A Travellerspoint blog

Mongolia Express

By deborah

I think our trip to Mongolia started when we stepped on the train in Beijing. It was immediate! The 'hard sleepers' had walls and a cabin door for a start, we received meal vouchers and I think the carriage was filled entirely with Westerners. A couple of scenarios could explain this... I think the travel agencies buy up bulk tickets beforehand and sell them off primarily to foreigners because you otherwise have to be in-country to buy train tickets on time or it could be the carriage they wish to disengage in times of trouble... Anyway after a month in China it was nice to have some space.
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We settled in to the 27 hour trip from Beijing to UB. It went fast! There's a lot of Middle of the night happenings - border patrol out and in. The couple of hours where you stop and they basically rebuild the bottom of the train - see photos. The Chinese train tracks are narrower than the Mongolian tracks so as a solution they just replace the whole undercarriage of the train, while you are inside!
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Arriving in UB we were met by a young couple of Kazakhs. I think we had minimal interaction with any 'Mongolians' as such.. I'd read somewhere it was best to organise your travel in Mongolia so you have someone to translate and smooth the way. I booked a 12 day horse riding trek in the Western Altai mountains - a beautiful area, populated predominantly by the Kazakh people.
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Posted by Vendrig 21:02 Comments (0)

Yunnan Region China

By Johan

(Back from a few weeks without Internet so time to catch up on some blogging)

Dali, Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge

After our Gobi desert adventure in Dunhuang we used trains planes and automobiles to head to the Yunnan region in south west China. The sub tropical climate and green valleys that came with it, was a big change from the arid lands of the North.

We stayed the night in Kunming for a brief transfer stop between the plane from Lanzhou and the train to Dali. The hotel in Kunming was pretty shabby but the host made up for it with his incredible effort to be helpful. He called his friend several times to help with English translations. It was not until after a while I realised his friend was actually in Germany! In the morning he surprised us with a lovely steamed bun breakfast; great guy (The scene made me think of John Cleese in faulty towers.)
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Our visits to Dali and Lijiang provided us with another opportunity to suck in some of the charm of the old Chinese towns with old houses and small alley ways full of markets and tourist shops. In Dali the market street noise was deafening; mostly due to the personal amplifiers used by most traders to produce a cacophony of sales pitches that leave your ears ringing for days. It was great to explore the old town and surroundings by bike including a taste for rural China of terraced rice fields between the mountains and the lake.
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Although equally touristy, Lijiang is definitely the most charming old town we visited and we liked it even better than Pingyao and Dali. It's alleyways are windy and lined with trees and small waterways to give the town a fairytale like appearance that gets you lost in minutes. (You see many people, and we were certainly no exception, staring at their smart phones to find their way out of the maze of shops and cafes) - very cool and well worth the visit.
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From Lijiang we caught the bus to Qiaotou for our two day hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Shangri-la. It's about 6 to 8 hours to complete the main track and we started of around midday to complete the first half of it that afternoon. I must admit the lonely planet does mention this but the first two stages of this track really are a killer. The steep steady climb combined with the heat of the afternoon did make this a real challenge. We had to coach Maaike up the hill for most of the way which wasn't helped by the fact that the guy trying to rent his horse kept following us while laughing and pointing out his horse would make life much easier for us all.
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We were determined to achieve this on our own account though and it was great that Maaike did stick to it and made it to the top - Deborah and I were very impressed. Even the horse man had to admit defeat and he give maaike the thumbs up when she got to the top. (He managed to rent his horse to some other challenged hiker so he was happy too)
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We enjoyed our stay in the Tea-Horse guest house including a well deserved beer and some yummy food that was prepared by candlelight because the incoming thunderstorm took out the power for the night.

By morning the skies were clear and the snowy peaks of the Snow-Dragon mountain showed themselves in all their splendour. It was a big payoff for the steep climb the previous day to walk along the ridge for the morning and enjoy the impressive mountain and gorge scenery. We thoroughly enjoyed the hike which was evident from the amount of pictures we took.
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Only down side of this part of the track is that there are quite a few pipes and power lines along the track that at times get in the way of the views. As is the case in other areas in South East Asia, it is a shame that in some places there is a lot of garbage around and I hope the tourism industry here catches on soon to keep this in check. It did make us appreciate the quality and unspoiled nature of many of the NZ hiking tracks. I guess it is a good message to take home to ensure our 100% pure NZ brand holds true.

From lijiang we Made our way back by train and plane to Beijing to start the Mongolian leg of our trip. I really enjoyed China. Yes it's busy and the people smoke and spit a lot, but there are many very cool places to visit with a lot of variety. We found the Chinese people very friendly and helpful and despite the fact the cities are busy and hectic, the Chinese seem pretty laid back about it all. The food was absolutely fantastic and makes the take-away stuff at home seem like rubbish. Certainly keen to look up some of the more authentic Chinese kitchens when we get back.

Posted by Vendrig 21:22 Comments (0)

Dunhuang

By Johan

After our brief visit to Zhangye we continued our train trip along the old Silk route to Dunhuang. As you travel towards North-west China the scenery becomes increasingly arid with dry dusty planes surrounded by rocky mountain ranges. Along side the tracks you can see several old parts of the Great Wall. The remnants of rammed earth walls and the odd 8 meter mud tower are a far cry from the scenic renovated parts of the wall we saw around Beijing. Nevertheless this endless ribbon of mud walls are a stark reminder of how long and impressive these fortifications were in the hey day of the Chinese empire.

Arriving in the greenery of bustling Dunhuang is quite a contrast to its harsh surroundings. This large Oasis town is on the edge of the Gobi desert where the arid plains make way for towering sand dunes. It's a surprisingly rich town, apparently with one of the highest average incomes per family in China due to the investment in large solar and wind energy farms in this area. It's quite a happening place with lots of markets and many Chinese tourists. There are very few "westerners" here so we were stopped for many a "family photo shot". We are still wondering what they do with these photos of them with us; some random white folk.

There are a quite a few tourist spots in the area including various geological parks and Buddhist cave systems. They are somewhat spread out and some are relatively expensive. We decided to keep it a pretty laid back visit though; avoid the touristy stuff and focus on our main reason for coming here which was to visit the Gobi Desert.
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The overnight camel trip into the Gobi was certainly a highlight. Just the three of us plus a Dutch traveller (Floor) and a guide. Once you hit the sand you realise why the first part of the track follows the arid gravel edge of the dessert. Traveling in the sand dunes is a real challenge, even for the camels. It really makes you appreciate the effort the old trading caravans had to go through to cross these deserts. Constantly shifting sands with many ridges and deep valleys would get you lost in a heartbeat and for every two steps you make up the hill the sand sends you back at least one.
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The scenery is breathtaking. While the guide set up camp we scrambled to the top of a high sand dune to watch the sun set. Watching the flowing lines of the sand dunes and the wavy shadows they cast in the setting sun is just about as mesmerising as losing yourself staring into a campfire; it's quite a captivating sight.
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After a typical camp-in-the-desert-2-minute-noodle-feast we tried some desert dune surfing on little bamboo sleds. The repeated dune climbing was pretty exhausting so one big downhill was enough. It was great just to lie there on top of the dunes and watch the desert under the light of the full moon.

We slept surprisingly well with the desert sands moulding to our bodies under the tent floor. The sun rise presented another light and shadows display.
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All this time the camels were quite happy hanging out and waiting for the early morning trip back before the heat of the day kicked in. Quite the characters those camels. They tend to check you out and stare at you with this "what are you looking at" attitude. Maaike was cautious to stay out of their spitting distance at all times. Thankfully these didn't seem the spitting kind.

Posted by Vendrig 01:12 Comments (0)

Zhangye Danxia

By deborah

Our first taste of the Silk Road towns came in Xi'an but a 15 hour train trip brought us to Zhangye . I saw photos on a photography site of these amazing 'Rainbow Mountains', with a beautiful range of colour. Zhangye itself is the middle of nowhere by China's standards - which means it's probably a city of about a million people or so! There seem to be no small villages in China, or we are just too used to NZ where that would be our largest city.
Anyway I'd messed up our train tickets leaving us only an afternoon to get out to the landforms and back. The next train left at 1am, which I thought was the following day - silly me. It pays to check the dates out on a calendar when you're planning.
An afternoon is plenty! A driver for the afternoon was 180 yuan. He drove the 30 km out to the park, hung out, kept our backpacks safe and brought us back to town. The landforms are contained within a park which is completely controlled with entry fees, tourist buses (no cars allowed) that drop you at five different stops to explore the area. It is beautiful but very touristy and I personally would not travel this far off the beaten track for the sake of it. It seems the photographer had gone mental with the saturation on the photos and the colours while still awesome were actually a dusty version of this - as you would expect!
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The downside was the tourism aspect. Any stunning view was swamped with selfie stick wielding Chinese. It's the perfect spot to whip out the iPad and start snapping! Yeah Katie I didn't think of it or I would have... The crowds are part of it and amusing in itself.
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Arriving back to town after sunset, walking from the train station we sat in the first restaurant we saw. No English, no photos - back to the translate app. It seems heaps of people are using them now and eases the way for foreign tourism. A chicken dish and a veggie dish please... The waitress was in a bit of a quandary, there were so many! Johan was worried we'd get a meal with the whole chicken or something if we weren't specific, I was thinking we'll eat it anyway because we can't be specific..
What arrived was delicious and massive! And yes the whole chook, including head..
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During the meal we were attracting attention as foreigners do in China. People snapping photos on their phones, kids squashing their faces against the window to look. One guy took a liking to Johan calling out, laughing, offering a cigarette then lighting up himself. He was loud, friendly and drunk which brought the attention of everybody in the restaurant. Soon we had a group around us, we were laughing along to the occasional English phrase and going with the atmosphere. Shots were poured, drank and poured again... I'm not one to turn from a party but we had a train to catch and the shots were for Johan!
It turns out this was an indication for how it would go the further west you went.. It's more of a man's world, they were congratulating him on his beautiful family (sorry Josh and Kate, I'll pop your photos on the table if it ever happens again).

Posted by Vendrig 08:57 Comments (0)

Xi'an

By Johan

Travelling by high speed train is a comfortable affair. Quick and airplane like with speeds up to 300 km/h (Apparently they go even faster in some places). We used the hi speed train to get from Pingyao to Xian as well as to go back and forth to mt Huashan. In Xian we experienced appartment living. Turned out our "hotel" was actually a regular appartment block where a lady managed some of the apartments for daily rental with her own appartment as her office. 21 floors up with the locals. The amount of apartment blocks around is huge and everywhere you look (literally) they are building more.

City Wall
I enjoyed the opportunity to get back on a bike. Cycling on the old Xian city wall is the best way to see it. 15 km to go around the whole thing. At 14 meters high and about 10 meters wide once again the Chinese show they love to build big defence walls. Very impressive and mind boggling to see how many bricks have been put together to achieve this.
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Funny to see the "toy" police cars and fire trucks they use on the wall and in many parts of the city. They are like souped up electric golf carts. There is a whole industry around small electric cart like vehicles here.
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Mt Huashan
It's a bit of a mission to get to with a combination of metro, high speed train and bus. Followed by more busses and cable cars in the park. So travel costs add up on that day trip but it is well worth the trip. Very spectacular views in a mountain range that quite literally shoots up straight to 2.1 km from the China plains. Lots of steep cliffs and rock faces. Downside is that it is a touristy spot which in China means lots of people everywhere. Highlight is the experience of the "plank walk" about 100 odd meters of track that consists of ladders and a 40cm plank walk in the side of the cliffs. Certainly a bit of freak out factor there particularly because it is a very busy two way high way so you end up ducking under and climbing over your fellow tourists while trying to keep your safety line clipped to the "life wire". Good fun and you just have to accept the crowd as part of the attraction.
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Terracotta Warriors
The Chinese are a bit divided about the first emperor of a United China a couple of hundred years BC. He united China, standardised the written language and measurement systems and more. Yet he was also one of the fiersest and caused a lot of grief and death for various peoples in the region. He was a warrior alright which means he took a very large army of >8000 terracotta warriors with him when he died. Again the sheer magnitude of this doesn't really strike you until you see "pit 1" of the archeological site where thousands of them remain in various states. Many restored fully. Every statue is unique with different faces and expressions. Although the site is very touristy and big buildings have been built to cover the site. The actually archeological dig continues within the halls. If you visit definitely see pit 3 first, then 2 and then 1 build up the experience.
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public transport
Public transport is easy to use and cheap. But they have to move a lot of people all the time so the Chinese bus operators have perfected the art of packing people in a bus. I ended up standing in the bus back from the Warriors site in a 2 hour traffic jam with a fellow traveller literally stuck to my back. I generally don't mind a little intimacy but "spooning" with a Chinese man for that time certainly stretched my patience just a bit.

Xian was a great place to visit. Really enjoyed the 3 days - and yes the food was very good once again.

Posted by Vendrig 02:20 Comments (0)

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