Thursday, August 23, 2007

We are falling in love!

Our love for parks have grown since arriving in Japan. The Japanese Garden at the New Otani Hotel is now added to the list. With 400 years of history, this garden is one of the most renounced in Tokyo. Surrounded by the outer moat of the Edo castles, the garden offers a place of peace and Japanese tradition. Here there are beautiful trees, flowers, foliage, waterfalls, and carp ponds. This truly takes you out of the hustle and bustle of the city streets.
Omonte-Sando is calming street lined with beautiful trees. However, it is also dominated with chic boutiques and ritzy fashion stores. Attempting to see the Meji-Jingu (the grandest Shinto shrine), we had no sense of direction and ended up on the street, Gaien-nishi-dori better known as Killer-dori for its very fashionable boutiques. Here the stores consisted of Dior, Harry Winston, and Armani. It appeared that Tokyo is the fashion mecca of the world. Close to this street lies the Spiral building. This building is supposedly a hit with all architectural fans. However, we were not impressed. Its very subtle spiral is laden with boutiques and ever-changing modern art exhibits. At the time of our visit, the IAMAS (Institute of Advanced Media Art and Science/International Academy of Media Art and Sciences) presented artworks in the fields of art, design, and engineering. It was difficult to understand the concepts associated with each piece due to our inability to understand the Japanese language.
Due to the massive heat outside, we are waiting to go to the Azabu Juban Festival. This is one of the major summer festivals in Japan. As we approached the Azabu Juban area, the streets were lined with bright red and white lanterns and hordes of people. There were over 700 stalls of street vendors from shaved ice to barbecue squid on a stick. You could test your scooping skills at a game of gold fish catching. We observed each stall and decided to take the save route and tried a sample of yakatori, beef on a stick. After questing threw the crowds of people, we decided to have dinner at a Singapore restaurant. Here we ordered Jasmine rice and boiled chicken. It was served with three fabulous sauces, ginger, chili, and soy. We are unsure to as the spices and ingredients used in the rice and chicken. However, it sure was tasty!
Over this wonderful dish, we strolled around the Tokyo Mid-town Park. You've read about this park during the previous posting.
Back to the Japanese culinary experience. We had the privilege of meeting our friend, Kensuke for dinner. He took us to Toriyoshi, they specialized in yakatori. We sampled pork, chicken, and radish salad. It was absolutely fabulous! Next, we made our way to the Cold Stone Creamery, but it was closed. Then, we settled for a Brownie Sundae from Hard Rock Cafe. Soon after this, we retired home and Kensuke stayed the night. He was very tired as he only had 4 hours of sleep for the past 3 nights. Awaken by Jay pulling back the curtains, I scurried out of bed. Kensuke and Jay decided it was time to head out for lunch. But, first we had to try Natto, which was a smelly, sticky bean substance. Kensuke explained to us that his mother would make them eat this 2-3 times a week for good heath. Jay and I immediately did not like this. Let's say that this will not be in our future grocery shopping cart. For lunch, Jay had a special request, tempura. Luckily, Kensuke was able to find the perfect spot. Here we sampled vegetable and shrimp tempura. And don't forget the whale steak. Surprisingly, Jay and Kensuke liked the whale steak and described as a piece of beef with a slightly fishy taste. After lunch, Kensuke insisted that we try Ume boshi, a salty, sour apricot. Jay and I immediately spit it out and vowed not to buy this product, as well. We lounged around the apartment and watched Japanese music videos. Then, we decided that it was time to get out of the house and explore. We came upon the agreement of going to the Meiji-Jingu, Tokyo's grandest Shinto shrine. This shrine is dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meji and Empress Shoken. Mostly, the shrine is made of cypress from the Nagano prefecture. This was a beautiful sight and gave you much appreciation for the Gods.
As you know we love parks, the Yoyogi Metroplolitan Park is also added to the list. It is apparent that this must be one of the largest parks in Tokyo. Here you will find people sunbathing, little girls chasing dragon flies, people playing an arrangement of musical instruments from the saxophone to a traditional Japanese instrument, and dogs rolling in the grass. It had beautiful trees and flowers in collaboration with spewing water fountains. We made our way to the subway and said our good-byes to Kensuke. Tonight, we will pack our belongings as we are heading to Malibu, California tomorrow. Where we get to hang out at the beach and go to Yosemite Park with Jessi and her boyfriend, Tim. We can't believe that our journey is almost to an end.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Streets of Shinjuku!

Japanese food is such a culinary expereince. Jay and I had the opportunity to have dinner at a noodle house. Here we sampled a savory pork broth with ramen noodles, leeks, garlic, and spinach. With bellies full of ramen, we made our way to the notorious Shinjuku area. This is the area where Bill Murray, Lost in Translation, gets his first, jet-lagged glimpses of Tokyo. We weren't surprised to see bright, neon lights crackle with such high energy. Shinjuku is divided into two sides by the massive subway station. The east side is spontateous choas, where you wonder with your neck craining up and down. The colorful, but sleezy attractions here are Kabukicho and Golden Gai areas.
Kabukicho is Tokyo's notorious red light district. I'll let your imagination run with what happens in this part of the neighborhood. The Golden Gai area consisted of a ramshackle block with closet-sized bars. Here watch out for the steep stair ways, you may bruise your shin. This city appears to be overwheming, but we are falling in love with the exploding neon lights.
Heat and humidity have been a constant theme here, in Tokyo. However, we found sanctuary at a natural setting in the heart of Roppongi. Here we found the perfect spot to retreat from the constant struggles of day to day life. Tokyo Mid-town Garden is a realm where one can appreciate the natural art gallery of the lush green trees. Here there is a perfect spot to bring dogs, a fountain spewing with ice, cold water. The Hichnokicho Park has beautiful flora with a flowing rock pond. This is pure "Japanese beauty."
Another great culinary experience in Tokyo. We had the luxury of having dinner with Mike Herman and Chris. Lotus root, bunashimeji mushrooms, sweet potato, and Kobe beef were the main counterparts of this cuisine. However, the most interesting dish was the "throw anything from the refrigerator in." This dish originated after the war when people searched and used anything as a means of food. Therefore, whatever ingredients available was fried into a shape much like that of a pizza and drizzled with soy sauce. Our particular dish had potato, lettuce, scallops, and squid. This was fun and quite tasty. Bar hopping is utterly amusing, especially when every bar you enter is empty. The 06/03 bar is where we ended up at. Here classic rock was played boisterously on Bose speakers. And don't forget the small, Japanese man dancing in the corner to every song played. Man, you gotta love Tokyo!
Interview, Interviews, another motif of Tokyo.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Neon lights of Shibuya!

It's been a few days since the last post. Are you wondering what we have been doing? Sight seeing has been our game. Well, attempting to.
The National Art Center of Tokyo was recently open in January of 2007. This is the first art institution that does not maintain a permanent collection. It rather focuses on serving as a venue for various art exhibitions. At the time of our visit, the main exhibition was The 100th Anniversary of NITTEN. The major works of art were of Nihonga (Japanese-style painting), Yoga (Western-style painting), sculptures, crafts, and calligraphy. It traced the history of the trends and achievements in Japanese modern art over the past century. Jay and I were impressed with this exhibit. However, we were more in amazement with the architecture of the building. The lobby atrium features a 21.6 meters high ceiling and an undulated glass facade. It controls the amount of solar heat and ultra violent rays entering the building. Not only did we have a lovely afternoon appreciating the works of art. We also had a fabulous time having coffee and dessert at a cafe overlooking the heart of Tokyo.
The Musee Tomo is one of Tokyo's most elegant and tasteful museums. It features works of art from Kikuchi Tomo, who focuses on contemporary Japanese ceramics. However, we were unable to see her beautiful masterpieces, because we never found the building. We searched for at least an hour and went home due to exhaustion. Hopefully, we will venture out to find this museum again.
Step out of the Shibuya Station onto Hachiko Plaza, just after dark, and you are in the Tokyo of your dreams. The grand square is a spectacle in neon, streets that radiate out like a star burst, and the crowd is a mix of the up most elegance to adolescent punks. We scurried through the neon filled streets with our friend, Trevor, to his house. Two blocks away from the city, we were instantly in a quiet neighborhood where you could only hear insects mating with one another. Trevor welcomed us into his home, where we indulged in pizza and watched Lost In Translation. The movie was a perfect depiction of foreigners experiencing Tokyo. Constantly looking up in amazement at the neon lights and fighting the crowds of people, we made our way back to the Hachiko Plaza. Here, we learned about Hachiko the Dog Statue. A small Akita dog would come to this station every day to await his mater's return. One day the master died at work, but the dog continued to show up and wait at the station until his own death 10 years later. The Japanese built a statue in his honor for his faithfulness. This statue was surrounded by numerous people as I took a snapshot with Hachiko.
Spent the afternoon at the Ueno-Koen. This park has several names: its Sunday name, which no-one ever uses, is Ueno Onshi Koen; some locals dub it Ueno no Oyama (Ueno Mountain); and English speakers call it Ueno Park. Therefore, we called it Ueno Park. We walked up the huge stair way and contuined down a narrow road that follows a pond, Shi-nobazu-ike. Through the red gate, on an island in the pond, is Benten-do, a memorial to Benten, a patron goddess of the arts. We walked around the pond in amazement that such a beautiful, quiet place was centered in the heart of Tokyo. Continued with the walk and approached a baseball game. Then, we made our way to a playground pretending to be kids again. Walking around the narrow lit roads, we discussed this sanctuary and the beauty of being able to retreat from the busy streets of Tokyo. Through out the park, men and women slept on card board boxes. With this in mind, the park felt extremely safe. Spent numerous hours here and decided to roam the streets of Ueno. Once again, we were captivated by neon lights and bustling crowds of people.
Today, we slept in and Jay prepared for an interview. Who knows what the night will bring! Maybe, sake and sushi!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Praying to the Kami!

Addicted to grapefruit, I have become! We had this for breakfast and scurried out the door for a fun field day of sight seeing.
Hidden behind the main streets, a large splendid Shinto shrine, Kanda Myojin, lies in a beautiful courtyard. The kami (gods) enshrined here are said to bring luck in business and finding a spouse. Many worshippers surrounded this shrine to provide an offering, pray, and bow as a sign of respect. We came here to pray to the gods for Jay's luck within the trading industry. We hope the gods answered our prayers!
Remember the Tsukiji Central Fish Market? Well, Akihabara is to Japan's legendary electronics industry. Its bustling, busy, and fun to watch. Here, big box retailers, wholesale shops, and tiny stalls compete to sell you everything from big appliances to mouse pads. We roamed in and out of the shops in search for a Sony Viao laptop, Type T. However, this laptop appeared to be twice as much with the English OS system. Jay quickly determined that he was going to learn Japanese, so that he is able to by the computer at half the price. We stopped at the Sega Club and played a couple of arcade games, feeling like kids again.
We approached Asakusa to the Senso-ji shrine. Walking to the shrine, we were surrounded by numerous vendors overtaking the streets attempting to sell everything from bean curd filled cookies to kimonos. Senso-ji enshirnes a golden statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Legend has it this goddess was miraculously fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two fisherman in AD 628. A steady stream of worshippers made their way up to the stairs to the temple, where they casted coins, prayed, and bowed. In front of the temple, a huge incense cauldron stood. People surrounded this wafting the smoke and scent to their bodies and over their heads to ensure good health. Today, we worshiped the gods as Japanese women and men do.
Later that evening, we roamed the streets and winding alleyways of Asakusa and found our way to our local sushi shop.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

24 hour Sushi!

At 8:30 am, we made our way through passport control and customs. Then, we followed Love to the bus terminal to the Roppongi station. Here we had to take an hour bus ride and then a 5 minute taxi-ride. We engaged in conversation with Love and during this time we exchanged telephone numbers in hopes that we meet up again. Finally, we arrive at our apartment complex. Greeted with perfect English and welcoming hearts, we were escorted to our 34 square meter apartment. Small, uh? Even though it was small in size, it had an extremely modern look with brand new amenities. We immediately put down our bags and headed out for sushi. Did you know that you could get sushi 24 hours, seven days a week? Later, we defintely took advantage of this luxury. After eating, we lounged around the apartment for a few hours, before time to see fireworks. Miharu, our friend that we met in Latvia, put us into contact with some of her friends that currently live in Tokyo. Before our arrival, we contacted her friend, Kensuke, who invited us to join his friends and him to celebrate the Sumida River Hanabi. In summer time, Japan is synonymous with exhibitions of fireworks. The ones on the Sumida River are among the most spectacular. We weren't prepared for this grandness event, which went on marvellously for hours. Not only did the city greets us with beautiful fireworks, we also met some wonderful people, Ryu, Hiroyuki, and Misa. After the fireworks, we made our way through the people to the train station. What a wonderful way to end our first day in Japan.
Jay prepared mentally for his interviews over the next few days. However, we did find time to visit the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The floor no long echoes with the flurry of busy activity. In 1999, the trading floor closed and now all trading is by computer. But, it was amazing to contemplate the sheer amount of capital that passes through there daily. The interviews went well and met wonderful people in the industry. Two guys in particular, Trevor and Phil. Both of these guys worked for Citi group and offered much advice to Jay. Trevor was kind enough to invite us to hangout with him at the pool at the prestigious American Club. The cafe there had wonderful grilled cheese and chocolate cake. As we all know, chocolate cake is a must for Jay and me.
The following week, I got sick with some sort of 24 hour flu. Therefore, we had to take it easy on Sunday and Monday. However when Tuesday came round, I was ready for sight seeing. First, we made our way to the Imperial Palace. Called the kokyo in Japanese, this is the home of Japan's emperor and imperial family. The palace itself is a contemporary reconstruction of the Mejii Imperial Palace, destroyed in WWII. On these grounds once stood, the Edo (now, Tokyo) Castle, in its time the largest castle in the world. At the end of the shogunal rule, due to Commander Perry and the black ships, the castle had been destroyed in the upheavels leading to the transfer of power. Much of the castle that remained was torn down to make way for the Imperial Palace. The palace it self is closed to the public except for two days a year, New Years and the Emperor's birthday. However, it is possible to roam around the outskirts to visit the gardens and the palace's most famous landmark, the Niju-bashi bridge. The Higashi-Gyoen, Imperial Palace East Garden, is the only corner of the Imperial Palace that is open regularly to the public. This makes for an excellent retreat as you are able to get up-close and personal views of the massive stones used to build the castle walls and climb the ruins. After spending three hours in the furious sun, we continued on our way to the Nihombashi bridge(Japan Bridge). Even with the bronze lions guarding it, we walked right pass this granite bridge more than two times. However, it is most important for its historic significance. This bridge was the point from which all distances were measured during the Edo period. Therefore, this bridge use to be the center of Tokyo.
The following day, we decided to make our way to Ginza St. Here, the streets were lined with designer shops, such as Coach, Louis Vuitton, and Prada. We roamed around these streets and found ourselves at the Sony building. This building attracts many hounds in search of gizmos that have not been released yet. We played with every electronic device in amazement at the technology that went to each product. After roaming each floor, we decided to return to our apartment for lunch. With the blazing sun and rising humidity, we stayed inside for the remainder of the day until dinner time. Before dinner, we decided to go to the Tokyo Tower. Here you are able to see a panaromic view of the city. We were not blown away with this view, but we were set into reality on how large the city actually was. In 1958, this 333 meter high, orange and white Eiffel Tower wannabe was built as a broadcast tower. At this time, it was the tallest structure in the city, it's actually 13 meters taller than the one in Paris. Now, it's observatory is considered more as a relic than a cause for breath-taken amazement. Soon we would discover, that places elsewhere offer better views of the city.
The next day, we woke early to make our way to the Tsukiji Central Fish Market. If it lives in the sea, then it is probably for sale here. Here, there are acres and acres of fish and fish products pass hands in a lively, almost chaotic atmosphere. But, make sure you watch out for motorised hand trucks. Everything is allotted its own area, you can see mountains of octopus, rows of giant tuna, endless varieties of shellfish, and tanks of unnameable fish. It's not unheard of for a single tuna to fetch an incredible 20 million yen. Tradition has it that you must finish your visit here with a sushi breakfast. However, we did not partake in this tradition. On the outskirts of the fish market, there is another market, called the Tsukiji Outer Market. Here you can browse produce, noodle shops, tiny cafes and cooking shops, in addition to boots, baskets, plates, really anything. It is quite an experience to see how these foods we love are actually made or two wonder what those tiny bowls are used for. In short, it's a one stop shopping for anything you need to prepare a Japanese meal. The rest of the day we lounged around the apartment due to the intensity of the heat and being an early riser.
Sleeping in definitely gets you a late start to your day. However, it is not as hot and humid. Luckily, we found this amazing discovery at the end of the week. This day we partook only in indoor activities. Roppongi Hills houses the Mori Art Museum, the Sky Aquarium, and Tokyo City View. All of these are on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the Mori Tower in the Roppongi Hills complex. At the Mori Art Museum, the feature artist for the month was Le Corbuster, an architectural giant, the founder of modernism. The exhibitions examined over 250 paintings, furniture, and architectural artifacts. The Sky Aquarium had numerous exhibitions of fresh and salt water aquariums in various different art forms. In the future, we hope to have a salt water aquarium. What can we say, this exhibition inspired us. From the Tokyo City View, you are able to see a spectacular panoramic view of the city. The numerous, huge skyscrapers appeared to be protruding out of the ground lining the bright blue sky. It is said that this is the best, central location for a view of the city. And, that is was.
As it was extremely hot and humid, the pool was calling our name. We attempted, but failed. It would cost $170 plus $10 per hour for a deck chair. We are talking about over $200 to hang out by the pool. Therefore, we stayed indoors and contemplated on what to do next. By the time, we came up with a solution, everything was closed. We resorted to having dinner at a lovely pizza joint. Returned home and updated the blog for you.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand!

The island of Koh Chang was absolutely tropical! I won't bore you with all the details of our romantic getaway, but it was awesome!
We arrived to Bangkok and got busy with the finalization of Jay's suit. Actually, the suit is what entailed the rest of our days in Bangkok. However, I insisted that we must sight see. The only place of significance that we saw so far was the tailor shop. The day before our departure we attempted to go to the Grand Palace. That was completely altered when we were approached by a tuk-tuk driver that insisted for only 10 baht he would take us around Bangkok to extremely important sights. Being very honest, he said that he would have to take us to a souvenir and tailor shop. He continued to say that he would receive gas coupons for bringing us there. We were hesitant to agree, because our book cautioned us about this type of scam. He reassured us that tuk-tuk drivers were controlled by the government and not to be worried. Therefore, Jay instantly agreed. Our day went like this: Standing Buddha, Marble Temple, Jewelry store, Tailor shop, and Golden Mount. We spent most of our time at the souvenir and tailor shops. I can't remember any thing regarding these significant, important sights. However, I do know that the driver was able to get his gas coupons.
After we departed from our tuk-tuk driver we decided to walk to the Wat Pho (Reclining Buddha). This Buddha is Bangkok's largest and oldest temple. It is a massive, 46 m long with mother of pearl inlays at his feet. Chinese mythical heroes guarded the doorways of the compound. Inside the compound, there were numerous temples with golden Buddha images and dozens of colorful mosaics.
The following day, we awoke early and made our way to the Grand Palace. What else can I say, it was GRAND! The Grand Palace compound was established in 1782 and it houses not only the royal residence and throne halls, but also a number of governmental buildings. It covers an area of 218,000 square meters and is surrounded by four walls, 1900 meters in length. The exterior facades are only open to the public. This is by far Thailand's most famous attraction. The temple buildings are incredibly massive, with golden Chedi (Thai style stupas), statues of mythical beings, and incredible amounts of golden inlay. The main boht (chapel) is where the Phra Kaew, Emerald Buddha, resides. After visiting the Reclining Buddha, the Emerald Buddha is much smaller in stature, approximately 1 m tall. However, this Buddha was made of beautiful, shimmering, jasper quartz that dated back to the 15 th century.
After spending numerous hours in the sun, we scurried back to the hostel to pack our belongings. Our flight was leaving late that night and we still needed to make one last trip to the tailor shop. The suit was absolutely perfect...Jay looked like a stud!
It took approximately 2 hours in bumper to bumper traffic to get to the airport. It was literally hell! Upon checking in, the airline informed us that Japan will not let us enter their country without an exit ticket. Scared, we called our wonderful sis, Jessi, and she booked us tickets to California. We make our way through customs and passport control to find out that our flight was delayed 30 minutes. Finally we get on our flight at 1 am. We met our fellow neighbor, Mr. Love, from Dubai, India. He was traveling to Tokyo to visit friends and attend a wedding. We discussed our travels and he attempted to persuade us to visit Dubai. We spent hours upon hours on the worst flight ever. Never fly Air India...what were we thinking? Apparently, we were only focused on cheap tickets. Finally, we arrived the next day in Tokyo at 8:30 am.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Pad Thai in Thailand!

At 3 am, we arrive to Bangkok an take a taxi to the oh-so-famous Kho San road. This road is a backpackers haven due to the massive amount of bars and party scene that take place on nightly basis. Not having a reservation, we book a room at an awful hostel that appeared to be run-down. At this point, all we wanted was sleep. The next morning we wake and book a room at D & D Inn, Nils highly recommended this place if we were ever to come to Bangkok. This place was an upscale hostel with reasonable prices and awesome rooms. After settling into our room, we roamed the streets in search for Pad Thai. We had to walk quite a ways from the center of Kho San Road to find the perfect place. It was awesome to see the process that goes into making such a wonderful dish. For the past two days, we have been in search for a suit and planning my birthday. We have had luck with both of these tasks. Today, Jay found the perfect place to tailor his suit and I found the perfect island for my birthday. We will be traveling to the island of Kho Chang on Friday where we will be staying at a bungalow right on the beach. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME! On the 24th, we will return to Bangkok to finalize Jay's suit and fly to Tokyo, Japan on the 28th.

Chengdu-Beautiful Pandas!

As we enter Chengdu, we feel complete overwhelmed with the size of the city. We imagined it to be much smaller than it actually was. It was completely ultra-modern with many shopping centers and malls lining the streets. We come to our hostel, which appears to be very laid-back and filled with conversations of travel. Immediately, we get information regarding Tibetan permits and book the panda tour for the next day. The office ensured us that our permits would be ready on Monday. Therefore, we could depart for Tibet by either plane or train. At this time, train tickets were not in existence due to the high number of people traveling to Tibet. Jay inquired about the black market. The hostel said that it was illegal to buy tickets from the black market, but good luck if you can find it. Jay had a mission to find tickets any way possible. Later that evening, we had an intellectual conversation with a couple that we met from Mongolia, Syl and Ben.
The next day we rose early for the Panda tour. About 10 km north of Chengdu, the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, is a research station and breeding ground for giant and lesser pandas. About 40 pandas reside here, but we only saw about half of this number. We were able to see the traditional black and white adult and baby pandas, and rare red pandas. We watched the adult pandas roll around on their ready made wooden long beds and the baby pandas eat their massive amounts of bamboo. These were absolutely amazing animals.
After we returned from the panda tour, we met Syl and Ben for a hike around the city to the People's Park. This is a vast park with beautiful landscaped bonsai trees and gardens. Throughout the park, there are verandas were people sing and dance to music. Jay and Ben partook in this by dancing with some Chinese women. We also has some horrible tea at the tea house located in the park. According to the map from the hostel, this is suppose to be one of the best places to have tea in Chengdu. Boy, are they wrong! As we hiked back to the hostel, we decided to have a traditional Chinese hotpot of the Sichuan region. A hot pot works like this: First, you pick out the food that you would like to cook in your hot pot. Then, a waiter brings you a pot filled with a broth of chillies, Sichuan pepper, ginger, and many other spices. They also bring you chili oil for dipping after your food is cooked to your liking. Parsley and garlic is brought for you to put into your chili oil to control the spiciness. The hotpot simmers and you cook the food. Jay and Syl started the hotpot process by going around to various tables picking and choosing the food to be placed in our hotpot. They chose an assortment of tasty foods: sweet potatoes, potatoes, a vegetable we could not figure out, beef, mutton, tofu, squid, and fish. After about 5 minutes of cooking and eating the food, your lips and tongue start to become numb and tingly. By the end of the evening, we were all red and sweating bullets from this fiery meal. Next to our table, a group of Chinese men are playing a drinking card game and eagerly invite us over. We played this game for about two hours and became friends. Tons of pictures are taken and numbers are exchanged for future visits to China and the Americas.
Due to the massive amount of fun from the night before, we decided to take it easy the next day. We lounged around the hostel watching movies and eating spicy food. Later that evening, we went and watched Transformers with Edward (an extremely helpful guy from the hostel) and his younger brother Will.
The following day, Jay insisted on finding train tickets to Lhasa, Tibet. A staff member from the hostel escorted him to the train station in hopes of getting tickets from the ticket counter. All tickets were sold out. Therefore, Jay and the staff member went on the streets asking around for tickets. Jay was able to find two tickets to Lhasa for Monday. He returned to the hostel displaying his glory in his ability to get tickets. The hostel immediately says that they are unable to give us our permits because we got our train tickets from the black market. Furious, Jay attempted to talk them into letting us have our permits. They stood strong and expressed that they would be unable to do so. Therefore, Jay asked for his money back for the permits and sold the train tickets to some one else. At this time, Jay and I were faced with a decision..."What do we do next?" We think of many possibilities until Jay asks me where I would I like to go for my birthday. Before, I know it we are heading on a plane to Bangkok, Thailand for Pad Thai.


We arrived to Xi'an early in the morning and settled into our hostel. The plan for the day was to go to Bingmayong to explore the Terracotta Warriors. Ranking up there with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, the 2,000 year old army remains stunningly well preserved. The vigilant force stands guarding the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang. There are three vaults to view the massive archaeological site. The most impressive underground vault is the first. The 6000 terracotta figures of warriors and horses face east in a rectangle battle array. They appeared to be ready for battle at any moment. Some solders appeared to have crossbows and longbows. While other armoured soldiers have spears, dagger-axes, and other long-shaft weapons. Every solider differs in facial features and expressions. After leaving this place, it made me feel that I was ready for battle at any moment.
Later that evening, we ran into our buddies, Rob, Nick, and Dave from England. We explored the city and made our way from the Bell and Drum Tower to the Muslim Quarter. The Bell Tower is a huge building the marks the center of Xi'an. To the west of the Bell Tower is a smaller building, the Drum Tower, marks the beginning of the Muslim Quarter. Here we walked the backstreets to find tea and an interesting Islamic food market. Later that night, we said good-bye to our friends and hoped that we would meet again in Tibet, Nepal, and India.
The next day, we attempted to sort out our train tickets and buy plane tickets to Chengdu. We were not in the mood for traveling 17 hours in an hard seat.
Before our flight the next day, we went to the Great Mosque. This mosque was one of the largest in China. It is built in a Chinese architectural style with most of the grounds taken up by beautiful gardens. This is an active place to worship, it holds several prayer services each day. We were only able to visit the courtyard of the mosque, only Muslims may enter the prayer hall.
Around 9:30pm, we were on the train heading to Chengdu to see pandas and get our Tibetian permits.

The Great Wall!

We spent approximately two weeks in Beijing, China. So, I'm going to try to sum up our adventure in this next post. On the 30th, Saturday, we took the metro, then the bus to the "Dirt Market." Here people are selling everything from beautiful beads to giant stone Buddhas. The market has rows and rows of vendors attempting to sell you Chinese goods. We walked down each row looking for special gifts for our family and friends back home. I can't give you details, because it would ruin the surprise.
The next day we went back to the dirt market to finalize the sale. We had numerous cups of tea and discussed our travels. The fascinating thing is the people who we were talking to did not speak any English. This was a wonderful experience! After numerous hours at the dirt market, we went to the Sanlitun Yashou Market. This market had 5 floors of all the clothing one may need. We shopped around, but all the salespeople were extremely pushy. Every time you would walk away from a negotiation, the person would attempt to leach onto you.
Later that evening, we went to a local restaurant not far from our hostel for dinner. The table and chairs sat outside in the middle of the road. This place was really enticing as the waitresses worked really hard to reel you in. This meal was amazing and authentic too! As we walked passed a barber shop, Jay decided to get a buzz cut. The barber did not speak English, but Jay was able to get the message across.
The following day we strolled through Tiananmen Square. This vast stone public square lies at the heart of Beijing. Kites fluttered through the sky, as people attempted to sell them to you. In the middle of this square lies the symbolic center of the Chinese universe. The rectangular arrangement echoes the layout of the Forbidden City. Once you pass this rectangular monument, you have to walk under the subway to actually get to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is the largest and best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. It was home to two dynasties of emperors, the Ming and Qing. This place was massively huge in every way from the door ways to the gardens. We were extremely impressed with the architecture. However, we did not find the museum and audio guide helpful in understanding the ruling of the dynasty.
After spending a half day exploring the city, we made our way to the Jingshan Park. Here we climbed the rocky path through the beautiful garden for a magnificent panorama view of the capital and an overview of the russet roofing of the Forbidden City.
Later that evening, we had a wonderful dinner at our hostel. Yummy sweet and sour chicken with stir-fried vegetables!
The next day, we ventured out to the long distance bus station. We had all intentions of going to the Great Wall. Here we met Nils, Ally, Breda, and Ralph. After long negotiation with the driver, actually Jay got the price down to 420y by playing rock, paper, and scissors, we were on our way. Approximately five minutes later, our driver gets pulled over by the police. Two police officers get into our van and being driving to the police station. Here a police officer questioned us about our driver and the rate we were charged to go the Great Wall. Apparently, our driver did not pay his taxes on his van and therefore was arrested. During more questioning, Jay and I went to the restroom. When we returned everyone was out of the van. Nils explained that the driver pulled out a vegetable knife and ran towards the van. The police officers had to tackle him to the ground. Therefore, Nils thought it would be a good idea to get out of the van. The police officer attempted to find us another driver, but he had no luck. As a group, we decided that today must have not been the right day to explore the Great Wall.
So, we went with Nils and Ally to the Lama Temple and the Temple of Heaven Park. The Lama Temple is the most renomwed Tibetian Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. This is Beijing's most colorful temple: beautiful rooftops, stunning frescoes, magnificent decorative arches, and incredible architecture. The temple's Most prized possession is its 55 foot high sandalwood statue of the Maitreya Buddha. We couldn't believe that it was all one piece of wood. Next, we took a taxi to the Temple of Heaven Park. This is the most prime example of Ming architecture. We walked around this park, but did not have any desire to enter any of the temples. It was just too expensive and we were exhausted from the day. Later that night, we attempted to meet up with Nils and Ally, but we were too slow in getting dressed and missed them by the skins of our teeth. However, we met a guy named Lee, from England, who came with us the next day to the Great Wall.
Once again, we ventured out to the long distance bus station. This time we had an extra commrade, Lee. There we found Nils, Ally, Ralph, and Breda ready for the Great Wall. Once we arrived to the Great Wall at Jinshnaling, we set out for the 10 km hike to Simatai. Here we climbed through parts of the Great Wall where it was steep and stony. Many parts of the wall collapsed and and much was in a state of ruin. We actually passed a couple of workers re-constructing the wall. The view was absolutely amazing as you could see the Great Wall winding before your eyes. To the left and right of the Great Wall, you could see perfectly landscaped tress and bright green grassland. The view was absolutely breathtaking. Numerous times, we had difficulties realizing that we were actually climbing on one of the seven wonders of the world.
After the long journey to Simatai, the driver picked us up and drove us back to the long distance bus station. We were absolutely beat from the days hike and went immediately to bed.
The next couple of days consisted of relaxing. We met Nils and Ally for lunch and hung out with them until departure for their train to Xian, China. We had awesome conversation...they are two very cool people. Also, we hung out with Ralph and Breda a couple of times before we parted ways. One evening, we decided to go out on Sanitlun Road, which happens to be "Bar Street." The clubs that we went too were more like laser light shows with males dancing with one another. However, we were denied entrance into the "World of Suzie Wong." According to the description in the Lonely Planet book, this place is for "beautiful people" to be. As we approach this place, everyone is dressed very glamorous. We are wearing flip flops, tanks tops, and shorts. Basically, we were not dressed "beautiful"enough. Therefore, we came to a conclusion: "You know you are a real backpacker when you are denied admittance into the World of Suzie Wong." Two days later, we took a 13 hour train ride to Xian, China.

Peking Duck!

The train journey to Beijing was over 30 hours long. However, we were kept company by our new Mongolian friend, Bayanmunch. He was travelling to Beijing to have a CD made. His girlfriend was a Mongolian opera singer, which is new in the realm of music for Mongolia, and he was the song writer. I guess you could say this was a "new song," not a traditional song or short song.
Caroline and Nick were a couple of rooms down, so we talked to them frequently. We met for drinks and breakfast the following day.
The border crossing was a breeze, because we slept through the majority of it. I guess we were still tired from our excursion.
As you cross the border into China, you are taken away by the beautiful landscape of the rocky mountains and perfectly shaped tress. Everything here is a very luscious and bright green. As we approach closer to Beijing, you start to see small rivers engraved between mountains and rich forest land. Also, we had the luxury of witnessing small parts of the Great Wall. This was a spectacular sight as we knew we were going to step foot on this great wonder.
We arrived in Beijing around 2pm and said our good-byes to Caroline and Nick. We hoped to meet up with them later in the city.
We made our way to the hostel via metro and rickshaw. Jay was very good at negotiating the price. But, later we find out that taking a taxi is much cheaper. Actually, we mostly walked everywhere unless we were with friends.
We explored the streets in an attempt to find something for dinner. We stumbled upon Wangfujing Dajie, which is a posh area lined with huge shopping malls. On this street, we found a restaurant called Quanjude Roast Duck. Here they specialized in Peking duck, given the region. We ordered a half duck with pancakes, scallions, garlic, celery, and sauce. You use these ingredients to create somewhat of a wrap. This meal was definitely an interesting and wonderful experience. After dinner, we roamed the area of the Wangfujing Snack street. Walking upon this area you are presented with an ornate archway outlined with bright colors of red, blue, green, and yellow. The street is lined with restaurants and street vendors bursting with character and flavor. Here you will find an array of food, like fried scorpions on a stick, candied fruit on a stick, and many noodle dishes. The vendors constantly try to solicit tourists by using the only English they know, "Hello, do you like?". If you seemed interested, they they would attempt to negotiate with you. We strolled back to the hostel and went to sleep with a full belly of roasted duck.

Hanging out!

For two days, we had to hang out in Ulan-bator before we could travel to Beijing, China. We ate some phenomenal food and met two new amazing people, Breda and Ralph, a German-Swiss couple. Little did we know that we would run into them later in Beijing.
While in Ulan-bator, we visited the Natural History Museum. Here we learned about the nature and wildlife of Mongolia. But, I have to say our favorite exhibit throughout the entire museum was the dinosaur skeletons. It was WICKED! Oh yeah, Jay shaved his beard off. He was afraid it would cause some crazy tan lines!

It's coming to an end!

For breakfast, the family served rolled bread in the form of a rectangle. These were very hard and we only ate a few. The journey this day was over 300 km. Therefore, we got an early start. We thanked the family (bile-tha) and gave our gift to the grandmother. The sky was a beautiful bright blue with little clouds insight and the grassland was bright green. It looked as if some one spray painted it. There were many animals, such as goats, sheep, and horses roaming. After about a hour, we stopped at Ogiy Lake. The water appeared to be a dark blue-green color and the sand was black. This spot appeared to be a hot spot for camping as there were many people and tents surrounding the lake. For lunch, we stop at a local canteen and Migaa helped us order fried noodles and vegetable soup. Mishka shared his apple soda with everyone. It was quite nice. From the distance, we could see the town of the home stretch now! Traffic getting into town was complete chaos. A railroad crossing went down and cars started to pile on top of one another. As the crossing went up, cars ransacked one another. Mishka plowed right through. In the U.S, we have something called a Que! Jay and I observed one car hit another car and both drivers laughed at one another. What a crazy city! At least our driver knew what he was doing! It was sad that our journey to the countryside had to end. What a wonderful opportunity for us to experience the countryside and nomadic lifestyle for 12 days. But, we were stoked about the hot shower! That evening we had a phenomenal dinner at Broadway Pizza. We ordered Korean food, pizza, and salad. What a treat! Later that night, we met two new roomies, Nils and Ally. A German couple travelling around the world ending up in New Zealand to teach scuba diving and wake boarding. We exchanged contact information and planned to meet up in Beijing.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Our long journey was coming to an end as today was the 11th day. Mixed emotions run through my mind. Happy, because a shower is near. Sad, because I will miss the simplicity of the nomadic family and the beautiful countryside with various landscapes and animals.
For breakfast, we had another loaf of homemade bread. Just as delicious as the day before! Today's journey began with a lake view of "o-was." Here there were multiple "o-was" that in the future would become one large "o-wa." Next, we stopped at two grottos. These were called Prisoner of the Dogs and Ice Cave. Both grottos were developed due to an volcanic eruption number of years ago. Before actually beginning our long van ride, we made a stop at the massive Hide Away volcano. We climbed up through the rocks, rubble, and trees to get to the crater. The volcano is approximately 5,000 to 8,000 years old, 250 meters in diameter, and 150 meters deep with a 35 to 60 degree incline. People climbed below to continue with the building of an "o-wa." A Mongolian lady surrounded by local children recited a beautiful poem to us about the volcano. We sat on the side of the crater taking in the view as this was our first time seeing a volcano. Our journey took 10 hours including many potty breaks and stopping at a local market. At the local market, Mishka bought presents for tonight's accommodation. Migaa informed us that we were staying with another UB driver's grandmother. Mishka appeared to know the road travelled, because he was driving like a "bat out of hell." He was very happy upon arrival as he had a huge grin from ear to ear. We arrived to the ger and were instantly greeted by the family. They appeared to be humble, but shy. The ger was very beautiful with detailed lace and silk curtains and wooden beds painted with vivid colors and detailed designs. For dinner, the family served homemade noodles with carrots, potatoes, and pickles. Migaa rounded us up to participate in goat herding. All family members participated in this event. We were unable to figure out the method for herding the goats together. However, we came to the conclusion that the babies and mothers were separated from one other for the milking in the morning. This was a wonderful experience to be a part of. Later that evening we met a 15 year old named Chiabat. He was currently taking the summer break from school. He had one month left in the country side and will go to Singapore to study English and travel. He asked us many questions regarding our personal lives and travel. You could tell his motive was to practice his English speaking skills, which I have to say we were quite impressed. He was delightful and very well spoken.

The Tranquility of White Lake!

We were awoken by a family member putting wood into the stove. For breakfast, we had slices of bread. Migaa later informed us that the family made the bread homemade. It had nice holes! (Jessi taught us all about bread during her two weeks with us.) The morning began with horse riding for an hour and half. All of the horses had bright and shiny coats with beautiful thick manes and tails. My horse was tan with a chestnut mane and tail. Jay's horse was chestnut with a black mane and tail. Caroline helped me by giving a brief lesson on how to hold the rope properly and what to do if the horse begins to gallop or trot too quickly. She was very informative and use to ride when younger.
As began walking our horses, my body tingled with excitement and worry. The beauty of the lake and sand was very peaceful and tranquil. My horse was extremely stubborn and wanted to constantly eat grass. He did not want to listen to any of my commands. Migaa told my guide to escort my horse. The next thing you know, I'm riding next to the guide while he is singing a Mongolian Folk song. I wanted control of my own horse! Thanks Migaa! Eventually, the guide let me have control of my own horse. At this time, Caroline takes off galloping with her horse. The others attempt to follow (she looked like a pro). I didn't like this at all. Emotions of afraid and scared run through my body as my horse begins to trot. I haven't graduated to this stage of horse riding! All of the horses slow down to walk and I became extremely happy. As we approach the family's house, the horses began to sped up to a trot. Caroline and her horse speed up to a gallop, the guide does as well, and Nick follows. I had to control mine to stay walking and Jay stayed back to keep me company. He's such a sweetheart! Overall the experience was wonderful even though there were many times that I was extremely terrified. However, I feel that I would like to take riding horses, so that I am able to conquer my fear of riding horses. I believe that I could learn to enjoy riding and appreciate horses so much more, besides their beauty.
Migaa came along on the journey, but quickly resorted to walking her horse. She disclosed that she had a complete of bad experiences with horses in the past. However, we were very proud of her that she had the courage to get on a horse.
After lunch, we had a siesta. Then, around 3pm we went for a hike up the mountain. We saw an alpine rich forest with a loud cuckoo bird singing. At the mountain ridge line, there was a phenomenal view of the lake. You could see the lake stretch for miles and miles. We continued walking along the rocky mountains and saw rubar and Scottish twistel. Behind a mountain of rocks, there was a beautiful single tree with long branches filled with rich green leaves. As we walked down mountain ridge line to the Ger, Jay and Nick decide to go into the lake. We all change and head to the lake. Jay and Nick jump in the freezing water. Caroline and I did not partake in this, because of the massive amount of poop floating at the top of the lake. Once again we took bids on dinner. Nick guessed buoz, Jay thought it would be pasta, Caroline wanted it to be like the night before, and I hoped for noodles. And the winner was... ME! Dinner was noodles with carrots, potatoes, and beef. After dinner, we made the short journey to the Grandfather Rock. It was depicted as a Mongolian man smoking his pipe. Legend has it that he is waiting for his wife to return to the lake. Here it was harmonious and magical. The moon shimmered onto the pure blue water and above the mountain ridge the blue sky appeared to have pink hues where the sun had just begun to set. It sounded as if the quacking ducks, the soft breeze rustling against the water, the buzzing insects, and croaking frogs were composing a song just for us. In the distance you could hear random horses "naying." This was the most beautiful sounds one could hear. We fell asleep to the crackling fire! Today, we were extremely tired from the long hike. However, it was well worth the views.

100% BETTER!

Caroline and Jay were feeling 100% better today. They appeared to be ready for the day's long journey. For breakfast sugar cookies were served. Believe me Jay and Nick took these for the road. The first stop was the Stone Turtle. This turtle represented the protection of the people. Before the revolution, there use to be four turtles surrounding the Erdene Zuu monastery. The next stop was a Phallic Rock, translated the Vagina Slope. There are three legends associated with this rock. The first legend is a woman is waiting for a man while he is away at war. The second is a local woman and monk fell in love. Of course, this was not allowed due to religious reasons. The third legend is that local families would pray to the rock to conceive children, fertility. This was unusual and unexpected to see such a sculpture in Mongolia.
On our way to our third stop, we saw a high speed pig chase. Cows and Yaks were teaming up on a poor little sow. Migaa later told us that cows and yaks do not like pigs. Jay and I explained that cows and pigs live together happily on farms in the U.S. The third stop was Tseterleg(Garden) town. Here we ate lunch at a Westernized cafe. Western food, you say? The cafe was owned by an British couple from England. They had been there for over 10 years. The carrot cake was absolutely delicious! Oh yeah, they had a proper toilet!
The forth stop was the Chuluut Canyon. Massive rocks surrounded the bottom of this canyon with a river flowing north to south. The top of the canyon was surrounded by beautiful and rich pine trees. The view was absolutely amazing! Don't fall in! The final stop was the Khorgo Terk National Park. To get there we drove through winding rock valleys surrounded by mountainous pine forest. You could imagine the difficulty! We approached a volcano that was enclosed with beautiful green forests. The magnificent crater could be seen from the van. Next, we approached a beautiful fresh water lake surrounded by huge rocky mountains with rich pine forests. It felt as if you stepped into a different world. We followed the rocky road to our Ger and were greeted with pesky insects. The family had began a fire in the stove for us. It was nice and cozy until Migaa insisted on adding more wood to the fire. It instantly became blazing hot! For dinner, we had the luxury of having tofu with rice, carrots, and potatoes. After dinner, we had nice conversation over a bottle of red wine. Oh yeah, and desert. Jay and I had Carrot Cake, which I traded with Nick, and Caroline and Nick had an Apple Strudel. We discussed the differences between the American and English language. Caroline claims that American English is much older. As we are having the conversation, Migaa walks in. She began asking us questions regarding grammar and pronunciation. We discussed word like, happy, cool, snack, snake, beer, and bear. She tries immensely hard to use our language. We ended the English lesson and went to bed shorty after.

Kharkhorin Village!

This morning, breakfast consisted of bread with natural cow butter. Caroline and Jay immediately started not feeling well. We decided to wait two hours before departure, so they could rest. Jay gets inspected by a country doctor, who now is a driver for UB guesthouse. The doctor recommended for Jay to wear at hat due to sun exposure and to drink a shot of vodka before bedtime. He claimed that this was a country remedy. After the doctor visit, Caroline and Jay give the "thumbs up" to leave. The journey begins with sandy and rocky roads with rolling grassland. There are many herds of horses and sheep surrounding the grassy plains. We stop at a flowing waterfall with volcanic rocks surrounding the river. Behind the river, there was mountains with rich pine forest and grassland. Jay and I climbed down the rocks to the river to feel and smell the nature surrounding us. After about two hours, we finally arrived to Kharkhorin village. Before going to the Ger, we went to the Erdene Zuu Monastery. This monastery had 108 stupors surrounding the square of the monastery. The bright white stupors represented the Limas (students of Buddha) who died during the Revolution. The monastery had three temples built without a single nail. Each temple was in vibrant colors of green, blue, yellow, and red. The first temple was depicted as Buddha in the past, present, and future. The second temple depicted teenage Buddha, medicine Buddha, and paradise Buddha. A massive statue of the protector of evil guarded both sides of the temple. Also, there were four students on each side representing the learning process of following Buddha. The third temple depicted childhood Buddha, Indian Buddha, which represents the red sect, and Tibetan Buddha, which represents the yellow sect. These two sects are the most commonly practiced. Also, on the premises is a religious building where people can read and practice Buddhism. Migaa came along to translate the information from the tour guide. She appeared to have difficulties translating the exact phases and meanings. Majority of the way through, the tour guide began speaking with perfect English. Migaa was"lost in translation?"
Caroline and Jay did not partake in this learning adventure. Jay spent the majority of his time in the bathroom. Caroline stayed in the van, because she felt nauseated. She compared herself as a camel in terms of being thirsty.
We arrive to the Ger, which had to feel like an eternity for Jay and Caroline. Everyone took turns taking showers. A barrel at the top of the building acted as the main water source for the shower. It was nice to feel clean from all of the dust flying in the van and the various sand storms that we had to fight through. Dinner consisted of fried noodle with potato, red bell pepper, carrots, and beef. However, we actually think it was mutton, because the family's entire house smelt of it. Caroline refused to eat and Jay ate a small amount of fried noodles. We went to bed early, so that Caroline and Jay could recuperate.

Magnificent Waterfalls!

Besides the massive groups of dogs barking in the middle of the night, I slept extremely well. I must be getting accustomed to the hard beds. Breakfast consisted of nice rolls with Nutella. Jay insisted on buying this at the market the day before. Good buy!
We hop in the van and begin driving to the Waterfalls.
First, we approached beautiful rock formations that appeared to be place sporadically around bright green grassland. We asked Mishka to stop, so that we could take a photo off horses standing upon the rocks. We continue with the journey and drive into an area with small rivers flowing through grassland with yak, goat, and sheep roaming, playing, and sitting upon the river beds. We decided to have lunch in this beautiful area. The boys cooked pasta with red sauce for the six of us and of course the girls cleaned up. Remember, it's the law. While the boys were cooking, I sat and took in the view of this beautiful place. It's hard to believe that I would be able to experience such a wonderful journey.
We get back on the road and after about 10 minutes, the landscape completely changed to rich pine forest with bright green grass that had pure white, yellow, and orange flowers growing. It was like we stepped into Narnia. The boys decided to stop in the forest for a restroom break. Little did we know that this area was infested by bees! The boys came running back to the van immediately as they were being chased by the swarm of bees.
We continued with the journey and suddenly approached an area withmassive rocks that looked like they were from a volcanic eruption. Migaa claimed that 20,000 years ago a volcano use to be around this area. The grassland appeared to be full of nutrients from the eruption. In the distance, you could see rocky mountains with luscious pine forest. Many herds of sheep, yaks, and goats surrounded the valley-like area. There were many massive rocks, hills, and rivers that the van had to climb through. There was an indescribable feeling of falling in. However, we knew this would never happen, because we had a very experienced driver.
Finally, we arrive to the Ger. But, we were unable to stay with the family due to lack of space. Therefore, we had to stay in a nearby tourist camp. The family still provided food and boiling water. After settling in, we walk to the large waterfall. There was not any water flowing from this waterfall due to the lack of rain. But, one could imagine the sound and the smelling of the bustling water. Around the waterfall, there were trees that had blue scarves strung about it. Migaa said that this was to represent danger to others who come here. It looked much like and "o-wa." As you look at the bottom were the river would be, you see beautiful massive rocks with rich grassland and forest. This was such a tranquil place and we were completely absorbed in the nature. Next, we walked around to the smaller waterfall. On the way, we climbed over huge rocks and passed a enormous canyon filled with bright red clay. As we approach the smaller waterfall, we see two local children gathering water at the bank of the river. We watched and listened to the sounds of the water hitting the rocks and flowing into the river. A fish tried numerous times to jump up the rocks to swim up stream. What could possibly be better than were he was? A beautiful chestnut horse with a dark brown mane and tail approached the river bank to have drink of water. He was not alarmed by us and acted as if were not even there. He continued with his journey and crossed the river to the mountain top. Migaa began skipping rocks and Jay and Nick joined in. Caroline and I sat upon the rocks taking in this specular view of nature. After about 20 minutes, it was time to get back to the Ger for dinner. Dinner was buoz with cow meat and rice. We had light conversation and retired for bed early.

Central Mongolia!

On this day, we woke early to watch the sun rise. When you walked out of the Ger, you could feel the cool southeast wind hit your face. To the left the sky appeared to have a bright neon pink hue. Jay and I wrapped up in a pink blanket and patiently waited for the sun to appear. The sky then began to fill with a neon orange and appeared to be playing with us as she was peaking over the horizon and then the hue faded away. After playing this game, she finally decided to show herself by peaking over the horizon between two rocky mountains with a bright orange color. This sunrise was absolutely amazing! Our first sunrise in the Gobi!
For breakfast, we had dry pancake-like bread with peaches, which we kindly added. Leaving the Gobi desert is marked by a huge mountain heading to the west, Central Mongolia.
As soon as we began our journey to Central Mongolia, the van began to have mechanic problems. Of course, Jay instigated the problem and attempted to help Mishka. Migaa helped by translating theconversation between the two. Another van associated with UB stops to help with the situation. In the end, the fuel was bad.
Herds of cows, goats, sheep, camels, and horses sporadically pass in front of the view. The view is amazing looking through a narrow valley of rock mountains. Mishka navigated through this valley nearly all day. There were a coupe of times we thought we would crash into the side of the mountains!
We arrived to Arvaikheer town, which appeared to be more modernized than the last village, Bayanzag. Immediately we went to the market, Internet, and public shower. This was our second shower in three days! Once back to the Ger, the grandmother of the family greeted. We offered her coffee and biscuits. She gladly accepted and we communicated through charades with her; she asked about the bumpy ride. She appeared to be a friendly and humble person. The family dog hung outside of our Ger as Nick gave him food at coffee and dinner time. Nick is completely obsessed with dogs! For dinner, we had rice with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and mutton. Indeed, this meal was very tasty! After dinner, the grandmother and grandfather came into the Ger and attempted to discuss the sleeping arrangements. They were concerned with the comfort of the beds. Out of this, we determined that I was the shortest between Caroline and Migaa. Therefore, I slept on the smaller of beds and Caroline slept on the floor. That evening I wasn't feeling well and laid around while Nick taught Jay how to play a new card game. Migaa appeared to become more comfortable in our presence as she talked about her experiences as a casino dealer in her college years. As we were heading to bed, she cracked jokes with us about waking up at 6am in the morning. We fell asleep to the sound of dogs barking in the distance.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Beautiful Sand dunes of the Gobi desert!

The day began by Jay giving us a descriptive detail of his illness the night before. Apparently, he wasn't feeling well and had to leave the ger numerous times to use the restroom. He did not eat breakfast, shortbread filled with chocolate, nor did he drink anything. Migaa attempted to help Jay feel better by boiling water for him. However, he did not drink it, because he was too afraid that he might have to use the restroom. This was very thoughtful of Migaa. Even though Jay wasn't feeling that well when it was time to leave, he gave us the "thumbs up" to begin the journey for the day. Ironic that yesterday's conversations was solely centered around constipation!
We began our bumpy journey to the sand dunes. This day was going to be a short day in the van, hallelujah!
As we are riding along, Jay spots an advertisement for beer. Can you believe this was in the middle of the Gobi Desert? Maybe it was promoting the turtle bar. I was amazed at this marketing tactic! After about an hour on the bumpy dirt road, Caroline spots a herd of horses chasing one another in circles. She immediately asks Mishka to stop and he slams on his breaks! Migaa explains to us that the male horses are in competition for the mare. One horse frantically chased after the mare of the other group. However, the 4 other male horses surrounded her to protect her from the male horse. They appeared to be communicating with one another by rubbing their heads against one another, maybe a sign of affection. We watched this occur for over 10 minutes and continued with our journey. Nick spotted a sand storm winding up in the form of a tornado. This was a cool sight to see, because you hear about these phenomenas, but rarely a person gets to witness such a sight. The conversation then lead to the concept of mirages in the desert. There are so many times we were asking one another, "Is that a lake over there?" Migaa asked Mishka to stop at an "o-wa" that was convered with massive goat heads with horns. These were offerings that other people left to the Gods. The journey continues and we begin to see mountainous hills of sand. The ridge line in the distance looks as if the mountain began, but some one forgot to finish them. Some one must have lost the blue prints!. The mountains appeared to be colors of black and pink with little grassland. The road gets more bumpy and harsh as we approach the sand dunes. As we are riding, massive sand dunes appear to arrive from now where. The pure white sand appeared to be "glowing.". The dunes stretched across the desert in between the rocky mountain ridge line of the Ice Valley, over 200 km in distance! This massive dune is 180 km in length, 13-15 km in width, and 13-15 km in height, but can get up to 100 km when windy. We arrived to our ger and were immediately greeted by the lady of the household. We practiced our Mongolian that Migaa had taught us days before, "Sanbinno"-which means hi and how are you? Everyone appeared to be tired and a little cranky. Nick and I cooked rice for lunch, but the others did not eat. Jay was still deathly afraid of food and Caroline claimed that she was not hungry. Nick and I cleaned up in the sink outside and baked in the blazing hot sun. After clean up, everyone did their own separate thing. Nick took off to scope out the desert and the sand dunes while Caroline read about politics, Jay slept and recuperated, and I read my geisha book. I dozed off a couple of times while reading. Caroline appeared worried about Nick after 30 minutes of his departure. She was suppose to be able to see him across the desert at the bottom of the sand dune. Caroline peered out the ger in search of him. There was no sight of him! Caroline re-assured her self numerous times that he would be ok. He wanders often to places when traveling. Nick returned about two hours later and Caroline expressed her concern for not being able to see him. For dinner we had rice with cabbage, potatoes, and red sauce. This was very tasty and Jay was glad that there was not any mutton. After dinner, we went camel riding across the desert to the sand dune. My Camel looked as if was a rock star with long shaggy hair. Caroline's camel had a protruding lip, like that of Bubba from Forest Gump. Shrimp anyone! The camels appeared to have difficulties walking up part of the sand dune, but the view was amazing with the sunset of colors of pink and blue. We left the camels at the bottom of the dune and struggled to climbed up the sand dune. Once we made it to the top, the view was absolutely breath-taking. Jay and I sat at the top and admired the beautiful view of the desert. We raced down the sand dune as we had to get our camels back before dark. The camels followed each other in a nearly perfect straight line. However, it was like a traffic jam once they realized that they were going home. They appeared to he racing home, but in a leisurely way. This was an absolutely amazing experience. I love riding camels! Maybe Jay will buy me one for Christmas!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

South Gobi-Ice Valley & Dinosaur Eggs!

On this day, I slept much better than the three previous nights. I was awoken by the family bringing in breakfast and boiled water. Breakfast consisted of a sushi-like roll with rice, cucumbers, and cabbage salad. This did not appear to be traditional Mongolian food. Migaa later informed us that it was Korean. Jay informed me that last night he had a conversation with Caroline and Nick regarding suspenders. In England, pants mean underwear and suspenders mean garder belts. Not knowing the exact terminology, I said "my gran wears suspenders!" Caroline and Nick began busting out laughing and explained the two concepts to me. Now, I will never view suspenders the same way again. Sorry Gran!
The main focus of today's conversation was constipation. It appeared that everyone was having problems in this area. This could be due adaptation to the countryside. The journey for the day was traveling to the Ice Valley and a canyon where dinosaur bones and eggs have been found. The road to the Ice Valley was sandy and rocky with lots of bumps! However, the view was phenomenal. We walked down the grass valleys where we saw gerbel like creatures with mickey mouse ears everywhere. There were many holes that these creatures popped in and out of as they skirted across the grassy valley. Also, there were many cows and horses grazing the grassland. Jay and Nick found a cow carcass near a stream. This was extremely sad, we attempted to figure out how his death occurred. As we approached the ice valley, you could see layers of thin sheets of ice. This was extremely beautiful, but you couldn't concentrate too much on the had to watch your step! At one point of this ice valley adventure, the ice had melted into two different sheets of ice. Nick decided to jump across one side to the next, while the rest of us rock climbed on the mountain to the other side. Today, was the first lunch made for the six of us. We had rice with tuna, green peas, and corn. Of course, additional Maggi and chili sauce were added. Jay and Nick decided that they would like to reverse the roles. Therefore, the law was made...boys cook and girls clean up. After lunch, we travelled for about two hours and winded up at a deep red Canyon where dinosaur eggs and bones were found. In the 1940s, Roy Andrews, an American archaeologist, found these remains. Migga also introduced us to the Sauxl shrub (much like coal), used for making a fire. These shrubs appeared to be extremely dry lying in the sand. Continued with the journey, and made our way to our ger. We made a sudden detour when Migaa informed us that there was a bar in the Gobi. As we approached the bar, we realized that it was in the shape of a turtle. We had to stop! Arriving to the ger, we were introduced to the family. The 5 of us, Caroline, Jay, Migaa, Nick, and me walked through the shrub forest. We stopped to admire the baby camel drinking milk from his mother. It was beautiful to see the communication between a baby camel and his mother. The family dog followed us through the forest and would randomly disappear. Jay called him over and he rubbed his camel pooped snout all over Jay's pants! Nick was obsessed with snakes as we ventured through the forest. Dinner consisted off pasta with tofu (very expensive for a family). That evening we watched the sunset and the sky fill with colors of pink, blue, and orange. Jay did not sleep well this night as he was in and out of the ger all night visiting the restroom.

Middle Gobi to South Gobi!

On this morning, for breakfast we had biscuits, much like crackers, with two pieces of goat cheese smashed together with goat butter. Also, we were able to experience goat milk, goat yogurt, and camel curd. This was a true culinary experience, but rather appalling. Jay and I began the day's journey with nausea. On first part of this day's journey, we saw herds of camels. Jay and Nick took many photos of these fuzzy, two-hump, beautiful creatures. Luckily, they didn't get spat on, but they surely were "Up Close and Personal!"
The road seemed to be more bumpier than the previous two days. I attempted to fall asleep, but I was afraid that I might miss the gorgeous scenery or a fascinating animal. However, Jay did not have a problem in this area! There were a couple times that Caroline, Nick, and I thought he might topple over. Four hours into our journey, we arrived in Dalanzdgad, the capital of South Gobi. There appeared to be many gers surrounded by fences and a couple of westernized buildings. In this town, we were able to go to the market, get a shower, and use the Internet. The market appeared to be in the shape of a square with an array of shops selling many specialized items. Migaa helped us purchase all items we needed. We loaded up on sweets... Nick's idea! The public shower was extremely reinvigorating. This was our first shower in three days! Gosh, were we SMELLY! The Internet was really slow, which was to be expected we were in the middle of the Gobi. For dinner we had vegetable soup with mutton. This was tasteful and unexpectedly good. Jay and I remained in the Ger that night while Caroline and Nick socialized with the people from the night before. I was extremely tired, and I had diffculties sleeping this night as well.

Central Province to Middle Gobi!

Today, consisted of traveling from Central Province to the Middle Gobi. The day started off with a flat biscuit sprinkled with sugar, much like a doughnut, and coffee for breakfast. Our journey began by first visiting the ruins of a monastery in the Central Province. This monastery was surrounded by herds of sheep, goats, cows, and horses roaming on rich grassland. Not far from the monastery was a natural underground spring. This was surrounded by a blue fence to act as a marker for all townspeople. Brief history about the monastery: the monastery was burned/destroyed during the Revolution/Liberation from China in 1921. This monastery was a gift for the local Lima's daughter. Approaching the monastery, there was a mountain of stones varying in shape and size with an array of colorful scarves, such as blue, red, yellow, green, and white. Migaa explained that this is an "o-wa," a stone temple made by a particular family from the Central Province. The scarves represents a different aspect of the Mongolian people. Blue represents the sky, red represents evil, yellow represents religion, green represents nature, and white represents the mare's milk. The religious tradition surrounding the "o-wa" is that a person selects three rocks, blows on them for good luck, and walks counter clockwise three times while throwing a rock each passing time. When throwing the rock, the person makes a wish and hopes that it comes true.
Continuation with our journey and Migaa gave us a general lesson about animals(cows, sheep, goats, horses, and camels) in Mongolia. All animals are used as a means of food on a daily basis. There is a 13:1 ratio of animals to Mongolians! Shortly after the overview about nature, we stopped for a picnic lunch. There was much sand and some mountain area with beautiful lizards and insects that were bright blue and green. We jumped in the van and continued with the journey. Before arriving to our ger for the night, we made a detour to a White Natural Stupor. Mishka drove in and whipped around to the edge of the stupor. It felt as if we all could fall out of the van...terrifying! The stupor consisted of various colors-red, purple, blue, and orange. it appeared to be massive from looking above. But, once we climbed below through the valleys of the mountains, it was quite an illusion. I was amazed at how the earth could develop such beautiful natural colors. This was something that I had never seen before....absolutely beautiful! I observed Mishka and Migaa participating in the sacred tradition of throwing the three rocks and making three wishes to the "o-wa."
We arrived to the ger and it immediately felt like a tourist establishment rather than staying with a real nomadic family. However, the family was still very welcoming and provided wonderful hospitality. Dinner consisted off dumpling filled with rice and dried camel. This was actullay quite tasty and I was completely surprised with how much I liked it. Also, I was introduced to Maggi(basically MSG) and now completely addicted to it. Thanks to Caroline! This is her favorite additional flavor to mostly all food. We spent the evening conversing with new friends from Germany, France, Holland, and Canada. Also, we had the luxury of trying Mongolian wine, which I will never recommend to others. The only way to describe this experience is to explain the ingredients of this fruitful wine: grape compound, sugar, and some chemical for fermentation. Sounds YUMMY, uh? And of course, I didn't sleep well!

Heading to the countryside!

Mongolian man smoking his pipe.

The beginning of our 12-day journey began on June 14th. I woke early to have an extremely cold shower, packed our belongings, and dragged Jay out of bed. Once we made it down stairs to our 4-wheel drive Russian van, we were greeted with eager and smiling faces from Mishka(driver) and Miga (translator). Mishka was from the North Province of Mongolia and has been driving with UB Guesthouse for over 11 years. He knew the roads the best(this is true, he proved himself)! Migaa is a professor at Ulaanbaatar University and teaches Mongolian and Russian language.
As we pulled out of UB Guesthouse, we were immediately stopped by the police. He appeared to be checking Mishka's passport and the safety of the van. Migaa informed us that this is normal and happens when departing the city to the countryside. As we headed out of the city, heavy traffic filled the streets and we witnessed two car accidents in less than two minutes apart. The ride started off bumpy and it only got worse once we hit dirt roads.
Migaa appeared eager to begin the journey with us and immediately began discussing the types of homes that nomadic people reside in. In the city, people live in apartments, houses, and Gers pronounced "gears." A ger consists of a circular wooden frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of sheep. The frame consists of one or more lattice wall-sections, a door-frame, roof poles and a crown. The felt is additionally covered with canvas or sun-covers. The canvas can be that of different colors varying in accordance with how wealthy a family is. The typical color of a ger is white. This symbolizes purity and the milk of the mare. The frame is held together with one or more ropes made from animal hair. The wooden frame is typically painted blue, representing the sky, and orange, representing religion. When entering a ger, you must walk from left to right, never walk in the middle. The left side of the ger is for guests, the center for the father, and the right side for the wife and children. In between the guests and the father, is a shrine dedicated to their religion, Buddhism.
About twenty minutes into our journey, four white-tailed gazelle sped past the van. Mishka sped up beside them and they were running at the rate of 70-80 km/hour! They ran in front of the van and Mishka honked is horn profusely. We were amazed at the rate these creatures could travel! Throughout the remainder of the day, we saw herds of cows, sheep, goats, and horses.
We saw the perfect photo opportunity of two goats that were standing in the middle of the road. Mishka stopped and as we approached the adult and baby goat. The adult goat went under the van for protection from the sun and wind. Mishka attempted to pull him by his horns for approximately 10 minutes. The goat appeared to linger around the van and Mishka threw cow dung at him!
We arrived at the family's ger at 5 pm and met the family by having traditional "salty tea" and biscuits. Migaa explained that the man of the house is usually shy, but very humble. This was very apparent as we had tea with him. After tea, we walked to the massive rock formations. We climbed to the top of one of the formations and looked over at the different shades of brown. For dinner we had delicious noodle soup with mutton. That night I had difficulties sleeping in my new habitat. My bed, as well as the others, had wooden planks underneath the thin mattress. Mongolians believe that you must sleep on a hard bed for a strong spine. This was the beginning of restless nights!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Get Ready...Here we come!

Caroline with her $4 dinner!

The past couple of days have consisted getting our excursion to the country side in order. Luckily, we have been paired up with our wonderful English friends, Caroline and Nick.
Last night, the four of us went to a Mongolian concert where traditional song and dance were performed. This was a real treat! But, the excitement begins tomorrow as we are headed for our 12 day tour of the southern and central part of Mongolia.
We will be out of communication during this duration, so please don't worry. We plan on arriving back to Ulaanbaatar on the 26th and heading to Beijing on the 28th. We will be in touch as soon as possible.

Monday, June 11, 2007

$5 apartment!

Well, the Mongolain border crossing was a breeze compared to that of Russia. The train only stopped for an approximately one hour. Jay and I did not get hassled by the Mongolian officials. However, the Mongolian wrestler appeared to get drilled by the visa inspector. We arrived to Ulaanbaatar at 7:30 am to find UB Guesthouse waiting for our arrival. They greeted us with wonderful hospitality and provided knowledgeable information regarding the tours to the countryside. At this lovely guesthouse, we get free breakfast, unlimited coffee and tea, free internet use, laundry services, free booking for train tickets and tours to the country side. Our room was not ready, so the recepionist said that it would be a good idea for us to head to the Chinese embassy to fill out our application for our visa. We agreed and this process was such a breeze, nothing compared to Talliinn. Our visas should be ready next week, which works out great because we plan on going on an excursion to the Gobi desert or the central part of Mongolia. When we arrive back to the guesthouse, our room is ready. We are staying in a dorm room with Nick and Caroline, the two English people we met on the way to Lake Baikal. The rooms has four beds, an extremely nice bathroom, and a stocked kitchen. SWEET! Did I mention it's only $5 per day per person!
Right now, we are heading to grab a bite of food and explore the city. We love and miss everybody!
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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Border Crossing

Well, we are into the 5th hour of the border crossing process. The Russian officials are now destroying the train in search for contraband or maybe missed place warheads. It's amazing that it is so much harder to leave this country than to enter. After all this time, we are still not in Mongolia yet. Who knows what their border will be like!
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