Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I Went To China And All I Got Was This Lousy Wife

Adam and I were wandering around People's Park in downtown Shanghai when we came across something I had not expected to see in Asia. And I've come to expect some strange shit.
Hundreds of people were gathered in several walkways in the park, browsing notices hung under awnings or just held by senior citizens.
Something clicked in the depths of my mind and I remembered hearing something, godknowswhere, about a spouse market in China. Sure enough, a closer look at the notices confirmed this. There was the symbol for man and woman, numbers that looked to be height and weight, and a bunch more stuff I couldn't recognize.
An amused middle-aged guy started speaking to Adam and I. He told us they were in fact spouse advertisements (for a lack of a better word on my part, not his). They listed job, salary, birthyear, and where they lived and grew up in addition to what I identified.
As often happens when white people are present in China, a small crowd of people gathered. They were listening to this guy explain the market to Adam and I.
He told us one woman wanted me to marry his daughter. She showed me a picture - she was pretty - but I said I spoke no Chinese. He translated: "She speaks perfect English!" I carried on a humorous conversation through my new found interpreter who was getting a kick out of the whole situation.
"It's okay," he said, "she's only 50% serious!" He then said he would grill the woman on what it means to be a mother-in-law, and she proceeded to demonstrate her English skills to me by counting to five.
On top of a card from this woman with her daughter's email and phone number, another woman slipped me a piece of paper with hand-written details for her daughter too.
A wife would surely be a nice souvenir, but I think I have enough baggage as it is. Sorry ladies.

Onward From Cities

As pleasantly surprised as I've been by the Chinese cities I've visited - Beijing, Qingdao, and Shanghai, to be exact - I've had quite enough of them. They're big, expensive by Chinese terms, and full of people as you would naturally expect.

There's always a shitload of things to do, but little opportunity for peace and quiet.

I'm now in the south of China in the small city of Guilin, gateway to Yangshou.

When we make it to Yanghshou in a day or so, I expect to be wandering rounded limestone mountains covered in tropical flora and floating down meandering rivers for the next ten days or so before I work my way towards Vietnam.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Apparently there was a recent American holiday that passed. I recalled that Thanksgiving existed as I was on a 10 hour train to Shanghai from the seaside home of Tsingtao Beer, Qingdao.
Fortunately I was prepared to feast with some bananas and sweet bread rolls, and on top of that, I bought a microwaved rice, veggie, and mystery meat and dumpling dinner from the dining car. I washed it all down with a Yanjing beer.
I thought of what Amy said about shopping after Thanksgiving. Amy was a bubbly Chinese girl who was staying at the same hostel as I was in Qingdao. She heard that people all go shopping on Thanksgiving and thought it sounded like a lot of fun.
As much as I hated to do it, I had to break her the news about Black Friday. Firstly, that it's Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and secondly, that it's a disgusting ritual fuelled by materialism of biblical proportions.
I told her that people were trampled to death waiting for a Wal-Mart to open a few years back. What an undignified way to go, getting stomped on the floor of a Wal-Mart by people looking to save $3.00 on DVDs.
I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving and had the good sense to sleep in on Friday and avoid all the purgatory of Black Friday.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

China's Firewall Bested!

There may be hope! A kind girl from Hong Kong has given me a tiny little program that I can carry around on my USB sticks. The purpose? To get around China's stupid firewalls.

Rejoice! Now I can waste too much time on Facebook and update my blog from the actual site rather than emailing in stories.

Also I can access my photo albums online and hopefully upload some photos from China. The problem is, the Internet where I am now is exceedingly slow, so the photos may still take a while to get online.

Monday, November 22, 2010


My week in Beijing is over.

I must admit that I enjoyed the city much more than I thought I would. Coming from the beat-up cement cities in Russia and Mongolia, Beijing seems like it's straight out of the future. Roads are spacious and clean, buildings are often attractive and public spaces are well-kept by hordes of sweepers and trash-emptiers and traffic wardens.

In fact, it's tempting to say it's a clean city but for one thing: the smog. It's plain fucking gross.

Today was relatively clear, so I guess clear days do exist (and I was told by a friend here that summer is much more clear and that the central heating was just turned on by the government which produced the thick blanket I experienced), but Adam and I saw some pretty hideous days.

It go so bad, friends, that while bicycling through some alleys, I had to stop and buy a face mask. It's a black mask with purple designs. Hello Kitty designs. It was a desperate move, but if you saw the yellow haze that obscured the next block, you'd be wearing a Hello Kitty mask too.

Strangely enough though, almost no
Beijingers wear masks. Maybe they're just too fashionable.

Anyway, Beijing is a nice city. There is a lot of history, a lot of modern architecture, a lot of cheap knock-off goods to haggle for, a lot of scams to avoid, and a lot of food to eat.

Our first dinner of Peking duck was mediocre. Not that we knew what to expect, but I wasn't exactly blown away. Our second dinner of Peking duck was much better - and more expensive - and even came with a duck ID number so we can trace it's history via the Internet.

There are a lot of tourists here too, and us
honkeys aren't the only ones. Most of the tourists are Chinese, and they take the opportunity to get a photo with us foreign folk whether we like it or not. Some are friendly and ask you, others just film you like you're an animal in a zoo.

Beijing is good, and I certainly don't expect the rest of China to be as accommodating or organized, but if Beijing is supposed to be China's face to the world, I think they're doing pretty well.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Haggling In China

I've never been very good at haggling when I travel. Most of the places I would haggle, things are cheap enough at the asking price, and the people are so poor that I don't bother. But recently I've been trying to hone my haggling skills. I bought a shirt, belt, scarf, and a new pair of underwear at the Black Market in Ulaanbaatar and saved about $4 bucks on the whole package which cost me about $22 in the end.

Not amazing, but pretty good for a haggling novice. When we arrived in Beijing I was way overdue for some new jeans. Mine were grimy and filthy and caked with mud and dirt and beer and grease and wax from weeks of traveling without washing them since I travel with only one pair of pants to keep my bag small and light. I'd have to walk around for a day without pants while waiting for my jeans to dry.

Anyway, I needed new jeans and after Adam and I walked around the Temple of Heaven Park, we stopped by Pearl Market on the Monday evening that we arrived. My first stop was actually in the camera department while we were wandering around looking for clothes. I needed a new eyepiece for my camera since the rubber fell off mine a few weeks ago. I asked about it, and it was too expensive. The guy tried to sell me some UV filters and polarized filters which I didn't need but kinda wanted. He was asking like 80 yuan for the eyepiece, 120 for the UV filter and 180 for the polarized filter. Or something like that.

Haggling ensued and after going back and forth I told him I didn't even really need or want the stuff besides the eyepiece and I was doing him a favor buying something extra. I said 100 for the eyepiece and UV filter which he reluctantly agreed to. My favorite part after a good haggle is the feigned resignation and disappointment from the salesperson. 100 yuan is about 15 bucks, which Adam told me is a good price for a UV filter, but I really have no idea. I may have got hosed, but I felt good. Haggling XP gain.

Then we went upstairs and found the "designer" jeans section. I tried on a pair of Diesels and wasn't particularly smitten with them but I know I needed them and didn't feel like shopping around and was taken in by the salesgirl, like an amateur. She said usually they were 850 but she'd give me a good price of 550. I said that's too high and she asked what the max I would pay was. I figured I usually got jeans for around $30 back home, that's 200 yuan, but I threw out 300 for some foolish reason.

She "reluctantly" agreed and I was in for a pair of jeans for about $45. Not bad if I was in America, or if they were a genuine product, or if I didn't haggle my way into a hole. Later that night one of the rivets popped off a belt loop and my belt barely fit through the loops and the pockets were too shallow. Today, the main button above the fly, which zips like a rusty relic, popped off.

I was hosed, haggling XP loss. But I learned a lesson: when haggling, things go best when you aren't committed to buying in the first place.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Welcome to China!

Adam and I got into China Sunday afternoon.

The border guards gave us the special American treatment: they searched all our stuff while all the Mongolians and Russians on our bus zoomed through.

When we got into the bus terminal in the Chinese border city of Erleen, we almost instantly saw a pushing and screaming match between two women, one a worker at the station, and another with too much luggage, apparently, as the worker started kicking one parcel.

When we got on our sleeper bus to Beijing later in the afternoon, we settled into our bunks comfortably. Picture a bunch of bunks on a Greyhound. It wasn't too bad, but the next morning, after I woke up to find us sitting in a miles long traffic jam of trucks and buses, there was a guy sitting the edge of my bunk, as I was sleeping. I was in the middle aisle and he was playing cards with his friend on the side bunk across from me. He started laying the cards on me. ON ME as I was laying there watching him. Now I know personal space doesn't mean much in China, but for chrissakes, playing cards on another human?

To be fair to China, I think he was Mongolian. He nodded and smiled at me, and I just gave him a dirty look and put his cards on the floor.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Leaving UB

I woke up this morning surprised that it was past nine AM. I had an eye mask on and the light hit me when I took it off. I usually wake up earlier and snooze for awhile, but I guess I earned a solid night's sleep.

The day before Adam and I got to the train station at quarter past seven in the morning to try and get at the front of the line for new ticket openings. The office opened at eight, and there were already at least 200 people waiting in the bitter cold.

We'd been hoping to just get on a train Thursday sometime, but it turned out that you can't just leave Ulaanbaatar anytime you damn well please. Wednesday evening we found out that there were no trains to Beijing, Zamin Uud, or Erleen until Sunday. We got our hopes up when Bob at the hostel said he could get us tickets to the Erleen, the Chinese side of the border for Friday evening, but the tickets got snatched up before we could buy them.

Adam and I waited in the line while police let people in every few minutes once the ticket office actually opened. There we waited for another hour or so to get near the front. At the front, the smashed lines that existed farther back devolved into a mass of 7 or 8 people nearest to the window shoving their hands full of cash and passports through the window and yelling.

It was a fucking zoo.

We were hoping to get tickets for the afternoon train to the Mongolian side of the border, Zamin Uud, from where we could get a bus to Beijing. We were out of luck, but we did get tickets for Saturday night. All in all, it was almost a three-hour affair, split between waiting outside in a cloud of frozen exhaust fumes, and inside squished in lines like folds in an accordion.

If that wasn't productive enough to last the rest of the day, after a much deserved rest and breakfast, I spent a few hours online trying to figure out what graduate school program I wanted to apply to in Norway. I settled on a master's of philosophy of English language in Oslo.

Then I realized I would have to get notarized copies of my passport. I hurried to the American embassy. When I finally got there, I didn't even get past the Mongolian guard. "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. 1 to 3 o'clock."

My own country couldn't even make a fucking copy for me outside of six designated hours per week. I'm glad I didn't pay any taxes the last two years. Fuckers.

I ran around the city, looking in banks and random doors marked "Notary" in Cyrillic, of which there were many. None actually had a notary though. Every place told me to go to another place which in turn pointed me back to the last place.

At the central post office I asked at the help desk. Counter 2, they said. Counter 2 had no idea what I was talking about, even with notary written on a piece of paper in Cyrillic to help them out. She pointed me to another woman, and a guy who overheard me said I could do it at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I got there 10 minutes before closing time. The lady said I had to get it notarized in Mongolian, then she could do it in English for me. She said to come back Monday, I said I couldn't. I was leaving for China the next day, Saturday, and they wouldn't be open.

I sprinted across the street and up to the 4th floor of a building where she told me I could find a notary. It was closed. I went to the 3rd floor where I saw a sign for a notary on the way up, but it was just pointing up to the place I had just come from.

I went back for the hell of it, and it was open. I got the notarizations, sprinted back across the street, got a guard to unlock the closed door, and had the woman give me the English notariazations.

And if that wasn't enough, I spent most of the evening making phone calls on Skype to various concerned parties: my mom, transcript offices, etc. Arranging shit for bureaucratic hoops is not easy from across the world.

And though you may not believe it, it's not even easy to send a fax in Mongolia at half past midnight. I spent the wee hours of the morning risking my health and safety on the dark streets of UB trying to find a fax machine. Hotels, 24-hour banks, Internet cafes, all worthless.

I finally scanned the papers, found online fax sites and sent them. A great way to spend my last night in a country when everyone else at the hostel was drinking vodka and going out to clubs. I think I earned my sleep that night.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010



So it seems that China blocks Facebook and Blogger and about a million other sites.

In regards to Facebook, you won't hear me complain. That site sucked up so much free time of mine before I started traveling, and too much even now that I'm on the road, that I'll be glad not to have the option to use it.

In regards to Blogger, I also couldn't care if it weren't for one thing: my adoring public who would just die if I couldn't put up something every few days. That's right, I care about you all, and so I've gone and done something amazing: I've set up a secret email address on Blogger so that I can post directly from my email.

In fact I'm doing it right now! Didn't expect that did you? I'm still in Mongolia, but I just wanted to see how it works and what it looks like. If it looks terrible, get used to it I guess. It'll be my only option unless proxy sites work well.

More Song-Riddle Haikus

I'm back from my second tour and put up some more song-riddle haikus here. Or you can just click on the page link on the menu above.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mongolian Rap

So Ethan is off trekking in Terelj National Park, and my explosive diarrhea has been downgraded to Scant (the unofficial hierarchy is Nuclear, Explosive, Violent, Aggravated, Uncomfortable, and Scant) . Being confined to a 5 meter radius from my porcelain throne for so many days, I've had plenty of time to read and do some creative writing. It started as a joking suggestion from Ethan in Russia, but I'm continuing my goal of writing a rap for each country I visit. The one below is for Mongolia, to the beat of Warren G's "Regulate" (original lyrics for comparison or follow along with the music video).

But first, some background vocabulary specific to Mongolia and gangstas (for those blog followers not traveling in those circles).
Ger: A circular tent like structure that nomadic Mongolians live in
A-Bomb: My most recognizable gangsta alias
E-Do(gg), E-Child: A few examples of Ethan's many gangsta aliases.


We travel all around Mongolia,
Its damn beautiful too.
But you can't be any geek off the street,
Gotta be handy with the horses,
If you know what I mean, herd some sheep.
Mongoliators! Mount up!

A dark green van; a white one too;
A-Bomb was on the steppes, checking out the views
Through an SLR, so I can get some shots
Up on Facebook, chillin' at those spots.

In the southside breathing Gobi's fresh air,
On a mission trying to find a suitable ger.
I think I saw one; ain't no need for a flare.
Yeah, its confirmed; we'll head over there.

So I unhooks my fish I caught in the river.
The sun was going down, so I said "Here's dinner."
I jumped on my ride and said "Giddy-up",
But the horse didn't budge, so I said "I'm stuck"

Since these horses are feeding, I'ma glide off this mare.
Some goats are looking so hard, I'd call it a stare.
I think of better things than shaking my fist.
I see my homey screaming and yaks drinking his piss {actually happened}

I'm getting h'rassed, I'm breaking down
Those yaks snuck up on me without making a sound.
They took my dignity, I stopped mid pee.
I looked at the yaks, said "Damn, why me?"

They got my homey hemmed up and they all around.
Original lyrics make no sense here "pound for pound."
I gotta sneak up real quick before they start to clown.
I best pull out my whip and beat some yak ass down.

I got pants at my knees
Think I'm going insane.
I can't believe this is happenin' in the vast plains.
If I had wings that would rock.
But I'm a practical man.
I glance in the field and I see my homey E-than.

Sixteen inch whip and guitar on his back,
E-Do is about to start attacking a yak.
Now they mooing and running, it's a tad bit late.
E-Do and A-Bomb had to Mongoliate!

I let all those yakters flee, running down a dirt road.
Now I'm switching my mind back into guitar mode
If you want tunes sit back and listen
Cuz playing guitar is my primary mission.

Now E-Do's got the rhythm with his traveling axe
Before I got attacked, I was on the same track.
Back up, back up, cuz its on,
A.D.A.M and he, the Than to the E.

Just like we planned we came back to the city,
Ulaanbaatar, or just UBC.
The A-Bomb and the E-Child were in need of somewhere else
The Lonely Planet gave us a clue
I said to my friend "Yeah, that'll do."
At the ticket office we paid in cash,
The lady said back "You'll have a blast."
Soon we'll be on a train and it can't be finer.
The next stop is Beijing, China.

I'm racing, into a whole new level.
M-Funk step on this soil, to travel.
Its fun, on the great wide plains.
{E-Do} The cars are the horses, and the horses have thick manes.

We rides,
Where riding is life
And life is riding.

If you herd like I herd,
You don't wanna get chased by this.
It the G-Khan era,
Funked out with a Mongol twist.
If you trek like I trek,
Then you're trekking for about 15 days.
And if you're in East/Central Asia
603 will Mongoliate.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Song-Riddle Haikus

As I mentioned in my last post, I have come up with the brilliant idea of making song-riddle haikus. In fact, I even created a new page on this blog. Look up, click on the Song-Riddle Haiku page, and put your brain to work.

I have many more that what I have posted there. I'll add more periodically. And to be nice, I'll give you a free one. This is the first one I made, after listening to Leonard Cohen sing Hallelujah while watching Adam compose haikus in his head and count syllables on his fingers in a Russian van bumping its way across the countryside.

Maybe God's above
But love has taught me one thing
Outshoot when you lose

Don't worry, they aren't all that dramatic. Free beer goes to anyone who can figure them all out.

Tour Part Two

After almost a week of puttering around Ulaanbaatar, I'm going out on a tour again. I kinda want to moving onto China, but I figure I may never be in Mongolia again, so why not get the most out of it? And it's certainly cheap enough.

I'm going to be doing a ger-to-ger trip around Terelj National Park, just outside of UB, and the surrounding area. This means I get on a bus, get picked up by a nomadic family, hang with them for the evening and part of the next day, and then ride a horse or camel to the next family, and repeat for four nights and days.

Adam's got rotgut, so I'm going alone. The price is the same regardless of how many people go on this little trip, unlike out last tour. I think having a few days of (near-) solitude in the hills will be nice.

Plus it snowed a teeny bit in UB last night, and if this city can look almost attractive like it did under the thin white blanket this morning, I bet the countryside will be even better.

What to do with all the free time I'll have? Besides obviously pondering man's eternal questions, I'll be able to work on some new songs to play on my axe, catch up on my epic travel ballad, and compose more song-riddle haikus.

Song-riddle what?

Haikus. I said haikus. With all the time we had in the van on our last trip, I came up with the brilliant idea of working song lyrics or references into a haiku form (thanks to Adam's interest in coming up with travel haikus).

Soon we even agreed upon a standard set of constraints: the first two lines must reference the song title or lyrics, and the final line must reference the artist or group.

For example:

It's oragami
And it's aerodynamic
Soldier gone from war

Or, one for those not so well-versed in recent pop music, here's one with a bit more of a classic answer (but note this one doesn't strictly follow the form restraints) :

Call him Anthony
Spring, summer, fall, and winter
But he's Italian

Got the answers? No? Well, I'm not telling, so tough luck.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Trekking Mongolia

True or False: What should you do in Mongolia?
Answer: How much time do you have and what time of year will you be going?

While the Lonely Planet will ultimately be your first stop for details on visiting Mongolia, here are some things you should consider.

Time of Year
There is a balancing act between visiting a place to experience the best weather or its most famous cultural events versus a time of year when tourism is low, prices are lower, and your sense of a unique experience is greater. For Mongolia, the Naadam Festival occurs in mid-Summer (July to early August), where the three manly skill of Mongolia are on display: wrestling, horse racing, and archery.

(Interesting aside: Mongolian wrestlers wear an open "mini" jacket called a Jodog that exposes their pecks. Legend goes that back in the day when wrestlers could wear closed Jodogs, a wrester handedly defeating all opponents and then ripped open the Jodog to reveal her breasts. Consequently, all Jodogs going forward had to expose the chest, giving way to the flamboyant jacket worn today -- way more logical then removing the shirt altogether).

Unfortunately, the Naadam festival is when tourism explodes in the country for a few weeks, so visit another time. In late September into early October, there is the Golden Eagle Festival where you can watch eagles hunt for food on command in the beautiful Altai Mountains. Eagles. Hunting. On. Command. (You probably just booked your ticket for September 2011).

Arrival and Ulaanbaatar
If you are coming from Russia, I suggest the bus from Ulan-Ude. The bus took around 11 hours plus about 2 hours to get through Russian and Mongolian customs (i.e. 1hr 55min for Russia, 5 min for Mongolia), while the train can take as long as 6 to 11 hours just to get through customs.

If you are coming from China, the train track widths are different between the two countries, and changing the under-carriages can take a long time -- adding up to half a day to your ride to Beijing. Secondly, you'll most likely be going against the flow of travelers that primarily start their trips in Moscow, which means your English speaking company may be slim to none. Perhaps, don't come to Mongolia from China, unless you want that unique, solitary, outsider experience.

Arriving by plane will be the preferred choice for anyone coming to explore Mongolia on a short time schedule. When you arrive, you can make a convenient stop at the Office of Immigration just outside the entrance. At the Office of Immigration, tourists staying longer than 1 month are recommended to register in their first 7 days, and logically, required to do so before the month is up. Be patient, bring a pen along (you won't find one anywhere) and if you get frustrated, know that even if you find yourself filling a form out in your own blood in place of ink, it is far better than the bureaucracy of Russia.

Don't book tours in advance unless you have a group of 4 to 6 people ready to book. Otherwise, you should take your chances by staying at a local hostel/tour agency in Ulaanbaatar and coordinate with some travelers looking to do the same thing. Depending on where you go, a private tour could be $120+/day. But get 4 to 6 people, and you'll probably be around $40-$50/day.

Package tours can be anywhere from 1 day to 1 month, and a good tour operator will be willing to tailor a tour for any thing you want to see. Your tour should include three meals a day, 1.5L of water per day, a sleeping bag, a camping mat, transportation vehicle, driver, a poor to mediocre English-speaking tour guide, decent company, park entrance fees, a warm place to sleep at the end of the day, and a small taste of Mongolian nomadic life. For all the beauty Mongolia has to offer, you'll find the countryside uninhibited by red-tape and tourist crowds, and that means you'll be able to have an authentic experience beyond most tourist locales.

If you are thinking of traveling in Asia, Mongolia should be a long stop.