I'll hope to update this article with much more from my travels, but I decided to start with the largest trip I've done so far (although I'll be surpassing it this summer when I go Inter-railing around Europe).
- Where I went, and for how long
In the summer of 2011, I spent a month on expedition, organised with some fellow students from college. Two weeks were spent in Mongolia, focused around the capital of Ulaanbaatar, followed by another two weeks in China.
- What was great?
What wasn't? Besides the intolerable humidity, insatiable insects and constant the fear of 'bad water'. Every day brought new experiences and ultimately, for a supposedly meticulously organised expedition, hiccup after hiccup. Oh, and the couple of things mentioned in the next section.
Right from the beginning the expedition was brilliant. On the long haul flight from Heathrow to Beijing, we flew over Russia at just the right latitude to create a perpetual sunset for seven hours. After a brief and sleepless stop in Beijing (during which we saw a great wide expanse of blue sky, without a single cloud, quite a rarity for Beijing), organising accommodation for our later return, it was back to the airport to catch our flight to Ulaanbaatar. I don't think I've ever fallen asleep quicker. The moment I sat down in my seat, I was out. I don't even recall taxiing to the runway. Next thing I knew, we were just touching down on the tarmac. Baggage collection and onwards to find somewhere to stay. The moment we set foot outside the airport, we were barraged with taxi drivers clamouring for our custom. For a trip from the airport into the city, you're probably looking at about ₮ 7000. We set off into the chaotic traffic that was rife in the city. At one point, about five lanes of traffic were attempting to converge into a single lane. Any care for personal property was lost with our taxi driver off-roading to get further up the queue, and minor bumps and knocks being quite common. If you were looking for a calm, relaxing air-conditioned drive into the city, you'd be out of luck.
The first stop in Mongolia was a 3 day horse trek. The first night was spent in a traditional ger (a Mongolian tent). An early start on the horses in the morning, and within half an hour, the trek leaders had us galloping. After just my third time on a horse. Over rough terrain. Oh, and the horses were semi-wild. Fun! Luckily for me, I escaped any falls or bumps, but a few of the others weren't so lucky. No major injuries thankfully, but health and safety wasn't much of a concern for the guides. On the second night things had clearly been going too smoothly, and so the jeep that was moving the bulk of our gear around that the horses couldn't carry managed to get stuck in mud. Four hours later, with much pushing, swearing and makeshift engineering, it was finally sprung free, and we were able to go collect the water we had needed four hours before. On the third and final day, we came across a small farmstead, where we stopped and were invited inside to try an extremely alcoholic drink distilled from goats milk. Arriving back at the main camp, we were then able to witness the butchering and cooking of a goat, which we had for dinner, alongside a small cup of heated goat blood. Not for the faint hearted, but delicious nonetheless. At around $120 for 3 days, including all food, transport (picked up in Ulaanbaatar), equipment and a good time, it was definitely worth it!
A selection of the sights of Mongolia
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My inner child screamed with happiness the moment we stepped aboard the beautiful train. Think Hogwarts Express, but real. It was amazing. For the first hour or so. Three hours in, and with relatively uninspiring countryside rolling past, the novelty had worn off. When the sun set, and the great expanse shone with stars, and the Milky Way tore a stripe down the middle of the sky, the brilliance was back. At ₮ 50750 from Ulaanbaatar to the Mongolia-China border, it was definitely a great experience, well worth trying if you can.
A selection of the sights of China
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Our visit to Xi'an started well. Ok, well I lied. Just like most things on the trip, it was pretty messy from the start. It just so happened that there was a horticultural festival on at the time (check for things like this before you go away!), so all of the train tickets had been bought out, and were now being sold on for higher prices on the black market. Luckily we were able to get in contact with some people who managed to procure tickets for us. Another overnight train ride later, and we were in Xi'an, searching for our hotel. Except it didn't exist. And the one that stood in its place weren't allowed to accommodate white people, as they didn't have a licence to do so. They did, however, point us in the direction of a hotel that we would be able to stay in, and we managed to get some rooms. That night we ate at a street stall, which served various meats on kebab sticks. We managed to identify all but one of them, but we had no idea what the small, stringy pieces of spiced meat were. Regardless, it all tasted good, and was cheap and filling. The Muslim Quarter in Xi'an was a bustling maze of small streets, stalls and many street food vendors selling flat, patterned breads and meats. The main mosque was a haven of peace, just setting foot inside and you completely forgot you were in a large, busy city.
I think the best experience that surpassed all of the above was the three day trek on the Great Wall of China. You know sometimes you hear stories and you just think there's no way it can be true? It was one of those. It was the last night on the trek, and we had reached a small cluster of houses, stalls selling souvenirs and a restaurant. It wasn't until about 8 in the evening that we found out that we would actually be sleeping on the wall, in tents. Amazing.
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Fast forward to 11pm. We've set up our tents, had a chat and gazed at the stars, when in the distance dazzling lights begin to streak across the sky. Yeah. A storm was coming. Hoping it would pass by without much problem, we all settled down to sleep. It wasn't until the rain began to pour down torrentially that we thought there may be an issue. Mainly due to the shoddy design in the tent that allowed water to pool inside. Luckily for myself I was slightly uphill, but Jack wasn't so fortunate, with the water soaking up through his sleeping bag leading to a slightly damp nights sleep. We were more fortunate than our fellow campers though, with two tents completely collapsing under the rain and wind. Morning eventually came around, and we set about sorting ourselves out, and drying things off. The stretch of wall we visited ranged from overgrown and in ruin, to a rebuilt section, with a more touristy feel. That being said, it wasn't too busy, and if you walked along enough you managed to reach stretches where you could feel completely isolated.
- What was a letdown?
Beijing zoo was pretty grim. From queueing in the horrific heat and humidity, to seeing the under-exercised animals in caged environments that were far too small for them, it wasn't the most pleasant of experiences. The redeeming factor was the aquarium, which had air conditioning and a great show (sadly without translations or a guide available, but you could get the gist). Although worth the visit, be prepared to be a bit shocked by some of the conditions the animals are kept in, as well as being able to put up with the masses of people.
Beijing was busy. Cars honking in the roads constantly, metro system packed (and boiling hot on some of the older lines) and throngs of people going everywhere. That being said, it wasn't too hard to find a peaceful spot to sit down and have a rest, more so once you had got beyond the queues and got inside some of the monuments. Places I would recommend visiting would be: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the small astronomical museum, complete with ancient instruments used to track and record the stars in the night sky.
The Terracotta Warriors, despite being a spectacle to behold, lined up in rank, row on row of almost identical, life size soldiers, in three huge hangar style rooms, was a bit of a let down. As with probably all things known around the world, it was heavily touristy, with souvenir stalls and shops outside the main park, and people inside the park trying to sell you little figurines out of their backpacks. These could be haggled down to 10 Yuan for a set, so wasn't horrific, but after the sixth or seventh person pestering you to buy them, it got a bit old.
- What does it cost to do it bare bones/live comfortably/live like a king?
I've not been able to give much advice here, but where I could I've tried to include prices for things. In general, both countries were cheap, with costs to get into monuments being incredibly low, and especially transport around Beijing (equivalent of 10p for any distance bus journey, and 20p for any distance tube travel!), you could easily stay quite comfortably on a minor budget. The other end of the scale, we passed decadent hotels where you could stay in luxury, and you could spend a fortune on things in the Pearl and Silk Markets (worth the visit, just be careful, the vendors will try rip you off, and some can get a bit aggressive). To give an idea, I paid £3000 overall, which included all flights, pre-expedition training, transport in country, food and accommodation.
- Tips on being prepared
- Be sure to try the food! Don't wuss out and hit the nearest McDonald's or KFC (of which there are many in Beijing). I was a bit apprehensive about this before I went as I'm can be a relatively fussy eater, but I found when I just tried things, I enjoyed them. In particular, a common food in Mongolia was a steamed dough ball stuffed with beef.
- Barter! And then barter some more. You'd be amazed how low you can get prices. For things like Bose headphones (admittedly there is no way of knowing if they were genuine), they'd start out with prices around 800 Yuan (roughly £80 at the time), but I managed to get a pair for 35 Yuan (or £3.50).
- Be careful of your belongings. Probably doesn't need to be said, but don't flash your money around, or leave things unattended.
(If I can edit this article I'll add some pictures and will add some more stories of my various travellings at a later date).
--Oromis263 19:07, 30 May 2013 (UTC)