John Townley

Joined August 2019
  • Day30

    The Last Word on our Wonderful Journey

    September 24, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ 🌧 17 °C

    The rest of our journey went incredibly well. The transit in Helsinki was easy and we landed at Heathrow 15 minutes early at 5pm. We were delighted with Finnair. Our baggage was almost first out and our taxi driver was waiting so we were indoors, showered, changed and in our local pub for 6.30. We couldn’t have wished for a better journey.

    So just a few words on China…
    Firstly we must say it’s their Country so they can do what they want but we found it quite difficult in several ways. We have never been to a Country where the Government has such control. There are uniforms everywhere (the wearers always intense), police stations every few hundred yards, CCTV on a gigantic scale and then there is the internet, with virtually every platform that we would use on a daily basis banned (including Google Search and Mail, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube). We were just pleased that FindPenguins was OK and surprisingly FaceTime too were still available to use. Big Brother is always watching you for sure.

    As there have been decades of this kind of all consuming ‘control’ the people accept it without question. We heard it said ‘If the Government says something has to happen, then it does’. Of course there have been compromises and Beijing has some of the largest and most ostentatious Shopping Malls we have ever seen, filled with designer stores. The young and wealthy do not feel disadvantaged in that way and also they can now travel abroad without question, but everyone is quite clear who is in charge and conformance to this principle is absolute.

    Just to close on this subject, whilst we enjoyed the sights in China and met some notably nice people, we found the general population to be unfriendly, brusque and often close to downright rude. We had already decided that we had little interest in returning to the Country even before our final encounter with ‘a uniform’ resulted in the ridiculous, and totally unwarranted, confiscation of a battery pack on exit.

    So after a month away we have completed the Trans-Mongolian journey and absolutely loved it. All travel arrangements worked well and every departure and arrival was to schedule. We booked through ‘The Trans-Siberian Travel Company’ and their overall service was first-class, with their chosen local agents and guides adding so much value to our trip.

    The weather was incredibly kind to us and well beyond what we should have encountered, just 2 days with some rain out of our 28 days away and blue sky and unbroken sunshine on virtually every other day. We were also lucky not to have had any illness en-route (we were warned about the possibility of stomach upsets). The only minor blips being a few mosquito bites in St Petersburg and some self-inflicted head injuries (lumps and abrasions) caused by the low entrances to the Gers in Mongolia!

    We loved our time on the train and would have been happy for there to be more ‘train time’ than there was. We had a mix of beautiful hotel rooms and hard-bedded rustic accommodation, we dined well in top restaurants and we ate Russian dumplings on a farmhouse table, but the variance in City time and rural living was what made the trip so interesting. We met some wonderful people who we hope have good futures and gave them all ‘Special Pens’!

    We visited three new Countries which were all very different. The biggest Country in the World, Russia, which has changed beyond recognition in 30 years and looks to have a bright future, the wonderful Mongolia, to which we hope to return one day, with its diverse culture and fully functional traditional rural population. And then there’s China.

    One thing that definitely surprised us was the issue we faced along the whole route with language. Spoken English was often in short supply and the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in Russia and Mongolia, plus Chinese script sometimes made things difficult to find. Despite our extensive travel in the past this was unusual.

    Our low point was definitely the wait of several hours at Erlian Station on the way into China. The high point was definitely the magical day in Mongolia visiting the horse herding nomads in the morning and climbing the Dunes in the afternoon. The evenings spent in the train bar with Tony from Twickenham, Kirstine from Copenhagen and Will from Swansea whilst travelling through Siberia was also unforgettable. No excuses for repeating photographic memories of them below.

    It’s been good to know that so many people have followed our journey - so thanks for your feedback (even the rude bits!). The cases are now going up in the loft as we need a bit of ‘home’ time but as with any landmark travel adventures we have a lifetime of memories to take forward.
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  • Day29

    We're almost Finnished!

    September 23, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    It’s Monday morning, the alarm has gone off at 6.30am and it’s going home time. We slept well apart from further disruptions from the 70th Anniversary Parade rehearsals at midnight and also at 2am when a substantial number of artillery rounds were fired off and echoed amongst the tower blocks around us. Ben had told us that ‘big guns firing’ was always an integral part of this type of celebration.

    Yang was ready for us in reception and got us to Beijing Airport by just after 8am. Check-in and Immigration were fine however there was a real issue with John’s hand luggage at Security which resulted in him having one of his battery power packs confiscated, despite it holding less power than the other three units in his bag. The Security official was never going to be turned and as there was going to be no upside to having an argument with officialdom in China we had to walk away and say goodbye to a beloved and very useful Christmas present that Janet had purchased last year. It was a ridiculous, unfair and point-proving confiscation, but probably not surprising.

    We are flying for the first time with Finnair (8 hours to Helsinki plus 3 hours to London), due to a combination of cost and that we have been eyeing them up as a potential carrier for us on our annual trips to Thailand. As this is being written we are 34,000 feet up and very happy with our service so far. Since we departed Beijing we have been able to clearly see a number of places we have visited on our outward rail journey such as the Great Wall, the Gobi, Lake Baikal and Irkutsk.

    We were somewhat (childishly?) amused when a member of the cabin crew came to clear Janet’s lunch table and said ‘Are you finish?’. We were tempted to say ‘No, you are Finnish’ but......

    Now a little secret from yesterday. At 11am we were in the room getting ready to go out when John thought he heard a plane which was strange as the Airport is several miles North of Beijing. We looked out of the window and a few seconds later saw a group of fighter planes fly left to right across the sky, straight ahead of us, probably around 500 metres away. This was followed for the next ten minutes or so by other groups of fighter aircraft, then a steady stream of bombers, surveillance aircraft, helicopters and yet more fighters, all in formation. This was obviously part of the practice for the 1st October Celebration and a quite incredible show of aeronautic power which closed just as Janet managed to focus on the final act as you can see below. We had more shots but the sun was right at us and the smog made visibility even tougher. We remarked that our fly pasts in London down The Mall give a balance between the past and present, in a large part remembering the contribution of a brave past generation, whereas theirs is all about sending a message internally and externally that ‘our Country is powerful and no one should mess with us’. We were lucky to chance upon this substantial show of strength which says a lot about the Country.

    More on China in our final blog tomorrow once we’re safely back at base. In the meantime we are posting this in Helsinki where we have just landed on schedule.
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  • Day29

    The Chinese Way and no Tippy Tippy

    September 23, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    Today it’s our last day, it’s Sunday and we can’t believe it. We have a free day to do whatever we want! We decide to have a leisurely breakfast and then take about a 20 minute walk to the Silk Market via the Temple of Sun Park. We also witnessed something interesting from our hotel bedroom before we headed out but more of that tomorrow.

    Once again it was a beautiful day and the Park was busy. There were people jogging, fishing, families picnicking, ladies T’ai Chi’ing, girls giving themselves elaborate fashion-shoot selfies, a male saxophonist in the bushes (!?) and a group of people singing with a harmonica accompaniment. An eclectic mix for sure.

    Which reminds us that the Chinese are great users of public spaces to meet and enjoy themselves, particularly in respect of song and dance. On Friday evening we saw many groups of both mixed and female groups (mostly 50+ age) dancing in squares and on pavements in Central Beijing to portable speakers that they had brought along. Most of the dancing is choreographed and appears to be great fun for those involved. In the UK any activity of this kind would only be undertaken in a hired room or hall but part of the culture in China is to pick somewhere outdoors and just do it. There is now an official name for this (particularly in respect of older ladies) and it is called ‘Dama’.

    After the Park we arrived at Silk Street which up to 15 years ago was a huge outdoor market, but is now housed in a 5 storey building. Despite it’s name Silk is only sold in a small proportion of the site and you can buy pretty well anything you want there. We bought a couple of things (using the barter system) and then wandered back to the hotel to finish our packing and prepare for our last night out. We had a good four hours out and had a fine opportunity to witness Chinese people enjoying their Sunday. We noticed a few amusing things as you will note in the photos below!

    This evening we were really looking forward to the last dinner of our trip. We had booked at 7.30pm so firstly popped round the corner to the ‘Kylin Bar’ where we had been the previous evening. On our arrival the waiter recognised us from yesterday and after taking our order and delivering our drinks, he then brought us a bowl of peanuts and proudly pointed at them and showed us a translation on his phone which said ‘These items are free in the shop’. We think we know what he meant. He then keyed in something else to translate on his phone and showed us...‘Do not tip the waiter. Thank you.’, which we assume is a knock-on from last night’s bill negotiation and tipping escapade. We suspect maybe his boss wasn’t too happy about it. We obeyed this instruction (we must be turning Chinese) and resisted the temptation to tip when we left. The Kylin has been a welcome oasis for us in a City with virtually nowhere to just relax and have a drink.

    We got a taxi to our dining venue, the highly recommended ‘Little Yunnan’ restaurant, that had only been 10 minutes walk from our originally booked hotel. We were unable to be dropped right by the restaurant as the area within half a mile or so was in total lockdown for vehicles due to the two day rehearsals for the 70th Anniversary Celebrations. This was serious stuff with barricades and a multitude of security forces ensuring compliance.

    Anyway we had a wonderful meal. Ordering was tricky as we had no idea on portion sizes. We ordered three dishes and almost ordered a fourth but decided on caution. Thank heavens we did as our order would certainly have given a decent meal to four people. We gave it our best shot and didn’t leave much at all. The food is from the Yunnan Province which adjoins Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Tibet so is spicier than most other regional cuisines which suited us fine. It was a great meal to end the trip on. Although the restaurant was busy when we arrived...guess what? Yes we were the last to finish!

    Now things got very interesting as we asked for a taxi. There were no English speakers amongst the staff. They relied on the normal method of communication which is translating via their phone App.

    It became clear quickly that things were not looking good. Messages put in front of us such as ‘There will probably be no taxis tonight’, ‘May be a very long wait’ and ‘no one can drive near here’ were certainly not promising.

    It looked as if they couldn’t help us and to be fair they were ready to go home. We were translating back about our predicament, particularly the point that our hotel was an hours walk away! There was then a flurry of translations back from our waitress along the lines of ‘Shall we try for a taxi?’, ‘We need to find pick-up point’ and ‘If I pay for taxi you will give me money?’ In the middle of these translations was a strange one ‘I think you are sexy’ which had the waitresses bursting out in laughter as this was something either lost in translation of previously used for her boyfriend.

    Finally she booked us a taxi on her phone App and we paid her what she’d incurred plus a bit extra and then her and another waitress spoke to the driver. We then left the restaurant accompanied by the 2 waitresses and walked for around 15 minutes with them past the barricades and deserted streets until they located the agreed pick up point for the driver who was waiting. We really can’t thank them enough and will make sure their boss and Trip Advisor are aware as walking back would have proved challenging physically and directionally.

    So we were back to the hotel for about 10.30pm and finished packing for our journey home tomorrow, Monday. Yang is picking us up at 7.30am.
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  • Day28

    We hit the Wall

    September 22, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    It’s Saturday and our last day of sightseeing as we have left the final full day of our journey, tomorrow, absolutely free.

    Ben and Yang were ready for us at 8am and our first port of call was the Olympic Park and an outside view of two adjoining Stadia constructed for Beijing 2008. Firstly we saw the Bird’s Nest, a very recognisable and impressive stadium which accommodated the track and field events. Then we saw the adjoining Water Cube which looks like it is covered in bubble wrap. This housed the swimming and diving. The Chinese are very proud of holding International events and nationals still travel from all over the country to see landmarks such as these, in fact there is an average of 80,000 people per day who visit the Olympic Park (you have to pay to even see the stadia from the outside and even more to go inside).

    From here we had to travel 70 kilometres to The Great Wall of China. Our Tour Company does not visit the closest section to Beijing City due to over crowding and for this we are thankful. There was some interesting scenery on the way as we travel through hillsides famous for large scale production of all kinds of fruits and nuts.

    Now we arrive at the location known as Mutianyu and enter a world of a well oiled Chinese machine. Our first view of the Wall is a very long way above us and you can just pick out the line of the wall and a couple of turrets. The first stage is an efficient shuttle bus that transports us 5 minutes up the hill to a drop off point. From there you have an option of walking an hour up steep steps to the Wall or taking the cable car. Fortunately our Tour already included tickets for the latter. Well organised queues are of course the order of the day.

    We have been to several ‘Wonders of The World’ and iconic sights and one consistent theme is that we have been prepared to be disappointed but never have been. The Taj Mahal and Macchu Picchu spring to mind. The Great Wall is no exception. When we dismounted the cable car we got our first proper view and it was breathtaking in it’s scale and construction.

    Ben walked with us for a while and then left us to trek off on our own for an hour. The walk along the Wall is particularly interesting because the gradient and surface varies all the time. Sometimes it is a slope, sometimes steps (shallow, steep, narrow, wide) with gentle and sharp gradients. There were towers of varying sizes every couple of hundred yards apart as the Wall stretched ahead and behind us out of view. You have to keep remembering that this wall is many centuries old and runs for around 5,000 miles.

    There were quite a lot of people there but it was not overcrowded. The only problem was the heat and it was certainly hard work walking in around 28C between noon and 1pm. The shade of the towers was always welcome. We used our full time there and then descended back to base at the bottom where we enjoyed a nice lunch with Ben and Yang. As we have witnessed before on this tour, any opportunities guides and drivers have for a free meal is taken with relish. As it was an ‘as much as you can eat’ buffet our two helpers attacked the buffet as if they hadn’t eaten for several months. Now Yang is a big lad and decided not to eat at the same table as us, however we were able to see him devouring huge quantities of Chinese food at high speed and thought it would have been useful to wire up his chopsticks to the Chinese National Grid to give it a boost! To be fair I suspect all of our guides and drivers are not on brilliant money and we don’t blame them at all for enjoying plentiful good quality food when they have the chance.

    Then it was 70km back to Beijing which took about 2 hours. Now Ben had about four platefuls at the buffet and that took it’s toll as he slept for almost all the journey back. Fortunately Yang managed to stay awake and got us back to the hotel by about 4pm. We’d really enjoyed our last days sightseeing but were pleased to now have no more organised footslogging.

    We had not booked anything for the evening and took a short stroll from our hotel and fortunately found a precinct about 2 minutes walk away with a number of restaurants as well as, and we certainly found this hard to believe, a bar! So we sat outside this stylish bar with live music being played inside, Janet had a couple of G&T’s and John two cans of Guinness, as we weighed up our dinner options. When we asked for the bill the waiter came and shook his head when John pulled out a credit card. He quickly got his iPhone translator out and showed us the words ‘Cash only’. ‘No problem’ John intimated to the waiter with hand signals ‘but how much?’. The waiter got his calculator and punched in 220 (about £27). Mucking about John took the calculator off him and in the manner of market bartering changed this to 180. The waiter laughed and made gestures that a drinks bill is not negotiable. John took the calculator again and for a joke punched in 200 at which point the waiter said OK and the deal was done. We have never been able to negotiate a bar tab before! He got a good tip.

    After a big Chinese lunch we settled for dinner at the nearby Italian, named Annie’s, for pizza which we enjoyed with a bottle of red. The music selection swung between the Love Theme from The Godfather, Al Martino and Opera in a random rotation which is probably designed to make the locals feel that they are actually in Italy. It caused us some amusement after we’d heard The Godfather theme tune for the 5th time! By the way we were the last people to leave the restaurant....again!
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  • Day27

    A long Lucky, Ducky Day

    September 21, 2019 in China ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    So we jumped into Yang’s car at Beijing Station at 3pm and Ben gave us some important information about our afternoon City Tour straight away. Two of the main attractions, Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City were to be closed from tomorrow for 11 days so today was our only chance to see them!

    The reason for the closure of these areas is rehearsals will be taking place for the big parade to be held on 1st October to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

    We were very lucky to have the chance to see these places, however last entry into the Forbidden City is 4pm and you have to be out by 5pm. There was obviously no time to check into our hotel we just needed to get a shift on despite having just come off the back of a 31 hour train journey.

    Now came another surprise. Ben told us that although we had been due to stay at the Kapok Hotel right in the City Centre near the Forbidden City (which had been booked at least 6 months ago), because of traffic restrictions caused by the Anniversary celebrations our booking had been transferred to another hotel (the Citadines) 3.5 miles further out from the centre.

    This caused much jumping up and down and whinging from us about our disadvantaged location and wasted pre trip research but Ben kept calm and told us that it’s not like the UK and if the government say something must be done then it has to happen. We have subsequently learned that all the hotels close to Tiananmen Square are having to ship out foreign tourists for two days (Saturday and Sunday) in part to stop them taking photos of the parade rehearsals. Quite bizarre really.

    Anyway this couldn’t allow us to be diverted from our high speed, race against the clock, sightseeing Tour. Our first stop was the vast Tiananmen Square, the biggest Square in the World. It is mighty impressive with iconic buildings flanking it’s sides, Mao Tse Tung’s Mausoleum and The Great Hall of the People being the two best known.

    Then it was a quick dash to the Forbidden City (arriving 10 minutes before last entry) which was the work place and home for Chinese Emperors over the Centuries until their removal during the revolution of the early 1900’s. It is a huge site filled with Palaces of different meanings and functions. Despite the time constriction we had a good look round and then walked to a nearby hill to look down on the Forbidden City and really grasp the scale of the complex.

    We then checked into our ‘new’ hotel and to cut a long story short we have calmed down in our objections. The bottom line is that our new hotel is fine and the rooms are very well appointed (breakfast is top class too). We also know that all the reasons behind our hotel switch are absolutely true and that our UK Agent also only found out about the change yesterday.

    We realised how very lucky we were because if we had arrived in Beijing a day later on our schedule we would have missed these two top iconic sights which would have been a disaster.

    Tonight we wanted to visit a particular recommended restaurant named Siji Minfu for Peking Duck. Now this would have been a 7 minute stroll from our original hotel, but a look at the map showed that it would be nearly an hour walk from our new location. With the help of reception we got a cab which arrived there in less than 15 minutes. We had read there is usually a big queue for tables (this was correct!) and when we got there at 8pm we were told it would be an hour and a half wait. They gave us a ticket with our queue number and we headed about 100 yards to the bar of the Crowne Plaza Hotel for an hour (regular street bars don’t seem to exist here) before returning to Siji Minfu and waiting just 10 minutes for our table. It was worth the hassle. After a prawn starter our duck was carved in front of us and melted in the mouth. As per usual we were the last people left in the restaurant and paid the bill as the chairs were being piled on tables and the kitchen staff were leaving the building. It was then a taxi back and in the room by 11pm.

    It has been one hell of a 24 hours for us since entering China but after some ups and downs we ended on a high and are looking forward to another trip highlight tomorrow, The Great Wall.
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  • Day27

    Nightmare in Erlian

    September 21, 2019 in China ⋅ ☁️ 16 °C

    Well when we left you last we were on a high, enjoying ourselves in the elaborate Mongolian Dining Car. It’s fair to say things went downhill from there!

    We spent a pleasant afternoon back in our lovely compartment sipping coffee and watching life on the Gobi but in the back of our minds we knew what was coming later in the day.....Border control and the changing of the bogeys on each carriage from Mongolian to Chinese gauge. Now we knew this was going to be a palaver (great word) lasting some time but we weren’t prepared for the scale of the shenanigans (even better word).

    Exiting Mongolia was fine. We pulled into Zamyn-Uud Station around sundown - just before 7pm - and remained in our compartment for about an hour and a half reading and using the last of our mobile internet. A border control lady collected our passports on arrival, checked that we looked like the photos and took them away. Passports duly returned some time later we departed on schedule at 8.45pm knowing that it was 30 minutes to Erlian Station in China where we would spend several hours going through border formalities and the train would be taken to an engineering shed where it would be hoisted while the wheel transformation takes place.

    The big surprise was when ‘Mr Woo’ came into our compartment with his trusty mobile phone to show us one of his translations. We thought maybe it would be ‘Hope you are having a nice time’ or maybe ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ but no, unfortunately it was something along the lines of ‘when we get to Erlian Station you have to take all your belongings off the train’!!

    Shock, horror. Now we need to give this context. Compared to most Trans-Mongolian passengers we are not travelling light, although due to our multi-movements we are quite well practiced in the art of packing. Train compartments do cause an issue as even if you are in first class they can in no way be described as being flush for space. What this means is that on arrival in a compartment we have to break down our two big cases into several smaller chunks which can then be stored in varying small shelves, cupboards, nets, hooks, under berths and in any other hidey holes we can find. With our train journeys taking between 24 hours and four days it has not been too much of an issue to break down the bags on boarding and to re-pack prior to arrival.

    Mr Woo’s instruction gave us a challenging 20 minutes to get all of our stuff together back in our cases, plus gather together our food, drink, flasks, books, electronic devices, toiletries etc (hand baggage) which were dotted around the compartment and we assumed would remain there for the 31 hours of our journey. We knew we would have to leave the train for a while but nowhere in our research and advice did it say we had to clear everything out of our compartment in the process.

    We completed the task exactly at the time we pulled into Erlian and we disembarked with several hundred other travellers (almost exclusively tourists). It was 9.15 pm and strangely the station buildings were tastefully covered in flashing neon lights (Las Vegas sprang to mind) and there was Chinese music playing through the speakers. I guess this is their reasonable attempt at ‘Welcome to China’.

    Fortunately we were near the front of the queue to enter the main station building and what we discovered to be Immigration. We queued for a while, went through passport control where we underwent facial and fingerprint recognition before or passports were stamped, then had our baggage x-rayed. We were now officially in China.

    Then it got interesting, but not in a good way. Quite simply we were confined to the station building with no information on where to go and how long we would be there, albeit we had a schedule in our itinerary that indicated a 1.20am departure (it was now 10.20pm) so we always knew it would be a long wait. We plonked ourselves down in reasonable railway station seats as did all of our fellow passengers (in various places around the building) and passed the time away - not very peacefully however as we had a large group of Spanish women sitting next to us who did not stop talking for 3 hours (all at the same time and very loudly!). There was nowhere open inside the station to buy anything (talk about missed revenue opportunity) however there was a drinking water fountain! Oh, and all external doors were locked! They obviously didn’t want you wandering around the town!! We eventually deduced from an electronic information board, that our departure time was in fact 2am. This did not help our spirits. Fortunately games on our iPads saved the day, particularly ‘Virtual Lawn Green Bowls’ - highly recommended!

    Now a quick aside. Up to last year you had the option to remain on your carriage and go into the shed whilst the bogeys were being changed. However if you took this option the toilets were locked throughout and you may have a rather uncomfortable three/four hours. Anyway this option is now off the table.

    Back to present day Erlian Station and at 1.15am we were alerted to the fact that boarding would recommence. With unbridled relief we reloaded our bags onto the train with Mr Woo’s kind assistance (the low platform is unhelpfully over a yard below the train) and then unpacked to be able to get everything away so we could get to bed. The train pulled out of the Station we never want to see again at exactly 2am.

    It was a quick coffee and lights out for 2.30am. The good news is that the berths are comfortable. The bad news is that our first 5 hours in China were bloody awful! There are no photos of any of this as the ‘no photographs’ signs looked extremely non-negotiable. To put the frustrations of these past 5 hours into perspective it represents just 0.7% of the overall trip and on an adventure like ours things will not always be exactly as you hope.

    After an exhausted sleep we returned to good spirits on Friday morning and enjoyed tea and porridge around 9am. We had obviously missed a few hours visibility of China due to sleep but what we saw first thing was a mix of large towns with factories, big out of town industrial units and arable land (mainly corn). A lot of housing that looked very poor indeed and the amount of general rubbish dumped in ditches, river banks and by the railway line was quite depressing. Not quite Mongolia. Also Mr Woo’s number two (now that doesn’t sound very nice but you know what we mean) is on duty this morning and he is a right misery guts, although he does allow us to alight for a couple of minutes at one stop.

    With a scheduled arrival at 2.35pm we enjoyed our last pot noodle lunch on the train. Whilst in Ulaanbaatar John decided that he needed something with a bit more heat so he purchased a ‘2 x Very Hot Spicy Chicken’ which did not lie as it was just about the hottest thing he had ever eaten in his life bringing tears to his eyes. Perhaps the clue was in the title. We are hoping for no repercussions.

    We arrived at Beijing Station exactly to schedule (overall punctuality has been excellent), said goodbye to Mr Woo and his number two, and were met by our new guide Ben and then our driver Yang. They will be looking after us for two days now as we embark on the last leg of our journey.
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  • Day25

    Dining Mongolian style

    September 19, 2019 in Mongolia ⋅ ☁️ 24 °C

    So the purpose of this blog is to try to use up the remaining data on our Mongolian SIM card before we cross the border to China so hopefully this will get through.

    Got to Ulaanbaatar Station at 7am not knowing if we would be on a Mongolian or Chinese train as they run alternate rolling stock on this service so it was a 50/50 chance. A quick glance at our platform revealed smartly uniformed Chinese staff (all male) waiting by the carriage doors so we knew we had a Chinese train all the way. We weren’t sure if this was good news or not.

    Our tickets were checked and we found our First Class compartment door. What would it be like? Well we were absolutely delighted to find that our two bed compartment had smart upper and lower berths together with a nice armchair (both berths were quite wide and should be comfortable for sleeping). There was a small wardrobe and then the biggest surprise, our own en suite bathroom with wash basin, shower and a nice clean toilet. The fit out looked pretty new and it certainly won the award for the best compartment of our trip.

    There is a constant boiling water supply available at the end of the corridor and our Chinese Attendant (let’s call him Mr Woo) seems friendly enough although unlike the Russian Provodnistas he seems more interested in remaining in his compartment watching films on his phone, than vacuuming and cleaning. He appeared pleased enough to receive one of our special pens that we hand out to those who have assisted or may be needed to help us.

    We settle down and make our own porridge for breakfast and soon we are out of the City and travelling through countryside peppered with the usual Gers, livestock and horse riding herders.

    After about 3 hours we arrive, about 20 minutes late, at our first stop the small town of Choir. Now this was supposed to be a 24 minutes stop but as we were running late we suspected this would be cut short and this was confirmed by Mr Woo with help of a translation app on his phone, which he seemed quite proud of. Plenty of people disembarked the train to stretch their legs but no one ventured far and a few local ladies peddled their wares to the passengers. After about 15 minutes a call went out along the platform and we were all hastened aboard for departure.

    We had decided to eat lunch in the restaurant and decided to get our half bottle of Russian Vodka back into play with some Schweppes Tonics we acquired in UB, for a pre lunch aperitif with some peanuts and dried cranberries we were given as a freebie by Hunnu Air (we know how to live the high life!).

    Then we went for what we believed was going to be a highlight of this journey. Lunch. Although this is a Chinese train there is a Mongolian Dining car attached until we reach the border and this has a reputation as being one of the most unique train dining experiences. Just look at the photo!

    So we had a nice set lunch in great surroundings (it was busy with tourists) with a couple of beers whilst we trundled through the Eastern Gobi. There were large buzzards flying alongside us most of the time and the landscape became flatter and drier as we moved south. This train travel is not hard work it’s a real pleasure, albeit we have a massive benefit not having to share with anyone as the four berth compartments we walked past on the way to the dining car are really tight and awkward. The supplement we’ve paid for this is well worth it.

    At 3pm whilst we are still lunching, we make our final stop before the border at Sainshand. In just over 4 hours we will leave Mongolia and enter China. We’ll leave it here as our mobiles will lose signal soon.
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  • Day24

    Last call in UB

    September 18, 2019 in Mongolia ⋅ ⛅ 8 °C

    Just to mention a few things before we close on Mongolia.....

    Brief history of Mongolia. The Mongolian hero Genghis Khan created the biggest Empire the world has ever witnessed in the 13th Century which ran from Poland to Korea. The Khan dynasty eventually collapsed and by the 1600’s Mongolia was overrun by the Manchurian Chinese who ruled the country until 1910. At that time the Chinese were driven out by the Mongolians with assistance from Russia. Mongolia was then truly independent for ten years, however in 1920 the Russian Bolsheviks led by Lenin exerted more control on Mongolia (peacefully) and from then until the break up of the Soviet Union in 1990 Mongolia was ruled from Moscow, with a substantial number of Russian soldiers stationed in the country. In 1990 a peaceful revolution saw the Russians withdraw and Mongolia became an totally independent country again.

    Oddities here include.......The Mongolian language is strange and sounds to us like a mixture of Russian, Pakistani and Welsh! It was a beautifully scribed language, used for centuries, that was written top to bottom rather that side to side. The Russians outlawed its use in 1940 and converted all script to Russian letters which remain to this day. The traditional Mongolian written language is now unfortunately dead.

    Vehicles drive on the right in Mongolia, however their cars are a complete mix of right hand and left hand drive cars, as many of their cars are bought direct from Japan where they drive on the left. This mix and match arrangement certainly does not help the traffic problems in UB and some of the more eccentric driving arrangements we have witnessed outside of the capital.

    We were surprised to see virtually no bicycles nor motorbikes on the roads in UB. One reason is that it’s too dangerous due to the kamikaze car driving. The other is that no one in their right mind would attempt to ride them between October and May when it is normally below 20C.

    We‘ve been so very lucky to have enjoyed brilliant weather every day whilst in Mongolia with brilliant blue daytime skies and clear starry nights, however we read that Ulaanbaatar is officially the coldest Capital City in the World with an average minimum of -25C in Winter.

    Their currency Is the Tugrik (3,200 to the £). There are no coins and the smallest note is 50 Tugrik = 1.5 pence and the biggest 20,000 Togrik = £6.25.

    It’s now definitely goodnight from us here in UB.
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  • Day24

    Back in the Ulaanbaatar

    September 18, 2019 in Mongolia ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    Back in Ulaanbaatar (UB) we have two days before we take the train to Beijing. As far as the blog is concerned we are keen to complete Mongolia before we leave the country as censorship rules in China may well block FindPenguins. We know that WhatsApp and Google are blocked so we must assume the worst and it could well be that we have little contact with the outside World until we are home on 23rd September. We’ll see.

    So once arriving back in UB on Tuesday we visited the National Museum, then while walking across the square in front of Government House witnessed a number of wedding photo sessions taking place. We discovered that any couple getting married in Mongolia are allowed to have some photos taken inside the barriers around the Parliament and more specifically in front of the Genghis Khan statue. We then did some shopping (including some cashmere bargains for Janet) and had a very nice Indian meal to close the day.

    On Wednesday we had originally been hoping for a free day, however on the flight to the Gobi we realised that there was part of our day tour to the Terelj National Park last week that was not covered, this being a visit to the huge Genghis Khan monument - some way out of UB. We are still not sure if our UK agent or the local tour company were to blame, however this is a key sight and it needed to be done. Unfortunately it was a 2 hour drive there and the same back, so with 90 minutes actually there we lost half a day but it was very worthwhile as the pictures show. This stainless steel monument to Mongolia’s National hero was completed in 2010 and is truly gigantic, dominating the hilltop as Genghis faces the town of his birth some miles away.

    Our guide today was our old friend NK who had only just recovered from his return trip from the Gobi and our driver was another of our acquaintances from the local tour company, Eggy.

    After our trip it was back to the hotel for a packing session as we prepare to leave UB for Beijing tomorrow (Thursday) with the final train of our trip departing at 07.30am and arriving at 2.30pm, 31 hours later.

    As we now have the facility to send videos a couple are included below. You can also view our arrival at the summit of the Dune on this link:

    https://youtu.be/XEEH2AIanm0
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  • Day24

    Goodbye Gobi

    September 18, 2019 in Mongolia ⋅ ☁️ 9 °C

    Our last day in the Gobi, Monday, was a relatively easy one as we had no specific activities planned and the main event was to complete our circuit with a 5 hour drive from Camp 3 back to Camp 1, leaving at 8am.

    Apart from the last half hour this was off-road and a tough drive for Choijo over difficult, mainly gravel, terrain. It needs full time concentration particularly with some challenging dry river bed crossings to negotiate. Our vehicle is just about OK for the conditions (it’s not 4x4) and each bone shaking journey is fine but most definitely bumpy. As always here there are no shortage of things to look at, Nomadic camps, livestock, herders, mountains etc. We stop every hour or so for a ten minute break, where Janet and I stretch our legs whilst NK and Choijo enjoy a quick fag!

    By the way our mobile internet has surprisingly worked well across the Gobi as long as we don’t use video data and it’s allowed us to keep the blog running to time. A little bonus we found on the internet today was some information about our Rootin’ Tootin’ Shootin’ Camouflage Wearing Ibex Blasting Asshole from California (think there’s a song title there somewhere!) Larry. His calling card alerted us to the fact that he owns a Real Estate business (ironically it should be legal to shoot them) and a web search showed that he had been a very naughty boy in 1998 (aged 45) when he was caught smuggling Cuban cigars into the USA through San Francisco airport (a definite no no). The Newspaper report covered the fact that authorities had him under surveillance as he had previous offences in this area having been caught transporting them back before and posting quantities of them to friends whilst travelling to Mexico. Apparently he was buying them for $5 and selling them for $40. The report was mid-Court case and said he could face up to 2 years in jail but we couldn’t find the outcome. Let’s assume he got banged up!

    Anyway back to Mongolia and we woke at 6am on Tuesday for our Hunnu flight to UB, which was scheduled for 8.20, but actually departed 20 minutes early, which nearly caught us out as all of the hold luggage was already on board when we arrived. When we got to the airport we said a fond farewell to NK and Choijo who have been fantastic companions over the four days. The former, as our guide, has perfect English, however our driver spoke not a word but we all managed to communicate effectively and had a good laugh throughout. As we took off they were starting the long journey back and were hoping that they could be back to UB in about 12 hours with the journey, fortunately, all on tarmac roads.

    We are sad to leave the Gobi but are so pleased to have had the opportunity to see a unique and wonderful place, steeped in traditions virtually unchanged for centuries. Mongolia has a huge land mass, being the 18th largest country in the World. It has a population of just 3 million people, 1.5 million of who live in the Capital, UB, a big city not dissimilar to any modern bustling metropolis in the Western World.

    However away from UB there are 1.5 million people including 230,000 herding families who make up a huge percentage of the rural population and many of these are nomads like the ones we encountered yesterday.

    Livestock numbers in Mongolia are quite staggering and in last years audit numbered 84 million in total, made up almost exclusively of 38 million Sheep, 35 million Goats, 5 million Horses and 5 million Cattle.

    We have never seen a country split so definitively between City dwellers and the countryside inhabitants (they have absolutely zero in common apart from being Mongolian) but fortunately the sheer volume of established self-sufficient livestock herding families should ensure that their traditions are able to survive for several more generations. We really hope so.
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