Land of the Badasses


“I am Temujin. Barbarian. I fight! I love! I conquer… like a Barbarian” – John Wayne


Mongolia in autumn is witch’s tit cold. At 9am one October morn, our party of seven* piled into a Soviet era P.O.S. van and hit the badly paved road. Our tour guide was a female Mongolian hipster with a taste for beer and punk rock attire. We were also accompanied by a seemingly nameless (and seemingly clueless) driver dressed like Albert Steptoe.

UlaanBatar shrank into the distance as we began our drive to the east. Soon enough, badly paved became unpaved, and urban became a distant memory. I felt like Martin Sheen in the oft-referenced (by me) Apocalypse Now, travelling further and further back in time with each step of the journey. This was a landscape that bled history: home to an angry nomad so aggressive and rapey that he slaughtered about 22% of the world’s population and sired a bloodline that may well reach to about one in every 200 living men.

Knowing a photo opp when we saw one, we asked the driver to pull over at a Buddhist shrine near a gnarled, Tolkienesque tree between two peaks. Eventually our seven hour hemorrhoid-risking journey led us to Blue Lake. Conflicting legends have it either that the lake is where young Temujin was bestowed his fearsome new moniker of Genghis Khan, or that it is where he and thirty horsemen, smarting from defeat at the battle of Dalan Balzhut, settled for a decade or so and started making their plans for world domination.

We didn’t stay quite as long, just a single night in the ‘ger’ (aka yurt) of a nomadic family. By the look of it, our accommodation had been until very recently some bloke’s garage. Our host family kept themselves to themselves, mostly staying in their own yurt watching international TV shows dubbed into Mongolian.

We took a short hike into the hills to watch the sun go down. The mid-autumn moon was so bright that it cast our shadows on the frozen ground. The following morning some of us rose before the dawn to watch the sun rise once again over a dramatic landscape that brought back childhood memories of the Rockies and hallucinogenic daydreams of the ole rape and pillage.

Our wonderful guide (who had traded hipster hoodies and black leather for traditional pink pyjamas) cooked everyone a rice pudding-style dish for breakfast before we set out over more rough terrain. Our second night of yurt-ery was spent at a tourist camp in Terelj National Park. The family we stayed with seemed a little more open (one of them acquiesced to be interviewed for an article that a friend was writing for Leeds University), but the camp itself felt a little like Mongolian Butlins. We managed to keep our distance from other tourists, wandering through the woods amidst animal carcasses stripped bare by wolves, before retiring for the night.

No Mongolian trip would be complete without trotting about on a horse. We rode up to a monastery in the mountains surrounding the park. I hadn’t ridden since I was a kid, but these were well trained beasts who knew where they were going. Upon returning from the monastery we packed up the battered old van and drove to the Chinggis Khaan** statue, which presumably beat little competition from Guinness for the prize of World’s Largest Equestrian Statue. It is impressive, and almost impossibly huge. So huge that the World’s Largest Mongolian Boot (fashioned from 445 cow hides and four km of rope) occupies only a tiny fraction of its foyer. Beneath the statue’s hooves lies a wonderfully edifying museum on the history of the Mongol Empire.

6E3071FB-1FB1-46D8-BE76-66BFD13FD4F3-182-00000006184F0BD0_tmp

The contrast between the city and the countryside could not be stronger. Modern Mongolia is home to more than 3 million people, 1.3 million of whom live in UlaanBatar (and, bizarrely, all seem to drive a Toyota Prius). After dirt tracks on which we encountered not a soul, the city took a shocking hour-and-a-half to cross through gridlocked traffic. We had a short time in the centre before departing for Chinggis Khaan International, which may tie with Astana for World’s Least Overly Impressive International Airport (in fairness, they did have some nice hats and English language history books).

Our flight, lagging behind on its way from Seoul, left the airport late; and so by the time we began our two-hour flight to Beijing the sun had already set on another adventure.


*(we had lost the American chap. His flight home was the day before ours and he’d opted for a shorter, cheaper tour)

(**preferred Mongolian spelling of the founding father, complete with Shatner-esque pronunciation of “Khaan!”)

Advertisements

Python References on the Trans-Mongolian


“And now for something completely different.”


I’m beginning to think, not for the first time, that the greatest perk of my job is all the time off that I get. Mid-Autumn, or ‘Moon Cake’ Festival, is one of the two major breaks in China, a time for people to exchange sweet cakes and journey home to their families. I have yet to acquire the  taste for moon cake, and home to me (as Burroughs said) has never “meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room.”  So I took another trip, boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express with the gf and a handful of friends and colleagues.

The Beijing-UlaanBatar express is a 28 hour journey with a handful of stops. The train itself was bookended by dining cars: one Chinese, one Mongolian. After departing the big smoke and setting up camp in two adjacent sleeper rooms, our party of eight (a Brit, an American, a Filipino, four young Chinese women and myself) descended on the Chinese dining car for lunch, laughing and chatting over ribs, chicken wings and bottles of Yanjing.* Every time I tried to open the curtain to peek at the glorious Chinese countryside, the rail collapsed into my lap. This did not deter me from stubbornly trying several times.

Returning to our carriage (which we had virtually to ourselves), we played card games and chatted politics (a conversation we cut short when it became a little too heated) before going our separate but interconnected ways for the evening. Dinner was composed of pot noodles and snacks that we brought with us.

At approximately midnight, we reached the Chinese border at Er Lian (and were immediately told not to step off the carriage). As we all climbed into our beds, the train was undergoing a procedure to change the gauge of the rails. None of us could tell if this was a literal placing of new rails in front of the train, or an exchange of every single wheel on the train carriages, but whatever was happening was accompanied by regular banging, an oppressive industrial thumping, and a broken sleep filled with Lynchian nightmares. At 2am we were awoken and scared shitless by Chinese soldiers with flashlights who returned our passports to us. A few hours later we were woken by the slightly more attractive (and less heart attack-inducing) ladies at the Mongolian border.

EC2DF347-CD36-49D8-9D2C-E0C913CA0396-182-000000057B37D86C_tmp

At 6am, the bedroom shutter rolled up with an enthusiastic “Dude, look at that sunrise!”, which I reluctantly complied with. We were chugging along the ridiculously flat steppes. I could not have been more elated (unless, of course, I’d have had 8 hours sleep). We went to the Chinese diner only to discover that it had remained in China: we were staring out the back of the train, watching the tracks recede into the impossibly distant horizon.

And so it was Mongolian food for breakfast. No curtain rails this time, just good food and Pythonesque banter: one of the delights of travelling with a fellow Brit is that we never ran out of things to talk about or of Monty Python references. We even improvised Palin-esque commentary on our adventure**. Tired of ‘lol’ing at our own wit, we spent the rest of our journey chatting and larking in the sleeper, trying to practice a handful of Mongolian phrases, and scraping the absolute barrel of Monty Python references (28 hours is a very long time!)

The foothills appeared. Then the mountains. By this time we were talking about Ben Wheatley movies as I dug wax from my ear. Eventually, the suburbs of UlaanBataar  crept into view. Yurt after yurt after shipping container. We all agreed that the UB boonies appeared quite the fuck hole to our travel-weary eyes.

We stepped onto the chilly platform and entered the city itself with no game plan. We exchanged RMB for MNT and then started walking. First port of call was a Mongolian greasy spoon for lunch. None of us could read Mongolian, but one of our party suggested ordering the first few dishes on the menu and splitting them between us. So lunch was made up of five different soups and a bowl of rice.

We then descended on the Main Street of Peace Avenue and found a cheap hotel (at our second attempt), before tracking down a tour company that could facilitate the rest of our trip. We all discussed what we would like to see during our Mongolian stay. A trip to the Gobi was not possible with our limited amount of days, so we settled on camping East of the city.

So for one night only, we bedded down in UlaanBatar. I slept for 10 hours.

Cue Palin voiceover, and bombastic BBC music.

FADE OUT.


*(lunchtime drinking is discouraged in Chinese companies. We were truly in holiday mode)

**“The tea in the dining car is a little too hot, but the desert outside is only ten degrees centigrade.”

Selfies By the Sea


“Wtf is that chicken looking at?”
“He’s staring at you because he can sense you are a foreigner.”


The gf and I rode the bullet train to Dalian, a seaport city in Liaoning province. We took pot noodles and sausages with us, and tried our best not to buy any wildly inflated thing on the train. When I wasn’t distracted by the stunning Chinese scenery (which was not often), I read a magazine and did a little writing.

As we left the Jing, one of the old green sleeper trains was chugging into the station from Qiqihaer, Mongolia, a two day journey that made our own six hour hop seem like peanuts. The travelling was effortless, but buying the tickets and navigating Dalian would have been damned near impossible for me without a Chinese-speaking companion.

Our first mistake was checking into a hotel on the outskirts of the city. Whereas the centre of Beijing is easily accessible from Fangshan or Tongzhou, Dalian only has two metro lines: the Dog Arse Line and the Cat Shit Line. We relied on a taxi for the first night, before moving somewhere closer to downtown for the remainder of our stay.

After that it was plain sailing: strolls along the beach at Fisherman’s Wharf, cold drinks in the sun at Binhai Road, way too much Scezhuan food near the hotel. We met up with an old University friend of the gf’s for BBQ one night. She spoke about as much English as I speak Chinese but my people spoke to her people and we all had a lovely time (and a wonderful meal, as usual).

D6B7D47F-37F3-4E5F-A5A8-168C12811AC7-983-000002EA0598A4B6_tmp

No trip to Dalian is complete without popping into both the Forest Zoo (rated AAAA) and Tiger Ocean Park (rated AAAAA), but our second mistake was trying to cram both into the same day. My feelings about zoos and aquariums are complicated,* and Asian zoos tend to get a bad rep, but I found both of these to be  comparable to the equally well-tended Coex Aquarium in Seoul and Dusit Zoo in Bangkok. We saw sea lions being fed and we watched sharks and turtles swimming overhead. Penguins posed for photographs and other birds ran about, as free as… well, birds. We rode the cable car and we drooled over The Castle Hotel (¥3000 a night), both of which reminded me of childhood favourite Where Eagles Dare (because relating actual experiences I have to movies I grew up with is something of a hobby of mine, as you must know by now).

129D4B47-4711-493A-8B51-23711766D27E-983-000002EA6A1BEB93_tmp

We don’t have a telly at home, so it was novel to see a little international news (in English) at our more modestly priced hotel, including coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe.

I downloaded a film for the return journey: Sick of Ben Stiller comedies and underwhelming horror, I chose Spike Jonze’s surprisingly touching Oscar tale of a charming pervert waking up with a boner for his silky-voiced computer. It was partially shot in Shanghai: somewhere that’s still on the very-slowly-shrinking list of Chinese cities to visit.


* some of them summed up here:

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2016/12/31/a-zed-two-noughts/

Long Live the King


“This is very impressive, I think it’s actually the best temple we’ve seen so far.”
“Yes. Shall we take a selfie?”


I spent the summer of 2015 in Southeast Nowhere, Beijing, scratching my balls and watching Michael Bay movies. The following summer was spent sweating through housekeeping duties in a hostel in downtown Vancouver. This year, I figured it wouldn’t break the bank to have an actual fucking holiday.

I considered disappearing, Sean Flynn style, into deepest Cambodia. I considered going to a hotel in Saigon, putting The Doors on full blast and staring at the ceiling fan. Eventually I settled on swapping TsingTaos for Singhas on a five day urban break in Bangkok. The gf was keen to come with me, her first time away from mainland China.

IMG_2423

My knowledge of Thailand is limited. Like, ignorant limited. In fact pretty much my only experience of the country was Thai boxing and Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. I’m not saying I was expecting tuk tuk chases that ended with someone jumping through an exploding ring of barbed wire, or someone lying under an idyllic waterfall making love to a fish, I’m just saying that I really know bugger all about Thailand.

 
First thing to do was make sure we had enough money for our stay. Make seriously sure. The Thai government has started doing random checks at airports to ensure that people can actually afford their stay, as a way of cracking down on broke-arse hipster twats coming over and begging in the streets for enough cash to continue their travels.

 
We flew from Bejing in the early afternoon. Customs and baggage claim took a little longer than I’d have liked, so it was about 9pm local time when we finally got to the hotel. We had an exquisite dinner at the restaurant next door, stocked up on supplies from one of Bangkok’s 3,648 7-Eleven stores, and then I raided the mini-bar for Singha number 1 before falling asleep.

 
Coincidentally, our first full day in the kingdom of elephants turned out to be the king of Thailand’s birthday: the perfect day to visit Wat Pho temple and The Grand Palace, along with absolutely every other fucker in the entire country. We had chicken noodle soup by the river, watching the festivities from a fairly peaceful distance before heading to Chinatown for a coffee and getting hit by a hella downpour.

 
We spent the next couple of days getting used to the Metro and the taxis and trying to learn the Thai for “are you fucking joking, mate? That’s too expensive.” (turns out that the syllables are unpronounceable and that most people speak English anyway).

 
The gf is open to the idea of urban drifting* so we did a fair amount of walking during our stay. We’ve seen a lot of temples. It’s been humbling to sit on the floor (soles pointed away from the Buddha, of course) and contemplate one’s place in the great web.

 
We went to check out of the hotel this morning only to find that July has 31 days (who knew) and that we’ve actually got one more night here in glorious Krung Thep.

 

Meanwhile, a friend in the U.K. has started shooting that short horror film that we wrote together. The cinematographer is my arty mate from the Kazakhstan trip, who’s soon trading Astana for Cairo**. In a way, I kind of wish I was shooting it with them. In another way, though, I wish them well and I’m in Thailand.

 
When I made my first stab at becoming a screenwriter a main inspiration was John Milius, writer of Apocalypse Now. While director Francis Ford Coppola was going insane in the jungle, dealing with typhoons and infidelity and heart attacks as well as Brando and Hopper sized egos, Milius was lazily writing the surfing epic Big Wednesday, spending his days sipping whisky on a Californian beach and his nights riding a dune buggy with a bare-breasted Margot Kidder, shooting the bulbs out of street lamps with an antique shotgun.

 
I always felt that the writer won.

 

 

I still do.


*at least with the safety net of Google Maps (a novelty for her)

**he’s shown me the rough cut of the Kazakh video we worked on, which is quite the mini-epic.

 

It May Be Easter Outside, But in My Heart it’s Spring

IMG_2026

“God bless those pagans.” – Homer Simpson


Smarter people than I have questioned the relevance of eating chocolate eggs to celebrate the fact that, as Douglas Adams puts it, “one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change”. Rumours abound that the eggs represent the tomb that the almighty was buried in for four days and that breaking them open represents him kicking down the door with his punctured feet.

Truth is, of course, that Easter (like all good Christian festivals) was just nicked from the pagans. Jakob Grimm (of those Grimms), once pointed out that the German word ‘ostar‘ (or, roughly, “moving towards the sun”) has a similar meaning to the Norse word ‘austr‘ and the Anglo-Saxon ‘eastor‘. The mother-goddess Ēostre was named after the Saxon word for springtime. Other gods and godesses from heathen societies, such as Ishtar (Assyrian goddess of fertility), Osiris (a.k.a. Ausar, Egyptian god of death and resurrection), and Ostara (Norse goddess of exactly the same thing as Ēostre) not only had suspiciously similar-sounding names but were also worshiped during springtime festivals. Sometimes Ēostre is written as ‘Eastre‘, so if you were a big fat genius you could almost crack this fiendishly difficult anagram and put together a theory about the ‘true’ meaning of Easter.

Somehow, this complex mess of cult and occult worship has lead to me hopping around a Chinese classroom like a bunny so that I can pay my rent.

Call me crazy, but is it almost as if all these Easter-inspiring gods were doing the same thing? Is it almost as if invading religions just bulldoze over the stuff that’s already there in the hope that eventually everyone will just forget where it came from?* Is it almost as if you don’t have to be the son of god to understand that ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ is cyclical and that being afraid to die makes no more sense than being afraid of never having been born in the first place?

Maybe there’s a reason that the author of Death is Not the End recently won the Nobel Prize.

As the sublime writer Joseph Campbell** told us, “Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lives in them but that what they, and all things, really are is the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish-fullfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen to the unheard music of eternal concord. These are the immortals.” That’s the sort of religious experience I could get behind.

The great character actor Harry Dean Stanton said that part of the reason he has worked with David Lynch more than any other director is because they have a similar outlook on so many things. “Except meditation,” he added. When asked if he believed in mediation at all, Stanton said “of course, but this is meditation. Everything is a meditation.” I’m with Harry Dean on this one. If you can’t take a moment to see the universe in the pavement cracks then you need to slow the fuck down. One of my rituals that I have when commuting (apart from trying to read a decent book with some dude’s rucksack wedged in my ribcage) is to sip a cup of takeaway coffee, quiet my thoughts and see what little ripples turn up in the pond.

IMG_2025

An American chap who studied anthropology once showed me an interesting phenomenon. He asked me which way time moved. I thought about it for a second and then drew a straight line in the air. Delighted, he then called my girlfriend over and asked her the same question. She drew a circle in the air. We repeated this experiment with other Westerners and other Chinese people, and exactly the same thing happened each time.

Scientific studies on the influence of ‘culture’ have shown similar results. In one experiment, children were shown a photograph of a tiger in the jungle. Researchers found not only that Eastern and Western people think differently, but that their eye movements indicate that they even focus on different aspects of the same picture: Westerners focusing on the tiger (or ‘content’), East Asians on the jungle (or ‘context’). Interestingly, researchers found that ‘bicultural’ people, raised in two different social systems, can be primed to respond in different ways, indicating that this sort of thinking and behavior is flexible.

My girlfriend says that one reason she doesn’t like a lot of American films (apart from the bleeding obvious) is that they often focus too much on a single character (mostly because Hollywood is great at misunderstanding Joseph Campbell!) In contrast, the four ‘great novels’ of Chinese literature are all named after places.***

Is the difference between ‘a tiger’ and ‘a tiger in the jungle’ so abstract that there’s no right or wrong way of describing it, or should we indeed be nailing people to things because they think time moves differently or because their silly god has a slightly different name and a hat that looks like a massive clitoris?

Yes I am looking at you, Osiris.

I don’t have the answer, but I know that a wise dead guy once told us we should look for the truth, and that the truth shall set us free.


*Perhaps there is even truth in the old superstition that gods and wizards and other Tolkienesque characters simply evaporate if no one is left to believe in them.

**(who once dropkicked a nun in the face by admitting that he believed Jesus was the son of god, but ‘only if we all are’)

***Journey to the West, The Water Margin, Dream of the Red Chamber, The Three Kingdoms. As opposed to, say, Batman, The Graduate, The Hobbit (etc.)

Walking to Hollywood

IMG_1974

“You went to Macau and you DIDN’T get in a junk boat? Who goes to Macau and DOESN’T get in a junk boat?!?”

– Loud American douche


I took the subway out to Hong Kong island. Actually, I first took the subway absolutely nowhere, dropping HK$9.50 for a two way trip through a turnstile. But, eventually, I wound up in Central Hong Kong.

I didn’t do anything special there. I walked, sipped a coffee, watched birds wheel over skyscrapers in the hills, lived a little bit more of my life.

I saw a film being shot, in an alleyway behind the appropriately named Hollywood Road, with what would be considered a skeleton crew in the West.

I found an HMV, where I bought some rock and roll books. I sat reading about a young Lou Reed under the Hong Kong Observation Wheel. I sipped another Japanese beer, listening to an American loudly berate his companion over his choice of transportation during a recent trip to Macau.* It made me glad to think that I’ve hardly spoken to a soul all day (and that whatever else I may be, at least it isn’t American).

My brief trip to the Kong will soon be over. By tomorrow evening I will be back ‘home’, probably on the couch watching a Stephen Chow movie while the gf bubbles excitedly about weapons she’s bought in a fantasy video game. My tacky plastic sunglasses will be in the drawer. My passport will have another red stamp in it, and I will be dreaming up the next adventure.


* “Hey, let me just stop you there for a second. [answers phone] Hi. Yeah, just got back from Macau. well, to be TOTALLY honest I found the whole thing a little… PROBLEMATIC, ya know…”

Chungking Express

 

IMG_1958

“Junk boats and English boys
Crashing out in super marts”
– The Gorillaz


As the landing gear came down, the theme tune to Enter The Dragon was in my head. The flight was turbulent, the meal was rubbery and – at the very point when I was expecting to descend – the pilot swung out across the ocean and begged the question “so are we off to Thailand then?” before he eventually did everyone the courtesy of actually landing the plane.

The bags arrived 40 minutes after the plane did, but I still made the very last metro all the way to the hotel (which is not the place to stay if you ever want to swing a cat).

IMG_1961

But, hey. Who am I to complain?

The Cantonese translates as ‘Fragrant Harbour’. The Mandarin, slightly more prosaically, as ‘Smells Good Bay’. To us Westerners, it’s Hong Kong. Beijing was never somewhere I dreamed of visiting (much less living), but this always was (second only to New York on the list of places that I only believe in because I have actually seen them). Like that other fairytale city, HK is my kind of place.

Tacky, scruffy, eccentric, formerly British. If the Kong were a person, it would probably be me. There are shades of the Imperial past here, but it also feels like the model for Beijing in the future: somehow multicultural/globalized/capitalist and yet still Chinese as fuck. Maybe the sun never set on the Empire after all. Indian food, African music, American toilets, British manners; they’re all here. You can’t cross the street without being offered a watch, a three piece suit or hashish. People even queue here. A Beijinger in a queue is like a hen with testicles.

I woke myself up this morning with a strong glass of coffee and a quick scan of Facebook and Twitter (which have become novelties these days). I breakfasted, like the middle class wanker I aspire to be, at a Starbucks overlooking my first port of call: Chungking Mansions, star of arguably the greatest of HK movies.* The ‘mansion’ is a horseshoe-shaped hellhole of pawn shops, guest houses, eateries and other rip-off merchants. I loved it!

IMG_1962

I then did what I always do, set off on a walk with absolutely no plan whatsoever. I wandered some of the other arcades and visited the Garden of Stars, where I discovered I have the dainty hands of Brigitte Lin.

IMG_1938

I took a single poorly framed photograph of the Peninsula hotel, headquarters of the invading Japanese army in 1941.

I strolled along the seafront of West Kowloon, watching women do yoga on the beach and men fishing in the harbour (my eyes lingered on the yoga a little more than the fishing, let’s be honest). Then along Temple street, home of cheap DVDs and blatant prostitution.

All this before lunchtime. I had lamb tikka masala and then sampled something that I hope will reach Beijing sooner rather than later: buy-one-get-one-free Japanese lager.

A long weekend is not enough time to get to know this place, but the first impression is that it mixes most of the things I like about China and Britain and has filtered out a lot of the stuff that I don’t. It’s cleaner than Beijing. More cosmopolitan. More comfortable.

But, at this point, I wouldnt go so far as to say that it’s more interesting.


*If you have never seen Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, I urge you to do yourself a favour.