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/

The Jing in the Spring

IMG_2152

“Anyone for tennis?”


Spring is here. Beijing has a four season climate, but the winter and summer are long and the other two seasons are short. The perfect time for sports jackets and t-shirts is a small window of opportunity.

In China, there’s often an old-fashioned view of English gentlemen spending the springtime at picnics, loafing about in straw boaters and plus fours while lazily batting around a tennis ball and munching cucumber sandwiches. I can’t speak for all English people*, but for me it’s pretty much a half truth. I don’t own any knickerbockers, and badminton is far more popular here than tennis. But when it comes to picnics with the gf and friends, especially in idyllic Chaoyang Park, I’m there quicker than you can say “ants and random dust storms”.

Cháoyáng Gōngyuán is a beautiful and vast green space, the largest park in the city. By a fine stroke of serendipity, the 2017 Beijing Book Fair was out in force the very day we chose for our luncheon, meaning the opportunity to browse at least a handful of used English language paperbacks (a veritable treasure trove by Beijing standards). I nearly bought a copy of the restored text version of William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine but I hastily dropped this idea (and the book itself) when I noticed it was a little too used, with a suspicious yellow crust across the back cover. This raised questions that I don’t even want to ask, let alone answer.

IMG_2151

Aprés park, we popped into Zoo Coffee and wandered around Blue Harbour, a riverside shopping area and bar street at the far end of the park. Blue Harbour is reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan’s cosmopolitan Village, but instead of polite, colorful, numbered denizens it’s just the same cynical hipsters you get everywhere in the Jing. We took selfies at the Italianate fountain, dismissed a ‘British’ pub as both inauthentic and far too expensive, spent at least half an hour in another beautiful bookshop and then, as always, had Chinese food for dinner.

As I finish writing this entry, a handful of days later, the weather has already turned sweltering and the sports jacket has gone into the cupboard.


*or ‘ex’-English people

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!)

The Fellowship of the Jing

IMG_1900

“It’s a shit’ole, but a loveable shit’ole.”


After weeks of clear blue skies, the smog has rolled in again, just in time for a British mate to feel the tang of disappointment during  a fly-in visit from Shanghai. The two of us took in some of the sights around Line 1 together, but halfway through our little tour the heavens opened like The Wizard of Oz, leaving us dashing through the dusty wet streets and swearing casually.

We visited a couple of bookshops and wandered through Xidan’s ‘garment city’, which is Beijing’s version of a Guillermo Del Toro set (right down to the hirsute beasties trying to sell you sweatshirts at inflated prices). After spending too much money on books and hipster glasses, we took a couple of Beijing babes out to dinner for buy-one-get-one-free ‘burger burger’ in Sanlitun, keeping the ladies absolutely enthralled by discussing our most used phrases as bewildered foreigners in China (mine is “what the fuck is this arsehole doing?”)

IMG_1904

I was not surprised to learn that my ‘brother from another city’, although enjoying Shanghai immensely, was glad to be back in the Jing and has missed it to some extent. He likes the food here and he says that the subway is slightly cheaper (even if its users are a little on the vaginal side). Mostly he missed the banter. We had more banter than you could shake the proverbial at.

This morning I woke up with a skunk of a hangover so I ganbei’d a couple of strong coffees, watched that David Duchovny ‘comedy’ where he saves the world from an alien sphincter and wondered wtf had become of my life. The sky may look like Laurence Fishburne’s living room in The Matrix, but I’m still happy to be here.

Honesty & Cobblers


Me:” What do you think of my new hat?”

Co-teach: “I think it is quite like pervert.”


I like honesty. There’s an old cliche about policies, and about where honesty ranks in terms of them. One of the many films I watched on DVD over mid-autumn festival was the engaging sci-fi epic Interstellar. One of the characters in that movie is a NASA robot who’s ‘honesty’ setting is at 90% because brutal honesty is not often what humans want to hear, especially on a mission in uncharted deep space. “Honesty,” said John Lennon,* “won’t get you a lot of friends, but it will get you the right ones.”

Like all the English teachers at my company, I work with a Chinese co-teacher. Her name, for the sake of anonymity, is Co-teach. Earlier this evening, I met Co-teach at Xiabu Xiabu for a hot pot. She speaks almost fluent English which, for someone who’s never been outside of China, is quite an impressive achievement. Instead of studying the language, she pretty much taught herself English by watching and re-watching Sherlock and Once Upon a Time. This is also quite impressive, because most native English speakers who watch that sort of stuff over and over again only learn how to significantly lower their social skills.

She also ‘gets’ English jokes (which, according to my cursory and superficial research,** is a sure sign that you understand a language very well). An example being: –

Me: So the interviewer asks, “what do you consider to be your biggest weakness?” The applicant says, “honesty.” So the interviewer replies “I don’t consider honesty a weakness.” And the applicant says “I don’t give a fuck what you think!”

Co-teach: Haha. She didn’t get the job!

Me: Exactly!***

Like most Chinese people I’ve met (and the human  character Anne Hathaway in Interstellar), Co-teach’s honesty setting is way above 90…

My uncle once told me that the first thing you notice about a person is their shoes. According to Co-teach, this is an old Chinese saying. It’s not something I’d given much thought to because, call me old fashioned or cynical or whatever, but the first thing I usually notice about someone is me minding my own fucking business.

Nevertheless, I learned about this saying during a weird conversation that Co-teach and I had at Xiabu Xiabu. I didn’t, unfortunately, record the conversation so what follows is a Crimewatch-style reconstruction. I have removed some of my more colorful responses (the blue ones) which are marked by an unambiguous “…”

Co-teach: May I give you some advice?
Me: Sure.
Co-teach: You should wash your shoes.
Me: Wash my -?
Co-teach: Shoes.
Me: Why the … should I do that?
Co-teach: Because they are dirty.
Me: They’re dirty because I live in Beijing. They’re white. White shoes in Beijing will always get dirty. It’s very dusty here!

(I initially thought that was the end of the conversation, but as well as Chinese honesty, Co-teach also has a more British streak of stubbornness.)

Co-teach: I wash my shoes.
Me (pointing at her Nikes): You washed these?
Co-teach (nodding): And brushed them.
Me: You washed and brushed your shoes?
Co-teach: Yes.
Me: … me, I barely have time to shower in the mornings! Have there been complaints?
Co-teach: About what?
Me: My shoes. Have parents said “this teachers shoes are too dirty!”
Co-teach (Pause): Noooo.
Me: You just hesitated. You had to think about that!
Co-teach: There have been no complaints.
Me: Has anyone refused to sign as a student, after one of my demo classes, because they thought my shoes were too dirty?
Co-Teach: No.
Me: Then I’m pretty sure my … shoes are fine.
Co-teach (diplomatically): You could wash them at work?
Me: I’m not gonna wash my … shoes at work.
Co-Teach: There is a brush. At work. There is a brush.
Me: I’m not gonna brush my … shoes at work either!

(We lapsed into silence, and Co-teach regretted bringing it up.)

Co-teach: I should not have said this. About your shoes. I knew you would be angry.
Me: I’m not angry, Co-teach, I’m just not going to wash my … shoes.
Co-teach: You are angry,
Me: I’m not … angry, Co-teach!
Co-teach: You swear when you are angry.
Me: I swear all the … time! I’m … happy, you’ve given me something to blog about!

(Co-teach then launched into a children’s song that goes ‘Brush, Brush, Brush my Teeth’, but she wittily replaced the lyric ‘brush’ with the lyric ‘wash’ and the lyric ‘teeth’ with a lyric that I’m sure you can figure out for yourself.

(I had an idea. Then, Instead of dropping the subject, I mentioned my idea to Co-teach.)

Co-Teach: What idea?
Me: If you feel so passionate about the shoes, then I can give them to you and you can wash them. You did a good job washing your shoes. They look very clean.
Co-Teach: I cannot do this.
Me: Why not?
Co-Teach: Because [her housemate] will see me and she will ask “why are you washing Ben’s shoes?”
Me: Okay, you’ve got me there.

(After dinner, having avoided the thorny subject any more, we said our goodbyes.)

Co-Teacher: I will see you at work tomorrow.
Me: Yeah, I’ll be the poor … at the sink who’s turned up half an hour earlier to wash his … shoes.


*(And I honestly know I’m at the risk of belabouring the point here)

**(I read it in a book once and have yet to summon the enthusiasm to fact-check it)

***(Another example being: – when the punchline is delivered on a Chinese joke, I usually just chuckle politely or say ‘oh yeah?” My honesty setting is just above 90%)