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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Update

7/10/12 - I made it home OK.  I am back at work now.  I posted some additional days from my time in China.  I will update all posts with photos very soon.  China completely block access to all blogs.  I was not even able to send mail from there.

7/5/12 - Today was our final day in UB.  Tomorrow we leave for Beijing.  I am told gmail, blogs, and facebook are completely inaccessible from China.  So this will probably be my last post before I get home.

7/4/12 - Happy birthday USA.  I am celebrating it by spending a night in a Mongolian Yurt.

7/3/12 - We're in Ulaanbaatar.  Great internet connection today.  We're off to explore for the day.

7/1/12 - We're back in Irkutsk.  This is first decent internet connection we've had the whole trip.  New daily post and I added photos to previous days.  God bless!

6/30/12 - The hotel is still having internet issues.  I am behind the reception desk again.  I hope it will work tonight so that I can post some pictures.  God bless!

6/29/12 - Greetings from Lake Baikal in Sibera.  The hotel is having internet connection problems.  I am writing this from behind the reception desk.  They tell me it will be fixed tomorrow.  Sorry no updates today.  We are having a wonderful time.  God bless!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Flight Home


Some final thoughts.  Our tour guide for the trip was absolutely fantastic.  I don't get how he can do this 11 months out of the year.  The whole trip went incredibly smoothly.  Most of our tour group was Slovak.  That made it a bit challenging for me to understand.  We had a wonderful group and we were never short on laughter.

Our plane was left the gate at Beijing on time, but we were late getting out.  Then once we were first in line to take off, someone decided to get up and use the bathroom.  Airline policy forced us to get out of line, we lost our place and had to get back in line.  By the time we took off I had already spent 2 hours on the ground in the plane in Beijing, before starting our 10 hour and 30 minute flight.  My only real concern was catching my plane in Seattle back to Denver.  I ran through customs as quickly as I could, rechecked my baggage, took two trains to get to different gates, got my new boarding pass, and boarded the plane in less than an hour.  We'll see if my luggage made it.

With this my vacation is over and with this final flight home it completes a trip around the world in two and a half weeks.  A good portion of which was traveled on the the surface and not in the air.  I must say this was an epic trip.  Tiring but satisfying.  Now a need a rest to recover from my vacation, but I go back to work tomorrow morning.  I am so thankful that I was able to take this trip with my wonderful parents.  I truly enjoy traveling with my parents!  I hope you enjoyed reading about my trip.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Beijing Day 2


Today is our final day, but by no means is it a day to relax.  Once again we set out early to beat the crowds.  Our first stop of the day was the Great Wall of China.  My goal was to hike as much of the wall as I could.  Because of the fog an the haze none of the conditions for photos was far less than ideal.  As I started out the mass of people climbing was shoulder to shoulder, at time you were practically climbing over people.  The climb is quite steep and people stopping and sitting on the steps to catch their breath and rest just thickens the people traffic jam.  Fortunately after the first two towers a lot of people think twice and go no further.  At this point the climb was still steep and taxing, but you had more room.  I continued for about an hour and made it to the final tower you were allow to go to.
Great Wall of China from tower #13
By the time I got there my shirt was literally drenched.  Fortunately I had a larger bottle of water with me.  All along the way Chinese people were stopping me so that they could take a picture with me.  Our guide told us that for many of them we could be the first white person they have seen.  I kinda felt like a celebrity.  I was happy to pose with them.  At the final tower I climbed to the top of the guard tower and there was a large group of Chinese students singing and enjoying themselves.  There joy was contagious.  I'm not saying life in China is easy but by far the happiest people I've encountered along this entire trip are the Chinese.  After a short stay at the top I started the trek down.  I was slick but pretty easy going until you run into the human mass now mostly going in the opposite direction.  I always though that the wall was to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.  In reality the wall never really accomplished that or did it stop Mongol invaders.  The mountains the wall is built over is far more of an obstacle than the wall itself.  I think that is what made it so impressive for me.  It was an exhausting climb but absolutely work it.  I just can't imaging doing this on a sunny day with the temperature at 100F and above.

Afterward we went to a factory where they make jade carvings.  In Chinese culture jade is a very prized material.  In the past it was valued more than gold.  I bought myself a small jade article.

Our final stop of the day was the Forbidden City.  I think I was looking forward to this the most and it certainly did not disappoint.  I was stunned by how large a complex it is.  The Forbidden City dates back to about the 13th century and was the home of the emperor.  You stand in the center of one grand court yard amazed by what you see around you.  The buildings are just amazing.
One of the palaces in the Forbidden City
Just when you think you've absorbed as much as you can you pass through a gate, at the far end, and on the other side is a new courtyard that is even more amazing.  And this pattern repeats itself several times over.  Once again the foggy conditions were not good for taking photos.  The haze would already start to obscure the opposite side of the courtyard.  This definitely rates towards the top for truly amazing things I've seen!

Just when I though my exotic food tasting was done I had one more interesting sampling.  We had donkey as one of our entrees for dinner.  My mom and I took a short walk around the hotel to spend our final final bit of Chinese money.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Train day 7 and Beijing Day 1


Ever since the night in the yurt I've had a some sort of a pinched muscle in my neck and I haven't gotten a good nights rest since.  Interior China looks pretty much like I expected.  It is a foggy morning and the surroundings are very hilly.  I don't remember going through any tunnels in Russia or in Mongolia, but in China we've already gone through at least 25.  There is no question China is densely populated.  Mongolia has 2.5 million people while China has well over 1 billion.  In Datong we changed from our diesel-electric engine back to an electric-driven locomotive. The hilly terrain gave gave way to flat land and agriculture.  All along the way you could see shanty towns where the locals lived and high rise housing in the back ground.  As we approached Beijing the surroundings change to very mountainous.  The train carved its way through deep valleys.  With our arrival to Beijing our train journey was over.

The mass of people leaving the train station was amazing.  It was muggy and hazy.  I think that is a blessing because this humidity with the full power of the sun would be quite unbearable.  This city is truly a megalopolis.
House before Beijing
The city is 17 million people large, following Shanghai as the largest city in China.  I don't now to express how large this city is...suffice it to say it is ginormous.  After a short stop in the hotel to de-sticky-fy our selves, we left to go into the city.  We were sticky and sweaty again in a matter of moments.  We walked to dinner and ate at a nice Chinese restaurant.  The food was fantastic.  Then we boarded a city bus and went to Tienanmen square.  Tienanmen square sits right in front of the forbidden city, but we will see that tomorrow.  The forbidden city used to extend all the way out and actually covered what is now Tienanmen square.  After that we went to the Wangfujing shopping district.  At the end of the pedestrian area to the left there is a street with all sorts of exotic foods.  This is what I was looking for.  I sampled fried scorpion and cricket, and dog.  My exotic culinary samplings are now fulfilled.  Now I'm off to bed and tomorrow is my final day.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Train day 6


This day started with a 7:15 am departure from Ulaanbaatar.  Today's post will be kind of scant on details.  There simply is not that much going on.  We are on a Chinese train with no A/C.  It is almost the same type as our previous East German wagon car.  We are headed south on the final leg to Beijing, China.  This leg will take us through the Gobi desert.
Camels in the Gobi Dessert
It looks a lot like the southwestern corner of the US.  The crossing into China was memorable.  As we pulled into the Chinese border station the Chinese anthem was playing and soldiers lined the track standing at attention.

Just before I left for this trip I stopped by my local christian book store to pick up some reading material.  Those of you who know me, know I don't care too much for fiction.  There are enough amazing true stories in this world I don't care to occupy myself with make believe.  For this trip I chose the book “Kisses from Katie”.  I had the privilege of meeting Katie two years ago in Uganda.  What struck me the most about her was her age.  When I met her, she was 20 and had adopted 14 orphaned Ugandan girls.  She entered the mission field at the age of 18.  What an amazing story of hearing and obeying God's calling for her life.  I spend a lot of time with students because God has called me to student ministry.  I couldn't help but compare her life to the young people I know.  I asked myself if I could envision one our students doing what she is doing.  Sadly I could not honestly answer that positively.  This is my fault and a completely wrong outlook.  I should never underestimate what God can do in the life of any student (or in my life).  I need to look at every student with the potential God gives them and then do everything in my ability to help cultivate and encourage that potential.  This book exemplifies that nothing is too big of a sacrifice in comparison to listening to God's calling.  This is an absolute fantastic read and truly amazing story.  I encourage all of you to pick up a copy and read about the amazing things that are happening through Katie and in Uganda.

Today and tomorrow's train stops include:

Chojr: 152 miles (245 km) - The Chojr station has a statue of VVT Ertvuntz, the first Mongolian cosmonaut. The town was an airbase during the Soviet period. Chojr is right in the middle of the Gobi Desert.  This was my last step on Mongolia soil.

Dzamin Ude: 441 miles (709 km) - This is the Mongolian border with China.  While confined to the train I waved at a small boy and girl.  They laughed at me and were excited I responded.  It always amazes me to think that our two lives intersect at this single instant.  It was a fantasticle moment.

Erlyan’ (China) - This is the boarder town in China.  The train cars in Russia and Mongolia run on a wide gauge rail, the same as in the US.  In China they run on a narrower gage, like in Europe.  We will not be changing train cars.  At the boarder we pulled into a long building and they lifted all the train cars and changed the wheel carriage bogies to the narrower gage.  During the border crossing we are not permitted to exit the car until the last half hour.  The entire event took about 5 hours.

Datong (China): 733 miles (1180 km) - This is a large industrial city with a population of over 2 million. The city is known as an industrial center and is home to numerous coal mines. One of the main attractions is a group of Buddhist cave temples – Yungang Grottoes.

BEIJING  (China): 964 miles (1551 km) - Beijing is the capital of China.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Yurt camp and UB day 3


Now I can say I've spent a night in a Mongolian yurt.  I had a restless night...I think my pillow was too small.  I'm not complaining.  It all makes me thankful that I have a bed to lie down into every night.  We woke up to a beautiful morning.  I climbed out of our yurt, hit my head on the door frame again, and the first thing I saw was a camel grazing near our abode.
Grazing Camel
I got my camera and took a few pictures.  Our camp sight was very nice, we had good facilities and excellent food.  After breakfast we took off for about a 50 minute nature hike.  We went over a small saddle back to the other side of the hill.  The view was spectacular.  Once we caught up with the rest of the group, we found a souvenir yurt and I made all my gift purchases there.  After that we all went a little further to a Buddhist monastery located on the side of a small mountain.
Buddhist Monastery
It was a little hike and a bunch of stairs.  As you approached the monastery you passed 150 signs with Buddhist sayings of wisdom.  On the mountain side as you there were symbols painted on to the cliff walls.  As you looked off into the distance you could see the valleys had a beautiful “U” shape to them.  They were formed by ancient glaciers.  The monastery itself was simple but charming.

On our way back to UB we encountered some grazing yaks.  The locals refer to Ulaanbaatar as UB.  By the time we got back we were all pretty hungry, so we stopped at another Mongolian barbeque place.  This one did not put on a show, but the food was still great.  My culinary excursion today was horse meat.  To be honest it tasted just fine.  If you had the buffet they had a tray with a goats head on it.

I still had a lot of cars to give away from “Toys for God's kids”.  We asked out tour guide where we could find a lot of children and she sent us to an amusement park.  We gave a few cars away there, but we knew a better spot.  Our hotel is located in a residential complex.  Right next door to us is a playground.  We went there and gave away the remainder of the toy cars.  To see the happy and thankful faces of the children was a blessing.  Kids are the same wherever you go.

We were able to do a little exploring on our own at the end of the day.  We were all hot and sweaty.  Our day only had a couple of activities but we didn't stop all day.  Tomorrow we get up early again and start the final leg of the train journey.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Mongolia day 2


Yesterday I forgot to mention that I held an eagle on my arm at one of our stops.  What a majestic bird, but if it turned on me it would have torn me apart.

Today was another day we were on the move.  We left Ulaanbaatar and headed north.  Our first stop was the Gokturk Inscriptions.  The pillars memorialize the Gokturk Empires reach into Asia between 552-745.  The monuments were erected to leave their history and culture for following generations.  It just reminds me that every worldly empire eventually falls.

Following that we went and saw the world's biggest statue of Genghis Khan which also is the worlds largest statue with a horse.  It is over 100 feet tall.
World's largest statue of Genghis Khan.
Like I mentioned yesterday the Mongols are very proud of Genghis Khan and this statue exemplifies that.  I guess you could say it is the like the Statue of Liberty for Mongolia, but if we put it put it in the middle of Wyoming so that no one would see it.  But I enjoyed it very much.

Lastly we went to Tereljh National Park which is situated in a mountain valley.  To get there we passed Ovoo.  This is a pile of stones built as a landmark for worship near the mountain pass.  We are spending the night at a camp in the park.  Our accommodations are a simple yurt.  OK...it's a little more than just basic...we have a concrete floor, a light bulb, and a single outlet.
Our yurt.
So I am sitting here writing my post in a cross of two worlds.  On one hand I am in a dwelling that has been around for  centuries and on the other hand I am using modern technology to write about.  I can hear the rain drops gently falling on the roof.  A yurt is nomadic dwelling.  It can be torn down, moved, and re-erected in a short amount of time.  It only takes about 2 hours to set one up.  It is not made for tall people, I've already hit my head twice on the door frame while exiting.  Inside is quite comfortable.  We do have a small stove, but it is not that cold yet.  I can't imagine what it is like in a yurt in the middle of winter.  This is a very cold country, in fact Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital in the world.  The Siberian winds blow across the barren land.

I got to try my had at archery with a typical Mongolian bow.  I was also able to go horse back riding on a Mongolian horse.  They are smaller than European horses, but they are more hardy because they are used for everything.
Little Mongolian girl.
Horses were a great commodity for the Mongolian empire and still today they play an important role in existence here.

Today's excursion into exotic culinary samplings was Kumis.  Kumis is fermented horse milk.  It had a sour, bubbly, gamie, yogurt like taste.  It was worth trying but I'll stick to kefir.  I still hope to try horse meat.

Well good night from the middle of nowhere.  God bless!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ulaanbaatar day 1


We arrived early this morning to Ulaanbaatar to a sunny day.  We gathered all of our belongings and boarded a bus to the hotel.  Fortunately we were able to check in early.  I really needed a shower after the hot box at the border on the train.

Once I was refreshed we headed to the center of town to the parlement building.  It is a beautiful imposing building with a sitting statue of Genghis Khan guarding the entrance.
Parlement building in Ulaanbaatar.
Genghis Khan is a national symbol for them.  He ruled over the Mongolian empire and was responsible for overtaking much of Asia and reaching into Europe.  He is on the money, on statues, on building, and just about everywhere you look.  Then we went to a Buddhist temple and learned a bit about their customs and beliefs.  Afterward we went to the natural history museum.  Ulaanbaatar has the second largest dinosaur fossil collection on display, following only Beijing.  Most dinosaur fossils you see on display in museums are fiber glass replicas.  The displays pushed the typical evolutionist agenda.  Yes, I do believe dinosaurs existed, just not pseudo-science that goes with it.  The stop was still well worth taking the time to see it.

Then for lunch we had Mongolian barbeque.  This is something I was looking forward to, and it did not disappoint.  It was a lot of show...with fire, flying food, noise and presentation to go with it.  I sampled as much as I could without overeating and it was scrumptious!  We were able to do a little shopping today.  Then we went to a overlook of the city, to a monument showing the countries history, and a large Buddha statue.

After a quick refresher back at the hotel we went to Mongolian theater.  There we were treated to traditional music, dance, and acrobatics.
Contortionists
The throat singing is quit spectacular.  The whole thing was very entertaining.  We capped off the evening by going to a Czech restaurant right in the heart of the city.  Overall Ulaanbaatar impressed me very much!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Train day 4 and early a.m. arrival to Ulaanbaatar on day 5

Yesterday was the first decent internet connection I've had since the start of this trip.  I was able to update the blog with some pictures and daily news, but I didn't want to spend all my time at the computer wasting time on the internet.  We went to bed early because we knew we had an early morning.

We got up at 2:45am for a 3:30 departure to the train station.  At the train station we switched back to Moscow time. We boarded our Mongolian train and started the second leg of the train trip.  We got settled in our cabin and went right back to sleep. I caught a needed additional 4 hours of sleep.  I woke up to see us running parallel to the shore of Lake Baikal.  The Mongolian train is 23 years old and was built in the former East Germany.  It is a lot more basic than our Russian train, but sufficient.  I can certainly envision it being much worse.  Our guide said that our Russian train was the best he's been on, and this is the 10th time he is making this trip.  The Russian train was electric-driven when this train is diesel-electric.  When you flush the toilet you can see the flap open and spill the contents on the track below.

Looking out the window the view is not that different from western slope in Colorado and the western US.  There are rolling plains surrounded by pine forests.  The further south we head the warmer it gets and the more it starts to look like Utah.  The Trans-Mongolian express follows an ancient tea-caravan route from China to Russia through Ulan Bataar and further on to Europe.  The country of Mongolia was established, with the help of Stalin, as a buffer between China and Russia.  He feared an invasion from China.

In one of my blog posts back in 2010, as I visited Uganda, I mentioned an organization located in Denver called Toys for God's kids.  Click here to see a video about this organization.  This trip they supplied me with 100 toy cars to give away to children while on the trip.  I was able to give a few more cars away today on the train to a couple of Buryat children.  They seemed very reluctant and hesitant to accept anything, even when I told them it was a gift.  I managed to capture a few shots before I was asked not to.
Little Buryat Girl with a toy car.
Our final stop in Russia is in the town of Naushkki.  We were fortunate to be able to leave the train for 90 minutes, but afterward we had to re-board the train and spend an additional 90 minutes on the train to complete immigration and customs.  Then we crossed to boarder into Mongolia and went through immigration and customs again in Sukhbaatar, there we were not allow to disembark.  This took approximately another 2 hours.  The time we were condemned to the train was like being in a sauna, but we made the transition.  Huzzah.

Today's stops include:

Ulan-Ude: 3485 miles (5609 km); 3d 12h 20min. - founded in 1666, is a capital of the Buryt Autonomous Republic, which in the 13 - 17th centuries was a part of the vast Mongolian Empire.

Ulaanbaatar:  3736 miles (6013 km) - This is the capital of Mongolia which was founded in 1639 and was often moved along the Selenga river through Orhon and Tuul until it gained its present location. The city is strategically located on the great tea route between China, Russia and Europe.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Baikal & Irkutsk Day 3


After another very restful night we prepared to say goodbye to Baikal.  Today is by far the nicest weather we've have.  The haziness around the lake started to lift and an the sky had a beautiful blue hue.  We boarded our bus and started to head back to Irkutsk.  On the way back we stopped at a historic reconstruction of a Cossack village, picture the movie “Dr. Zhivago”.  The Cossacks are of European descent.  Their religious beliefs are Orthodox Christianity.  The local people of Asian decent are the Buryat.  The Buryat religious beliefs stem from Buddhism and Shamanism.  So there is a mix of cultures here.  As we head south in our journey we will encounter more and more of the later religious beliefs.

In the early afternoon we made our way to our Hotel in Irkutsk.  It is nice to have a toilet again were you are allowed to flush the toilet paper rather than having to toss it into a bin.  But this will end soon.  We were warned that the Mongolian train may have squatty potties.  Taking care of business on a moving train might be kind of interesting.

After settling in we had a small second tour through town.  Then we were free to roam on our own.  We stumbled upon a group of Russian Folk singers at a ethnographic documentary film festival award presentation ceremony.  It was in a typical Russian style.  I will post a video later.
Traditional folk dancers.
We have a short night tonight.  We are going to bed early, because we have to wake up at 3:00am to get ready to leave for the train station.  Tomorrow is another train travel day.  We will leave Irkutsk and head towards Ulaan Ude, and the following morning we will arrive at the Mongolian border.