because I bought a one-week Myki Pass, which allows me too take as many trams, trains and buses  I want within the city.

I had a transportation pass left over from Sydney with some money on it, and I ended up giving it to a German woman in my hostel room who is headed to Sydney next. Glad that somebody was able to use it.

The hostel here...well, I don't really want to denigrate it; it's a nice place to stay in some ways, but it is grimy, noisy, and the bathrooms are nearly unapproachable. That's saying a lot, because I have a high tolerance for conditions most probably couldn't tolerate. Also, the floors in the bathrooms are super slippery. I've been moving on them like I'm walking on ice; positioning my center of weight directly vertically above my foot and moving slowly and deliberately. A couple of people have told me they fell in the bathroom. You would think they could invest a little in some floor grips.

Also, there are some really messed up things about hostel culture, and this place seems to magnify some of those things. The drunken parties are no big deal to me. But there were a couple of drunken oafs in my suite who just rape cultured all over the place. They were saying really filthy, sexist things, climbing into bed with some of the women in the room in an unwanted fashion, beating on their beds in the middle of the night and jostling them to wake them up, and engaging in other forms of harassment. One woman asked them to please be quiet when they were making massive amounts of noise in the room in the wee hours of the morning (I mostly slept through this, but sort of woke up briefly in the middle of the screaming match); they berated her and called her a cunt, and she rightfully went off on them. She filled me in on the details in the morning, it sounded horrifying and I wish I had been more awake so I could chime in that was not OK. The sad thing is that she had been really helpful to both of them in helping them find job leads in the area she had just come from, and had given them lots of contacts and advice.

But all in all, despite the grime and weirdness, I've met some good people, seen some cool things, and had a good time most of the time.

I've just about given up on posting pictures here. It is an incredible ordeal. The other night, it took me about nine hours to upload three sets of pics and some blog posts, and then two of them just disappeared and all three froze up when I tried to publish them. So I guess my pics will have to just go on Facebook...look there if you want to see images. There is the possibility that I may set up a WordPress blog on a subdomain at some point, but I'll have to take the time to figure that all out, and I don't have a huge amount of confidence that would work better with my slow computer and spotty connections.