Friday, July 22, 2011

Border crossings are always an adventure.  You never know what you are going to get.

We dropped off Thomas' passport on Monday morning (after waiting for 5 extra days for the Mongolian embassy to re-open) where we met a lovely Spanish couple.  We exchanged details and hoped to meet again to do a tour together.

We had to wait until 4pm on Tuesday to pick up the passport and visa so we decided to leave for Mongolia on Wednesday.  Sleeper bus tickets are only sold on the day so we made the 1 hour bus journey to the bus station.  No tickets.  Try reception desk.  A stern looking woman actually turns out to be helpful and makes several calls.  1.5 hours later, we leave the bus station with handwritten tickets unsure if we have been victims of another scam (we were taken by 2 young men through the carpark, boarded a bus, took photos of the bus and their badges just in case and paid half the fare).  

We returned at 4pm still unsure how we were going to get past the ticket collector.  One of the young men from earlier spots us and leads us to the bus.  Seems promising.  The bus is not yet open so we sit down and play Speed.  Soon, a crowd gathers around us.

Yumi waiting in front of our night bus in Beijing

Our handwritten tickets get us on board and it is a fairly smooth ride.  2 notable toilet breaks.  First, Yumi hopped off the bus during a traffic jam and managed to get 5 mosquito bites on her butt.  Second, a "proper" toilet: enter to find 4 holes in a line, no stalls, no doors, no running water, but surprisingly, it doesn't smell too bad.

We make friends with 2 men from Ulanbaatar Agi and Mogar.  They kindly look after us for the rest of the journey.  

We arrive in Erlian at 6am and buy bus tickets to cross the border at 13:30.  So we all go out for a traditional Chinese Mongolian breakfast of mini churros dipped in sweet mayonnaise, a large dumpling, lamb shank complete with fat and a salty milk soup.  All very tasty.  We killed some time at the local market where Mongolians load up on goods before heading back home.  

Mogar and Thomas playing "Speed" in Erlian, Inner Mongolia.

Out of nowhere, our Spanish friends appear!  We agree to meet up in UB if we don't manage to get train tickets.
We cut the queue to get on the border bus a la Chinese style.  The bus carried as much luggage as it did passengers.  Vacuum cleaners, ironing boards, a kitchen sink (a small one, but still...), it was packed.  We get through both borders quite quickly, but we had to wait for our bus to clear customs.  

Time is ticking.  16:00 and we still don't have tickets for the train at 17:35.  Thomas and Morgar take off to try and get tickets.  Avi and I are not long behind them on the bus.  We see plenty of broken down jeeps along the 2km road to the train station, but there is no sign of them.

Thankfully, they managed to grab a taxi and buy tickets for the 21:21 express train.  Only $5 more than the regular train and we arrive 30 minutes after them.

Our night train in Zumin Uud station. 13h to reach Ulaanbaatar.

The train is surprisingly nice and empty.  We enjoy a clean, air conditioned, 4 bed berth.  Maybe it was the lack of sleep on the sleeper bus and/or the long border crossing day, but we had the best train sleep of our entire trip so far. 


Soon after we woke up, Ulaanbaatar appeared before our eyes. Only 41h after leaving Beijing...  

Monday, July 18, 2011


Hi all!
It's been a while since our last post and we apologise for that. In China, it is not easy to access the websites your want to: No Facebook, no YouTube and worse: No blogspot.

Cruel. As the saying goes "when there's a will, there's a way" and the way to do web stuff here is called "proxy". Basically, you need a URL which will redirect you to your desired webpage. For example to access Facebook the URL is:

As a result we've backdated some of the posts we've written so you'll know all about our adventures in Sapa, the Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yanshuo and Beijing very soon.

Ciao for now!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Great wall Mis-adventures

After a surprise reunion with one of our Tiger Leaping Gorge companions Renaud, we decided to go to a less travelled part of the wall Jiankou.  No public transportation goes there so Renauld's friend Melanie, a Beijing native, arranged for a black cab (not the London kind) to take us there.  After finalising our plans over beers, Melanie attempted to catch a bus home, but they had stopped running at 7pm.  No problem.  Renaud has an extra bed in his room.  Problem.  The hostel reception informed him that by law a Chinese national is not allowed to share a room with a foreigner unless they are married (because she may be a prostitute).  2 police call outs and several conversations later, Melanie was finally left alone and allowed to stay the night (NB no one could actually provide evidence of existence of this law).

2 bus rides and a change of clothes for Melanie later, we met with the cab driver.  His quoted price had doubled from the night before, but we begrudgingly reached an agreement.  Melanie had warned us that he often gets lost.  Estimated journey time according to Google maps: 1 hour.  With 2 GPS's, a laptop, several stops in the middle road of the road, expressway exits and ramps to figure out where we were and countless breaks to ask for directions, actual journey time: 2.5 hours.

Soon we found ourselves looking at the following sign, "This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public."  What shall we do?  Carry on, of course.  We had come this far and none of the locals we had asked for directions from had told us we couldn't continue (no wonder this section is not listed in the newer edition of Lonely Planet)  There were signs that the path had been used in the past: abandoned rest stops and plenty of rubbish.  

1.5 hours of trekking uphill later and the wall appeared.  We climbed on it and we were awestruck.  The wall continued in either direction along mountain ridges for as far as the eye could see (this actually wasn't very far because of the thick layer of summer haze, but it was still impressive).  

This part of the wall has not been restored and there were sections that were crumbling and overgrown with vegetation.  The best part was that we were completely alone.  Silence fell upon us as we soaked up the scenery and the sheer magnitude of the construction.

As we climbed to one of the towers, we heard a "Hello!"  Officials?  Oh no...we turned around and saw 2 figures in the distance.  They did not appear to have uniforms on.  They turned out to be 2 students who had been trekking the wall for over 6 hours and had run out of food and water and had no idea how to get back to civilization.  We shared our supplies and pointed them in the right direction.  Crazy guys.  we headed in the direction they had come from and soon realised that they were crazier than we origially thought.  A section of the wall had completely crumbled away on a vertical slope.  Somehow they had made their way down it.  No wonder they kept saying it was SO dangerous...

Although Melanie may disagree (we hadn't truly prepared her for the hike she was about to endure, but to her credit she was a real trooper), we could not have asked for a better way to see the Great Wall of China.