Monday, 31 October 2011

The Wall Less Travelled

[A bit of a rewind here - a blog post we wrote before heading off to the Hermit Kingdom, but couldn't post - we may have mentioned we've had some minor issues accessing Blogger :-) 
Anyway, here are a few notes about our Great Wall of China adventure.]

The terrible contradiction of modern tourism - 
  1. You want to see all the cool stuff, but -
  2. You want to avoid the crowds
Because fabulous sights just aren't as fabulous when you're being elbowed in the ribs by nine thousand other sweaty tourists, many of them from cultures substantially less polite (and substantially less conscientious about personal hygiene) than your own.

So while Sam and I were desperate to see the Great Wall of China, we also really, really wanted to avoid the crowds. Which is far from straightforward, because the Chinese Government funnels tourists to just a few sections of the wall (Badaling chief among them), to enable more efficient separation of tourists from their tasty Western dollars. Which means that on your average day, Badaling looks something like this:
Ah, the tranquility
(Image from
If you're willing to hire your own driver, though - and willing to forego the 'I Climbed the Great Wall' T-Shirts - it's possible to see the most amazing sections of the wall, far from the madd(en)ing crowds. In fact, you can have miles and miles of Great Wall, entirely to yourself. So Sam and I skipped Badaling altogether, and headed here:

Spot the tourists
This is the wall at Huanghua - a tiny village about 70km north of Beijing. It's a pretty unorthodox tourist experience - first you pay this man 2 yuan to scramble through his back garden:
That's 20p in real money
And then (with the locals' encouragement) you ignore the signs the Chinese government has plonked around the place to scare potential tourists away:

That's not what the guy whose garden we just scrambled through told us
The payoff is the most incredible hike through completely deserted mile after completely deserted mile of glorious wall. The downside, for those with a health & safety bent, is that the guard rails at the highest sections are a little, um... non-existent.

This would never be allowed in England
Oh, and the stone in some of the steeper sections has been worn completely smooth. It's not somewhere you'd want to come on a frosty morning.
Don't slip
By the time we got back to the village after a few hours of climbing, our legs were shaking with exhaustion. We were also starving. Lucky, then, that the cost of our driver also included a barbecued fish lunch from a little local restaurant. As we scrambled back down from the wall, we saw the chef crossing the road holding a huge, muscular brown fish, wriggling in his hands. He waved at us, then nonchalantly smacked the fish against the sink. Lunch would be ready soon... 
Looks terrifying. Was delicious.
Maybe it was all the exercise, or maybe the best restaurant in China is a tiny roadside shack in Huanghua... but it was the most delicious meal we've had on our trip.
The dishes just kept coming
So thank-you, Huanghua, for an unforgettable experience. And thank-you Chinese government... for keeping out the riff-raff.

Back in the Land of the Free Still-Not-Free

Aaaaand we're back. After spending 10 days on a tour of a country we still can't name for legal reasons, but which is popularly known as the Hermit Kingdom, and is currently vying with Syria and Zimbabwe for the title of 'Most Repressive Lunatic Regime, 2011' (after Libya tragically dropped out of the running...).

Lots more to say about that, but first a word about returning to China, after spending time in the Hermit Kingdom. Here's the sad thing: the two regimes have a lot in common.

Admittedly only China can afford computer graphics for its news channel...

At first it seems ridiculous to compare the two - the Hermit Kingdom is a famine-prone basketcase, while China is busily motoring towards global economic supremacy. The Hermit Kingdom has only one TV channel - a low-budget joke spewing stodgy propaganda and 'ideologically pure' drama. Chinese TV, in contrast, has dozens of channels, including a slick English language news channel. The Hermit Kingdom completely bans access to the internet, even for foreigners - while in China, wifi and 3G are everywhere. Etc.

But scratch the surface.

Chinese TV may have dozens of channels - but the government can ban any show, on any channel, at any time - for any reason. Most recently, they pulled the plug on one of China's most popular shows - an X-Factor style talent contest called 'Supergirl'. Their stated reason? "It was too long." The real reason? It encouraged people to vote.

A threat to the Chinese state. Seriously.

But it gets much weirder than that. The Chinese government can ban specific types of plot from all dramas on TV. So this year, they banned all stories involving time travel.

Back to the Western TV Channels ("Great Scott...!")
Their stated reasons for the ban (available here, if you read Chinese) are truly fabulous. Characters travelling back in time "lack positive thoughts and meaning" and portrayal of time travel can "casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation." 

I mean... wow.

In case that all made too much sense, the censors have really warmed to their work, and recently banned all detective dramas and spy thrillers for the next three months, so that viewers could instead enjoy "the dozens of good TV dramas relating to the founding of the [Communist] Party."

But which one do I want to watch?

And then there's the news. With the best will in the world, China's English language news channel is by far the creepiest thing I've seen broadcast in my language, in my lifetime. You're just not used to seeing blatant state propaganda being churned out in English (and if you're about to reply that "the BBC is blatant propaganda, man", then you should probably stop reading this blog and get back to stocking your nuclear bunker with tinned food).

Give the Chinese state broadcasters some credit - they've hired proper Western journalists, and they try incredibly hard to make it sound like a regular news channel (with feisty debates, controversy and so on). But the heavy hand of the government censors editors is everywhere. Sam and I have been collecting our favourite examples of completely-free-and-balanced journalism on the state news channel - but we keep getting angry and having to switch off. Here's our favourite so far:

"So, Tom, are the Occupy Wall Street protesters exaggerating, or do these protests expose the inherent instability of America's capitalist system?" 
"I think they expose the inherent instability of America's capitalist system..."

As for foreign news channels - they are censored, arbitrarily, at any time. Even in a Beijing hotel populated entirely by Western tourists, BBC World News can have the plug pulled at any minute. And it is - regularly. One minute you're watching Jeremy Bowen chattering excitedly about Libya - then the newsreader says 'Meanwhile in Syria - ' and the screen goes blue. Sometimes it stays blue for hours. You have to switch back to Chinese state TV for a dose of propaganda, or else settle in for a drama about the founding of the Communist Party.

"This is the Ten O'Clock News from the BBC..."
Even in the country-we-can't-name-for-legal-reasons, BBC news was broadcast unmolested in foreigners' hotel rooms. In that respect (if in no other), it's a freer place than China.

Then there's the internet. Or rather, there isn't the internet, in the case of the Hermit Kingdom - it just doesn't exist. As our guides told us, without irony, on arriving at a hotel: "On the 2nd floor you will find the International Communications Centre, where you can send a postcard..." The Chinese Communist Party, in contrast, allows the internet to flourish completely unencumbered. Oh, apart from the largest and most technologically advanced censorship operation in the history of humanity. Apart from that it's totally free.

It works like this: the Chinese government has simply banned a bunch of websites on which Westerners blithely enjoy their rights to free speech (Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube), and it's crippled Google as well (if you enter, say, 'jasmine' into Google, you'll find your access denied, and it'll stay denied for quite some time). In their place, the government has allowed Chinese copies of each site (Renren, Weibo, Tudou, etc.) which are broadly similar to their Western counterparts - except that they are policed by tens of thousands of state-employed censors moderators. If free speech exists at all in Chinese blogs, it exists in the hours (or minutes) between the posting of anti-government sentiments, and their deletion.

I'd love to tell you, but the Communist Party won't let me
And it's certainly not just about censorship. The Great Firewall of China has a hulking great fist behind it: according to Amnesty International, China has more imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents than any other nation in the world.

Jiang Zemin - 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress
"We're number one!"

OK, you get the idea - I'll stop ranting (you can probably tell I've been bottling this up for a while). If you're a Facebook-using blogger who likes to watch the news, flying from the Hermit Kingdom to Beijing doesn't feel like returning to a land of freedom. It feels like more of the same.

Oh, and one more thing. Stein's Law says that: "If something can't go on forever, it will stop." Well, from what we can see, the Chinese people are as smart, tech-savvy, feisty and fashion-conscious as anyone in the West. In fact, let's just go ahead and admit it - the next generation of Chinese students is way, way smarter than us.

 This can't go on forever.

Friday, 14 October 2011

100% Genuine Armani Watch - Final Tragic Update

We've been flooded with literally one more request for information about my 100% Genuine Armani Watch, purchased for £15 on the streets of Moscow. It is with great sadness that I confirm - the 100% Genuine Watch is no more. In the same incident in which my arm was broken, a far greater tragedy also occurred: my watch was snapped from my wrist and left to rust (or whatever lacquered plastic does) in the dust of the Mongolian steppe.

If you want a 100% genuine watch, there's one just lying around here somewhere
There are two potential stories we might tell about this loss. The first goes something like this:

My wrist is broken in a place which very closely corresponds to the sort of place which a watch - if, say, crushed against its wearer's arm during a sudden fall from a stampeding horse - might crunch into the surrounding bone.

Sort of watch-y kind of area, don't you think?
Which might lead a cynical observer to wonder whether my 100% Genuine Armani Watch may in fact... have broken the radius bone in my arm.

But there's another, altogether more interesting version of these same events. Because that watch hit the ground with so much force that it was completely torn from my wrist. That's a lot of force - especially when you consider that the strap was 100% genuine plastic leather. So now ask yourself: what sort of damage might my arm have sustained, had my 100% Genuine Watch not bravely, selflessly, fearlessly borne the brunt of the impact?

Without all that plastic metal and perspex glass courageously hurling itself between my arm and that hard earth - I could have been really, seriously injured. Lacking medical training, we can only speculate - but I'm pretty sure fragments of bone may have been dislodged completely, only to lodge in other parts of my body. Who knows where they might have ended up - my lungs maybe. My brain. Even my heart. Lacking any medical knowledge of any kind, at all - we can literally only speculate. What we can say for certain is this: my 100% Genuine Armani Watch may well have saved my life.

So farewell, 100% Genuine Armani Watch. Thank-you for your many years days of tireless service. I hope you're happy out there in the Mongolian wilderness, and - since I'm certain you contain no biodegradable parts of any kind - I hope you continue to enjoy that tranquillity for many centuries to come.

I'd hate to end this post on a downbeat note, however, so let me add one further piece of news:

Sam and I went shopping in Beijing's extraordinary Silk Market today - a shopping mall containing more 100% genuine goods in one building than I have ever seen in my entire life. And for the exact same price as my 100% Genuine Armani Watch, we managed to purchase something even more incredible.

The 100% Genuine Armani Watch is dead. Long live the 110% Genuine Patek Philippe Watch!

Isn't she lovely? 

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Our hotel here in Beijing is right in the heart of the hutong - the narrow medieval streets to the north of the Forbidden City. Noisy, smelly, crumbling and crammed with all manner of street vendors, bars, markets and workshops. The tiny roads are permanently rammed with vehicles, whizzing in every direction and ringing, honking and shouting according to a strict hierarchy:
  • Bicycles ring their bells manically at pedestrians
  • Electric bicycles blast out pre-recorded car-alarm sounds at bicycles
  • Three wheeled bikes yell furiously at two-wheeled vehicles of all kinds
  • Cars honk at all types of bicycles, their drivers possibly supplementing the honking with shouted abuse
  • Trucks just park in the middle of the street, blocking traffic in all directions - and ignore everyone

Amidst such carnage, there's really only one way to see the hutong - by bicycle. You may be towards the bottom of the food chain, but at least you're not a pedestrian.

Fortunately our hotel offers a range of cutting-edge road bikes for visiting tourists, and Sammy and I were allowed to take our pick from their extraordinary selection. I opted for the injection-moulded carbon-fibre BMC bike ridden to victory by Cadel Evans in this year's Tour de France: 
That basket is pure carbon fibre
Sammy, having a more classical sensibility, went for the epoxy-composite Trek Madone SL made famous by Lance Armstrong in his final 2005 Tour victory:
That's not just rust - it's go-faster rust
Of course, there was the minor detail that it was my first day with my arm in a plaster cast - but so many other cyclists were talking on mobile phones with one arm while they steered with the other, that I figured 'how hard can it be?'

No two ways about it - that is one masculine basket
For her part, Sammy was absolutely 100% certain that cycling in Beijing was an excellent idea:

"I'm 100% certain this is an excellent idea"
 So we hopped on our bikes, and...
... cycled from one side of Beijing to the other. We were having such a great time in the hutong that we hit the main roads (with their vast, cordoned-off cycle lanes) and blasted east to the financial district. Then we turned right around and cycled back to the Forbidden City.

It's the strangest thing - the roads are so utterly bonkers that they feel completely safe. Everyone is doing mad things, all around you, all the time - people cycling the wrong way down one-way cycle lanes, pedestrians stepping out in front of buses without a glance - which means that everyone's expecting madness to occur at every moment. So if you mess up and end up in the wrong lane, it doesn't matter - everyone's in the wrong lane, and everyone's ringing their bells and honking their horns, all the time - so you don't really notice if/when it's directed at you. It's a state of perfect, glorious anarchy.
I fear nothing
After several hours of cycling, we decided we'd earned a break, and pulled in for an hour long, full-body massage at the highly-recommended Dragonfly Spa. Which was amazing for several reasons - not the least of them being that I'd never had a lady rub oil into my buttocks with Sammy in the same room before.
This is where the magic happens
We left feeling so relaxed we could have passed out in the street. It was all we could do to drag our bicycles out into the madness of the traffic, potter back to our little hutong past the charming shops in our neighbourhood -

OK, then...
- and collapse into bed in our beautiful, beautiful hotel (about which Sammy will have much more to say later).

Our best day in Beijing, by miles. Something we've said to ourselves every day in Beijing so far. We absolutely love this city...

Moment of Zen

... in Beihai Park. This elderly lady unwrapped her picnic, pulled out an iPod with tiny speakers, cranked the volume to ten and sat down to enjoy her lunch. Take 76 seconds out of your life to enjoy the moment with her.

People's Square: No Irony Here

This is Tiananmen Square - home of the Monument to the People's Heroes, and the Great Hall of the People. Think of it as the People's Square. Notice how it's full of people:

These are (a small subsection of) the numerous CCTV cameras monitoring the People's Square. Along with hundreds of planiclothes and uniformed police officers. To stop the people doing anything stupid, like stripping down to a 'Free Tibet' T-shirt.

These are the police officers emptying out Tiananmen Square at sunset. In case the people do anything stupid, like... trying to be in the square.

Here is a policeman who yells at you enthusiastically if you dilly-dally:

And here is the People's Square without any people in it (apart from a few police officers):

When scratching inside your plaster cast with a chopstick...

... ensure that you have first washed off the Sichuan chilli from your thermonuclear beef hotpot.

That is all.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

No blogging for you...

We're experiencing some suspicious and unusual internet problems here, so no blogging until they're resolved.

We can access YouTube, but can't upload movies (we can't even access the page where you upload movies). We can't access Facebook at all. Our upload speeds for the blog have been obliterated - it now takes over 48 hours to upload one photo.

And after searching for the phrase 'Great Firewall of China', we can no longer access Google at all.

Coincidence? You decide...

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

... Breaking the limb

This would be mine...
So there was one tiny detail I omitted from my previous post about living my dream of Mongolian horsemanship. Which is that I did break my arm. You know... a bit.

What happened was this: 
About 10 minutes after the video I posted yesterday, our group cantered into a herd of horses belonging to a nomadic Mongolian herder, grazing happily on the steppe. As we approached, my horse - alongside the horse of a pre-med student named Dan - decided to assert its independence, by bolting headlong into the herd ahead. We yanked back on the reins and yelled 'Ooooozzzhhh' (Mongolian for "Please, for the love of God, slow down") but our horses were having none of it - and spooked the herd into a full-bore stampede.

It was around this point that we started to panic. We tried vainly to turn our horses away from the stampede, but (as I may have mentioned previously) Mongolian horses aren't especially concerned about their rider's directional preferences. They ignored us completely, and as the stampede gathered pace, our horses happily joined in, sprinting in amongst the herd.

After a few long moments of frantic rein-pulling, Dan managed to yank his horse's head sufficiently far to the right that it detached itself from the herd. I tried desperately to follow him, pulling my horse's head furiously rightwards. My steed responded, rather unhelpfully, by banking sharply to the left - leaving me hopelessly off-balance... and flying head first off the saddle, into the air.

My main concern, as I launched through the air, was to get out of the stirrups. My right foot was still hooked in, and I remember being terrified that it would stay there, and I would be dragged foot-first into a stampeding herd of wild horses. I was pretty sure I would not emerge with many limbs intact.

I managed to kick my right leg out of the stirrup - but still landed incredibly awkwardly on the palm of my left hand. Imagine leaping off a galloping horse into a one-handed press-up position, and you get the general idea. All my weight crunched onto my left wrist, which cracked ominously. My horse ran off with the rest of the herd. I rolled around on the ground, clutching my left arm, repeating the phrase 'That hurt' to myself, over and over.

Gaze into the cold, dead eyes of a killer
In the moment I crunched into the ground, I lost two things that were extremely dear to me:
  1. The use of my left arm.
  2. My 100% genuine Armani watch.
(More on the watch later.)

As I rolled around in the dust, Dan cantered over - his horse now fully under his control. "Weren't you on a horse?" he asked, drily. I continued to clutch my arm, repeating the phrase "That really, really hurt..." as often as I could manage.

Our guide, Pujhai, showed his incredible horse-riding prowess, by galloping into the heart of the stampeding herd, grabbing the reins of my horse, and bringing it back to me. I was having such a fabulous time, I tried to jump back on.

It quickly became clear that I could not put any weight whatsoever on my left wrist. So as I kicked my horse into a gallop, I was now clinging on to the saddle for dear life with my right hand, while using my shattered left arm to 'control' my horse even more pathetically than before. The fact was - there was no way I could carry on.

Sam and I got a taxi back into Ulan Bataar a couple of hours later, looking for a hospital that was still open. None of them were, this being late on a Saturday afternoon. Since we had nothing else to do, we went sightseeing in Ulan Bataar.
My arm was totally broken when I took this photo
And this one
I took a stack of painkillers, drank a bit of vodka, and the following morning we jumped on the train to Beiing.
My left arm is also broken here
 And after many more painkillers (and a bit more vodka) we arrived in Beijing.
Holding the camera with my not-broken arm
Immediately after checking into our hotel, we headed to a Chinese hospital recommended by Lonely Planet - the Beijing Family Union. Which is where they X-rayed my arm, and decided that some of the bones were not where they were supposed to be.
That wonky bit of bone should be way more attached to the other bones...
And for a while they thought it was both broken and  dislocated, which would have required surgery.
I cannot wait to undergo general anaesthesia in China...
Fortunately, the consultants decided my broken bones were close enough to their normal position to require no more than a plaster cast. Which (at the orthopaedic surgeon's request) Sammy rather gamely helped to mould onto my arm:
Definitely above and beyond the call of girlfriending duty
After a few more x-rays, the orthopaedic surgeon declared herself happy with her day's work - or at least happy enough to be photographed alongside it:
"I did my best..."
So I'm now wandering around Beiing with a whacking great plaster cast - and an incredibly patient girlfriend helping me with basic two-handed tasks, such as unscrewing bottles, focusing camera lenses, and unwrapping lollipops.
You're a life-saver, Sammy...
I definitely wouldn't say it was how I dreamed of seeing China.

But then again, would I get on the horse again, knowing that I'd only fall off any break my arm?

Monday, 10 October 2011

Living the dream

For as long as I've wanted to ride the Trans-Siberian railway (over 10 years now), I've wanted to go horse-riding in Mongolia. The thought of galloping across the steppe astride a half-wild Mongolian mare... well, it's been a dream of mine for years.

Which is why, within two hours of arriving in Ulanbataar, Sammy and I were in a car heading out to the countryside - to a tiny ger camp in the Bogd Khan Uul Strictly Protected Area.

Rush hour on the steppe
Sammy and I got our own beautiful little ger all to ourselves...

Home sweet home
But as gorgeous as the camp was, and as extraordinary as the views were, I was there for one reason, and one reason only: to saddle up, and head into the hills.

Mongolian horses are incredible creatures - left to mill around in herds much of the time, and still very much wild creatures at heart, but tamed just enough to accept a saddle and a rider from time to time.
You can ride me, but first you'll have to catch me...
They're also tiny. Not Shetland pony tiny, but pretty small nonetheless. Which means that anyone over about 6 foot tall looks... well, let's just say it - looks completely ridiculous, when teetering on top of such a slender creature.
I think I might be taller when standing up...
But none of that matters - because every ounce of these little horses is pure, go-faster Mongolian muscle. When they gallop, it takes your breath away. Not least because you have (at best) a limited say in what direction they go...

So here's a 30 second video, kindly taken by an amazing Mongolian rider named Pujhai, of me finally living my dream - galloping across the steppe, at the speed of a crazy-strong Mongolian mare. No two ways about it, I look like a total dork. But my goodness - did the reality ever live up to my dreams...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

We Love You, UU

Ulan Ude has been good for morale. Here's a few reasons why...

We saw our first llama!
Spot the llama. Or lama. Or something
In the middle of the Siberian wilderness, about an hour's mini-bus ride from Ulan Ude, stands Ivolginsky Datsan, a Buddhist monastery complex, home to about forty lamas.

Inside are the lamas
We had the good fortune to travel there with two gentlemen backpackers, a Candian and an Austrialian, Isaac and Dean.  Isaac makes friends easily in any language, and, true to form, two lovely old ladies ushered him (and us) into a private temple building to meet an English-speaking lama. We huddled behind the curtain and listened as Isaac and the lama discussed the truths of the universe: " it hot or is it cold?" "Sometimes it's hot...Sometimes it's cold."

The doorway to Enlightenment
And afterwards I was able to muse on such things in my own way...

England: sometimes it's hot. Mostly it's not.
But tackling the great Questions of Being is not the only reason Ulan Ude has been good for morale. Here are the others...

There is a posh shop.
Look at all the wholefoods!
There is a novelty ger
Look at the traditional Buryat dwelling
The local fauna are not short a crust or two

Captain Fat Sparrow
The cappuccino is an art form

Yes, it's actually winking at you
And Ali looks buff by a fountain

All in all this has been a great three days. Thank you, UU. Onwards to Mongolia...