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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