A Noob’s Guide to a Soggy Spring Cycle in Sydney

The best-known cycling event in Australia is the Gong Ride, a rollicking 82-km ride from Sydney to Wollongong passing through Royal National Park and some impressive coastal scenery.  This has been on my bucket list for a while, but 1,000 meters of ascent and tales of horrendous bicycle pileups on the downhill stretches scared me enough that this year, I settled for the 2nd-most famous option, the mildly less ambitious Spring Cycle.

The Spring Cycle’s primary selling point is that it’s the only event where the Harbour Bridge and a large chunk of nearby freeways are opened up to cyclists, offering a great opportunity to take in the views without being on the receiving end of vehicular homicide.  The course comes in 10, 15, 50 and 105 km variants, but to scare off the Lance Armstrong wannabes, there’s no timing, winners or prizes, just finishers.

Now I ride to work a couple of times a week, but my commute clocks in at under 8 km and it’s been years since I last rode over 20 km, so I picked the 50.  As “training”, I tried adding a couple of extra laps around the Bay Run to my commute on a few days, the longest of which clocked in at 24 km in just over an hour.  (I was planning to train a bit more, maybe on the M7 cycleway, but travel coupled with a major bout of food poisoning put paid to that.)  Conclusion: a bit tough on the butt, but otherwise eminently survivable.

However, as the date approached, Sydney was swamped with unseasonal heavy rains and the forecast for the day was looking miserable, with 100% precipitation predicted throughout the morning.   What’s more, since my starting time was at 7 AM sharp, I had to leave home before 6 AM and ride 7 km just to catch the nearest train going to the starting point at North Sydney.  Was this worth the effort?  And would anybody else be crazy to show up?

The Big Event

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On Sunday morning, my alarm rang at 5:30 AM.  It was cold and pitch dark outside and pissing down with rain.  Why, exactly, was I paying good money to do this?  (Observe my selfie of delight as I contemplated this.)  But there was no backing down now, so I pulled on my gear and set off.

The ride to the station was eerie: I had never seen Sydney this quiet, and I could just fly along the deserted roads, an incredible feeling despite the driving rain.  As I rode, the sky slowly lightened up, the sun finally peeping over the horizon when I got to Summer Hill station. My train to Central had a smattering of other Spring Cyclists mixed with bemused early risers, but in Central it was pretty much all cyclists and from North Sydney you could simply follow the crowd to the starting line.

The website said you should get there 30 minutes early, but I arrived at pretty much 7:00 AM on the dot and that was plenty.   I was surprised to find thousands of others raring to go, but there was no registration or ID checking or any other hoo-ha, just line up in the funnel along and wait, with the starting pistol firing a few minutes past 7.

img_20181014_070025The first leg downhill was painfully slow, with everybody squeezed into a few lanes of road.  I tried to find a middle ground between the slow Sunday cyclists and the lycra brigade, but for most part this just led to various kamikaze idiots passing on both sides.  Riding in a dense crowd like this took some getting used to: any sudden changes in speed or direction, on your part or others’, could easily lead to a crash.

By the time we got to the on-ramp to the Harbour Bridge, though, the crowd had opened up and there were some nice views — with, once again, more driving rain.  The bridge was windy and the stretch of Cahill Expressway over Circular Quay (ooh, Opera House!) to the Botanic Gardens was directly into the wind, in retrospect the only bit of the entire journey where the rain was distinctly unpleasant.  The course does a tight U-turn here and heads back through a tunnel towards Millers Point, and with the wind now at my back and a nice downhill slope it was downright exhilarating.  You couldn’t help but think: “Look at all this incredible infrastructure we dedicate solely to cars!  What if just one lane of this was freed up for bicycles, not once a year for a few hours, but every day?”

At Millers Point the route had one gnarly stretch with cobblestone on a turn off a downhill slope, and one lycra champion going too fast did a painful-looking wipeout.  Soon enough we were back on the Western Distributor (whee!) and before I knew we had hit the 10 km mark in Pyrmont, where the City Ride ends.

Much of the rest of the journey was on shared roads, but bicyclists still dominated and there were a few amusing moments where a lone car found themselves trapped in a swarm of bikes at traffic lights, as opposed to the usual commute scenario where it’s the other way around.  The next 20 km were mostly on the back streets of the Inner West, with frequent turns and the odd hill.  However, the route is well signposted and there were volunteers posted at virtually every corner, plus police stopping traffic at every crossing of larger road, so the route felt quite safe and there was zero chance of getting lost.  Somewhat to my own surprise I found myself powering past almost everybody else on the ascents, but falling behind on the descents, where I seemed to be the only person using the brakes. Intellectually, I know it’s safer to go fast to try to match the speeds of cars in traffic, but I’m still freaked out by the idea of hitting a bump in the road or having to brake for a car pulling out at speed…

img_20181014_095418By this time the rain had slowed down from a urinous torrent to an incontinent dribble. After a very short break at the official 20 km rest area at Greenway in Haberfield (water available, none of the rumoured bananas in sight though) I plowed on, past my family who’s gotten out of a bed at 8 in the morning on a Sunday to cheer me on (thanks!), finally escaping the maze of minor roads at Sydney Olympic Park.  The final 20 km was almost entirely on dedicated bike trails and seemed to just fly by, although there were a number of spots where you had to slow down for massive puddles covering the entire road.  A final break in Meadowbank Park, where I finally peeled off my rain gear, then a madcap dash through a near-deserted Olympic Park, and before I knew it I was at the finish line.  Surprisingly painless and fun!

The Gear

Here’s what I used on the day:

  • s-l300Bike: Avanti Inc 1.  Flat bar “urban” commuter bike, cost me $700 new four years ago and pretty beat-up looking after near-daily use since then, but still ticking away nicely.  Professionally serviced about a month before.
  • Lights: Some random “8000 lumen” $10 flashlight off Aliexpress.  The lumen count is a blatant lie, but when paired with a genuine (non-Aliexpress) 18650 battery, it gave off plenty of light even for the pre-dawn stretch.
  • Other accessories: rear mudguard (mandatory unless you want a mud stripe to your neck) and bottle holder.
  • Rain gear: Altura Night Vision Hood ($10 on Wiggle) and the dhb Waterproof Jacket ($50 on sale at Wiggle).  These were perfect, the hood fit nicely under my helmet and the visor kept the rain off my face.
  • Clothing: Regular (non-bike) mesh sports T-shirt & shorts, both 100% polyester.  Kept me cool & dry.
  • Underwear: Pair of cheap-ass, ridiculous-looking “3D gel” padded cycling shorts (see pic) off Aliexpress.  Marginally better than nothing, but not by much.
  • Shoes: No cleats or clips here, I used regular sneakers worn with two layers: regular socks and — pro tip approaching — a disposable Coles garbage bag wrapped around each sock and cut to size.  Not perfect, but kept my feet nice and dry for the first 40 km or so.
  • Bag: A random Reebok fanny pack/bum bag borrowed from my wife, just large enough to hold my rolled-up rain gear, my phone in a ziploc bag and a few snacks.

That’s it!   You’ll notice that precisely none of this is high-end or features lycra.  The only thing that didn’t work very well was the combo of Avanti’s default rock-hard, near-unpadded seat and the crappy no-brand cycling shorts; I plan to investigate upgrading both before the next long ride.  (Screw you, Rule #61.)

Two extra tips gleaned from advice on the Internets about prolonged cycling in the rain:

  1. I use contact lenses and was very happy I did, since an earlier test ride had demonstrated that glasses and rain are not just a bad combo, but actively dangerous.
  2. To prevent chafing, I liberally slathered my inner thighs and groin with a combo of Vaseline & moisturising lotion.  Dunno if it was necessary, since the polyester shorts did an astonishingly good job of keeping my undies dry, but it certainly didn’t seem to hurt.

The Fuel

img_20181014_100042My thoroughly unscientific diet on the day:

  • Breakfast: One of those disgusting Up and Go “liquid breakfast” packs that taste like thick, oily, lukewarm cocoa, plus an oatmeal bar, both consumed on the train.
  • First break snack: Googy protein bar.  Has the taste, texture and general sex appeal of a slab of compressed coffee grounds, only minus the good part (caffeine).  Good thing I had plenty of water to choke it down.
  • Second break snack: A few pieces of good old trusty milk chocolate.
  • Celebratory arrival brunch: $10 spinach & cheese zleme, served up at the rather sad arrival village.  It tasted like salt, grease, and victory.

Verdict

If you’ve been thinking about Spring Cycle but aren’t sure you can/want to/is it worth it, the answer is yes, you can and should.  For me, A+ would do again and I’m planning to, although next time I’ll probably drag along the kids and do the 10 km version.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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El Gringo Máximo en México

I’ve been lucky enough to explore much of the world, but the Americas south of the United States have long remained a blank for me. I’ve nibbled at the edges — Bermuda, the Bahamas, a long-ago day trip to Tijuana — but until recently the closest I’d been to Latin America was a week in Puerto Rico, a not-quite-country which oscillates between being a Spanish-flavored piece of the US and and a US-flavored piece of Latin America.

But recently I finally had the chance to pay a quick visit on the company time to the real Mexico, namely Mexico City (Ciudad de México, aka CDMX; formerly known as the Distrito Federal or D.F.). Here are a few impressions from a maximal gringo.

Climate

Quick, imagine what Mexico looks like. Odds are you’re thinking a stretch of broiling sandy desert, where the inhabitants spend most of their time in hammocks suspended between two saguaro cacti, taking siestas with oversized sombreros covering their faces.

Well, turns out Mexico City is completely unlike this. It’s located high up in the altiplano in the mountains of Central Mexico, so I knew it was going to be cooler than, say, Texas, but being more accustomed the bone-dry highlands of Australia, I did not expect it to be soggy, wet and humid. So much so that, when the departure of my incoming flight from Houston was delayed, it arrived smack in the middle of a rollicking thunderstorm and we ended up having to divert to Veracruz on the hot, muggy, tropical coast instead. I soon found out that at least this time of year, these evening thunderstorms were a daily event and not a day of my visit passed without rain.

The result is that the city is lush and green, with large trees, green grass and moss creeping up stones. Mornings were cool (15 C), afternoons warm (25 C), although the 2,250m altitude amps up the strength of the sunshine.  I kept having unexpected flashbacks of Bangkok: in addition to being distinctly humid, both cities have pockets of wealth and quite a lot of poverty, but also a healthy, growing middle class, supporting a lively mix of street vendors, markets, hip little cafes and boutiques.  The World Bank agrees, as on a GDP (PPP) per capita basis, the two countries are almost at par.

Getting Around

Mexico City is enormous and lacks an identifiable downtown: being highly earthquake-prone, skyscrapers are few and far between.  I was staying the leafy but untouristy residential neighborhood of Anzures, which was convenient to the office, but nowhere near a metro station.  Ubers in CDMX are easy to catch and cheap, but they’re a pretty crappy way to experience a city.   ¿Qué hacer?

An easy orange answer was parked right outside my hotel: Mobike!  Turns out everybody’s favorite Chinese bike share company had just launched in CDMX, and while the allowed usage zone was limited to a few posh districts, my hotel, the office and many sights were in it.   While my monthly Sydney pass was no good, single rides were just 10 pesos a pop; pricy by local standards, particularly compared to the 50 peso monthly pass, but still a steal at around 70 Aussie cents each.  The city being by and large flat as a pancake, bikes are a very popular way to get around, with copious bike lanes and, much to my pleasant surprise, a large chunk of the Paseo de la Reforma was cordoned off for bikes & pedestrians only on Sundays.  ¡Perfecto!

To get to the Centro Historico, though, I ditched the bike and tried out the Mexico City Metro.  Still using very distinctive signage and coloring developed in the 1960s, when 40% of Mexicans were illiterate, the subway has a very retro feel to it, with paper boletos purchased from humans behind taquilla counters, although there is now a smart card option.  The trains are also best described as functional, with tunnel fumes gusting in through the open windows (there’s no aircon) and a whole lotta shaking going on despite the rubber tyres, with drivers accelerating and braking hard at every station.  Still, while it may not be luxurious, it’s a vital service and second only to New York in size in the Americas, with 12 lines criss-crossing the city and more passengers than London or Paris.

The Metro has a bit of a sketchy reputation, and I can see why.  Station entrances were often hard to spot, there were often dimly lit inside, and the trains themselves had endless processions of merchants, entertainers and beggars squeezing through the crowds, hawking everything from Silly Putty to mobile accessories and slips with Bible quotations.  But there also were plenty of whimsical touches, with staircases turned into piano keys and rather brutalist artworks here and there, and I can’t say I ever felt threatened — either in the Metro or anywhere else in CDMX, for that matter.

My biggest regret of this trip: not having the time to visit the Metro Museum in Mixcoac.  Have a read of Craig Moore’s trip report if you’re keen to learn more about this underappreciated system.

Speaking

My rusty high school español got a pretty good workout on this trip, and I was glad I had hit the Duolingo pretty hard for the previous three months or so.  Fortunately, while full-on Mexican Spanish is famously fast and slurred even Spanish standards, everybody I met was quite willing to switch to speed-limited Gringo Spanish for my benefit.

I was also a little surprised that virtually everybody assumed I could speak Spanish, despite being a two-meter-tall blond quite clearly outside the generally rather broad spectrum of Mexican appearances; quite the contrast to most of Asia, where nobody even tries to speak the local lingo with me.  What’s more, quite a few people actually had more than passable English, although I’ll admit my sample set was rather biased towards the leafy neighborhoods where I was staying.

History

I had one free day in CDMX before getting down to work, so I started it with a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology, which must surely rank among the greatest museums in the world. An average gringo like me has learned in history class about Mexico’s pre-Columbian rulers the Aztecs and the Maya (although they’re likely to mix them up with the Incas of Peru), but this single large building covers not just the big two, but the Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Mixtecs and many more. Nevertheless, there’s a clear thread connecting them all: blood. Or, rather, unfathomable amounts of hardcore gore of the kind that would be rejected as a horror movie plot for being too gruesome and implausible.

Consider this: the Great Temple (Templo Mayor) of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Mexica tribe of Aztecs that is the predecessor to today’s Mexico City, was consecrated with the ritual sacrifice of several thousand captives every time it was expanded when a new king took power, or when there was a festival, or when a war was won, or whenever any other convenient excuse presented itself. And by ritual sacrifice, I mean strapping the victim down to an chac-mool altar, carving their still-beating hearts out with an obsidian knife, smearing the blood on the statues of the gods, then throwing the corpse down the stairs to be eaten. Meanwhile, the victim’s head would be skillfully flayed and mounted on the skull rack (tzompantli), with the main one (there were several) in Tenochtitlan (only one of many cities) having the capacity for 36,000 skulls. This was just temporary storage, mind you, once they had dried out properly the skulls were removed, decorated and passed around as handy decorative knick-knacks.

The museum consists basically of variations on this theme. Here’s Coatlicue, who wears a dress of live serpents and necklace of human hearts, hands, and skulls. Here’s a ball court where teams played pelota maya, which was kind of like volleyball, only you can’t use your hands and the losing team is sacrificed to the gods. Here’s the rain god Tlaloc, who was worshipped by sacrificing children, who first had to endure torture so their tears would moisten the earth.  And on and on, for thousands of years!

In case all this seems too abstract when presented in the dramatically lit but carefully cordoned off confines of the museum, or you doubt the florid accounts of the conquistadors who are our primary source of written evidence for Aztec/Mexica life, you can also go visit the actual ruins of the Templo Mayor, lurking right behind Zócalo Square in the heart of CDMX. The final incarnation of the temple was largely razed by the Spaniards, but as it was built like a Russian matryoshka doll with each version simply built on top of the other, some of the older parts remain. The chac-mool sacrifice altars, the stairs the victims were thrown down, the skull racks, it’s all there… including a particularly lovely hall where nobles practiced the art of auto-sacrifice, purposely bleeding their ears, tongues, genitals etc. This blood was collected and mixed with amaranth seeds to create an idol of Huitzilopochtli, which was ceremoniously eaten every year during the feast of Panquetzaliztli, with the accompaniment of (what else?) copious human sacrifice.  Delicious!

Food

Congealed human blood idols aside, I have long been a huge, tragic fan of Mexican food, the tragedy being that my chosen abodes for the last 16 years (Singapore and Australia) are both laughably terrible places to find any of it. It’s saying something that the arrival of Guzman y Gomez, a semi-decent burrito chain founded by a distinctly non-Mexican former hedge fund trader from New York, was a highlight of my culinary calendar.

So I was tickled pink to get a chance to visit Mexico and eat actual Mexican food, and I did my best to devour everything in sight.  Huaraches (literally “sandals”, because that’s what they look like, smeared with beans and salsa), sopes (small, thick tacos), pozole soup (“these days we use pork, but traditionally the Aztecs used human flesh!”, a colleague informed me slightly too cheerily), sopa azteca (tortilla soup), cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork in achiote sauce)…

Yet the culinary highlight, in fact one of the most sublime dishes I’ve had anywhere, was chile en nogada at Angelopolitano.  I had tried this before (in Singapore, unpromisingly) and been somewhat non-plussed by a squishy stuffed pepper covered in grainy, cold walnut sauce.  Originating from the nearby city of Pueblo, they’re a rare, somewhat expensive delicacy in Mexico, and Angelopolitano, a place that’s very serious about poblano food, only serves them in pomegranate season between August and September.  The walnut sauce was smooth this time, studded with pomegranate seeds and still served cold, but it was the filling that made it sing: panochera apples, pera de leche pears, criollo peaches, minced meat and a complex mix of spices, all washed down with a shot of tequila.  Incredible.

The intended highlight was scheduled for Tuesday night, when I had managed to secure a seat for the taco degustation at Pujol, which is arguably the most famous restaurant in Mexico: think el Bulli, only with Mexican ingredients.  Alas, the plan went, ahem, down the toilet when, on Monday night, I contracted violent food poisoning, aka Moctezuma’s revenge.

I’m still not entirely clear what hit me, although odds are it was something in that pretty flower-like taco platter above.   Both restaurants I went to on Monday were really popular, so the food certainly wasn’t sitting around, although tacos al pastor, the porky Mexican version of doner kebab (bottom right taco), is somewhat notorious even among Mexicans for causing attacks of la turista.   I also wasn’t as careful as I should have been about fresh herbs and vegetables, which Mexican food uses with abandon even though tap water in CDMX is not safe to drink; in retrospect, piling raw lettuce into my lunch pozole was asking for trouble.  Or maybe it was something as innocuous as the fresh salsa accompanying the tacos.

Regardless of the cause, the end effect was that I spent the next two days unable to do much more than tap away at my laptop or ingest anything more electrolyte drinks and the occasional banana.  Fortunately loperamide worked its magic and I was able to survive the 24-hour flight odyssey back to Sydney, although I had to give the rather spiffy-looking Polaris lounge restaurant in Houston a miss.

So adiós, Mexico, I hardly knew ye.  I’d like to say I’ll be back soon, but that’s pretty unlikely — however, this did definitely kick my long-incubated first visit to South America (Chile, Peru, Argentina, Brazil…!) a few notches up the bucket list.

 

 

From Siberia to Tibet: Hong Kong and Macau

Our road to Hong Kong was paved with disappointment.  We originally wanted to arrive by train, but the much-delayed Guangzhou-Hong Kong high-speed link was delayed again and the logistics of traveling from Lhasa to Guangzhou to HK without it didn’t look great, so in the end we opted to fly in directly via Chongqing.

Hong Kong 香港

It’s been 21 years since the handover, but after China, Hong Kong still felt remarkably British, with ubiquitous English, driving on the left, and (after China) remarkably polite people.  It rained pretty much non-stop for the first two days, which put a bit of a damper on tourism but did provide great soaked-neon Blade Runner streetscapes at night.

We went to Maxim’s Town Hall for the obligatory dim sum pilgrimage.  Since my last visit the place has clearly found its way into a few too many guidebooks, since it was heaving with people even on a weekday and we had to wait an hour to get in — next time I’ll need to find an alternative or at least book online.  At least egg waffles off the street were fast, cheap and cheerful.

Hong Kong is still very much a Chinese city at heart and much more that heritage seemed to remain than on the mainland.  The dull-sounding Hong Kong Museum of History was epic in size and ambition, covering the city from prehistory to today with floors of massive life-size recreations, and the temple of Wong Tai Sin showed that Taoism is alive as well.

Anorak bonus album: Transport in Hong Kong & Macau

Macau 澳門

Macau will soon be linked to Hong Kong by a shiny record-breaking bridge, which was scheduled to open two weeks before our arrival, but surprise surprise, that was delayed too.  So we ended up taking the Turbojet ferry, which plowed through the waters pretty much right next to this white elephant of a bridge for most of the way: the bridge has no provisions for trains, so the only way to use it will be buses.  Sigh.

To a first approximation, nothing had changed in Macau since I visited 10 years ago.  Senado Square was still there, looking like a chunk of Portugal airlifted into the South China Sea, as were the ruins of St. Paul’s, dense alleys much like Hong Kong’s, and tacky casinos on the outskirts.

To escape the muggy heat and sputtering rain, we followed a local tip and went for a surprisingly respectable Portuguese meal at Solmar, a restaurant too old-school to have a website.  Sopa de mariscos (seafood stew), galinha à africana (“African chicken”), bolinhos de bacalhau (cod balls), all washed down with vinho verde: not the stuff of culinary epiphany, but certainly a welcome change after a week in Tibet.  And for a snack we stopped off at Margaret’s, which as always was baking the best pasteis de nata (egg tarts) in the business by the trayload.

Lamma Island 南丫島

My personal Hong Kong highlight, though, was to an island quite unlike the rest of the ex-colony: Lamma.  Perched off the southwest coast of Hong Kong Island and only reachable by ferry, buildings taller than three stories and motorized transport (except for a few utility vehicles) are banned on the island , so the only ways to get around are bike or foot.  After a mercifully brief flirtation with the plastics industry fizzled out, plenty of hippies and other countercultural types escaping the rat race have found their way here, and the grubby village Yung Shue Wan now hides more than its fair share of organic vegetarian cafes and artisan gelato places.

Many daytrippers comes here for the beaches, which aren’t too shabby even by South-East Asian standards, but the island’s second major draw is seafood.   On local advice we parked ourselves at Andy’s Seafood, and hawt diggity dawg, everything we ate here was nothing short of incredible.   Razor clams steamed with noodles, scallops with veg, sizzling eggplant, a bottle of Yanjing Beer dripping with condensation and the sun setting over the South China Sea.  The perfect end to the trip…

And to this blog series.  Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more!

<<< China as a Tourist

 

From Siberia to Tibet: China as a Tourist

So how is traveling around the less visited parts of China when you’re a tall, blond, distinctly non-Chinese-speaking alien?

Language

I have to state up front that my experience of China is likely pretty different from that of the average foreign visitor, since I’m reasonably fluent in Japanese and that gives a huge leg up for parsing Chinese: I can’t read larger chunks of text because the grammar is too different, but I can generally manage maps, simple websites and signage.  However, my spoken Chinese is terrible and my comprehension isn’t much better.

Nevertheless, I was positively surprised by the amount of English signage present.  Sometimes there was clearly a government edict at work — for example, every single shop in the villages near the Mutianyu Great Wall has English signs, just in case a tourist has a sudden urgent to acquire construction supplies or wholesale quantities of fertilizer — and equally often it was clearly run through an online translation tool, occasionally with hilarious results.  A large part of the “English” signage was actually just pinyin phonetics, so those Chinese who struggle with hanzi can still spell out SHE HUI ZHU YI and connect the red billboard with a hammer and sickle to socialism — but as a useful side effect, this meant that most trains, subways, buses etc were signposted in friendly Roman letters.

By comparison, English speakers were definitely on thinner ground.  We ran into a few in odd places, like a young Didi (Chinese Uber) driver in Xining, but when it came time to request a late checkout at one of Xining’s top hotels, the bellboy spoke more English than the three ladies behind the counter combined, and I still had to trot out my pidgin Mandarin.  Border crossings and security checkpoints were also invariably quick & wordless affairs, since staff vocabulary didn’t seem to extend much beyond “passport” and “ticket”.

Would we ever really have been in trouble without knowing Chinese?  No, but any scraps you can pick up beforehand will certainly helped.

Civility

China — and I’m referring specifically to the People’s Republic here — gets a pretty bad rep for being tourist-hostile, and if you read the Stay safe section on Wikivoyage it’s easy to come away expecting that your children will be kidnapped and/or run over while you’re choking on toxic air and sold overpriced tea by attractive but starving art students.

Now it’s fair to say that if it’s personal space you’re after, most of China is the wrong place to be: in a city like Beijing, with twice the population of New York, you’re going to get a lot of crowds and the occasional sharp elbow.  Interestingly, most of these belonged to the elderly, who were either taking their Confucian mores of mandatory respect for the aged seriously, or had honed their queue-cutting skills fighting for scraps of cabbage during the Great Leap Forward.  Overall, though, most queues were kinda-sorta respected (heavy security presence must help), people mostly waited for others to get off the subway before barging on themselves, and even train stations felt more like busy airports than the crush of desperate humanity that is an Indian train station’s waiting room or ticket office.  And while there are a few places like Beijing’s Silk Alley (now just a shopping mall) and that drinks shop atop the Mutianyu Great Wall that will happily fleece foreigners for every last yuan they’ve got, if you pick your own places, you’ll pay what the locals do: we never paid more than printed on the menu or otherwise agreed.

We did run into a couple of power-tripping bureaucrats, most memorably an attendant on our Beijing-Xi’an trian, who completely flipped out over my dad’s effrontery in using the bottom bunk in our 4-bunk cabin when his ticket said top bunk — never mind that we had purchased all four seats.  A friendly English-speaking lady from a nearby cabin was roped in to help translate, and after much foot-stomping and gnashing of teeth the attendant admitted defeat when we pointed out that this was a non-stop train, so it was physically impossible for anybody else to board en route and claim that bunk.

Toilets in China are also worth a mention, since the country has a reputation for unutterably grim facilities.  We found a few at some of the less visited Tibetan monasteries, but as a rule they were generally modern, tolerably clean and generally a cut above Russia or Mongolia.   You will, however, need to learn to squat and carry your own toilet paper, since Western-style thrones are few and far between and TP is a national treasure only grudgingly doled out once authorities have scrutinized your schnozzle.

One final component of the China experience is security, surveillance and bureaucracy, but that’s a topic large enough to deserve its own blog post.  (Coming soon.)

Internet

Speaking of security and surveillance, one of the more annoying parts of travel in China is the Great Firewall, which keeps getting higher and tighter: virtually all name-brand Western services (Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Maps, Wikipedia, Reddit, Instagram etc) are now inaccessible.  I had prepared by setting up ExpressVPN in advance, and it worked fine when on wifi, but when roaming on my Australian SIM, the connection was censored and throttled to be hopelessly slow, making using the VPN nearly impossible.

In the end I bought a China Unicom prepaid SIM, which was several orders of magnitude faster and well worth the investment, but Western services remained glitchy.  For example, on Google Maps, local data is not just spotty and out of date, but places were often hundreds of meters in the wrong direction, and even if you could use WhatsApp, nobody you meet could.  So the only way to go is to dip your toe into the local ecosystem.

  • WeChat/QQ (微信 Weixin) is the local juggernaut and the de facto choice of messaging.  It also has the very popular WeChat Pay (微信支付 Weixin Zhifu) payment system, which has recently started accepting non-Chinese credit cards, but registration is complicated and apparently the rules vary continually.  When I signed up, I needed a Chinese number and a local trusted user to verify me, but no Chinese ID or bank account; others report being required to provide one or both of these though.  It’s also important to download the mainland China version of the app directly off weixin.qq.com, not the overseas version from App Store/Play Store.
  • Baidu Maps (百度地图 Baidu Ditu) is the local equivalent of Google Maps.  In addition to being Chinese-only, the UI is pretty busy and takes some getting used to, but place search and directions for driving, public transport and walking are all pretty good.  (Weird quirk: travel times for bus were systematically inflated by 30-60 min.)
  • Ctrip (携程旅行 Xiéchéng Lǚxíng) is your best source for long-distance travel information, including detailed train schedules.
  • Mobike (摩拜 Móbài) is great for booking some of the ride share bikes littering the streets of China’s larger cities.  Rides start from Y1 a pop and the same app & credit works fine in Australia too.

Transport

It’s difficult to overstate just how much investment China has put into planes, trains and roads over the past decades, or how much pent up demand this has unlocked.  For example, we took the CRH bullet train from Xi’an to Xining, fully expecting this recently opened line from a 2nd-tier city to a 3rd-tier city to be a white elephant, but no — the train was packed to the last seat. Xi’an has sprouted 3 lines and 91 km of metro in the past 7 years, all of it packed, and Beijing is still catching up after opening 22 lines covering 608 km.  Train stations like Beijing West are not enormous (just) because the government likes massive buildings, but because they have to be: the 34-platform, 60-million-pax-per-year Xi’an North is by some measures the largest in Asia, with a central concourse that puts most stadiums to shame, and it was still difficult to find a seat.  Even Lhasa airport was bursting at the seams.  The only empty Chinese transport hub during the entire trip was the shiny new international wing of Chongqing Jiangbei Airport, but I suspect we were there just at the wrong time during the afternoon lull, since CKG too has seen 1,000% (yes, three zeroes) international passenger growth since 2009.

Food

In short, the food in China was amazing, if often a bit hit and miss since we were traveling without much local advice and mostly choosing places by convenience.  The learning curve for “real” Chinese food can be steep though, so here’s a trek up the scale.

Crowd-pleasers abounded in Beijing: the justly famous Peking Duck (Xiheyaju
羲和雅居 was among the best meals of the trip) and the less famous but no less tasty zhajiangmian (炸醬麵) aka Chinese spaghetti bolognese.  Roubing (肉餅) meat pies are also widely available, although the precise origin of the meat may be a mystery at times.

Mildly more adventurous or surprising were the many Muslim eateries of Xining, serving up a constellation of noodles.  Even with basic knowledge of hanzi and Google Translate, you never quite knew what you’d get, but rarely were we disappointed.  One Chinese innovation that will take the West by storm sooner or later is the conveyor-belt hotpot: take a personal mini pot, select a broth and dipping sauces, then pick what you like from the parade going past you and pay for what you ate.  Magic!  And if you put too much chilli in your sauce, cool down with some yogurt (酸奶 suānnǎi), which is sold everywhere on the streets.  And if all else fails, head to a hotel breakfast buffet and eat an cute animal-shaped steamed bun.

At the more challenging end of the spectrum were Yunnanese cuisine, which appears to consist mostly of mushrooms and unusual veggies; the enormous gelatinous niangpi (酿皮) noodles of Qinghai served with bread-like steamed gluten dipped in chilli, the Chinese trucker favorite of “big plate chicken” (大盘鸡 dàpánjī), basically a stew of chicken, potato and lots of chilli, and the Chongqing classic xiǎomiàn (小面), the deceptively named “small noodles” that pack a big numbing-hot mala punch.

And oh, if you’re reading this and thinking “that’s nothing, once in Shenzhen I ate…”, go chew on this previous blog entry for a while.

<<< Lhasa and Tibet | Hong Kong and Macau >>>

 

From Siberia to Tibet: Lhasa and Tibet

The final long-distance train of our journey was also the nicest.  Few of China’s trains are branded, but the Tangzhu Ancient Route (唐竺古道号) from Xining to Shigatse via Lhasa had been bestowed its label only a few months before our trip and the entire train was decked out with pretty, purple-tinged Tibetesque frippery, down to the vase of plastic violet roles on our table.

We left Xining in the evening and slept through the slow climb up the plateau, crossing the 5,072m Tanggula Pass — the highest stretch of train track in the world — conveniently after breakfast.  The combo of acclimatization, a precautionary course of Diamox (acetazolamide) and the oxygen being piped into all the cabins worked a treat, and none of us felt more than the faint echo of a headache.

Arrival into Lhasa, at “only” 3,656m, was somewhat anticlimactic. The station is located on the newly built, heavily Chinese-flavored west side of Lhasa.   Our Tibet permits were scrutinized for the fourth time on this ride (rest assured, sneaking into Tibet is not a thing any more), our mandatory guide was waiting our mandatory van, and we drove through what felt very much like just another Chinese city, full of construction sites, shiny glass-fronted buildings, and the odd concrete building or bridge tarted up with some Tibetan detail, already fading and peeling off after a few years.

And then we arrived in the old city around Barkhor and stepped back in time a thousand years.   The penetrating funk of yak butter wafted around the narrow, twisty streets (we would soon come to realize that this was the smell of Tibet, in much the same way that boiled mutton is the smell of Mongolia), shops sold dried cheese, fresh yak meat and temple offerings, our hotel the House of Shambhala was decorated with near-Indian amounts of color and statuary, pilgrims prostrated themselves as they circumambulated the temple of Jokhang…   this, emphatically, was not China.

It is difficult to write about Tibet as an outsider.  For the Tibetan exiles who supply Free Tibet bumper stickers to soccer moms in Berkeley and the predominant Western view of the country, the Chinese presence is nothing short of a violent occupation intent on reducing their country into a theme park, and it’s hard to disagree with this.  But from the Chinese point of view, the army liberated Tibetans from an oppressive absolute theocracy, where a tiny elite of lamas ruled teeming masses of miserably poor serfs, and brought in modernity and economic development — and it’s hard to disagree with this either, particularly after having visited the Tibetan exile capital of Dharamsala and witnessed the lethal roads and Indian squalor of the settlement.  The excesses of the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese government straight up razed everything that didn’t fit the program, have long since been dialed back and at a casual glance, it even looks like China is actively supporting Tibetan culture now.  Every single road and shop sign had Tibetan script above the Chinese, albeit often in an illegibly small font, and vast amounts of money have clearly been pumped into tidying up the once-decaying old city.

All that said, it was still clear that this is a land that the Chinese government keeps in an iron grip.  Security checkpoints and CCTV cameras dotted entrances not just to train stations and museums, but to Barkhor and the city itself, and it wasn’t enough to show your bags, you had to scan your ID as well.  Many guards and low-level police were Tibetan, but the heavily armed riot squads stomping around the Old City were all Han Chinese.  Lighters were banned and fire extinguishers prominently placed in any spot where a self-immolation might lead to bad publicity. The few Tibetans we had a chance to talk to spoke in stage whispers if offering politically incorrect opinions (“The Chinese are like rats!  They’re everywhere!”).  Political propaganda, a subdued presence on the streets of Beijing but more visible in Xining, was pumped to a fever pitch here, with fervent invocations of Prosperous Strength (富强 fùqiáng) and Harmony (和谐 héxié) .  Even posters of Xi Jinping, which nearly disappeared from the rest of the country during our visit, could be found in abundance.  And in the center of town, roped off in the middle of a heavily guarded square, stands the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, raising a permanent middle finger towards the Potala Palace opposite.  Subtle it was not, and you can only wonder if even Party apparatchiks genuinely believe this kind of thing will convince any Tibetans of the errors of the Dalai Lama’s splittist ways.

The Potala Palace is still standing though, its simultaneously graceful yet fearsome hilltop bulk dominating the city like few ancient structures still can.  In its own way, it was much like Beijing’s Forbidden City, only now with supplicants climbing up endless flights of stairs to experience the spiritual wisdom and earthly power of Tibet’s former god-kings.  Today they’re long gone and the supplicants have been replaced by tour buses of Chinese tourists, with tours of the interior limited to a choreographed controlled 60-minute dash and interior photography strictly forbidden.

The heart of Lhasa for Tibetans is the comparatively modest temple of Jokhang — although “modest” doesn’t seem quite the right word for a structure largely plated in gold — and Barkhor Street looping around it.  Serious pilgrims traverse the circuit by prostrating themselves on the ground, sliding forward, standing up, saying a prayer and repeating this over and over again.   Equally serious beggars have also realized that they can make a nice bundle of cash doing this, particularly if they force a few grubby five-year-olds into doing the same and collecting money from passers-by; probably the saddest sight on this trip.  Both are far outnumbered by Chinese tourists and the vast majority of the Barkhor’s shops now sell tourist tat and yak yogurt cakes.

On our final day we paid a visit to Sera Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, unremarkable except for the spectacle of monks debating in the open air with resounding claps whenever a question had been posed, and the rather more spectacular Ganden Monastery, perched atop a mountain at 4,300m, a good half a kilometer higher than Lhasa itself.  We were now up in clouds that had squatted low over Lhasa, so everything was blanketed in a chilly mist, with the ground covered in mud and occasional squalls of rain.  It’s like this in midsummer, just how cold does it get here in the winter?  Yet we were the only tourists around, and our guide explained why: “The Chinese come to Tibet for the nature.  The culture does not interest them.”

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Suddenly it clicked into place.  To Westerners, Tibet is all chanting lamas, tantric bliss and deep spiritual teachings, but to the Chinese, it’s like Alaska or Switzerland: a place of clean air, sweeping views and climactic extremes, where you can experience the power of raw nature and get away from the concrete warrens of Shanghai or Xi’an.  This explained the photoshopped blue skies of every single Chinese ad for Tibetan products and why our in-train publicity magazine was full of nothing but nature shots and extreme sports, in precisely the same way that Alaskan cruises “into authentic wilderness” relegate the native inhabitants to a optional excursion on a stopover.

And in the same way that it’s exceedingly unlikely that the United States will one day decide to hand over the keys to native Alaskans and decamp south of the 49th parallel, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Chinese will ever decide to head to lower altitudes and leave the plateau to the Tibetans.  They now form the majority of the population in both Lhasa and Tibet as a whole, they control the levers of power, and those levers are set to “open the floodgates”.  So while you can certainly dispute who ought to control Tibet, the reality is and will be that the Chinese do, and the best the Tibetans can hope for is accommodation and respect — and even that seems like wishful thinking.

On a stodgier note, I should mention the food in Tibet, which is uniformly terrible, at least when visiting as a tourist.  Much like Mongolia, actual Tibetan cuisine is circumscribed by the extreme, vegetable-free climate, meaning that momo dumplings, yak meat (basically gamey beef) and barley are the staples, washed down with copious quantities of the justly infamous butter tea.  Mongolians drink a variant of this too, but they’re generally content to stick to milk and a pinch of salt, whereas Tibetans blend in vast amounts of yak butter — and this isn’t an inoffensive pale block from your neighborhood supermarket, but the cultured, cheesy, funky stuff sold on the streets.  The only way I found to make it palatable was to mix it into tsampa, the roasted barley flour that was once a staple of Tibetan travellers, making salty but edible porridge.

Since the average Westerner can take only so much of this, tour guides helpfully take them to a dwindling set of largely empty Westerner-friendly restaurants, serving yak-ified attempts at Western food (yak steaks with french fries, yak burgers with maraschino cherries on top) and denatured Nepalese food (bland yak curries and samosas) that persists as a sort of vestigial, withering appendix of the pre-2008 glory days when hippies could easily cross over from Kathmandu to Lhasa.  The Chinese have their own restaurants too, the tourists heading to places serving yak-ified Chinese food (hotpots, noodles, etc) and the residents inhaling chillies and breathing fire in the many Sichuanese places.

On our last day, we grabbed our packed breakfast of toast (and that’s only toast, without even jam or yak butter), zipped out of Lhasa down a motorway that punched its way through several mountain ranges, checked in at the packed Lhasa Gonggar airport (which, inevitably, is being expanded) and flew out to Hong Kong via Chongqing.

<<< Beijing, Xi’an and Xining | China as a Tourist >>>

 

From Siberia to Tibet: Beijing, Xi’an and Xining

Around 10 PM at night, we trundled across the Mongolia-China border into the dusty town of Erenhot (二连 Erlian).  One of the few pleasures of international train travel is that the border crossings and their inspectors come to you, but China wasn’t having any of it: we all had to disembark with our luggage and go queue up for passport and customs.

And then we waited until 2 AM while our bogies were changed from Russian wide gauge to Chinese standard gauge.  Officially, the sparkly new International Waiting Room had all sorts of amusements including tax-free shopping, a bar and a certified 5-star bathroom; in reality, it lacked all of those as well as air-con, toilet paper and enough seats.  After various conflicting answers and general confusion, I was granted a magic plastic token that let me go outside and check out the jumbled shops and pharmacies, and most importantly, acquire some bananas and the first of many bottles of Yanjing Beer to come.

By the time we woke up next morning, the scenery had changed to rolling green hills, occasional clusters of buildings and factories, and steadily thickening haze.  Viaducts for the Zhangjiakou high-speed rail line, being built for the 2020 Winter Olympics, were often visible and made our clunky train feel rather obsolete.  After arrival at Beijing Station, which seemed to contain more people than all of Mongolia, our host whisked us away for a traditional Chinese welcoming ceremony: foreigner registration at the local Public Security Bureau (公安部 Gong’anbu) cop shop, painstakingly pecked in one finger at a time.  Now we were in China!

Beijing 北京

This was my first visit to the Chinese capital, and I wasn’t expecting much: all you ever see on TV are the inhumanly scaled plazas and buildings around Tian’anmen, designed to make citizens feel like the worthless ants they are compared to the might of emperors old and new.  The shopping district around Wangfujing, all department stores and shopping malls stuffed with name-brand shops, plus the slick modern offices and hotels around Chaoyang, including the dystopian China Central TV aka Big Pants Building (大裤衩 dà kùchǎ), could also have been straight out of Tokyo or Seoul.

But the hutongs around Shizhacai, while now tarted up for tourists and beer-brewing hipsters, remained surprisingly peaceful and lived-in, and the canals and alleyways around Qianhai Lake with weeping willows and pedal boats were green, vibrant and colorful, at least in midsummer.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu (慕田峪), about 1.5 hours north of central Beijing, was a worthwhile excursion, both surprisingly lush and surprisingly smoggy.  Those stairs were a real workout, particularly in the sticky heat of midsummer, and I was glad to take both the ski lift up and the rather ridiculous but still amusing toboggan ride down.  Pro tip: there’s a solitary little snack shop at the top, which will instantly open a frosty bottle of Yanjing for you if you so much as mention the word pijiu (beer) — and attempt to charge you 85 RMB (US$13) for it.  At the bottom of the hill, the same beer will cost you 20, and even that’s pricy by Chinese standards.

Beijing’s other mandatory attraction is the justly reknowned Forbidden City , once the home of the Emperor and now the showcase of China’s Communist mandarins.  There was a queue of several hours to see the pickled corpse of Mao, so when a torrential downpour hit we abandoned that idea and proceeded to the palaces.  The complex is enormous, and despite notional visitor limits (book your tickets online!), it was packed to the gills with local tourists, all armed with pointy umbrellas.   The Outer Court, through which you enter, consists of a series of identical-looking but empty gates and plazas, so there isn’t even much to see.  Mostly to get away from it all, we paid a little extra to visit the Treasure Gallery to the east, and this turned out to be the best move all day: the crowds were thinner and the scale was more reasonable, as this is where the Emperor and his household actually lived.

Xi’an 西安

We ended up in Xi’an through a lucky mishap: the sleeper train we wanted to take from Beijing to Xining was full, and when pondering alternatives, I realized we could take a sleeper to Xi’an, spend a day there, and take an evening bullet train to Xining.  Win!

The thing to do in Xi’an is to visit the Terracotta Warriors, which guard the tomb of Shi Huangdi, the founder of the Qin dynasty and the kind of megalomaniac who makes Mao look modest and reasonable.  In 230 BCE, he unified China for the first time, declared himself emperor, standardized all the things (writing, currency, measures, axles etc) across the vast country, burned all old books and executed those who didn’t comply fast enough, built a necropolis nearly 100 km² in size (the vast majority of which remains unexcavated) and had basically everybody who built it executed.  Unsurprisingly, it’s quite a sight, and enough Chinese agree that it’s now the country’s second-most popular attraction, second only to the Forbidden City.  Don’t expect to have too many moments of peaceful contemplation.

Much further down that list is the Great Mosque of Xi’an, buried in the mazelike depths of the Muslim Quarter (回民街 Huiminjie), and probably the least mosque-like mosque I’ve ever seen.  If somebody swapped the signs, it would substitute quite nicely for, say, a Confucian temple or the Emperor’s former summer residence: for example, the pagoda above is actually a minaret.

Visitors and locals alike do come to the Muslim Quarter in droves, but to satisfy more earthly desires for food and shopping.  Lamb kebabs (烤肉串 kaorou), Chinese hamburgers (肉夹馍 roujiamo), osmanthus cakes topped with dates (桂花糕 guihuagao), crispy meat pies (肉餅 roubing)…  both our quick visit, and this incredible blog post, only scratched the surface.

Xining 西宁

While Beijing and Xi’an are firmly on the beaten track, it’s safe to say Xining is not.  It may be the capital of Qinghai Province, but by Chinese standards its 2.3 million people barely qualify as a city, at least when compared to Xi’an’s 12m or Beijing’s 21m.  What’s more, while it’s been around for over 2,000 years and was a major staging post on the Silk Road, a massive earthquake in 1927 plus Japanese bombing in 1941 means you’d be hard put to find a historical attraction worthy of the name in the city.  The sole reason we were here was that, at an altitude of 2,600m, this gave us a chance to acclimatize a bit, and the only other city in these parts, the industrial center of Golmud, is by all accounts even more dull.

Given these low expectations, Xining was mostly a pleasant surprise, undoubtedly provincial but largely prosperous and with new infrastructure ranging from bridges and highways to trains sprouting everywhere, virtually all of it built since 2010.  Our Taiwanese cracker conglomerate hotel was golden bling to the max, the shopping malls of Xidajie (西大街) were bustling with real department stores and fake Apple Stores, Mojia St (莫家街) was wall to wall with restaurants.  Only slightly off the beaten track did you remember you weren’t in Beijing anymore, with meat hanging on open-air hooks at the street markets of Shuijing Alley (水井巷) and the green signs and ornate skullcaps of Hui Muslims dominating the local culinary scene even more thoroughly than they did in Xi’an.

Xining’s one major draw is Kumbum Monastery, or Ta’ersi Temple (塔尔寺) to the Chinese, some 40 km outside the city.   One of the largest Tibetan monasteries outside Lhasa, this was the childhood home of the Dalai Lama (you can even find a solitary photo if you look very carefully) and, while much reduced from its pre-Cultural Revolution glory, is still an active temple.  I expected to find some Tibetan pilgrims here and did, but I did not expect tour buses full of Chinese pilgrims, herded about by tour guides and stuffing notes ranging from 0.1 to 100 yuan into every nook and cranny of every statue and altar.  Clearly China’s economic boom has also brought with it a surging market for spiritual fulfillment.

Much more sedate, in fact positively comatose, was the official state-sanctioned Tibetan Culture & Medicine Museum in a faux-Tibetan concrete monolith on the northern outskirts of town.  This showcased Tibetan culture as the Chinese government would like it: colorful, safely encased in static glass displays, no actual Tibetans in sight, and with an overpriced gift shop on the way out.

In the evening, we clambered aboard train Z6811 and started our slow climb to Tibet.

Anorak bonus album: Metros in Beijing, Xi’an and Xining

<<< Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert | Lhasa and Tibet >>>

From Siberia to Tibet: Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert

I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never been to a country like Mongolia.  Scratch that: I’ve never been to a country anything like Mongolia.

The first thing that strikes you is that this country is not really suitable for human life.  The more gentle bits, such as that around capital Ulaanbaatar (“UB”), consist of treeless steppe with temperatures ranging from -40°C in the winter to 35°C in the summer.  The less forgiving parts, like the Gobi Desert and Lake Uvs, dispose of unnecessary vegetation and crank the extremes up to −58°C in winter and 47°C in summer.  Add in the wild temperature fluctuations caused by a continental climate at high elevation that can see UB hit temps below freezing every month of the year, and you can see why agriculture is effectively impossible.

At this point, I should note that I was born in Helsinki, Finland, ranked a respectable #5 on the list of the world’s coldest capitals (#1 is, of course, UB), and many a time I’ve wondered how on earth my ancestors survived in this arctic wasteland without central heating or microwave pizzas.  But at least in Finland, we had timber for housing and heating, fish in the lakes and sea, game in the woods, crops of rye and barley, turnips and rutabagas — whereas the Mongols had, to a first approximation, none of these.

So, when the Mongols were playing Yurtcraft in Hardcore mode around 1000 C.E. and the only resources were sheep and yaks, what did they do?  They built their houses out of wool, namely the felt used for yurts.  In winter they ate only meat, specifically boiled mutton, and in summer they switched to a lighter diet of only dairy products.  And to be clear, when I say “only meat”, I really mean only meat: no vegetables, no grain, no bread, no potatoes, nothing.  Meat.  For dairy, they had a choice of milk, cream, sour milk, yogurt, fresh cheese and dried cheese, but at least they could ferment some into mildly alcoholic airag (mare’s milk) or seriously alcoholic arkhi (yoghurt vodka) and so they could drink away the monotony for a while.

Given this fairly serious handicap, you’d expect the Mongolians to occupy about the same amount of space on the world stage as, say, their fellow pastoralists the Maasai of Kenya, whose colorful costumes and exotic diet regularly feature in the National Geographic but rarely beyond it.  But no: the Mongols gave birth to Genghis Khan, who during his lifetime built an empire twice the size of the Romans at their height, and whose sons and grandsons proceeded to conquer China, Russia, much of the Middle East and knock on the gates of Western Europe.

Alas, the Mongol Empire lasted for only about 100 years until inevitably splitting into warring factions (maybe siring an estimated 8% of Asia’s population wasn’t such a great idea?) and it was all downhill from there for a while.  The Manchu Qing dynasty eventually conquered Mongolia in 1691, and while Mongolia declared independence in 1911, Russian aid quickly turned into Soviet strings and the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, complete with local Stalin clone Choibalsan doing his level best to purge the intelligentsia.  This created another overlay of weirdness, with Cyrillic script and hideous Soviet-style architecture still dominating the streets of UB.

In 1990, the Soviet Union and the Mongolian People’s Republic along with it collapsed, and Mongolia acquired a new state ideology: bling.  This gave Ulaanbaatar its latest layer of shiny skyscrapers, modern art exhibitions, traffic jams, microbreweries, hot dog stands, fancy boutiques and even a VIP room at the train station.  It must be said that Mongolia remains a poor country and most of this is far beyond the reach of the common man — but in a country where a taxi ride is $2, a tourist’s dollars go a long way.

This newfound comparative prosperity has also expanded the Mongol diet, with former festival fare like buuz steamed dumplings, khuushuur meat pies and tsuivan fried noodles now served by fast food restaurants.  And when all the mutton starts to get to you — you soon realize that the entire city smells like boiled mutton — check out one of UB’s countless Korean places, serving up all the kimchi and Choco Pies you can handle.

While I found UB to be absolutely fascinating, the scenery in nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park was equally so and definitely worth a day trip if not more.  Turtle Rock, Aryaval monastery (which sells pizza, because Mongolia), visiting a local tourist yurt, admiring the owner’s yaks and sampling many yak dairy products, pottering about on stubby Mongolian horses, visiting the yurt owner’s cousin’s distinctly non-tourist yurt and fermented mare’s milk straight out of a blue plastic bucket…  not a day I’ll soon forget.

Early on the morning of our final day, we boarded train #4 to Beijing and set off on a slow trundle across the Gobi Desert.  It’s large, it’s hot, it contains a whole lotta nothing — but the most striking sight was the heat-blasted, godforsaken town of Choir, a former Soviet military base that for some unfathomable reason has not been abandoned by its 8,000 inhabitants yet.  The town consists entirely of commieblocks and fencing, both in severe disrepair, plus an excessively jaunty silver statue of Mongolian cosmonaut Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa with his pants down.

At this point, I’m officially out of words.  It’s about time to cross the border into China.

<<< Life on a Train | Beijing, Xi’an & Xining >>>

From Siberia to Tibet: Life on a Train

 

Many writers wax lyrical about the romance of long-distance train travel, but on this trip I sampled four them — Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, Beijing to Xi’an, and Xining to Lhasa — and the sad truth is that the passenger trains in these parts are strictly utilitarian workhorses, inferior to airplanes on virtually every measure of speed or comfort.   Here’s the lowdown on life in a 4-berth sleeper (kupé in Russia, 软卧 ruǎnwò in China).

Eat

When you’re on a train for 24 hours or more, you’ve got to eat something, and this leaves you with three options.

The first and most obvious option is restaurant cars, and the Mongolian ones with their intricate wood carvings and embroidered tablecloths even look quite attractive.  Alas, the food they serve ranges from bland but edible, like our Chinese breakfast set composed mostly of sausage, celery and chilli, to bland and near-inedible, such as the incredibly gristly beef served on the Mongolian train — I was picking bits out of my teeth for the next two days.  Perhaps we should have taken the hint from the plastic bags of frozen beef sitting in the corridor, tenderizing in the midsummer heat of the Gobi Desert.

Alternatively, you can try to buy food on station platforms, but this presents a number of practical problems.  First, stops are few and far between and rarely aligned with mealtimes.  Second, stops are short and on arrival you neither have any idea what the options are nor where to find them.  Third, if you do find something food-like, it’s often unclear how many days those mince-meat khuushuurs sitting on a table have been fermenting under the Mongolian sun.  We did manage to swing some pretty decent piroshki pastries in Ulan-Ude, plus rye bread and boiled eggs in Mongolia, but it really is the luck of the draw and you can’t count on finding more than packaged snacks this way.

Finally, you can bring your own food, but with no refrigeration or heating available (aside from hot water), you’ll be hard pressed to expand your culinary horizons beyond packaged bread, instant noodles and the giant Russian rye croutons called grenki.  (Best flavor: garlic with garlic dip.  You’re welcome.)  A useful compromise is to buy a meal at your departure station: you’re not going to find much more than fast food, but even KFC is likely tastier, cheaper and healthier than the alternatives.

All that said, you can generally rely on the restaurant cars to supply lukewarm beer at only mildly extortionate prices, which brings me to…

Drink

Russian and Mongolian trains forbid drinking alcoholic beverages on board; fortunately, this being Russia and Mongolia, beer is not considered alcohol.  (Seriously.)  Needless to say, this rule is widely ignored by all and sundry, although it’s generally wise to close your compartment door if you have one and avoid tippling at times when conductors are on the prowl.

The one free drink provided in abundant quantities is boiling hot water, supplied by a coal or wood fired boiler at the end of each carriage.  If you’re lucky, there may even be a thermos bottle in your cabin, which you can use to stock your own supply.  Bring along some teabags, instant coffee or cocoa, and you can stay caffeinated.  A pedantic nit: most travelers call these samovars, but in Russian they’re actually “titans” (титан).

Non-hot water, on the other hand, is in distinctly short supply, as the water from the bathroom taps is not drinkable.  Bring along more than you think you will need, particularly if it’s hot or high outside.  As for taking a shower or a bath, forget about it.

Poop

Yes, this section has no pictures.  (You’re welcome.)

The upside to strictly functional trains is that their toilets are also unencumbered with pneumatic vacuums and mysterious blue liquids.  Instead, when you press the lever, the bottom opens up and the contents are deposited straight onto the tracks, followed by a slightly apologetic trickle of water.  While this does an admirable job of preventing the toilet from clogging, it does also mean that the doors are locked while the train is stationary, including during those multi-hour border crossings.

On Chinese trains, you will also encounter squat toilets, although there are usually a few thrones to be found as well.  The upside to these is that, no matter how filthy the rest of the room, only your feet need make contact; the downside is that whatever your feet make contact with is likely to be unpleasant.  This is why everybody on board brings flip-flops to wear.   And whether your train is Russian, Mongolian or Chinese, you’ll want to bring toilet paper and soap as well.

Sleep

Fed, hydrated and voided, it’s time to sleep.  The uninitiated are often tempted by the idea of a hotel on wheels: just slumber away peacefully on board and you’ll arrive at your destination not just refreshed, but having saved on a night’s hotel bill!  Reality is more complicated.

Even when not manufactured in the DDR, the berths are generally uncomfortable, even in the misnamed Russian “luxe” or Chinese “soft sleeper”.  The sheets are nailed to plyboard (we ended up buying an inflatable camping mattress because my dad’s back was wrecked by the four nights of the Moscow-Irkutsk stretch), the blankets are covered in stains of indeterminate origin and getting onto the top bunks requires acrobatics.  If the window is closed, it’ll be stuffy and hot inside; if it’s open, every rattle, clank and blast of the horn is amplified and your toes will freeze.   While the Trans-Siberian and most railways in China are continuously welded and thus smooth, the Trans-Mongolian is not, meaning your bedtime lullaby will be a constant clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

In addition, border crossings are both interminable and inevitably timed to happen in the middle of night.  It was past midnight when we finally entered Mongolia after two hours of inspections, and while our arrival into China was at 9 PM, we all had to get off the train and wait for 5 hours, until 2 AM, while they swapped the bogies from Russian to Chinese gauge.

Unsurprisingly, you’re likely to wake up groggy and grumpy.  If you’re at your destination already, you’ll be decanted onto the streets and condemned to wander until your hotel opens; if not, you’ll probably catch up by napping in your bunk during the day, throwing your sleep cycle even more out of whack.

So why do it?

Well, that was quite the litany of whinging, why would anybody voluntarily subject themselves to this then?

It’s an opportunity to idle.  There is way more time than there are things to do, so you can read a book, play cards, study the finer points of Russian grammar on Duolingo, or just take a nap — and all the earlier kvetching aside, your train bunk is still more spacious and comfy than even a business class seat on an airplane.

Traveling by train, you get a sense of distance.  I flew Beijing to Irkutsk in 2.5 hours, and saw basically nothing even from the window seat.  Traveling the same route by train took 54 hours, and while I still can’t say I really know what it felt like to cross the Gobi by camel, now at least I have some reference point for the sheer scale of the feat.

But above all, you see a slice of real life.  It’s not always pretty (any train traveler in India will have a hard time unseeing the spectacle of the track sides being used as a public lavatory), but simply put, without taking the train you wouldn’t see ramshackle Siberian dachas, rusting factories around Ulan-Ude, yurt cities around Ulan Bator, ghastly commieblocks around a Mongolian military base in the Gobi desert, Chinese factories spewing grey smoke into the skies of Inner Mongolia, the green hills of Shaanxi, the shaggy yaks wandering around the plateaus of Tibet, the massive scale of construction around Lhasa and more.  This trip wouldn’t have been the same at all without it, and I have zero regrets.

On to Mongolia!

<<< Irkutsk & Lake Baikal | Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert >>>

From Siberia to Tibet: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

As the rest of our group lived in Helsinki, their starting point was set, but for me, setting off from Sydney, this would have added a week or two to an already ambitiously long itinerary.  The eventual solution was that I would skip the initial leg of the trip and fly down to meet them at Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, “only” 15 hours flight time from Sydney.

I landed at sunset into pelting rain at the cavernous and chaotic Beijing Capital Airport, where I waited for an hour for the sole officer to stamp boarding passes at the transit desk and caught a few hours of shut-eye at the stupidly expensive transit hotel.  Shortly after 5 AM, I boarded a lime green S7 (f.k.a Siberia Airlines) Airbus A320 for the two-hour hop to Irkutsk, flying over the same route we would spend the next week crossing by land.  Alas, Mongolia was covered in cloud and I caught only a fleeting glimpse of Lake Baikal as we approached Irkutsk.

Thanks to some optimal bus jockeying, I was literally the first person in line at Russian immigration, where my visa and passport were carefully scrutinized.   Much typing ensured, but a few minutes later they were stamped and handed back, without a single word said during the entire transaction.  Ёлки зелёные, I was in Siberia!

My Russian colleagues had been uniformly horrified at the idea of voluntarily visiting a provincial Siberian town like Irkutsk, which last made headlines in 2016 when 76 people died from drinking methanol-laced bath lotion.  My initial impressions did not do much to dispel this: the dark and gloomy Soviet-era airport lurking inside the baby blue building perched just off Ulitsa Sovetskaya, hailing a Yandex ride in a beat-up car driven by a chain-smoker missing most of his teeth, the early morning drive through deserted roads of rotting wooden houses, Vladimir Ilyich saluting his eponymous street…  it all reminded me too much of the gnarlier bits of Tallinn immediately after liberation in the early 1990s.

Fortunately, we had chosen our digs well in the positively posh 130 Kvartala Disneyland-esque wonderland of new timber buildings kitted out with boutiques, restaurants and hotels including our base Marussia, which managed to pull off the unlikely feat of being a pleasant, modern boutique hotel built in what’s essentially a log cabin.

First order of business was to cleanse ourselves of the dusts of Europe and Oceania by performing a triple rite of purification at Polyana:

  1. Searing steam in the banya (Russian sauna), heated by a wood-fired stove behind a brick wall.
  2. Ritual flagellation with a well-soaked venik, or oak broom — the sign prohibits entry into the banya without one!
  3. Baptism in the waters of the Angara River, glacial even in midsummer.

Over the coming days a more rounded picture of Irkutsk fell in to place.  Some parts were booming, some parts were falling apart, some parts were modern, some were straight from 1970, and like everywhere most people were just muddling through.  Some people spoke English, most didn’t but were friendly anyway, and while knowing rudimentary Russian was helpful, particularly for reading Cyrillic, I don’t think we would ever have been in real trouble even without it.   All in all, though, it seemed a city on the mend after some pretty rough years, profiting off the China trade and increasingly popular with Asian tourists.   Well worth a visit.

Food in Irkutsk was a highlight, and Sval in Listvyanka was among the best meals of the whole trip: the famed Baikal omul tasted like an oversized herring to me, but muksun grilled over charcoal was amazing.   In addition to the obligatory Russian rassolnik and pelmeny washed down with vodka, we feasted on Buryat pozy and khuushuur dumplings (a foretaste of both Mongolia and Tibet), shashlik kebabs and lavosh flatbread from the Caucasus, unpronouncable Georgian walnut-paste salads and red wines, and even the odd attempt at modern fusion like a rather delicious concoction of creamy Russian ice cream, berries and cedar nuts (orekhi).  The last of these were ubiquitous and sold by street vendors in packs of up to a kilo.

The Taltsy open-air museum, 50 km from Irkutsk, was a worthwhile excursion, with displays ranging from the rather miserable huts and sky coffins of the native Evenki to the mighty ostrog fortresses of Siberia.  It was surprisingly lively too, with shops and costumed performers, and not too many tour buses even on a weekend.

But true to my words to the doubtful Russian visa officer, the main reason I and most other Trans-Siberian travellers came to Irkutsk is to see Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, located a leisurely hydrofoil cruise or hair-raising minibus ride away.   While Irkutsk in July basked in temperatures pushing 30°C, on our first visit the pebbly lakeshore 70 km away was barely 15°C and shrouded in chilly mist, to the point that even Siberian sunbathers hesitated to take their togs off.   It was hard to imagine what it’s like here in the depths of winter, and on our return we got a faint taste of Baikal’s famously fearsome storms (waves 4.5m high are apparently not uncommon) when a sudden squall blew through Irkutsk and left us stranded at the bus station, with trams stalled (“energia nyet”) and half a meter of muddy water sloshing through the streets.

Unsurprisingly, very few people actually live on the shores of the lake.  Port Baikal, the terminus of the Circum-Baikal spur line, is an unattractive rusty boat graveyard, while Listvyanka at the end of the road is a strip of hotels, rental cottages and souvenir shops.  Our second day trip took us by hydrofoil to Bolshiye Koty, where visitors are greeted by a festering pile of trash next to the jetty and entertainment consisted of drinking instant coffee out of plastic cups in a rickety shack while watching the village lunatic speed up and down the dirt road on a clapped-out motorbike.

Yet the amazing thing was that, five minutes from the pier, you were alone in a pine forest with no sound except the incessant chirping of crickets.   Lake Baikal was before us, silent, clear with shades of blue rarely seen outside the tropics, unfathomably deep and majestic.  We walked some distance along the trail, had a picnic of cabbage pie, pickled carrot and warm beer, and remembered what it felt like to be somewhere where there are no obligatory attractions to see or things to do.

Anorak bonus album: Trams in Irkutsk

Next morning, we continued towards Mongolia.

<<< Preamble & Paperwork | Life on a Train >>>

From Siberia to Tibet: Preamble & Paperwork

For the past 15 years, my father has been talking about traveling “from Hesa [Helsinki] to Lhasa” by train.  This year, we finally did it, and it was enough of an adventure that I’m resurrecting my long-dormant travel blog to tell the tale.  Expect plenty of pictures and less text.

Table of Contents

Paperwork

Pulling off a trip like this requires quite a bit of preparation, since each of Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet require their own visas or permits, which needs to be applied for in advance…  but not too far in advance, since they have expiry dates!   Most resources about the Trans-Siberian advise people to go via a travel agency to get these, but (excepting Tibet) it’s entirely feasible to do this on your own, so here are some notes for posterity.

Some personal notes, although the details will vary based on your citizenship and where you apply: this is all for an Australian applying in Australia. Also, despite minor differences in the requirements on paper, standard Australian passport photos were fine for all three.

Russia

img_20180517_090142This is the most complicated by a long shot, so get this one first. I applied in person at the Russian consulate in Sydney, using the detailed step-by-step guide here, which was extremely helpful.  The guide, that is; the consulate, on the other hand, felt like a live-action version of Papers Please.   Apply for your visa appointment well in advance, since it may take a few weeks to find a free slot!

On arrival, I was first treated to the sight of an extremely angry businessman chastising a security guard in an ill-fitting green polyester suit on the other side of a locked gate: “You’ve been incredibly rude! I’ll report you to your manager!”  The guard didn’t even roll his eyes, just asked me for my appointment and let me in when I claimed to have one.

At reception, though, another unfortunate soul had made a reservation but had neglected to bring his chit.  Nyet, try again in a few weeks.  The high-tech QR scanner didn’t much like mine either, but it grudgingly accepted the 16-digit code when punched in manually.

The waiting room was plastered with signs strictly forbidding the use of mobile phones, which are rounded ignored by everybody including myself.  When my number came up, I headed to counter 4, whose previous victim was undergoing an interrogation:

– You are attending a conference?
– Yes.
– You cannot use a business visa, you must apply for [inaudible] visa.
– But but…
– Here is form.  Next!

I got to the window.  My friendly greeting was unanswered.  I piled my papers and passport on the counter and careful examination ensued.  Everything was going swimmingly, until…

– Your visa invitation is 1 to 5 July, but your visa application 1 to 8 July.
– Yes, I am traveling out by overnight Trans-Siberian train.
– Why are you going to Irkutsk?
– To see Lake Baikal.
– Hmm.

This was clearly highly suspicious, but the bureaucrat showed grandmotherly kindness and accepted my unworthy application.   Learn from my mistake, use the same dates on your letter of invitation (I used ivisa.ru) and the visa application, and feel free to add plenty of buffer — you’re never asked for an actual hotel reservation.

So now it was time to pay up at counter 6, but the old Chinese lady there was in trouble too.  Neither of her credit cards was accepted, EFTPOS didn’t work either, and rejected receipts were piling up.  The gentleman behind me had prepared the exact amount in cash, which was also unacceptable.  Eventually my turn came and, wonder of wonders, my card worked!  The printer spat out a receipt, Svetlana sliced it in three with a ruler and gave me the smallest piece.

– Come back May 17. No appointment, collect at reception. Next!

I returned as requested, arriving at the consulate when they opened at 9 AM sharp, along with a bunch of other people.  We filed inside, but the “Visa Pick-Up” counter was resolutely closed.  Eventually Feodor arrived, but when somebody had the effrontery to approach the counter, he silently pointed at a small sign saying that Visa Pick-Up is available from 9:30 AM.  So we waited for half an hour under the steely glare of Comrade Putin, and then I finally got my grubby mitts on my shiny new visa.  Victory!

Cost A$135, processing time two weeks plus wait for appointment.

China

img_20180517_095124By comparison, getting the Chinese visa at the fully-outsourced Visa Center in Sydney was a miracle of socialist efficiency with Chinese characteristics.  Appointments are required, but are usually available next day and apparently you could get one on the spot too.  I arrived two minutes before my appointment at 10:00, and my number was called at 10:01.

You will need to fill out your tediously long application online and print it; it’s not an online application!  You will also likely be asked for proof of how you will enter and depart China, so bring along train/flight tickets or reservations.  I also had an itinerary from a tour agency in China, which is not strictly necessary, but it was sufficient to cover all other documentation needs.

Cost A$109.50, processing time four business days.

One catch if you’re also planning to visit Tibet: China won’t grant visas to people who want to go to Tibet unless they already have Tibet Travel Permits (TTP), but you can’t apply for a TTP unless you already have a visa.  The only way around the Catch-22 is to make up an innocuous itinerary that involves panda-watching in Chengdu or something for visa purposes, and then apply for the TTP afterwards.

Mongolia

img_20180524_172646There is no Mongolian consulate in Sydney, so I applied via post at the Mongolian Embassy in Canberra. The documentation and travellers’ reports are not clear on whether you need to include train tickets for a tourist visa, but I called them up and was told that a “tourist agency itinerary” was enough. I sent along my ticket reservation receipts (not an actual ticket) and that was good enough. Also, Russia & China take credit cards but Mongolia insists on a bank cheque, so order that at least a week in advance.  It’s also highly advisable to register your mail both ways, meaning you need to prepare a self-addressed envelope and get the post office to register it before you send off your application.

Cost A$230 (!), processing time 4 days.

Note that transit visas are cheaper (A$150) but have tighter documentation requirements (“Detailed travel program provided by the Tour agency”), so I played it safe.  In retrospect, though, Mongolians don’t seem to be the same kind of sticklers for paperwork as the Russians and the Chinese, so this would probably have been fine.

Tibet

dsc_6014Unless you’re a PRC citizen (including HK/Macau), the only way to visit Tibet is to join an organized tour.  This is expensive, particularly if you do what we did and opt for a custom/private tour, but it’s a pretty routine process and the tour agency handles all the paperwork.  That said, there is a certain element of nail-biting involved, since the permit can only be applied for 20 days before arrival, takes around 8 days to grant, and can be denied for no reason if there’s anything happening in Tibet that China would prefer the rest of the world didn’t hear about…

Before 2008, there were occasional stories of people hitching into Tibet and sneaking around without permits.  As of 2018, I feel confident in saying that you won’t get very far these days: your permit is checked constantly, on average 2-3 times a day, and in places including train stations, airports, road checkpoints, hotels and major tourist attractions like the Potala Palace.

Elapsed time

I started my paperwork on April 21st and received my final visa on May 31st, so around 40 days end to end.  (The Tibet permit can only be applied for 20 days before entry into Tibet, but this is handled by the travel agency anyway.)

If I had been in a hurry, I could have shaved a week off this by booking my Russian visa appt earlier, another week by paying for express processing for Russia & China (not available for Mongolia), and a few days by paying for express mail to/from the Mongolian Embassy.

The journey begins here: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal >>>