Posts Tagged With: gobi desert

Hohhot – Inner Mongolia

Hohhot

The original plan for Hohhot was to look around while we got our visas to go to Mongolia proper…then head in to Ulaanbaatar. Upon arrival this proved to be incredibly cost prohibitive with the visa and transport options adding up to a ridiculous amount. We would have had to get a train to the border (8hrs), hire a private jeep to cross the border then 10-11 hours on local train or busses on the other side to get to the capital.

Wiki travel tells us that “Mongolian buses are notorious for being late and on some routes for not even arriving on the scheduled day”. Otherwise the flight would have been $700 each plus the visa costs. We both have the trans-Siberian railway on our bucket lists (Beijing to Moscow) which goes through and stops in Mongolia several times so we decided to skip it. We tried to arrange the trans-Siberian train on this trip but not having Russian visas we would have had to use a broker and the bill got over $10,000 very quickly.

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Having decided that Mongolia was out we had time to kill and plans to make. The hostel we stayed at had organised private tours of the desert, grasslands, Great Wall etc…but they were all very expensive. The Great Wall in this section is really just a mud heap, the desert involved camels which was an immediate no vote from me, and the grassland was just too dear.

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So we stayed in town and checked out the local sights. Firstly, this part of China is very different to the rest and is a little more like our Indian experiences. The street is often used as a toilet here and the sights and smells in certain areas of town reflect this. The development that is in the heart of town has not spread to the inner ring so the drainage, toilets, footpaths and the normal Chinese efficiency did not exist. There was a lot of construction underway to remedy this but alas we were not there yet.

The local busses were their usual cheap and efficient selves with a ride costing 1 yuan each and busses coming regularly enough that only peak times had the sardine squash. Our first ride took us to the museum which was in a complex of four of the largest buildings I had ever seen. The museum was built to resemble the Mongolian steppes so in a way was quite similar to Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra with the building and mountain merging into one.

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It was spectacularly huge with one of the greatest dinosaur exhibits…bear in mind that this part of China is dinosaur alley with lots of fossils etc located in the Gobi desert nearby. We normally don’t take photos in museums, as they tend to be dioramas, but here we found ourselves snapping away. Add to this the local culture exhibits and possibly most impressive of all was the China space program exhibit (with actual space suits and capsules) as well as the mock ups and back stories behind the evolution of the space program and its participants.

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After this we were off to the usual, temple and mosque run and of course our adventures in food land. My first find was the breakfast bao zi shop, then the supermarket where Jill found a semi reasonable muesli, and then GOLD…an imported food shop…with NZ tasty cheese, smoked oysters, pate, prosciutto…there is a god. The next night we hit the restaurant strip after a long day’s hiking in the heat and settled in for some cool ales.

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While drinking our refreshing beverages we watched the next table be delivered an entire leg of lamb on a spit…I went over and asked what it was and to point to it on the menu…being Chinese they immediately offered me some and the deal was done…we had to order this. The menu said it was 48 yuan ($8.23) so we ordered this, some mushrooms and some tofu and a mystery menu item that I randomly pointed at.

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Our lamb came and it was spectacular…alas we later found out it was 48 yuan per half kilo…so our leg was almost 4 times more expensive than we thought…but it was good. The mushrooms and tofu were fine but the mystery item I pointed at turned out being a toasted jam sandwich…don’t ask. This was now our most expensive meal in China at 304 yuan ($52.12) but we had a huge leg of lamb, 6 beers (600ml each) and some small nibbly bits.

Back to the hostel the next day for beers with the others and to watch the World Cup game between Germany and France washed down with many more ales and some pizza from the joint across the road…which actually wasn’t too bad. We met up with the guys we had met on our first day who had disappeared on the overpriced grassland tour and having chatted with them upon their return…we made the right choice as they claim that the tours were not worth the expense.

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It is quite interesting to see how our idea of value has changed during our time away…we always knew that Australia was expensive however the last 10 months has crystallised just how obscene the prices in Australia have gotten. Of course you can have fine dining here and pay through the nose for it…but within a 5 minute walk you can have a huge meal for two, with beverages, for under $20 and more often than not under $15. A single beer can be bought at the local store for between 50 cents and a dollar…everywhere…this will be hiked through the roof to about $2-4 in a restaurant and most main meals will cost about $2-8 depending on the venue.

Long story short is that we will suffer a huge culture shock when we finally decide to return…

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Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

Having left the minority areas we got back into China proper. Lanzhou is in Gansu province in the north west of China and is the province with the westernmost point of the Great Wall. We are getting close to having seen the majority of China and now have the northern strip and we plan on (generally) following the Great Wall to where it meets the ocean.

We have been in tiny cities for over a month now and I have really not been enjoying them. The prices for everything have been high, the services available have been poor and the English has been virtually nonexistent. We got into Lanzhou and found a night market around the corner where we could have 2 main meals with rice and the equivalent of 8 stubbies for under $15. There is still minorities and very little English but the food is great and cheap.

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We headed to the museum and spent time checking out the Silk Road exhibition which was truly fascinating. Some very cool maps of the olden trade routes, and a great way to get your head around the spread of cultures and civilisation. Then off on the cable car up the mountain for some aerial shots and a look at the pagodas etc. the cable car sets off from the banks of the (very inappropriately named) yellow river… it is interesting to see what passes for a beach in China.

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Jiayuguan is the westernmost fort of the Great Wall of China and is at the end of a torturous 8 hr train ride from Lanzhou. But the key attractions are the Jiayuguan Fort, the Overhanging Wall, and the First Beacon which are all a simple 1 yuan (18 cent)bus ride from town and a taxi. The place had been renovated to within an inch of its life and was obscenely fake. This is a typically Chinese phenomena whereby a renovation puts in things that were never there or leaves out bits that were meant to be there…our first exposure to this was on the three gorges tour but it is a common theme throughout China.

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The absolute kicker to the fakeness was the installation of a jousting field into the fort and a concrete camel caravan running alongside the renovated wall of the overhanging section. There were sections where the old part of the wall could be seen and it was really interesting. The fort and wall is adjacent to the Gobi Desert so you could photograph from the newly renovated wall across the Gobi desert which in itself is pretty cool. Alas on the other side of the wall was the hire of camel rides (actual camels…not the concrete versions) and quad bikes…so you could belt around the desert making obscene amounts of noise and tearing up the natural environment.

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If you can ignore the added bits the place is quite stunning…the original wall was fascinating, the renovation had it been done authentically would have been great the only real detractor was the out of context additions which are clearly just grabs for the tourist dollar. Whilst walking around you could see the construction going on to build additional elements such as pagodas and temples etc. I am glad we came when we did as I have a fear that in 5-10 years time this place will more closely resemble a theme park.

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On a positive note…as part of the admission fee there is the Great Wall Museum which is fantastic. It does not have the usual nationalistic rhetoric but rather has the facts of the great wall, its construction, make up, fortifications etc. The museum was the best part. The next best thing was the photographs lining the path towards the Fort. There was a strip of about 100 metres that contained historical and current photographs of the same sections of the great wall. Some of these had been renovated, some had remained untouched. Some of the renovations had been done in line with what was originally there while others included the “additions” such as were found in the Fort.

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Some of the photos and artists drawings dated right back to the 1800s while others were just the more recent (2004 to 2007) history photos. But any way you look at it these photos of what it once was, were without a doubt the highlight of an enjoyable if not a little contrived day.

Categories: China | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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