Warriors and Love

Calligraphy - Xi'an
Calligraphy – Xi’an

Mette and I decided to add some extra adventures to our already tight schedule. We therefore embarked on a 12+ hour train-ride with the locals heading for Xi’an. For some unexplainable reason we thought it would be fairly simple to get tickets, if only we used the hostels to help us write down the right cities and stations in Chinese characters. But of course, in a city considered one of the most populous in the world, others are bound to have the same idea of taking the train. On such trains, you will find an array of ticket choices: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat, no seat. Luckily, there were hard seats left (read: do-able seats, but expect some back/neck pain and very little sleep). Once again, we were the main attraction on the entire ride. Walking to and from the less than rosy toilet becomes a journey you would rather avoid. And expect the floor to be flooded by cup-noodle and nutshells. Despite a night with very little sleeping, everyone proved friendly and just showed their curiosity – and we managed to reach Xi’an on a budget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 9, 2012

Archaeologists have unveiled 110 new terracotta army statues excavated near the 2,000-year tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang. [via Globalpost]

Tourists visit Xi’an to go see the Terracotta Army, which is an hours bus-ride away from the city walls. What is most astonishing about this site is how it was found randomly by some Chinese farmers as they were digging for a well. It’s hard to imagine their faces when they found more than 6000 stone warriors, each different in size and with varying facial expressions. A lot of archeological activity is still going on, so you almost feel included in this astonishing find as you walk around the various pits, which make up the museum.

However, the city of Xi’an is underrated.

Mette and I thoroughly enjoyed walking around the Muslim Quarter where it is exceptionally atmospheric at night with all the food stalls and the steam clouding your face as you stroll around the lanes. So much food we have never seen before. Women were bearing colourful scarfs and the most delightful smells will hit you – make sure to spend some time here.

Venice of the east – Suzhou

From Xi’an we took the train to Suzhou, an even longer train ride -> still on hard seats.  Suzhou is known for its classical gardens and its water canals, like a little mini Venice of the East. These areas were so peaceful and serene, and had we been luckier with the weather, two days would easily have been too short a stay. It was also my first time to try couch-surfing here. Carly was the best first-hostess one could have hoped for, and when I get back to Denmark I have to persuade my roomies so that we sign up as couch-surfers as well. Such an amazing opportunity to get an authentic experience and meet new amazing people. Carly and her roomie not only treated us to a home-cooked meal, but also took us out for hot pot and Tsingtao, and I hope both will come visit us in Copenhagen one day.

Suzhou was also filled with love and romance. We happened to hit up the city on the Chinese Valentines Day, where glittery roses can be purchased on most street corners for the lucky lady. The story behind this day was told to us by several locals, and it is a rather cute one. In short, cowherd meets fairy-like girl, love and marriage, heavenly Goddess finds out, forbids girl to love a mere mortal, boy and girl can only meet one night a year.

And with such a tragic yet heartwarming ending, this post on our extra adventures shall be considered complete.

The photos are taken by me, using my trusty Sony point-and-shoot camera, and edited in Lightroom 4 by my boyfriend back at home. ♥

/Krissy

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Nihao China

Crossing the border from Mongolia to China was neither fun nor a speedy experience. First you stop for hours on the Mongolian side whilst passports are collected and forms are filled out. After hours of just standing still, not being allowed out, you roll over the border only to repeat the procedure with the Chinese officials. Only in China, the wheels of the train also had to be switched so as to fit the Chinese railway system — so you can add a few hours of lifting and sinking the entire train.

Coming from one of the least populated countries (yes, Mongolia) to a city like Beijing was simply just absurd. The contradictions were undeniable. No holes in the roads, gargantuan billboard signs, modernity and masses of human flesh everywhere. And it was GREAT! We stayed at Peking Youth Hostel, somewhat pricier than others, but definitely worth the extra dimes you throw in. It is not only impeccably clean, but you live in the middle of a gorgeous hutong (Chinese old-school alleys), and you only need to step out to one of the first side-roads to find your 5 yuan-dumplings for a hearty breakfast.

The Great Mao, cute like a Teletubby. :D

The Forbidden City is a vast tourist trap – but nonetheless a trap you want to be caught in. The impressive Mao painting greets you as you enter the No. 1 sight in Beijing, where emperors have done their living (with their many concubines), 500 years ago. I expected to see a lot of tourists at this historic site. Only, 99% of them are Chinese tourists, and it just feels like you are enmeshed in China. The highlight of our Forbidden City visit was, however, the lining up of Chinese kids and young fellas who all wanted their pictures taken with us (in particular the beautiful, blonde Mette was an instant hit). Here we are, standing in front of a UNESCO World Heritage site and people are throwing peace signs around, yelling if they can just have one more picture, plastering babies up on our laps and giggling fervently as they move on.

Forbidden City

Of course we also did the mandatory trip to The Great Wall. It might be somewhat of a cliché, but this site easily makes one of my highlights of this trip so far. The oldest sections of the wall were built 2000 years ago, and it is difficult to grasp how humans constructed this protective installment, high up in the Chinese mountains.

The way the wall almost meanders and rolls from mountain peak to mountain peak was breathtaking. We went to the Jinshanling section of the wall, which I can recommend. Stories from other backpackers have been horrendous, especially at the Badaling section, where it seems like you cannot HIKE the wall, you can only STAND STILL – simply due to masses and masses of the species we tend to call tourists. Our hike was in total around 8 km and though I wish it could have gone on longer, I enjoyed every minute and every mountain peak of it.

Great Wall of China (Jinshanling)
The Great Wall expedition was particularly memorable because of the ending to the day: Peking duck for dinner. Mette and I managed to randomly pick a restaurant, which happened to be the very same one recommended by the Peking Youth Hostel. Whilst duck is always good, you simply cannot go to Beijing without trying out this specialty.

The Summer Palace was also given a visit, and once again the size of the site took me aback. Bring good shoes and spend most of your day here. You can enjoy beautiful views from the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion, overlooking Kunming Lake, which makes up most of the palace grounds. We ended the day by going past the Bird’s Nest-or the 2008 Olympics stadium-which despite much architectural protest, Mette and I still find quite mesmerizing.

Peking opera is the most absurd entertainment form, I’ve ever witnessed. Part singing, part dancing, part martial arts and part acting – you certainly get value for money. The costumes and make-up are fascinating, but the music and the “opera” takes some getting used to. However, I really love, that we have taken our time to watch a cultural performance at each location, which we have been fortunate enough to visit. Watching, and trying to understand the beauty of each art form, has given me an almost intimate insight into the country’s culture and heritage.

Peking opera

You will find the true Beijing spirit in their many parks. You can always find elderly doing some workout, dance sequences with swords, and best of all: couples dancing in the evening. It seems like the parks serve as a platform for social interaction and some outdoors exercising, and it has been really moving to observe. I hope when I grow old that I will go dancing in the park on a summer evening with my boo.

Usually, when you relay your memories from your Asian travels, you often dedicate at least one paragraph to describe the insane driving done in such parts of the world. And whilst I’ll go ahead and make the same kind of dedication, I must disappoint and praise the infrastructure in Beijing instead. Sure we had a little traffic jam in the morning and in the evening going to and back from The Great Wall, but nothing that came close to Mongolia (or Vietnam or Malaysia or any other place I’ve travelled through). And the metro system simply works, especially if you push and shove just like the Chinese to ensure a spot on the new-tuned vehicles.

I will admit that all my praise may not have been as rightfully fitting prior to 2008. The Olympics certainly ensured a sprucing up of the city. Nonetheless, Beijing proved wonderful, and I leave it with a full stomach and happy memories.

Food stall in Beijing
Uhm….I’ll have the third from the left, please!
The photos are taken by me using my trusty point-and-shoot camera, and edited in Lightroom 4 by my boyfriend back at home. :)

/Krissy

The G(er) Life

Entering Mongolia was magical. The soft, green hills welcomed us with open arms as we dismounted the train in Ulaanbaatar.

However, I will not sugarcoat anything – Ulaanbaatar is a hole in the ground. Yes, there is new construction work everywhere, and the city will definitely not be the same next time I visit it. However, as I am writing this I can assure you that there is a crazy traffic-jam outside, mostly because the roads (only built 5-6 years ago) are not suited for vehicles with wheels. My solution to the Mongolian government is to ban all cars and travel by foot or horse. It would be much faster.

That said, I only have good things to relay to the world.

Genghis Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire

Mongolia is generally not your usual tourist destination. I will gladly admit, that I knew little, or nothing, about this country before I crossed the border via the Trans-Mongolian railway. However, I have learned so much after having observed the culture for more than 5 days, and I hope more people will visit in the future. Mongolia is underrated, especially considering its historical facts: it was once twice the size of the Roman Empire, and before America was discovered, historians believed the Mongol Empire was as large as half of the world. The legacy of Genghis Khan is still the pride and joy of the Mongolian people, and his spirit lives on in most Mongolians who all yearn for wrestling and judo.

We stayed at the Golden Gobi hostel (not far from the station, see the map!) where we met two lovely French ladies we could go on tour with to the countryside; sharing the costs certainly makes it a cheaper affair. The country-life in Mongolia is like nothing I have experienced before. Firstly, I must praise the untouched nature of this great nation. It is unreal to be surrounded by nothing but emerald-green hills and soft plains. The varying green nuances (depending on the clouds and the sun) never gets tiring for the eye. What is even more spectacular is the diversity in the Mongolian vegetation.

You have rocky mountains, semi-Gobi deserts, green moors, rivers, freezing snow in winter and everything your heart desires. On our 5-day tour we got to meet four lovely nomadic families, and we spent three of the nights inside their gers (felt-lined tents). As plain and simple the gers are from the outside, as elaborate and detailed they are when you sit inside. The walls are covered in beautiful carpets and their wooden furniture consists of colorful and intricately beautiful details. During our stay, we got to ride Mongolian horses and camels; we have been herding cattle in all shapes and sizes, we have been hiking in the luscious greenery, eaten dairy products like there was no tomorrow and the list goes on. However, the best part of the tour was without a doubt the meetings with the families.

Mongolian landscape  cute Mongolian kid

Our driver to the countryside actually  worked double duty as our interpreter.  But even when communication was scarce, the Mongolian nomads are extremely hospitable, and every meeting will therefore stay in my memory. Whilst it can be difficult to interact with the grown-ups, it was so easy to play with the kids. And boy oh boy, these kids were amazing! Not only do they constantly have the biggest smiles plastered across their faces, but they are also loving and caring towards all their siblings. From a very young age these kids have to help out with the household around the ger and with all the cattle. One little girl, probably not more than 2 years old, helped her brothers when they collected firewood. Every time they dropped something she would go and pick it up and bring it back to ger. Heartwarming. :)

The second family we stayed with was without a doubt my favourite. It seemed like it was a larger family with many more kids in all ages. Our interpreter told us it was a newly wed couple, and lots of wedding pictures were also on display inside of the ger. The kids of this family loved to wrestle, and the father therefore made a huge circle in the sand and then the games began. It was French vs Danes, Mongolian vs. Danes and everybody against everybody!!!!! The Mongolian language is extremely difficult to master, but laughter is universal. I had an amazing afternoon.

The beauty of laughter

Virginie, our French travel partner, is an art teacher back home, and an amazing opportunity therefore arose. As payment for staying with the nomadic families, she would create beautiful portraits of either the man of the ger, or of any of the young children. This was such an amazing gift, and it was clear that it really pleased the families.

The diet out on the Mongolian steppes is somewhat limited. Of course we had a lot of fresh meat and milk products everyday. Only problem was that the families like to dry all their cheeses and dairy products, so that it is impossible to chew (except for the Mongolians – it appears they have teeth stronger than most canines). On the other hand, this makes the cheese last for more than 10 years. During my 5 days I also got to try to eat goatskin and also had a nice large bowl of aireg – fermented mare’s milk. Neither will be tasted again I can assure you ;)

Our last days in Ulaanbaatar (after many a loooooooooong showers) will also stay with me. The last night we went to watch the Mongolian National Song and Dance Academic Ensemble. This was one of the highlights of the trip so far. The show entailed ethnic dance pieces, which looks like no other dance I have ever seen before. Dance fascinates me on so many levels, and seeing such foreign movements drove me into a trance. It looks nothing like Bollywood or Thai dance, and each ethnic group has distinct and spectacular movements. The show also displayed many instruments, which I have never seen in my life. We got to listen to throat singing, which is nothing like I have ever heard prior. Please, dear reader, if you find time, YouTube Mongolian folk songs and throat singing – I promise you it will not be a waste of your time.

As the above paragraph indicates, describing Mongolia rightfully is extremely difficult for me. I have never experienced such a culture before. Its part Asian, part Russian, part Turkish, yet none of these nationalities suffice in explaining anything about the Mongolian culture whatsoever. This country is so untouched, yet still evolving. I think Mongolia has to be experienced, but I hope my fascination got across the screen.

Since a picture really is worth a thousand words…here are more photos. Hopefully they capture how extraordinary my time with the nomad families was.

The photos are taken by my trusty point-and-shoot camera, and edited in Lightroom 4 by my boyfriend. Being apart from him for so long, it feels good to know that an activity like this brings us closer together. :)

If you are interested in Mongolia for your next travel destination, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I will give advice to the best of my abilities.

/Krissy

Platform 9 and ¾

Trans-Mongolian Railway, A view from our compartment

"But, Hagrid, there must be a mistake. This says Platform 9 ¾. There's no such thing, is there?"
“But, Hagrid, there must be a mistake. This says Platform 9 ¾. There’s no such thing, is there?”

I feel like I am on the Hogwarts Express, going off to a land of magic and wonders – which may not even be so far from the truth.

As I am writing this, I am lying in a bunk bed somewhere along the tracks of the Trans-Mongolian Railway. I have passed cities like Omsk and Novosibirsk, and more desolate places are yet to come.

The route I am currently undertaking used to be traversed by tea-laden camels – connecting Beijing and Moscow in 40 days. The train now allows for the same journey in just a week.

I thought boredom would hit me much faster, being stuck in such tiny compartments for 5 days straight, no shower, no soap, no proper food, no internet. But such confinements have so far been an amazing experience, where you get to see the barren, Russian landscape pass you by. Here on day 2, the nature has been changing a lot, where the variation in the vegetation makes amazing pictures.

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In the Land of Tolstoy

Even though I am currently miles away from Moscow, I shall still share my Russian memories with you.

Hans Christian Andersen in 1869 (Wikimedia)
Hans Christian Andersen in 1869.

Moscow certainly was no gastronomic experience. The stable food of our stay was soup and a pancake-wrap-look-alike with meat filling. Our first restaurant visit was however a pleasant one. The lady behind the counter in the café-looking eatery did not look pleased about us wanting to consume our dinner at this place, and as the menu was only in Russian, we tried to interpret the pictures. However, a very friendly young Russian lady approached us, asking if we needed help in decent English. Whilst all the guidebooks you read about Moscow/Russia may be correct in stating that few people are willing to speak any English with you, the few sunshine stories you do encounter fill you up instead. And as much as most guards and policemen do seem withdrawn and unwilling to engage in conversation, every 5th of 6th person really did try to help us out.

Another sunshine story was when we crossed one of Moscow’s 5-lane-sized streets by using the underground walking tunnel, we went into one of the tiny Russian souvenir shops. The owner wanted to show us every item in the shop, and seemed to know a lot about Hans Christian Andersen and Danish fairy tales. We parted by him giving us farewell key chains, if only we promised to come back.

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