Wednesday, 22 May 2013

"It's funny, all Westerners want to go to Tiananmen Square... It's because it's the biggest square in the world!" - Fashion Glasses John

After having such a fantastic time in Mongolia all the members of our group were quite apprehensive about China. What would it be like in a communist country? Would it be as dirty as many people say? Would we all catch bird flu and die? We agreed that in the West we are constantly confronted with a negative perception of China so it would be hard not to go with some preconceptions.Thankfully this was mainly unfounded and we had an amazing time in this very busy, buzzing capital city.

We were met by "John" our honcho for Beijing who was about 5"3 and wore "fashion" glasses with no glass in.... That afternoon we went for a delish meal and explored the main shopping street in Beijing along with the rather exotic night market.


As Monique (one of our vodka train buddies) only had 1 full day in Beijing we decided to go to the 2 main tourist attractions namely the Great Wall and the Forbidden City first. The Great Wall is quieter the earlier you can get there so we started out early to get to the Mutianyu part of the wall which is meant to be slightly less busy than others. It also has a ski lift to get up and a very traditional Chinese toboggan run to get down!! It was so impressive to actually be at one of the most famous sites in the world and to see the actual size of the wall... We could never comprehend it from photos, but wow!!

After enjoying a walk along the wall, a super fun toboggan ride down and a bit of bartering at the market stalls that filled the walk to the car park we headed to the Forbidden City. It's name is because during the time of the Emperors, the Forbidden City was only for the emperor and his family (and presumably his servants). It is in the centre of Beijing and is absolutely massive. It makes Buckingham palace look like a doll's house!!! 


The following day we parted company with our honcho and ended our Vodka Train tour (Monique flew to Turkey) and we spent the day with Rachael and Anna before they headed for the Silk Road. We all went to the main shopping street for a much needed coffee for breakfast and discovered a pretty cool market full of random things to buy.
After a bit of haggling and coffee guzzling we headed for a walk around Beijing and ended up in a Halong neighbourhood (traditional Chinese streets/alleys) After much negotiating we got 2 rickshaws to take us for a ride which was really fun, we saw a lot of random stuff!!


After a well deserved lunch we headed to Tiananmen Square to see the place where students had been massacred, where that infamous photo of "Tank Man" was taken and where there is a big fat picture of Chairman Mao.
Having mentioned the square to John you could tell that he was Chinese from his response "Oh lots of tourists want to go there, as its the biggest square in the world"....sadly untrue.

The first day of just the 2 of us (we miss you VT guys) was spent going to various temples including the Temple of Heaven and the Lama Temple. Both were beautiful and full of people waving incense around. We were pleasantly surprised to see the freedom people apparently had with religion (it being a communist country and everything) but did notice that there was not a single picture of the Dalai Llama anywhere to be seen....

In the evening we headed to a street that had been re-modelled to look like a traditional Chinese street from the early 1900s and contained many old Beijing stores such as the original Peking duck restaurant as well as the multinationals such as H&M, Zara and of course, Starbucks (looking really out of place in the traditional building).


Our final day in China was spent at the Summer Palace and Beihai Park. Both were beautiful. The day was very cloudy and I think it was then you could truly appreciate just how polluted Beijing is.
In the evening we headed to the Olympic park and got to see the Water Cube and the Birds Nest up close. It was pretty cool to visit after all the Olympic hype of London and to see how they had maintained their Olympic park. We also spent a long time at the wall of medals which had engraved on it all the medal winners from the 2008 Olympics, however there was no velodrome cyclists at all!! We think the absence of Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and the other medal winners may be a conspiracy as we win all the medals, but for some reason they really were not there!!

Overall we had an absolutely amazing time in Bejing and we both would like to visit other parts of China. The people were generally really friendly (apart from the man who punched me in the boob because I wouldn't buy his knock-off book) and we often felt like celebs with the amount of photos that were taken of us!! It was amazing to see a country that is so often in the news and to see other sides to what we always see as negative. One of the things we both noticed was how well looked after and happy all the children there were. Everywhere you went you would see Grandparents/ Dads/ Families with a child looking exceptionally well looked after and cared for. The one child policy in China means I guess that the one child/Grandchild is very precious and the parents and grandparents have more money, love and time for them. Although of course this is an extreme breach of liberty and leads to terrible cases of infantcide and abandonment it was interesting to get another view on something that before our visit was to both of us only a terrible law to live with.
Beijing itself does not feel at all Communist as there are signs of capitalism and multinationalism everywhere. To us it felt like a very capitalist country run by an autocratic dictatorship, which I suppose in reality it is.


Saturday, 4 May 2013

Our Transiberian Adventue Part 6: Welcome to Mongolia, it's not China

After spending 3 weeks in Russia we were ready to reach Mongolia. I have always wanted to go so was excited and slightly nervous in case it did not reach expectations. I needn't have worried. Our first day was spent in the capital city of Ulaan Bator. It is pretty compact and we were able to walk to the city's square. They have one real skyscraper and the stock exchange has only just opened. We also learnt that there isn't a McDonalds in Mongolia- very refreshing to have a break from Multinational bingo. Mongolia's biggest hero is Ghengis Khan, he is literally every where. They have a big fat statue of him in the main square as well to show how massively impressive he was.

Afterwards we headed to the biggest Buddhist temple in Mongolia, this temple was luckily not destroyed in Communist times and has the biggest statue inside a building in the world (no photos allowed though)

In the Buddhist religion feeding pigeons is lucky....

The Mongolians seriously love the Beatles. This fab statue was right in the city centre. Our driver also a big fan (as well as a queen fan) and we had a nice singalong to yellow submarine.

We also discovered that Mongolians love a good  Irish pub. My personal favourite was this one as it had a ger with shamrocks on the top. The food was pretty good here too!

Our honcho, Anu  advised us that Mongolia's weather was pretty changeable...she wasn't wrong as one day was really warm and the next we had 3 inches of snow!!The journey to the Ger camp was an interesting one and involved us trekking up the mountain with all our stuff in the snow as the bus just wouldnt move any further.....

The views were absolutely stunning, especially with the snow. We climbed further up the mountain and admired the sights. It was great to stay in a ger as so many people in Mongolia are still nomadic. Apparently they tend to move with the seasons so move around 4 times a year to different areas that they return to. The government are pretty supportive of the nomadic way of life and offer free accommodation to the children of those still following this travelling way of life.

We ate a traditional Mongolian BBQ (with hot stones to warm the hands for good health) and enjoyed dressing up.

In Mongolia the traditional game is played with ankle bones and there are loads of different games you can play. Whoever knew you could have so much fun with bits of old bone!!

We saw wild horses which was pretty amazing as that is what Mongolia is famous for. We also enjoyed playing in the snow...

Our final adventure was to visit a lady in her Ger. She had 9 children and only 1 has continued with the Nomadic lifestyle, the others have moved to the city or other countries.

Mongolia is an absolutely amazing country and so friendly. We both 100 percent recommend a visit!!!