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.”

The Minotaur Lives in Beijing


“The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

– Albert Camus


When French writer, philosopher and proto-hipster Albert Camus was asked whether he preferred theatre or football he famously replied (backing the wrong horse) “football, without hesitation”. I’ve been working hard recently on the absolute fringes of Camus’s second choice. My latest semester as a teacher of drama to children is halfway complete. What better excuse to delve into the writing of this acclaimed French Algerian smartarse for the first time?

I often find inspiration in good writing, and The Myth of Sisyphus (And Other Essays) is definitely that. Not only did Camus’s descriptions of North Africa and Paris appeal to my wanderlust, but his intellectualization of the story of a man pushing a massive rock up a hill got me thinking: is it possible to find enjoyment and/or fulfillment in a laborious, thankless and seemingly meaningless task? As a teacher to dozens of hyperactive ESL users, I would argue that the answer is yes.


“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” – Alan Watts


IMG_2549

Anyone who travels knows that the purpose is not to get somewhere, it’s to be somewhere, and to be going somewhere in the first place. Alan Watts once pointed out the dangers of thinking of life as a journey towards some kind of goal, saying we should instead be dancing our way through it as if it were a musical composition.

The Chinese workforce, with its team building and motivational meetings, is not much different from the Western one: a little obsessed with positive thinking and self improvement and asking not what your company can do for you but what you can do for your company.

Mid-Autumn Festival is upon us. The weather is changing. People are trundling out the yearly Game of Thrones quotes. I’ve got several days off to do a bit more travelling and a little more reading, before returning to push that rock a little further up the hill.

The English Patience


“What y’all speaking Arabic for? Ain’t that one of them there dead languages?” – yes, seriously


There is a conspiracy theory that states certain foreign governments hire Americans to travel around the world making loud obnoxious nuisances of themselves in order to spread a negative international reputation of America. There is actually a slightly more believable conspiracy theory that states certain types of American are pretty good at this already, foreign employers or no.

I went to Paddy O’Shea’s* to shoot the breeze with a mate. We were approached by a group of Americans, possibly in the employ of outside governments, who wanted to take a photograph of the wall behind us (“Hey, d’you guys recognize me?” “No.” “I’m on… THE WALL!”**) They wanted to take a photo of the photo, which was put to us as a friendly suggestion that it’d be really great if we could move away from the wall for just a second to allow for this twice in a lifetime opportunity, which we politely did. Then another American arrived and it was suggested that hey buddy it’d be really really great if they could get just one more photo, at which point we politely pointed out that actually they were already in possession of a photo of the bloody wall and that we’d quite like to sit still and enjoy our pints in peace. Luckily these chaps took this as intended: as a move from the martial arts manual that I refer to as The Art of Telling People to Fuck Off Without Actually Resorting to Telling Them to Fuck Off (TATPFOWARTTFO).***

One of my friends, a long-haired poet from middle England, once took a road trip to visit our cousins across the pond. Stopping in a gas station in Kentucky he was told in no uncertain terms by the shotgun toting James Dickey character behind the counter that “We don’t serve faggots round here!”

I don’t really know why a certain type of good ole boy votes in an angry midget with a nylon head to run things at home and then immediately pack a rucksack to travel around (“I like to say I have a BLACK BELT in travel y’know!”) complaining about the service and acting agog when they discover an international reputation as ‘rather loud and a little on the irritating side’.

I do not, under any circumstances, mean to imply that every white American is bigoted, annoying and socially inept… but damn the ones who are ain’t doing y’all many favours are they?

 

 

*(in the running along with Flann O’Brien’s in Bangkok and Johnny Fox’s Irish Snug in Vancouver for World’s Greatest cod-Irish Pub)

*Not a Pink Floyd reference, apparently.

*** See: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/the-p-is-silent/

Seoul Searching


“Passengers for Incheon International Airport please use the train for Incheon Internationl Airport.”


I didn’t go to Seoul just to ‘look for my voice’ (see previous entry). I had arranged a trip anyway, it was just shitty timing that I had to arrive without being able to say anything. I shouldn’t really have gone travelling while I was so run-down, sounding like Jack Palance, but the flight was only an-hour-and-a-half.

The directions to the guesthouse weren’t quite up to snuff, I got lost on the subway and in the local area before asking some Korean hipsters for assistance. Let’s be honest though, getting lost was something I had a pretty good chance of doing even without a fuzzy frame of mind.

I climbed straight into a rickety bunk and fell asleep for three hours, briefly considering spending my whole trip there. In the evening I had something to eat and some more Chinese pills before exploring the part of the city that I’d already lost myself in. After a hot shower I was soon fast asleep again.

The following day, feeling quite a bit better, I wandered the streets of Gangnam*, visiting the packed Buddhist temple at Bonguensa and then the packed capitalist temple at the Coex centre, largest underground mall in Korea. I checked out the Coex Aquarium, where I saw 150 different species of shark (every single one of which freaked me the hell out).

IMG_2263

The nearby SM Town turned out to be a media museum devoted to the sort of pretty boy K-pop sensations that the gf and her friends are always gushing about. I became trapped in this candy floss dystopia until I could find somewhere to break into a 50,000 Won note for subway change. I can recommend the passionfruit ginger ale at the SM café for those with a sore throat.

What was left of my evening was spent eating sandwiches and planning the return journey. As always, I wish I could have seen more. But, as always, I was travelling on the cheap.


*(of ‘Style’ fame)

Selfies in the China House

IMG_2014
“It’s very European style, yes?”


Clocking up two new* Chinese cities in as many weeks is not too shabby, really. This weekend I took a 35-minute journey from Beijing South Railway Station to our southeastern neighbour, with the gf as my enthusiastic guide.

Tianjin is so close to the Jing that it isn’t too difficult to imagine them one day merging together like the municipal equivalent of a supermassive black hole. But it’s a slightly different world; one of European architecture, polite taxi drivers and lower wages. A world where a stroll along the river Hai acts as compensation for the fact that the air is still thick enough to taste.

We arrived fairly late at night, grabbed some food from the finest establishment we could find (7-11), and drank a glass of rosé with our cheap Korean noodles. In the morning we had some French cakes and listened to The Clash** before hitting the streets of northern China’s largest coastal city.

Tragically, the city is best known (if it’s known at all) for randomly bursting into flames a couple of years ago and killing 173 of its hardworking citizens. But there’s more to this place than chemical explosions and online conspiracy theories about American missile attacks in the wake of a decreasing yuan (shh!)

Tianjin is a hipster’s paradise: antique shops, pretty gardens, clean one-way streets with bicycle lanes that people actually stick to; half an hour away from the big smoke and not in danger of becoming cool anytime soon.

We packed a lot in over a weekend, strolling through the Italian Style Town, taking a river cruise to Ancient Culture Street, shopping in aleys that could easily have been Oxford or Exeter. We had coffee in Wu Da Dao, surrounded by world architecture (Tianjin has a huge English, French, and Italian influence, adding to the weird sense of otherworldliness). I sipped a couple of G&Ts in a bar near the hotel, and we sampled BBQ tofu at Liao Ning Lu snack street.

IMG_2018

The China House was a highlight: a AAA grade tourist attraction (whatever that may be) and Tianjin’s ‘Selfie Central’. The building incorporates pots and pottery into its design, including snaking tentacles of porcelain throughout. I’m not quite convinced it was worth the ¥50 entry fee (or required quite so many uniformed private security people), but it was worth a visit.

Hopping on he train to somewhere that is closer than London is to Northampton is an absolute no-brainer,*** and we’re very likely to take a return trip in the not too distant future. Not bad for someone who’s comfort zone once ended pretty much on the doorstep of the Racehorse pub.


*(‘new’ for me, that is. I hear they’ve been around for quite awhile. This one since 1404)

**(“What is this? Pervert music?!?”)

***(at least with a Chinese speaker to book the tickets!)

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…”