Friday, August 29, 2008

Naadam Festival Day 2

After watching a lot of man-on-man wrestling the day before, Jon and I decided that we would try to go see the horse races of the festival instead. Unfortunately the horse races were outside town and no one really seemed to know how to get there. When we got up in the morning we set off in search of money and breakfast before heading to the festival. After hours of walking we finally secured both and then started asking around for the best way to get to the races.

We were told there was a bus we could take but when we tried to get on a bus they told us to take another bus. When we walked halfway across town to get on that bus they told us we wanted a different bus. When we finally reached the location of that bus we were told that there was no bus that went the 22km outside of town to the races. At this point we probably could have walked that distance ourselves. We had tried along the way to flag down a taxi to take us out to the venue, but the drivers were all asking ridiculous prices (more than our tickets to the festival had cost us) and since it was just the two of us we didn't want to pay that much just to see some guys race horses.

As we were about to give up hope we met a group of people our age who lived in Mongolia and were trying to also make their way to the horse race. They found a taxi, got a slightly better deal and suggested we all ride together and split the cost. This sounded perfect to us but just as we were getting in the taxi one of the guys got a call from his friend who said almost all of the races were over and they would definitely be finished by the time we actually got out there. So we had the taxi take us back to the original venue for some more wrestling and our new friends even picked up the tab wishing us a good time at the festival.

Once we arrived at the stadium we walked around for a little bit and ended up finding the smaller archery stadium that was home to one of the other manly events.

Archery was actually pretty cool and a welcome change from all of the pushing and flabby man boobs from the wrestling we had watched the previous day. After archery ended Jon and I walked around the grounds and looked at all of the overpriced crap for sale and it made me feel like I was back at any carnival or fair at home. We decided it was time to grab a bite to eat and so we went across the street for a bit.

After a good meal we were crossing back into the festival area on this rickety old bridge when I thought I felt something in my pants pocket. I reached around and turned at the same time and sure enough there was a man with his hand in my pocket trying to steal my cash. I quickly jerked his hand away, spun to look at him and let off a not-so-friendly, "what the (you get the picture) ... "He looked at me with disdain and repeated my words back to me as if I had been the one trying to steal his money.

I huffed off the bridge, but with the language barrier as strong as it was and no one around who seemed to care I wasn't quite sure what I could do. Jon was waiting for me at the other side wondering what had taken me so long to cross the bridge and when I relayed the story to him he looked back to see if the guy was still there and, sure enough, he was still on the bridge this time trying to take cash from a woman's purse. We ran up the bridge and both started yelling at him and, no doubt, scared the lady who was trying to mug. The offender got mad at us for interrupting him yet again, gave us the finger and stormed off. We tried to do charades to explain what had happened to the woman and after a few tries she seemed thankful that we had stopped the guy.

Of course this was a moment that made me sad and a little sick to my stomach. As everyone knows I had my passport, credit cards, cash, camera and iPod (among other things) stolen during Spring Festival. I chose to rise above the situation then, knowing in my heart that people are inherently good. I really love to see the best in everyone and when I meet people I tend to open up right away and trust them. This should be a good thing, but when I see people like the man on the bridge it always makes this attitude a little bit more difficult. In the end though I knew I had to put it behind me, remember all of the kind people I've met on this incredible journey and keep smiling.

Jon and I went back to the main stadium to watch some more man-on-man wrestling action and to continue to be confused by what was going on. Every time a wrestler won they did this fantastic little dance and I just absolutely loved it. It was cool to see the tradition that all of these people were apart of and to be able to bare witness to it all for just a short amount of time. The wrestling outfits were absolutely ridiculous and it got a bit old after a while, but it was a unique experience if nothing else.

Welcome to Mongolia

We arrived in Mongolia around 10 a.m. on the morning of July 11 and we were met at the train station by the owner of our hostel. He rushed us back to the hostel, promptly sold us tickets to the Naadam Festival and showed us to our rooms. The hospitality we had encountered at our last hostel was nowhere to be found in this place. It was strange because the hostel was large and nice, set up more like a house with a big kitchen, living and dining rooms and a semi-finished basement with plenty of space everywhere for travelers to gather and share stories. The bathrooms however were limited and hardly ever cleaned and they charged for Internet, laundry and sheets for your bed. It is common for hostels to charge for one of those services, maybe even two but I've never stayed anywhere before that made you pay for your sheets and neither had anyone else we met during our stay. Anyway enough ranting about the hostel ...

After a quick shower and change Jon and I headed out the door and made our way to the festival, which was already very much underway. The Naadam Festival is known in English as the Festival of Manly Sports so we were ready to see just how manly things would get. When we arrived we spent a good amount of time running around trying to find a gate that would let us in since the show was already under way and once we did we found ourselves in a section surrounded by foreigners all watching the opening ceremonies take place on the field.

Jon and I enjoying the manly festivities:

Because we didn't speak a lick of Mongolian we had no idea what was going on whatsoever. This feeling lasted the entire time we were in Mongolia. After a while the ceremony ended and Jon and I meandered the grounds for some food before the first manly event started. We found some Mongolian style hamburgers that were pretty good and then found our way to some seats to watch half-naked men wrestle.

There were a lot of traditional moves going on on the field and even though we didn't understand most of what was happening it was still interesting to watch. We hung around and watched the mostly naked men push up against each other for several hours before deciding we had seen enough and perhaps it was time to find some dinner.
There was a Western restaurant across the street from the stadium that we went to and celebrated my birthday.

After dinner we made our way back to the hostel where we met two British guys. They were still in university and taking the whole summer to travel from London all through Asia, they had just arrived in Mongolia a few days earlier after taking the Trans-Siberian and were then going to drop into China before moving on to Vietnam and Thailand. We sat and talked for a few hours sharing stories and giving them some advice about traveling around China.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Train ride to Mongolia

The Mongolian couple who shared a compartment with Jon and I on the train were weird. I'll leave it at that and spare you the details. Other than our strange neighbors the train ride was relaxing and mostly uneventful. Here are some pictures from the journey though.

The inside of the train:

Jon watching the world go by from our room's window:

The view from the train was incredible though. It was a little bland most of the time, but the skies were blue and there were actual clouds in the sky. For most of you this is not a big deal, but for someone who has been living in the middle of smog-filled China for a year this was like heaven on earth. Here's a shot just before we rolled into Ulaanbaatar:

We finally rolled into the city at about 10 a.m. and we were ready for a shower and some food.

The road to Mongolia (also, ugh)

Jon and I got up early and said our goodbyes to Hohhot and the kind people at our hostel who had welcomed us. We had a long and kind of crazy trip planned out for the day in an effort to cross the border between China and Mongolia. The Nadaam Festival, which was our reason for going to Mongolia, was going to begin the next day and so we were told that the border would close at 3 that afternoon and if we didn't get in before then we wouldn't be able to cross the border for a few days, thus missing the Nadaam Festival and the point of our trip. Long story short: we had to make it to the border in time.

So, we set out on a bus that was going to take us from Hohhot to Erenhot, which is the last Chinese city before Mongolia. The bus trip was mostly uneventful, except for some carbonated water that exploded in my bag and spilled in my hair and some obscure dinosaurs we saw meandering in an open field.

Our bus took forever, but we finally arrived at a little after 2 p.m. We were having a race with time to see if we could make it to the border. We decided to cut the crap and jump in a taxi to get to the border even if it would be more expensive. Better to pay the price for the taxi than pay the price by missing our vacation.

We got to the border in no time and we were under the assumption that when our taxi dumped us off we would just be able to walk across the border. Apparently we have no experience in border crossings. A nice enough guy, who spoke English, came over and told us that we had to be in a car to cross the border and it couldn't be our taxi since she didn't have the proper paperwork to leave the country. After a bit of a panic we finally found a bus and we jumped on it and waited to cross the border. The driver of the bus yelled at us in Chinese and told us he wouldn't take us, but when we flashed him the cash he carried us across. The driver was a jerk and he totally overcharged us but we needed to cross the border.

Once inside customs I had some troubles getting through because of my new passport. As you may remember I had to get a brand new passport in March after my old one was stolen. This wasn't a terribly big deal, but it does mean that I no longer have an entry stamp to China in my passport. I tried explaining this to the people working at customs and after some broken Chinglish and a bit of charades (imagine me acting out the theft of a passport) I got through.

Now that we were officially out of China we just had to go through customs into Mongolia, which went off without a hitch. With a new stamp in our passports Jon and I headed outside to wait for our jankety us, which we assumed would take us into the border town in Mongolia. We waited around for close to an hour trying to find our driver before we finally spotted him. When we did he looked surprised to see us and told us we had to find our own transportation from the border into the city. Ughhh.

We tracked down a taxi and handed over some cash - I can't remember how much, but I'm sure it was more than it should have been - and the driver kindly took us to the train station. Jon and I were hoping that we would be able to catch a train to Ulaanbaatar or at the very least a bus. We walked into the train station and realized for the first time that our Chinese was of absolutely no value to us anymore. We could seriously still see China, but no one around spoke any Chinese. Or English for that matter. After saying the word Ulaanbaatar over and over we realized that we were in luck because there was going to be a train heading for the city in about an hour and if we had missed that train it could have been days before we found another one. So we bought tickets and decided to head outside to try to find some food.

This was the point when Jon and I realized we had no idea where we were (I still couldn't tell you the name of the city we were in), what language the people were speaking (it sounded Russian to me, but who knows?), when we had last eaten or when we would be arriving (our best guess was that it was a six hour train ride). This is me at the train station not knowing much.

There wasn't much for food in the area and we didn't want to leave the premise for fear of never making it back so we bought what they had in the small supermarket (cookies, chips and some juice) and hoped that would keep us full for the duration of our train ride. We then noticed that our train had started to board and since it was raining we decided to get on early.

The train was much nicer, although older, than most of the Chinese trains I've been on and we were happily surprised to see that our tickets were for the equivalent of a Chinese soft sleeper, which meant there were only four of us in our compartment. We thought the sleeper was a bit excessive for a short trip but we were happy to take it since it meant we could take a much needed nap.

Just as the wheels started rolling Jon was standing in the hallway talking to a guy who makes the trip from China to Mongolia quite often and so Jon asked him how long the trip to Ulaanbaatar should take. "Oh not long, should be right at 17 hours."


Inner Mongolia (or how it all started)

For me, summer started on July 1 and I couldn't have been more excited and more eager to travel. Jon and I had out whole summer laid out in front of us and we were ready to start exploring. After a day in Beijing (which I already blogged about) we headed off to Inner Mongolia where we kicked things off in the desert (again, I already blogged about that). Reminiscing now, I can say that riding a camel through the desert was one of those rare, random, wonderful things that I did during this summer and I'm glad I had the chance to try it, though I don't think it will become a regular hobby for me. Here's a pic of me and Fergie:

The following day we made our mini voyage to the grasslands, which sounds a lot more exciting than it actually is. In plain English, the grasslands are Iowa. There were animals and poop and crops ... all it was really missing was food on a stick and a caucus.

The best part about our trip to the grasslands was that we got to meet a traditional Mongolian family and chill out in yurt drinking milk tea, eating gross cheese and relaxing while they prepared a traditional (read: delicious) meal for us.

After lunch and some relaxing it was time for the main event, horseback riding through the grasslands. Before we arrived our guide asked if we had all been horseback riding before to which all of my farming/ranching/crazy friends replied, "yes." I had been horseback riding before, but it was in like the 4th grade and my horse was basically being dragged around the ring by a leader. So, I said "no" and asked for a more mild-mannered horse since I had no idea what I was doing.

Obviously in Inner Mongolia this translates to, "please give me the most uncontrollable horse you have." And they did. My horse wasn't too bad, but for a first time rider it was pretty scary. Before the guide had even handed me the reins my horse took off at a nice trot leaving all the other horses behind. This continued to happen throughout the trek ... my horse seemed to get bored with the slow, take-in-the-scenery approach that I wanted and would just start to run through the grasslands instead. I would post pictures but I was so absolutely terrified that I didn't take any.

This is why I know that I need to live in a city and not in the country. I can handle traffic and weaving between cars and taxis, I cannot handle horses running wild.

After an eventful day in Iowa, I mean Inner Mongolia, we headed back into the city and had one last meal with our fellow travelers before they made their way to the train station to head back to Shijiazhuang.

Jon and I had one more night in Hohhot before an early train ride the next morning so we went and had a drink at an expensive bar and then walked around for a while. We encountered a huge fight on our way home and we tried to help the guys up/break it up without actually getting involved since we had no idea who these people were and if they would come after us or anything. Things got a little too exciting on the street so we decided to stay out of trouble, head back to our hostel and call it a night.

Where to begin?

Honestly. I've sat in front of the computer on a few occasions now, pulled up my blog, typed a few words, imported a few pictures and then deleted it all. I don't know how to begin to tell all of you about the most fantastic summer of my life. I don't know how to begin to tell you about the wonderful things I saw, the people I met and things I experienced.

I've received angry e-mails and phone calls from many of you back home demanding to know what I've been up to all summer long and I really am just stumped as to where to begin. I've looked through my photos hoping to gain some perspective, but really it just makes me happy to think about what a phenomenal summer I had and then I get sidetracked as I replay the memories in my mind. This was the best summer of my life and I do want to tell you all about it. I've just had a hard time knowing where to start.

I guess I'll try the beginning ...