September 12th, 2010
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia

Turns out Chris’ pneumonia is a little more serious than we thought. He’s not at death’s door or anything, but there’s no way he can go camping anytime soon, and he needs to see a better doctor than what’s available in Mongolia. So we’re cutting out the last few weeks of the trip and going straight to Europe. It sucks, but that’s life.

Unfortunately we made this decision on a Friday evening, and our passports are currently in the bowels of the gargantuan Russian embassy compound. According to Lonely Planet it’s open every day from 2 to 3 pm, and we we figured it was worth trying the next day, since we had nothing else to do except sit around and twiddle our thumbs. We walked around the fence for half an hour (it is a huge complex, since Mongolia used to be a Soviet satellite state) before eventually finding a gate with a buzzer. We tried this, and had somebody scream at us in Russian for a while, before saying “NO ENTRY!”

Anyone who has ever gone (or tried to go) to Russia will know how difficult they make it, what with the visa invitations and the registration and the general jerkery. It boggles my mind how unwelcoming they still are to foreign visitors. The Soviet Union collapsed nineteen years ago, guys. Come on. You don’t have to actively encourage tourism, but you could at least not be so overtly hostile towards it. That would be a start.

Anyway, this meant we’d have to wait until Monday to go to the Legend Tour office, explain the situation and try to get our passports back. We checked around a few different flight centres and on Skyscanner.net, and we should be able to get a flight to Moscow or Berlin for a reasonable price. We contacted Mendee and met up with him today, to pay for the training we received and to sell some of the gear we’d bought to him. Now we’re just waiting on those irritable Russians. Given how little they want to give us visas, you’d think they’d be more than happy to throw our passports back.

Once we do get a flight, we’ll have to kick around in Europe for a bit while Chris applies for a British working holiday visa. Reading up on all the rules and regulations for this is appallingly tedious, like doing a tax return or writing a CIT assignment. You have to force your brain to pay attention, reading about tier 5 category points and skilled assessment and youth mobility schemes and blah blah blah. It’s a horrifying Kafkaesque whirlwind of red tape, and I’m glad I don’t have to go through the same thing. I did offer for us to go straight to Dublin and enter a civil union so he could get European citizenship, but Chris isn’t too keen on marrying me, even on paper. I can’t imagine why. I think I’m a pretty good catch.

It’s strange, really – it was only in a few weeks time anyway, but now that we’re going to London directly we’re standing at the edge of another precipice in our lives. We’re looking at rental websites and jobhunting search engines, and trying to find a hostel where we can sleep until we find a good flat. (If you’re “lucky,” you can get a wretched dorm bed for about $200 a week. In South-East Asia I could sleep in an air-conditioned hotel room with a plasma TV and a private bathroom for three weeks on that much money.) It’s a shame that we missed out on horse-riding and the Trans-Siberian, but we can always come back. In fact I was planning to anyway, because while horses sound like the perfect way to see Mongolia, you’ll actually be seeing a very limited slice of it. Here’s the distance we could have covered in ten days on horseback:

Here’s the distance that Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor covered during Long Way Round, in the same amount of time, on enduro motorbikes:

There’s a reason vehicles supplanted horses. They’re better.

I’m not saying that we needed to burn across the countryside and cover heaps of ground – it’s just that it’s a tiny (and well-trodden, and touristy, and close to the city) part of the country that we would have seen. If you want to really get out there in the middle of nowhere, you need a vehicle.

Something I would sort of maybe like to do is the Mongol Rally. It’s an annual charity rally (not a race) from London to Ulaan Baatar, in cars that must be less than 1200cc. That involves driving across some of the roughest terrain in the world, through Kazakhstan and Russia and Mongolia, in a crappy hatchback. A whole bunch of cars had just finished up and were celebrating at the pub when we first arrived in UB, and it looks like a lark. I would love to do it in my ’96 Hyundai Excel, but unfortunately that now belongs to Chris’ brother Jesse.

In any case, the jury’s still out on whether I actually like travel or whether I’m just going to curl up in an armchair and never step outside the first world again. I’m going to write much more about that once the trip’s over. In the meantime, I’ve started taking metronidazole in an attempt to counter my suspected amoebic dysentery, because this was my last chance to get it over the counter in a part of the world that doesn’t give a shit about prescriptions. The kicker is that I’m taking it just as we’re about to re-enter the West, so if my persistent traveller’s diarrhea does come to an end, I won’t know whether it was because of the drugs, or my triumphant return to a part of the world that’s clean.

I’m looking forward to that – not just the cleanliness, but the efficiency. We’ve been in the developing world for five months, and the communist (or former communist) world for four of those, and both of those things spell death for basic infrastructure. We’re now completely accustomed to things like toilets, taps, keys and doors never working smoothly. “I wonder if we’re going to notice that,” I said. “Like if we get to Europe and we’re stunned that doors open without creaking or jamming or not fitting in the doorframe. Like a constant noise that you don’t notice until it stops.”

That reminds me of a conversation we had ages ago, back in Beijing, riding bikes to the supermarket. Chris had been talking about how expensive BMW motorbikes are, and one of our host’s friends had suggested that he just “buy a copy” – as in, a counterfeit Chinese copy.

Chris had nodded politely at the dinner table, but as we were riding to the supermarket later he said; “Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Let me think: do I want to buy a German motorcycle, or a Chinese motorcycle? That’s a joke. That is actually a joke on The Simpsons. ‘Things were going so well, and then they fell apart like a Chinese motorcycle’.”

“That’s what worries me about the rise of China,” I said. “I mean, this country is going to be dominating the global stage during our lifetimes. And the dictatorship, yeah, that’s bad and all, but just… the shittiness of everything. The lack of care they put into building things, into craftsmanship. They do it cheap and fast but they do it shit. I don’t want that to become the norm.”

Mongolia (and I presume Russia) may be bleak, but it’s a decaying kind of bleak. So that’s okay. Decay and neglect and disrepair is supposed to be bleak. Ulaan Baatar has a sort of disreputable, scruffy charm to it. But China is bleak even though everything is new. That’s just sad.

September 10th, 2010
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Transcribed from written journal

Turns out Chis has pneumonia. I went with him to the doctor’s the other day – we tried the Korean-sponsored clinic, but he didn’t like the look of it, so we went to the International SOS Clinic instead. Between the two of us, we’ve now prevailed upon the services of three of these hideously expensive but hey-we-shouldn’t-complain clinics. Chris was treated by a burly Russian doctor who looked like a former member of the KGB, and was told he had pneumonia. He got put on antibiotics and has to go back every single day, indefinitely, to be hooked up to a machine that sprays white mist down his throat.

Fortunately we have plenty of time in Mongolia, so if we’re lucky we’ll still be able to squeeze in some horse trekking if he recovers. In the meantime we’re stuck in UB. We have only one key to the apartment, and I don’t want to lock Chris out when he goes off to the clinic, so I’ve been staying at home most days – yesterday I read an entire novel in one sitting. I don’t really mind it. Chris, on the other hand, is as fidgety and restless as ever. If he ever went to prison he’d kill himself in the first week.

We no longer have the apartment to ourselves – a pair of German cyclists have shown up and rented the room with the double bed. This is annoying not just because we now have to share the kitchen and the living room, but also because I’d recently taken to sleeping in that very comfortable bed. Now I’m stuck on this tiny single again. Zaya, our Russian landlord, is getting on my case about booking the rest of our stay. I keep telling her I don’t know how long that will be, since it depends on Chris’ pneumonia. I’ve booked until the 14th for now; hopefully he’ll be better by then and we can go horse-riding. Otherwise I guess we’ll have to find somewhere else to stay, which I’m no longer quite so bothered by now that we’re staying with Fritz and Frauleine.

September 6th, 2010
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Transcribed from written journal

Chris is sick with a chest infection, so our horse-riding adventure has been indefinitely postponed. He looks OK, but he sounds terrible, as though he’s hacking up the lining of his lungs. If we go camping in conditions that could potentially be negative 10 degrees at night, he might very well die. That would put a bit of a dampener on the trip, so we’re waiting for him to recover. I keep urging him to see a doctor – there’s a Korean-funded hospital that should be OK – but, typical Australian man that he is, Chris is deely suspicious of the medical trade and will not see a doctor for anything less than an emergency.

We’re in a pretty good position anyway. We still have the run of the entire apartment, which at $15 US each per night is great value for money. Except for the shitty keys which seem to be made of aluminium and are prone to bending inside the lock, and a bathroom ceiling which is constantly dropping bits of damp, crumbling plaster – while I was taking a dump this morning a piece the size of a dinner plate peeled away from the ceiling and fell on my shoulder. We’re also suffering our first UB blackout; there’s not much to do at the moment except write and read by torchlight, and listen to Chris struggle to breath. Oh, and there’s no Internet here. But all of these flaws are redeemed by the fact that it’s big and spacious and private and has a kitchen. Apart from Glenn’s house, it’s the closest we’ve come to having a home on this trip.

We still have three weeks left in Mongolia, though, which even including the horse trip is way too long, so today we went to the Legend Tour office again to see if we could jiggle the dates around a bit. We got way further than I thought we would – the Russian embassy is more co-operative when you’re working through one of their approved agencies, I guess – but we were shot down at the last minute when we discovered that all the trains before the 28th are booked out. So we’re still looking down the barrel of maybe 10 days in UB after the trek.

I don’t mind that too much. Ulaan Baatar is a shithole, no doubt about it – the kind of city that always has been and always will be a grim urban blot a million miles from anywhere – but it’s still sort of interesting. There are all these fascinating pinpricks of society and culture amidst the communist bleakness; restaurants for the most part, but also bars and art galleries and fashion stores. The gap between the rich and the poor in Mongolia must be gargantuan.

There’s also a movie theatre here, which is nice, because we finally got to see Inception – a film that we’ve been chasing all the way across Asia. It was totally awesome even in the face of all my expectations. It was like Neuromancer directed by Martin Scorsese. In an age where 99% of films follow a predictable formula, it’s fantastic to see something completely original, and I think it might even have beaten Children of Men as my favourite sci-fi movie.

Incidentally, yesterday was Sunday, but all the shops and businesses were still open. You hear that, Perth? Even the Mongolian city of Ulaan Baatar is more advanced than you.

September 4th, 2010
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Transcribed from written journal

We’re in UB for the next two nights. The return of electricity means I suppose I could type this rather than handwrite it, but I’d like to keep this journal fairly consistent.

Yesterday we were getting fairly frustrated with our supposed “training” regime. We were supposed to go riding around ten, but we didn’tt leave until half past eleven. When Mendee isn’t around (which is most of the time) organisation goes out the window. Even when he is there it’s a pretty haphazard affair.

We were riding with the guide who had been singing around the campfire the previous night – a lovely man, but he doesn’t speak a lick of English, which makes learning anything difficult. We were on new horses. Mine was quite energetic and never wanted to stop moving, but Chris had trouble getting his to go without a thousand exhortations of “choo!” Both of our horses tended to the right, like a car with dodgy steering.

We went ona ninety-minute circuit of the surrounding hills, with our horses fairly content to follow our guide. Horses seem a lot like dogs: there’s nothing they delight in more than shoving their nose firmly up another horse’s ass, even if that horse has just shat all over its hind legs. At one point my horse booked it for the ass of Chris’ horse, but for some reason turned aside at the last second, rubbing its head against the other horse’s thigh and resulting in my left knee being shoved firmly into the other horse’s anus.

As we drew closer to the camp, our guide communicated that he needed to go somewhere, but that we should carry on home ourselves. He galloped off over the hills, and our suspicions that our horses were only managable when following a guide were confirmed. Our horses wheeled and whinnied and wandered aimlessly, despite our kicks and reign directions and shouts of “choo!” We eventually managed to coax them down the hill and tie them to the line, although it was a difficult task.

We had lunch and sat around reading for a while. “This is bullshit,” Chris said. “We’re paying $50 a day for this and we’re spending 70% of our time sitting around doing nothing. I mean, what was that before? Was that ‘orientation training’?”He did an imitation of our Mongolian guide, smiling blankly and pointing around at the hills.

“Well, let’s ask them if we can go riding again,” I said. My ass wasn’t thrilled by the propsect, though.

We found the other guide, the younger one who speaks slightly more English. (We’ve been told their names several times, but I simply cannot remember a foreign name unless I see it written down; I’m bad enough at remembering Western names.) We asked him if we could go riding again, and he seemed open to that, so we untied the horses and took off again.

The first half hour of that ride was a nightmare, because that was how long it took to cover two hundred metres down the valley. Our horses simply refused to move. When we did manage to get them going, it was impossible to make them go in a straight line and follow the guide. “This fucking sucks,” I said. “I don’t want to spend two weeks either standing still or zig-zagging across the landscape.”

Fortunately this guide spoke a little more English, and could therefore point out what I was doing wrong. “You always hold too close,” he said, pointing at my reigns. I was pulling back on them (the signal to stop) and also saying choo, which was sending the horse mixed messages. He also suggested I hold the reigns with one hand to make the horse turn more easily, which seemed to work better. After a while our horses fell into a steady rhythm, following our guide. I hope it just takes them a while to get into it; I still felt like if the guide were to disappear, they’d behave like headless chooks.

We tried galloping, which was more comfortable than cantering or trotting, but not by much. You can either sit down and have your ass-bone pounded to powder (man, horse-riding is full of innuendos), or stand up and have tthe stirrups rub the skin off your shins. Walking is much more tolerable (which is good, because that’s what we’ll be doing 99% of the time) but even a few hours of that rips up your body. I have aching muscles all over. I hope it’s like Collie, where your body aches for the first few days of skiing and biscuiting but then adjusts. Otherwise it’s going to be a painful journey.

I was becoming disillusioned with the whole idea, partly because of the physical pain and partly because controlling the horses was so difficult. Chris, on the other hand, was becoming disillusioned with it becuse he found it boring. “It’s not like riding a bike or driving a car, where you have to stay focused all the time,” he said. “The horse does everything and you just sit there.”

“Well what did you think it was going to be like?”

“Fun. The landscape is pretty repetitive, and if you take away the fun – or it’s supposed to be fun – off riding a horse, well, that’s it.”

“‘I was never here for the horses. I just wanted to go camping and be in this environment. The horses were just a bonus.”

“The landscape is all the same. It’s just empty hills.”

“We’ve only been in this one tiny part. There’s forests, mountains, lakes…”

We argued about this for a while, but it was a moot point. For different reasons, both of us were considering throwing in the towel on horses and buying a pair of motorcycles or a four-wheel drive instead.

On the way back to camp, we stopped to visit a ger in a neighbouring valley. That sounds romantic and adventurous, doesn’t it? Riding horses and stepping inside a genuine Mongolian nomad ger? The thing about the people who live traditional lifestyles, though – be they Mongolian nomads or Amazonian tribesmen or Saharan tuaregs – is that although Westerners build them up as shiny virtuous noble savages, they generally live in abject poverty, and abject poverty equals abject squalor. There is nothing good about that. Ever since the industrial revolution, we’ve been stuck with the nagging suspicion that the way we live in modern society is Not Natural and must therefore be Wrong. That is why Oprah croons about how the Amish live such “pure and simple” lives, why tens of thousands of backpackers every year go to visit Authentic Tribal Villages in South-East Asia, and why people make movies like “Fight Club” or “Avatar.” People who grow up in a monotonous first-world suburbia lash out at it, without realising that the alternative is a monotonous third-world slum. These people whom we objectify in our minds as somehow living “better” lives than us would happily trade their gers and horses for cars, televisions and hospitals. (Many of them attempt to do so, and find that such luxuries are not forthcoming, but that’s not the point – this is about the attitude we Westerners hold towards them.)

I’ve written about this in the past, and actually visiting the developing world has only made these beliefs stronger. We watched “Lawrence of Arabia” in Beijing, a film that clearly positions the viewer to idealise the native tribes of Arabia, but I just couldn’t buy it. There’s a scene where an American reporter asks Lawrence why he likes the desert, and he replies “Because it’s clean.” He’s speaking metaphorically, but I still thought: “Really, Lawrence? Because this is a place where there’s no trees and water is precious, so I’m wondering what the Arabs do after they shit.” That’s what’s always behind the scenes, in movies and glossy Lonely Planet photographs: the shit. Visit these people who seem so exotic and wonderful, and you’re going to find squalor, filth and poverty. The illusion usually evaporates when you catch your first whiff of faeces.

Case in point, anyway – we sat around outside the ger waiting for our guide to locate the owner, noting the pieces of animal carcass, the bits of intestine, and some kind of rotting mushroom gourd strewn about the place. Inside the ger, we huddled around a table next to some bits of raw meat impaled on hooks on the wall, covered with buzzing flies. Our host gave us some bowls of yoghurt, out of a jar that was just sitting there on a hot day. Chris took one sip and wouldn’t touch any more; I drank most of mine to be polite, and paid for it the next morning. We tried some of the food we were offered as well – stale bread, awful cream and some kind of unappetizing chalky substance.

I don’t want to come off as a spoilt finicky Westener. I was grateful for his hospitality. But honestly, you try sitting in a wretched hovel in a developing country without feeling squeamish. Certain worlds should not collide. In any case, the point I was trying to make is that the people all over the world who live traditional lifestyles – in Mongolia, in Libya, in Brazil, wherever – aren’t happy simply by dint of not living in the Evil Commercialist West. Many of them would clearly like to; that’s why they wear our clothes and read our magazines and even try to immigrate to our countries. People decry globalisation, but they don’t seem to realise that it happens in large part because the people on the receiving end want it to. If the Mongolian kids of today are listening to K-Pop instead of traditional Mongolian throat singing, that’s their choice. I’m not saying people should completely throw out all their customs and traditions; it just bugs me that there’s a large number of Westerners, especially backpackers, who would like to keep that Mongolian man in his filthy ger rather than move him into a clean apartment, simply because they find it quaint.

Anyway, enough about that. I’m sure there’s plenty of Mongolian nomads (and Amazonian tribesmen, and Saharan tuareg) who would fiercely defend their lifestyles and denounce globalisation. That’s fine too. My point is that it’s up to the Mongolians (and more importantly, individual Mongolians) to decide. Western tourists shouldn’t come into the equation.

When we got back to camp we checked the photocopied Lonely Planet to see what kind of alternative transport there is in Mongolia. Motorcycles start at $1000 US and four-wheel drives at $5000 US, so that put the kibosh on that idea pretty quickly. We brooded about it for a while before eventually deciding to make a go of it anyway. I doubt we’ll manage more than two weeks tops, though, and that still leaves us with more than a week in UB sitting around waiting for our train to Russia.

A British couple arrived at the camp that evening for a single-day trek the next day, and we spent a pleasant evening talking to them. The next morning we were scheduled to go to the Black Market to buy the gear we needed, but we were hoping to talk over some of our doubts with Mendee. Unfortunately he was still nowhere to be found, so we jut drove into the city with the younger guide and started spending. Saddles, sleeping bags, jackets, beanies, bridles, hobbles, stakes, ties, saddlebags, boots and hats set us back 400,000 togrog; somewhere between $300 and $400 AUD. We can sell some of that back, but we still need to buy some other stuff – air mattresses, pillows, water tabs and especially food. We’re renting a tent, it’s cheaper.

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We’d organised to stay in UB tonight to have showers, soft beds and electricity before roughing it for more than a week, and since we still have heaps of stuff to get sorted we ended up deciding to stay here tomorrow night as well. The guide dropped us off at a guesthouse the Brits had reccomended and said he’d see us Monday. After he drove off, we found out it was full. Cue an afternoon of one of independent travel’s most frustrating activities: wandering around a strange town or city, carrying all your stuff on your back, looking for a hostel or guesthouse and finding over and over again that everywhere is either booked out or shithouse or both, all while the sun slowly drops towards the horizon.

Eventually we got lucky and found a place called Zaya’s Guesthouse, which was full, but which has a second location down some back streets. (Huge swathes of Ulaan Baatar remind me of “the projects” in any given Grand Theft Auto game: apartment blocks that somebody tried to craft into a nice community, but which instead became dilapidated dens of inner-city poverty, right down to the forlorn and deserted playgrounds.) We’re the only people at this second location… at all. No other guests, no staff. We basically have the run of an entire apartment to ourselvs, and it’s nice and clean and has hot water. We’ll definitely try to stay here again during our long wait for the train on the other side of the horse trek, however long that turns out to be.

September 2nd, 2010
Steppe Riders Camp, south of Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Transcribed from written journal

I’ve slept on some pretty awful beds during my days in Asia, but last night was the worst. It was the first time I’d suffered the combination of a rock-hard bed and terrible pillow. Bean bags are all well and good for sitting on, but put your head down on one and it’s a solid surface that crinkles in your ear all night. I ended up just stuffing my hoody full of clothes. It took us about four hours to get to sleep, and we woke around ten the next day.

Anybody who has dealt with Asian organisations – be they guesthouses, bureaucracies, or tour agencies – will be well aware of the standard level of customer service in this part of the world. You often find yourself battling to extract the maximum level of service you can, because they certainly aren’t going to give it to you freely, and unfortunately Steppe Riders are no exception. Mendee has gone to UB the previous night, and in his absence there seemed to be a lack of any kind of organisation. The North American group disappeared on their trek shortly after breakfast, and Chris and I were left sitting around wondering what to do with ourselves.

Some time after noon a guide smoking a cigarette ushered us up to some horses. He didn’t speak English, but he showed us how to bridle the horses and put on a saddle, and how to hobble them so they don’t run off during the night. Then we climbed up onto them, ready to start riding.

The guide was urging me to say “Choo!” to the horse, the Mongolian equivalent of “giddy up,” but my horse wasn’t having any of it. “Choo!” I yelled, digging my heels into his flanks. “Choo!”

His only response was to fart.

“Come on! Choo! CHOO!”

Eventually he begrudgingly started walking up the hill, but he stopped after about five metres and started eating the grass. I pulled the reigns up, to lift his head away from the grass; he lowered his head and started eating again; I pulled the reigns up again; he started eating again, and so on and so forth.

The guide told me to get off, then got on himself and went fora gallop up and down the hillside, as though that would somehow impart some arcane knowledge. I couldn’t figure out whaat I was doing wrong. I got back on and eventually managed to get it moving, although it was still quite disagreeable.

At this stage Chris was also on his horse, and we went up the hillside towards the cluster of shrubs, cajoling, coaxing and nursing our horses all the way. This was a fact that I already knew, on a vague and abstract level, but which was only now properly dawning on me: a horse is an animal, aliving creatuire with a mind and a will of its own. It is not a motorcycle, responding to the touch of a brake or a throttle almost instantly. It is a creature of flesh and blood, and a damned finicky one at that.

We went back down the hill and into the camp for lunch, with some vague mention of going for a ride to a well after the meal. Chris and I sat at the outdoor table playing chess and waiting.

Chris was looking up at our horses, which had been tied onto an elevated rope next to a third horse. The third horse was standing perfectly still, while ours were shaking their heads about and stamping their hoofs. “Look how jumpy our horses are,” Chris said. “That one’s all calm. Ours look like they’ve got schizophrenia.”

“Yeah…” I said. “Riding is hard.”

“A lot harder than I thought it would be,” he agreed.

Mendee showed up while we were eating lunch, which was a relief, because it meant we could discuss things with him. We talked about the gear we’d need to buy, and looked over a map to discuss the route we’d take. We’re probably going to head north-east, towards a national park that I’ve forgotten the name of. Terelj, or something.

After lunch we saddled up the horses again and rode out of the valley with one of the guides who possessed a very basic level of English. My horse was being an obstinate bastard again, and before we even crossed the first ridge I had to switch horses with our guide. This horse was much more agreeable, at first; later he developed a habit of throwing his head about and stamping his hooves all the time, in a manner which made me feel as though he was about to rear and throw me off. But at least he moved when I told him to.

We didn’t go too far. Probably less than a kilometre, although horses don’t walk much faster than humans do, so it took a while. We arrived at a bend in a dry creekbed where a fifty-gallon drum had been sunk into the earth to form a crude well. A large truck tyre had been peeled and stretched out next to it to form a drinking trough for the horses. Our guide showed us how to remove the bridles to let them drink, and we then replaced them and headed back to camp.

This was not, by any means, a long-distance ride; we were in the saddle for perhaps an hour. But it hurt. My ass was sore and my thighs were chafed. Standing up provided only temporary relief. Maybe we’ll grow accustomed to it, but I think I’m definitely going to have to buy a blanket or a cushion or something.

We took a different route back to camp, through a neighbouring valley filled with purple wildflowers. Chris was holding a hand outas he rode, to catch the grasshoppers that were hurling themselves through the air.

“We totally got to make a game where whoever catches the most grasshoppers wins,” he called back to me.

“I’m a little more worried about my spastic horse,” I said, as my mount threw its head around irritably. I was pretty sure it just wanted to eat – it certainly kept trying to – but I wouldn’t let it do so for more than a few seconds, or we’d be left behind.

We crossed a ridge to return to our valley, and as I was ascending the hill I had a wonderful image of Chris sitting there on horseback, sillhouetted against the blue sky and puffy white clouds. A few moments later I was standing next to him, surveying a landscape of plains and crumpled hills, covered by nothing more than a thin ribbon of road and a few ger camps. Even this close to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia is a beautifully unspoilt country.

Back at camp, Mendee took us through some knot-tying and told us when we should let our horses drink water (apparently the answer isn’t “whenever they want to”) but after that we were left to our own devices. We ended up reading, since there was very little else to do. I finished “Going Solo,” Roald Dahl’s autobiography about living in East Africa in the 1930s and flying a fighter plane duing World War II. It was a splendidly British account of the last great hurrah of the British Empire, filled with snippets of life back in the day – copies of telegrams, handwritten letters, black and white photographs and steamship schedules.

The voyage from the Port of London to Mombasa would take two weeks and on the way we were going to call in at Marseilles, Malta, Port Said, Suez, Port Sudan and Aden. Nowadays you can fly from London to Mombasa in a few hours and you stop nowhere and nothing is fabulous anymore.

How true that is. I wonder how much further the world will have been watered down fifty years from now. There’s something about writing a handwritten journal that feels more pure than typing it into Wordpad on my laptop, something more adventurous, but that is of course an illusion. We’re only an hour out of Ulaan Baatar, a city that sounds remote and exotic, but is actually covered in Western restaurants swarming with backpackers, and we’re staying at a ger camp that has a website and was reccomended to me on the Lonely Planet message board.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to be here; only a slim fraction of the travellers who do the Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos loop go on to do China, and an even slimmer fraction go on to do Mongolia, and I think it’s safe to say we’ll be the only people at any given cocktail party who have bought our own horses and rode around the Mongolian steppe. With every passing day we leave the Banana Pancake Trail further behind, and I’m certainly glad of it.

In the late afternoon, Mendee invited us to the table to join some of his friends from the city, and ply us with shots of vodka. This is a preview of what I expect to happen if we stay with any nomad families out on the trail: they’re big drinkers, and very hospitable, and lay the booze on pretty thick. My featherweight status was evident immediately, as I sipped my shot down, but Chris was obliged into taking five and got fairly drunk.

After dinner we started a campfire, since I wasn’t up for another dark and cheerless night, and also because it was freezing cold. The Mongolians joined us for a bit but went to bed fairly early, except for our guide from earlier in the day, who stayed with us to practice his English. He was quite nice, and sang us a song which was – as far as I could gather – about the stars. How many people can say they’ve been serenaded by a Mongolian cowboy?

We sat around the campfire talking for about an hour. “Part of me is really looking forward to that train,” Chris said. “The next bit of comfort we have.”

“All the way through South-East Asia and China you were just focused on Mongolia,” I said, “and I told you, you were putting it on a pedestal…”

“Mongolia’s great,” Chris said. “But… I don’t know, comfort is a big deal to me. I like having a bed I can enjoy, and right now I don’t. There is nowhere in this camp where I can lie down and be comfortable. I don’t care how much an air mattress costs, I’m buying one when we go to that store.”

“For me it’s the pillow,” I said. “I just need something comfy to put my head on.”

“Yeah,” Chris said. “I mean, if there’s people that can sleep rough on th dirt, that’s great, good for them. But I can’t.”

“The five billion people who do sleep rough would happily trade places with us,” I said. “We’re lucky enough to be born into comfort, there’s no shame in enjoying it.”

We watched the embers glowing in silence for a while. Our guide pointed out some constellations, and told us their Mongolian names. “I wonder if he knows what they are?” I said. “About planets and all that stuff?” We told him the name for Venus, which in the clear and unobscured Mongolian sky is far too bright to be mistaken for a mere star – this is the first place I’ve ever been in my life where you can clearly tell it’s a planet. I do miss the constellations of the southern hemisphere, though. How bizarre it is to be in a place so foreign that even the sky is different…

September 1st, 2010
Steppe Riders Camp, south of Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Transcribed from written journal

I’m writing this by candlelight in a Mongolian ger camp. With no electricity I’ll be writing longhand for nearly a month. It’s a novelty now, but I expect that to wear off before I finish this entry.

We both had a remarkably good night’s sleep on the train, and woke up at a quarter to eleven. We didn’t get to sleep until about two; the train took longer to get through customs than expected, and there’s no point going to sleep if you’re just going to get woken up for your passport.

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The landscape on the Mongolian side of the border was a beautiful expanse of arid plains, unsullied by the mines, factories and plants that dot the Chinese side of the Gobi. We ate a late breakfast in the dining car, watching gers and eagles and nomads on horses pass us by.

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When I stuck my head out the window in the hallway outside our cabin, the air was clean and crisp and fresh – a far cry from the gritty smog of Beijing.

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We arrived in Ulaan Baatar with nothing more than a few phone numbers and a sketch map to the Legend Tour office. We hailed one of the taxis outside the train station to take us to the Russian embassy, but realised we didn’t have any Mongolian currency. The taxi driver was happy to take us to a bank, where we switched over our Chinese yuan. He then charged us 50,000 Mongolian togrog to take us to the Russian embassy. I later learned that the Australian dollar fetches about 1200 togrog, and that a taxi across town should cost about 2000. Never ever ever go with one of the men who hang about the exits of airports, bus stations and train stations. We learned this long ago; I don’t know why we keep doing it. It’s xe.com’s fault, really; they have exchange rates for every backwater African and South Pacific currency, for metals and minerals, and even for currencies that don’t exist anymore, yet they don’t have Mongolian togrog, so we were flying blind. What gives?

From the Russian embassy we managed to find the Legend Tours office, more due to good luck than to the crappy map I’d copied down from their website. Legend Tours are a dubious tour company that claimed they could obtain Russian visas for us, even though that’s not supposed to be permitted outside your country of residence. If this fell through, we’d have to find a more boring way of getting to Europe.

Their office consisted of two poky little rooms in an otherwise unoccupied building. They seemed fairly legit, though and the woman behind the desk – who, judging from the business cards on display, comprises 50% of the compan’y staff – assured us we could have Russian visas by the 27th. We also booked Trans-Siberian tickets while we were there, all the way to Moscow, since you generally have to book in advance. A pleasant surprise was that a first-class berth to Moscow, when purchased in Mongolia, cost only $350 US – not much more than our Trans-Mongolian tickets, which covered less than a quarter of the distance the Trans-Siberian does. I really hope that was just a stroke of luck due to tariffs and international markets, and that come the 28th we won’t be sleeping on the floor of a boxcar.

After withdrawing some US dollars from a bank, we paid the woman and borrowed her phone to call Mendee. Mendee runs a company called Steppe Riders, based out of a yurt camp to the south of the city. I’d been talking to him by email over the last couple of weeks trying to organise some training. Plenty of tour companies organise guided treks, but as far as I know, Steppe Riders is the only one that offers “solo training” for people who want to buy horses and set off on their own. Chris and I fall into that category, although we’ve never ridden horses before. Mind you, I only had a cumulative total of about ten hours experience on a motorcycle before jumping on a dilapidated 1980 Minsk and riding from Saigon to Hanoi.

Mendee asked us when we wanted to begin our training, and I explained that we hadn’t organised anywhere to stay in Ulaan Baatar, and asked if we could sleep at his camp tonight and begin early the next morning. He said that was fine, and picked us up in his minivan about an hour later.

He was much younger than I expected (late 20’s, maybe?) but he seems friendly enough and his English is good. We picked up another camp employee, left the city, and arrived at the camp about an hour later. It’s a cluster of about eight or nine gers, and two outdoor toilets, set at the head of a small valley in some low hills. The landscape around here is all rolling green hills, mostly grass but with the occasional cluster of shrubs and bushes wherever there’s some shelter on the leeward side of a hill. We have a four-bed ger to ourselves, with some hard beds, bean-bag pillows, spider-infested blankets and a gravity-fed faucet and basin (which we emptied the reservoir for, since it was dripping). Oddly enough, I actually expect to be more comfortable when we’re camping.

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Also staying at the camp are a group of expats from Beijing: a Canadian couple, an American guy, and the American’s Chinese wife. We had some tea and then dinner with them. Mendee disappeared back into Ulaan Baatar before we could hammer out a plan with him, so I’m not sure what’s happening tomorrow. The expats leave on a four-day guided trek tomorrow morning. I hope they’re not going with Mendee, because he seems to be the only one with good English. Some of the other staff have passable English, but we’ll need a little more than that from somebody instructing us on how to ride a horse.

After sunset we went and sat on top of one of the hills and watched the stars come out. This is the first time since Australia that I’ve seen a clear night sky. Even in Yunnan and Sichuan it was usually overcast. Even this close to Ulaan Baatar, it’s far better than any night sky I’ve seen in Australia, including Collie. Chris said it rivalled Mornington.

Part of the reason we were sitting there appreciating the firmament and following the graceful arc of satellites was, of course, that we had no electricity. There’s not much to do except read or write, and even that’s a pain in the ass by torch or candlelight. I could gladly sit by a campfire for hours doing nothing, but the Steppe Riders camp doesn’t have one (and it’s amazing how much of a difference that makes, how less homely and welcoming a camp feels, something I’m sure we all noticed when the full-time fire ban went into effect at Collie). When we’re camping I intend to have a fire every night, if we can find the wood for it.

It’s interesting how, when you’re in an environment like this, night and day make an enormous difference. When we were watching Ulaan Baatar approach from the train window this afternoon, I didn’t feel apprehensive at all. I felt perfectly comfortable. I compared that with how I felt striking out into China on the sleeper bus back in July. The difference, of course, was night and day. Foreing lands always seem much more familiar and managable in the sunlight. I feel slightly more out of my element now that the sun has gone down, and I’m about to crawl into my spidery bed, but I’m sure I’ll be 100% excited and optimistic again in the morning.

Nighttime is also boring, which is why I’m blabbering on, because as soon as I’m done I’ll just brush my teeth and go to bed. Don’t give me any guff about how being separated from our laptops will allow me and Chris to “rediscover the lost art of conversation.” We’re best friends and we’ve been together 24/7 for the last four months. We have little to discuss.

Well. That’s all I can think of. Time for bed, at… 10.25 pm. I guess we’ll have to adjust our sleep cycles to more closely match the night.

August 31st, 2010
Trans-Mongolian Express

We’re on the train to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. The landscape coasting past the window is one of rolling hills and green plains split by water erosion. We’re riding first class, in a private cabin for two, which cost us about $350 AUD each. This seems to be the choice of most Westerners, who comprise half the passengers on the train. We could have shared a four-person berth for a bit less, but not much, and we were happy to pay the extra money to have our own space – particularly when there’s a good chance the other two people would be chain-smoking Chinese.

We left Beijing at the ungodly hour of 7.30. After more than two weeks of lazing about in the McKay Manor, going to bed as late as we pleased and sleeping in till noon, this was difficult. It’s also hard to settle down on a rubbish bed with lumpy pillows on a rattling train after having my own soft, wonderful double bed for two weeks.

I didn’t write much in Beijing because we didn’t do much; the joy of having a home again overpowered all else. Besides which, Beijing is a smoggy and unappealing urban sprawl. We did go visit the Great Wall; here’s a picture of it snaking off along the hills into the grey pallour.

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Really, any place where you can stare directly at the sun is a pretty grim place to live.

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To be fair, it’s not like that every day, but even one out of five is too many. Parts of China really do resemble how most Westeners imagine it: an industrial hellscape not dissimilar to the climax of every Terminator movie.

Western China, on the other hand, is quite beautiful. It had its bleak parts around Kunming and Chengdu – that special Chinese communist kind of bleakness, with grim apartment blocks and peeling paint and grey skies and everything swathed in concrete – but for the most part it was blue skies, stunning mountains and the splendour of nature in every direction. Whatever can be done to spoil China’s natural beauty is well underway, but it’s a huge country, and it will be a long time before the Chinese can, to their satisfaction, pave concrete over every inch of land they control. You might argue that the current construction boom is all part of the China experience, and that’s all well and good, but it’s not an experience I’m particularly interested in having.

Nonetheless, the western parts of Yunnan and Sichuan remain relatively untouched pockets of beauty, and overall I enjoyed China far more than Vietnam. (Many accuse the Chinese of rudness and incivility, but in general I found them to be no more or less rude than Westerners, and far more tolerable than their southern cousins in Vietnam.) Dali is absolutely one of the highlights of the trip, an old little town surrounded by lovely mountains, and I also enjoyed Shangri-La quite a bit. Our multi-day bus voyage through Sichuan had Chris at the end of his tether, and by the time we reached Kangding I was also over it, but there were good moments in there (especially Litang) and I’m glad we did it.

I don’t regret glossing over Beijing. We did take a gander at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but took only a few cursory photos before beating a retreat from the gargantuan crowd of Chinese tourists. Temples and palaces are always the same thing anyway.

Here’s the framed portrait at the front, where the Chinese flock from all over to venerate a mass-murderer.

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You can sample all kinds of culinary delights in the nearby alleyways. HELLO FRIEND! YOU WANT STARFISH?

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We also visited a BMW motorcycle showroom, where I had to remind Chris that making love to a machine is an affront to God.

Dream Bike

He’s pretty keen on a Beamer for our prospective trip across the Americas; or some kind of endurance adventure bike, at least. This or KTM. I was in agreeance until I found out that their price tag of “ten thousand” referred to ten thousand pounds or euros, not ten thousand dollars. I can’t imagine myself ever shelling out that much money for a motorcycle.

Dream Bike Adventure GS

Don’t get me wrong, I would absolutely love to own a bike like this. But that is a huuuuge amount of money. I may get one second-hand, but even then, it’s occurred to me that there’s no reason we have to be on expensive adventure bikes. People have done the Pan-American on much less. Ted Simon went around the entire world on… well, I can’t remember what it was, but I’m pretty sure it was a piece of shit. I certainly don’t want to repeat my Vietnamese Minsk experience, but I’m sure there’s a healthy middle ground.

That pretty much sums up Beijing, aside from a tedious story about the rigmarole of applying for a Mongolian visa. (They made us go pay for it at their bank, rather than giving them cash like every other consulate in the entire world). Anyway. China is a big country, and therefore difficult to evaluate – it has its good parts and its bad parts. But my overall impression was positive (by my standards for Asia, anyway) and I wouldn’t be averse to visiting China again.

The biggest killer is just the distances: in rural Western China (which is the part you want to see) there aren’t a lot of train lines, and you have to be prepared for a lot of gruelling bus rides. The public toilets will also make you doubt the existence of a loving God. And, while travel is not exactly difficult, it’s certainly much harder than in South-East Asia – once you’re off the beaten track, even simple things like buying train tickets can be a headache. China is not an easy country to travel through, but if you’re prepared for a bit of hardship, it has its rewards.

And now Mongolia, which I expect will be similar to China but even more amplified: greater hardship, greater rewards. For the first time since Vietnam we will have our own transport, which has become something we greatly value. Also, for the first time since Cambodia I won’t have to use a proxy to get around an asshole government that censors the Internet – not that this will matter much, since we’re going to be camping out in the middle of nowhere for the next few weeks. Call me a pessimist, but I doubt we’ll come across much electricity out on the plains, let alone wifi signals. I’ll try to upload this in UB, but after that it’s radio silence. (Mind you, if you haven’t heard from us come October, somebody please call the Australian embassy). I do plan to keep a written journal, which I’ll transcribe and upload when I can – should have a lot of time on the Trans-Siberian, if there’s electricity.

We’re both excited for Mongolia – excited to be riding horses, excited to be out in the wilderness, excited to regain a bit of freedom. I have a lot of thoughts about backpacking (and it is Lonely Planet-style backpacking we dislike, not travel itself), but I’m going to wait until we reach the end of the road in London to write those up. For now, you may all continue to call us whingers and complainers, from the luxurious comfort of your Western homes, because I dare to discuss places honestly.

Oh, I forgot to mention: you can toboggan down from the Great Wall.

The Great Wall Of China (7)

Radical!

August 30th, 2010
Beijing, China
Chris

Well, we’re leaving the mansion – or as I put it one day riding home from Jenny Lou’s, our ‘Temple of Leisure.’ Tomorrow we are finally off to Mongolia, sweet Internetless Mongolia. Because it’s a thirty hour train ride, we are going to lose out on either the departure time or the arrival time. It’s going to be a late night, or an early, early morning. Either way, we’re both fucking excited.

‘I can’t wait for this train, man,’ Mitch grinned over the table at a remarkably late breakfast.

‘Pity we weren’t travelling strenuously like back in Sichuan,’ I said. ‘Now we’re just going from lying on our backs reading, to… well, lying on our backs reading.’

It’s been almost thee weeks since we stumbled through the garage door to this castle: discovering the elevator, that has heavily supported and improved our laziness; the thirty five different kinds of chairs, one of which we’ve taken a custom for fighting over; a swimming pool, out of action for over half the time we were here, nonetheless still a free pool; the free food, mostly bread, which I must admit is not quite doing it for me anymore (although I will probably be screaming for it by the time we crawl out of Mongolia); free accommodation: the mansion; and most importantly of all, THE PIANO! It had been more than three months since I’d been able to play a piano in privacy. I think I’ve improved a little, convincing myself to learn at least one song a day. Turns out I only managed about one song every four days; still, that is more than I could say for back home, where I squandered my outrageously magnificent talent.

In our time here, dancing with bureaucracies, waiting in Mongolian embassy lines, finding banks, each opening a Chinese bank account, turning twenty-one, visiting the Forbidden City (not going in because there were too many Chinese tourists), buying books, looking at some of the bikes we want to ride the Americas on, hanging out with Nik, Glenn and Leila, scaling the Great Wall, bobsledding down it, we’ve learned a lot about Beijing: it’s big, it’s ugly and it’s shrouded in smog and traffic and we like living like kings. Early on we silently agreed that we’d find more enjoyment inside this house or in the back yard then we would in the stinkingly boring city centre.

We’re ready to leave. I think we’ve spent the perfect amount of time here. I will miss lying on my particular chair reading until four in the morning, lulled to sleep by the dog-sized cicadas and I will miss Nik’s adorably fourteen-year-old behaviour (‘MOOOOOOOOM, GOD!’)… and her piano.

It really feels like tomorrow is the begining of the third phase in our trip. The first being Singapore to China, the second being, well, China and the now, the third: the stretch to Europe, to the UK and on to our new home, London.

August 21st, 2010
Beijing, China

I’m sitting in bed feeling sick and following the election results. It’s neck and neck at the moment. Labor better not manage to lose an election to the most unelectable man in Australia.

I voted (Green) at the Australian embassy earlier this week. It was a big grey building of brutal architecture and glass doors and token Aboriginal artwork and men wearing suits with ID cards hanging around their necks – basically what I imagine the entire city of Canberra to look like. I was actually there to do a tax return, but apparently they don’t do that anymore. It’s all done with computers these days. Or at least it’s supposed to be; when I tried using eTax in Korea last year it refused to verify my identity and I had to wait until I went back to Perth. The whiz-bang wonders of the modern age.

Labor’s on 70 and the coalition’s on 71. The pundits always claim the election will be tight, but I’m surprised it really turned out that way. Didn’t Labor win by like 30 seats last time?

I also went to the SOS International Clinic the same day, because although I was feeling fine I was convinced that my regular traveller’s diarrhea must be the result of an ongoing, waxing and waning infection. It was a huge sparkling modern facility where all the expats and diplomats go, and I certainly received the best standard of medical care I’ve ever had, at the low price of five hundred fucking dollars. Most of that goes on travel insurance, but Jesus. Anyway, after running some tests my Austrian doctor announced that I was perfectly healthy.

Four days later and I’m suffering from diarrhea again, this time with abdominal pain and nausea. This is fucking frustrating. Particularly so given that I’m living in an expat’s house and eating safe, familiar foods. If I really am just constantly picking up a string of separate infections, where did this one come from?

The Greens are doing quite well, with a swing of nearly 4%. That would suggest that many Australians would prefer to have a right-wing and a left-wing party in this country, rather than two right-wing parties. Hard to enjoy that, however, with the prospect of Prime Minister Tony Abbott dangling above us like the Sword of Damocles.

So, yeah, living in this house. It’s divine. It sits in a gated suburban community about forty minutes outside of Beijing, and it’s completely wonderful in every way. Glenn, his wife Leila, and their delightfully stereotypical teenage daughter Nicole have been incredibly welcoming, considering that we’re a pair of deadbeat backpackers who invited ourselves into their home. We have separate bedrooms, air-conditioning, AN ELEVATOR, a swimming pool and a thousand other things we never had any right to dream of. Glenn cooked us both steak dinners one night, and said “You boy are gonna be fucked when you leave here.” He’s right. We’re growing accustomed to a very high standard of living, coming directly after living like hobos for three and a half months.

Most wonderful, though, is simply having a home. People often talk about the things they miss from home when they’re travelling, and it’s usually food – vegemite, fish and chips, various little things you just can’t get overseas. But for both Chris and myself, the thing we missed most was freedom.

Travelling the world at whim, with nothing to tie you down, seems like the very definition of freedom. It’s not. When you’re travelling in a foreign country on a tourist visa there is an enormous amount of limits on the things you can do. You’re often confused, you depend upon the strangers around you for many things, you have to take public transport everwhere and you have to worry about securing every meal and every bed. I don’t miss Vegemite or Cadbury or Smiths. I miss going to the fridge to get something to eat. I miss getting in my car and driving wherever I want. I miss melting into a crowd. I miss doing pretty much whatever I want all the time.

So the best thing about living in Glenn’s house is being able to cook our own meals. Or at least it is for Chris, who can actually cook. For dinner tonight I had bread with a bit of ham and Kraft cheese on it, an uninspiring meal which I then burnt in the grill. “Iron Chef,” Chris commented.

Labor 73, coalition 74. I can’t imagine anyone other than the sneering, arrogant Joe Hockey that I would like to see in the Lodge less than I would Tony Abbott.

I don’t have any photos for you this update, because I haven’t taken any. We haven’t been into the city much. Nicole accuses us of being the worst tourists ever, but after nearly four straight months of being tourists, it’s nice to be shut-in slobs again. Besides, we have another ten days here, which is more than enough time to do the Great Wall and Forbidden City and all that jazz.

We did go in to extend our tourist visas at the Chinese Kafka Bureau. Not only did we need a certificate of temporary residence in Beijing – which neccesitated a trip to the police station – we also needed proof of funds to support the rest of our stay – in a Chinese bank. What the fuck kind of tourist opens up a bank account? Leila opened some up for us and transferred her own money in there, transferring it back out after we’d dropped our passports off. I can’t imagine how difficult that would have been if we were staying at a hostel. I really dislike the communist world. Anywhere they’re finicky about foreigners, in fact. Give me Europe and the Americas any day. My piss-weak immune system should be able to handle those places too.

Steve Fielding seems to have lost his seat. Good.

We also hunted down a bookstore, since we need to stock up on reading material for Mongolia and the Trans-Siberian. There don’t appear to be any second-hand bookstores in Beijing, which is a shame for the budget traveller, but we did manage to find one that had a lot of classic titles for around 30 yuan ($5) each. So I picked up Kidnapped and King Solomon’s Mines, as well as Stephen King’s On Writing (a very readable book, which motivated me to finish a short story I started writing way back in Seoul – and I also discovered this awesome website, so I’ll send it off to a few magazines). I also have Middlesex and am patiently waiting for Chris to finish reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Labor predicted 71, coalition predicted 74, 4 independents and 1 Green. At this rate Quentin Bryce might be able to put up a big “1” on the scorecard in Government House and tie with John Kerr.

From what I’ve seen of Beijing – a few shopping precincts Nic dragged us to, the walk between SOS and the Australian embassy, and the streets I see out the windows of taxis – it seems a more pleasant city than I imagined it to be. The smog can be quite appalling on a bad day, as bad as Seoul’s, but it’s also cyclical, and there are plenty of days with clear blue skies. It’s still a fairly ugly East Asian city of blocky apartment buildings, but hey, all East Asian cities look like that. And I have yet to see a child taking a shit on the sidewalk.

It reminds me of Seoul quite a lot, actually. The air smells exactly the same – hot and dusty and slightly gritty. That makes me nostalgic, not that I liked Seoul, but that it harks back to a time in my life that was very simple. Just as high school and university have the comforting stable goal of graduation, Seoul had the comforting stable goal of GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.

Well, this election’s going nowhere fast. I’m going to go brew up some more of the Oriental voodoo tea Leila insists will cure my illness, then watch By Any Means and maybe send that story off. Then I’ll go to sleep hoping that when I wake up, we’ll still have a Welsh turncoat for a Prime Minister rather than a smirking religious zealot.

August 15th, 2010
Beijing, China

Sleeping in a dorm turned out to be about as shit as I expected. Other people come and go all the time, and unless you’re a heavy sleeper you get constantly woken up throughout the night. And it’s not that much cheaper than the split cost of a shared room.

We got up around 7.30, and left the hotel at 8.00. Our plane was scheduled to depart Chengdu at 10.30 that night, and we’d been told that the bus ride was usually six hours; a worst-case scenario of ten if it was raining. It was raining, but that still left us a margin of three hours, and we still had the umbrellas we’d bought in Lijiang, so we didn’t get too wet on the voyage down to the bus station.

Sitting next to us on the bus were a Canadian couple we’d met on the far more hellish bus ride the previous day, a brother and sister in their early twenties named Christopher and Erica. We chatted to them for a while as we took off out of Kangding and headed east towards the Chengdu Basin: out of crisp pine forests and grass-covered mountains, and down into steamy monsoonal valleys choked with green vegetation and wreathed in mist. And, since this was getting towards the more heavily settled parts of China, there was usually a chemical plant or a factory somewhere in the landscape.

The rain wasn’t that heavy, but it must have been going for several days – huge streams of water were pouring down from the embankments across the road, and the muddy river to our right was swollen and flowing very fast. There were a couple of traffic jams we got caught up in, but these soon resolved themselves.

At around 1.00, however, we came to a traffic jam that stood firm. We wandered on and off the bus to stretch our legs; I could see a line of cars backed up all the way down the valley, but assumed it would sort itself out eventually like the others had. The TV screens on the bus were already playing their third movie of the day: The Collector, a horrifically inappropriate R-rated splatterfest. I’d seen some questionable violent scenes in movies shown on Chinese buses before, but this was really beyond the pale. Severed fingers, intestines dragged out, stitched-up mouths, bear traps… just countless gory, graphic scenes.

“This is horrible,” Erica said.

“This is an R-rated movie,” Chris said. “On a public bus. There’s a little kid on this bus.”

“Can you imagine how outrageous it would be if this was shown on a bus in the West?” I said.

“Absolutely,” Christopher said. “People would get fired, there’d be lawsuits…”

“I just… it’s hilarious,” I said. “It’s so funny that they think this is okay.”

The joke was wearing off by the time the movie finished, since by then it was 3.00 and we’d been stuck in one place for two hours. The others went off to find some food; I wasn’t hungry, so I stayed on the bus to watch our bags. At this stage I was severely worried. Chris and I are normally the most flexible of travellers, but this mysterious hold-up had come on the one day we had a flight to catch. And I was getting worried by the increasing number of Chinese people travelling downstream through the bumper-to-bumper cars and buses, carrying all their luggage with them.

The others returned about half an hour later. “Dude,” Chris said. “We just talked to a guy who speaks English and he says the road is out and won’t be fixed today. A lot of people are walking to the next town to catch taxis.”

I looked out the window, at the flooded road and the rain and the raging river. “How far is it?”

“About five k’s.” He turned to the Canadians, who were talking to the only other Western guy on the bus, a Brit named Tom. “What are you guys doing?”

“I don’t know…” Christopher said. “I can just imagine us leaving and then the traffic starts moving.”

“We can always flag the bus down again if it passes,” I said. “It really doesn’t feel like this is going anywhere.”

“Yeah,” Chris said. “And it’s already four o’clock.”

“Better get moving then,” I said.

At this stage I want you to imagine that it’s the end of an episode of 24. Doot! Doot! Doot! Doot!

The five of us tracked down the bus driver, got him to open the luggage compartment, and wrestled our bags out. Chris did most of the heavy lifting, getting his feet completely drenched in the ankle-deep flood running down the road.

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“I wouldn’t worry about it, dude,” he said. “Our feet are going to get wet anyway.”

“Actually it’s not so bad in front of the bus.”

“Oh. Damn.” (He was right, though.)

We pulled our packs onto our backs and prepared to set off. “Should we even try to get money back?” Chris asked.

“Nope,” Christopher said. “If there’s one I’ve learned in Asia, it’s that there’s no refunds. Once you’ve paid for something, that’s it. If it doesn’t work out, too bad.”

“Alright then,” I said. “Let’s go.” With our backpacks and umbrellas, we joined the throng of Chinese travellers pushing their way down the road.

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Buses, cars and trucks were completely backed up in the right lane. Occasionally a motorcycle would come honking down the left lane, and we’d have to scurry out of the way. The only reason I could think of that cars and buses weren’t using the right lane was because they knew that there would be traffic backed up on the other side of whatever obstruction it was, and gridlocking both lanes would just prolong the problem. That might seem like common sense, but in Asia it’s an impressive display of foresight compared to, say, the Vietnamese.

“How long did this guy say it was?” I asked, as we waited for a woman to try and force her scooter through a narrow gap between two buses.

“About five k’s,” Chris replied. “Unless he got his English wrong and meant fifty. Outta the way, lady! I got a plane to catch!” He grinned. “I always wanted to say that.”

We walked further down the river of cars, with the real river roaring away to our right. Every ten metres or so a new tributary of rainwater run-off would be cascading down from the vegetation to our left, running across the road and emptying into the river. We were surrounded by other Chinese people who’d given up on vehicle travel, carrying suitcases and backpacks and cardboard boxes and huge bags of rice. With every passing hour it had become clear that this was more than just a minor hold-up; it was big.

“This must be what it feels like to be in a disaster movie,” Chris said. “Like War of the Worlds. Just a mass exodus of people. I feel like a refugee.”

“Whatever this is, it better be good,” I said. “If it’s a bunch of people standing there staring at an easily fixable problem I’m going to be very angry.”

Turned out it was bit more serious than that.

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A landslide had come down and not only blocked the road, but washed it away. The right lane was completely gone, and while the concrete of the left lane was still there, it didn’t look like there was much supporting it. The response to this disaster appeared to be in the preliminary stages of stringing warning tape around the area. I did not get the impression this would be repaired anytime soon.

“Wow,” Erica said.

“There is no way that’s getting fixed today,” Chris said.

“So, leaving the bus,” I said. “Definitely the right decision.”

The string of rag-tag refugees were traversing the landslide by climbing up the embankment to the left: a steep, muddy, slippery trail. Some of the people climbing up it were elderly, and some were wearing high heels, so we had to stand in line for a while before tackling it ourselves. It was much muddier than I expected, but there was enough bamboo and foliage to grab onto for support. “I really hope I don’t fall over,” I said. When you’re carrying 15 kilos on your back, this is harder than it sounds.

I was first in line, and when I reached the top a Chinese man gave me a hand in scrambling up the last part. The trail at the top of the embankment was ankle-deep in sloppy mud. My shoes and jeans were coated with it in seconds. I gave Erica a hand up, and then took photos of our hilarious situation while we waited for the others.

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Most people probably wouldn’t take photos at a time like this, but I’m eternally aware of the need to provide photos for this blog. Professional pride.

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It sounds miserable, but it was actually hilarious. Definitely one of those days where travel problems create much more interesting stories. And we were all feeling elated, because leaving the bus had definitely proven to be the best move, and we now had a real chance of making it to Chengdu that night.

We descended down the muddy trail without any mishaps, and washed our feet off in the rainwater ditch before continuing along the road. The other side was pretty much the same as the first, but with blocked traffic on the other side of the road. “Man, our bus is going to be there all night,” Christopher said.

“What are the people going to do?” I asked.

“Sleep on it, I guess,” Chris said.

“Man, fuck that,” I said. “Definitely the right decision. The best case scenario we could have hoped for would have been going back to Kangding. We definitely would have missed the flight.”

“What time is it?”

I looked at my watch. “Nearly five. I wonder if they’ll let us on the plane covered in mud?”

It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the next town, or the outskirts of it: a couple of buildings and a whole bunch of cars with people clamouring to claim them. As usual, a Chinese entrepreneur found us first and asked us through gesturing if we wanted a car.

“How much should we offer?” I asked.

“Anything,” Chris said.

“I think about a hundred for each of us?”

“That sounds good,” Tom said.

He ended up asking for 150 each, for a ride all the way to Chengdu, and we didn’t bother to bargain him down. “Alright, let’s go,” Christopher said. The man directed us to sit on a bench outside a ramshackle building while he went to secure a vehicle. I took a leak off in the bushes, and then realised there was a convenience store right across the road from us. The shelves were almost bare – contributing to that feeling of being in a disaster movie – but I bought and ate a packet of plain biscuits, since all I’d had to eat all day was a packet of peanuts.

I returned to the group just as our Chinese benefactor was proposing that we ride to Chengdu in a pick-up truck. “What?” Tom said. “There is no way we’re riding in that in the rain.”

“It’s a four-door,” I said. “We should be able to squeeze in.”

“What about our bags?” Christopher said.

“Does he have a cover for the tray?” Chris asked.

“I think we should barter him down to 100, for a pick-up truck,” Tom said.

There was a bit of plastic sheeting. Chris and one of the Chinese guys packed our bags into the tray, covered them as best as they could, and then we squeezed into the car. Christopher sat in the front, while Chris, Tom, Erica and myself squeezed into the back, which was a pretty tight fit. It was then that the Chinese men decided they wanted payment up-front. What followed was the kind of frustrating language barrier negotiation that anybody who has travelled in the third world will be familiar with. We were trying to offer half now, half later, using the Canadians’ Mandarin phrasebook, but they were having a lot of trouble understanding that and arguing amongst themselves.

“Jesus, it’s pretty simple,” I said. I could feel my inner Jack Bauer screaming “Damn it, we don’t have time for this!”

“I think their language breeds confusion,” Tom said. “All the tones and dialects…”

Eventually they figured it out, and our driver – an old man in a shabby suit who did not seem like he should be driving a pick-up truck – took us off down the road. “Yes,” I said. “Yes! We’re going to make this!”

“I don’t think we’re even halfway to Chengdu,” Chris said. “I think we’ll make it, but it’s gonna be tight.”

Chris was proved right when we passed a sign saying it was 15 k’s to Ya’an. According to the map in our Lonely Planet, Ya’an was perhaps a third of the way to Chengdu. And this wasn’t on a highway – it was on the same tiny two-lane road carved into the side of a foggy, rainy mountain, with the same minor landslides and hold-ups. At one point we had to wait to pass an earthmover that was shovelling dirt from another landslide into the ravine, and in the back of my mind I was worrying that we might come to another major disaster – a bridge out, or another section of the road washed away. If that happened, we were screwed.

Nonetheless, we were making decent time, and could probably reach Chengdu in a mere two hours. It really says something about the last four months of my life that I think a two hour drive crammed into a backseat with three other people is nothing. Back home I used to think the three hour drive to Collie in the back of my Dad’s air-conditioned car was a long haul. Try twelve hours in a Chinese sleeper bus, kid.

The time, therefore, passed fairly quickly, as we chatted to our companions and worried about our driver’s ability to keep us alive, as he often swerved too close to the curb or did some very dangerous overtaking. As we were passing through a built-up area, approaching a freeway on-ramp, the traffic suddenly slowed and became a mass of backed-up trucks again.

“Oh no,” we all said. “Oh no.

A random Chinese truck driver stuck his head in the window and started talking to our driver. We tried to communicate with him and figure out what was going on, but that was fruitless as usual. He insisted on writing what he was saying in Chinese and showing it to Christopher, who kept shrugging and making it clear that he couldn’t read Chinese. Obviously.

We got out of the ute and stretched our legs while we tried to determine what was happening. Erica went up to a bunch of Chinese tourists taking photographs of statues on a hill and returned with a woman who spoke some English. “Can you ask him what’s going on?” we asked her. “We don’t speak Chinese.”

They talked to each other for… quite a while. This is a common problem in China: simple questions seem to take a long time to get an answer for. Eventually she turned to us and said “Where you from?”

“Canada,” Erica said, while the rest of us tried to restrain ourselves from slamming our foreheads against the roof of the ute.

“Piss-up in a brewery,” I muttered.

There was no ultimate answer to our question other than “something.” We wandered around a bit trying to find someone else and determine whether there was another route to Chengdu. Our driver, who knew full well that we wanted to go to the airport and therefore had a plane to catch, seemed content to sit on the curb smoking and waiting.

“Fuck,” Chris said. “I don’t think we’re going to make this.”

“We might,” I said. I didn’t know why, but I felt fairly confident. It was now 6.30, but for some reason I was still full of hope.

And – praise be to Saint Christopher – the trucks suddenly started firing up their engines, and the traffic started moving again. We piled back into the car and took off, this time on a four-lane freeway that was rushing us towards Chengdu. “Yessss!” Chris said. “Now we’re gonna make it!”

“Unless this guy crashes and kills us,” I said, as he almost clipped the median strip.

“Thank you so much, by the way, for letting us go to the airport first,” Chris said.

“I think it’s actually on the way,” Christopher said.

“Excellent.”

We passed the rest of the voyage talking about Canada and Australia and London and our previous travels, and eventually arrived at outskirts of the airport just before eight o’clock. Mitch and Chris: 10; Time: 0. We bade farewell to the comrades we’d made through our shared ordeals, and were shuffled off into another cab to be taken to the terminal building.

“Oh my God,” Chris said. “I am so relieved. I can’t remember the last time I felt this good.”

We were deposited out front of the terminal at about 8.15, exactly when we were supposed to arrive. We breezed in through the gates, found our check-in desk, changed out of our muddy shoes right there in the terminal, and gave the agent our bags. We’d made it.

There’s something I like about waiting around in an airport. I know I’ve said I prefer to travel overland, but there’s also something nice about planes and airports. A hub of transport, with people leaving and arriving from places all over the world. A lot of stories flowing past you.

I wouldn’t mind a job that required me to fly a lot. I’d probably get sick of it after a while, but at the moment it seems appealing. Of course what I really want is a job where I’m doing something different and interesting; a job where I don’t have to show up to the same place every day, or where I’m at least working on very different things all the time. That’s part of why I’m attracted to working for ASIO or ASIS, although my short attention span and tendency to daydream could count against me. Also the fact that I’m more in line with the Julian Assanges of the world rather than the John Howards.

Our plane was delayed by about half an hour due to air traffic, so we didn’t land in Beijing until about 1.30. The terminal we arrived in, built two years ago for the Olympics, was absolutely massive – in fact, looking it up now, it has the fourth-largest floor space of any building in the world. “This is amazing,” Chris said. “I want to play jetpack chasey in here.”

We wandered around the airport for a bit trying to find Starbucks, where we were supposed to meet Glenn, a friend of Chris’ parents who was kindly letting us stay with him. We found him around two o’clock in the morning, profusely apologised for making him be awake at such a late hour, and then he drove us to his house.

Chris’ parents had frequently described Glenn’s house as mansion, but in recent days we had decided to downplay our expectations in case they swelled too greatly. “I’d be happy with something on par with my house back home,” I said.

Glenn’s house is significantly better than my house back home. For example, it has an elevator.

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Three stories tall, it sits inside a gated compound full of wealthy expat manors. It has a swimming pool, a sauna, at least three bathrooms, multiple expansive living rooms, century-old antiques and – in accordance with the opulence scale established by the hotel scene in Knocked Up – 35 different kinds of chairs.

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Today they were having a barbecue, and after sleeping in (on soft mattresses in an air-conditioned room) we enjoyed the best meal we’ve had since leaving home: sausages, salad, chicken wings, bread, cheese, tomatoes, olives and wine.

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They also own a piano, something Chris has desired for a very long time.

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I’m so glad we made that flight. Actually, did we die on those roads back there and go to heaven?

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