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Up and into the  Sharga Morityn Nuruu. (More Photos)

 

Gaaj didn’t want to go through the mountains.

“Horses… uhn …” he said every time I traced a path through the Sharga Morityn Nuruu Mountains on our topographic map. These words were usually accompanied by Gaaj’s standard “so-so” hand-gesture. He also began to mime horse hoofs on stones, point to the mountains and say “Rocks… horses … uhn…” or, “Cold … horses … uhn…”

But if you listen to Gaaj long enough you get the impression that there’s not much Mongolian ponies can deal with besides sunshine and grassy pastures. We expected more than this from the beasts that has established the Mongol empire. Besides back in Tsetserleg, Gaaj had promised us that the mountains were doable. Now, here we were on their flanks a day after Blue Lake and he was balking.

We put our collective foot down. We’d take our time on the rocky ground, do short days if necessary and generally do what we could to preserve the horses. I doubted Gaaj’s claims that they were tired in any case. The day before, on the return trip from Blue Lake, realizing that we were finally going in his favourite direction – backwards – Buttercup had trotted briskly on and off for 5 hours. This had earned him the alter ego title, Brown Lightning (incidentally, the same name I gave to a nasty stomach bug I picked up in Cairo).

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Team Meeting at the Map

After much wrangling and finally an expensive sat phone call to Sarah back in Tsetserleg to sort out some translation difficulties, we won the argument and proceeded up and out of the Iloyd Tamir Gol valley along a small tributary stream called the Jargalon Gol. The first foothills rose up green and rocky from the valley floor. But an easily discernable path kept the footing firm. As we walked further into the range, high rounded peaks began to dominate the view, their slopes afire with autumn colours. Further off, a high rampart abruptly terminated the end of one valley. Obviously, we wouldn’t be going that way. We contoured instead into a valley branching the other way. Above us, hawks soared above the grey slopes. Below, the Jargalon Gol glowed silver in the bright sun. It was a beautiful ride.

One thing that is alternately admirable and maddening about Mongolians is that when it comes to campsites, they think like horses. Although we’d passed several good potential stopping points near the end of the day, Gaaj finally stopped us at a sloping, hummocky site that was a solid kilometer away from water. Dave’s excitement at the soft properties of the ground and its implications for his aching back was short lived as he found out that it also had most of the properties of a wet sponge.

But it had good grass.

Overhead, the sky became a riot of alternating conditions as the day waned. Sometimes, rain-filled clouds passed nearby. At other times, patches of clarity prevailed. We went to  bed unsure of what would greet us the next day. But when I crawled out of the tent at dawn, I found only a pale blue sky, pink on one horizon with the rising sun.

I sat on a large rock a little way above camp, enjoying the beauty of the morning with a cup of steaming coffee. Dodreg, first up amoung the guides as usual, soon joined me, silently ambling up to join me on my perch. Once there, he occupied himself with thumbing through my Mongolian travel guide, fascinated with the pictures of those parts of his country he’d never visited. I looked out over our camp below, the pass ahead and the snow-capped mountains that loomed over it all and smiled. Damn, I was lucky.

At least I thought so until, later that day, I was nearly killed again.

***

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It was late in the afternoon. We had crested the main mountain pass of the Sharga Morityn Nuruu, placed a celebratory note signed by our whole gang in the cairn that marked it and then proceded to a pine and larch-covered valley  below. The game trail we followed soon disappeared into thick woods and Dodreg and Gaaj frequently scouted ahead to find our way.

Our horses nimbly picked their way around and over large boulders that were scattered everywhere amongst the dense undergrowth. Buttercup seemed quite sure-footed to me, if a little prone to stopping every few meters for a snack. I was mostly letting him pick his own way until he wandered off trail amonst some particularly large and slippery looking rocks. Just as I started to say “no” and turn him back towards the proper path, he decided to try and correct his trajectory by leaping up on top of one particularly large set of boulders. I could see at once his goal – from these boulders he could hop another over another set of rocks and get back onto the path from which he’d diverged. I would much rather have turned around and retraced our steps to the main trail, but everything happened too fast, with Buttercup deciding, after the briefest hesitation, that he could make the jump.

And he nearly did.

Instead, after hopping to the first set of boulders his front hoofs slipped and skidded forcefully down the other side, throwing me forward onto his neck. Before I could recover my balance, Buttercup lunged forward and upwards in an attempt to correct himself and I was thrown off his right side my foot catching in the stirrup as I went over.

Remember how Mongolian horses don’t like anything coming at them from the right hand side?

Buttercup spooked instinctually and broke into a gallop, dragging me along behind him, dangling by one foot from the stirrup.

I was wearing my backpack and felt it bouncer off one good sized rock, probably saving my spinal cord but knocking the wind out of me all the same. Frantically I kicked to free myself from the stirrup, ground, boulders and tree roots blurring my head in an earthy blur. After what seemed like a damn long time to me, I succeeded came to a rest before a big larch. Buttercup came to a halt shortly after as he ran into the backside of Throwy. The latter had an unusually small desire to run over the unfriendly terrain.

As I sat up on the ground, Janine, Gaaj and the others raced towards me with fear plain on their faces. Evidently, Buttercup had thrown a big 2 hoofed kick trying to get rid of me as he galloped and the whole incident, according to Dave, had looked fairly spectacular and “pretty f*cking scary.”

They were surprised I was okay.  In retrospect, so am I.

Buttercup seemed contrite as I reclaimed him, staring at me quietly with big dog eyes, his great brown head hung a little lower than usual. Besides picking a bad path at the beginning of the whole mess, he’d done nothing that couldn’t be blamed on pure instinct. I told him so genuinely, rubbing his nose and neck. He liked that.

Everyone but Dodreg walked the rest of the way to camp, having had enough of rock hopping and bushwacking (at least on horses) for the day. Finding a camp took longer than expected, with bouts of backtracking and route-finding through the deepening forest soaking up most of the daylight hours. When Gaaj finally called a halt near twilight, we were relieved. Our campsite was again hummocky and again a long trudge from water. But the surrounding woods and grasses were a beautiful assembly of fall colours. The valley heights echoed with the calls of wolves. Most importantly, we could see the trees thinning and finally emptying into a broad gold valley just a few kilometers away.

I didn’t know if we’d proven any of Gaaj’s fears wrong. But we were through the mountains.

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The horses graze after coming through the mountains. We made it just in time too, according to all that fresh snow in the background. It got dumped just after we crossed the final pass.

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Just how tall is Dodreg you ask?…

It’s hard to have fun when you’re cold.

– Val

The weather had truly turned crummy.

Mongolia is often called the land of the eternal blue sky. But after more than a week on the trail, we’d seen little of that. A scattered patch of azure here and there, throwing gold light on the undulating hills, often near the end of the day, was about it. Otherwise, we started and ended most days dressed in every layer of closthing we had, grateful for both them and the $8 poly-fill comforters we’d bought at the Tsetserleg market just before leaving town. As the days of scattered rain and sleet and the morngings of frost continued, it became difficult to rev ourselves up each morning for the long day in the saddle ahead.

The land, at least, did its part to compensate for the sky. As we continued to ride alongside and up the Iloyd Tamir Gol River, its valley narrowed and its mountainous sides became steeper, occassionally carpeted with pine and larch forest. On some hills in the distance, white snow gleamed. On others, rich autumn tones of amber and scarlet prevailed.

Buttercup munched happily on assorted thistles, shrubberies and wild wheat, but ignored the brilliant red fireweed that grew so profusely and reminded Janine so much of our beloved Yukon. We forded streams that, eventhough we were in cattle country, looked clear and pure enough to drink unfiltered. Every rise and fall in the landscape seemed to bring  some wonderful new Mongolian vista. It was a great, rugged landscape, empty but for a the occasional herd of yaks or horses, wandering near a couple of gers or a coral made of rough timbers.

The word “epic” kept coming to mind. But so too did the words, “windy” and “freezing”.  Val put it best one morning, shivering over her cup of mitten-cradled coffee. “It’s hard to have fun when you’re cold.”

And so that night, huddled over the fire and the remains of a pasta stew filled with chunks of freshly caught grayling, we had a team meeting to discuss our future. We were 2 days from Blue Lake, the bottom corner of our big triangular trip across the Arkhangai province. From our current campsite, we’d have to climb constantly and steadily to reach our objective. The heights ahead looked colder and more snow bound than ever. We could ride on from this camp and take three more days to visit and return from the Lake. Or, we could turn from here now and head for the final corner of the triangle at White Lake, which Gaaj told us would be warm and snow free (though given his growing desire to get home and start preparing for winter, I took his suggestion that we cut the trip short with a large grain of salt).

We hemmed and hawed, but went to bed leaning towards leaving Blue Lake unseen.

Maybe the sky gods heard us and felt a little jerkish about their behaviour.

***

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The next morning, I emerged from our tent at dawn to find our riverside camp covered in another light frost. From the door of the guides’ little blue tent, the feet of Gaaj, Tenjin and Torgu stuck out in a haphazard, sleepy row. 

At the firepit, Dodreg cradled a handful of white-rimed  grass in his hand together with a lit match. Somehow, patiently, he managed to coax the little bundle to burn. Adding it to a carefully selected batch of kindling, he soon had a fire blazing. This achieved he turned to me with a big smile. We each placed a kettle over the flickering flames and then sat back, contented.

From the folds of his robe, Dodreg took out the guides’ battered copy of a Lonely Planet Mongolian-English phrasebook, thumbed through it until he found the “Family” section and then showed me the words for “wife” and “daughter”, pointing to each word and then back to himself with a grin. He showed me 1 finger to represent the age of his little girl and then held his hand about 2 and a half feet off the ground. I mimed the action of walking with two of my fingers and his grin widened even further as he nodded.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about this convincing proof of Dodreg’s humanity, but couldn’t help but grin back at him and say “Good!” thinking that it was good, somehow, that the Dark Knight had a wife and a baby back at the Bat Ger. Dodreg nodded contentedly at my smile and then went back to staring at the fire and thumbing through the phrasebook.

I took in the sky. Despite the cold, it wasn’t entirely disheartening. Ragged patches of blue already showed through the clouds. Over breakfast, we again discussed our options as a group. Blue Lake was so close and we’d worked so hard to reach this point that it seemed like a shame to let it go now.  After another intense examination of the sky, we decided that (a) the bad weather would probably be just as bad at White Lake and (b) it had to change for the better at some point anyway, right?

We decided to ride for Blue Lake.

***

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On approach to Blue Lake 

We set out upcountry. The hills ahead of us were still blanketed in white from the past days’ precipitation. As we went, small herds of horses ran out to inspect us, long-maned stallions in front, all colours of the earth spectrum from white to grey to brown to black. The weather improved steadily through the day, and by the time we stopped for lunch we’d started to shed layers and apply sunscreen beneath the increasingly warm sun.

After eating, the guides staged an impromptu wrestling competition for us. Tenjin and Torgu grappled to a pants-tearing draw amidst whoops of encouragement from Gaaj and Dodreg and the purring of Janine’s and Dave’s cameras. Gaaj, despite a dislocated finger courtesy of one of Throwy’s outbursts, could not resist joining in and even one-handed was able to hold his own against the two younger men. Dodreg observed all, smilling and occasionally catcalling, puffing on a cigarette. Dave and I each tried to goad the other into taking him on, since we were the only men present even remotely close to his size. But, neither one of us feeling particularly stupid that afternoon, we each refused the bait.

We passed an isolated ger. Here, a wrinkled woman replenished our ailing supplies of sugar and plied us with hot milk tea and assorted cheeses, some soft, some crumbling, some the consistency of granite. Inside the ger, hunks of drying dairy dangled from the ceiling and an old man lay on a creaking bed with his back to us, coughing wetly . Outside, a captured young eagle was being bred for hunting, one leg crippled. The usual assortment of growling dogs patrolled the area.

The afternoon grew old as we pushed higher up into the hills. For the first time in a week, we left the Illoyd Tamir Gol River. The tops of the rounded mountains seemed closer than ever. We passed a large herd of horses and an even larger herd of yaks before finally settling down between a pine forest and a rocky riverbed for the night. We’d base camp it here for two nights, making a day trip to the lake tomorrow.

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The air was crisp, but delightfully dry and without hint of rain, sleet or snow. As evening fell, we saw the stars clearly for the first time in days and slept beneath a gleaming milky way knowing we’d made the right call in deciding to push on.

***

In some countries, Blue Lake might not be remakable. A couple of km long and wide, it’s the shape of  a kidney bean, nestled into bare, round-topped mountains. But to us, after 9 days of travel through river valleys, its sapphire waters rippling gently under a breezy blue sky were magical and other-worldly. We posed for pictures on the shore, drank a celebratory shot of vodka with the guides and napped contentedly on an embankment of green grass overlooking the water while the horses grazed nearby. Before leaving, Gaaj gestured that we should build a cairn on the beach. Dodreg started the process with a stone only slightly smaller than Roy Hellbeast and with Dave, Gaaj and I helping, we soon had a respectable pile built up.

As we rode away a little while later, I looked back at the cairn wistfully. We’d been thrown, kicked, bolted and rained upon in a fairly continuous stream over the past few days. But still we’d managed to have a good time and to become thoroughly infatuated with the land and its people. Now, the weather seemed to be on the mend and a whole second half of the journey awaited. We liked our guides, we liked each others’ company, and I had even come to like (one of) these half-crazy Mongolian horses. The whole land and our simple trek across it had the feel of something truly adventurous – a raw, exhilerating, probably unsafe feeling that I’d experienced in few other places. It made my guts swirl  sometimes but I still loved it.

Passing a log and stone ovoo overlooking the valley in which we were camped, I smiled and kicked Buttercup into a trot towards the next half of our journey.

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Cairn on Blue Lake

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Dear Reader,

After a lengthy sojourn, I happily take you back to the tales of our Badminton Across Mongolia (“B.A.M.”) adventure! The crazy horses, the quirky local guides and yes, of course, the eye lice.  They’re all back baby! Now, you can pick up the tale exactly where it left off by reading the post below. Or, if you’ve forgotten what the hell Mongolia was all about, you can start the story right at the beginning and catch up to the current posting by going to our dedicated BAM page right here. Enjoy! And sorry about the 6 month delay, by the way. You’re not sore about that, right?

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And not a bad badminton player either.

Guys. Dodreg is fishing from his horse.

Jason

No one is certain where Dodreg came from or why, though I suspect the answers may be, respectively, “Krypton” and “for similar motives.”

We rode beneath a cement coloured sky, the big brown I’d borrowed from Torgu strolled contentedly, stopping to munch on yellow flowered shrubs that bloomed prolifically along the faint jeep track we followed. So far, eating seemed to be his chief love. He’d shown hardly any interest in following Throwy on one of his daily bolts when the white horse had tried to launch into one earlier that day. It soon became obvious that Buttercup, as I started to call him, was more inclined to take Throwy’s tantrums as an excuse to drop his head into the veritable salad bar over which we rode. That arrangement worked fine with me and I even began steering him through deeper grasses as both an incentive and an additional sort of insurance policy.

While we rode, Torgu and I engaged in our daily version of language lessons. Ostensibly this involved him teaching me a word in Mongolian and I teaching him the same word in English. In reality it was a morning comedy of errors which typically resulted in Torgu smiling vacantly and me riding off in a flurry of cursing and flushed cheeks.

“Goat,” I said to him, as I pointed to a herd of the passing wooly animals. A group of young boys, riding bareback, whistling and shouting to the animals and themselves, steered the flock to a nearby river.

“Goat!” smiled Torgu amiably.

“Good!” I said enthusiastically, bracing to enter the tricky part of the dialogue. Pointing again to the herd I asked, “Mongol?”

“Mongol!” repeated Torgu

“Oh! No, no! Goat in Mongol?” I tried again.

“Onono! Goadin Mongol!” smiled Torgu again.

“No no.” I said, trying a different tack. I pointed to my guide’s horse. “English, horse. Mongol muur. ” ”

“Mongol muur!” smiled Torgu.

“Yes!” I said encouragingly. “Yes!” repeated my guide.

“So,” I closed the loop, “English, goat, Mongol….?”

“Soenglishgoat Mongol!” smiled Torgu, satisfied.

“AHHH!!!” I said.

“AHHH!!!” he said happily.

Bloodshed was averted by the approach of a galloping black stallion bearing a lanky, ink-robed rider, his legs dangling to within a couple of feet above the ground. As the new arrival slowed to a trot beside Gaaj and Tenjin, riding near the front of our party with the pack horses, I saw handshakes and friendly greetings exchanged from the saddles and the dark stranger fell in with our group.  An hour went by, then two, and it soon became apparent that the rider would likely be sticking around for at least the night. As we approached our camp, crossing a lovely stream en route to a sheltering copse of towering pines, the rider slowed his snorting stallion until Torgu and I drew close to him. The stranger extended a large hand in my direction. Torgu nodded at our new companion. “Dodreg,” he introduced, grnning.

“Dodreg,” I repeated, gripping the hand.

“Dodreg,” repeated Torgu.

“Dodreg,” said Dodreg in a quiet, deep voice from under a short shock of jet black hair. His white, underbiting teeth were crowded into a tiny smiling mouth, tucked into the bottom of a wedge shaped chin and bordered with the trace of a mustache. It was a mouth that tended to twitch towards smirking, but not in a bad way. Combined with twinkling eyes and eyebrows that arched like gothic church windows, it was the face of a loveable-rogue mixed with a cheesy movie villain.

Then there was his height. “Heez like a giant,” marvelled Val as we watched Dodreg dismount at camp and stand next to other guides. He easily stood over Gaaj and positively towered over Torgu and Tenjin.  But amongst these men, this was either of no consequence or old hat, and camp was quickly set up in a grassy clearing amongst the trees. Soon the crackle of a campfire joined the thrashing sounds of the nearby rocky stream and Gaaj’s battered black pot was set to boil over the flames while the rest of us erected tents, dug out food for dinner and collected firewood. The horses rolled and grazed gratefully in the field for an hour, whinnying and snuffling at each other socially, before Tenjin began tethering them securely to trees bordering the edges of camp.

Our home for the night had just been established, when Gaaj and Dodreg approached us smiling. Gaaj pointed back towards the stream.

“Fish,” he said, holding his hands far apart. “Big.”

From the folds of his robe, Dodreg produced a 6 inch block of wood around which was coiled about 30 feet of fishing line. Near the end of the line was tied a small piece of styrofoam; then a little further on, a rock; and finally, a foot again after, a large grasshopper writhing on ahook. It was a simple but ingenious little hand fishing device.

I still had some camp chores to finish, but I motioned to Gaaj and Dodreg encouragingly to go down to the river and get started without me. Followed by Janine, Val and Dave, the two Mongols excitedly jogged away like kids headed for the fair with their dad’s wallet. Within a few minutes, I could hear whoops and whistles of joy emanating from the banks as Dodreg began reeling them in, literally, hand over fist.

He didn’t stop until he had 6 fat, red trout wriggling on the bank. Faster than Janine and Val could clean one, Dodreg thunked another down before them with a mischevious smile. As the grey sky faded to black, we salted, oiled and spiced the fish in a variety of improvised marinades, before wrapping each one in foil and roasting it on the red hot embers of our fire until the white-pink meat fell from the bones. They were simply too big cook all at once. So while the second batch sizzled on the coals, the first were passed around the fire on a big platter to be picked at by increasingly sticky fingers.

We ate our fill and then pitched our largest logs on the fire for the entertainment portion of the evening.  All Mongolian men can sing, it seems. And our guides are no exception. Gaaj and Torgu have a song for everything, most of them dealing with tea, mother, women and horses and everyone of them ending with a laugh about whether there’s another verse and who should sing it.  Dodreg prefers to whistle along at these times, and has an amazing, bird-like ability to trill out loud, pitch perfect tunes from between his teeth. But it’s quiet Tenjin who steals the show. In the last songs of the evening, the other guides fall silent and Gaaj’s brother sends eerie songs into the crisp Arkhangai night in a sorrowful tenor wail. I never did find out what they were about. By the time their spell broke, we were all already wandering towards the shadows of our tents, bellies and ears and hearts full.

***

So Dodreg falls in with us over the next few days, becoming in some hazy way, a member of our party. Sometimes, he leads a pack horse (usually the most troublesome one). Other times he simply rides beside the other guides, seated as casually on his black stallion as we might slouch in an easy chair; crouched over one side of his saddle, with almost his entire weight supported on one leg, the other leg bent at the knee holding up, in order, Dodreg’s crooked arm, chin and head.  Once in a while he’ll sit behind the saddle altogether, his legs stretched straight over it like its a coffee table. These casual feats of horsemanship are often done while whistling, tooth picking or cooly smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

Dodreg has trouble riding placidly for long. Every once in a while, he’ll utter a quick word to Gaaj and suddenly take off at a blistering gallop across the plain. We begin ascribing all sorts of adventures to these sojourns, most of them involving either blood feuds, captive maidens or lost calfs. But day after day, he eventually rides back into our midst, typically at a full gallop; black robes, rawhide ropes and dust swirling behind him, the black stallion snorting and whinnying furiously under his master’s leather whip. Val begins to call him “Thee Dark Knight” and there’s no denying that the guy has a real bad-ass/cool thing going on that is quite entertaining. On his next side trip, we amuse ourselves by constructing various creation myths for our new hero:

The Legend of Dodreg:

– Some say Dodreg was born on a galloping horse. Others say Dodreg was born of a galloping horse.

– Dodreg was born the same size he is today; carrying a whip.

– Dodreg’s mother was the river goddess and his father was the atomic bomb.

– Dodreg’s pubic hair has the tensile strength of steel wire. He’ll often use it to leave outlaws bound for the authorities.

– Dodreg made his current horse by carving it from a block of wood. He threw the wood into the fire and when it glowed like a red hot ember he took it from the flames with his bare hands and breathed life into it. The horse’s name is Roy Hellbeast.

– When Dodreg sneezes, the locals call it a Mongolian Tornado. When he hiccups, the elders say someone dies.

– Dodreg has lived many lives and has been known by many names, including Zorro, Robin Hood and, according to Janine, Magneto.

You get the point.

***

Dodreg has a number of special skills. One day at our lunch break. Dave and I set up a cairn of stones, walk backwards about 25 paces, and start hurling rocks at it. Gaaj soon joins in, then Torgu and soon even quiet Tenjin is hurling away. We hit the cairn every dozen throws or so and spend the rest of the time laughing and making fun of each others’ efforts.

Dodreg watches all this for a few minutes, resting casually on his side, smoking a cigarette. Then he gets up, walks over to us and picks up a rock. His first throw is straight as a gunshot, obliterating the cairn.  Dave trots over to the wreckage and quickly rebuilds it. But before he’s back, Dodreg has knocked it down again. A third throw is nearly as good, barely missing the top stone. “Fucking hell,” mutters Dave, suitably impressed.  Dodreg, though his grasp of English is even more minimal than Torgu, grins appreciatively at the compliment.

When bored, Dodreg likes to pitch his whip, or some other small item a few feet ahead of his horse. Then, whipping Roy Hellbeast into a rearing gallop, he’ll charge forward, leaning steeply out of his saddle to snatch the item from the ground. He encourages me to replicate him, but even on the amiable Buttercup I can’t get up the nerve.

So through the first few days of our acquaintance, we watch this mysterious stranger perform a variety of little miracles and Marlborough Man moments. He finds a hidden creek on a seemingly barren plain. He corals a wayward and ornery bull yak. He picks up a large, live snake from the ground with a tree branch while still in his own saddle, then pitches the ahead of Roy Hellbeast and repeats the process again and again in a reptilian version of his fetch game. We called this last trick Dodreg Snake Polo, and if I didn’t have the pictures to prove it, I’d completely understand if you didn’t believe me.

But I think Dodreg’s most impressive feat comes a few mornings later. Buttercup and I are moseying beside a beautiful stream, fringed on one side by autumn-coloured grasses and leaf-shedding trees and on the other by sheer walls of sparkling black granite. We are well behind the rest of the group, having found a patch of purple-flowered thistles that had required a second breakfast for my four-legged friend.  As we pass a deep pool of water on the river bank, I hear Roy Hellbeast’s hoofs splash. Astride him, Dodreg sits fishing with his hand line, lassoing the lure into the water with one hand and holding the reins with the other. When the lure is cast, he trolls upstream on horseback, slouched over the saddle, smoking a cigarette and carefully watching the wodden bobber for the smallest wobble. The effortless multi-tasking, the graceful simultaneous handling of horse and line is an amazing demonstration of horsemanship, as beautiful as it is impressive.

We’re not certain how long Dodreg will ride with us. It’s one of those complex questions that our phrasebook Mongolian can’t quite get across to the guides. But we all come to agree that maybe it’s better that way; that some morning we’ll wake up and he’ll just be gone; off to help and regale some other bunch of greenhorn travellers badmintoning their way across Mongolia.

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Janine quickly gets physical, but I’m still a little too upset with Air China to fully embrace the Olympic Mascot/Powerpuff Girl in Beijing’s Terminal 3 Airport (more photos)

How do you say “Bird’s Nest” in Chinese?

– Dave

Janine has a delightful little Marge Simpsonesque “Hrmmm” that she utters when vaguely disconcerted.

“Hrmmm,” Janine uttered, looking at her watch as we taxied down the runway of Beijing’s shiny new Terminal 3 airport after an uneventful red-eye flight from Delhi.

Well, uneventful for me anyway. Towards the end of our Madagascar trip, a friend had given me one of those traveller’s sleeping blindfolds, generally sported only by supermodels and cast members of “Dynasty”. As an incredibly macho guy, I’d initially been sceptical. But after secretly testing it (with feelings of misgiving similar to those of a man trying on silk panties), I’d discovered that it affected me in the same manner as a tranq dart in the arse of a grizzly bear. A little confusion, a violent leg wobble, one last roar of defiance and I was out like a light. Now I’d become a total convert, slipping on my little sky blue blinder during every long bus trip and airport layover, drooling off to dreamland with greater ease than I’ve ever experienced travelling before.

Janine thinks I look silly. But it’s easy to ignore people making fun of you when you’re in a mild coma.

In any event, within 7 minutes of taking our seat on the 3 a.m. flight out of sweltering Delhi, I was snoring away to visions of the horses and steppe that we would soon see in Mongolia. So I failed to notice that we took off 45 minutes late. WIth only an hour scheduled between our arrival in Beijing and our connecting flight to Ulan Bataar, that posed a problem.

“I’m sure they’ll hold the flight for us,” I told Janine confidently, wiping the sleep from my eyes and rummaging through Air China’s version of a continental breakfast – a miniature Dove chocolate bar, a juice box and something looking like a cellophane-wrapped squash ball.

Still, we hustled to make the flight. After successfully miming our tight schedule to a Chinese speaking flight attendant (we’re really getting good at miming), we were whisked off the plane before the other passengers and ushered into the sparkling confines of Terminal 3 – one of Beijing’s newly-opened showpieces for the games. Like everything else in this city, it’s massive, modern and designed to impress. “We’ll have to admire it on our way back to Delhi,” I huffed fatefully to Janine as we jogged down the sparkling concourses, a little surprised at how empty the place was for day 2 of the world’s biggest party. Flatscreen televisions blared the Olympics from seemingly every corner. Good luck reading a book or catching a nap in this place (unless you have a sleeping blindfold of course).

Security for the games being what it was, we passed through two searches before making our gate. While waiting for my hiking boots to come through the security scanner at one stop, I finally had time to ask a Chinese official the question that had been bugging me all morning.

“What the hell is this?” I said, holding up the breakfast squash ball.

The red-clad security woman looked at the black ball and then me suspiciously. “It’s an egg,” she said, politely leaving out the word “stupid”, which I could tell she wanted to append to the end of her response.

I looked at the black ball acutely, searching for any sign of eggdom. I was not convinced.

“Is it an egg from a bird?” I followed up.

She looked at me again and nodded patiently.

“Is it an egg you can eat?” 

She nodded again, maybe a little more curtly this time.

“Would you eat it?” I offered her the ball.

She smiled and said no. With Janine tugging more forcefully on my forearm with each question,  I collected my boots, exited security before the search got any more personal and deposited the squash ball in the next garbage bin. The final dash to our departure gate was on.

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Last call my ass.

“We made it!” Janine puffed triumphantly, jogging to a halt at departure desk, above which another large flat screen television bore our flight information and a flashing “Last Call” boarding sign. Outside the gate, a bus with 6 or 7 other passengers waited to whisk us over to our plane. Four other passengers waited in line ahead of us with more coming up behind us by the second.

“I’m going to take a picture of the ‘Last Call’ sign! Great souvenir!” Janine said happily, reaching for her camera bag. For once, my Murphy’s Lawdar relaxed and I consented to this fingering of fate.

The first couple at the check-in counter were handed their boarding cards and hopped on the bus. Then, I kid you not, with another couple ahead of us and 4 more people behind, the boarding agent pressed a button and the flashing “Last Call” sign changed to a “Gate Closed” sign. The bus closed its door and drove away.

This is a family friendly blog so I won’t list all the expletives that escaped the remaining passengers’ lips and headed in the general direction of the boarding agent. But the general tone of it all was, “I hope you can explain yourself within 4 seconds because that’s how long it’s going to take for us to get around this desk and strangle you.”

A manager arrived in sufficient time to prevent bloodshed, explaining that due to our Delhi flight’s delay, all the passengers on it had been removed from the connecting flight to Ulaan Baatar. Apparently, thanks to Terminal 3’s slow baggage transfer times (which we would get very familiar with later) our bags would never have made the connection anyway. Rather than fly us to Mongolia luggage-less and simply send our bags on the next flight, Air China preferred to put 8 people up in a hotel for the night, leave those seats on the current flight empty and fly us out the next day. 

Remind me why so many airlines have trouble making money?

***

The Chinese symbol for “crisis” contains within it the word “opportunity”.  I found myself pondering this idea after I’d finished cursing Air China, about 45 minutes after our connecting flight left. We had been excited to reach Mongolia and the manner in which we’d missed our connection had been frustrating in the extreme. But if we could not catch a flight until the following day, that meant that the Chinese would have to give us a 24 hour visa. The very visa that had, until now, alluded us until we’d given up hope of visiting China altogether.

Standing in one of the many lines that Air China was to make us stand in over the next 3 hours, I turned to Dave and Valerie, a delightful couple from South Africa and France respectively, who’d also been shafted on the Ulan Bataar connection and with whom we were fast becoming friends.

“If Passport Control will stamp my passport,” I whispered to them confidentially, as if the Chinese secret police could swoop down on us any second for even suggesting it, “I’m going to the Olympics tonight.”

Dave bore the tired look of a man who’d been on a 7 hour red-eye flight, missed his connection and was now stuck in an airport for a hazy period of time. But his eyes suddenly brightened. “Really?” he said, leaning in and sharing the conspiracy. After a quick look across our huddle at Valerie he looked back at me. “Let’s split the cab.”

I was delighted. With a European and a South African joining us, we’d now have at least 3 embassies to call if arrested for violating Chinese immigration laws.

***

Air China must have sensed our excitement at the prospect of a free night in the Olympic city. Immediately after giving us our visas, it directed us to a featureless room of the airport to await our baggage.

We waited for two hours.  As the afternoon faded, I saw my Olympic dream fading with it.

Two pretty Air China attendants had been assigned to see us all get our bags and reach our hotel. Every time I asked them how much longer it would take for our bags to arrive, they told me “20 minutes”. Now, after sitting on a baggage cart long enough to have acquired a second arse crack, I approached them once more.

“Do you know the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Tell me Lies’?” I asked them.

They stared at me blankly; boredly.

“It’s been three hours since we landed in Beijing,” I said. “Please get our bags. Please don’t tell me it’s going to be another 20 minutes. If you do, I’m going to have to start singing this song to you.”

They stared at me blankly; boredly.

“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies. Yeah tell me lies (Tell me! Tell me lies!). Oh no, no-o-o you can’t disguise…”

We had our bags 5 minutes later.

***

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I’m convinced I could have dominated the 40kg Body Building category if I’d only qualified. Thanks a lot rigged stool sample!

The imaginatively-named Beijing Central Airport Hotel was the nicest hotel we’d stayed in since, well, actually, it was the nicest hotel we’d stayed in since leaving home. Our room had a big t.v., a shower with water pressure, beds with mattresses and sheets you didn’t mind sleeping in without a full suit of clothes on.

We couldn’t wait to leave.

With a thrill of naughtiness (reinsert “man in panties” allusion here), we met Dave and Valerie in the hotel lobby. While I took out yuan from an ATM, Dave pored over a city tourist map with the hotel receptionist and tried to figure out how to tell our taxi driver what Olympic venues we’d like to visit. A few minutes later, we were in a cab and driving down Beijing’s broad, deserted boulevards, a strict air-pollution control effort keeping what must be most of the city’s motorists off the streets. The centre of the world’s attention seemed more than half-empty. Combined with a steadily driving rain, it was a rather eerie introduction to China’s capital.

But the excitement of seeing the Olympic Stadium changed all that. At our first view of the famous Bird’s Nest, all the morbid thoughts, all the fatigue, even all the strains of “Tell Me Lies”, which had been on a constant loop in my head for the past 5 hours, vanished. 

We were at the Olympics.

Or at least, we were near the Olympics. A heavily-patrolled security fence ringed the Olympic grounds and kept the unwashed and unticketed masses a kilometer away from the venues.  But the buildings were large and magnificent enough to mostly make up for that. In the grey evening light, the Olympic flame flickered above the steel basket-weavery of the Bird’s Nest while the “Water Cube” shimmered a brilliant blue alongside. Chinese couples and families strolled hand in hand beside the fence, admiring their country’s architectural achievements and snapping pictures on cell-phones. Despite their contentment, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for these people. Beijingers had obviously worked so hard and sacrificed so much for these games and now most were being excluded from them. Even a pedestrian bridge over a nearby highway which would have afforded a lovely view of the Olympic buildings had been purposely covered in “Beijing 2008” banners, leaving people peeping through tiny gaps in the posters for a good look at the games.

The rain intensified after an hour. Even full of Olympic Spirit, we started to get tired. Finishing our circuit of the security fence, we dove inside a cab and confronted its slightly bewildered-looking driver. “Tiananmen Square please!”

The driver continued to look bewildered. I considered using my miming prowess to re-enact a tank rolling towards a lone protester but then thought better of it and remembered the tourist map Dave had gotten from the hotel. With this, some frenzied pointing and a few thumb’s up signals, we were soon motoring towards Beijing’s best known and most controversial landmark.

Just when we thought it couldn’t pelt any harder, the rain started pelting our taxi even harder. After 15 minutes of driving which saw the streets turn into glistening black rivers, our driver pulled over on a dark side street and looked at us with a silent nod. “Tiananmien,” he said.

We looked out the streaming windows. “I don’t see anything,” Janine said.

“I don’t know if I want to see anything,” I said, enjoying the dryness of the cab. “It looks friggin’ terrible out there.” Dave and Valerie nodded agreement. One chance in a lifetime be damned. No one wanted to walk around in this weather.

I turned back to our driver. “Ummm, I don’t suppose you could just drive us around Tiananmien square a bit then take us home?” I combined this incomprehensible gibberish with the miming of hands on a steering wheel, a down-the-drain twirling motion, a happy face and a thumb’s up.

The driver looked at me stonefaced for a minute and then started the car again.

We must have been parked close to the square, because rounding the next shadowy corner, it seemed we were suddenly thrust into the bright middle of the square in all its glory. Through the furious window wipers, we could see the monuments, the imperial compounds, the stark communist-era buildings, and over it all, the great portrait of Chairman Mao gazing sternly through the rain. Once again, we were buoyed and gave a spontaneous cheer. This caught our driver off guard for a moment. But then he regained himself, smiled and nodded vigorously.

“Yeah!” he said thickly with a thumbs up sign, “Tiananmien!”

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Mao through the windshield

***

Something about that moment changed our driver. He finally seemed to grasp the concept of a sight-seeing trip. With a palpable energy, he started detouring and pointing out the wonders of the new Beijing, smiling happily each time we oohed and awed at the newly minted skyscrapers and innovatively designed buildings which seemed to be sprouting from every corner of the landscape. By the time we got back to the hotel, I felt a combination of awe, puzzlement and perhaps some vague disconcertion towards this great, empty, sparkling metropolis.

Had I been Janine or Marge Simpson, I might have uttered a happy but tired “hrmmm” about the whole thing. Instead, I fell silently, exhausted and a little damp into my fluffy bed. With a quick prayer of thanks to the travel gods for another unforgettable day, I fell asleep on the instant, blindfoldless, dreaming of exciting and enigmatic Beijing.

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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