Trans-Mongolian and Moscow

Taking off from the train station in Ulaan-Baatar was a strong experience. I met a young girl in my compartment who's father were about to take the train to Moscow and then to Prague. The whole family was on the station to say good-bye (except the mum - she was already in Prague). He would not be back for at least four years and they didn't know if they would be able to visit their parents meanwhile. Rolling out from the station you could see a lot of those life stories passing by - families waving of their fathers and crying, proud parents saying a last goodbye to their son or daughter or the look of hope and dreams in the faces of friends and family of some. There was hardly anyone on the platform or on the train without really strong emotions of some sort showing in their faces.

To then see all the preparations for the border crossing was hilarious. There were two women on the train, going around and distributing large amounts of jeans, pants, shirts, jackets and boots in different compartments. There is also a gorilla walking around as a lookout and making sure noone is causing problems. Then they spend all the way from UB to the border with going around, unpacking all the clothes (they are all bought in Mongolia or even China I guess and for sale in Russia) from the plastic bags and asks people to take them in their bags. They go through a lot of trouble to make sure people pack it together with their normal clothes, stove it under their food bags or hide it in other ways. They remove all tags, turn some of them inside out and make sure there are no signs of the clothes being brand new. As a spectator this smuggling is just hilarious to see.

After crossing the first border crossing, i.e. after leaving Mongolia but before entering Russia, things get even more crazy. Now they start putting on two pairs of jeans each, one pair of the new boots, hiding jeans in the bed, in the trash bin, in bags with food and even some in the roof air condition.

The bureaucracy is amazing - we have met at least six different guards now, collecting passports twice, handing out forms, collecting forms, etc... So far it has been at least seven forms - imigration, emigration, double copies, customs for Mongolia, customs for Russia and so on. Our "room" has been searched three times now and I'm not inside Russia yet. This is like a cirkus - especially with the two Mongolians looking like twin brothers with exactly the same clothes and everything. Once again - hilarious!

The border crossing then gets more and more surreal - at the same time as a blonde and surprisingly young and good-looking Russian female guard in uniform, high-heels and a short skirt is climbing around in the room, looking at all the hidden jeans she finds and saying "souvenir", two Mongolians pop in their heads and start speaking to me in Swedish - the first Swedish I've heard in a long time now. They all turn out to be living in Sweden at the moment, one even works just one block away from where I live with my mum when I'm in Stockholm. I wonder if the horse meat I got from my two "roomies" contained something strange, 'cause I started to believe I was hallucinating... :)

Sitting in the restaurant for breakfast on the first day after the border crossing gives me yet another insight into the size of the smuggling. Since we had by then passed the Russian border they didn't try to hide it at all - which means I just saw cartload after cartload passing me in the aisle, all full of jeans, shirts and so on. There must have been hundreds of jeans at least. The guys in my compartment got 150 rubel (40 SEK?) each for the favor of taking 20-30 jeans or so across the border.

On the second day the train starts resembling a fair more and more. Every compartment in my wagon seems to be selling something - my coupé got a new passenger during the night that sells jeans and jackets, while others sell shirts or shoes or even blankets. The "train lady" responsible for keeping the wagon trim, cleaning everything up and locking the toilet before every stop also cooks food in her compartment that she sells for a lot less than the restaurant. You just go and tell her when you're hungry - you can also buy tea and coffee from her. One compartment brought a portable TV and a video game - you can pay a bit to play for an hour. In the middle of this you find a lot of over-weight Russians walking around with huge shoppings bags - buying clothes from the Mongolian vendors. The few compartments that are not selling clothes or stuff are rather make-shift bars, full with Mongolians who've been drinking for three days. Just now (I was writing this one the train) a guy I haven't seen before came into our compartment, climbed up into the bed of the girl selling jeans and passed out. Iäm not sure I will have my space/bed free when I get back from the restaurant wagon.

At every stop on the stations it's equally crazy - all the vendors jump of from the train before it stops into a market frenzy - the stations are packed with Russians coming there to buy cheap jeans or stuff from the vendors on the train. People are hanging through the windows to sell blankets or shoes, while others set up regular shops (with life-size dolls showing their clothes) in the doorways of the train. On the same time the train gets invaded by some Russian vendors trying to sell canned food, cooked food or beer to the people on the train. The train stops for a set amount of minutes, usually 15-25, and then it just leaves without any warning. When it starts to move all the vendors at the station gets crazy, rips their stuff back from the customers that haven't paid yet and runs for the train - I always think that someone won't make it, but they seem to be used to running along side the train to jump on. Just hilarious!

And then, the last 24 hours on my trip: Moscow. I found Moscow a fascinating place, although I didn't have to see much of it. I was staying in a flat for 20€, just one block away from the Red Square. A real bargain - especially since me and the Mongolian girl Naraa paid for two "economic dorm" beds (which would have been a madrass on the floor of the living room), but got a huge double room instead because the newly started hotel/flat didn't have two madrasses. The double room would normally have been 100€.

Moscow is impressing - it's a mix of Soviet and West, a mix of old and new. They have the fascinating history, they have the architecture to match any city in the world, they have the old-style cafés associated with Eastern Europe cities like Budapest, they have all the Western chains, brands and shops, they have a lively night-club scene, bars, live music and of course a lot of the classical entertainment such as concerts, opera, cirkus and acrobats. To make it all at bit more exciting and adventorous they have the police - possibly the single biggest annoyance in Moscow. If they spot you as a tourist they will invariably hazzle you, check your passport and visa and try to get a bribe from you. The hotel will tell you that there are some thieves in the city, but it's the police that you really have to look out for. Never look at them, never speak to them and even if you've been robbed - don't contact the police, it will only make things worse!

Now that I'm home in Stockholm, Sweden, I've uploaded some pictures from the train and from Moscow. I will probably write some more entries in this blog - making a summary or some kind of reflection of the whole trip, but basically the trip is now over. To all the awesome friends I've met traveling, thanks for helping me make this trip a great time - and please, send me all your photos from our time together and stuff, would be awesome to have!


Mongolia from a different perspective

Wow. I just read Oni's blog entry about the trip we just made together and realized how much I forgot to mention. I think the easiest way is to post her entire entry so you can see her view of the whole trip - there are some fascinating details in there that I really loved with the trip.

And oh, by the way - I've uploaded all the pictures from our trip now, which is a lot of pictures considering there were five people taking photos. Will try to upload some videos as well, but for now I'll just sort them, write some comments and delete duplicates. Probably they won't be in a proper order though - my pictures go first, then Will's pictures and then Ferry's. You'll have to figure out the "real order" by yourselves! :)

Anyway, this is what Oni wrote:

Mission: West, semi Gobi, to the White lake
Duration: 7 days
Crew: well, me and 5 men
Transportation: a retro van, Bill our driver- a legend, can navigate by the winds, sun and moon.
Bonus: not tourist season
I honestly do not know where to start. I just had the trip of a life time!!!! Mongolia is a truly stunning country and I am blessed to have been able to have experienced what I did. Soo gracefully and with so much patience the Nomadic Mongolians showed us their way of life. For the last seven days we have been driving through the desert, along some of the roughest roads I have ever seen. There is a 'proper' road for the first day, however, it is soooo bad that Bill preferred the off road style. So for seven days I spent most of my time air borne, feel like I have inhaled enough dust for a life time, and often after a long day felt like some of my organs may have switched place from so much bouncing around.
The landscape is crazy! Steppes with tussock grass, rolling hills and so so dry (it gets green in summer we are told.) So imagine Bill our hard core driver, a mad Dutch man, a German, a Swede, Will and I hooning through what looked like the most remotest place on earth. Camels, wild horses, yaks and huge birds dot the landscape, whilst the 'villages' are often only a few ger tents large. Mongolians are yellow sect Buddhists, following Tibetan Buddhism, so all along the way we stopped at ovoos (stone piles with blue prayer flags) and walk around three times clock wise for good luck.
Being the off season, we had the amazing experience of staying with nomadic people, and not in tourist gers. It was soo out of this world, a real anthropological experience. In Mongolia, you can almost stay in any ones ger, no matter what time of the night you may turn up. Our fist night we stayed with the most amazing old couple. There was no language in common so we sat there looking at each other for hours, and then there it was, the biggest beaming smile I have ever seen. As soon as we had taken a seat on the floor the old woman set about making us tea ( a welcome gesture). Mongolian tea is black tea, with water, salt, and cow or yak milk, which is ceremoniously handed around and drunk in a very slurping manner. Then the old man continued with the welcoming procedures, handing around his snuff bottle, pipe (that lived in his boot, when not in use) and the trusty Russian influence, vodka, all of which have elaborate ritualistic consumption actions. For example, when you receive the vodka, you don't hold the rim of the cup, you dunk you ring finger in the vodka and flick two times towards the sky and one time towards the earth before consuming the harsh vodka, with a huge happy grin beaming at you from the old man over your bowl as you drink. A bowl of horse meat, the best I am told, was also presented, which our driver Bill ate with gusto. When I asked the old man where to go to the toilet, bless him, there I was in the middle of the desert in Mongolia, with this 65 year old man, with a wrinkled face from the elements and his traditional dress on, leading me by the arm, smoking his pipe....when he stops in the middle of the desert and says 'here toilet.'
Along the trip we slept in a restaurant, and then for two nights with another nomadic family. They at first were alittle hostile, and there was one woman who just stared at me the who 48 hours, with a sneaky look. This family was huge, however we shared a ger with a couple who were 8 months pregnant. Its so crazy, you just walk into their lives and live in their house. The men work outside with the livestock whilst the woman's job is to look after the men and do all the cooking, in fact most Mongolian men cant cook at all. Being the only woman guest, it felt like I got a closer view of how the women live. It is undermining to ask to help a woman in her ger, as she is boss, but the communication that you have without language is so great. Many of the women are younger than me, with a few children, and want to look and touch your hair and look at their face in the mirror and then yours. So we slept on the floor with the newly wed pregnant couple and five goats. Early in the morning, still dazed we were greeted by a goat meters away being a super loud alarm clock, and then various other goats getting dragged in to feed the younger ones. Outside through the open door you can see men racing around on horses organising the animals. Horses are vital and play such a big part in Mongolian life.
The last night was abit different we stayed at a friend of Bills ger, it was flash, had a TV, and fridge. The couple both worked in the national park, where the wild horses are, so could speak some English. Was a lovely night playing cards, listening to the men sing and once again finding a common ground with the women of the ger. Even tho our worlds are so different, there is that bottom line connection, that is so real.
We also stoped at beautiful monasteries along the way, watched monks chant, ate in little towns, played soccer with the village boys with an old botle, and walked up an amazing volcano to see a stunning frozen White lake. I have so so many impressions from the last week, and can only give you a snap shot of what it was like. We will put some photos up when we have time. Was lovely to have my first shower in seven days, and wash off the thick layer of dust I had accumulated. My finger is getting sore typing, we had a near accident coming back into Ulaan Baatar (mad drivers), in which I sprained my finger. Tonight we are going to a Mongolian cafe to hear some more throat singing, I love the way Mongolians sing where ever they are, most of the time.
Tomorrow morning our train leaves for Beijing, apparently the best train trip of the trans Mongolian we saved till last. It goes through the Gobi and along the Great Wall. I feel a bit sad to be leaving Mongolia, and deciding to stay here longer was one of best followed travel instincts yet. Mongolian people are truly beautiful, and I leave with only fantastic memories. Sniff!!!!


Mongolian tour

Wow! What an experience! By fa the strongest and most genuine experience of a country so far. The people, the landscape and ... yeah, just everything! But I'll take it from the beginning I guess.

After being in the Russian embassy for half an hour, applying for my transit visa, I rushed back to the guesthouse of the others in the group. The group consists of five people - it was me, a New Zealand couple that were just wonderful (Will and Oni), a Dutch guy (Ferry) and a German guy (Markus). As soon as I came back to the guesthouse we quickly loaded the last luggage into the jeep and left. The jeep is a big Russian jeep/minivan which turned out to be really comfortable and able to take us through any kind of terrain. It also had more than enough space foe everyone, so we had some room for extra bags, the boxes of food we brought and so on.

When we left Ulaan-Baatar there was a light snowfall and a cool wind from the north, but after only one hour on the road we were in the middle of the Gobi or at least the semi-Gobi with sand, rocks and a blazing sun that quickly heated the van.

Traveling through the Gobi or the semi-Gobi (we're going west from UB, not south where the real Gobi is) is an interesting and different experience. The "main road" is just a joke with any Western or even South-East Asia standards - it's rarely a sealed road and the parts where it's actually sealed the driver usually drives beside the road anyway - the desert or the grassy plains is far less bumpy than the actual road. Most of the time though we are just going on small paths or just straight through the fields and the desert where no visible roads or tracks are to be seen. It's fascinating to see how the driver handles these kinds of "roads" and especially to see how he navigates - he uses the landscape and the horizon to navigate and to know exactly which dirt track to take the next turn on he counts the bumps! He is an awesome driver - the best I've ever seen or traveled with by far!

The landscape is just amazing - immense stretches of desert, sometimes just sand, but most of the time dry grass or a mix of stones, sand and grass. At times the terrain is extremely flat and at times we're surrounded by rolling hills or in the middle of a big canyon. It's easy to understand how the Mongolians can have 39 different words for desert - there are just so many different kinds of deserts here! We've also seen small patches of forest, now dried out and ghostly pale and grey, but in summertime surely a beautiful addition to the green fields. Apart from desert, we've also seen an interesting volcano, the lava fields surrounding it, a great frozen lake, some biggers forests and even more hilly landscapes.

On of the nights of the trip we were staying in a tourist ger inside the old capital, which is like a small camping with gers and we had our own where we could eat, sleep and so on. Another night we slept in a cafe in a small town (20+ houses) together with the family owning the cafe. All the other nights we've been sleeping in gers with local nomadic families that our driver knows or at least knows about. The setup is usually that we pay a small sum of money for the accomodation and an ever smaller sum of money for the food and then we stay together with the family. Usually we pay like US$3 for the accomodation and around $1 for each meal.

The first night we were staying with an old couple in their spare ger - usually used by the young ones in the family. We came there late in the night, around 9 pm, through the desert which was very dark and bouncy and without a single road or dirt track to follow. After a late dinner, and loads of their very special tea (salted and with added milk during the cooking - really good) we went to sleep. Waking up in the morning was an experience and first then I really realized we were in the Mongolian countryside. I was the first one up and stepping outside in the early morning sun into a vast desert, scattered with beautiful rocky hills was a real surprise - we didn't see any of the landscape when we arrived to the ger. Since I was up so early I got to see the family separating the old sheeps going for grassy fields far away from the young ones staying in the safety of the ger and their "farm buildings". It was really interesting to see, perhaps not per se - I've seen sheeps being herded before, but because landscape and the surroundings were astounding and they all had their traditional Mongolians clothes on it was a wonderful sight. In the morning we also had some time to play with the three small girls of the family and also with some of the cutest small lambs and goats I've ever seen. Just wonderful! The breakfast consisted of the tea with milk and salt and rice-porridge mixed with sheep-yoghurt - it was surprisingly good. At first it was kind of sour, but the more you ate the sweeter it became - yummie!

When we arrived to the lake on the third day (second night was in the cafe in the small town), it turned out that the ger camp that we had planned to stay in was still closed - not enough tourists. Instead the driver took us to a family he knew who lived nearby. So for two nights we were staying with this family and that experience was even stronger than staying with the first family, mainly because we were sleeping in their main ger together with the rest of the family. So I found myself playing chess on the floor of a beautifully decorated ger together with one of the locals and after this going to bed on the floor with just a few blankets covering me. The five of us slept on the floor, while the couple (the woman being pregnant - probably sixth month or so) slept in the only bed in the ger. In one corner they had some goats in the ger as well - they were to young to stay outside in the cold. Every now and then the family would bring in three fully grown goats to feed the small ones - a wonderful and somewhat surprising view!

The biggest cultural experience of the tour and probably the whole trip was falling asleep on the floor of this ger, with the sounds of the crackling fire in the stove, Ferry and Markus playing cards with the two brothers of the family and the couple making love in the bed just two meters away from us. I guess you're not very shy about those things when you've been sharing a ger with your family and relatives your whole life. Waking up to the sounds of hungry small goats hearing their mom outside of the ger was equally interesting - I never thought those small creatures could produce noise that loud!

The last days of the trip was spent seeing the surroundings around the lake, we had a full day of just hiking around by foot to the volcano close by and not doing any jeep traveling. That was also awesome, it was interesting to see the lava landscape surrounding the volcano. I kind of felt like Frodo and Sam walking closer to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring - I even got a great Frodo-picture of Will with his unruly hair and big confused eyes! :D

The last day of the tour we stopped in a national park where they had a large number of wild horses. We got to see a introductory video, a museum and of course - the wild horses! This place has supposedly the largest number of wild horses in the world and we got to see some of them at least. We couldn't go really close, but it was an awesome view to see the wild horses running around and just eating grass in the wonderful and vast landscape!

Now I'll go to dinner at a local restaurant or something like that - perhaps we can catch some locals singing their special throat-singing? Tonight or tomorrow I'll try to upload all the pictures from the trip - until then you'll have to do with my descriptions of the wonderful landscape!


Change of plans

As it turns out the Russian embassy were not the most friendly place I've been in. The visa rules are so hard and so strict - to get a Russian tourist visa I would have to pay almost $500 in total for the visa, an invitation from a travel agency and the train tickets to Moscow from here. That amount of money is simply not possible for me, so I decided on the less expensive transit visa. This however means that I'm not allowed to make any stops in Russia, just take the train to Moscow and then I have to leave within 24 hours. So now I've booked all my tickets and the plane home from Moscow. I leave Ulaan-Baatar on Friday, April 13, and arrive in Moscow on the 17th. I fly home on the 18th, landing in Stockholm in the afternoon around three.

This leaves me a lot of time in Mongolia though, so today I'm leaving on a tour of western Mongolia and the Gobi for seven days. I'll be back on Wednesday, so until then - don't expect to hear anything from me. There is bound to be no internet in the places we go, probably no mobile network and probably not even showers. Toilets is not a problem though - the desert is big enough for all of us they say! :)

Uploading the pictures from Mongolia now, check them out! More pictures and comments to the pictures will come when I'm back from the tour on Wednesday!


Start of Trans-Mongolian

The beginning of my trip along the trans-Mongolian railway couldn't be better - it's an adventure waiting at every corner and I love being back on the road. Traveling in China was great, but started feeling predictable, easy-going and sometimes it felt like going between places you already knew - partly because I visited friends along the way. Not in a bad way though, but unpredictable things happen now and I love it.

The hostel in Beijing gave me the name of a long-distance bus station where there would be a bus leaving for the border town Erenhot. They told me to go there early to be sure to get a ticket. The fact that the border town has like four different names, at least, doesn't make it easier though (I've seen Erenhot, Erlian, Erlianhot, Ereen and perhaps something more?). Well at the bus station it turns out that I can't buy the ticket in the ticket office, but have to buy it from the bus driver. They don't know which bus it is or when the driver will be there, so I walk around and ask people (I'm really happy for the note I got from the hostel in Chinese at this time). When I found the bus and one hour later the driver as well, he tells me the bus is full, but he sells me a ticket for another bus that will leave at the same time from the same place. He don't know when it will be on the bus station though, but probably in the afternoon sometime. That means I have to either carry my backpack for the full day (it's around noon when I get the ticket) or wait until the bus gets there, dump my backpack and then go for some food. I chose the last one, deciding to sleep in the warm and nice spring sun for a couple of hours and do some reading about Mongolia. As it turns out the bus is not there until five minutes before departure, leaving me to wait at the bus station for five-six hours. Didn't seem that long though - the spring sun was just lovely!

On the bus I got a upper-middle bunk in the back of the bus which meant that if I turned around in the bed I had a great panoramic view through the rear window. The bus takes about 12 hours, arriving in the border town at 4:30 am. It takes me through vast landscapes of grassy planes, stretching away far in the distance. After passing some mountains and the Great Wall in the sunset, the only features of the landscape might be a building far off on the horizon and the other cars, buses and trucks on the road. Other from that it's just flat, grassy and a perfectly blue and huge sky. After the beautiful sunset, the landscape is still lit by a strong full moon and lots of stars, leaving the world in dusk-like state. When the grassy fields start being frosty or snow-covered, the whole landscape gains an eerie, ghostly look - everything has a pale white color and glows in the dark. It is just beautiful and makes your thoughts wander freely around subjects rarely touched and memories long forgotten.

At half four the bus suddenly stops and we are appearently at our final destination. Now things get hectic and before I understand what's happening (or before I even know whether I'm at the right town) I'm stuffed in a minivan together with two Chinese drivers who just nod when I say Mongolia, Uud-Zadum (which is the border town on the Mongolian side) and they don't seem to understand a single word of English. They end up dropping me at a hotel and tell me to sleep a couple of hours before taking the train to Mongolia at eight or so. The train supposedly leaves from the building just across the street, a building that certainly looks like a train station. I pay 20 yuan for the cab and the hotel and end up sleeping in a waiting room of some sort - luxurious sofas, a huge TV and a bar and by putting to sofas together I get a real nice bed for some hours.

When I wake up in the morning at 7am I first go to the "train station" which turns out to be a big market - no trains or tickets, but loads of shoes and bags. Surprised, confused and a bit lost (still don't know if I'm in the right town) I walk out onto the pavement again. From there things happen too quickly again, I get picked up by a minivan who says he can take me across the border, he drives for one minute, drops me off to another van and I find myself in a minivan with five Mongolians in my age and an older Russian man. The Mongolians turn out to be students returning home from Beijing. Together we all cross the border without any big hassles and two of the Mongolians help me a sleeper ticket for the train to Ulaan-Baatar even though it's "sold out" - the brother of the girl works in this town and has some contacts obviously.

Another 7 hours to kill is ahead before the train leaves, so we end up playing ping-pong, snooker, 8-ball at a snooker table, juggle, play cards, eat and just talk a lot. Talking is the most fun and interesting part of course - especially because we have some troubles communicating. Only two of the Mongolians are confident enough about their English to actually talk to me in English, while the other ones do understand parts of what I say, but won't answer me directly. The Mongolians that speak English have very basic English. The Russian guy speaks Russian and Mongolian, but also German. So he end up interpreting some of their Mongolian to German for me, which I don't speak but understand enough to make sense of what they are saying. The Mongolians all study Italian also, so we do a fair bit of talking in Italian/Spanish which we all understand and speak a very little bit of. Since they study in China they also now some Chinese, so we do some of the conversation in Chinese. The conversations thus end up being a lovely mix of English, Mongolian, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and some Swedish which they seem eager to learn some words in. The interesting thing is that it really worked out well!

The Mongolian border town is really a desert town - all flat and sand everywhere (outside town, on the road, in between all the buildings, inside the buildings, in the wind when it blows, inside my cloths and so on..). After boarding the train it takes me straight through the sandy parts of the Gobi (which is actually only about 3% of the desert, the rest is stones, dry grass and steppes and the like). Of course I take photos through the window, but they are not even close to capturing the vastness of the sand dunes that just disappear far behind the horizon.

After traveling through the Gobi for 16 hours, most of the part being just sand, rocks and sometimes dry grass, I get a good feeling for how huge the desert is. We've now come into areas where there are some hills and the ground is occasionally partially snow-covered or frosty. The only signs of life I see throughout the whole trip through the Gobi is the occasional train station (every third hour or so and these are a sight in themselves - a train station in the middle of nothing and not a single person or building as far as the eye can see in all directions, and still people get off here...) and some hoards of wild horses, some groups of domesticated horses with their shepherd and some yaks.

Now I've found my guesthouse in Ulaan-Baatar - a ger (which is the type of tents the nomads use in the desert) set on the top of a building in the outskirts of UB and overlooking the market and the town. I've seen some sights in UB and met a Mongolian girl in a temple who had a day off from work and showed me the town. Now I'm heading out for dinner and perhaps some pool later. Tomorrow I'm looking at a full day at fighting for getting a Russian visa - they are really messy about this. Travel plans, all tickets, visa for next country, health insurance details and payment in US$ just to get a transit-visa. Wish me good luck!


Great Wall

"A man is not a true man if he have not walked the Great Wall" - Mao Zedong

Perhaps one of the few statements of the great chairman that I truly agree with (not that I know many statements from him, but anyway). Seeing, walking on and climbing the Great Wall was a awesome experience! I did a day trip from Beijing to a far-off portion of the wall. We started at Jinshanling which is about 4 hours bus from Beijing. This part of the wall has not been repaired at all, leaving it in a crumbled state with lots of the genuine bricks and watchtowers to see! Some parts have been a bit renovated to allow for passage, but most of it was "the real thing". From there we hiked along the wall to Simatai which is equally impressive but a bit more renovated. Both these places is the steepest parts of the wall, which meant we sometimes had to climb with both feet and hands to get up or down.

The weather was just perfect for seeing the Great Wall. The sky was blue with only one of two clouds sweaping by and the weather was nice, although a wind kept us cool while climbing the steepest parts. It was just awesome and the weather was clear enough for us to see the Great Wall disappear in the distance faaaar off!

The hike from Jinshanling to Simatai was 10 km and it took us close to four hours to complete. It was really nice that I chose to do this hike - it gave me loads of time to see the wall, to take pictures and just saviour the experience! We were in a small tour group of about 16 people, but after 20 minutes we lost them all and it was just me, an Irish girl, a kiwi and two Americans who were walking on the wall more or less. Occasionally we would see someone from the group in the distance or meet some other tourists, but basically we were all by ourselves on the wall! It was just awesome, compared to photos I've seen from parts of the wall closer to Beijing where they stand in line to get photos, the wall is newly renovated and looks like any brick building and they have to get past immense amounts of gawkers, street stalls and vendors. We had two locals following us for a while to sell post cards, water or t-shirts - but they acted more like guides telling us about the towers, the views and everything like that instead of trying to sell stuff.

All in all the trip was just awesome. It really felt like walking a piece of history and the greatness of the wall is just immense. It's hard to imagine how big it is until you actually stand there on the top of the highest watchtower and see the wall disappearing away in the distance, miles and miles away. Just incredible!

Also uploaded pictures from this trip so check out the Great Wall in my pictures! :)

Right now I'm trying to get into Mongolia as soon as possible. It seems that the TransMongolian train only leaves on Saturdays since it's not summer, so that is too long from now (I don't want to spend another week in Beijing and my Chinese visa is running out and I don't want to extend it either). The other options is train to the border and then another local train in Mongolia, but they don't seem to leave right now either. The third option was to catch a daily bus taking me across the border and then onto the local traion - but the guy booking those trips were in Mongolia right now and couldn't arrange that. The fourth option is to try to get a bus to the border town and from there figure out what to do. That is what I will do - today I try to get tickets for the bus (it supposedly leaves at 4 pm and they start selling the tickets at 1:30 - I'm ready for an immense fight with the Chinese and the Mongolians about the tickets). From there I figure I just take a minivan across the border and then I at least don't have to worry about my visa running out. From the border town on the Mongolian side there is trains leaving every day and if I can't get one there you could always hitchhike. Hitchhiking in Mongolian seems to be the way to get around if there aren't any trains - there are no buses and very little public transport in general so most Mongolians hitchhike with trucks to get around in the country. Might be an experience even though I would prefer the train to Ulan-Bataar. I'll keep everyone updated about why whereabouts - hopefully I'll be in Mongolia and Ulan-Bataar the next time I write here.

And oh yeah - yesterday I went to a Chinese nightclub with another Swede I met at the hostel. It was an interesting experience - it's like taken directly from the movies. The music was soo loud - my ears are still ringing. The place was just a big dance floor and the bar - and it was all so modern. Three DJs were playing a good mix of neverending dance beats and the whole wall was a huge TV screen blasting lights and blinking behind them, the other walls were covered with huge TV screens showing different music videos, the bar were juggling with bottles, serving the drinks were they set the whole bar desk on fire and pouring burning alcohol over a pyramid of glasses into the glasses of people buying the drinks, a small firework in the middle of the bar, crazy Chinese people dancing on the bar, on elevated squares along the wall and rich Chinese businessmen sitting in the VIP booths drinking whiskey and champagne. It was just crazy - definetely a new side of China! The drink of choice for most expats and Chinese seems to be to order a bottle of whiskey which comes with free amounts of tea to mix it with - a really nice mix that works well actually! What you do when you're not dancing is to play a interesting dice game - to talk is impossible which means playing is a nice way to make some time pass - all you need to know is the hand signals. I joined some groups and played with them for a while - great fun!


Beijing and pictures!

Now I'm in Beijing. The train took 14 hours which was a bit too much on a hard seat where you could hardly sleep. But it wasn't that bad! So far in Beijing I haven't done much. First day went to finding my way to the guesthouse, finding out that both the Mongolian and Russian embassy were already closed and from there just strolling around town. I found a reaaally nice park. Met a Russian girl in a cafe in the park and we ended up spending the rest of the day together. We didn't do that much though - just went around trying different cafes and later on bars. Played some pool and went to a night club in the evening. Nice place but not that special really.

Today I've fixed my Mongolian visa. I will pick it up att 3 pm, but I'm beginning to realize that these visas will ruin me! Since I'm kind of in a hurry I have to pay a lot for express visas, probably around 1500 SEK/yuan for both the Mongolian and Russian visa. Will get the Russian tomorrow I hope. Then I have the time to actually see Beijing, do some sightseeing, go to the Great Wall and get a train ticket to Ulaan-Bataar. Plan is to don't stay that long in Beijing - I'm curious about Mongolia now!

And yeah - I finally managed to upload all the pictures from Chengdu, Xi'An, Shanghai and Beijing - so now there's probably a few hundred pictures awaiting the interested in a new album! Haven't written comments to all of them yet - will do that ASAP.