Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Part VIII - Bustling Beijing

Well, it goes without saying that we are now home. However, the trip is really not complete without one last post about our final destination on this trip: Beijing.

But first a bit about the train ride from Mongolia to China, which had to be the best train-riding experience of our whole trip....why? Because of Brent and Renee. You see, we had this notion, that we were kinda world travellers...we were adventurous, savy, wild..yes, all of the above. We rocked..right? WRONG...Renee and Brent rock, they truly do...and so much harder than we do.

You see Renee and Brent were normal on the outside (I might even say average) but on the inside, they were true adventurers...none of this wimpy one month trip stuff. In the previous year, they'd fought cancer, sold their house in London, travelled throughout Europe and Africa, accross Russia and planned to be on the road for another six months or so before settling in Australia. We inadvertantly found kindred souls. All four of us had a blast talking about everything from politics, to religion, to books, to tv and finally to sex. Through a bizarre set of circumstances we didn't get their number, which makes us really sad, but we know that they're out there living it...this adventure... and this somehow makes it a bit better to have missed out on their contact info.

Beijing is a curious city in so many ways. History, landmarks, religious sites, beautiful monuments and people. People everywhere. Beijing is one of the world's largest cities and you can almost feel it as soon as you step off the train. Bicycles, vendors, taxis, students all moving....in every direction. Everyone has something to do. Everyone has a place that they need to be. Everyone but us. And don't even start us on the students...who all wanted to sell us something...after they told us their very "unique" story.

Despite our trip taking place in mid-September, we found all of the tourist spots to still be incredibly busy and everyone in a bit of a hurry. In some ways, it was a difficult last stop to make. Beijing has an intensity to it that is palpable. It's not a city for the faint of heart or for the "out of shape"...unless taxis are considered...which is actually a good idea, because they are dirt cheap. And for the record, everything in Beijing is really farther than you plan on it being...all the time. It's just the way it is.

On our very brief stop in this massive city, I think we might have tried to pack in a bit too much excitment. We visited Tianamen Square, Chairman's Maos' Mosoleum, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall of China, the Ming Tombs and a Jade Factory. And we were on foot through all of it, except for the last three. There was one day we figure we walked almost 10 kms. Yea, we felt real fresh at the end of that one!

One the best parts of our stay in Beijing was the evenings. We didn't do much....but wander, snack and drink it all in. Our hotel was not far from a pedestrian street called Wangfujing that literally had everything from pearl markets to a Rolex store. Off Wangfujing, we snacked nightly at the Dong Hua Men Night Market where you could buy almost anything that wiggled on a stick. It wasn't fine dining, but it was a notable experience, to say the least.

One would literally have to stay a month in Beijing to do it justice. There is so much to see, so much history to absorb and so many streets to walk. We know that 3 days only scratched the surface of all that is Beijing. Our one solace? The fact that we will hopefully be returning within the next 18-months to pick up a daugther. That's more than enough to keep us going.

Part VII - Holy Mongolia Buddha!!!

Mongolia was everything we thought it would be, and more. From the capital city, UlaanBaatar to the Bayan Gobi, we loved every minute of it. Our only regret was that we couldn't stay longer. We started off our Mongolia stay in the capital, UlaanBaator (fun fact: 1 million of the 2.7 million population live in this city, almost everyone else lives a nomadic lifestyle).

As previously stated in our post about buddhism, we arrived early on a Sunday morning to a mostly empty city. It's a nice way to start off sightseeing, without the hustle and bustle. Our schedule was tight (as we only really had the day to see the capital) so we focused on monasteries and temples. They were a delight to see: vivid colours, fascinating architecture and detail all set amidst overgrown landscape. We were advised that over 94% of all Mongolians practice Tibetan buddhism (interesting fact for a country that is lodged between Russia and China).

One of the striking things about Mongolia's capital city is the sheer amount of homeless children who mostly seemed to be living on the streets. We had heard about this problem before however we weren't really able to get a grasp (despite enquiries) as to the root of this problem. Although always begging for money, they were always polite and friendly. The children appeared to be relying on each other for survival. It was tragic and very difficult to see; we couldn't help but want to give them everything we had.

On day 2 of our trip to Mongolia, we rode off into the Bayan Gobi. To get to our ger camp was a 290 km trip. In Canadian standards, this would take no more than 3 hours. In Mongolian standards, this took over 5 hours. Imagine the worst road you have EVER seen (potholes, erosion, etc) and then multiply this by 10...this is the state of highways outside of the capital city. Add to this, the fact that we were riding in a semi-luxurious sedan as opposed to an SUV or a Jeep (our travel agent will be hearing about this) and a driver who was always frustrated when his car bottomed out (which was very VERY often) and you get the picture of how unpleasant a ride we faced. But despite all of this, we arrived safely and were able to keep focused on the main issue...we were in fucking MONGOLIA!

From our ger camp, we took short trips to a couple of monasteries, some monuments, a nomadic family and the sand dunes. Every single minute of the car ride was worth it. We saw ancient spiritual places of worship, the site of Genghis Khan's ancient capital, we drank fermented mare's milk (it's as bad as it sounds), we tried on traditional clothing and we rode camels in the sand (off which Natalie fell, yes she did).

One of the things that marked us profoundly about Mongolia is the spirit of its people. Most of them live a nomadic lifestyle, moving their gers (round felt tents which are surprisingly comfortable) from one spot to another, at least 10 times a year, in search of grazing grounds for their herd (which include sheep, goats, cattle, horses and yaks). Those Mongolians that live in an urban setting, face rising prices, low wages and slower development than what most people could tolerate. Despite very difficult living conditions (by Western standards), they seem incredibly happy and peaceful. We encountered so many people simply wanting to help, or graciously offering us a taste of Mongolia, it was hard for us to not fall in love with this place.

The day we left, we were quite sad. However in another way we were happy, because as the train pulled away from the station it actually began to snow. Despite our love for the people, I don't think we're quite cut out for snow in September. LOL

A brief interruption - A most important message

Arrived in London yesterday, but this post will not be about travelling or about us at all.
This is about our newest best friend who arrived in this world on September 7th, 2006. Welcome to the universe Alexandre! We are so happy that you arrived safely, we've been waiting to meet you for a long time (let the spoiling begin!).

Congrats S&M!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Part VI - Everyday Buddhism

We arrived in UlaanBaatar early Sunday morning. We walked through mostly empty streets towards a buddhist monestary. We saw monks, old and young, reciting their sutras and being all monklike. The morning prayers moved us, but not as much as the gesture we witnessed after exiting this holy place.

As we were walking away from this place of worship, in a zenlike state, we saw many "wild dogs" walking and meeting along the sidewalks. We both agreed that we were torn between feelings of warmth at seeing these dogs happy and completely free and feelings of sadness at seeing them wimpering and hungry. However, nothing prepared us for the sight of a dog lying on a sidewalk who had not made the night. As we were contemplating this dog's short, but free life, a few people walked by the dog without blinking an eye.

Then, it happened. Out of the corner of our eyes, we spied a robed monk briefly stop by the lying dog. As buddhists cherish all life, big and small, he proceeded to pick up some sand from the sidewalk, recite a prayer and sprinkle the sand as a sign of respect for our fallen little friend.

He then went on his way, without looking back as this was not a show: such is his faith.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Part V - Just a quick one - Siberia

Hey folks,

This will be just a quickie as we are soon leaving for Mongolia. We've spent the past few days in Siberia (I know, I know, how crazy is that?). We started out at a quaint little fishing village beside Lake Baikal called Listvyanka. Total population 2500.

There wasn't much to do and it was kinda cold as hell but it was a great way to relax. The Lake itself is also kinda fascinating. It is the deepest lake in the world and one of the major sources of fresh water in the world.

We had a cool, old, kitschy apartment to ourselves and we spent our time walking up and down the main street (as there was no public transportation and the town was about 3 km from where we were staying).

We arrived yesterday morning in Irkutsk. The guide book called this the "Paris of Siberia". We're not so sure about that one. The population is about 600,00 and it is a kinda neat city. Especially interesting if you consider that virtually everything had to be brought in by rail in terms of its construction. It is literally in the middle of nowhere yet people here are thriving and seem pretty happy. We are actually enjoying this city much more than we had thought. We arrived on the first day of school and were treated to a great many students, old and young, all dressed up walking the streets of Irkutsk. It made for a nice way to see the city.

We are leaving in less than an hour for our train to Mongolia but not before another trip to a Banya (we LOVE Russian baths...brilliant). Our train ride will take about 36 hours in total and we're a little nervous about the Passport control however I'm sure that everything will be ok....just long and possibly annoying.