Mongolia # 1 – October 2014

December 15, 2018

Mongolia!! The name of this landlocked Asian country has a magical ring to it. We could not think of Mongolia without our minds drifting on the image of the legendary Genghis Khan. Born in the 1160s, he spent his early life assembling a dedicated army of nomads from the immense grasslands of the Gobi, at 500,000 square miles, the fifth largest desert in the world. His fierce warriors were relentless. They could ride day and night, making a slice in their horses’ neck to drink the blood. By 1279 Mongols had gained full control of all of China, undeterred by the Great Wall. See how well walls work?

Mongolia! The wide open space was just the way we remembered.

Mongolia! The wide open space was just the way we remembered.

By 1280 they had stormed across Asia, conquering and burning major cities like Samarkand that lay hopelessly in their path. With perhaps 80,000 mounted fighters followed by a huge herd of spare mounts, they could travel 100 miles a day which was unheard of by other armies of that time. According to one source, they were sent out in teams of ten. If one was captured, the rest of the team was killed. They were unstoppable! 

When Öegedei Khan, the third son of Genghis Khan and second Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, succeeded his father, he continued the expansion of the empire, and was a world figure when the Mongol Empire reached its farthest extent west and south during the Mongol invasions of Europe and East Asia. He led his ruthless cavalry from the windblown steppe of Central Asia into Europe to amass the largest continuous empire the world has ever seen. It covered 9.15 million square miles of land – more than 16% of the earth’s landmass and ruled over 110 million people between 1270 and 1309 — more than 25% of the world’s population at that time. Despite his and his father’s brutal campaigns, or perhaps because of them, Genghis Khan is still alive in the hearts of Mongols.

This nice man stopped just to see if we needed anything. In Mongolian tradition, we should have offered him a cup salty milk tea.

This nice man stopped just to see if we needed anything.
In Mongolian tradition, we should have offered him a cup salty milk tea.

As we drove across the seemingly endless grasslands, skirting the Gobi, free of fences and guardrails that had held us like a mouse in a maze crossing China, we had to stop and soak in the new freedom. It was hard to imagine Genghis Khan’s bloodthirsty hordes galloping across the endless plains. The highway remained good and traffic was light except for the occasional herd of sheep or an overloaded freight semi. Horses and camels grazing near the road gave us a feeling that we had entered a special place. Finding somewhere flat to camp for the night was simply a matter of turning left or right off the tarmac for a hundred yards and deciding which direction the sun would rise in the morning.

Animals are roaming freely.

Animals are roaming freely.

The first winter storm had kissed the hills with a frosting of snow south of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of the country. Not wanting to deal with the congestion of a big city, we pulled off into a frozen field just outside of town and called it home. In the morning we blitzed the downtown, first finding a tourist hotel where we could do a quick load of laundry, and then getting lucky, we snuck into an empty space in the center of the mass mid-day confusion that was not marked “Зогсоолгүй”, (no parking). Finding a store where we could buy a SIM card for our phone and then the tourist office for maps and information was all within walking distance.

An early start the next morning got us out of town before the mad rush hour. We headed west for the small town of Olgii where the famous Golden Eagle Festival was about to begin. The tourist office had advised that the road was open and that it was a two-day drive.—That’s how long it took busses. It was not mentioned that much of the road was not paved and that busses drove 24 hours a day, usually in pairs because one often broke down. We would return to Ulaanbaatar again to retrieve parts for our suspension, but that’s another story.

 

The Magic Girl of the Pamirs – Update – November 2018

December 1, 2018

Many of you may recall back in Tajikistan Blog #8, we had met this amazing young girl. If not or if so, here is an update on the Magic Girl of the Pamirs.

At 11 years old, there was a look that clearly said, “Whoever you are or where you came from, I am here.” “I was waiting for you.”

At 11 years old, there was a look that clearly said, “Whoever you are or where you came from, I am here.” “I was waiting for you.”

It was another spectacular warm sunny day in the mountains of Tajikistan,— as warm as it gets at 14,000 feet. The intense blue sky almost hurt our eyes. We could feel why this is often called “The Roof of the World”, according to National Geographic “one of the last truly isolated places on earth”. Glaciers carved their way down peaks over 24,000 feet. Turning off the Wakhan Corridor along the Afghan border, once trodden by Marco Polo as he followed The Silk Road, we climbed over the 4,122-meter, (13,523 feet), Koitezek Pass and headed slowly down into a long valley following the turbulent Toguzbulok River. The dusty Pamir Highway was equally as rough in places as the Wakhan Corridor had been.

We looked at this young girl in amazement. What in the world was she thinking....

We looked at this young girl in amazement. What in the world was she thinking….

Spotting a small creek on the side of the road, a tributary to the larger swift-rushing river, I backed into it to wash off some of the silt-like powder that had hitched a ride on our truck. No sooner than we had unpacked our bucket and wash brush, three young girls who had just carried some old window frames across the road came back. As they walked over a small foot bridge, the last girl stopped, waded out into the water, took the brush from my hands and started to help me. Monika and I both looked at her and at each other in wonder. In these countries girls of any age don’t approach strange men. She spoke no English and little Russian, only Tajik and the local Shugni dialect. Words were not spoken nor were they necessary. There was magic of wonder in her eyes and frustration that she could not talk to us, but still a smile and eyes that said “I don’t know who are you or where are you from?” “Never mind. I’m going to help you.”

At an altitude of 10,000 feet, potatoes, carrots and wheat are the only crops that are being grown. No fruit trees and no vegetable patches. Wild bees but no honey bees survive.

At an altitude of 10,000 feet, potatoes, carrots and wheat are the only crops that are being grown. No fruit trees and no vegetable patches. Wild bees but no honey bees survive.

We were captivated by this young girl, only 11 years old. We camped there for three days and met her family who invited us for tea. Each time we saw her and those mysterious Asian eyes, always discreetly catching ours, we could sense her uncomplicated imagination fueled by her burning desire to communicate. Was it her innocent confidence that shyly said. “No fear”—Bring it on!”? Without a single word spoken, she had captured our attention and our hearts. How could we help her?

Fast forward a year through Kyrgyzstan, China, Mongolia, Russia, South Korea, Japan and back to California. Every time we looked at the pictures we had of this “Magic Girl of the Pamirs”, the feeling came back. Through a series of emails, we were able to contact a young man, Sheroz Naimov, the Director of the American Corner, in Khorog. The American Corner is a free learning center sponsored by the American Embassy designed to promote mutual understanding between the United States and Tajikistan and offer a place for young children and adults wanting to learn or improve their English.

Masha’s father was in disbelief when he learned that we wanted to sponsor his daughter in a special private school.

Masha’s father was in disbelief when he learned that we wanted to sponsor his daughter in a special private school.

Khorog is a small town, hardly a city, and the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). Situated in a valley at the confluence of the Gunt and the Panj rivers, at 7,217 feet above sea level, it is relatively low when you consider that 50% of the country is over 10,400 feet. Khorog was at least three hours from the village where Masha lived on a road that can be closed by snow or rock falls at any time. We had driven it twice.

We had learned there was a wonderful private prestigious school in Khorog sponsored by the Aga Khan Development Network, (AKDN). What is that? His Highness, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, is the founder and chairman of AKDN and is the 49th hereditary Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Ismaili, a very unique and liberal sect of the Muslim religion. For example, those of the Shia Ismaili faith have no mosques or minarets. Their home is their church. The women are not required to cover their heads or faces, but many do use a headscarf out of practicality and old tradition.

Magic Girl 052

Masha’s mother, a soft spoken woman, always had a ready smile.

Sheroz Naimov volunteered to help us. Hitching a ride with a friend to the girl’s village, he spoke to her and her father and explained that we wanted to sponsor her in the Aga Khan Lycée school. Sheroz told us Masha had tears in her eyes. Her father called Sheroz the next day to ask in wonder, “Is this really going to happen?” Yes, Sheroz told him, but now the first problem would be finding a safe place for her to live in Khorog. Secondly, could she pass the entrance test with her very poor math and Russian?

Searching for a home where she could safely live most of the year while she was at school, Sheroz’s father and his sister both opened their homes and their hearts to her. Extreme generosity and hospitality are a corner stone of the Shia Ismaili faith. The amazing warmth of these people whom had never met us nor this young girl truly astounded us.

Problem number two was that because of Masha’s limited schooling in math and Russia, she could not pass the Aga Khan Lycée school’s entrance test. After three months of intense tutoring, she made the grade. Now the story gets more exciting.

Monika explains a page out of our world atlas, probably pointing out California. Masha (in red) has eyes for the camera.

Monika explained a page out of our world atlas, probably pointing out California but Masha and her younger sister had eyes for the camera.

She was 12 and nearing 13. We supplied her with a phone so she could call her mother and father. Of course, she had to have a computer and printer and appropriate “city” clothes for four seasons. Sheroz arranged a modem and internet for her so she could Skype and WhatsApp with us. In the beginning, Sheroz had to translate for her, but her magic smile and the sparkle in her eyes told us she was making the transition from a remote village life, away from her home, her family and friends, where daily chores included gathering firewood and milking goats, to being a modern teenage girl in a “city” environment. Hard to imagine? Perhaps it was that No Fear! attitude we sensed from our first contact.

We recently celebrated her 15th birthday with her new school friends and family live on Skype, amazing when you consider that Khorog is 7,525 miles, (12,110 km) and 12 time zones away. She is essentially in her sophomore year of high school and taking 17 classes 6 days a week with special English and math tutoring after school before she takes a local taxi to her home-away-from-home to do her homework and help with household chores, including cooking.

When we first realized that our dream of helping Masha was actually possible, we wrote her a letter to have Sheroz translate.

I said “smile” and Monika did. Masha could not understand a word, but her face said, Wow! I am happy you found me”.

I said “smile” and Monika did. Masha could not understand a word, but her face said, Wow! I am happy you found me”.

Dear Masha,

You are about to start a new and exciting part of your life. We know you must be a little anxious with all the changes that are happening. The doors to the world are opening for you. You will need to study very hard. Sometimes it will be difficult. We want you to know that you can do anything you can imagine. Anything! You can be a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, a ballerina, a musician, a professional guide, an airline pilot. Yes really, the sky is the limit.

We just want to make sure you know that you have a huge team behind you if you have a problem. You have us here in California. You have Sheroz and his family. You have the American Corner. You have your mother and your father and your sisters and brother. All of these people are standing behind you to catch you if you stumble or fall. You might find this hard to believe, but because of the Internet, there are also thousands of people all over the world right now who know about you and what you’re about to do. They saw your smile the day that you jumped into the water in the creek by your home to help us wash our truck, and they know that you will succeed in anything you can imagine. You are very special and you have amazing power. Have fun and don’t worry.

We send you our love and support. Soon we may even be able to talk with you and with Sheroz on an amazing system called Skype.

Gary & Monika

This past Summer we journeyed to Tajikistan to visit her and her family, a grueling 26-hour hop from Sacramento to San Francisco to Istanbul to Dushanbe (the capital) and then a 14 hour drive in a 4X4 Toyota to Khorog—still three hours by 4X4 to her village. The trip was a real eye opener. It is a unique way of life for the people in the Pamir Mountains who have survived in this remote part of the world for hundreds of years. Spending three days at her home made us realize just how poor her large family is. There were conditions we were not truly aware of when we were invited for chai in 2014. 

The traditional morning breakfast in the Pamirs is black milk tea with a touch of butter and homemade bread.

The traditional morning breakfast in the Pamirs is black milk tea with a touch of butter and homemade bread.

They had no running water. All washing, dishes, brushing of teeth etc. was done in the irrigation ditch, conveniently located in front of their traditional Pamiri home. The ditch took its water from the river where cows, sheep and goats grazed. Cooking was done on an old metal wood fired stove. Water for tea was boiled on an antique hotplate that resembled a burner on a 1950’s electric stove. Bread was baked daily in a dilapidated, rickety Russian electric oven. Sanitation facilities were a bit shocking. The “outhouse”, located on a steep path up a hill behind the cow & goat shed, was something out of a Li’l Abner cartoon. As is the norm, we all slept on thin mattresses in a communal living room where all meals were served and where any social activities took place. No tables or chairs. Despite these seemingly harsh living conditions, everyone was extremely friendly and hospitable. We had experienced the same in yurts in Tuva, Central Russia.

We brought gifts for the family and fruit, rice, chicken, eggs and vegetables to contribute to the meals. At 10,000 feet, their crops are limited to potatoes, carrots and wheat. Bread, tea, and potato, carrot & onion soup with a bone or a piece of meat from a recently killed sheep gave it some flavor. The community is not really a village as we imagined. It consists of perhaps 15 or 20 homes spread out across a wide valley, in-between potato and carrot fields laced with a web of small interconnected irrigation channels. Many of the families are related, so when a sheep or goat is slaughtered, the meat goes to many homes.

Ready for school in her winter uniform, she looks quite professional.

Ready for school in her winter uniform, she looks quite professional.

At this altitude, winters are brutal. Animals must be kept in closed sheds because packs of wolves are a problem. Wood, gathered during the short summer, and dried cow and sheep dung are the family’s main source of heat. The small sheet-metal cooking stove is moved inside the main room as the temperatures drop.

We now had a much clearer idea of where this young girl was coming from and the daunting change in her life that we were offering and imposing on her. At the age of eleven when we met, she did not have a dream of where the future would take her. We gave her unlimited choices, no doubt a little overwhelming at first. Now we watch how this adventure evolves. Her English is rapidly improving, thanks to additional classes and tutoring. With two and a half more years before she graduates in what is the equivalent of high school, her current aspirations of being a musician, an actress or a doctor may change more than once. We talk with her often by WhatsApp or Skype. Our primary goal has been to keep her healthy and happy while she is learning, and to teach her the power of dreams.

Masha is wearing a traditional Pamiri cap. Men and women seem to wear the same.

Masha is wearing a traditional Pamiri cap. Men and women seem to wear the same.

Before we left Tajikistan we took her and Sheroz’s niece to Dushanbe, the modern capital of the country. It was their first travel by airplane. We had fun spoiling them. It was a new world of museums, zoos, shopping malls, hamburgers, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, pizza, escalators, elevators, and even a 3D movie. Their own comfortable bed in a nice hotel with unlimited hot water was special. Masha also had her teeth cleaned by a professional dentist, all topped off by a manicure and a visit to a hair salon. The two girls returned to Khorog by themselves, by the standard 14-19 hour 4X4 taxi into the mountains. Their minds no doubt swirling with impressions from another world.

For the time being, we are taking care of all her needs. We know of other young girls and boys her age who have dreams of getting an education and could use your help, so if you are interested, send us an email, wescott@turtleexpedition, and put “Khorog Help” in the subject so it will not get lost in our junk mail. The average income in Khorog is about $100-150 a month and the tuition at Aga Khan Lycée school, grades 1 thru 9, is 460 TJS (Tajikistan Somonis) a month, which is $48. There are other expenses like computer, phone, internet, uniform, daily transportation, school supplies, etc. If anyone is interested, we can introduce you to another young person. On your part, it would be a person to person relationship with frequent conversations on Skype or WhatsApp. Our chance meeting of Masha and our ability to sponsor her (thanks to Sheroz Naimov who made it all possible) and watch her learn and grow has become one the highlights of our lives.

 

China # 27 – Erenhot, Our final Day in China – September 2014

November 23, 2018

During the night the temperature had dropped to 37°F but Green slept well in the down sleeping bag we had provided for her, spread on top of two thick Cascade Design Therm-A-Rest sleeping pads. Morning dawned; another beautiful day, perhaps our last in China. Knowing the bureaucratic paperwork that waited for us at the border, it was good we got an early start.

Our last super highway in China was rather monotonous.

Our last super highway in China was rather monotonous.

An hour or more was spent looking for the office of the customs clearing agent who was supposed to handle our exit paperwork. Wrong address, wrong phone number. The home office of NAVO finally got us connected, but by then, of course, the border was closed. We had time to do some last minute shopping and search for a place to spend the night. Spotting an unfinished office building just out of the center, we set up Green’s tent on the sidewalk using rocks instant of tent pegs and enjoyed our final evening with her. Any port in a storm.

Getting ready for the Border Crossing

In the morning, we had time to take a hot shower. It’s always good to be clean and neat when crossing borders. It was a late 10:00 when the lethargic customs clearing agent finally showed up, and another three or four hours of waiting and lunch break and, and, and—. The reality was that we were supposed to have a 30-day visa for China but because of the National Day Golden Week celebrations starting October 1, the border would be closed for seven days, so we had shorten our visit by two days. Then it took all of two days to wade through the bureaucratic entry process in Kashgar and two more days to get out here in Erenhot. And, so we were told, this was normal.

Saying goodbye to Green

A final happy moment with Green, our constant companion throughout the crossing of China and the last leg of our Silk Road Adventure. We are still in contact with her.

A final happy moment with Green, our constant companion throughout the crossing of China and the last leg of our Silk Road Adventure. We are still in contact with her.

It was afternoon when we said our last sad goodbye to Green. (Her actual Chinese name is Zhang Zhi Qiong. Being born on Earth Day, she chose “Green” as her English name.) Green had been an amazing guide and often put up with our criticism of the drivers, the bathrooms, the flashing strobe lights on the highway, the Chinese government and the numerous police checks. Through it all, we had become great friends and her knowledge and patience gave us lasting memories, outlined in the last 26 Blogs. She fell in love with camping in her green tent and she claimed that she’ll never eat another American style dinner in China because no restaurant could come close to our cooking.

Wanna drive your own vehicle in China?

Can we recommend driving your own vehicle across China? Most definitely NOT, even if you had a three-month visa. But if you do, we can highly recommend NAVO. Green was the perfect guide for us, even with her at times lengthy government-taught details of some subjects that didn’t exactly match the information taught in the West about China.

Entering Mongolia

As we crossed the border into Mongolia, we breathed a sigh of relief. The sky opened up over endless grasslands with herds of sheep peacefully grazing. We would not see another fence for months.

Mongolia: Where could we camp? A N Y W H E R E

Anywhere!!

Evening was coming on fast and the smell of snow was in the air. Where could we camp? Answer: Anywhere!!!!

Happy Thanksgiving 2018

November 22, 2018
Happy Thanksgiving

To all our US Friends and Family around the World

 

Gratitude

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
It turns what we have into enough, and more.
It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.
It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home,
A stranger into a friend.
Gratitude makes sense of our past,
Brings peace for today and
Creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie

China # 26 – The Great Wall of China at Badaling – September 2014

November 16, 2018

As previously mentioned, we had been advised that shipping our truck from China back to United States was not a good idea. The truck could be held in a Customs’ storage lot for possibly a month or more, sitting in the salt air and open to vandalism and theft. Our plan now was to drive north into Mongolia, with a stop in the capital of Ulanbaatar and drive to the remote town of Olgii to experience the three-day Golden Eagle Festival. Maybe ride a camel into the Gobi Desert before crossing into Russia.

The Great Wall of China at Badaling

China Blog 26 009

We couldn’t believe the hordes of mostly Chinese tourists wandering around on top of the Great Wall at Badaling.

Weaving our way out of Beijing, we drove north. We couldn’t resist stopping one more time to visit the Great Wall of China. Badaling was reportedly one of the best places to see the wall, and since it was reasonably close to Beijing, it’s where most tourists would go.

Yummy things to eat at Badaling's Great Wall of China. Grilled Squid.

Yummy things to eat at Badaling’s Great Wall of China. Grilled Squid.

From the entry and the parking lot, a modern gondola took us to the top of the mountain, giving us an interesting bird’s eye view of the famous wall. Unlike our other visits to different parts of the wall, where we had the place literally to ourselves, today we were not alone. Not even close. Thousands of tourists, mostly Chinese, shared our experience, which was actually what we had previously expected. It definitely gave us a different feeling being surrounded by crowds of fellow tourists. At the base of the gondola there were the usual food and souvenir stands and there was also a fabulous museum. Below you will see a few items that caught our eye.

Green, no Peking Hung Duck heads please!

It was once again Green’s turn to cook one of her special Chinese dishes. She was a talented chef.

It was once again Green’s turn to cook one of her special Chinese dishes. She was a talented chef.

It was late afternoon by the time we finally headed northwest again, looking for a place to camp for the night. The super freeway we were following had almost no exits and it was getting dark by the time we finally snuck off on a side road and found an empty field, just in time to set up Green’s little MSR tent. It was her turn to prepare another delicious meal. No duck heads tonight!

 

 

Monika’s Birthday 2018 – Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

November 9, 2018

Oh my God! Another Monika birthday. You know how she loves birthdays. It is her special day of the year, which often runs into several days or weeks! You may recall some week-long backpacking trips into the Sierras, or was it battling a Pacific storm on the cliffs of Point Arena, or climbing the backside of Yosemite’s Half Dome, or jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at 18,000 feet? Should I mention cruising around Cuba in a 1957 Plymouth? This year, Mexico was the draw. What better way to celebrate a birthday than swimming with dolphins, eating tacos, enjoying a few margaritas, standing under a waterfall in the jungle—or how about watching the progress of class-5 hurricane Willa from a rooftop in Puerto Vallarta.

What a Ride!

Being taken for a ride by two dolphins was really fun.

Being taken for a ride by two dolphins was really fun.

We had (yeah, I get to go too) been invited by old friends, Fred Walti III and Karen Rutherford, to stay at their slightly remodeled adobe home a short walk from the beach in Puerto Vallarta. OK slightly more than remodeled, like a gourmet kitchen, a pizza oven, two barbecue area and walls covered with a beautiful Mexican art collection and great views from the fourth floor sunning deck overlooking the bay. Oh, I forgot the outdoor swimming pool on the 3rd floor just down the hall from the master bedroom. I lost count of how many other bedrooms there were but do check out their website, http://www.coronaadobe.com.

Heidi, the playful Sea Lion

Gary and sea lion Heidi were goofing around.

Gary and sea lion Heidi were goofing around.

To our delight, Eduardo Payan, our longtime Mexican friend from Chihuahua, decided to help celebrate Monika’s birthday. We hadn’t seen each other for years. It was high time to catch up. Dinner was celebrated at the old town Mi Pueblito Restaurant right on the beach. It was Oaxacan night. A dance group performed various dances from that state.

Wanna dance Birthday Girl?

Wanna dance, birthday girl?

Wanna dance, birthday girl?

Livening things up a little, after a fun swim with the dolphins, Chris Collard, (ex-editor of Overland Journal), and his wife Suzy joined us on a local bus to the famous Botanical Gardens and then hopped on a boat to Yelapa, a fishing village and old hippy hangout. You can only get there by boat. We strolled through the village, swam in the 80° clear water, hiked to a jungle waterfall, shopped at the local stores and hung out at one of the beach palapa restaurants where we met Mario, the iguana. (He was vegetarian.) Sometimes we did exactly what you are supposed to do on a beach at a remote fishing village—-nothing.

Mario, the iguana, likes hanging out with Monika.

Mario, the iguana, likes hanging out with Monika.

The weather was hot and humid, to be expected this time of the year, and then Hurricane Willa showed up totally uninvited to the party. Rated as a Class 5 disaster for the beach towns along the Pacific coast including Puerto Vallarta, we jumped on the last taxi boat out of Yelapa back to La Boca where we caught a bus to town. The entire port of Puerto Vallarta was already closed. Never a boring moment. Everyone hunkered down. The town was quiet, the restaurants were closed, the stores along the Malecón (boardwalk) were boarded up. In the end, nothing happened in PV. A bit of wind, a bit of rain and some higher than normal waves. The city returned to its normal vibes. Life was good and Monika’s birthday, once again, was full of new experiences. She can’t wait for the next one, well maybe mine will get in the way first…….

China # 25 – Peking Hung Duck – September 2014

November 2, 2018

So, it was a long way to drive for dinner, like about twenty thousand miles from Portugal, or even longer from California or Belgium where our expedition truck rolled off the ship into Europe. After all that driving we could not leave Beijing without enjoying the famous Peking Duck, a dish as iconic to Beijing as sour dough bread from San Francisco.

Peking Hung Duck

According to the Beijing official web site, the dish is called Peking Duck, Beijing Duck or simply Chinese roast duck among other names. It was first served during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368), a time when the Mongol Emperors ruled China. Sounds like a dish Genghis Khan would order. Its real history goes back as far as the Southern and Northern dynasties. In 1330 a cookbook written by a royal dietary physician by the name of Hu Sihui included such elaborate preparations as roasting the duck inside the stomach of a sheep.

Green insisted on eating Peking Duck Head

Green insisted that she get the head. Like chicken heads you might recall, she believed eating the head gives you more brain power.

Green insisted that she get the head. Like chicken heads you might recall, she believed eating the head gives you more brain power.

Quanjude Restaurant, Beijing

Forget the sheep. The Peking duck is still a dish few chefs would dare to duplicate. First, white-feathered ducks are raised in a free-range environment for 45 days, after which they are force-fed for 15 to 20 days. Once slaughtered, plucked, gutted, washed, and boiled, air is pumped under the skin so that it separates from the fat. Next, the duck is hung to dry and coated with maltose syrup to make the skin extra crispy.

The duck is then roasted in one of two ways: by heat in a brick oven or by hanging the bird from a hook and roasting it over a fire, no doubt using a special wood. We made reservations at the highly recommended Quanjude restaurant that uses the wood fire method invented by its founder, Yang Quanren. “Solly”, “no varet palking”. According to Green, it was the original restaurant serving the delicacy. There are at least 10 other establishments in the city that feature the famous dish. We were surprised that we did not get a roasted duck on a platter. Instead, the duck is expertly carved and elegantly served, all sliced and ready to eat, along with traditional sauces and condiments. Being dark meat anyway, it was bound to be moist. It melted in our mouths and was not overly smoked. Green insisted that she’ll get the head. Like chicken heads you might recall, she believed eating the head gives you more brain power. So popular is this custom that there were plenty of extra heads to be ordered. She had two and already seemed wiser.

This was exactly how we wanted to end our short visit to Beijing.

This was exactly how we wanted to end our short visit to Beijing.

Very full and satisfied that we had seen what we wanted to see in Beijing, it had been a long day. The tram ride back to our parking lot and Green’s hostel was short. We would make an early start heading north to Mongolia. Shipping our truck from China was not recommended. Sitting in the customs storage lot for weeks in the salt air invited damage and theft. In any case, we had a new “bucket list”: Ride a camel in the Gobi Desert and attend the Golden Eagle hunting festival in the remote town of Olgii, with a brief stop in the capital of Ulaanbaatar to get necessary Russian visas and re-visit this rapidly changing city. We had not been there since 1996.

China # 24 – Beijing’s Hutongs – September 2014

October 27, 2018

Much of the historic areas of this 3,000-year old city have been destroyed to build modern condos and apartments that are often financially impossible for the average citizen. Green, our guide, described the older apartment she and her mother live in. Maybe it had running water and maybe electricity most of the time. It was prone to flooding. She explained that older Chinese living in these rundown buildings or houses cannot afford to modernize them. They are just hoping that a big development company will buy them out so they can move into something better, maybe one of those high-rise buildings we saw across the country. To our amazement, Green also explained that even if someone can afford to buy one of the new apartments or condos, they only actually own it for 75 years. After that time, regardless of who’s living in it, the original owners or their descendants, the apartment or condo goes back to the government. Pretty strange, huh?

As the sun went down, the lights came up and the beautiful lanterns added to the reflection on the rain-dampened streets.

As the sun went down, the lights came up and the beautiful lanterns added to the reflection on the rain-dampened streets.

Hutong and Siheyun

In any case, Hutongs were a part of northern Chinese cities and particularly Beijing we wanted to see for ourselves. The original term “Hutong” (which is of Mongolian origin meaning “water well”) appeared under Genghis Khan’s grandson reign, Kublai Khan, first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341) and refers to a narrow street or alley. In residential areas, the Hutongs wind between unique designs of homes called Siheyuan, meaning “a courtyard surrounded by buildings on all four sides”.

Doors opened up into little courtyards and kitchens. These old homes are where real people work and live.

Doors opened up into little courtyards and kitchens. These old homes are where real people work and live.

During the build-up and modernization starting in mid-20th century and also before the 2008 Summer Olympics, many Hutong neighborhoods gave way to new roads and modern apartment blocks. The Siheyuan have a history of two thousand years and were first established in the Zhou Dynasty (1027-256 BC) dividing residential areas according to social classes. They exhibit outstanding and fundamental characteristics of Chinese architecture and serve as a cultural symbol of Beijing and a window into its old ways of life. Fortunately, many of Beijing’s ancient Hutong neighborhoods still stand, and a number of them have been designated protected areas and are becoming major tourist attractions. The photos here will take you on a short walk through a Beijing not always seen by outsiders.

A Nostalgic Side of Beijing

As we wandered through the old alleys where real people work and live we saw a nostalgic side of China. Only the occasional tourist on a bike taxi reminded us where we were. Sagging doors opened up into little courtyards. The narrow streets were not even wide enough for a normal car. Electrical and phone connections looked like a can of worms, and along with natural gas, they were run overhead like we saw in Russia. Nevertheless, many people prefer this old style of life compared to the new hustle and bustle of modern Beijing.

China Blog 24 90Returning to the more popular tourist streets, the selection of different foods was interesting but not always appetizing. Green found a nice little greasy spoon café where we enjoyed some spicy rice and noodles. Yummy things for snacks and desserts were everywhere, but least we ruin our appetite, we settled for a good cup of Starbucks coffee. The crowds of umbrellas thinned and we window-shopped. As a damp blanket of darkness enveloped the city, hiding some of the ugly parts, the glittering lights of stores and restaurants sparkled off the wet pavement. Soon it will be time for dinner, and Green knew where the original Peking hung duck was waiting for us.

 

 

China # 23 – Beijing’s Forbidden City – September 2014

October 12, 2018

Moving on, we passed through the Tiananmen Gate to reach the Forbidden City. There are five massive doors to the gate and seven bridges spanning moats or streams. It was from this Gate on October 1, 1949 that Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic China. The dominating portrait of Mao is a must photo background opportunity for Chinese selfies.

The Forbidden City

The largest stone carving in the palace, it is 16.75 meters, (60 ft), long, 3.07 meters, (12 ft), wide, and 1,7 meters, (5.5 ft), thick. It has beautiful interlocking lotus patterns, curling waves and nine dragons. It was transported from the quarry 36 km, (22 miles), away by sprinkling water on the road to make an “ice road”. It was then pulled and slid all the way to the palace where it was carved.

The largest stone carving in the palace, it is 16.75 meters, (60 ft), long, 3.07 meters, (12 ft), wide, and 1,7 meters, (5.5 ft), thick. It has beautiful interlocking lotus patterns, curling waves and nine dragons. It was transported from the quarry 36 km, (22 miles), away by sprinkling water on the road to make an “ice road”. It was then pulled and slid all the way to the palace where it was carved.

The Forbidden City is the former Chinese Imperial Palace from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1420-1912). It covers 178 acres. It’s called The Forbidden City because during those dynasties, when it was home to 24 different emperors and their households who ruled all of China for almost 500 years, ordinary people were not allowed in without special permission. The main palace took 20 years and one million workers to finish.

Marco Polo’ Silk Road travels ended in Beijing

On a side note: In 1215, Zhongdu, the capital of the Jurchen Jin dynasty located in todays Beijing, was destroyed by Genghis Khan, the Mongol ruler. In 1271, a year after his grandson, Kublai Khan, established the Yuan Dynasty that ruled over present-day Mongolia, China, Korea and some adjacent areas, he presumed the role of Emperor of China, the first non-Han emperor to conquer all of China. He built his new winter capital in another section of Beijing. Marco Polo and his dad & uncle left Venice (Italy) the same year to travel to China along the Silk Road (much of which we followed). Three and a half years later, Kublai Khan invited them to his palace where they lived for 24 years before returning home. Marco Polo called the capital “Cambulac” but because Kublai Khan encouraged diversity in his vast empire of many different languages and religions, the capital was also called Khanbalik or Dadu. In 1368, Camulac was destroyed by an emperor of the Ming Dynasty though The Forbidden City was not built until 1420.

The Palace Museum

China Blog 23 040The Forbidden City has been transformed into the “Palace Museum”, quite literally a museum of palaces and special halls, and it is open to the public. Some 14 million visit it annually. It is the world’s largest palace complex, consisting of many buildings with a rumored original 9,999 rooms. It is protected by a 20-ft deep and 171-ft wide moat, and a 26-ft high wall. Most of the palace rooms can only be seen from the outside. Without walking with our nose in a guidebook, we were impressed by the excess of beautiful carvings, paintings and gold surrounding thrones having been used by the ruling emperors and their princesses. The numerous cast figures of dragons, lions and monster turtles were intriguing. Their purpose was to guard against fire and evil spirits. The architecture was amazing, with each detail having a symbolic meaning. The best we can do is show you what caught our eye. Captions will give some details.

After spending much of the day wandering from one palace or hall to another, we were ready for a late lunch. Green, our wonderful guide, spotted the perfect greasy spoon. Nearby we found an entry into a neighborhood called a Hutong, a special part of Beijing we wanted to visit. See more on Beijing Part 3 (China # 24).

 

 

China # 22 – Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – September 2014

October 5, 2018

B E I J I N G! Over twenty-one million people, plus or minus a few thousand tourists. We had completed our second goal of driving from the Atlantic to the Pacific, wheels on the ground, and now our first goal to follow the Silk Road and on to its final end in Beijing.

Formerly romanized as Peking, it was strategically located and developed to be the residence of the Emperor and the Imperial Capital. Beijing is renowned for its opulent palaces, temples, parks, gardens, tombs, walls and gates. It has seven UNESCO WORLD Heritage Sites and a history stretching back 3 millennia.

TIANANMEN SQUARE

In “Beijing” do as the visitors do.

In “Beijing” do as the visitors do.

If you had a month you could not see all of this city, any more than you see all of Paris or Moscow in 30 days. We had one day, so we had to be selective. Short list: Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, the old Hutong neighborhoods, and of course, to enjoy a famous Peking Hung Duck dinner. Oh yeah, a lunch at one of those questionable hole-in-the-wall cafés for a good bowl of spicy fresh noodles or rice.

We had been lucky to find a guarded parking lot somewhere inside one of the several ring roads, not too far from the city center and close to public transportation, which is surely the only way to get around in the chaotic traffic.

According to Green, it is especially the older peoples' dream to visit Beijing's Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City once in their lifetime.

According to Green, it is especially the older peoples’ dream to visit Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City once in their lifetime.

With an early start in light rain, which thankfully cleared much of the choking smog, we arrived at Tiananmen Square. Preparations were under way for the Chinese National Holiday on October 1, the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Celebrations are from October 1-7 and called “The Golden Week”. Thousands of people had already gathered for photo opps and sightseeing. Tiananmen Square’s massive slab of concrete, the size of 143 soccer fields, is capable of holding a million people.

There was no sign of protests nor were there any tanks, an image we may all be familiar with when on June 4th 1989, a young Chinese man, carrying his shopping bag, stood in front of a column of tanks in protest and was run over. During that demonstration by the People’s Pro-Democracy Liberation Army, Chinese troops and security police stormed through Tiananmen Square, firing indiscriminately into the crowds of protesters, killing an estimated 180 to 10,454 people. (Wikipedia)

We wandered around, people watching, one our favorite pastimes, noting that we’re all being watched by dozens of cameras. We were used to this surveillance. It’s part of traveling in China. All in all impressive, but underwhelming. The walls of the Forbidden City loomed in the background accented by the portrait of Mao Zedong. See Beijing, Part 2 coming up.