Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Farewell To A Faithful Companion

I said goodbye to an old friend in Seoul. I had bought my scruffy tent in West Jerusalem back in early 2007 for just 100 shekels (around £10 at the time) in a small shop just off Yaffo Street. It was the cheapest one I could find yet she served me well through my various trips since then. I had called her home in over 25 countries on 100 different occasions (to get an idea of how useful a tent can be check out my free-camping map for this trip - it helps if you initially zoom out a little), but it was now time to part ways as I will have little opportunity to use a tent in the next 7-9 months and 2kg is a lot of extra weight to carry around. I left her with my host and hopefully she will get passed on to another traveller who will be able to make use of her. My week in Seoul passed by very quickly and was certainly not enough to see it fully, but I had to keep moving. The call of the road is unrelenting.

One of the many picturesque valleys in Seoraksan national park.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seoul Of The Country

Although I had very briefly been in South Korea whilst visiting the DMZ at Panmunjon, if I wanted to get there properly I had to go via China. So back it was to Dandong where I bought myself a ferry ticket to Incheon, Seoul's port city. It would have been cheaper and faster to fly, but I'm wanting to try to travel round the world without having to resort to airplanes as much as I can at least; plus in an airplane you don't get the opportunity to share a giant dorm room with over 100 Chinese.

Travelling economy class in China means something completely different to what we're normally used to. The convivial atmosphere of the large dorm aboard the ferry to Incheon.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Completing The Axis

Whilst in Dongbei I visited the towns of Ji'an and Dandong, on the banks of the Yalu river which forms the border with North Korea. Staring out across the divide is like looking through some sci-fi time-vortex: the Chinese side is bustling, noisy, full of lights, shops, cars and the shouting mass of Chinese humanity, whereas just over the slow waters the other bank is moribund and lifeless with barely a soul stirring. As night falls there is barely a light to be seen in the enigmatic Hermit Kingdom. At the Hushan Great Wall (the easternmost section of the Great Wall which reaches right to the DPRK border) the Yalu river narrows to such an extent that the Korean border fence is only 10m away. Getting so close there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to visit what is perhaps the most intriguing and isolated country in the world today (with the possible exception of Eritrea) whilst also completing my tour of George Bush's infamous Axis of Evil.

The Yalu river a Yibukuo where it narrows to less than 10m. The left side is China, whilst the right is North Korea.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A Life More Ordinary

From Beijing I headed up to the region historically known as Manchuria. Today though in Chinese it is simply called Dongbei, or Northwest (actually, to be more accurate, Eastnorth), a far more neutral term as Manchuria is the cradle of several unhappy episodes in Chinese history: first there was the disastrous Manchu Qing dynasty that oversaw the stagnation and decline of China; and then Manchuria became the backdoor through which foreign empires, first Russia and then Japan, invaded. It's not a particularly touristy area, its major draw is the imperial mountain resort at Chengde which is popular with locals (and shows that there is a sizeable affluent middle class with disposable incomes, as the entrance ticket costs almost $20 regardless of nationality and with no reductions, even for people with fake student IDs). Even though I arrived at 8am the place was already thronged with families on weekend breaks, tour groups with matching T-shirts and baseball caps and, particularly memorable, large groups of older women doing undemanding dance routines to easy listening music. Old-timers in China are surprisingly sprightly, and it's not uncommon to see them doing tai-chi, singing karaoke or even kicking about a shuttlecock in a city park.

The "Small Potala Palace" in Chengde. Initially the Manchu emperors felt more affinity to their Mongolian and Tibetan cousins and built temples in their styles and used Mongolian script. But as time went on they became more Sinicised and looked down on them.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Staring At The Sun

During my first week in Beijing the sun, when it was visible, was a faint, brighter dot in the city's enveloping haze. An apt symbol for the sea-change between Mongolia and China. The former has wide, open spaces with barely a soul in sight, the calm serenity and blue skies only broken by the whup-whup-whupping of a crow's wings as it passes overhead (when was the last time you heard a bird's wing beats?). Beijing is another planet entirely: loud, chaotic, bustling, choked with traffic, pavements spilling over with street vendors, air wafting with odours both salivating and unpleasant mixing with the sweat of humanity brought on by the humid summer. Beijing out-populates Mongolia by four to one (despite being only one thousandth the size of the latter). The smoggy haze is an inevitable by-product.

The obligatory holiday snap of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'AnMen) at the entrance to the Forbidden City, along with its portrait of Mao and watchful soldier.