|Subject: China and Mongolia (long)|
Since several of you asked, I'll try to do a more detailed review of our
trip to China and Mongolia.
All that we booked in advance were our hotels, airline flights and train. All our flights, both international and internally were on Air China. The international flights were about par from our experience, and the internal flights were very good - on time, new 737's. Customs and passport controls were easy, particularly compared to last year in Russia. (My general impression is that they are really trying hard to please western tourists.) The Beijing airport is new and easy to use. English is common in tourist places such as Bejing and X'ian, but even without it the merchants and others are eager and easy to communicate with; it is obvious that English is the language of travel and commerce, even if some countries don't wish it so. We only booked one tour, through our hotel in X'ian to the terra cotta warriors. Everything else was on our own, using maps, guide books and hotel concierges.
We taxied in from the airport in Beijing (we took the red taxi's everywhere - as you let the driver know on a map where you want to go and be sure he drops the meter flag, you are o.k.). There is construction everywhere; buses, taxis, motorcycles and bikes abound, and an amazing jam of humanity. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza and it was not expensive and a real relief after 105 degree days of intense smog. They had as an excellent breakfast, as did all our hotels, so we stoked up each morning. (We, as in my wife and I, our friend who teaches in Mongolia and came down to travel in China with us, and his mother.) Downtown Beijing is full of malls and western style shops, but it only a few blocks to neighborhoods of little stalls. We always felt safe, since there are a lot of uniforms and no one wants to mess with them. The prices in the large stores and tourist areas are fairly high, but off the beaten track are quite reasonable. We often ate in what they call fast food places, really a buffet but with everything constantly fresh. We could eat dinner there for less than a tenth of a hotel or large restaurant.
In Beijing we went to the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, both full of people (although I think it was a weekend) but quite enjoyable. The only negtative were the souvenior vendors outside them, who were a pesky as gnats. One night we went to A Fun Ti, a dinner club specializing in table top dancing, which was a real riot, and another to the Big Duck for really good Peiking duck. (The concierge at the Crown Plaza were very helpful, particularly in recognizing that we were not the usual tour group.) We went to the Silk Market, a couple of streets of stalls, where they sell all kinds of clothing and other soft goods. Lots of bargaining and lots of buys. We also went to the Wansheng theater for a great acrobat show. Gretchen Fifer asked if we went to the Friendship store - we didn't because it was not close, and because there were so many other stores; this was my first trip, but from what I have heard from others, it was visited more when tourism was more controlled.
In X'ian we stayed at the Jianguo Hotel, about a half mile outside the impressive wall of this city. It was not quite the Crowne Plaza, but still very comfortable. Here, too, it was very hot and smoggy. (I believe it was here we saw the sign in the hotel bathroom: Water meets national standards. Do not drink.) Downtown was interesting - everything from humble stalls to a mall with nothing but designer goods; and being shopped in by Chinese, so there appears to be an emerging middle class. Here we visited the Provincial Museum, with lots of historical artifacts, the Pogoda, a beautiful working temple,and Xuanzang Cultueral (sic) Palace, which is apparently a monument to the founder of chinese buddism - it was a series of nice cool caves with several altars and many statues of gods and demons. There is also the Museum of Stelles - books on stone - in a very nice, temple-like setting. We of course went to the Terra Cotta warriors, the only time we used a guide and driver, gotten for us by the hotel. The site is very impressive and has to be seen to be appreciated for both its size and the undertaking of putting back together thousands of life size statues, no two of which are alike. We also visited the Winter Palace, a royal spa on a beautiful artificial lake. And this being with a tour guide, we visited a factory where they make souvenier warriors of all sizes.
We then flew to Quindao, a resort and port area on the east coast. And much cooler and no smog. There were a lot of Russians on holiday there, but I would guess we were the only Americans - which caused everyone to stare at us, but also encouraged many of them to strike up conversations with us - and unlike the other two cities, here if some said hello they were being friendly, not trying to sell you anything. This city is not crammed with taxis and bikes like the other two, and has a very nice beach and and area of older homes, formerly estates of the Germans who founded the city. Here we had a great dining experience. We found the Chunelou restaraunt recommended downtown by our guide book, and it had neither an english menu of any who spoke english (not unusual, of course). So we just pointed at what others had and ordered a great dinner! We stayed in the Huiquan Dynasty Hotel, right on the beach and very nice (and with a great bar/club).
We had stayed three nights in each of those cities, and then flew back to Beijing for two nights, to visit the Great Wall and catch the train to Mongolia. We decided to book a driver to the Samitai section of the wall. A 2 1/2 hour drive, but a good sample of the outskirts of Beijing and a section of the wall with almost no other visitors and almost no tourist traps. The wall is as amazing and impressive as anyone says it is, but easy to get to and walk along.
The train trip from Beijing to Ulaan Bataar I described as our only mistake in my earlier post and someone asked why. Because it was very hot, very dusty and 36 hours rather than the advertised 24. I enjoy train travel, but I would have rather used the time exploring someplace.
We were in Mongolia because our friend teaches there for the Soros Foundation, and his mother was going to visit him and we tagged along. We were there for Nadam, the annual festival of horse-racing, wrestling and archery, and spent almost all our time in U.B. It was like being in a Rocky Mountain state capital during state fair. Mongolia has had two years of severe drought and the effects of the post-Soviet economic collapse, so it looks pretty brown and unmaintained, but it is still beautiful rolling country with handsome and friendly people. Here we went to the horse races (400 horses with riders 5 to 10 years old gather on a hilltop, take off over the countryside and come back two hours later) and wrestling - in the national stadium, basic rules of the first guy to hit the ground looses, and the champ wrestler is THE top man in the country. We also went to the national folk dance and music performance, and it was beautiful - great dancing and an entire orchestra of instruments you have never seen before. We visited two Buddist temples - impressive on the inside, saddly maintained on the outside. Went to a cashmire factory and got lots of beautiful things at - where else - the factory outlet store!
Eating in U.B. is great because there are many aid agencies there with ex-pat employees, so there are Korean, Indian, Italian and many other good restaruants - including a German brew pub (Chinggis Beer, of course). There are metered cabs, but every car is a potential taxi - just hold your hand out, if it stops tell the driver where you want to go and if he agrees it is understood that it is 300 tigrig a kilometer. (One word of caution - no one outside thier country will exchange tigrig, so get rid of it at the airport. I didn't and am stuck with about $70 worth.)
An unusual experience was to stay at a ger (urt is the Russian word, not favored in Mongolia) camp. They are round structures, much like a hogan, but of lattice frame with felt covering. They are the traditional mongolian home, quite portable for this nomadic people. They are everywhere - such as the front yard of our friend's apartment house. Many mongolians much prefer them to a soviet-style apartment. Anyhow - a very sharp mongolian who has seen U.S. national park pictures has built a nice stone lodge in a valley about a half hour outside of U.B., with ten gers across a small stream from it. So we went out there for two nights and had a vacation within a vacation. We also were able to participate in a Buddist dedication of a monument on the site. (I also drank the national drink with our host in his ger - it is fermented mare's milk, sort of tastes like thin yogert gone bad. Not really as bad as it sounds.)
And then flew back to Beijing and home. A great experience and definite proof that folks around 60 can certainly travel independantly over there.