March 15, 2011

The long way back

Six months in India, two months in Nepal, a week in Tibet, six weeks in China, two weeks in Mongolia...I had seen a lot, done a lot, it was time to go home. It was almost mid December, and I wanted to be home for Christmas. But I didn't want to fly; I wanted to see it all, to experience the distance, to talk to people underway. For once, my program was fixed: one day of train, two days in Irkutsk, three days of train, two days in Moscow, two days in St Petersburg, one day in Riga, and then a crazy bus ride all the way from Riga to Antwerp. If my plan worked out, I would be home the 24th of December, just in time to celebrate Christmas with my family. They didn't know about my plans; I had told them I would probably not make it for Christmas. I hoped nothing would go wrong, so that I could surprise them.

The train trip from Ulan Bator to Irkutsk, two nights and one day, was a promising start of my trans-Siberian journey. I shared the four-bed compartment with three jovial Mongolians. They occupied the small table right away by piling up an enormous stack of tupperware boxes filled with food. I had the lower bunk, which meant it also served as seat for other people. It was pretty late at night, so after a brief acquaintance I kindly requested them to go sit on the opposite side so I could sleep. Some time later, when I was already dreaming about Mongolian steppes and galloping horses, my sleep was interrupted. Someone was sitting on my bed, and people were chatting loudly and obviously drinking vodka. I though, "Oh man, did they really have to throw a party at one o'clock in the morning?". But then after a while of fruitlessly trying to get back to sleep, I realized the best thing to do when a party is bothering you, is to just join it. I opened my eyes, pretending to just wake up, and found myself staring right in the eyes of the fattest, loudest and most enthusiastic of my roommates. "Hello, you drink?", he shouted. I rubbed my eyes, acting as though I still didn't understand completely what was happening: "Uhm? What?" -"Drink! Vodka!" -"Oh, well, yeah, why not..." Half an hour later we were best friends, drinking, laughing and eating. They kept offering me delicious meat with an awful lot of fat, and I just chewed away for hours. When the second bottle was empty, around three, we all went to sleep. I opened my eyes around twelve: "Hello, you drink?" - this time, I declined. They drank, a lot, and went back to sleep in the afternoon. Which meant they were very awake again all night...

The next morning, I arrived in Irkutsk. I was in Russia! I was in Siberia! "-33°C", the thermometer outside the station told me. Luckily, I didn't have too much trouble taking the tram and finding the hostel. My train to Moscow wasn't until the next evening, so I had two days to achieve my main goal: to see Lake Baikal, the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world. I was tired and it was misty, and there were no other travelers in the hostel, so it didn't seem like the right moment. I stayed in for the morning, taking a shower and a nap. In the afternoon, I went walking around in the city. It was about -25°C when I went out. "This is not so bad", I thought at first. But after a while, the cold started creeping in, and my face froze completely. Luckily, there were a lot of well-heated churches - I must have seemed a very religious man that day. I was surprised how nice a city Irkutsk actually is. The churches are beautiful, and it's not all Soviet gray; there are quite a few buildings in 19th century architecture, and also some authentic wooden houses. With all the churches and Western style buildings, I felt that I was getting closer to Europe.


The next morning, a new guest had arrived. He was a solo traveling Englishman, about my age, and at least as crazy. He had been bitten by a dog in some village some days before, and he hadn't been able to find a rabies shot. As the clock was ticking, he had less and less chance of being cured if he was infected by the dog, but he still insisted on going to lake Baikal with me first. He was also planning on going dog-sledding, which sounded like a pretty cool idea. So off we went - it was even colder that the day before, a good -30°C I think. We had gotten instructions to get a tram and then a minibus to the lake. We went to the tram stop and waited, and waited, in the freezing cold, and it wouldn't come. So we thought we'd just walk, to keep warm. We ended up spending three quarters of an hour outside, which was a pretty interesting experience. I was dressed with plenty of layers (including thermal underwear with wolf hairs), so my body was pretty warm. The problem was my face, the only exposed area. Below -15°C, your own breath starts freezing inside your nose every time you inhale, which is pretty annoying. My eyelids seemed frozen as well, so that my eyes were half open at all times. We both had a beard, and by the time we got on the bus, they were completely white, just like our eyebrows and eyelashes - we looked like two crazy Santa Clauses. The weather was better than the day before, but when we arrived at the lake, it was covered by a thick layer of fog. There we stood, at the oldest, deepest, and one of the biggest lakes in the world, containing roughly 20% of the world's surface's unfrozen fresh water...and we couldn't see further than a few meters. "Okay, let's go dog-sledding then", we said. We arrived at a wooden house next to dozens of barking dogs who were tied to small doghouses. After a tea, I was the first one to put on a warm overall and stand on the back of the dog sleigh, with the driver sitting in front of me. After a few quick instructions (lean left when we go left, lean right we go right, stand on the break with both feet to stop), we were off. Pulled by seven dogs, we slid elegantly through a small piece of beautiful Siberian taiga. Although it wasn't as fast as I had hoped, I had to concentrate to keep my balance while the sled swung trough the narrow trail. The ride took about fifteen minutes. It was short and expensive, but I'm glad I did it, and I can imagine it must be a really beautiful experience if you do it for a couple of hours. It was very cold as well, though. My hat was a bit small, and my right earlobe stuck out. By the time we came to a stop, it was frozen solid. It didn't fall off, but it did hurt for a couple of days.

At lake Baikal. See how big it is?

That night I started the longest train journey of my trip: four nights and three days from Irkutsk to Moscow. I hoped it would a similar experience to the UB-Irkutsk leg, and armed myself with a bottle of vodka and tons of food to compete with the other passengers. This time, I was traveling third class, so I thought the atmosphere would be even more festive. The first two days, I was in company of two young guys who just came back from their army service in Siberia. They were pretty shy. I really had to win them over by teaching them some card games and offering them some food and vodka. It was the wrong way around, and, I must I admit, kind of disappointing. But I still enjoyed being in the train, as I always do. Siberia flashed by through the window; I could spend hours just watching the beautiful snow-covered taiga and occasional villages with wooden houses. The two army boys left during the second night. From then on, as we had left Siberia and were in the European part of Russia, people would start coming and going more frequently. Some were nice and social, other's weren't. In the afternoon of the third day, a really drunk Russian couple came in. He was very fat and noisy, and probably around fifty years old, and she was blond and rather pretty, and probably much younger. I laughed a lot with the man, although he didn't really speak English that well, but after a while he started annoying me. Luckily, I could turn my attention to other people. There was one other young army guy who was very interested in me, and we spoke quite a lot, as far as was possible with the language barrier. He ended up giving me a helmet, worn in tanks, which he had stolen from the army - kind of cool. He warned me explicitly that I should hide it well when crossing the border.

After three days and four nights in the train, at five o'clock in the morning, I arrived in Moscow. I was a bit afraid that the taxi I ordered wouldn't show up and that I would be stuck in some shady railway station in the middle of the cold Russian night. Luckily, he was waiting for me on the platform, and I arrived at the hotel safely. I was excited: I would see my Russian friends, with whom I had had such a good time in Delhi! My former roommate was studying in Moscow, and the girl from Saint-Petersburg - the very first person I had met on my trip, at Delhi airport - had come over so that we could spend some time with the three of us. They came to my hotel later that morning, after I had taken a good nap and shower. It was great to see them again. They showed me around Moscow, but I was so happy to see them that I barely paid any attention. "Oh wow, Red Square, cool...anyway, so tell me, how have you been?" The weather wasn't really that good - it was misty and snowy, and kind of cold, but after Siberia, it felt pretty warm. Our friend went back to Saint-Petersburg that night. I had hoped we, the boys, would go partying that night, but in the end we were both too tired. Not so surprising, considering I had spent three days in a train and had crossed five timezones. The next day, we did some more sightseeing. The coolest thing I saw in Moscow was Bunker 42, the top secret nuclear shelter of the KGB during the cold war. The network of tunnels and rooms, about 60 m under the ground, was impressive to see, and reminded me a lot of the game "Half Life". The vintage communication equipment has been left unmoved, which made me feel like I was in some old James Bond movie. And then, once again, it was time to say goodbye to my good Russian friend. That night I spent in a train, on my way to Saint-Petersburg, where I would meet my other friend again and stay with her.

Reunited with my Russian friends in Moscow!

Posing as a KGB officer in Bunker 42. Maybe I should have taken off my scarf and my fake second-hand North Face jacket to make it a bit more realistic.

I was picked up by my friend the next morning. We went sight-seeing right away. I enjoyed the city, well-known for its very European style, with a lot of Baroque style buildings. It was interesting to be there in winter. My friend told me about all the problems they have. She showed me the gigantic icicles, sometimes more than one story high, that hang from the roofs and injure and kill people every year. Everywhere, people could be seen shoveling snow off the roofs to prevent them to collapse. Of course, the ground was snowy and icy and slippery. I fell a few times, but no-one even stops to ask if you're alright - it's a pretty normal thing.
We would be staying at the dorm room of a friend of my friend, where we arrived around lunchtime. We were all kind of lazy (you get that after 10 months of traveling), so we spent the afternoon just chattering in her room. The next day, I had to take my bus to Riga in the afternoon-my ten days in Russia were over. My friend had to go to classes, so I just walked around on my own. It was the 21st of December, the shortest day of the year. The sun stayed close to the horizon all day, which gave the city a special atmosphere. I went to the Hermitage, which, apart from being a beautiful building, has an impressively large art collection - it's kind of the Louvre of Russia. Unfortunately, I had only one hour left before I had to go to the bus station.

The beautiful Hermitage

St-Pete on the darkest day of the year

The last part of my journey was a very long bus trip: St-Petersburg - Talinn - Riga - Antwerp, with one day in Riga. It all went very fast. Buying some vodka with my last rubles at the border. Arriving in Talinn at 11 p.m. and having to wait for two hours for a bus in a waiting room with strange looking people. Arriving in Riga early in the morning and having to look for a hostel while the town was still asleep. Visiting beautiful little Riga with its beautiful churches and Art Nouveau. Meeting a whole group of Indians on the Christmas market there, and being so happy because it felt like the circle was complete. Having my last party with some people from the hostel. Taking yet another bus, the last one, with destination: Antwerp. Being relieved that the roads were okay again despite the heavy cold and snowfall of the previous days paralyzing Europe, just like when I left - another complete circle. Spending 37 hours in the bus, just looking out the window, reading, writing, chattering, listening to music, dreaming, sleeping. Being amazed at seeing, after all those exotic languages and characters, signs in German and then Dutch. Being so happy to see the port of Amsterdam. Catching a glimpse of the cathedral of Antwerp in the distance. Arriving in Berchem and taking a Belgian train, which was, of course, delayed. And there I was. On the 24th of December at 9 p.m, I arrived in my hometown, Kontich.

"Kontich", I said to myself, shaking my head. "That's where I am. In Kontich". It sounded stupidly common after all the places I had been. I walked to my home, through the snow, anxious to know if my family was having a Christmas dinner like I guessed they would. They were. I heard their voices behind the glass and curtains. At last, the moment my big surprise had come. I started singing loudly: "Jingle bells, jingle bells...". I heard them startling, asking themselves what it was, until my father said calmly: "That's Julien." The door opened. My "ho-ho-ho" was smothered by hugs and excited laughter. I didn't know what to say. My granny cried. My mom said I smelt bad. My brother said he had missed me. My dad gave me a hug. And I just stood there. I couldn't believe it - it would take days before I would realize it. I sat at the table and ate the lavish Christmas dinner, and drunk champagne, and answered about a million questions, but all the while I felt like I was in a bubble, and I had to convince myself that this was just as real as all the other things I had seen. Because real it was. My adventure had ended. After almost eleven months of traveling thousands and thousands of kilometers, I was home.

March 8, 2011


All alone once again, I took the train from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the coldest capital on earth, round the end of November. It was the first leg of my long journey back to Europe, back to Belgium, by train.

The journey took one day and two nights. I was in good company; at least, that's what I thought at first: I shared the compartment with a nice Mongolian girl who studied in Shanghai. But then she said "I'm a little bit tired" - she had partied a lot in Beijing before she went back home - and she slept for the best part of the thirty-odd hour train ride. Oh well, it gave me time to catch up on some reading and writing. At the border crossing, which takes a couple of hours, I met two friendly Dutch girls, with whom I would spend most of my time in Mongolia.

The first few days in UB were mostly hanging around and arranging stuff. Since it was -10°C outside, I didn't really think it was a good idea to go and wander around on the vast steppes of Mongolia on my own, so I had decided I would book a tour. It wasn't really what you would call high season, so I had to wait for a group to form before I could organize something. In the meantime, I also had to arrange my Russian visa. I had already learned in Shanghai that I couldn't get a proper tourist visa outside of Belgium. My only option was a transit visa; luckily, I read on the Internet that I could get one for up to ten days. I really had to bargain with the diplomat ("you're asking too much", he literally said at first), but I managed to get it done. In the few days before I left on the tour, I learned a bit about the country and its people. Ulan Bator, with over a million inhabitants, is the only real city worth the name. The second largest city, Erdenet, has about 90,000 inhabitans. About 40% of Mongolians live in UB; 30-40% of the population are still nomads, living from breeding livestock. This makes them very vulnerable to climate change. In the 2009-2010, Mongolia experienced an very dry summer, followed by an extremely cold winter. This caused more than 10% of Mongolia's livestock to perish. The climate also makes that Mongolian food is not very varied. When you order a dumpling soup, you get dumplings which are filled with nothing but meat, and the soup is seasoned with additional meat and fat...nothing else. Mongolians eat tons of fat, you know, the tough white stuff we wouldn't even think of putting in our mouth because it takes hours of work to chew it. It is said to get them through the harsh winter, but it seems to me that you waste more energy in the working of your jaw muscles than you gain.

Two soviet-style vans, two drivers, two guides, twelve travelers. That was the small caravan that left to explore central Mongolia. As on most tours in Mongolia, we would sleep in gers, the traditional felt tents nomads live in, with local families. Half of us were going on a twelve day trip, while the others - including me - would drive back to UB on the sixth day. Our group was divided between the two vans. I shared a vehicle with my two Dutch friends, an English guy, an English girl and a German girl. In the other van, a Dutch couple and two British couples. We soon realized there was one "singles" van and one "couples" van; the two groups had acquired their names. Of course, we would change between vans, but the running joke was that the couples' van was boring, while the singles' van was the setting for some kind of continuous orgy. Also pretty remarkable is that half of the group spoke Dutch, while the other half were English-speaking.

The first day we mainly did a lot of driving. We had a lot of fun in the singles van. The seats were arranged in a way that three people were facing forward, and three people were facing back, which made it very cozy. We talked about very personal subjects, and shared way too much information with people we had only just met. We stopped at a natural park with Przewalski's horses, the only surviving species of wild horses. After watching a cheesy video, we drove a bit inside the park and took some pictures. We didn't stay long; the guides and drivers seemed to be in a hurry. In fact, we had left a couple of hours late, because some people had had to arrange their Chinese visa first in the morning. The management had warned us and asked us if we didn't want to skip the horses to avoid arriving late, but we didn't really understand why that would be a problem.

After the natural park, I went into the couples' van. After some time (talking about science and sports) we suddenly turned back. We had lost the singles' van, which had been driving behind us. We found them on the side of the road; the night had fallen, and their lights didn't work. The reasonable thing to do in that situation would probably be to fix the problem, but the drivers thought it better to just go on. We drove behind them, a little to the left (people drive right in Mongolia), to give them light. Their driver could barely see the road, and the van swerved dangerously from left to right. Every time we had to pass someone coming the other way, we held our breath. When we drove alongside the other van, we saw that its passengers were not in the least deterred by the minor inconvenience. More the contrary, we saw them dancing, singing and drinking vodka - the singles' van lived up to its reputation. Not willing to stay behind, we tried to have a bit of party in our own van. Out came the bottle of vodka, and the Dutch guy took his guitar and we played a couple of songs. Then came the moment when we had to get off the road. Driving across the snow-covered steppe with no lights proved to be slightly problematic. But there's no problem a bit of creativity can't solve. The guide taped a couple of our flashlights on the front of the van, and we were good to go. We weren't really worried, because we would probably die of laughter before anything else could happen. At one point we had the luck of hitting upon a herd of gazelles; even our guide seemed genuinely surprised. But then our luck ran out: we got completely lost. The reason that the management had been worrying about us arriving late, which they hadn't told us, was that there is no clear trail leading to the gers. The drivers are experienced enough to find them during the day, but when it's dark, it's a whole lot more difficult - especially when you have a small electric torch for a light. We drove around and around, sometimes on tracks, sometimes seemingly randomly in one direction. A couple of times we found other gers, where the drivers asked for directions. One time, an old man with an adorable, though very dirty little girl accompanied us to show us the way. Apparently, our hosts had just moved their gers to a different location; that's what you get with nomads, I guess.

Guide taping flashlights to the front of the van

We were all very tired of the bumpy ride and were glad when, after a couple of hours of driving around, we finally arrived at our destination. Although it was 9 pm already, the family received us very kindly. We had dinner and drank some vodka, which we shared with the whole family. It was interesting to see life in a ger. The ones we went to were beautifully decorated, with Chinese style, colorful furniture. Beds and closets are arranged along the sides. Right in front of the entrance, which always faces east, stands the stove. Left and right in the middle of the ger stand two poles, roughly 1.5m apart. It's impolite to walk between or pass anything through these poles, as they symbolize the husband and wife. At the other side of the poles there usually stands a low table. The way people look and dress reminded me a lot of Tibetans. Apart from the similar Mongolian features, they too have a healthy blush on their cheeks. I previously attributed this to the altitude, but on second thoughts, it might well be the result of the rough climate Mongolians and Tibetans alike live in. This might also explain why they dress so similarly. The long, heavy, dark-colored robes with a colorful belt tied around the waist looked very familiar. Apart from the similar look and clothing, the majority of Mongolians also embrace Tibetan Buddhism.

Ger sweet ger

The next morning, we awoke to a mild snowstorm. We were supposed to go camel-riding, which, considering the circumstances, didn't seem like the best idea. Also, a camel is about the last animal you'd expect to see in a blizzard at -15°C. To get out of your tent, look around the steppe and let your eyes rest on a group of a dozen of those impassive-looking, grass-chewing double-humped fellows, covered by a thin layer of snow, is a pretty absurd experience. It must be said that, contrary to their southern cousins in the desert, these guys are amply provided with a dense fur. After a hearty breakfast, each of us settled comfortably between the two humps of his designated camel. A small photo shoot, and off we were! Slowly, almost solemnly, we walked across the steppe. Luckily, the wind had ceased, and during our walk the light snow even stopped completely. The landscape was predominantly flat and white, dotted with tufts of dry grass, and rocky hills here and there. The camels were all tied together, so we didn't have much freedom, but we had a lot of fun. We weren't too cold, partly thanks to the big felt boots they had given us. And the camel with two humps is definitely more comfortable than the one-humped edition. After our short but beautiful ride, we drove on through the desolate scenery. We got stuck in the snow once or twice, but it wouldn't be the last time, and it would always be solved by the right amount of digging and pushing. By the end of the day we came to an area with some trees - trees! We realized we hadn't seen those in a while. And then the sun set again - the lights on the singles' van were still not working, so the torches served their second time as head lights. Luckily, this time, we didn't get lost, and we got to the ger at a reasonable time. We would stay there for two nights - a welcome break after two days of mainly driving. To celebrate, we had some vodka, and spent a few hours chattering and playing the guitar in one of the gers.

Camels in the snow

Gers + vans + cattle

When we got out of our tents after a night of vodka-enhanced sleep, the steppe looked beautiful in the golden light of the rising sun. On the program for that day: horse riding. Riding a horse on the endless, barren plains is regarded as the ultimate Mongolia experience, but as always, I didn't expect too much of it. It was only the second or third time I would ride a horse, so I had to take it easy. In the morning, we would ride up to a waterfall and back. After lunch, the enthusiasts/survivors could go for another ride. We would ride half-wild horses. They ran around in a big herd, and were captured and saddled that morning. Mongolian horses are small - about the size of a pony - and furry (at least in winter). The way to the waterfall was beautiful. The golden-brown ground was almost completely covered by snow there; rolling dark-brown hills rose up in the distance. The sun, still low, cast long shadows as we trotted along. The waterfall itself, which we had been warned was nothing special, was in fact pretty impressive, because it was completely frozen. On our way back to the gers, some people with some experience in horse riding started galloping. I spurred my horse to do the same, and he followed. Breathless, I clutched my saddle and felt the adrenalin flowing. This just the kind of exhilarating experience I hadn't dared hope for - I was euphoric.

After lunch, a smaller group set out again, in the opposite direction this time. It was 4 pm already; sunset was around 5, so we didn't have much time. I enjoyed it just as much as the first time, although we went rather slowly and I was very impatient to start galloping again. It was soon getting dark and some people were getting very cold, so it was time to go back. Since we knew which way to go, we didn't need to follow the guide anymore. Three of us galloped all the way back. At some point, we saw the whole herd of wild horses, probably about thirty to fifty of them. They were running around in group, like a flock of birds or a school of fish. We went towards them and at some point found ourselves right next to them. We spurred our horses to go even faster, uttering shouts of joy and amazement. Galloping there, among dozens of semi-wild horses, while the sun was slowly setting on the golden stepped, was one of the most incredible, amazing, exhilarating things I have done. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case for everyone. Three people fell of their horse. One of them was thrown off while galloping, and fell badly on her elbow. Probably because of the shock, she was very ill for the next twenty-four hours, vomiting and with diarrhea (which is even more horrible when it's 15°C and there is no proper toilet). Since we were in the middle of nowhere, there weren't really any doctors around. But she was to be considered lucky: the next-door neighbor - about a half an our drive from there - happened to be an acupuncturist.

Horse riding on the golden steppe

On day four, we drove back towards UB and visited the monastery at Karakom, Ginghis Khan's former capital. Although a big part of the complex was destroyed by the communists, a couple of temples were spared, and a handful of monks still reside there. It was nice to see the monastery from the outside, but after Ladakh and Tibet, I'd had enough of previous, present and future Buddha's, Buddha's of longevity, etc. The rest of the day was mostly driving, with a short stop to see a penis-shaped rock (mhuh!?).

The next day we drove south to see some mountain. It better be worth it, I though, because I was getting very tired of driving. At some point, the drivers had the brilliant idea of crossing a frozen river. My heard skipped a beat when I saw the back wheels of the couples' van crashing through the ice. Luckily, it didn't collapse completely, but the van just stayed stuck the, so ours had to pull them out. In the late afternoon, we arrived in a sweeping desert landscape with sandstone hills - I was pleasantly surprised. When we were dropped off to take some pictures, a strange announcement was made. We would climb up the hill and then go down into a cave. You had to be "a bit brave" to do it, so those who wanted could just stay inside the van. Oh yes, and you "might need a flashlight". One van had already taken off, leaving some people with the wrong clothes and shoes for such an improvised expedition. We didn't really understand what was happening, and it seemed like a pretty crazy idea to go down some cave when the sun was about to set. But most of us thought we’d just check it out. A few moments later, a mix of shouts like "help, I'm stuck!", "can someone give me light?", "okay, put your right foot on that little ledge there", and "watch out, I'm coming!" was resonating inside the mountain. We found ourselves wriggling through impossibly narrow cracks and abseiling down drops of a few meters. Don't think abseiling in the conventional way, though. The guide simply took off is belt, held it with his bare hands, and the terrified amateur-speleologist would clutch to the provisional rope and make his way down, following directions from the people below him. There were no safety directives whatsoever; the first descent, I struggled not to fall, because my gloves didn't have enough grip on the belt. By the time we got down to the cave, which offered a view on the hills on the other side of the mountain, the night had completely fallen. We now had to crawl our way back up, with the help of the few torches we happened to have (it was a complete coincidence that I had mine on me). Having reached the top, the ordeal wasn't over yet: we still had to go down the snow-topped hill (a couple of 100m I think), in the dark, while some people were wearing dangerously inadequate shoes. We all made it without a scratch, apart from some torn clothes. As someone remarked, it had been an excellent, though slightly irresponsible, team building exercise. By the time we reached the van, the poor others had been waiting for a least three hours.
Sandstone mountain

The last day of the tour was my birthday. To wake up to your twenty-fifth year of life in a ger in the Mongolian desert is something I can warmly recommend. My sweet companions sang happy birthday (in English ánd in Dutch) and gave me a symbolic birthday biscuit. We drove back to UB and for once, to our relief, we arrived before dark. After a rewarding hot shower, some people cooked a delicious dinner at the hostel. I was really spoiled - I even ended up with two birthday cakes. Although we were all very tired, helped by more than medicinal amounts of vodka, we managed to have a lot of fun at a local club. I could look back on an amazing tour in Mongolia and a memorable twenty-fourth birthday. I had a few days left to get ready for the long Trans-Siberian train ride, which would take me to lake Baikal, to my friends in Moscow and St-Petersburg and, eventually, home.

February 20, 2011

China number two (south and east)

The last stop before Hong Kong was Yangshuo, a night train away from Kunming. I had only a vague idea of what there was to see there; I just went there because many people had mentioned it. When I woke up the next morning in the train, I noticed the landscape had completely changed, and was very special. The area was dotted with narrow hills with steep slopes, made up of gray karst rock. The small town of Yangshuo sits on the side of the beautiful Li River, surrounded by karst peaks. Unfortunately, I had only three days left before I had to move on to Hong Kong. I discovered Yangshuo was a little paradise, where you could spend weeks. Bicycle tours, bamboo rafting, trekking, and last but not least, amazing rock climbing - the possibilities are plenty. What's more, the weather was perfect: it was sunny and warm, but not too hot. I rented a bicycle explored the surroundings, with two other Belgians (indeed!). Between the karst peaks was the same rural scenery I had enjoyed in the bus to Lijiang: beautiful yellow fields, people working the land, perfect pyramid-shaped bundles of straw. Riding through this landscape, alongside the beautiful Li River, waving to people on their bamboo rafts, was a beautiful and relaxing experience.


In Yangshuo, I wanted to go to the barber to have my beard shaved. I was tired of the wilderness on my face, and had been looking for someone to eradicate it for quite some time. I had taken up the habit of going to barbers to get a shave in India and Nepal. It's efficient, well-done, and if you pay a bit more, you can even get a face and head massage. Spoiled as I was, I refused to do my own shaving. Unfortunately, contrary to South-Asia, where you don't need to do more than three steps before you stumble upon a barber, in China it's pretty hard to find. The fact that Chinese have very limited facial hair growth, and their south-eastern neighbors plenty, is no doubt at least part of the explanation. I was getting desperate when, for the fourth time in a week, I was walking around randomly looking for someone who could rid me of my bristles. When I saw a fancy-looking hairdressing salon, I walked in and asked if, by any chance, they also did beards. The answer was yes, but the price four times what I though was reasonable; but I was so tired of walking around, that I agreed. They started by attacking my facial jungle with an electric razor, which I found a reasonably intelligent approach. Next, however, I stopped him as he was about to put a razorblade to my face.
-"Wait a minute - aren't you going to use any shaving foam?"
-"Shaving foam!"
I mimicked applying shaving foam to my face with a brush, but he didn't seem to understand. Impatiently, I took my phrasebook and found the translation of "shaving cream". He nodded and went over to his colleague, with whom he had an animated exchange. He came back with a cup filled with what looked like, smelled like, and probably was, plain hand soap. He clumsily smeared it onto my right cheek with his hand and started, extremely cautiously, to shave me. He cut one area and then the other, clearly avoiding the most difficult parts. In the meantime, as I saw in the mirror, pretty much everybody - both his colleagues and the other clients - was stealing more than occasional glances at us. I didn't really know if it was more embarrassing for me or for my improvising barber. But, although he was a bit nervous and very slow, after half an hour he had shaved my entire beard, including the hard parts, without cutting me. After finishing he said "okay?", and didn't seem to understand why I looked at him expectingly. It soon became clear, with the help of my trusty phrasebook, that I was going to have to do without aftershave as well. I decided regretfully that the time had come to buy myself a razor again.

The next day, I rode to Moon Hill, a special peak with a big half-moon shaped hole in it. I had gotten the tip of ignoring the "no trespassing" sign (the actual sign said something like "passenger no allow") and going to the very top of the hill. Indeed, the view from up there was breathtaking. Although it was a bit misty, I could see peaks rise up all around. It was a pretty surreal view - an endless exhibit of gigantic sculptures, all made by the same artists: wind and water. Up there, where I thought no-one else would come, I met two British girls, who happened to take the train to Hong Kong that evening, just like me.

After an uneventful night in the train, we arrived in Shenzen, at the border with the Hong Kong region. At the customs, they were a bit puzzled by my one-person group visa, which was just a ordinary piece of paper, but eventually they let me pass. There were three things I wanted to do in Hong Kong: to apply for a new Chinese visa, to do some sight-seeing, and to enjoy the nightlife. The first day wasn't a very pleasant one. I had to arrange my visa right away, which took me a couple of hours. After that, I still needed to find a place to stay. HK is notorious for its pricey and shabby accommodation for backpackers. The common place to go is the infamous Chungking Mansions, a huge apartment block with several small hostels on each floor, and possibly the slowest and busiest elevator in the world. It's full of immigrants from South-Asia and Africa, and when I arrived, something made it feel strangely familiar - the smell of curry and the pushy Indian touts may have something to do with that. I first tried my luck with a hostel on the fifth floor. It was full, but the owner told me to try one on the seventh floor. Full again. Try the third floor. Too expensive. Maybe on the fourteenth floor? Sorry, maybe tomorrow. Tired of going up and down the building, I started randomly checking hotels with a nice sounding name. Hotel Tokyo? Too expensive. Pay Less guesthouse? Great name, that's probably why there was no room left. After about an hour of running around - I had learned quickly to forget about the elevator and just use the stairs -, I ended up on the sixteenth floor. I found a bed in a dormroom for an acceptable price. My roommates were a bit unusual, though: two old men, a hippie woman who was also way past her prime, and one young Chinese tourist. From a pretty confusing conversation with one of the men I gathered that they lived there, just like many others. One night I woke up because the two old men were having a loud argument right next to my bed. The reason? One of them had opened the window while the air cooler was still on.
The center of Hong Kong consists of two parts: the Kowloon peninsula and Victoria island. A must-do for tourists is to take the old tram to Victoria peak. Around dusk, me and my British friends took the ferry to the island. By the time we reached the peak, the sun was setting. We walked and watched as the sky turned dark and all the lights went on. It was my first time in a city with skyscrapers (not counting Dubai, which I regard as fake), and I was awe-struck by the view. The next day we just walked around a bit on the island, went to a temple and to a park. That night we went on an organized pub crawl, and had a lot of fun. The next afternoon, it was time for me to leave again. I really enjoyed Hong Kong, though. There is a particular buzz to the city, hard to explain. The pace is very high, everyone seems to be in a hurry all the time; but somehow that makes you feel like this is the place to be, this is where it's all happening. It's a bit like I imagine New York to be, and it seems that I'm not the only one who makes that comparison. But Hong Kong is expensive, and full of temptations, so I had decided not to stay too long. Besides, I was still determined to make it home before Christmas, so I had to get moving towards Beijing.

Hong Kong by night from Victoria Peak

From Hong Kong, I undertook the long train journey to Shanghai. I was going north again, and I had gotten various reports of cold and foggy weather in Shanghai and Beijing. I was a bit reluctant to leave the warm climate and small towns of the southwest for the big cities in the east. I told myself the most pleasant part of my stay in China was probably over. Still I was not giving up on the idea of going back to Europe through Mongolia and Russia. I was very lucky, though; when I arrived in Shanghai it was sunny, and it would stay so for the biggest part of the following two weeks.

My expectations of Shanghai were high - too high. I think for some reason I was hoping to find traces of the harbor city full of rickshaws and Chinese banners I knew from the Tintin album "The Blue Lotus". Instead, as was to be expected, I round a big, modern, rather sterile city. With its skyscrapers - some of very doubtful taste - and multinational business (Mc Donalds and Starbucks, Esprit and Zara, you name it), Shanghai tries to be some kind of Hong Kong, but it has none of the buzz of that city. To be fair, I spent only a few days there; but I never really grasped the soul of the place. I did enjoy walking by the riverside, looking at the famous skyline of the modern district on the other side. The former French concession, with its European feel, is a pretty nice place to stroll around as well; no wonder it's full of expats.

There was one place, not too far from Shanghai - that is, one night train away - which quite a few people had told me not to miss. Huang Shan, or the Yellow Mountain, was one of the inspirations for the film 'Avatar'. I was fortunate enough to share a room with a jovial Dutch guy who wanted to go there as well. Huang Shan is not just one single mountain, but rather a whole area with various peaks. The plan was to walk up one peak, spend the night there, walk around the next day and go back to the city that evening. On the way up, it was very foggy. I was fearing a similar experience to Emei Shan, where I hadn't seen anything for two days. This time, though, at least I wasn't alone. In fact, we had delayed our departure because the weather hadn't been so good, and we hoped it would better the next day, as the weather forecast predicted. Sure enough, the sky started clearing around sunset, and by the time we went to bed, the stars announced a good following day. We got treated to a breathtaking sunrise the next morning, and we could finally admire Huang Shan in its full splendor. The Yellow Mountain has been an inspiration for many Chinese painters and poets. Once again, erosion has created a surreal scenery. Abrupt, irregular peaks with sheer flanks have been carved out of the light brown rock. The cracks and lines formed by the relief are mostly vertical - in fact, the peaks look like gigantic versions of the termite mounds I have seen in pictures from Australia. The finishing touch, which gives Huang Shan its almost magical look, is provided by the pine trees (the species is effectively called "Pinus hwangshanensis"). With their broad, flat-topped crowns of long, level branches, they are perched on unlikely places, even where the rocks are perfectly vertical. In the afternoon, clouds rolled in, reducing the visibility to almost nothing. But when we climbed to the highest peak, we gradually got out of the fog. We were above an endless sea of white clouds, brown peaks with green trees rising up left and right like mysterious islands. This magnificent view completely made up for the missed opportunity at Emei Shan.

Huang Shan (top), one of the inspirations for James Cameron's 'Avatar' (bottom)

Above the sea of clouds

From Huang Shan, I went straight to Beijing. There were no available bunks in sleeper class, so I had to spend the twenty hour journey in the hard seat class. I expected it would be a bit of an ordeal, but that I would have some funny stories to tell. Quite the contrary, it was fairly comfortable, but boring. I wasn't on a very busy line, so my carriage was never completely full. I tried to start a conversation with some people but they didn't seem in the least interested in me.

Although before I went there I found it hard to imagine why, people had always been very positive about Beijing. I ended up staying there for more than a week, and had the best time. The sun was shining, the hostel was great, the people were amazing. Beijing is a city where you can find everything, from traditional Chinese architecture to modern clubs. The subway gets you everywhere for almost nothing. My hostel couldn't be better located, right next to Tienanmen square. Apart from all the going out and having fun, I forced myself to do some tourism as well. Tienanmen square: cool place, center of the highest populated nation on earth. Forbidden City: everything but forbidden (read: very crowded), and frankly a little bit boring. Summer Palace: gigantic lake, impressive complex. Great Wall: great. We went to a "forbidden" part of the wall, and we were the only ones there. The running joke at the hostel was to take a naked picture on this otherwise so touristy spot. Apart from the sight-seeing and having fun, I also had a lot of other stuff to do: arranging visas and trains, buying warm clothes, etc.

"What a great wall!" - R. Nixon

I was doing stuff, I was seeing stuff, I was having fun - it was great ending of stay my stay in China, and I was very glad I had continued despite the difficult moments. I felt ready to start the very last chapter of my trip: the long way home, through Mongolia, Russia and Europe

February 2, 2011

China number one! (the southwest)

China. I didn't really know what to expect. I had met some Chinese students in Delhi, with whom I got along really well. Some people had told me China was a great country to travel in. Others complained about language barriers and other cultural differences. I was reading Jung Chang's 'Wild Swans', which gives a rather grim image of the country and its people just a few decades ago. Surely the Chinese must somehow still be affected by the atrocities of Mao's Cultural Revolution?

My train trip from Lhasa to Chengdu, 43 hours, was my first real encounter with Chinese people. I found friendly, smiling, helpful people. Of course, the language barrier was huge. One young man spoke a little bit of English, and with the help of my Mandarin phrasebook, we managed to have a modest conversation. On that first train ride I also realized that the time of challenging culture differences wasn't over yet. The Chinese are known for spitting on the floor - and yes they do, and in the same loud manner as the South-Asians. To be fair, I think they do it much less then, say, a decade ago, and most of them do spit in the sink or in the dustbin. Also well-known is that Chinese eat very noisily, slurping and smacking to express their enjoyment. It sounds harmless and funny, and it really is, but I challenge anyone to try and calmly enjoy a book when your surrounded by all kinds of salivary sounds. The inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom also share with the South-Asians the habit of talking loudly; when you hear two men having a fierce argument, they may well be just discussing the weather. Last but not least, while in China they don't seem to have the horrible habit of chewing tobacco - and thank God for that -, they do tend to smoke a lot, and everywhere, and all the time. The second night on the train I woke up at three o'clock in the morning because the person in the bunk below me was smoking the old middle-of-the-night ciggy in bed, someone on the opposite bed was noisily enjoying his dried meat, a third person did hes best to get rid of all his mucus by snorting and spitting continuously, and some other people were debating loudly about the advantages and disadvantages of instant noodles (that's my best guess). Yes, it was three o'clock in the morning. Fortunately, India and Nepal had given me ample training in in this kind of situations, and I somehow managed to fall asleep again.

Since I had come through Tibet, I had a one-person group visa ("1 persons", it said) that couldn't be extended. My visa was valid for 26 days, from which I had just over two weeks left by the time I reached mainland China. In these two weeks I wanted to visit the south-west of China, before going to Hong Kong to get a new visa. I had received quite a few tips from other travelers in Nepal, and you know me: I wanted to do it all. So it was with a very heavy schedule that I arrived in Chengdu. I got of the train in the morning and went straight to Chengdu's main attraction: the giant panda park. I was a bit tired and I didn't have high expectations, but the second I laid eye on these wonderful creatures, I started walking around smiling like a little boy. How can anything possibly be so cute? They are lucky to be so, because other than that they are utterly hopeless. They only take in a fraction of the 9 to 14 kilos of bamboo they eat, because they have the digestive system of carnivores. So they permanently overeat - we all know how tempting it is to take a nap on such moments. They are too lazy even to reproduce; and even if they do, it's kind of hard because the poor guys have hopelessly small penises (Asian anatomy?). And even if they do get a baby, the newborn are so small (they weigh about 800 times less than their mom!), that the mother doesn't really know how to treat it and oftentimes starts playing around with it like it's some kind of cheap Chinese toy. Hopeless. But so, so cute.


I started to understand why people like traveling in China when I checked into my first hostel. It was clean, with excellent dormitories, hot showers, friendly and helpful staff, a great common area and a nice atmosphere. Almost all the hotels I went to in China were exquisite, undoubtedly among the best you can find anywhere in the world, certainly for that price. The contrast with South-Asia, where I spent many nights in shabby single rooms, couldn't be bigger.

After spending one night in Chengdu, I moved on to Emei Shan, a nearby mountain. On my way there, I felt extremely depressed. I was alone, I had moved an awful lot in the previous months, and I knew I was going to have to rush through everything if I carried out my plans. I felt like my traveling-bubble had burst. I had lost the urge to see everything, to meet knew people, to explore new territories. I just didn't care anymore. I wanted to take the next plane home. But I decided to carry on and see how I would feel in the following days, and take a plane home from Hong Kong if I still felt depressed by the time I got there.
Emei Shan, accessed through a cable car or thousands of steps, is supposed to offer spectacular views, including a "sea of clouds". Unfortunately, this phenomenon is a bit less interesting when you're inside the sea. When I reached the top of the mountain at around 3000 m it was freezing cold and the visibility wasn't more than a couple of meters. I was all alone, depressed and cold and I ruined my knees by rushing down the many steps - let's say it wasn't the best moment of my trip. Emei Shan was also my first encounter with Chinese tourists. I've talked about Indian tourists before - same same, but worse. Think big groups, megaphones, flags and matching caps, and of course, the cheesiest of pictures. They seemed very impressed with my wearing shorts, and all raised their thumb when they saw me rushing up the stairs: "Oooh! Vewy Stwong!".

From Emei I took a twenty-hour train to Kunming, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, and on to Lijang. Since, like often, I had no idea what to expect, I was completely surprised by the beauty of the Yunnan province. On the modest hills, the reddish earth matched the dark green trees perfectly. The valley was like a blanket of yellow-brown dried-out rice fields. The straw was arranged in small pyramidal bundles, on equal distances. It all looked so perfect that it made me wonder if someone had designed the whole thing. The houses looked lovely in their simplicity: white walls (sometimes with paintings) and gray tiled roofs with typical curved corners. Many people were working in the fields, wearing straw hats, mostly weeding, as far as I could tell. The plain was dotted with stacks of burning weeds, their thin plumes adding a finishing touch to a magnificent painting. It reminded me that China, although it's the world's second biggest economy, is still a country of peasants: more than half of its inhabitants are still farmers.

Lijang is supposed to be a picturesque town with cobblestone streets and traditional houses. And that's what it used to be, but it has been turned into some kind of Disneyland for Chinese tourists. Almost every traditional house has been turned into a a shop, a restaurant or a hotel. I had never expected o see so many Chinese tourists in one place. It's a bit like Venice in peak season but the more concentrated and seemingly without local inhabitants except for people who work there, and with a vast majority of Chinese. Another thing they have in common with Indian tourists is that they love spending money. They buy all sorts of tacky souvenirs from the shops, and at night they drink liters of expensive alcohol in bars. The bars are quite an experience, full of enthusiastic Chinese who knock on the tables with small wooden blocks to applaud cheap entertainment. I witnessed an auction over a cocktail, where some drunk man ended up paying the equivalent of five hundred euros. He gave the drink to a girl who didn't even touch it. That's when I realized some people in China are starting to have money, and lots of it. In general, I was surprised about the grade of development China has reached. The roads are impeccable, the buses nicer than ours, the trains more comfortable, everything seems well-organized. China and India are often linked because of their spectacular economic growth, but it's obvious that China stands much further already. This is confirmed by the numbers: China's GDP per capita (PPP) is more than twice that of India. That being said, the inequality is higher in China (for those who care: according to Wikipedia, India's Gini coefficient is 36.8, while China's is 46.9). Contrary to India, China is not a democracy. The middle and upper class of the biggest population on earth have a very comfortable life, with all the freedom and infrastructure they need. However, on the poor countryside, people still live medieval lives, and many are not allowed to move to cities. There are thousands of riots every year in rural areas, but the media barely talk about it. Unfortunately, as a tourist, one seems to see only the positive side of China. To be honest, I didn't have the courage just then to explore more authentic, rural areas - I'm going to have to go back.

The typical tourist photo in Lijiang

From Lijiang I went to Tiger Leaping Gorge to do a two-day hike, one of the most beautiful ones in China. Walking on a ledge above the deep canyon, facing a sheer rock face topped by snow capped mountains was pretty impressive, but I must say I was a bit blasé after my three-week Annapurna trek. The next stop was Dali, a traditional backpackers hangout. And that's exactly what I did there: hanging around with nice people for a few days. Sometimes you need a break from traveling, and I didn't have many opportunities to do so.

Tiger Leaping Gorge. The path is the small ledge on the right.

Dali was my last stop in Yunnan. After that, I started going east, on my way to the big cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing!