Monthly Archive for September, 2012

Back in Beijing

Beijing is different than I remember it. And it’s not just that is 27C now where it was 37C last year. It’s Beijing itself that has changed, and it’s unbelievable to see how much it has changed in just one year. I still remembered the way when I got off the subway, but I had to look twice – at first I thought I took the wrong exit. Buildings that were there then are now not, while others that weren’t, are. The cute little bakery on the corner of the street where my hostel is is now gone, replaced by the 566th branch of a hole-in-the-wall fastfood chain. The other corner now has a McDonalds, housed in a brand new building. As far as I can remember, there weren’t even any signs that they wanted to demolish the building that stood there last July. An entire hutong block that I explored last year, filled with little restaurants and eateries, is now gone – just gone. Only now can I really comprehend how much Beijing must have changed in the last five or six years, in the run up to the 2008 Olympics.

Hutong that I used to know

But I’m happy to be here, even if it’s not quite ‘like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’, as Lonely Planet put it. For the past weeks, I’ve been constantly on the run, and this is the first time I can finally take things a bit more slowly. Add to that very fine autumn weather – about 27C during the day, 18C at night. And Bastiaan is here – in fact I think I see him more often here in Beijing than I do back home – and it’s always nice to meet up with friends in a place like this.

One thing Bastiaan did was arrange for me to come with him and a group of his fellow students to hike the Wall from Gubeikou to Jinshanling. One trip to the Wall I won’t soon forget. Last year I was at Badaling, where the wall is basically a new structure; the steps you are climbing are twenty years old at most. While Jinshanling is partly ‘restored’, Gubeikou is at parts almost completely original Ming-dynasty Wall– or what’s left of it anyway (Mao encouraged the use of the Wall as a source of free building material for new homes or whatever – that alone should be enough to rank him among the worst criminals in history). Also, there is a military base that you have to walk around or be shot on sight, so it’s pretty adventurous all in all.

Sunset on Jinshanling

The above view, however, is not what made this trip so unforgettable. Neither is the fantastic four to five hour hike, first over and then alongside the wall. The unforgettable part came when we got to Jinshanling, and found a lady in green guarding the tower we had to pass through. While uninvited foreigners crossing the wall would probably have paid with their lives in the old days, her demand was rather more prosaic – a ticket to Jinshanling Scenic Area, weighing in at 65Y (about €8). We had, however, already paid at Gubeikou. And with half of our group Chinese or at least fluent in Mandarin, an argument soon ensued. And this is the part I’ll never forget. Those sweet girls turning sour, shouting at the top of their voices at the lady in green, who wouldn’t budge, wouldn’t let us pass without buying the ticket, wouldn’t give us a discount.

But there were eleven of us and only one of her, and soon (well not soon, for they argued for at least 20 minutes) we were scaling the tower on all sides – a group backtracked some 200 meters, descended the wall and passed the tower on either side at ground level. Bastiaan climbed in through one of the tower’s windows, but was . When the others turned back to descend as well, the lady turned her back on us and started slowly to cross to the other side of the tower. This was the moment I had been waiting for, and I quickly sprinted passed her, avoiding the need to backtrack and trod through the bushes. The lady in green was now in full retreat, but had signaled for help. Not by lighting a fire in the tower as they did in the old days, but by cell phone. At the exit, two guards (police? Private security? Somewhere in between? We’ll never know) were waiting, blocking our way. And the argument repeated itself. I sadly forgot to take a picture of the lady in green blocking the way, and missed the most heated part of this argument, when three of ours were in a shouting contest against three of theirs, but you get the idea.

By now, this had become a matter of principle. Indiana Jones-guy had found an easy way off the wall some 100 meters back from where we could get around the guards, onto a terrace of sorts, and Bastiaan and I went down to create a diversion. The lady in green had spotted us and went down to the terrace to block the way off of the terrace, while the rest of the guards continued to hold up our group. However, she chose a poor position to guard us – about halfway between us and the narrow exit. There was a statue right before the exit and Bastiaan and I decided to each walk around a different side, so the lady in green couldn’t catch us both. And then Bastiaan was out, and the guards finally acknowledged their defeat. The lady in green hopped on a moto, calling after us with her final bluff: ‘Later! Ticket later!’ The two guards followed soon after, and the rest of our group had an easy walk down. There was no ticket control later.

Irkutsk – Peking

(part two of my Transmongolian trip. See below for part one. On a side note, there are now photos online)

I spent the rest of my time near lake Baikal pedaling around on a crappy bicycle.

And then it was time to head to Mongolia. The train left Irkutsk at 10pm, arriving some 32 hours later. The distance between Irkutsk and Ulan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, is only 1132km – that works out to just 36km/h on average. Indeed, everything about this train is excruciatingly slow and annoying. Crossing the border takes almost five hours – and that’s only the emigration at the Russian side; the Mongolian immigration process takes another three hours. At least we were allowed to get off in Russia. The train station there has a brand new lounge, if nothing else. There is no shop, no restaurant, not even a coffee vending machine. There is a market, but there is almost nothing on sale. The two goats roaming around the station we passed a few hours ago in hindsight look like a real source of entertainment.

Mongolian customs officials are the most unfriendly I’ve ever seen.

At sunrise, the train slowly chugged through the seemingly endless suburbs of Ulan Baatar. I’ve heard it said that in Mongolia, everybody has a right to pitch a ger somewhere, put a fence around it and claim the land as their own. The apparently complete absence of any form of city planning in these parts (and the more-than-occasional ger alongside roads, apartment blocks and factories) certainly seem to support that statement.

We were picked up by the Dutch owner of the Eco Ger Camp. I had imagined this person to be some sort of hippie, or at least some sort of idealist, the type with white socks in his sandals; otherwise why marry a Mongolian woman, live in Mongolia and set up an Eco Ger Camp without running water or electricity? But the owner turns out to be Bert from Amsterdam, and upon seeing him for the first time I can’t help but imagine that in a previous life he sold fruit on the Albert Cuypmarkt, with his obesity, oily hair and bulbous nose.

In theory, they drive on the right side of the road in Mongolia. In practice, they drive wherever the road has is the least horrible. And the roads really are horrible outside of Ulan Baatars centre, leading to a crazy slalom, travelling the full width of the road, and often a bit more, to avoid to worst potholes (those that are big enough to swallow a small car). At rush hour, traffic turns into some sort of crazy obstacle course waltz, with oncoming traffic swerving over to your side while your driver swerves over to their side and drivers trying to avoid each other as well as the shock absorber crunching potholes. Adding to the fun is the fact that about 70% of the cars have the steering wheel on the wrong side since most cars are imported from Japan (where they drive on the left).
Our ger camp can only be reached by horse cart. Though not too far from the entrance of the national park (about half an hour by horse cart), the camp really is out there, set among rolling hills and outstretched plains. I was sort of looking forward to yakmeat and tea with yakmilk and yakbutter, but Bert’s Mongolian wife cooks up Dutch fare – soup with meatballs; watery chicken curry; meat, potatoes and vegetables on the side. White bread with cheese, cold meats and jam for breakfast and lunch. But nevertheless, the camp is the real deal. Traditional gers, no electricity or running water. You have to flush the toilet (the only toilet) by pouring water from a jerry can, and you can basically forget about washing your hands. The gers are cold at night, and one time I feel a mouse running over my back (I think it tried to get into my sleeping bag to escape the freezing cold).

Our Camp

Three hours of horse riding was included, and though I really wanted to go, I was also somewhat apprehensive. The last time I sat on a horse was probably 15 years ago and I am absolutely sure that my karma will kick in here, that the horse will throw me off for all those times when I laughed at my sister and said that riding is not a sport, the horse does all the work. This is the day after I sprained my ankle, and I cannot even get onto the horse without help (because my ankle offers no support, I can’t swing my other leg over the horse, like when getting on a bike). The guide, who looks like he could ride while sleeping (and he probably can, and does), helps me up and takes the reins; for the first part of the ride, all I can do is sit. But I apparently do this very well, because before long the guide asks (through the Japanese interpreter) if I can ride by myself. My reply (“I can try”) is apparently translated as “yes” and the guide trots off, leaving me to follow, nudging my horse through the scrub, crossing brooks and galloping the last mile home.

And I didn’t fall off.

The last leg of the train journey crosses the vast Mongolian plains and the Gobi desert. The train is still running slow, the landscape slowly changing to the rhythmic clanging of the wheels. From the train, nothing can be seen but nothingness. Dust-covered towns are few and far between, but make me wonder why – or how – anyone would live here.

At the border with China, the wheels of the train are changed, because Chinese trains run on a different gauge (Mongolia uses the Russian gauge, where the rails are further apart than in most of the rest of the world). At midnight, we entered China.

Next morning, the landscape was completely changed. We had crossed the Gobi, and were already nearing the mountains surrounding Beijing. The diesel engine was gone, the “air was fresh and the sky was high,” as the Chinese say about the autumn season in this part of the country. I was anxious for the train to get to Beijing, and in fact the last two hours of this leg were the only moments where I just wanted to ride to be over, to arrive.

Moscow – Irkutstk

September 21, 2012, 07.30. Somewhere between Ulan Baatar and the Chinese / Mongolian Border.

This is the last leg of the Trans Mongolian train. I’ve already covered 9000km from Amsterdam to Ulaan Baatar. This leg will add another 1500-odd-kilometers to that, so that by the time I get to Beijing, I will have travelled 10.500km by rail.

With so many impressions, it’s hard to recall and write about the experiences of the past two weeks. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in two and a half weeks, and every muscle, every joint in my legs hurts. I’ve caught a nasty cold and sprained my ankle hopping across some tree logs in Mongolia. My body pulled the emergency brake yesterday and I spent most of the day in bed, so I didn’t get to see Ulaan Baatar. But I feel elated. What can I tell you?

I remember a night drowned in vodka in Moscow (or rather I mostly don’t). I remember my appointment with Lenin. The Kremlin, with all its churches. The supposedly fancy art district in the old chocolate factory, completely deserted when I got there. The dismal weather, the cold, the rain. And I remember the train to Irkutsk.

Crossing six time zones in well over three days and spending four nights on the train, this was by far the longest of my train rides. I had replenished my vodka stock (the bottle I brought with me was put to good use that one night), bought both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and brought chocolate and dried fruits to hand out (it “used to be de rigeur,” according to the Lonely Planet). I knew four Dutchies would take the same train and didn’t like it, but nothing could have prepared me for the shock that was to come, for in my carriage alone I found there were ten Dutch people. All in all I counted no less than 35 on the train. Of these, some 20-odd people were on a guided trip with Tiara Tours (of all travel agencies). And all of them would get off at Irkutsk, same as me. So much for an authentic experience. Thank god only one of the Dutch was in my compartment, a middle aged woman named Mechteld, the other two being Russians. By the time I got to Listvyanka, I was used to the Dutch, and four days later still, when an old diesel engine pulled the train through the the outskirts of Ulaan Baatar, I could even laugh about it, but at that time I wanted nothing more than to jump of the train – or better yet, find some clever ruse that would leave them stranded at the next station, Duffilled and all. But what was to be done? So I sat down, and handed out food to the Russians, who did the same.

The train was a modern one, air conditioned and all. Sadly, Russians turn up the heat to at least 25C in winter. I have never been able to figure out why this is so. What I do know is that this made the journey a living hell, as no windows could be opened (because of the air conditioning). At night, with four people sleeping in a compartment that is at most 10m3, with the door closed, it became almost impossible to breathe. The corridor was slightly better, though it was still stuffy. Unable to sleep, I lay naked but for my boxer shorts on one of the top bunks.
The days were slightly better. The first was a monotonous blur. Endless, dense birch forests, the train going in a straight line at a constant speed, the rhythmic clanging of the wheels on the rails. Mechteld knitted. The intermittent stops were, at least to me, the only definite proof that we were actually moving forward, and not going around in a big circle of sorts. I bought pirovsky with meat and vegetables, and pancakes with cottage cheese. Mechteld knitted. The second day brought better weather, but no change in scenery. Mechteld knitted. I found out that the air conditioning could actually cool as well – as soon as the sun was beating down on the train, fresh (relatively speaking), cold air flowed in from the vents. Bliss. Before long, it was actually cold in the train (in summer, Russians set the air conditioning to 18C. I have never been able to figure out why this is so). Mechteld knitted. On the third day – we were now well into Siberia – the forests began to give way to rolling plains. The stations we halted at became more and more basic, with the notable exception of Omsk, with its grand hall, huge chandelier and Lenin statue. Mecheld knitted. I was halfway through Anna Karenina. Then came the last night, and an early rise to get off in Irkutsk, were a transfer would be waiting to take me to Listvyanka and Lake Baikal.

Listvyanka is named the ‘Baikal Riviera’ in the Lonely Planet. With 1800 inhabitants, however, it’s barely a dot on the map. In fact Google Maps does not have a map for Listvyanka. It just shows a dead end road where the town should be. Then again, that is not too far off, for Listvyanka is in fact a dead end road lined with hotels and five dead end dirt roads that lead inland. But the weather has held and sitting near the deep blue lake, under a blue Siberian sky, basking in the sun, I have everything I need.

Prologue

Nog geen minuut nadat ik Laura een sms heb gestuurd dat het enige treinstel dat naar Moskou gaat leeg is, op mij en de provodnitsa na, springen twee jongens naar binnen. “Can we sit here? We’re hitch hiking”, maar voor ik iets kan zeggen hoor ik de provodnitsa om hun biljet schreeuwen. “Out! OUT!” En zo ben ik weer alleen. Een kwartier na Utrecht gaat de deur weer open, en dezelfde twee staan in de deuropening. De Braziliaan heeft een camera. Volgens hem op een festival in België gekregen (of gekocht, dat wordt niet helemaal duidelijk) van de zanger van Coldplay. Hij rapt in in overstaanbaar Portugees in de camera. Over het leven. En de dood. De Amerikaan komt uit South Carolina en heeft vier kegels bij zich. Ze zijn welkom – 36 uur alleen met de provodnitsa is ook maar alleen. Maar de deur moet dicht, om blikken van de patrouillerende conducteur tegen te houden, en er is geen ventilatie in het coupeetje van drie vierkante meter. Nog voor Arnhem is het zuurstofgehalte in de coupe gedaald tot nul en de temperatuur zo hoog opgelopen dat het zweet in straaltjes langs ons voorhoofd loopt. Ik vermoed bovendien dat één van de twee al een tijd niet gedoucht heeft. Iets voorbij Emmerich verhuizen de twee naar één van de leegstaande coupe’s, hopend dat er niemand in komt vóór we om 5 uur vannacht bij Berlijn aankomen. Bij Oberhausen kan ik weer ademhalen. De provodnitsa kijkt Russische soaps.
Bij Köln komen er nieuwe passagiers binnen. Aan mijn rust lijkt een einde te komen, maar dan blijkt dat Grigory, die bij mij in de coupé zou komen, de provodnitsa heeft omgekocht zodat hij een eigen coupé heeft. Helaas voor de lifters betekent dat dat hun rit hier eindigt, met een woedende provodnitsa die met zwaar Russisch accent ‘Kommt Polizei! Polizei!!’ schreeuwt.

“I have been drinking today, so… I can’t tell you if this smells good – because I’m drunk, I don’t know.” Ah, Belarus. Onze stop in Brest duurt ruim twee uur, omdat het onderstel van de trein moet worden verwisseld. Omdat ik geen woord Russisch spreek is het maar goed dat Grig mee is, zodat hij kan vertellen waarom het vrouwtje dat ons een meloen probeert te verkopen enigszins beduusd haar schouders ophaalt en de meloen in m’n gezicht drukt.

Grig vertrok 23 jaar geleden naar de VS, toen dit nog een ander land was, maar is nu terug om oude vrienden op te zoeken. “My friend who lives here has all these stories about these beautiful women in the nightclubs, and they just come up to you and stare you down… I mean, I’m happily married, but still, have you SEEN these girls?? Statistically, there are like, FOUR women for every man, and they’re drunks, so, if you’re a guy, it’s VERY easy to get laid.” “I have this friend who is rich, like, I mean, crazy rich, and what he does… He got divorced, his wife took a lot of his money – he made it all back, and more – and what he does, he like, signs a contract with a girl, every year, and he says – I’ll provide for you, I’ll provide decent shopping, you know, but he can do whatever the fuck he wants, you know, If I get home, don’t wanna talk, you don’t talk, you just go up to your room, if I wanna go out with friends and I want you to accompany me, you accompany me, you know, and he does this every year, and the women, some of the most drop dead gorgeous women I have seen, I haven’t seen them in like, the top modeling events, and – and he’s happy as a clam.”

Het oude vrouwtje moet echt totaal van de kaart geweest zijn, want de geur van de meloen vult het hele compartiment, de pitten vallen als vanzelf van de vrucht en het vlees is zoet als dat van een peer. En de appelgebakjes die we op het laatste moment op het station hebben gekocht zijn de beste ooit.