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China and Mongolia

An introduction to Beijing

Having walked a complicated zig-zag route through the hutong (the centuries old alleys and passageways where a third of Beijing still live) and come out pretty much where I had hoped both surprised and delighted me. The monumental 15th century Front Gate was right in front of me. I turned right and walked up the east side of Tianame’n Square, passed the Cheng Lou (another former gate to the city) and up to the Imperial Palace (also known as the Forbidden City). It was a scorching hot day, even under the shade of an avenue of trees, and I was more than glad of the ease with which I could buy cold drinks and bottled water here.

It is surprisingly difficult to explain what being in the Forbidden City felt like. It was quite extraordinary – a realisation of childhood tales I suppose. To have visited whilst it was occupied by an emperor and teaming with courtiers would have been quite something. Those days are long since gone though and once upon a time uninvited entry to this place was punishable by instant death. Now though it is teaming with tourists (mainly Chinese), tour guides and scammers. Being approached by pretty local girls every few minutes became tiresome especially as they all used the same lines and under guessed my age by ten years. All an attempt to lure you into one sort of scam or another. Sad in many ways but I was more than able to escape their clutches without offending.

The Forbidden City is recognised as being the largest group of well preserved ancient buildings in China. It was home to the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties and it is said that they rarely left the comfort it provided unless they really had to. The construction started in 1406 and lasted until around 1420. Emperor Yongle was the man responsible although he had a bit of help from the million labourers he had at his disposal!

Having spent a few hours wandering the countless palaces and rooms it was back to my cheap wee hotel for a quick wash at the sink. Wanting to see as much of this awesome city as possible made it a very quick turn around indeed. I quickly sent a few e-mails at an internet café and managed to buy both postcards and stamps. Later, on wandering back to my hotel I bought some kebabs from a street vendor. She had a make-shift barbeque strapped to her beaten-up bicycle. She took several skewers of dubious looking meat from under a badly stained cloth and laid them over the coals which she then fanned back to life with a piece of cardboard.

Despite asking for only a small amount of chilli powder (in my very best sign language) they were ferociously spicy and had me sweating away, much to her amusement. On the way back I gave some money to a beggar who was unfortunate enough to have no arms. I had also passed a girl, lying under a blanket on a wheeled trolley, who had feet decayed to such an extent that she had toe bones sticking through her blackened flesh. It really was quite a terrible sight. There are a few beggars whom I passed several times and who seem to have regular pitches and they really are the most wretched people that you can imagine.

Later I went to the restaurant which has become my regular since being here, picked random items off the menu and thankfully struck lucky. My meal of chicken and rice was all rather pleasant until the sewage truck stopped outside to pump the drains. Some people couldn’t bear the smell that was wafting into the restaurant and left.

I stayed on though and ordered up a small bottle of the local rice wine which I found to be 56 ABV. The second it landed on my table the locals all started staring at me but I refused to let my face show my true reaction when I first sipped my drink, thus denying my spectators their anticipated laughter. It truly was quite revolting and seemed to burn as it went down but I have to say I got used to it (perhaps numbed by it) and actually finished two small bottles.

Hitting The Wall

My small hotel is up an alley which leads into the hutongs. I have not seen any other Western faces since being here and I have learnt that the hotel I am in was not even allowed to accept foreigners until last year. On leaving my hotel in the morning I stopped and got the same street food as yesterday for my breakfast which cost me Y1 (about 14p). I had a sort of thin, crispy pancake filled with short cut noodles and vegetables. Rather pleasant but I could kill for eggs and bacon.

I searched out some taxi drivers to take me to the Great Wall, which was harder to do than you would imagine in the centre of China’s capital city. When eventually I found a group of them, I started the hard business of haggling. To get to Sumatai my guide book suggested Y400 as a guide price. These chaps wanted Y800 though and eventually came down to Y700 (almost £100). Another chap offered to take me to Mutianyu which although not in the guide book just sounded nice so I took a chance.

I agreed on Y600 and shook hands with the chap. The others tried to muscle in with other offers but the deal had been struck. We headed off in the slow traffic crossing the various ring roads as we got further and further out from the city centre. I lost count at the sixth. My driver was a cheerful chap and I made the usual futile effort to communicate but eventually we both resorted to the odd ‘Ahh’ sound followed by a smile or a nod in pretence of understanding what the other had just said. I noted the signs which took us via Huairu and Myun to the Great Wall. Proximity to the wall was obvious by the sudden appearance of countless restaurants and vendors along the roadside. I suspect that this is where coach-loads of tourists are unloaded. The norm being that the coach driver or tour rep would be given a back-hander by the restaurant for delivering a group of potential customers.

We drove into the car park and it all seemed very regimented and set up to squeeze as much money as possible from every visiting tourist. A hopeful guide took me to the ticket window. There were two prices. Y91 to get a cable car to the top and slide down on a metal chute, or Y35 to walk. I chose to walk. The walk up to the wall took about 20 minutes. The path is well paved by flagstones & steps but it was very steep and the steps just seemed to go on and on. My legs were tired by the top and I was sweating away as usual.

People selling cold drinks hid in every tower and lurked at every corner. It must be a tough walk for them to get up here with a cooler box full of cans and bottles but then they can sell it at an inflated price to thirsty tourists. I had plenty of water but still fancied something cold, so after some really funny banter with an old dear I ended up buying a Coke for Y7 (50 pence). Expensive for China but not really expensive in our terms.

The wall itself is fascinating. Hard to see what is old and what is new because there have been considerable renovations carried out over recent years. Distant sections though seem to be engulfed in vegetation. Out of bounds by all accounts. It was steep and uneven and quite hard going. Very worthwhile though. I called Mum on my mobile. Just because I could!

History tells that the wall was started during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). What this actually involved was the linking up of walls which already existed to keep out the marauding tribes. This involved tens of thousands of labourers, many of whom were political prisoners.

In addition to the rocks, bricks and compacted earth used in its construction it is said that one of the main building materials was the bodies of those who died in its construction.

It was used more as a highway than as a defence and allowed men and goods a certain ease of passage across very tough terrain. The other great purpose which it served was that of a beacon system which quickly allowed news of enemy movements to be transmitted to where it was needed.

Welcome to Mongolia

We had already been on the road for many hours when the driver drove us into Zamyn Uud and pointed in the direction of the train station. Each passenger parted with the agreed Y50 when they got out of the minibus, collected their rusksack, shook the driver’s hand and went on their way.

This town really was desolate, dusty and broken. The only thing missing was tumble weed. Apparently it also has the reputation of being the hottest town in Mongolia but today thankfully it seemed quite cool.

A group of us wandered across the main square towards the railway station in order to secure tickets for the train to UB this afternoon. Tourists must be relatively common here at this time of year as we did not even attract the slightest attention from the locals. They were too busy playing pool on the open air tables (one of which had a horse tethered to it), standing around chatting or popping in and out of the few drab shops which fringed the square. At the station I sat and watched all the bags whilst the others queued. News came back that we could get a hard seat for T5100 (just over £2) or we could get a comfy sleeper for five times that amount. I would do either but the group voted for the cheaper option. At least we all had tickets and are going to get to UB.

Next on the agenda was to check the luggage in to the left luggage office which we did with the help of a local woman and thus avoided paying the full daily charge. We were now free to wander as once again we had several hours at our disposal. The whole group agreed on something to eat.

Nine of us walked into a restaurant on the first floor of a crumbling old hotel. The assembled locals in here looked at us as if we had just beamed down from Mars. Two policeman, a weather-beaten old man and his wife and two young, giggling waitresses. I am surprised that the floor boards coped with our combined weight. Gerard, an Irishman I had met on the train, assumed the role of Dad and used his phrase book to order our food. I have to say he did a bloody good job. Sadly not all of the food lived up to expectations though. I had been told of and read about the fatty mutton but nothing could have prepared me. It was pretty unpleasant, greasy and very smelly. Quite how any animal can have so much fat and so little meat is a mystery to me. Gerard managed to eat it but no one else really liked it. Thankfully we had ordered some chicken and rice too which was very good.

After lunch the group split and I went off to take a few photographs. Then I found a shop and bought what I thought was half a kilo of cheese. Well it wasn’t cheese – it was butter. Thankfully though I discovered this on the train before it all melted inside my bag. In the same shop you could buy a Twix or a Mars Bar but I resisted the temptation. It amazes me how some things are available the world over.

Some of us regrouped and I managed to decipher ‘Café’ and ‘Billiards’ from a sign written in cyrillic. We walked down a most unlikely alley at the end of which I found a very young child kicking glass jars and bottles around. I went up some stairs, cautiously just in case I was actually in someone’s house, but saw a pool table so I guessed I was in pretty much the right place. Then I met a person in the corridor so I asked ‘Café?’ which was my best effort at Russian and Mongolian all rolled into one. I was rewarded by being directed towards a door.

Inside was light and airy, high ceilinged and the windows were draped in net curtains. It could just have easily been a British seaside café in the 1950’s apart from the old Soviet film which was playing on a TV on a shelf in the corner of the room. No coffee here so I ordered three teas and a beer for myself. Beer is usually a safe bet no matter where you buy it and proved to be once again. The tea was salted and the other three were none too impressed. We paid a total of T1400 (about 60 pence) and left.

On to Ulaan Baatar and the Naadam Festival

Once up and showered I was ready to leave to see the start of festivities outside State Parliament House in Sukhbaatar Square. Most people over look this which is in fact the beginning of the Naadam festivities.

I had only been in the square a short time when Maria tapped me on the shoulder. She had been on the train with us too. The ceremony could have been quite impressive but failed. It was still incredibly interesting though. The soldiers were dressed in smart red and blue uniforms, knee high boots and a typical Mongolian hat. At one point one of the soldiers simply walked off the parade ground to go to the loo. Others simply stood and scratched their noses. Not something you would see on Trooping of the Colour.

Soon enough though the military band started to play stirring music. It was all a bit disjointed and lacking control. Tourists were breaking through the police line so I decided to do the same so that I could get decent pictures. Naughty I agree but so many people were doing it and no one seemed to object.

Mounted soldiers then marched into the square and dismounted before handing over The Nine Yak Tails of Chiggis Khan to other riders. These are to represent the nine yaks tails given by Chiggis to the leaders of the nine tribes of Mongolia.They were then paraded round the square, Parliament and ridden by the horsemen to Naadam Stadium where I saw them later.

Maria and I walked up to the hotel where the SES were staying. They had anticipated Dave and myself so I knew that they had two seats in whatever transport they had arranged. We all got into the bus and headed down to the Naadam Stadium. The traffic was pretty bad and I am glad that I was not driving. I would not have had the patience for it.

The instant we caught sight of the stadium we saw so much else too. In the main it was competitors, people in local costumes and food and drinks stalls. With all the people milling around it was not totally dissimilar from what a similar event in the UK would be like. Obviously the people, costumes, sights, smells and sounds reminded me every minute that I was not in the UK though.

I was given a ticket to block 8 and entered behind some archers. I climbed the steep steps of this rickety stadium right to the top. I hoped that this would give me the best and least interrupted view.

The opening ceremony was quite staggering. Soldiers, horses, the Mongolian Everest Team, beauty queens and people in national costumes. Very colourful indeed. Singing, dancing, parades and speeches. After this the wrestling began. Some pairs seemed very ill matched and were over in no time at all. Others seemed more tactical, better matched and went on for ages. Sometimes the skinny chaps would win much to the dismay of many larger opponents.

After an hour or so of wrestling my friends all went off to lunch. I knew I could feed myself more cheaply so opted to go it alone. Outside I found a vendor doing fatty mutton (no surprise) with rice and carrots. The inflated price of T2500 was still very acceptable to me.

As I wandered along munching my lunch with chopsticks Gerard tapped me on the shoulder. He was accompanied by his Mongolian girlfriend whose name I cannot remember. We had a brief chat but they had to go on their way and I said they were most likely to find me at Dave’s Place after 6pm tonight. I re-entered the near-empty stadium and took up my seat once again. Most people were away having lunch even though the wrestling continued. I wanted to get down onto the grass with the journalists, TV crews and competitors. I believed that the grass area was accessible only by competitors and certain others and all possible routes were guarded by police.

On my first attempt to sneak on to the grass I was sent back. On my second I flashed my office ID hoping they would think it was something else and was sent back again. My third attempt was close but my hesitation got me sent back. Eventually on my fourth attempt I made it to the grass. I took my hat off as it is so recognisable, walked with confidence and did not look back. I figured that if I got a tap on the shoulder I would be out for good but it never happened. I sat down on the grass with some Mongolians and was readily welcomed into their group.

I set the video camera up on the grass and it certainly caused a lot of curiosity but they were very good about it. I certainly got some better footage than I had managed from where I had been sitting.

I also got out my trusty Nikon SLR and this, with a 300 lens, should have got me some pretty decent close ups. I certainly hope so as I used a lot of my slide film at Naadam. Foolishly I had only brought 6 reels of film.

I put on my phone to call home and my new found friends were all quite astounded to see that it could take both photos and video. They all wanted to be the subject of the lense. I had handed my video camera to one of my new found friends in the hope that he would be able to film me but this was a hope too high. I was able to make my excuses to leave the group though when Simon and Katie stumbled across me. I shook hands and said my good-byes.

The three of us walked over to where the archery was taking place. The actual seating area was very small so I didn’t sit. I walked up to the line of archers and started to watch and try and figure out just what was going on as it seemed quite different to archery I have seen before (Not that I am in any way an expert).

The men had just finished so now it was the women’s turn. Most of them were very colourfully dressed in traditional clothes – long embroidered silk coats. The sun glasses and high heels did not seem to fit in very well though. Times of change.

Some of the bows they were pulling on looked very powerful. I am glad to say that the arrows were rubber tipped. The targets were similar to piles of tin cans at ground level. Around each target area huddled a group of judges who threw their arms up for a hit or gave advice which I assume meant ‘left a bit’ or ‘a bit higher’. The line from which the women fired was slightly forward of the men’s line. I estimate the distance to have been 50-60 yards.

There was the sheep ankle bone flicking going on in another area but it was not of great interest to me. Perhaps if I ever come again I shall see it. The day though has made my visit very worth while and fulfilled a dream. I would recommend a visit here to anyone.

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(C) Mike Laird 2024