A Travellerspoint blog

June 2009

Week 16, 13.June.09 - 19.June.09

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Gobi Desert, Mongolia


View Week 16 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.


13.June.09
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Spent some time today watching the Mongolian National Archery competition, south of city center... pretty amazing to see the accuracy of these guys hitting football-sized targets from about 75 yds away with the wind gusts easily 20-30 MPH. Plus sporting some kickin' duds!
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This morning was an unfortunate time spent listening to the Red Wings losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, while tonight after I had dinner with the French dude Andre, went to a local pub (Irish?) & caught a few sets of a live rock band - love the Mongolian lyrics.

14.June.09
Went and saw a couple more sites today, namely the Museum of National History, and while I was impressed with the displays of fossilized dinosaurs & dinosaur eggs, I couldn't help but notice some of the stuffed animals have been fixed with puzzling expressions, as if they remain perplexed as to how they ended up in such an unfortunate state...
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Next stop was the Winter Palace, an impressive collection of temples with some displays of the Bogd Khan's belongings.
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Capped-off the night taking in the traditional cultural song & dance show - and while I was entertained by the Tsam mask dancers (very much spot-on what I had imagined Mongolia) and impressed by the contortionists (ala "Cirq du soleil)...
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couldn't help but wonder if part of the music performances had some rap/R&B mixed-in... pretty sure I heard a record scratch or 2... "traditional" music?!?

15.June.09
Got some good news this afternoon from Legend Tours that the Russian Visa was approved, although the voucher process will still take 11 more biz days, so I spent the rest of the day searching around tour companies to join a group heading out to the Mongolian countryside - and ASAP (had my fill of Ulaanbaatar). Found a group of 4 others heading to the Gobi desert tomorrow for 2 weeks - should be good!

16.June.09
Central Mongolia (near Bayan Onjuul)
I'm sitting in my ger (nomadic tent home) in Central Mongolia, roughly 50km south of Bayan Onjuul, about to go eat dinner in the family's ger next door. The group I'm traveling with - Shai & Matti (Israelis), Denis (French) & Lucy (UK) are a cool bunch that seem to want to see the same Mongolian countryside as me. Our guide Zaya is a sweetheart - very funny girl from the Gobi recently graduated from college. The driver Bayr is quiet but nice enough (I think he just doesn't speak English very well), although I wish he'd slow down on the "roads" a bit - we're getting thrown around a lot in our van!
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We headed out of UB this morning & stopped a few km south to see an Ovoo, sacred pyramid-shaped collection of stones (circled around 3 times while adding stones to the Ovoo to pray for a safe trip),
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then after lunch in an open field (Zaya is a pretty amazing cook with limited resources) watching wild horses gather around a puddle...
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headed down to see "Eej Khad" (Mother Rock) mountain,
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followed by a stop to a monastery ruins.
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Dinner was vegetables and rice (funny, but both lunch and dinner excluded meat, which I thought was a mandatory staple in Mongolia). The group just helped the family herd in the goats for the night for milking tomorrow.
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Speaking of - when we first arrived here, the family offered milk tea, dried curd and yak's cream - not wonderful...
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17.June.09
Gobi desert, Mongolia (near Bayanzag)
We're about to turn-in for the night, here in our ger in central Gobi desert, about 25K from Bayanzag... just finished playing a round of sheep ankle bone racing game (Zaya our guide won, unsurprisingly). We also went through a bottle of "Chinggis" vodka & learned the ritual of honoring the "sky gods" by dipping your ring finger into the vodka & flicking into the air 4 times. Today was a lot of driving - somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 hours - into the Gobi, with discussions in our van ranging from politics to bathroom humor to radioactive dogs, to pass the time. Day 2 of the tour & the French guy is already getting on my nerves with his completely bigot remarks and stupid French superiority attitude (talk about stereotypes ringing true!)... Anyway, after stopping for lunch out in the open desert, we passed Sum Khokh Burd, ruins of a palace from the 1700's built on top of a temple from the 10th century, made from a type of rock found not closer than 300 KMs from the site! The temple once stood on an island in the middle of a tiny lake, but now is mostly marsh.
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After the temple, we had the requisite flat tire in the middle of the desert to deal with...
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Showering would be great, but according to the itinerary I read back in UB, not until Day 6??

18.June.09
6:00 AM now, wake-up call courtesy of the baby calf tied up to the small hut next door to our ger crying for its mother,

allowed Shai and I (the others miraculously still sleeping??) to go help the family put up another ger... well, watch anyway...
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until the odd rainstorm started up - so now back to bed for 2 hrs until breakfast (but not sleep, the calf is still at it!)

Gobi desert, Mongolia (near Dugany Am)
Today we saw a couple spectacular sites - Bayanzag, or Flaming Cliffs, which is a renowned site for dinosaur fossils (most of which are now in museums), as well as the amazing views...
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After a stop for lunch where we enjoyed a pick-up game of soccer with some locals - tie game 3-3 (although 2 of their goals very controversial...),
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we visited (with some effort - all of us had to lean to one side of the van while Bayr veered through narrow openings on steep inclines next to cliff sides) the southern part of the Gobi to Gurvan Saikhan national park, to see Yolyn Am (Vulture's Mouth) valley which had a several-meter-thick river of ice in the gorge... in the Gobi desert.... in June??? Amazing.
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Now we're huddled in the van eating dinner & playing cards, trying to escape the brutal wind & sandstorm going on outside - should be interesting sleeping (or trying, anyway) tonight as we're staying in puny tents out in the open.

19.June.09
Gobi desert, Mongolia (near Khongoryn Els)
As predicted, very little sleep last night - loud wind crashing against the tent (and thus the tent against my head). Woke up this morning & drove west, we're now in Khongoryn Els sand dunes (and staying in a ger, fortunately, as the wind is relentless down here - speaking of - the meals the past couple days have been "interesting", as there is no escaping the flying sand - drove through a nice sandstorm today as well!)
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We were welcomed here to the nomad family's ger with the usual offerings of more dry curd, airag (fermented mare milk) and some roasted or fried sweet pieces of bread (finally something I enjoy!). By now Bayr & Zaya understand that we hate the curd (Denis' description accurate enough, "Like eating dried puke), so it was hilarious when Bayr takes a handful of the stuff and gives it to us to eat - while the family was watching - of course he knows we're not going to offend, so... bon appetite!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 07:00 Comments (0)

Week 15, 6.June.09 - 12.June.09

Seoul, S. Korea to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia


View Week 15 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.


6.June.09
Suwon, S. Korea
Its relatively early - about midnight - and I'm more than tired. Last night in Seoul, after I went to Bongeunsa temple, went out to grab a bite to eat and then stopped in a small local bar ("PX Bar" is the name, although there's nothing Western or military about it) down a side street near my hostel. I had a couple beers while the bartender, her name was Hyunju, and her boss were trying to communicate with me - I'm embarrassed to say that they understood English fairly well, while all I could understand was "hello" and "thank you" in Korean. So then the boss starts commenting on my features, she is telling me that my head is "small. small.", and my nose, "big. big." and something in Korean about me being bald - I think it was all complimentary, but interesting delivery nonetheless! So after a while a man, Ben, came in who spoke English very well (helpful with translating) and we proceeded to drink many beers, then inevitably moved to shots. After the boss left, Hyunju calls up her friend and when the bar closed down, we all went out for very traditional Korean food - I think it was hanjeongsik, or banquet, with tons of dishes - cooked fish, raw fish, squid and some other kind of seafood, and sauces - I tried it all (but some of the squid(?) was very tough and rubbery feeling, had to spit that out!). But the whole experience was the real deal, the women - who were very attractive I might add - taking the lettuce and other leaves and putting fish, garlic & sauce rolled up and feeding the men, from hands to mouth. And pouring the vodka-like soju (two hands on the bottle!) to everyone else's glass then allowing someone else to fill yours, etc... this was absolutely one of the best experiences I've had so far in my travels, to participate in an event like this really gave me an insight into their culture.
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After dinner, which Ben insisted on paying for (another Korean cultural tradition), the ladies and I met up with another one of their friends and went clubbing until 5:30 AM... haven't done that in a while! Walked outside to the sunlight & grabbed a cab - they were very kind to make sure I got back to my hostel OK (since I had no idea where we were!). With the hostel crappy 10 AM checkout policy, I stumbled to a coffee shop to nurse my hangover for a few hours. After I hopped on the subway & headed here to Suwon and wandered around a bit this evening in the sea of neon lights lining the main tourist promenade, witnessing the spectacles of young kids puking and a guy selling either young bunnies or gerbils (not sure) dressed up in costumes on a stand in the middle of the street. I stopped in a bar for a beer I didn't need (but hey - it IS Saturday night!), and the bartender offered me some bibimbap his mother made, which is some chewy rice cake things covered in a spicy red sauce. One thing is for sure, I haven't held out on experiencing authentic Korean food!

7.June.09
Gyeongju, S. Korea
Just got checked into the "love motel" here in Gyeongju, which is a few hour bus ride south of Suwon. Its definitely quieter here in Gyeongju - most everything seems closed at 7 PM, but I'm here to check out the "tumuli" tomorrow, so don't mind (and probably need) a night in. This morning in Suwon was spent wandering the Hwaseong fortress wall and palace (Haenggung).
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I also signed up to try my hand at traditional Korean archery. The kids there did much better than me!
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8.June.09
On the bus again, this time down to Busan, Korea's second biggest city and major beach spot. I did the whirlwind tour of Gyeongju this morning, very cool city with lots of history indeed - it was the ancient capital (back in 57 BC), and all over the city are tumuli, or grass-covered pyramids.
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Some of these are respectably close in size to Egypt's pyramids, and they served the same purpose - tombs for the kings and their treasures.
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Visited other historical sites like Cheomseongdae, the Far East's oldest astrological observatory (632 AD),
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and Bunhwangsa, Korea's oldest pagoda (from the 7th century AD).
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9.June.09
Busan, S. Korea
Well I got my workout in today for sure! Started the morning after breakfast (at a bakery where they had sausage & eggs with coffee - such a rarity to have an actual western-style breakfast!) and went up to the northern part of Busan via their subway (which is painfully slow) to Beomeosa temple, beautifully tucked away in a bamboo forest.
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Then stopped for pajeon (green onion pancakes) before hiking to Geumgang park, where I took a cable car ("Rope Way" as the Koreans put it) up the Geumjeong mountain & hiked around the ruins of the ancient fortress. To round off the hike, there was a temple I read about in my guidebook, Seokbulsa, way up in the mountains that seemed too intriguing to pass up.. here is the guidebook description on directions to this place:

"From the Geumjeong South Gate, the path indicated by the Mandeokchon sign leads to a collection of restaurants and foot-volleyball courts in Namman Village. At one point, the path stops at a court; walk right and pick up the trail on the other side. About 500M down the trail, look for a sign that reads (Korean symbols). Turn right and walk down the steep hill to the road sign pointing the way to a 600M uphill hump to the temple".

This all being deep in the forested mountains, was not the easiest place to find! But find it I did, and the amazing Buddhist images carved into the mountainside at this peaceful temple was reward enough for the journey.
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10.June.09
Well so much for the beach - its been cloudy and rainy the past 2 days here in Busan, and I woke up again this morning to rain... bummer. So now I'm taking the bus back up to Seoul, going to meet up for a drink with Ben back at the PX Bar to send me off for the last night in Korea. Although not my customary traveling protocol, I liked Korea so much that I have a feeling will make a return visit here someday!

11.June.09
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
I just got checked into my hostel here around midnight in Ulaanbaatar, and from what little I saw on the road in from the airport, this place is way different than other Asian capitals I've seen - a lot of Soviet-era cement/drab buildings still seem to be all over. Mongolia being the 16th country I've visited so far on this trip is a bit of a milestone - I did some adding and came up with this the 50th country I've been to.
Today back in Seoul was pretty quiet; slept-in for a while and had a relaxing & uneventful day mainly spent in the coffee shop near the motel, recovering from another hard night out at the PX Bar (and after-hours!)

12.June.09
Just returned back from having a drink in Detroit... American sports bar, to be exact.
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I think its hilarious that there is a Detroit-themed bar in Mongolia, complete with hanging Tigers, Pistons & Red Wings jerseys. Plenty of pics of the sports teams (even a couple of Eminem & Kid Rock), although i don't recall seeing any Lions paraphernalia. They were rebroadcasting Game 4 of the NBA Finals; when I asked the bartender if they'll open up tomorrow at 8AM local time to show the Red Wings Game 7 Stanley Cup Finals, I'm not sure she understood exactly what hockey is, but assured me they won't open 'till 6PM. So I'm guessing some expat opened this bar, but clearly all locals work here. Although, I'm surprised by the number of Western tourists I've seen today in Ulaanbaatar - I thought this was a lot more off the beaten path then appears at first glance. Today started out with a visit to "Legend Tours", an organization here in UB that arranges tours in Mongolia as well as apparently the only connection one has in hopes to secure a Russian visa (I read this agency is owned by a former Russian politician/dignitary, so the processing fee kick-back makes sense). The visa application put most job applications I've filled out to shame - previous 2 places of employment with contact info, parents full names, military background (with a separate section to know proficiency with firearms and explosives!), etc. The process, if approved, takes 12 business days to complete so I'm guessing they actually do some checking. But the agency said I should know by Monday if there'll be a problem (i.e. with my indication of being a former US Marine, expect there may be). I then spent the day wandering around some of the sites in UB - seeing the areas of town where people still live in the nomadic gers (Mongolian tents),
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and visited the grand Gandan Khiid monastery, which reminded me a lot of those I saw when I travelled in Tibet.
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Checked out a couple museums like the Mongolian History museum,
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and rounded off the day strolling around Sukhbaatar Sq., with the impressive Chinggis (or Genghis, as he's often incorrectly referred as) Khaan statue overlooking the crowd.
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Not sure what/where my upcoming plans will be next week and beyond; I have to pretty much sit tight 'till I learn the fate of my Russian visa application...

Posted by rd wrld1yr 22:09 Comments (1)

Week 14, 30.May.09 - 5.June.09

Tainan, Taiwan to Seoul, S. Korea


View Week 14 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.


30.May.09
Kenting, Taiwan
Woke up this morning in Tainan and had coffee & a doughut at a sidewalk cafe, where they were broadcasting the Yankees-Indians game (dubbed in Chinese) from the TV hanging on the rafter outside. Pretty cool to see a Friday night game live on Saturday morning over breakfast! I took the train from Tainan to Kaohsiung, then a connecting bus to Kenting. Kenting, which is at the southern tip of Taiwan, seems to be a pretty touristy beach town for the local Taiwanese, lined with vendors on the streets that the crowds walk up and down. Had a nice view of a swordfish being scaled at a fish market (after which it became my sashimi dinner),
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then capped off the day at a cheezy (but funny) "Live Show" at a bar that involved barely-dressed performers humiliating spectators... some kid got his boxers cut up with scissors for an atomic wedgy.
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I got off easy with only having to endure a brief lap dance from a "female" dancer! Now I'm going to have to go to bed without showering, since there's no running water in the hotel at the moment (nice...).

31.May.09
I definitely drank too much last night - I have been nursing a hangover all day! The main accomplishments of the day included going to get coffee in the morning, & went to the beach in the late afternoon for a couple hours to read. Sandwiched in-between for the majority of the day was napping in my room with the A/C cranking. Fortunately have running water again, the hotel owner lady got it fixed last night - she doesn't know much English other than "sorry! sorry! sorry!" - kind of one of those funny characters I'm sure I'll remember for a while.

1.June.09
OK, had a bit more motivation today - rented a scooter and visited the National Park nearby. Very cool area lined with funny-looking old maple trees...
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and monkeys roaming around.
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This area apparently used to be underwater, as coral cliffs are also lining the pathways.
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The best (and worst) part was going into the limestone caves... I was enjoying the really impressive-looking shaped limestone....
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and then about 100 m into the cave, heard some squeaking noise. Looked up and saw about 100 bats. I was completely still and quiet on the outside (for fear of wakening them to fly all around), but inside I was freaked out - I mean, FREAKED out!! But I did take a quick video before very quietly backtracking the hell outta' there!

There were 2 other caves the park had that I did go in - I didn't see any more bats, but I was still freaked & jumpy at the slightest noises, like when I stepped on a leaf or heard a water droplet. After my fill of self-induced fear, I scootered over to the other side of southern Taiwan penninsula to check out Jialeshu, a coastline filled with crazy-shaped rocks.
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Topped off the day catching a spectacular sunset near the lighthouse.
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2.June.09
Kaosiung, Taiwan
I'm here at the bus station in Kaosiung, waiting for my connecting overnight bus back up to Taipei to catch my flight to Seoul. Today was totally relaxing - had breakfast and read a bit in the shade on the beach in Kenting before heading up to Kaosiung. I'm actually looking forward to this overnight bus, I'll probably have a lot better sleep on it than in my hotel in Kenting over the past 3 nights, with that neighbor dog always barking all night!

3.June.09
Seoul. S. Korea
Well I've already had an interesting experience here in Korea after arriving on my flight from Taipei just a few hours ago. I made it to the hostel around 11:30 PM, checked-in then went out to explore the neighborhood for a few minutes before turning in. I went to a place down an alley nearby that certainly appeared to be a bar, with a drawing of a martini glass on the wall outside, but had no windows so couldn't tell much else from outside. Well when I walked in, was greeted by an attractive older woman wearing what appeared to be her teddy or nightie. I immediately apologized and asked if the place was a bar, that I wanted a beer. She confirmed (in Korean) that it was a bar and sat me down in a private booth, where we began an attempt to communicate. I said I wanted 1 beer, but with the price she was quoting - W50,000, which is something like $40 - I think she was saying patrons had to buy a tray of beers. There was one other man in the bar in his own private booth, I noticed when I walked in had a table full of beers. Then she was rubbing my hands and leg while talking to me, so I'm not sure what kind of bar this was exactly, but decided to pass on the drink (and whatever else) this time!

4.June.09
Go Eagles! Just got back from a baseball game between the "Hanhwa" Eagles and the LG Twins.
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It was a great time - they're certainly passionate about their teams here. I sat on the 3rd base line with the Eagles fans, while the Twins fans were lined along 1st base... it was a pretty clear demarkation; the fans definitely kept to their respective side of the stadium. Some interesting antics with Korean baseball: scantly-dressed cheerleaders get up on top of the dugout between innings & dance for the crowds with music blaring over the speakers - each side of the stadium had its own speaker system with separate music playing. Also, each side had a male cheerleader with a microphone & whistle that would stir up the crowd with music blaring while the game was in-progress, they have no coutesy stoppage like in MLB games. It was also interesting to see what the vendors were selling - beer, chips, sushi & fried squid on a stick. I stuck with beer and chips! Earlier today I went out and toured Seoul a bit to check out two of the major palaces, Changdeok...
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... and Gyeonbok
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which were both amazing.

5.June.09
Wow - awesome day today! This morning got up early for a trip up near Panmunjom to tour the DMZ & peer across the border to N. Korea.
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Got a really good guide for the tour (this is one place you can't visit independently) who explained the background of the Korean war & DMZ. Visited the brand-new looking unused train station at the border, sitting by idly waiting for the day of reunification to take passengers back & forth, and then got to walk in one of the secret N. Korean tunnels dug under the DMZ, heading toward Seoul, that S. Korea uncovered & blocked-off.
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Got back to Seoul early afternoon & visited a couple museums - Seodaemun prison which had some pretty disturbing depictions (yet with the mechanical dummies, amusing nonetheless) of the tourture routines during the Japanese occupation,

and also visited the National Museum of Korea which had a great collection of ancient writing instruments.
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Went to visit Bongeunsa temple to witness the monks performing a percussion ceremony, designed to "awaken & save beings on the ground (drum) & under the ground (gong)" - well, thats what the guidebook says, anyway.
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Heading out now to grab some dinner and check out Seoul nightlife!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 07:19 Comments (0)

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