I had been to Chile several times before: my father is from Santiago, and I came to visit his family during my childhood a few times. I never travelled far, though, from the capital: all I knew was Santiago and its surroundings: from the mountain chain - Cordillera de los Andes - to the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean; quite a small strech of land. Travelling from east to west in Chile does not give you much terrain to cover, though the views are incredible nevertheless. This time, I decided I'd see more of it, and stayed after my parents returned from their vacation to Brasil. First stop: the Desert. I had seen the Gobi, fleetingly, on a train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, but never had I really experienced it.

What an amazing thing it is, the Desert! Beautiful despite its dry and unforgiving nature, warm and cold, bright and dark. I really fell in love with Atacama - from the village of San Pedro to the very last rock there - it's beauty itself, saying hello from a dry and high place. The rolling hills of Mongolia and the sinuous flow of the Norwegian fjords had inspired a similar feeling in me: keep the maiden's kisses, the mists of pleasant drinks and the temptations of the virtual worlds - give me the hills, fjords and the desert roads any day, and my pleasure will be infinitely more intense. While the baser, more common pleasures of the world fill one or two of our senses, the pleasure of being in nature oppresses us with beauty: I hear, see, smell, touch, think of and love nature until I can't take it anymore. It elevates us.

Anyway, here's what I did, though my words and other people's photos cannot express anything near to the feeling of BEING there:

I arrived late on a Wednesday, worked, ate and slept. The village is welcoming, cute and clean, though it is expensive. On Thursday I went around the whole place, taking notes of prices and tours offered by the agencies. At last, I decided on a plan for the rest of my days there, which went quite well.

Friday, exploration day 1: Piedras Rojas, Lagunas Altiplánicas and the Parque Natural Los Flamingos. I had never seen such colors in water - I had been impressed with the unique shade of Blue presented by a body of water or another before, but this light green-blue and the salt everywhere make for another unique shade in a body of water... it is quite mesmerizing. Taking a look at the Flamingos was not bad either, though I honestly don't think they're as majestic as people seem to think...

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On Saturday, a full day of work and rest, preparing for what was to come the following day: biking around the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). This place is just... "out of this world". It is, in fact, called Valley of the Moon because it seems like an unearthly landscape - something you'd see on the Moon itself. To make things more interesting, I rode a bike all the way there to see the sunset, and returned to the village at night - a moonless night, which added to the feeling of being on the moon! As it was not shining in the sky, it was easier for me to pretend I was actually there... On my way there, I consumed some psychedelic substances, which made it even more spectacular... I climbed the highest dunes and went to the best lookouts available, until the park guards kindly told me I had to start going back, as darkness descended. The trip back was an adventure of the kind I never experienced before: going downhill on a mountain bike, in the total darkness of the desert but for a light in my helmet, in a moonless night, in the Valley of the Moon. To make it all perfect, I arrived in town just in time for the astronomic tour. We went to a higher place, ideal for looking at the stars, and there we enjoyed the light of countless galaxies for about 1 hour and a half. Without the moon, in a high altitude place, which is also one of the driest places on Earth, visibility was optimal. For the first time I could really see the heavens, with its moving lights, and all the silly drawings people imagine: the scorpions, hunters, crosses and all the rest. I could clearly see were the skies were divided between North and South, I looked at stars that people from the northern hemispheres have no access to, and wondered about the northern stars I could not see then... By that time, the psychedelics were having a ball, and I'm pretty sure my awe-struck mind enlarged the tiny points of light seen in the telescope: others seemed impressed, but I was marvelled, nay, there are no words for it. I consider this one of the most amazing moments of my entire life: looking at the universe under those circumstances was a pleasure beyond that of the maiden's kiss, the mist of drink, the virtual worlds, the hills, the fjords and the desert roads together. It is unfair, I suppose, to compare these small things to seeing entire galaxies and clouds and worlds dancing brightly around each other... But comparison to other experiences is all I can do to try and explain what it felt like. How I understand you now, Astronomers and Stargazers...
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On Monday, to relax, I went for a swim: Laguna Cejar, the "Eyes" of the Salar and the Laguna Tebenquiche. Nothing like cold water on a hot desert day after such a heavy, filling, extraordinary Sunday.
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Finally, on Tuesday I went, early in the morning, to the Tatio Geysers, where, again, nature shows that it is beautiful even when it is dangerous and deadly - vocalnoes, hard to breath-altitude and boiling water mixed with all sorts of minerals being thrown upwards make for amazing views and feelings.
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A trip I recommend to anyone, adding that I have not seen all the "best of" places available - there are still many incredible spots that I have failed to see due to lack of time and money, with alluring names like "The Valley of Death", "The Rainbow Valley", etc. I am definitely coming back to Atacama sooner or later.


Back again!

So, long time no see! I remember once reading a tormented author complain about the fact that you can either live or write - if you're writing, you're not actually living, and if you're out there, living, time is short to write. So that is what happens since Irkutsk - with no card to draw money and a long way to go, I barely had time to understand what was going on, much less to write about it all. But here I am, finally living a quiet enough life again, which allows me to share with you, faithful readers, what I have been up to since that now far away November in Siberia. Last post was aboit Irkutsk, which I left to be in Olkhon Island, a place said to be one of the Shamanic centers of the world. I'm not sure about that, but I can tell you that the island is beautiful, the lake is breathtaking and my time there was very pleasant, made even better by the amazing owners of the guesthouse I stayed in and their dogs.

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After a while, I gave up on waiting for my card, borrowed money from a very generous lady and went back to travelling, hoping that when my card arrived at the Siberian address, it would be shipped off to Moscow, which was my next destination. I spent about two weeks there, and it sure was not enough to see everything one should: the cosmonaut museum, the victory museum, the magnificent squares, the live music, the great mix of races and nationalities converging in the most beautiful metro stations of the planet (just really really amazing, art in itself - the palace of the people, as some call it), the Lenin mausoleum, all of that jazz. 
Had a blast there, celebrated a small christmas (they celebrate it in January, but Couchsurfing people always take the opportunity to celebrate, so the 25th was quite enjoyable) got my new bank card and flew over to Leningrad (which for some reason people prefer to call Saint Petersburg).

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Again, two weeks was not enough - the museums, squares, the amazing people, the architecture, the parties, bars - it was all much prettier than I could possibly expect. People in Moscow did tell me I'd like it better there, but I found it hard to believe, as I was falling in love with Moscow, until I arrived there and was awe-struck. I can't forget to mention, also, that the ladies from Leningrad are generally prettier than most of the Russians I met in Moscow or Siberia (though, yeah, it's Russia, there are pretty ladies everywhere there...).
I spent a hell of a new year's eve there, drenched in Vodka and fun, visited submarines, had a good time and went back to Europe, after 10 months in Asia-Russia.

From Leningrad I flew to Stockholm, and headed straight to Vasteras (which in Swedish kinda means Westeros, nerd friends will know), to visit a good old friend and her fun-blasting son Levi(athan). After a few days there, I went back to Utrecht, spent a few weeks organizing myself and trying to pay back all the money I borrowed, then went to Moulins, France, to visit another friend I hadn't seen in many years. After that, another trip - this time for work. Aarhus (Denmark); Bergen, Flam, the SognFjord and Oslo (Norway), Stockholm again, Malmö (Sweden), Copenhagen (Denmark again) and back to Utrecht. Whew! That was all from November, in Irkutsk, to a final stop in Utrecht around the end of March. A lot of ground covered. One could say that's enough, since there were 5 preliminary years living in Italy and the Netherlands but travelling all around Europe, followed by 2013, going through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, China, Mongolia, Siberia, Moscow, Leningrad, Scandinavia and France... but no, not me! 
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 As soon as I managed to get everything together and breath for a while, I flew to Brasil, to visit friends and family - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, Praia Grande, Santos... I watched the world cup (even went to the stadium to see the amazing match between Germany and Algeria), celebrated the 7x1, got the old rock bands together, played a few gigs, wrote a few songs and we even won a round in a battle of bands - only for me to... travel again! This time to Chile, to see my father's family, which I had last seen in 2001! I stayed a while in Santiago, with my father and mother, enjoying a 'standard vacation' with them, until they left, back to Brasil. That's when I... started travelling again!

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Just last week I was in the Atacama Desert, but this I will tell in greater detail, on a future post. I'll try to go back to posting regularly, with more photos and details of each place - I'm back to Santiago, and going to the south of Chile in a few days, and to Patagonia after that, so I should still have a lot of great photos to post and words to write to ye all!

As I say dozens of times each day - ENJOY YOUR TRAVELS! Don't be afraid to go and see new places, meet new people, eat things you never ate, drink things you never drank... I know in my case it may already be leaning towards an addiction, but it is the healthiest addiction one can have, by far.

Welcome back to my trip!


иркутск - листвянка

A few hours after having my bank card stolen, I boarded the train to Irkutsk - the end of my stay in Mongolia and the first step in exploring Siberia. I shared a cabin with a Buryat lady, pregnant, and a Russian man, drunk. Neither spoke English, but we tried to have a conversation anyway. The Russian man assured the Buryat lady she had nothing to fear from him, and that he would protect our cabin from any other drunken Russians that may try to bother her. Through signs and smiles, he offered his vodka and food to me (I accepted, of course), but at times he became quite frustrated that I could not speak Russian and I could see he regarded me as an idiot of some sort. He was well built and boisterous. One of his hands was all patched up and one of the fingers was useless, clear sign of fistfights, I imagined. I got drunk and fell asleep when the night came. We spent the whole day travelling again, and arrived in the middle of the following night in Irkutsk. There, an older relative of the Buryat lady came to our cabin to help her grab her bags and boxes and leave the train. He took the Russian man's bag and moved it to another bench. The Russian man grunted a challenge, grabbing his bag and moving to put it back where it was. The Buryat man just grabbed the bag from his hands and set it aside again, proceeding with his work. I was surprised to see how quickly the Russian accepted the situation, without further challenges. Not so rough after all.

We arrived at around 4am. I waited until around 9am for business to open up (dark, cold cities, as I learned, go to bed early and rise quite late). I had no money, no place to go and no friends to turn to. I found a coffeeshop which offered wifi and started tackling the problems one by one - good old internet is always there for us! I quickly found a Couchsurfing host for the first few days, borrowed money from my parents and checked out the city layout. I left my heavy bags at the bar and explored the city throughout the rest of the day, disappointed with the fact that I was in Siberia, in November, and I didn't need to wear a coat. The city itself is not as bad as many people make it sound. I struck conversation with a Buryat girl who was drinking in a square, and she showed me around the landmarks of the city, before night came and I went to a neighbouring town to Couchsurf for a few days, after which I returned to Irkutsk. I rather enjoyed my stay there, though it was longer than it should. From host to host, courtesy of Couchsurfing.org, I had a great time exploring the city and local food (which was not that impressive, I must admit). I really like it when cities have interesting statues, and Irkutsk had a lot of them.

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After a few days there, snow finally started to fall and the cold weather made an appearance, bringing up my hopes, just to go back to being the warmest November everyone had ever lived through. Sadly, even though as a place it surprised me positively, and the weather was far from being harsh, I learned that the Russian stereotype is not so far off the mark - the buses smelled of vodka, and drunken people (of all ages and genders - even old couples!) shouted at each other or started impossible conversations with me. At 15.00. On a Wednesday.

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After a few days in Shelikhov (a neighbouring town) and Irkutsk, I was hosted by a Russian couple who took me on a trip to Listvyanka, which is nothing special on its own, but all one needs is a good bakery and a walk around the Baikal lake to be happy, and both things are easy to have there.

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As I was quite short on money, I spent most of the time working or taking walks around the city. After a while, I was hosted by a Ukranian lady who helped me with what I needed the most: an address to have my new bank card sent to. The bank in the Netherlands had already sent it to my dutch address, all I needed now was to have it mailed to me in Siberia. After I had arranged it all with my dutch friends, she recommended me a great place to stay in Olkhon island, on the Baikal Lake, which was an amazing place if I was to believe all the people who urged me to go there. And there I went, to a beautiful place to wait for my card. 

As I mentioned before, my camera was stolen in Mongolia, which means I was left with my phone camera, which sucks. In Listvyanka I was lucky to be able to borrow a decent camera from one of my hosts. Unfortunately I was not so lucky in Olkhon, and the pictures of that trip (which I'll post next time) will be of a lower quality (as some in this post).



After the trip through the steppes, a long period in Ulaanbaatar ensued. At the first evening after my travel mate went back to the Netherlands, I went out for a few drinks. At a Couchsurfing event I met some really nice people who quickly introduced me to a guy who had an extra room in his flat, and was willing to rent it. I eagerly accepted the offer, which was a great deal: very close to the city center, good apartment and a real fun guy to share a place with. I spent the whole month living more or less as a local: working during the day, going out for drinks at night and partying during the weekends. Though the city itself is ugly and chaotic, as I mentioned earlier, I had a great time. People were incredibly outgoing and fun, just very interesting folks everywhere I went. Many of the younger fellows speak very good English, and the travellers you meet in such a place in October/November are not your usual type of boring tourist. It's a city and a time of the year that attracts a more experienced, interesting kind of traveller. 

Unfortunately, after such a long time without any problems (8 months travelling through south-east Asia and China without ever being robbed, getting sick or into a fight), the big dirty mean capital of Mongolia finally threw me a few bad hands: my photocamera was stolen. This means I don't have many pictures of the city, but that's not a big loss for you guys, as there really aren't many beautiful spots to report. What I do regret not having more pictures of are the statues and art exhibitions that were all over the place. For such a small place (Mongolia has 3 million inhabitants, 1.5 in Ulaanbaatar), the art production of the city is just incredible. As for timing, I hit the jackpot: while it is true that the big festivals (Naadam) are in July, I think I couldn't have had a better first impression of this place. I hear July is very dry (I seriously dislike dry weather) and dusty, full of tourists (probably the more boring kind) and higher prices. Instead, I enjoyed a great autumn there, and had the luck of being just in time for several great events: a big art exhibition from the university students with concerts by small local bands followed by a great festival presenting renowned artists from the different regions of Mongolia. After that weekend, the jazz festival started, and after that week, a film festival took place. After all that was done, they threw a birthday party for Chinggis Khan, so I can say I had a pretty good time as far as cultural events are concerned.

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As for food, I must say the quality of the meals improved a lot compared to the time I spent on the steppes. Specially worthy of note is the traditional Mongolian Barbecue. It's prepared in a round solid iron griddle, with fire everywhere and a big show of how the cooks use the swords to mix the meat with the vegetables. Strange meal of the month: Sheep's head. I guess the most exotic food is in south-east Asia, but it's always possible to find some novelty when it comes to cuisine. And to be honest, I actually quite enjoyed the vegan place (yes, there are vegans even in Mongolia...) with the cute name of "Cafe de Amor", where I made a few friends and even participated in a few events, from meeting the Cuban ambassador to playing in a basketball competition. One might ask, "but why would the Mongolians be interested in basketball, and how good can they be?". Well, after wrestling, horseriding, falconry and archery, which are the main national sports (yeah, they're badasses, deal with it), basketball is the most popular thing. And though they're a small people, they're not that bad at it. Which means I sucked big time, but I should have known: I hadn't played any basketball in 15 years, and I honestly couldn't remember the last time I ran a few hundred meters. It was great fun anyway, as most of my stay in the city.

Prices were quite steep, though. They don't produce many things in this beautiful land: no grain fields, no plantations, no big farms were to be seen through most of my trip around the country - only amazing, untouched nature as far as the eye can see. That means they import a lot of stuff, which brings the prices up quite a lot. How they manage to live with the low salaries and the high prices was a puzzle to me at first, but later I learned that they rely on loans from family and friends, with very low or no interest rates at all. If they had to go to banks for those loans, I'd bet the country was doomed to crash in a few years, specially because of the rampant corruption going around. But I guess there is hope for a good future if they manage to clean up the politician's act and keep away from the big banks.

Nevertheless, I must be honest and tell you that the thing that impressed me the most about this city (yes, even more than the good nature of its people, the traffic jams, the cultural richness, the strange dynamics of economics and the barbecue places) were the ladies. I did not expect them to be this beautiful at all! Men too, when they are not ugly, are very handsome. They all look very similar, true - there is not a lot of variety. But the Mongolian ladies have a beauty that I cannot compare to any other. I may be crazy, but I can see traits of different kinds of beauty in them: to me they look like a mix of "Asian" with "Native American" and "European", whatever that means. I guess it means Chinggis Khan and his men really raped a lot of women everywhere, and peoples around the world inherited the traits of the Mongolian people. Not only the physical beauty of the Mongolian ladies impressed me, but also how strong and independent they are - they are not the stereotypical Asian girl, giggling timidly while cooking and cleaning for you. They'll drink a hefty load of alcohol (more than most white boys I know) and kick your ass if you rub them the wrong way. All while being elegant and good looking. 

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After two months, came the day when my visa was over and I had to leave the country. I had a ticket to Irkutsk, in Siberia. Therefore, I went to the town's market (Narantuul) to buy some winter clothes a few hours before boarding the train- after all, one needs to be prepared to be in Siberia, if the stories about its cold are true. Then Lady Luck decided to take a day off and my bank card was stolen- I was left without money on my way to Russian winter. But that story I'll tell on the next post...


Mongolia 2

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Riding a Mongolian horse around the White Lake was a great experience. I actually had this crazy idea of buying a horse in Mongolia and ride all the way back to the Netherlands, but my travel mate convinced me that was just stupid/insane. Therefore, I settled for a few rides around the lakes, and I have to admit it was... almost enough. I rode until I reached the Volcano, which offered a great view of the lake and the hills, and rode back to the Ger. When I arrived, I was greeted with a special dish - Marmot meat. It was so much better than I could ever have expected. Soft, tender, greasy and with a very unique taste... it reminded me a little of Capivara, which was actually the best meat I ever had in my life. We spent another night at the White Lake, and continued our journey towards Khovsgol Lake, the main destination of that tour. 

On the way there, we stopped at a few temples, like the ruins of Kharkhorum, the ancient Mongolian capital (of which we did not manage to take pictures), and Erdene Zuu. The view along the way was quite impressive as well, but I have to say I got tired of the food after a few days. Another very amusing perk of the trip were the frequent encounters with groups of cows, sheep and wild horses. Our driver evidently enjoyed it more than anyone else, because it gave him reason to honk as much as he wanted to, for quite a long time. He opened a big smile every time this happened. 

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Then, we finally reached the Khovsgol Lake - called the Blue Pearl of Mongolia. I swear I had never seen such bright, fascinating blue. I was mesmerized by it, and spent as much time as I could just staring at it. We also rode horses around the lake, and that was another great day, with great weather and great views. The family hosting us had a huge Yak for all sorts of heavy labour, and I went along on a trip to retrieve water from the lake. The big beast was well trained, and performed the whole drill without hesitation, but it was clearly working against its will. We pulled it by a ring in its nose, which I imagine MUST be painful. Seeing so many of its kind running free through the steppes, I had to feel a bit sorry for it. 

We spent two nights there, one of which was our driver's birthday. We gathered round with the family hosting us and the guides of another group staying there, and a few French tourists for a few drinks. I thought I would finally witness the great Mongolian drinking prowess, legendary among other peoples. As we settled down, around 19.00, the father, who managed the Ger camp, was already wasted beyond salvation, singing loudly and being made fun of by his son and wife. He left one hour later, leaving us with three bottles of vodka and a gallon of airag. Soon after, all other Mongolians were also pretty drunk, having a hard time communicating or even walking straight. While I was quite drunk myself, I was disappointed to see that they were knocked out much earlier than I expected, and that the legends were not so true. On the other hand, it was great to hear everyone sing traditional songs from their own countries - Mongolians and French did a great job, as was the case with my Italian travel mate. Unfortunately, I couldn't sing even if my life depended on it, and I made a poor job of representing traditional Brazilian music.

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I was actually quite sorry that I had to leave the place - I could have spent a much longer time enjoying that amazing blue that I have only seen there and the late night drinking and singing sessions.

From there we had a few more stops - temples and a few cities. Worth mentioning are the Amarbayasgalant temple and Moron city. I have never been in such a dark, haunted city. I went out for a walk after dinner, and I obviously got lost in the dark streets, and it took me a while to get back to the Ger. During that trip, under a full moon (thankfully, because the streets were horribly lit) I saw an impressive amount of stray dogs, big ones too. It was really remarkable. The scariest part was that during the night, every single one of them barked non stop. It was a relentless, haunting, scary night. 
The temple was a more pleasant experience, with great statues and an amazing view. From there, we spent a few days on the road, going back to UlaanBaatar. 

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Some of you may not know, but the whole point of coming to Asia was to see first Vietnam, and then, Mongolia. I enjoyed very much all the rest, but it was just that, in all honesty - the rest. Since my childhood, I have been curious about these two countries, and now, finally, I have satisfied that curiosity. I left Beijing by train, crossing the mountains, leaving the Great Wall behind me, going into what the Chinese call "Inner Mongolia". On a final note about the Great Wall: I cannot imagine what the Chinese must have done to the Nomad Peoples of the north to piss them off so much that they'd choose to cross endless steppes, deserts and those mountains, and on top of that, a huge wall. That's so much trouble that I cannot help but think that somehow, the Chinese 'had it coming'. No way the nomads decided that it was a 'good idea' to invade China, just because they were 'savages', or because they needed something. 

After a while, Inner Mongolia was also behind me, and the great Govi Desert graced me with its beautiful sunrise. From the train, I had enough windows and time to enjoy it thoroughly. A train which I heartily recommend - it was more comfortable than most night trains I took in Europe (and I travelled on quite some back there). The experience of having the train lifted for the change of bogies due to the different gauges between China and Mongolia was also an interesting one.

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As I arrived at the train station in Ulaanbaatar, the feeling of excitement grew and I was really eager to start living the Mongolian part of the trip. I went to the parking lot after I exchanged my Chinese money for Mongolian Tugruks. A taxi driver approached me, we haggled a bit and I accepted his offer to take me to the Guesthouse where I was meeting a friend of mine, with whom I was going to share a two week trip through the steppes. When he started the car, his speakers blasted the loudest music I ever heard in a taxi; it was so loud it was impossible to recognize what it was. He apologized while bringing the volume down. It was Deep Purple's Highway Star. I told him to bring it up again, and we rocked away through a whole Purple compilation, including some of my favorite tunes. "This trip started well", I thought, while we went across town with the speakers really loud - even bus drivers banged their heads to our sound as we passed them. Heavy Metal country, exactly like I had predicted!

--Unfortunately, that was the last time I ever heard decent music in Mongolia. People here have a horrible taste, and the best western music our guide and driver had for the whole two week trip was Avril Lavigne. Good thing they had some Mongolian music (which was also of dubious quality, but new and different to our ears, so it didn't matter that much).--

That same day, we went to the "Black Market" (every town has one - a market where merchants don't pay taxes, and everything is way cheaper than anywhere else) and bought what was necessary to face the cold - after months in South East Asia, I was finally entering colder lands, and was very happy about it. I was very disappointed to see Ulaanbaatar, though - after being positively surprised by how modern and civilized the main cities in South-East Asia were, specially in Vietnam, the sheer chaos, dust, big piles of thrash and lack of infra-structure in the capital city of the once-greatest empire of mankind were a big let down. The traffic jams are only comparable to those I have seen in São Paulo, though it surprises me that they manage to do that with only 1.5 million inhabitants, 12 times less people than my hometown. One positive thing I discovered about it, though, was the "hitch-hike/taxi" thing going on. Wherever you are, you can just raise your arm and people will stop to give you a ride. Short rides can be free, but mostly people will charge you around 50 euro cents per kilometer (taxis are rarely seen - usually, it's just regular people trying to make a few extra bucks).

The next day we set off for the trip across the steppes to reach temples, lakes and mountains. I was extremely excited about the whole thing, and didn't really mind the bad music and the many hours we had to spend sitting in the (comfortable) jeep. The vast steppes were a delight to see, though I can imagine that if you are the unlucky bearer of ADD, you'll get bored really quickly, as there isn't much change in scenery. It's also important to notice that there are very few roads in Mongolia, and only one that is partly asphalted, covering the main destinations around the country (when I asked our driver what was his favorite part of Mongolia, he promptly replied - the asphalt -). Mostly, it's just a track left by cars that went by before, and you just drive in the middle of splendid nature. Which, unfortunately, in many places is spoiled by the loads of garbage that people throw around. Another very interesting thing was the amount of carcasses we found while strolling around the steppes.

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Before sunset, we arrived at the first Ger of our trip, where a nomadic family greeted us with the tradition of sharing Ayrag and Khoorog. Ayrag is fermented horse's milk and Khoorog is a bottle containing something you are supposed to sniff, which really felt like someone was sticking a needle up my brain. The Ayrag was fine, though my travel companion did not enjoy it any better than the snuff thing. I must confess that the food was not so interesting: it reminded me of the Netherlands, in the sense that people view food as fuel, not as pleasure. Potatoes, noodles, vegetables and meat all mashed up together, in a generally tasteless mess. Nevertheless, sleeping in a nomad's Ger for the first time was an unforgettable experience.

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On the second day, we reached the hot springs, of which we unfortunately didn't take any pictures. My travel companion decided to play at the extra-hot pool, with the cold winds punishing him while he was out of the water. After that we ate dinner in a hurry and climbed the neighbouring hills, which were cold, windy and home to wolves, according to the locals. While he seemed pretty happy doing all that, the evening that ensued was not pleasant at all and he fell quite ill. I was happy that I had avoided the hottest pool at the springs, as this seemed to be the deciding factor in his sudden illness.

On the following day we drove on to the Tsagaan Nuur, the White Lake in the south, which was a beautiful sight. On the way there we stopped to view a beautiful canyon, which if I remember well, is the Orkhon. We spent two whole days at the White Lake, but I will talk about it next week, as this post is already long enough!

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The Great Wall

So, there I was, in Beijing, with a few days left before my trip to Mongolia. I decided that since I was in China, I had to see The Great Wall. 

I posted a message on CouchSurfing saying that all those interested should go together, and I'd help organize the whole thing. In the end, about 10 people decided to join - from different countries, as well as a few Chinese, which was great, as I had no idea of where to go, how to do stuff and what were the best options. So I just trusted the Chinese people who took the initiative and organized the trip. We met really early to try and avoid the traffic jams (which we managed) and headed to Jiankou, a particularly scenic part of the Wall. On the way there, I was told by a few of them that up to 10 people had died on the hiking/climbing of that part of the wall in recent years. As I am a young man with very little sense of consequence, that was an incentive, and I got all hyped up. They said the climb would take about 2 hours.

Once we arrived, I could see the Wall on top of a steep mountain, and wondered who the hell climbs all that in 2 hours. Nevertheless, I walked on, following the group. The day was incredibly hot, and even though I was wearing my Vietnamese clothes and hat, I was already sweating before we reached the hiking path. After a few minutes walking through souvenir shops, food stands and benches, two Frenchmen stopped me. "Do you know the way to the wall?" one of them asked. "I have no idea, I'm just following them." I replied. "Well, we hiked for 3 hours yesterday and couldn't find anything!" the other Frenchman said. "We found the wall, but there was no way around it, nor a way to climb it. We couldn't go to the top, so we came back here and camped". I said "Well, we have a few Chinese with us, I bet they know what they are doing." I left the Frenchmen, with a bad feeling starting to grow on me.

Soon after we found the path and started the hike. It was hot, too hot - and the path was not easy. After a few minutes walking up the steep base of the mountain. I looked up and couldn't imagine myself being there in 2 hours. Then I saw a sign which said "This section of the Wall is not open for visitors". I pieced all the information together and decided I had to say something. So I tried to convince the other travellers that the climb was certainly longer than 2 hours, and if 10 people had died there, the Frenchmen couldn't find the top and there was a sign saying that the Wall was not open for visitors here, it would be a better idea to go somewhere else. They didn't care, and moved on. All of them but one - a young lady from Vietnam, who had been living in the US for some years. We decided it made no sense to sweat that much and risk dying only to find we couldn't reach the top of the Wall, so we went back and took a taxi to the Mutianyu section - a bit more touristic, but with stairs all along the way and the certainty that we'd be able to reach the top and walk between the forts and shelters. And being the lazy cat I am, I do not regret at all the change of plans. In the end, they did manage to climb to the top, but there was not much to walk around or see, as the section was closed. Instead, I managed to see this impressive part of the famous Wall (from the top of which, I must confess, I 'numberoned', ehehe - Tyrion style!), and it was a lot of fun to walk up with the "Vietnamese-American" gal, which took several photos (which I should be able to retrieve soon and post here - she had a nicer camera and much more talent, so I think it'll be interesting to have some good photos for a change).

No picture can portray how massive and impressive the Wall is, but I'll post some of the photographs I took anyway, in the hopes that it will encourage some of you to come visit one day.

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I know, I know, China deserves a lot more than the two meager posts I have come up with, but I really didn't have the time back when I was there, and now I am in Mongolia, having a good time and filling my head with Mongolian things, so I'll just apologize to China. Nevertheless, I want to point out once again that I had a great time in Beijing - the friends, the jam sessions, the music, the food, the experiences and the oldest movie theater I've ever been to (built in 1903). Also, I must say that the cleanliness of the city was as impressive as their horrible habit of spitting everywhere (for each Chinese person spitting, there was a Chinese worker cleaning the streets, which were beautiful and spotless, despite the horrible car pollution).

In addition, I really liked the public toilets and showers - in Europe and in Brasil, you have to walk so much to find a public toilet, and if it's not disgusting, you usually have to pay. In Beijing, there are big free public toilets everywhere. Some are cleaned twice a day, and those can be very dirty and smelly, but many have a permanent personnel, cleaning it quite often. And being in the abandoned house, which obviously didn't have running water, I had to use those all the time - and let me tell you, Western society; you have to rethink your pooping habits. Squatting is the way to go. Seating toilets are not as healthy, that is a scientific fact. The public showers were also quite interesting, specially in comparison to the western European public showers I tried during my hitch-hiking days. Cleaner, cheaper, with warmer water and... sauna and massage service available. An amazing experience, which showed me that a little bit of the 'communist' spirit still lingers in this huge money-obsessed capital.



I know it's been a long time now, and that most people are just waiting to read about and see pictures of Mongolia, where I am now, but that will have to wait. For now, I'll fill you in with what happened during the Chinese part of the trip. I couldn't really update this weblog before because of the Great Firewall of China, and later on because I was travelling the steppes of Mongolia. It is my intention to go back to the original plan of posting weekly (or so).

At the airport in Vientiane, my first impression of the Chinese was quite bad. They were very obnoxious and loud, shouting at each other in the waiting room, elbowing their way past others while their children ran and screamed freely through the rows of benches. I feared for my sanity during the 7 hour flight ahead. Surprisingly, once inside the airplane, everyone fell dead silent, children included, and not a peep was heard until we landed. Then they became loud and annoying again, but I was very thankful for this strange, temporary, airborne politeness. The food offered during the flight was, as usual, horrible. But the seats were comfortable and time went by really fast.

Having spent my childhood and youth in São Paulo, I was brought up with a very unique point of view. Cities like Berlin, Paris or London, which are considered big, seemed tiny to me. But not Beijing. For the first time in my life, I arrived somewhere and was struck by the thought "Wow, this is a fucking huge city!". I imagine only a few other places may give rise to such a feeling - New York, Tokyo and Mexico City. Thus, I am compelled to make comparisons between the only two 20+ million population cities I have seen. Unlike São Paulo, Beijing is 'civilized'. The streets are clean, though the air is heavily polluted, and I haven't seen any violence during my whole stay. There are many subway lines - all very clean, modern, air conditined and well located. The ticket prices are amazing; 2 Yuan for a subway ride, 1 yuan for the bus. That sounds like a dream compared to prices in São Paulo (current prices there are equivalent to 7.80 yuan for both subway and bus tickets - much more expensive for a much crappier service).

Rush hour is inevitably a bad experience, but fortunately nothing compared to the experiences you can get in São Paulo. Alas, people are also very rude and impractical when it comes to organizing the flow on the subway - instead of waiting for people to leave the train, everyone tries to board it as soon as the doors open. I can't understand this absurd behaviour, which I used to blame on Brasilian 'culture'.

The city is quite interesting, with a great mixture of broad avenues and very narrow alleys, of modern skyscrapers and traditional eastern architecture. Tiananmen square is as impressive as I expected it to be, and I must confess that the "Forbidden City" was even grander than I could have imagined. Kudos to the communists for chasing the Emperor out and turning the Forbidden City into a huge museum. Shame on them for charging so much for the entrance, though, and making people pay extra to see the treasure room, the clock room, etc.

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The food is, obviously, an amazing experience. Cheap or expensive, traditional or modern, Chinese or international, it doesn't matter - it is always good, and always comes in vast quantities. I had a hard time finishing plates at first, but eventually got used to the huge mounds of food served by the restaurants. I have to admit though, that I have said "no" to some "exotic" dishes. We all have limits, and I draw the line before eating pork stomach or sheep penis. Thank you very much, but no. On a positive note, I have found chicken heart barbecue, something I missed so much (very common in Brasil).

As for the communist/capitalist subject I often write about, being in Beijing was a bit disappointing. Though it is a country controlled by the communist party, I'm sure this is beyond any 'capitalist dreams'. All the big brands are there, with their flashy signs and immense posters. McDonalds, KFC, Prada, Louis Vuitton, etc. But the local stores, with Chinese-made products, were also not bad at all. In a way, I had the impression that they export the crap away with those very 'competitive prices', and keep the quality stuff for themselves. The "Silk Market" was a building with cheap stores of all kinds of products in several floors. There I found all the Brazilians that I had not seen during my whole Asian journey; they seemed to be in ecstasy, in a shopping frenzy like I have seldom seen. I overheard young and old ladies alike bursting with joy about the prices and quality of bags, purses, shoes and all that jazz.

As usual, my luck led the way, bringing me to unexpected and delightful places. I met and befriended very interesting locals and expats, found an 'abandoned house' to live in and had a great time. There's much more I can write about my stay in Beijing, but I'll leave that for next week, in which I'll also post pictures of my trip to the Great Wall.

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My first trip in South-East Asia is now over. I spent 6 months in this area; 3 months in Vietnam, 2 months in Lao and 1 month between Cambodia and Thailand. Still, I can't say I know this part of the world well: there is a lot I haven't seen and a lot I haven't done. It's no secret that my favorites are Lao and specially Vietnam, but I'm willing to concede that this is probably because I have always been a fan of Vietnam, very curious to see how a 'communist' society differs from the rest and that I really don't understand why a country should have kings and queens in this day and age. But I must confess that, so far, I have not seen any major differences between a country led by a communist party and a country led by other kinds of parties.

I spent a long time in Vientiane and almost did not go anywhere else during my stay here. This was a sort of 'vacation' from travelling. As you probably know I'm travelling and working at the same time; this can be very exhausting, as I have to spend several hours in front of the computer and then be a tourist during my free time. I get carried away with the local bars, trips to nature and all the sightseeing. I found that this was almost impossible to keep up for a long time, specially in this heat. So, I decided to just be in Vientiane for a while; work, relax and make preparations for the next months, in which I intend to visit China, Mongolia and Russia (and hopefully some other countries).

Though I really prefer Vietnam and would love to spend more than just 3 months there, I'm pretty sure I would not have been able to work much or make any preparations for the rest of my trip - I'd be going out every day, chasing pretty girls, playing at the jam sessions, going to nature and trying to learn the language. Here in Vientiane, on the other hand, there is not much to do, not many pretty girls around and I couldn't find a single jam session (though I did find a studio with amazing drum kits, which I rented for very low prices). Many people asked me, baffled- "Why are you here for such a long time? This is so boring!". Well, I'm lazy. I liked it here, but if you're not into lazying around, indeed there is very little to enjoy.

Nevertheless, I managed to learn a few things here and was quite happy with their rhythm, which is totally different from Vietnam, where people are busy, there is a lot of traffic and things happen all the time. This place is the opposite: most people are really chilled out, things are done slowly and every one seems to be taking it easy. A long time ago, I read this saying somewhere: the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it and the Lao listen to it grow.

One evening, I met a French development consultant here. His work consists in going to developing countries and giving advice, based on what worked for the most developed nations. He told me that in Lao, wherever he goes - factories, farms, etc - there is always a point when people tell him "Please, can you just stop now? We have learned new methods and have acquired new tools, but we don't want to develop any more - this is good enough for us". I wish more people had this attitude. Not that I would stop developing my country when it reached the state that Lao is at, but there is always a point in which no further development is necessary - sometime, it's just enough. And it's up to each one to decide when they have reached that point. This is a very poor country but they seem genuinely happy, so it follows that there is no need for more 'development' - that would only make things worse, in my opinion. Happiness is the final goal, not a space program or a nuclear arsenal.

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It's a strange feeling, to be here for such a long time and leave now, knowing that it's very unlikely that I will ever come back. I think it's the first time I spent so much time in a city which I don't see myself coming back to in the future. I do hope to see South East Asia again, go through some more of Thailand and Vietnam, then move down to Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. But Vientiane is probably just a... "one month stand". And it was an excellent experience.

Tomorrow I fly to Beijing. Let's see what I'll find there.


Nong Khai (Sala Keo Ku)

The trip to Vientiane was an interesting experience. I travelled on a night bus that had (not so) reclining seats, down a windy and treacherous road. My seatmate was a very nice Israeli lady who had recently finished the military service. She got an amazing discount for us and two Hong Kong girls on the Tuk Tuk to the city center; the Lao driver initially asked for 80.000, but the mighty Jewish bargaining skills on the army lady brought it down to 25.000. I was very impressed.

Vientiane is very chilled out, has a nice view of the Mekong, and is itself quite a cute looking place, with a nice blend of traditional Eastern temple and colonial French style. But I'll not write about Vientiane today.

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Today I'll talk about Nong Khai, a small city on the other side of the Mekong, in Thailand, and Sala Keo Ku, a small village outside Nong Khai, with a very special statue park.

After a forthnight in Vientiane, my Lao visa expired and I had to leave the country and enter again, spending a a few days in Thailand. The closest city from the border is Nong Khai, which I did not explore much, but it didn't seem to have that much to offer anyway. Nevertheless, I was surprised to see how friendly people were, and how much more open, compared to Lao.

Here in Vientiane you can find quite a few 'after-40' expats who are trying to find a pretty local flower, but in Nong Khai I saw a much higher percentage. Some fellow travellers have given me their opinions about it, and it's usually negative. And usually against the old white western ugly old man who is in South East Asia trying to find a nice young wife. Well, the way I see it, it's not so bad. They probably have other reasons to be hanging around here, and finding a younger wife is no sin. But even if some of them are creepy old men who are here just for the plucking of flowers, well, I wouldn't say they're the evil villains and the locals are the poor victims. They seem to be nice guys, and their (usually ugly) girlfriends seem to enjoy the whole thing quite honestly - and I heard that they often break the old gentlemen hearts, after they build houses and exchange promises.

But the greatest part of all the "Visa Run", as they call it, was certainly the statue park and the temple within it. Some of the sculptures are just plain wicked!
While I was walking through the park, mesmerized by the really cool stuff there, enjoying the interaction with the Thai tourists, I heard a deep low beat somewhere, irregular and vibrant, which made me think of some sort of slow-motion DubStep. I followed it, and reached the temple, in which people were praying and... playing the Mighty Gong, which reverberated through the whole building. I could feel the sounds not only with my ears, but my whole body. I really hope to become the owner of a Gong in the future.
(I recommend seeing the following pictures in larger size, through this link)
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