Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ulan Baatar

This will be my last post on Mongolia. I have decided to fly over Russia (yes, that country that is most hostile towards tourists) into Berlin to enjoy some (continental) European culture. My departure has nothing to do with Mongolia or the lack beauty of the country. Don´t get me wrong, I believe it is truly a beautiful country and I recommend everybody to go there! I am just getting a bit tired and would love to go back to a place where I can actually understand the people (if only linguistically) and where it is easier to get around (if only for a short time).

The last 7 days of my stay in Mongolia I have spend in the country´s capital: Ulan Baator. Although the city is definitely not the most attractive tourist hot spot, it is certainly worth a visit while you are there.

Representing UB´s newest street gang

The city embraces the new Mongolian spirit. The country has since the breaking of the Soviet Union been in a transitionary stage from a centrally planned economy to a free market one (or in simple words "from communism to capitalism"). This change is most noticeable in UB, as it is now possible to buy Loius Vuitton bags (most probably fake, but still) and watch expensive Land Rovers cruising over bad asphalted roads.

UB´s sky line

The political-economic shift also allowed inequality to rise within the country´s border (Ca. 30 per cent of the population now lives below the poverty line), something which is very visible in UB and its surrounding suburbs. Talking about the spread of migration to the cities; UB´s population has grown with almost 100 percent in the last 10 years (from 0,5 mln in 1995 to mln in 2006). This causes massive problems in terms of the city´s expansive infrastructure (water, sanitary, roads, electricity etc). I personally felt this during the abrupt electricity and warm water cuts while I was there.

Young Budhist monk

There is much more to say about Mongolia´s development; about its challenges in finding a competitive edge over its neighbours or its abundant natural resources (which increasingly seem to fall into Chinese hands) or about the expansive Gobi Desert (Gobi Sand storms now already hit Japan). But I really don't want to bore anyone with that sort of information. The only thing I can say is that Mongolia is more than mutton, milk and beautiful sceneries. It is also a country with beautiful people, which have however major challenges ahead of them.



Ps. Buyana and husband: Congratulations with your baby!!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Naadam Festival

It is true that I already wanted to write earlier on Mongolia´s most important holiday. Nadaam (Наадам) festival is held from from July 11th to 13th and was originally a religious festival, but now also serves as a commemoration of the country's 1921 revolution. (that was when Mongolia declared itself a free country). In fact, Naadam also means "sports" or "games" (dont remember which one of the two). During Naadam three "manly sports" are being played, namely: wresting, archery and of course.... horse riding. I decided to visit the 801th festival in Ulan Baatar, as I was told that it was the best place to be.

Opening at UB´s Government Square

The opening ceremony was the most impressive part of the festival. The overture was done by motor cyclists (mainly Kawasaki´s), a lot of horses, the Mongolian President (completely dressed up in gold), the Japanese Crown Prince (who looked like a midget compared to the well-build Mongolians), Miss Mongolia (Mongolian women are definitely very beautiful) and a lot of other important Mongolian celebrities.

Mongolians are inseparable from their horses

The wresting was chaotic, very chaotic... The wrestling tournament took place in a knock-out system, with multiple fights going on at the same time. It was difficult to keep track of all what was happening (or choose a favourite fighter) with so many people on the battlefield. The crowd however was superb; a lot of shouting, booing and other emotions. Great fun :)!

Big guys fighting even bigger guys

The horse racing,? Well that was interesting too. There were, I believe, two horse races, one for 2-year old horses and one for 5-year old horses. Both races were about 25 K (some of them diie of exhaustion) long, which is indeed veeeeery long. The most fascinating part was that the horse riders themselves were not much older than the horses. Their ages ranged from 3 (!) to 7 years old... Unbelievable, is it not?

Young couple...

The archery was not really my favourite "thingin", so I decided to skip most of it. Seeing a guy shooting an arrow to a can, some 70 meters away, IS impressive, but not among the most excisting things to see.

In short, Naadam was great and I can recommend it to anyone visiting Mongolia!



Saturday, July 14, 2007


After having crossed the Chinese border with Mongolia, I decided to spend a few days in Ulan Baatar (talk about the city in my next post) before leaving for Lake Khövsgöl (Хөвсгөл нуур). The lake is located in the northwest of the country near the Russian border. It is 1645 m above sea level, 136 km long and 262 m (!) deep.

Lake Khövsgöl or Hovsgol is the small brother of the world's biggest lake, lake Baikal

We (me, Gerry (Israel), Fabio (Italy) and Hariki (Japan)) geared up our bag packs and traveled with local transport for a 24 hour journey to the lake. We soon regretted our choice to do as the "Romans in Rome" (i.e. local transport), the roads (if any) were bumpy and the Russian van was completely overpacked (20 people cramped up in a too small van). One of the worst rides of my life, most definitely...

Mongolia's favourite mode of public transportation

After a devastating 20 hours of bumpy and dusty roads, we finally managed to arrive in the town of Moroon. There we took another bus to finally arrive at Khatgal (Хатгал), a small wild-west ghost town where residents still live in harmony (and without television) with nature. A great sight in itself, though surreal.

Down town Khatgal

The lake and the surrouding nature was however the prime attraction of the area. Simply stunning...

Lake Khövsgöl

The trip was an amazing adventure; full of smoked fish, horse riding (three days with a Russian saddle), milk (really lots of it) and a bluer than blue sky (No pollution? Not a sign of!).

It feels strange going from the most densest populated area of the most densest populated country to the least densest populated area in the world. Where are the people!? Strange feeling...

Next time more on Mongolia.



Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Beijing and Shanghai

I decided to post both my Shanghai and Beijing experience in one post. Why? Well, because both cities are in so many aspects different from each other and thus putting them in one post allows for a more careful comparison.

One city representing the new China, a vibrant melting pot with money and commodification (Mao lighters will surpass Che Guevara Ti-shirts, mark my words) written all over its face. Shanghai seems to be beyond the reach of the Communist Party and its crony tentacles (I am outside of China, so I can finally be honest). The city relies on innovation, entrepreneurship and plain business instinct. From a tourist perspective the metropolis seems belong to beautiful people enjoying a beautiful life. Living in Shanghai must be relaxing and easy: Indian curry, German Schnitzel, kosher and helal food, great big Spanish olives, etc, etc. And that all around the corner!

Shanghai equals design

However, beauty and comfort often coincides with superficiality and ignorance. Outside the realm of Pudong and Nanjing Lu, lies another world. Resettlements of thousands of Shanghainese who have been living for generations in the same house, but are now forced to move away from their soil. If development means modernisation (or "destroying the old to build the new"), than the price is high. Entire neighbourhoods across China being destroyed in return for higher economic growth, Shanghai is an example par excellence. In fact, growth figures are often faked by city governments to receive more benevolence/ support from the centralised authorities in Beijing).

Skyline as there is only one

In shanghai, both the price of art and the success of artist are determined by the hidden hand of the market. Beauty does not lie anymore in the eyes of the beholder, but is instead determined by ..... fashion. Provocation became a product and just another tool to sell more. I remember my conversation with an artist. I asked him about the reasoning behind his abstract paintings. He responded:

"fact is simple; companies come and tell my agent [!] to paint something abstract with the colours of their choice, colours which are depending on the company's corporate culture [....]. I then start painting and finish the whole thing in not more than one hour or so, depending on the size of course".

That conversation robbed me from a lot of idealism and romanticism. But it is characteristic for a city like Shanghai. A city where the expats don’t bother to come out of their houses and instead prefer to sniff lines of coke as breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, life is easy going in Shanghai and freedom is easily obtained.

How different is Beijing. Many people I met complained about the corrupt nature of the officials and their numbers in the Chinese capital. The city is huge, possibly the biggest city I have ever visited. The streets are wide and consist often of 8 to 9 lanes (takes you a long time to cross, believe me :)). There are many things wrong about Beijing, the city is a down right disaster in terms of its urban planning (if there is any). Doing business is impossible, unless you know the right people and they know you. And censorship in the arts is considered to be part of every day life.

Skin Cream

However, Beijing is more than that. Beijing is also a city of expats, which apparently seems to be in "harmony" (to use a Chinese word) with the city and its citizens. Westerners speak the language and have no problem getting to know Chinese friends (whether rich or poor). Beijing is as well the city of Hutongs (although more and more seem to be disappearing). One could say that Beijing is really China. You can feel the city as if it was an old house. The streets would be its corridors, which lead to big and small squares that form the different rooms in the house. However, what is China really?

A hutong and its proud resident

In the end it really is an interesting thing to compare the two cities. Both cities complement each other and together explain both the past and the future of the country. I still have no idea which city I prefer, but I don’t think I really have to prefer. I love both.



Sunday, July 08, 2007


It took some time, but finally some news again on this blog! I am currently already in Mongolia, but have not even posted news on my visits to Hangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai! Sorry!

Anyways, I know that you are all busy (or enjoying the sun) so I am sure nobody really minds :).

Well, first a short overview of my stay in Hangzhou. Hangzhou is located about 200 KM from Shanghai and has a population well over 6 million. The beautiful West Lake and its surrounding historical sites make the city a tourist hot spot for both Chinese and foreigners.

"Hmmm, pictures are a big greenish"

As said, the city is one of the most attractive scenic spots in China (according to both Chinese and ME!). As the Chinese say: ""Be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, diie in Liuzhou" (never been to the last city). This one is nice as well "Above there is Heaven. Below, Suzhou and Hangzhou" (上有天堂,下有苏杭). Below there are also some more pictures.

The teacher and the student (who's who)

West Lake

Although my stay in Hanzghou was relatively short, I was happy to have finally visited the city (it was long on my list of things to see in China).

I will post my Beijing and Shanghai posts later today or othwerwise tomorrow, PROMISE!