Pasu and the political problems of Pakistan

Pakistan, November 2016

The small village of Pasu blew us away and might very well be the most beautiful place we have ever seen, hugging the fast flowing Hunza river that cuts through the valley, with some of the most terrifying suspension bridges to carry you across, on the backdrop of the Batura glacier and the surrounding +6000 meter snow covered mountain peaks. Walking through the village, comprised of small squared houses, built with the many surrounding grey-colored rocks, passing orchards with apple and apricot trees with deep yellow, orange and red autumn colored leaves, while misty clouds of dust were being blown up over the Hunza river beds, we felt as if we had entered a real life high resolution picture book. Everywhere we looked, we saw another beautiful scene we could stare at for minutes in amazement.

We found a nice little guesthouse from where we could explore the surrounding area. Venturing out on the suspension bridges with the strong winds gusting around our heads was more terrifying than we had anticipated. The distance between the wooden planks we were walking on was big enough to force us to continuously watch our step, looking down into the fast flowing river about 20 meters below us. While we were holding on tight for our dear lives, half cramped, with our palms sweaty and our heart beats racing, a little old grandmother came strolling past, holding a bucket in one hand, while lightly following one of the cables in the other. We couldn’t help but laugh, though we kept to our steady slow space to make sure we would make it safely across.

It’s hard to describe the beauty of the surroundings, but we captured some of it in a small video you’ll find in our film section. When we made it back across the river to the other side, we met a few young local guys in the village Hussaini. They were curious to learn where we were from. Where Jeroen’s answer “Holland” barely raised an eyebrow, their eyes lit up when they heard Linda say “Germany”. “We love German people”, they cried, “they are very strong and courageous”. We joked that if they had seen us out on the suspension bridges, they would think otherwise.

As it turned out, the Uyghur weren’t the only ones to share a deep love for Hitler (see our previous blog entries), these fellows were rather fond of the genocidal guy as well. For the record, we came across Hitler affections in Kazakhstan and Mongolia too, but the Hussaini guys were almost religious about it. They seemed unhappy about the direction Pakistan is heading in and cherished ideas about violent revolution, to which we tried to convince them that non-violent resistance would help them and their country a hell of a lot more.

It left us with a sour taste in our mouths, wondering how three young men could get such destructive thoughts in their heads. It does show that Pakistan is not in the best of shapes. There are continuous attacks in Baluchistan in the southwest on the border with Iran, it’s not much better in the tribal belt on the western border with Afghanistan and in the east the country has fought several wars with India since independence, with a continuing fight over the Kashmir region in the north and far too frequent bomb blasts in various cities across the country as a result. Pakistan really only has good relations with China, which is investing heavily in Pakistan’s infrastructure, to create a direct seaport for western China to connect with the Indian Ocean. It remains to be seen how much the Pakistani will benefit from these investments, but with the blatant omnipresent corruption in the country, it’s likely that most of the gains will flow into the pockets of the wealthy few.

Pondering these thoughts, we continued our trek up the mountain to Borit Lake and on towards the Batura glacier. After 5 or 6 hours of walking, our tired and sweaty bodies probably didn’t agree so much with the cold wind piercing through our jackets and as the temperature and our energy levels started to drop we were happy to finally be able to make our way back down to Pasu. Though not before a group of journalist stopped us in our tracks (they were making specials on climate change and tourism in the Hunza region): whether we wanted to do a quick interview. Linda made the cut and appeared with her interview on Al Jazeera, but Jeroen lost out to the exuberant enthusiasm of an over-the-top American tourist… 😉 You can find the clip in our Pasu video!

By now, Jeroen’s energy had completely run out and as he started to feel pains in his chest, we decided to hitch a ride for the last kilometer back to our guesthouse where Jeroen experienced a rather rough night. First thing the following morning, we took a taxi to the nearest hospital in Aliabad where Jeroen was diagnosed with pleuritis. The hospital was in a much better condition than the hospital we had been to in Novosibirsk in Russia, which really tells you more about Russia than Pakistan.

We were in luck, the manager of a hotel in the neighboring town Karimabad happened to be in the hospital as well. He told us that (under light pressure from the doctor) he would make us a good deal and drove us to the hotel in his little minivan. We took it easy for a few days, enjoying the wonderful dal (lentils) and mixed vegetable curries with chapati (flat bread), looking out on the spectacular Hunza valley. As Jeroen’s energy came back, we started exploring more of the surroundings and visited the Baltit and Altit forts (dating back 700 to 1100 years), though we spent most of our time in a tiny little wooden shack, where Lal Shezadi managed her own mini-restaurant with the most amazing local dishes. Apart from the excellent food, the place got most of its traction from the brutally honest owner, who loved to speak her mind about her customers, especially in their immediate presence. We were in luck, she seemed to like people from Europe, but many of the Pakistani had to endure her thorn. They all took it in good fun though and we had many great conversations with them while waiting for our food, making it the highlight of our stay in Karimabad. Lal Shezadi even invited us into her cozy little home for the celebration of her childrens’ birthdays.

The area is rich in apricot and apple trees, the latter of which were hanging full with fresh fruits. So when we were wandering around Karimabad, we were often given apples from the peoples’ own gardens as we were passing by. It’s also a relatively liberal and progressive town, where women are allowed to work and able to walk around without a headscarf, with a literacy rate higher than 95% (compared to 55-60% in the rest of Pakistan). Tourism probably played its part, though a lot is also influenced by their religion. There was a sharp contrast in development and education between Karimabad (with a majority of Ismaili Muslims) on one side of the river and Nagar (with a majority of Sunni Muslims) on the other side. The Ismaili follow the Aga Khan, who advocates educating girls before boys, as the women typically stay at home with the kids and are therefore the ones educating their own children, and is a lot more progressive in general than the more conservative spiritual Sunni leaders.
Besides all these political predicaments, there was also plenty of opportunity for socializing. Even though foreign tourism plummeted after 9/11, the Hunza Valley still hosts the occasional over landers, backpackers ánd an increasing amount of domestic tourists. And so we would end up standing on a rooftop at night, sharing stories and a bottle of wine with a mixed group of foreigners and Pakistani, thinking why the hell we can’t all simply get along…

Hike from Pasu to Hussaini
Autumn colors in between Pasu and Hussaini
More autumn between Pasu and Hussaini
Batura glacier near Pasu
Pasu street
Autumn colors in Pasu
Hunza river near Pasu
Suspension bridge near Pasu
Hotel Karimabad
Goat in Karimabad
Way to Altit
Mountain view in Karimabad
Cat in Altit
Linda and cat in Altit
Lal and Linda

Lal and her children

“This man is very old”

China, October 2016

The Karakorum Highway (KKH for short) is said to be one of the highest and most beautiful roads in the world. It connects Kashgar in the far west of Xinjiang China, with Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, boasting one of the highest border crossings in the world over the Kunjerab Pass at a whopping 4700 meter altitude. We decided to try and hitchhike it.

We had a good start in Kashgar, walking off in the wrong direction, but at least it gave us a last glimpse of the cities’ >20-meter high Mao statue. We didn’t check, but it must be one of the tallest still standing statues of a former dictator to ever be erected. We couldn’t help but think the Uyghur might rather see a statue of Hitler in its place (see our previous blog entry), but they wouldn’t have any possibility to tear Mao down to begin with, as there was a small army of heavily armored police stationed right across.

We had our own mission on our minds though and turned around to head back into the right direction to the KKH. We didn’t have to wait long to catch our first rides, but there was a strong wind coming up and as we got further out into the countryside, it turned into a full-blown sand storm. At one point it was so extreme, that we couldn’t see more than 20 meters in front of us. We figured it would be impossible to get a ride in the midst of this storm, but when the first car doomed up, we were happily surprised to see it stop. We must have looked like bandits, with our faces covered up in our hoodies, scarves and sunglasses. It hadn’t scared the driver through, who had already picked up a couple before us: the first hitchhikers we had seen in China! With the four of us squeezed together in the back, we were relieved to escape the horizontally flying sand blasting across our face. Andrea and Aaron (their English names) were two friends on a trip through Xinjiang and were planning to go to Tashkurgan.

When we told them about our goal to visit Karakul Lake, Andrea and Aaron got excited to join us. We had fun ánd a surprising amount of success, hitchhiking in our group of four. First in the back of a water melon truck and then with the friendliest guy, who happened to have some friends who lived in the small village of Subaxcun next to the Karakul Lake: Tusunjan (Uyghur) and Kaule (Kyrgyz). They were working on a nearby project as electricians, but they had to work only one day per week. So most of the time the both of them were either sleeping or watching tv, which left them with little time to clean their house. They acted seemingly unimpressed by our surprise group visit and indifferently agreed to host us for the night. Tusunjan did seem rather impressed with Jeroen’s height though and when Jeroen answered he is almost 2 meters tall, Tusunjan turned to Linda with a big smile, raising his thumb, with Kaule nodding to Linda in approval.

We decided to check out the local shop to buy some food and while Andrea and Aaron were eying the instant noodle selection, we carefully put forward the suggestion to make a little stir-fry. When we grabbed some garlic, Andrea asked at us with big eyes: “you know how to prepare that?”, which we took as our cue to propose to do the cooking. We found Tusunjan and Kaule the way we left them, lying in their beds, snacking on some peanuts, with the tv blasting in the background. We took the loud slurping and smacking sounds that Andrea and Aaron were producing as a compliment for our Chinese style food (check out our film section for an impression).

With the coal oven burning hot and no real proper air ventilation, it felt a bit cramped with the six of us squeezed into the small single room. Half dazed by the warmth and the low oxygen, we tiredly positioned ourselves on the floor in the corner, next to the coal oven, half underneath the side table with the tv set. Unfortunately, Tusunjan and Kaule had a friend stop by who initiated a late night drinking session. With the tv ringing above our heads, the drunken cries from the vodka pounding men at our feet and our throats aching from the coal fumes on our left, we briefly considered to break out our tent and sleep in the cold, but with the temperature outside below zero we decided to grab some earplugs and stick it out.

We had fun exploring the lake the next morning, observing the peculiarities of the many yaks that populated the area (you can find a short clip in our film section). The lake provides a stunning view of the glaciated Muztagh Alta summit (7509 meters). Apparently, a Swedish explorer was the first to try and climb the mountain at the end of the 19th century on the back of a yak! Unfortunately, the yak died and with it the expedition. Those yaks can climb though, so we couldn’t help but wonder whether the yak would have made it without the fat Swede on his back…

Either way, we had to get a move on if we wanted to make it to Tashkurgan in time. So after a local breakfast of yak milk tea and bread at a neighboring family’s house we made our way back to the KKH. This time around, the four of us had to split as the first car that stopped had only space for two. After a quick round of “you first”, “no you first”, we hopped into the car and could once again gaze in amazement at the beautiful scenery unfold as we continued our journey further south. We shared our ride with two girls who had taken a private taxi from Kashgar to explore the area at the Tajik border. They were incredibly helpful to us, stopping cars along the way to find us a ride to Tashkurgan. Unfortunately with no success, but we managed to find a new ride quick enough. We even picked up yet another couple of Chinese hitchhikers along the way, apparently this part of the ancient Silk Route is a favored tourist destination for the Chinese.

When we rolled up in Tashkurgan, we were a little disappointed to see the only hostel in town closed. Luckily, we were quick enough to find a hotel that accepted non-Chinese citizens (not many do) and managed to negotiate a good price. Andrea and Aaron would join us there about two hours later. Tashkurgan functions as a border city with Pakistan, where you have to be cleared through customs before you can continue your journey. The city is mostly populated by Tajiks who are an Iranian people and don’t resemble the Uyghur or Han in their appearance. Their traditional clothing differs as well, with (some of) the women wearing beautifully long colored dresses and embroidered round hats with a scarf across and (some of) the men wearing traditional round black sheep skin hats. The men also greet each other in the most peculiar way: they kiss each other on the inside of the palms of the hand.

From Tashkurgan, it’s still more than 100km to the actual border, but hitchhiking is not allowed, so we had to take a bus to Sost, the next nearest town in Pakistan. When we left our hotel in the morning, we asked the manager for directions to the bus station. Outside, he spotted two Pakistani men, who immediately offered to escort us there. First, they wanted to have some breakfast though, assuring us that we would have plenty of time to get to the bus station. We were a little on edge, because we were leaving on a Friday, the border is closed during the weekend and our visa would expire on Sunday. So if we would miss the bus or if the bus would be fully booked, we wouldn’t be able to leave until Monday, at which point our visa would be expired. The younger of the two men reassured us though. While pointing at his friend, he told us in a very self-explanatory way: “this man is very old”. We waited for him to finish the rest of his sentence, but he already had. We guess “old” means wise in Pakistan, although his friend didn’t look any older than mid fifty, so we weren’t thát reassured. It turned out we had nothing to worry about though. The “old man” had clearly done this many times before, as he managed to always lead us to exactly the right spot in exactly the right moment. We moved completely stress-free through customs, with our guide securing us the best possible seats in the bus in the midst of stressed out Pakistani businessmen dragging and tossing around the Chinese merchandise they were transporting back to their home country.

From there, we could sit back and relax, while watching the undulating meadows and white mountain peaks glide past, as we climbed higher and higher to an ever more rugged and snow covered terrain. When we finally made it to the top of the Kunjerab Pass, the bus erupted in loud jubilations, with the businessmen scanting “Pakistan, Pakistan!”. The joyfulness didn’t last long though, as right in front of us, a minibus had slipped off the snow-covered tracks and had tumbled onto its side on a small plateau about two meters below. The businessmen quickly ran towards the vehicle. Some to assist the obviously shaken but unharmed women in getting out of their predicament, most to take a selfie with the flipped bus in the background. When everybody had calmed down from this sudden excitement, we resumed our trip down the same snowy road, which made our heart beat a little faster. Fortunately, the roads cleared up soon enough, so that we could enjoy the spectacular views of the Karakorum Range once more, boasting some of the highest mountains in the world.

In Sost, we were not able to get cash from any of the ATMs, but a local shopkeeper was willing to exchange our last Chinese Yuan for Pakistan Rupees. From here, we went further down the KKH to the nearby village Pasu, looking out through the window with a peaceful bliss from the warm afternoon sunlight caressing the long dry gently waving grass in the running hills, turning it into glistering sterns of fluid gold. The area carried a mystic beauty that instantly took away any worries we might have about our trip through Pakistan…

Hitchhiking in a sandstorm on the KKH
Bulungkol lake
Andrea (right) and Aaron (left) in Subaxcun
Baby Yak at Karakul Lake
Hitching from Subaxcun to Tashkurgan
In the bus from Tashkurgan to Sost
KKH towards the Kunjerab Pass
Autumn in Pasu in Pakistan

Winter Wonder Land

China, October 2016

We were definitely not prepared for this part of our journey, hitchhiking the national highway G216 through the Tian Shan Mountains from Urumqi to Korla in Xinjiang, but luckily we could depend on the incredible hospitality of the people we met along the way. We shared an Uyghur style breakfast on our last day in Urumqi with Merzhat, after which we said our goodbyes to him, Alim and Frank, who were off to the mosque for their Friday prayers. We stocked up and stuffed one last meal into our stomachs, before we headed out to the main road going southwest. Hitching our way out of Urumqi went relatively smooth and after a few shorter rides we found our way into the car of Yuko and Winshan, a soon to be married couple who were traveling through Xinjiang for their pre-wedding photo shoot. They wanted to check out a scenic spot up in the mountains of Nan Shan and invited us to tag along and to drop us off at the road again on their way back.

The meadows turned white with snow as we climbed higher and higher, and with the sun starting to set and the temperature starting to drop, we figured we might not be prepared for this kind of weather. Luckily, we found a tourist camp with yurts and Yuko managed to wind the manager around her finger, shivering frantically while pointing to the snow outside and then pointing in heart wrenched compassion at us. No need for mandarin to understand what she was saying, her body language did all the talking! Yuko managed to negotiate us a good price to spend the night inside one of the heated yurts, saving us from a night in our tent in the freezing cold. After sharing a wonderful Chinese style dinner, Yuko and Winshan drove back to Urmumqi and we cuddled up in our sleeping bags underneath a big pile of five or six blankets. We had our coal oven burning all night and it was still cold… definitely a good idea to nót spend the night in our tent!

We went for a nice hike the next morning, enjoying our winter fun, building snowmen in the warm winter sun. Though we had to get a move on, to be able to make it down far enough to not freeze our butts off in our tent that night. We hopped from one car to the other, until we got to the tiny little village of Ulanbherk Bekint. It was already starting to get chilly, when a small beat up red car stopped for us with the friendly Gabli inside, inviting us for dinner in his home. We thanked him for his very kind gesture, but told him we had to decline as we needed the time to get further down to find a spot to camp. Gabli then promptly invited us to spend the night at his place, which was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Gabli had the loveliest little house, where he lives with his wife Galiba, his 10-year-old son Xiashan and their baby boy Noahjason. Gabli has a Kazakh-Kyrgyz family background and their living- and bedroom was beautifully decorated with carpets that Galiba had woven in Kazakh and Kyrgyz style patterns. With the coal oven burning hot, we cozily leaned back, sipping on our milk tea, while the little Noahjason was racing around the room, plunging himself into the stacks of pillows with his buttocks peeking out of the hole in his Chinese style cut-open pants. Xiashan had learned a few phrases of English in school, but mostly we were trying to communicate with our hands and feet and the translator app on our phone. We shared a wonderful meal of cooked dough and goat meat, which reminded us of the food we had with Sertay and Alma in Kazakhstan on our way to Pavlodar. With our stomachs full and our bodies warm, we quickly fell sound asleep. We said our goodbyes the following morning and made our way back down to the road with our hearts filled with gratitude.

Our first ride brought us out into what seemed to be some kind of a half-abandoned strip of mining infrastructure with empty workers’ houses, decorated with nothing more than a big grey star on the facade. Without much of a better plan, we decided to simply start walking, wondering if any cars would be driving down this way at all (we only later learned that a new highway was built around the Tian Shan mountains to connect Urumqi and Korla, putting the unpaved G216 across the mountain range mostly out of use). So when we finally heard one approaching, we enthusiastically jumped up and down, waving our arms, to try and convince the drivers to take us with. It probably did the trick, because the guys hesitantly slowed down and finally stopped a rather lengthy distance behind us. We ran up to the jeep as fast as we could and sank with relief into the back seats, watching the beautifully mountainous scenery unfold itself as we raced across its narrow winding roads, hugging the deep cut-out valley of the Urumqi river. We started to climb higher and higher, up to an altitude of 4200 meter, while our driver kept a sturdy pace across the snow and ice covered roads, giving us some rather uncomfortable moments peeking down into the unprotected steep rocky gorges, with the occasional slipped-off car or truck laying a few hundred meters down below. Then, with the decreasing altitude, our heart rates went down as well and our drivers dropped us off safely in Hejing. From here it was just another short ride into Korla, but as soon as we had found a car, the police came in between and pulled us aside. They wanted to see our papers, and we figured we might be in for some trouble. Luckily they were only after a selfie 🙂

After we stocked up on groceries in Korla, we headed out again to find a spot to camp. We settled for the only “quiet” spot we could find in an industrious area, where we waited until it was dark to pitch our tent behind some heavy machinery. Linda woke up with a fever the next morning, which made us decide to sick it out in (what once was) a fancy 4-star hotel in Korla for a few days. It wasn’t exactly a place that fit in our budget, but it was our only option and a comfy change of pace from our usual lodgings. Korla doesn’t boast too many attractions, though we greatly enjoyed the city square where we could sit and watch (mostly elderly) people come together to dance. Other than that, we took our time to rest and recollect some of our thoughts from our eventful time in Xinjiang.

After a few nights Linda was feeling better, but not yet fit enough to hitchhike, so we decided to take the overnight train to Kashgar. Unfortunately, the train was delayed and no one knew how long it would take for the train to arrive, but the staff assured us they would warn us in time, so we decided to roll out our sleeping mats in the waiting area, put in some earplugs and crawled into our sleeping bags. About 15 hours later than scheduled, we were on our way to Kashgar.

Kashgar’s city center is completely refurbished, which gives it a mixed vibe of old and new. The oldest teahouse in town still hosted a large audience of elderly men, sharing stories over a pot of tea, while some of the newer shops were decorated with signs that showed some rather creative English translations. You’ll find some of our favorites in the pictures below. Wandering around the bazaar was a lot of fun and we managed to score some souvenirs to send back home. With our packages underway to Europe, we set out on our next adventure down the Karakorum Highway into Pakistan…

Yurt Nanshan
Snowmen Nanshan
Snowmen waiting for a ride
Butterflies Nanshan
Hiking Nanshan
Family in Ulanberkh
Old factory close to Nanshan
Truck wrecks on the way to Korla
Police foto shoot on the way to Korla
Kahsgar city wall
Kashgar tea house
Jeroen in teahouse
School manoeuvre Kashgar
Dentist sign Kashgar
Restaurant sign Kashgar
Linda on Kashgar bazar
Who finds the little girl?

The not so gunless police in Urumqi

China, October 2016

We spent a few days exploring Xi’an, before we continued our journey along the Silk Route towards Urumqi. We had decided to travel the 3000km distance by train and were looking forward to the relaxing train ride. We had booked our tickets in advance, as we would be traveling during X week, where all Chinese have a holiday in which they go home to visit their families. It’s one of the two largest yearly collective movements of people in the world. The other one is by the end of the week, when they go back…

The train station was packed with people and when we saw the first lines doom up, we got a little scared. Luckily, those were just for a security check and didn’t take us very long. Then at the ticket booths, we were amazed at the efficiency. The station had a massive amount of employees working that day, labor is still cheap in China, and we got our tickets within 10-15 minutes. Inside the train we were a little disappointed that it wasn’t as comfy as the Russian trains, but the sweet family that shared the other beds with us in our compartment more than made up for it. They had lots of fruits and nuts with them, which they happily shared with us. The father spoke English fluently, though it was hard to hold much of a conversation due to the continuous interruptions of service announcements and loud music SCHALLEND through the speakers. In a country like China you can’t help but think they do it on purpose, to prevent people from having any meaningful conversations, about unproductive things like basic human rights and all. The Chinese seem to like it though, whenever there would be a sudden lull in noise, it wouldn’t take long for someone to play the same kind of ear screeching tunes through a phone or portable speaker. It sounds like nails on a chalkboard to us, but if you check out our “China Song and Dance video in our film section, you can see for yourself 🙂

After 2 days and nights we arrived at the Urumqi train station at 6am in the morning. A little dazed from our journey and our less than perfect night’s sleep, we stumbled around the dark train station, until a Chinese guy in a bullet proof vest and a machinegun aggressively told us to quickly move towards the exit. So much for the no gun policy, we thought. Coming out of the station, there were a lot more of the same police guys with guns. It felt like stepping into a new country. And in a way we were, according to the Uyghur at least, who are the native inhabitants of the eastern province in Xinjiang and who are denied their independence by the Chinese government. The guys in front of us at the security check for the bus entrance were being hustled and shouted at for having a bottle of Sprite with them, to the point we felt intimidated by it ourselves. But it got worse when we entered the city. We saw police patrolling everywhere and not just in ordinary police cars, they were rolling around in amphibious tank-like vehicles with their machine guns pointing out. Apparently, Urumqi turned into a police state after riots broke out in 2010, where a group of radical Uyghur separatists started slaying Han Chinese in the streets, after which the Han retaliated the following days by doing the same to the Uyghur. Since that day, the city is controlled by a massive amount of police and all Uyghur are now more or less confined to one region inside the city. It’s so extreme, that to this day you are not allowed to buy a single kitchen knife in a store in Urumqi, regardless whether you are Han or Uyghur, or Dutch or German for that matter.

We didn’t have much of a plan, so we decided to simply go around and explore the city. We found our way to a park, walled and heavily guarded by SWAT style police, carrying rifles, where we were asked to push our backpacks through too small of a scanner. When we pointed out that our bags wouldn’t fit, we saw some rather terrifying looks on the security guards’ faces. What to do…? We explained they could simply take a look inside our bags, which seemed to calm them down enough to allow us to enter. Inside the park we saw a wonderful spectacle of mostly elderly Han Chinese doing their early morning slow moving Chi Qong routines, some solo, some in groups. It’s a beautiful sight and it must be wonderful for the mind and the body to come together in groups to start your day in the early morning with a healthy dose of physical exercise.

Our Couchsurfing host Mark then came to meet us. He was an incredible host, freeing up lots of his time to show us around the city, and a wonderful open character, sharing many of his life stories and plans with us. Mark took us to the Uyghur part of Urumqi, where he was noticeably not at ease as a Han Chines amidst the Uyghur. There were many heavily guarded policemen stationed around this part of town and probably many more patrolling around undercover. The city might now be safe, but it sure as hell didn’t feel that way.

Mark was recruited as an assistant for his cousin’s pre-wedding photo shoot the following day. We knew from our experience in Qingdao that these shoots are a full day’s event, so we took the time to meet up with Alim and his friend Frank whom we had gotten in contact with through Couchsurfing as well. They were part of the Uyghur minority, so it was interesting to hear their perspective as well, though they were very hesitant to say anything that might be interpreted as being critical. They would hush one another from time to time, while explaining to us that there were some things they couldn’t openly discuss. They didn’t feel as uneasy in the Han part of town, as Mark did in the Uyghur part of town, but they definitely were far more relaxed in their own area. Alim and Frank were studying to become English teachers and asked Linda if she could teach the students in their school a few things about Germany. We decided to stay in Urumqi an extra day to do a short lecture, which turned out to be one of our most memorable nights in China…

We spent a delicious hotpot brunch with Mark and his friend the following morning, after which we said our goodbyes and turned to some shopping for a warm jacket. Our plan was to hitchhike our way from Urumqi into Pakistan and we figured it would probably get colder the more we would move up in altitude. Time flies when you get lost in impossibly big shopping malls and since Jeroen had messed up “local time” and “Beijing time”, we had to rush to our appointment with Alim and Frank. China only has one time zone (to compare, Russia has eight!), so for practical reasons, Xinjiang has an unofficial local time that is 2 hours behind Beijing time. It seems to be mostly in use amongst the Uyghur though. Either way, we were 2 hours early, which gave us the opportunity to enjoy the evening sun on the steps of a university building, looking out on a square filled with students rolling around on rollerblades.

Alim and Frank came to pick us up early and introduced us to some of their fellow students, with whom we shared an Uyghur-type of lentil soup. When we entered the classroom, it was already packed with students waiting for us. We started by asking the group what they knew about Germany, to which one of the kids yelled out: “Hitler”. Another asked us what we think of Hitler, to which we replied: “what do you think of Hitler”. The answer was rather chilling, as his reply was that he thinks Hitler is great. We asked whether the others agreed and they all enthusiastically cried “yes”. It turned into an interesting discussion, where we mostly asked them why they thought Hitler is so awesome. They seemed to like his ideas of nationalism and viewed him as a strong leader, they even mentioned how they love his speeches. When we asked them about it, we learned that they circulate videos of Hitler’s speeches in social media with Uyghur subtitles. They didn’t mention the obvious elephant in the room: Uyghur being Muslim and Hitler having killed 6 million Jews. The weird thing is, they didn’t feel any shame whatsoever in their love for Hitler. It felt to us as if they were giving Linda a compliment for her genocidal mass murdering former countryman, in their eyes a great German leader.

They seemed mostly interested to learn about the possibilities to study in Germany though, as they had learned it’s possible to study in Germany for free. So we spent most of our time talking about the German educational system, thinking it probably would be a good idea if some of these kids would come over to Germany. It would probably be the best way for them to learn what Hitler was really all about and it would be a good thing if they would bring that message back home.

The evening had a nice end to it when one of the students, Merzhat, jumped up and offered to sing us a Helene Fischer song (a German folk singer, not someone you would expect any young person to be excited about). His singing resonated well with the audience, as you can see in the small clip we uploaded in our film section. The class then morphed into a wild Uyghur music dance arena, after which the self-appointed class representative gave us an elaborate thank you speech, a favor Jeroen replied by expressing our gratitude for their wonderful hospitality. We followed Merzhat home, where we would be able to spend our last night in Urumqi, but not before Merzhat broke out his keyboard and another one of his favorite Helene Fischer songs to have us dancing again in his living room. Tired, from the dancing and the many impressions we had that day, we fell sound asleep. We would be venturing deeper into Uyghur territory the next day, hitchhiking our way southwest towards the Tajik and Pakistan border.

No spitting sign Urumqi
No spitting sign in Urumqi
Urumqi skyline
Urumqi skyline
Alim and Frank in Urumqi
Alim and Kevin in Urumqi

Hovering babies and the gunless police

China, October 2016

After we said our goodbyes to Sisi and Huiwen, thanking them for their incredible hospitality and their help in getting our visa for Pakistan, we were waving down cars outside of Jiaozhou on a highway exit towards Rizhao. It didn’t take long for a tow truck to stop just far enough behind us in the bend, smack down in the middle of the road in a blind spot to any cars racing up from behind. As we were anxiously running towards the truck, as fast as our backpacks would allow us, we found the Chinese driver staring at us with a dumbfounded look on his face, oblivious of his impossible parking spot, curiously but ever so friendly looking us up and down. While we were frantically gesticulating our intentions, hoping to put a quick end to our rather dangerous collective predicament, the driver leisurely asked us in the most polite and care free way what it was he could help us with. At least so we thought, as our Mandarin was still ever as non-existent as his English. All we could think was: “yep, we’re still definitely in China”.

By now, the first cars had been stacking up behind the truck. Luckily the drivers had been quick enough to find their brakes in time. To our astonishment, they were all waiting patiently while the three of us were chatting away on the national highway. It felt like ages before the driver waved us in, but the whole thing lasted probably less than a minute. By now, we had gotten pretty good at explaining where we wanted to go. We’d start with: “wǒmen” (we), while pointing at us, followed by the name of the next biggest city we would be traveling towards, while pointing at our map. We would often repeat it a few times, because our intonations are always way off (vowels have four different intonations in Mandarin, potentially giving the same word four very different meanings). Then we would ask: “nǐ” (you), while pointing at the driver. Our driver nicked and smiled, indicating he understood we wanted to go south and that he could take us there. Ten minutes later, we exited the highway going northwest…

Our driver was quick enough to reassure us though, waving his arm in a circular way to let us know he would be coming back to the same point. It turned out he needed to tow a small truck that stalled on the highway, unfortunately not quite small enough to fit onto his tow truck. So after a lot of hemming, hawing and hammering, but not a lot of lifting or driving, darkness set in. Tired from a day’s worth of passport chasing in Jiaozhou, we decided to take our chances and wait it out. Eventually our driver threw in the towel, left the broken-down truck behind, and drove us back to the highway going south. The driver let us out in an equally dangerous spot as where he let us in, only this time in the pitch dark night.

We thanked our Chinese friend and quickly jumped the guardrail. Plowing our way through the bushes up a steepish small climb, we slipped through what (as we learned the next morning) was the only hole in a long metal fence, to pitch our tent on top of the hill.

We hadn’t gotten very far that day, but we were up nice and early the next morning with a full new day of hitchhiking ahead of us. We made our way back down to the highway and did our best to find the safest possible spot to stop cars, which is of course an impossible thing to do on a highway. We decided that this kind of hitchhiking is too dangerous and that from hereon we would stop entering or exiting cars on the actual highway. Luckily for us, we safely found our way into the car of a middle aged couple and as we did our “wǒmen Rizhao”…”nǐ?” thing, followed by their nick and a smile, we figured we were off to a good start. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for us to exit the highway and make our way back to Qingdao, the place we started two days before. As we kept repeating “Rizhao” and pointing at our map, they kept nicking and smiling, but they also kept driving in the wrong direction. The woman then handed us her phone, with a friend or relative on the line who spoke some English. It turned out the couple wanted to drive us to the bus station, to find a bus to Rizhao. A wonderful gesture, but not what we were after. At this point we wholeheartedly thanked our escorts, yet convinced them to let us out nonetheless. By now we were in an outer suburb of Qingdao, too far from the highway to walk back. So we simply hopped in the first bus that went in the right direction and somehow managed to explain ourselves. From where we left the bus, we started walking and waving down cars, to which the most extraordinary couple stopped. They were about our age, she looked and played the part a real-life mannequin, while he was a flamboyant character with a knack for dramatic facial expressions. They drove us to their barbershop, where we yet again got lost in translation, though eventually they dropped us off at the entrance of the highway to Rizhao.

From here we decided to stick to our plan to stay safe. It required some more walking on our part, but as soon as we made it around the bend at Rizhao, west to Qufu, we managed to stick with highway service areas. We had some amazing drivers who went to great lengths to find us a new ride, driving into different service areas and asking around for us whether anyone could take us further west. It became obvious we had left the tourist hotspots, because at these service areas we were continuously being stared at. We were even offered a free lunch in one of these places, just for being foreign. So when it got dark, we figured it would be best to pitch our tent far enough out of sight to not be noticed. We realized a little too late that we had pitched our tent down-wind from a rather fragrant outside toilet building, but were too tired to crawl back out of our sleeping bags to move our tent.

We slept great regardless and were in luck the following morning, because we met the two friendliest guys, Leiluo and Shandong, who took us all the way out of Qufa into Zhengzhou where they even took us out to lunch for some of the most amazing Chinese food. They proceeded to tour us around this mega city, which looked like it had only recently been stamped out of the ground. There were new high rises everywhere, with half-empty eight to ten lane streets cutting across. Then Leiluo took us all the way out of the city, back on the highway to Xi’an, to drop us at a service area from where we hitched our way to Sanmenxia. As it had gotten already dark again, we started exploring the area around the highway exit for a good camping spot and found our way to a dark road under a flyover, where we heard loud music coming towards us. Half-worried about local youngsters (gangsters?) hanging around in the shadows we moved forward, into a brightly lit schoolyard where the only “youngsters” we could see were the middle-aged women of the village dancing to the loud music we had heard before. Relieved, we continued to look for a place to camp, when al of a sudden a little girl came up to us, asking us where we were from. She had learnt a few phrases of English in school and followed us along our way. When we asked her for her help, she quickly ran off to get her mother who pointed us at a vacant garage next to their house. They brought us a small candle so we would have some light and tried to communicate with us with a translator app on their phone, which unfortunately didn’t work that well. The only thing we could understand was that this place was called “town under the bridge”, which made sense, as the half-built village they had probably stopped building at least 5 years before, considering the overgrown skeletons of cement and steel, was mostly located underneath a rather noisy railroad-bridge. The next morning our other side neighbor kept popping up. Curious and friendly as he was, he first brought us some hot water (the health-staple of every Chinese diet), then some kakis, some moon cakes, then he came back with some bread rolls, after which he showed up with a pomegranate. Always smiling, always looking at us curiously in the most friendly way. More people came by to have a look, an attempt at a chat or to bring us food. We figured we were probably the first foreigners they had ever laid their eyes on.

From here we could easily manage it to Xi’an in a few hours. Some of our funniest moments were at yet another service area where we sat down to eat the last of our provisions. Everyone was staring at us again, but we had plenty to look at ourselves as well. On our right, we spotted a Chinese girl in a bus intently looking at us, while grabbing her phone. As soon as she noticed us looking back, she quickly hid behind her window curtain, after which, very slowly, her phone appeared in the window from behind the curtain. We couldn’t help but laugh and friendly waved at her, to accommodate her in snapping our picture. Soon after, on our left, we witnessed a typical custom we have only seen in China so far. It was a father toilet training his kid over a garbage can, peeing down through a hole in his pants. In China, small kids don’t wear diapers. They have regular pants with a hole in the back and when they need to go, they squat down and go, no matter whether they are on the street, inside a supermarket, or in this case, hovering in mid-air over a garbage can.

Two rides later, we made it to Xi’an, the former capital of many ancient dynasties and one of the oldest cities in China. Here we met up with policeman and communist party member Kai through Couchsurfing. Kai showed us around and shared some great stories about the police in China. One of which was that the police in China carry nothing but their nightstick. When in need of a gun, “they would first have to find the keys to the cabinet where the guns are locked up, after which they would have to find the keys to open up the cabinet where the bullets are stored”. Perhaps they don’t need guns due to the high morale of their law-abiding citizens, it might also have something to do with the potential terror you face form the communist party when you get arrested. As it happened, Kai was a party member and was adamant in defending his party and all of Marx’ ideologies present in it. We forgave him for not being able to name any one of them.

Xi’an provided us with a deep-dive in its crazily chaotic street food courts (see our Chinese Food video) and gave us our first real taste of the infamous Chinese air pollution. It also formed our starting point on the ancient Silk Road we were to follow in our journey going further west. A road we decided to take by train…

Linda with Leiluo and Shandong in Zhengzhou
Jeroen with Leiluo and Shandong in Zhengzhou
Jeroen sitting in the typical Chinese squatting position in the “village under the bridge” near Sanmenxia
Park in Xi’an
Our first taste of the infamous Chinese smog in Xi’an
Xi’an streetfood
Xi’an by night

The other Great Wall of China

Qingdao, September 2016

You can’t escape either on a visit to China: the Great Wall in all its ancient glory and its more contemporary and less inspiring modern-day brother: the Great Firewall. Even with a VPN (virtual private network, to access websites blocked by the government) it’s a struggle to do anything online. Streaming low quality videos is close to impossible, let alone uploading our own videos, and opening a simple web page feels like watching a snail crossing a road. Apparently the connection is a lot better in the workplace, at least that’s what we heard from some of the Couchsurfing hosts we stayed with, who conveniently spent most of their lol-cat-video-watching-time at work.

Unfortunately, we still had to rely on a solid internet connection to be able to make calls to the Pakistan embassy in Berlin to sort our visa. We had sent our passports away from Beijing and now had to rely on the incomprehensibly hostile service of the people who were obviously only pretending to be ambassadors to a country with arguably the most hospitable people in the world: Pakistan. Linda did most of the talking and always looked a little frightened while trying to satisfy questions like “who in their right mind would want to get visa for Pakistan” and “what the hell are you doing in China when you want to go to Pakistan”, all the while apologizing for our bad internet connection. When Linda hesitantly asked about the emails we had sent, she immediately yelled out: “well that won’t work, I don’t have a computer!”. The image of a heavily frustrated receptionist, sitting at a desk with nothing but an old dialup phone, barking away at frightened tourists never to return, will probably stay with us forever.

Luckily, we had plenty of time in between these calls to enjoy the sights in Beijing. We spent a lot of time walking around with Mike (our Couchsurfing host), who explained us the difference in street music between China and other places. In Europe for example, you’ll find people performing on the streets for money. Not in China, here people come together to play music for fun. According to Mike, they wouldn’t even take your money if you tried. We didn’t verify that last bit, but it’s true that no one was collecting or donating any. With Dan (our BeWelcome host) we did some cycling. We hadn’t been on a bike since we left Astana in Kazakhstan, so it was exciting to try it again. Although not without danger, due to the many many cars. The Chinese seem to ride their cars the way they used to ride their bikes: with no regard for traffic rules whatsoever. Not in a Russian dangerous way of driving, more in a naive chaotic way. So while they don’t speed, they will overtake left, right and center while friendly beeping their horn in a way of communicating to others that they are “there”. Zebra crossings hold no significance either, so as a pedestrian or a cyclist, you either need to have a lot of patience (if you want to be safe), a lot of courage (if you want to be fast) or one hell of a health insurance. Dan and Mike also told us about the Chinese phenomenon of (mostly) older people gathering in the streets to socialize, play games like Chinese chess or Mahjong, to dance or to do Tai Chi. It’s a wonderful thing to see so many people coming together. We made an impression of a zebra crossing and some street music in a short video you can find in our film section.

From Beijing we headed south. We figured it would take the Pakistan embassy in Berlin a while to process our visa application, which is why we had asked them to send our passports to Qingdao. We had spoken on the phone to the sister of Fan, the Porsche driver we hitchhiked with to Beijing, and knew she lived in Qingdao. She sounded friendly and was also the only contact we had south of Beijing, so we thought: “why not”? We could use our time to hitch our way there and explore the city, while waiting for our passports to arrive.

Hitchhiking to Qingdao was a lot of fun, although at times a little dangerous. When the Chinese stop, they don’t stop on the side of the road. They just halt their car in the middle of it, which can get dangerous if you’re on a highway. And if they take a wrong turn on the highway, they simply stop their car, turn around and drive back into traffic. We couldn’t communicate much with our drivers, but they were all incredibly friendly, as well as curious, and most insisted on taking at least one selfie with us. Our last driver, Chenchan, even went so far as to drive us two hours out of his way through traffic to our hotel, which left him with two more hours back to his home. We tried everything we could to persuade him to drop us off at a bus or metro station, but he just kept on smiling his incredible smile and wouldn’t budge.

Qingdao was great, although mostly in an unexpected way. There’s great food, clean air and lots to see (including some real ánd fake German architecture due to the German sphere of influence in the early 20th century), but we enjoyed spending most of our time in a different way: by watching brides. We stumbled across a large square with a big church that had a horribly fake front, where bride couples literally lined up to have their pictures taken. You’d see 4 or 5 couples in a row, each with a professional photographer laying on the ground, taking photos with this absurdly object of non-architecture in the background. By now we had found the only affordable and drinkable coffee in town, at the 7-Eleven, which we slowly sipped away at while taking in the wonderful spectacle that was unfolding in front of our eyes. The Chinese take their photos seriously, their wedding pictures even more so. They dress up in different outfits for different occasions at various locations, well before their actual wedding day. We would count up to 15 different wedding couples on any given day, with couples moving in and out continuously. Some brides would go as far to climb with their white wedding dress into a tree, with the “ancient” church in the background. There was even a guy whose full-time job it was to shake the branch of a tree, for some (to us unknown) photo-effect. But all the couples were posing in this same spot, with the guy behind shaking this branch with leaves up and down. Needless to say, we had a blast. Another favorite was an indoor hall with Hollywood style fake-front German type architecture underneath a painted ceiling of blue sky turning into a black night with stars. We felt we would be able to earn a killing if we would dress up in a dirndle and some lederhosen and charge a few Yuan for a photo, but decided to pass.

Instead, we made our way to Liuqinghe to chill on the beach for a few days and enjoy the most furthest point east we would reach during our trip. To our delightful surprise, the beach was scattered with more wedding couples. Them wacky Chinese even created a whole photo-park with different European style houses, American cars and a Dutch windmill… We couldn’t help but laugh to see a Dutch windmill after traversing two continents, but at least we got a good photo out of it!

While Linda was plucking away at her ukulele on the beach and yet another Chinese guy was taking photos and videos of her, she came up with a good theme for a song: the uncontrollable urge of the Chinese to take selfies. We got the lyrics together pretty quickly and thus our first song was born: Chinese Friends, or as we called it: the WeChat song. WeChat is a Chinese messenger app that everyone in China uses. We made many WeChat “friends” due to people coming up to us and asking for a photo and our WeChat contact.

Upon returning to Qingdao, we were already having lots of fun discussing ideas with our Couchsurfing host Mia to shoot a video for our song. Eventually we decided that it would be most fun to take actual scenes by simply playing the song in the streets and improvising the rest. You can see the result in our film section.

We had an amazing time with Mia, from our improvised beach party to a night of “Berlin Calling” clubbing in an underground Qingdao parking garage with a German DJ. Between the Berlin techno, the Dutch windmill and the Dutch “stamppot” food we ate with chopsticks (which works surprisingly well) with our other Couchsurfing host Dai, we felt like we had experienced enough “foreign culture” in a far away land and decided it was the right time to turn west and make our way back home.

But first we had to get hold of our passports. We didn’t dare calling the Pakistan embassy again, but we finally got word from the shipping company that our passports would arrive, so we made our way to Sisi in Jiaozhou. She was already waiting for us with her friend Huiwen and insisted on taking us out for lunch. While our table got filled with the most delicious foods, exactly as it did a few weeks before with Sisi’s brother Fan (Sisi hinted that her brother had slipped her some money to take us out for a fancy meal) the courier called: he was outside. Sisi ran out to meet him and brought us the package. With some slight anxiousness we opened the envelope to find our passports ánd our Pakistan visa inside! It made our food taste even better and after we couldn’t stuff any more into our stomachs, it was time to head out. But not before we did some grocery shopping, as it would be a long journey hitchhiking to Xi’an. Sisi and her friend took control of our shopping cart and even went so far to insist on paying for our groceries. We had seen it coming and quickly handed the cashier our cash, but Sisi threatened the cashier in Chinese to not take it and handed her credit card instead. We jumped high and low, but couldn’t do anything but accept the kind offer. The Chinese take their hospitality serious! They hopped in the bus with us to make sure we would find our way to the right stop near the highway, which is where we said our goodbyes. Now we were finally back on our way back home…

Playing time crisis 5 with Dan
Playing time crisis 5 with Dan
Sunset over Beijing from Dan's balcony
Sunset over Beijing from Dan’s balcony
Graveyard on the way to Qingdao
On the way to Qingdao: only the next morning did we realise we had pitched our tent near a graveyard
Arrived in Qingdao with Chenchan
Arrived in Qingdao with Chenchan
Picture of someone taking the picture
Picture of someone taking the picture in Laoshan: Moment of inspiration for the WeChat song
From Atlantic to Pacific: our furthest point away from home
From Atlantic to Pacific: our furthest point away from home
Eating chopstick stamppot with Dai
Eating chopstick Stampot with Dai
Wedding photography Qingdao church
Wedding photography Qingdao church
Jeroen under the sky in the wedding photo mall
Jeroen under the sky in the wedding photo mall
People collecting something from the stones in Qingdao
People collecting something from the stones in Qingdao
Man floating Qingdao
Man floating Qingdao
Trying Mia's beauty masks
Trying Mia’s beauty masks
Lunch with Sisi and Huiwen
Lunch with Sisi and Huiwen

The Great Wall of China

Beijing, September 2016

As a tourist, the name fits. The Great Wall of China is a great place to visit. As a worker, maybe not so much, we witnessed how they are renovating parts of the wall and it’s been done in exactly the same way they built the wall centuries ago: through hard manual labor.

With the help of Dan (we met him in Beijing through BeWelcome) we found our way to a remote little village called Xi Zha Zi. It was already getting late, so we decided to get some food in what seemed to be the only restaurant in town and pitched our tent on a small hill on the edge of town. The next morning we were ready for our first hike: to Nine Eyes Tower. The experienced survival cracks that we are, we of course got hopelessly lost on the way and never made it to the tower. However, we did make it through some thick bushes on a long and steep climb all the way up to the wall, to a point that was marked on the map in our guidebook: “impossible detour”. Not the best start, but the view from the wall was absolutely stunning. What’s more, this section of the wall was completely untouched and although partly in ruins, looked still exactly the way it did when it was built. Our way to Nine Eyes Tower was blocked by a 50 meter vertical drop, so we decided to take our chances in the opposite direction towards “Beijing Knot” where a different part of the wall would intersect. It was a wonderful experience to walk across this ancient structure, fighting our way through what felt like a jungle of trees and thick thorny bushes that over the years had grown out of the bricks and stones, while having the most breathtaking views of the wall meandering over the ridge of the mountains, cutting off one valley from the next. 

We had read that Beijing Knot was an easy cross, but as we were climbing steeper and steeper on the crumbling remains of what once were stairs, we started to get more and more nervous. Linda (the more sensible of us two) was already arguing to turn around, while Jeroen (the not so sensible one) stubbornly pushed forward. After we cleared a few rather dangerous stretches of very steep climbing, we reached a near vertical climb on what was the last 20 meter to the top of Beijing Knot. It felt ridiculous to give up after having come so far, but nowhere near as ridiculous as trying to go up this section without any climbing gear. With sweaty palms, racing heart beats and the wind gusting around our heads, we did the only sensible thing: to climb our way all the way back down. 

This time we found an actual path leading back to the village, where we hungrily sat down in the only restaurant in town and enjoyed a well deserved beer. Although it was difficult to ease our nerves, because a little ~4 year old boy with a Micky Mouse backpack was racing around the room with his toy car and the devil in his eyes, screaming and shouting like a pig in distress while frantically waving his toy-gun, filling us up with imaginary lead. When he finally calmed down a bit and stopped trying to kill us, he put his car to a screeching halt in front of Linda’s feet, opened his Mickey Mouse backpack and took out two more guns, one for Linda and another one for himself. It actually was a toy helicopter, but he seemed to be able to shoot with it just fine. When he couldn’t persuade Linda to follow him to (what we later learned was) his auntie, he transformed into his demon-self again, started wrestling Linda and turning over backwards, trying to kill her off with his pistol.

After these two near-death experiences, we decided to take it somewhat easier the next day. We had only packed for 2 days, but we were so flashed by the beauty of the wall and the surrounding area that we decided to stay a bit longer. So we took our tent and went hiking with all our equipment, back up the same path towards Nine Eyes Tower. We were already walking in yet another wrong direction, when we met a Chinese tourist with a personal guide. We non-verbally tried to ask for the way to “nine fingers and hand gestures to imitate the silhouette of a tower”, to which she showed us a picture on her phone of what we were trying to mimic, success! It turned out they were heading the same way, so this time around we actually made it all the way up to the tower. It was not as awe-inspiring as the day before, because the tower and top part of the wall are completely renovated. So after a quick look we hopped over the wall on the other side to go down a valley further. After a long descend we walked into a small village where we found elderly men breaking open the concrete road with sledge hammers and pick axes in the scorching sun to try and plant some trees. Probably to please the tourists, as the village seemed to be more of a touristic destination for visitors of the wall. We found a nice little guesthouse where we managed to order some vegetarian food by pointing at various vegetables in their kitchen and as soon as it got dark, we pitched our tent just outside of town. 

The next morning we climbed our way up to the wall again and in good tradition, we got hopelessly lost once more, so we asked some locals working on one of the lower level terraces for directions. By this time we had learnt a few things about the way the Chinese communicate. First, they’ll start talking to you in Chinese and when you shake “no” and reply with “only English”, they’ll continue to talk in Chinese, sometimes a bit louder, magically expecting you to suddenly understand. Once they realize you really don’t understand Chinese, this usually takes a while, they’ll proceed to write Chinese characters on their hand or in the sand. So we thought we were smart by pointing at the wall up above and giving them two options: left or right. Typically, when they know the answer to your question, you’ll get a swift reply. When they don’t, they’ll never admit it. They’ll look at you stunned, frightened and helpless all at the same time and will hesitantly give you a random answer. If applicable, they’ll simply say yes. So when one of them looked at us with big eyes and hesitantly pointed to the right, we knew we were in trouble. By now one of the other guys started pointing to the right as well, and without much of a better plan, we simply started walking in that direction. It didn’t take long for us to reach thick bushes on steep climbs again, with no clear path in sight. We decided to keep on ploughing through and after wrestling our way up for a good hour, we made it to a path up! 

Breathing heavily, with sweat dripping from our foreheads and our arms scratched from the branches, we laughingly looked in disbelief at a family strolling by comfortably, with a few kids hopping and skipping their way past us. We missed the easy stairs up, but at least we were back on track again!

A Brit and his girlfriend with a personal guide on their way down told us about a good spot to camp on the wall, so that’s where we headed next. After about two hours of climbing and trekking through bushes across the half-intact wall we reached the camping spot, a largish half-broken tower-structure near the end of a stretch of wall going down into a valley. In our guide-book we read that there would be a hotel down the valley where we might be able to get food and water. So we left our backpacks in the tower and after a good hour of walking down we were happy to see that there was indeed a restaurant. We devoured an incredible noodle soup and with a lunch package for the next day, a lot of water and a couple of beers, we hastily made our way up again, as big clouds were starting to form above our heads. We walked up quicker than we walked down and made it back to the tower before the rain started, although we were now dripping with sweat. With no other tourists in sight, it made for a perfect occasion to strip down and wash right on top of the watch tower. Probably one of the most memorable showers we’ve ever had, which was followed by an incredible show of thunderbolts lighting up the pitch black sky. Luckily we had no problems staying dry inside the tower. 

We continued our journey the next day, back towards Xi Zha Zi over Beijing Knot. On Beijing Knot we looked down at the dazzlingly steep section we decided not to climb the first day, which reassured us once more we had made the right decision. As we continued our way down we hit another impossible climb, but there seemed to be a way around it, by going off the wall. We ended up sliding down and climbing up steep slopes, while performing jungle moves jumping from one tree to another, with some intense bouldering up a steep rocky cliff. Needless to say, Linda wasn’t liking it. Luckiky Jeroen’s stubbornness to push through paid off this time and we made it back up to the wall from where we had an easy descend back into the Xi Zha Zi valley. 

Here we met Jerry, an older business man from the USA and a Chinese girl, who was his girlfriend or wife, depending on who you’d ask. Jerry’s favorite topic was discussing the good value of international 5 star hotels, to which we had a hard time relating, sitting there in the same not so fresh outfit we had been wearing for the past 5 days. We had a nice evening together though and he and his wife/girlfriend gave us some helpful advice on how to find our way down to Mutianyu.

As a first, we found our way without getting lost and enjoyed the comfort of an easier stretch of wall. The further we went to Mutianyu, the more tourists we encountered, until we reached a sign that read: “Dangerous, do not proceed further”. By crossing the sign we made it to Mutianyu, a section of the wall that is completely renovated and flooded with tourists. We felt like cave men stepping into the civilized world in our very dirty clothes. We had big eyes staring at us and heard people whisper: “did they just come from the other side?”. Others would point at a branch Jeroen was using as a walking stick, while whispering “look at how big his stick is”. Our plan was to go down into “Intelligence Valley” in the Shentangyu national park for some swimming and relaxing. But we guess we were a little star struck from all the sudden attention, because as we tried to escape the selfies with the Chinese tourists, we promptly ran our way down the wrong side of the mountain. 

Unfortunately for us, we didn’t realise our mistake until we got all the way down. After slapping our foreheads for a while, we decided to accept our losses and walk all the way back up the long trail to the top, only to be stopped by the local park patrol who wanted to see our entry tickets for the wall. It felt weird to have to pay money to go back up to the tourists on the renovated piece of wall, just to be able to walk down the other side. So we didn’t. But as we walked further down, the whole experience felt too anti-climaxing. So we hopped into a taxi who drove us around the mountain to Shentangyu. By now, it was already getting dark and we weren’t allowed into the national park. So without much of a better plan we pitched our tent on the parking lot, where we woke up the next morning to one of the park rangers practicing some Tai Chi. The park was a weird mix between nature and holiday resort, but we found what we were looking for: a quiet spot along the river. So we stripped down and jumped in, a liberating feeling after a week of hiking in the hot sun. We took the opportunity to wash our clothes and as we lay down in the sun with our clothes hanging out to dry in the trees, we felt like we could look back on a Great Wall experience. 

Chinese wall
Linda climbing


Jeroen climbing


Jeroen eating peanutbutter toast
Jeroen on the wall
Morning excercise
Mules carrying stones up the wall
Spider killing fly
Red ribbon


Green caterpillar

Foreign Encounters

Beijing, September 2016

We arrived in Beijing with no place to sleep and it was already pretty late, so we decided to try our luck with a downtown hostel. When we were organizing our Chinese visa application in Ulaanbaatar, we had made a 2 month long fake itinerary with copies from hotel reservations across China, as well as fake plane tickets in and out of Beijing. The Chinese government is a little anal about controlling incoming foreigners, but in this case it could actually help us find a place to sleep. Of course we had already long canceled our reservations, but at least we had an address. Unfortunately, the place was packed and every other hostel or hotel we could find was fully booked. Eventually we managed to make an online reservation for a nearby hotel, but the address turned out wrong. Figuring we wouldn’t be able to pitch our tent on Tiananmen Square, we kept looking and after a lot of walking and asking we were lucky enough to find the hotel. By then we were pretty much exhausted and not too pleased to hear them say: “we’re sorry, we do not have a reservation in your name”. We kept our cool and after some pressing and a quick phone call with the chef, it all turned out fine. Tired, but relieved, we jumped into bed well after midnight.

The next morning we ran into a somewhat odd and colorful character in the hotel lobby. He introduced himself as Captain China and appeared to be a man of many talents, or so he claimed. He was a tourist travel agent specialist as well as a standup comedian. He immediately combined both talents when he uttered the phrase: “ah, you’re from Holland (Jeroen) and you’re from Germany (Linda)? Yeah, I’ve visited both countries many times, I rééaaally like Holland…” while silently smirking at Linda. It probably was one of his better jokes, as it went quickly downhill from there, but in between the humor we had a nice conversation in a little cafe across the street. To our surprise they didn’t serve tea, but they did have a selection of homebrew IPA beer. It felt a little early at 10:00 am in the morning, but that didn’t seem to bother the Captain. When we tried to steer the conversation towards some more politically sensitive topics relating to freedom of speech, religion, movement and assembly, we got a frank answer: “I might not like it, but what can I do about it?”. It probably sums it up quite nicely. The government is very suppressive and intolerant to any regime criticism, so you don’t want to stick your head out too much. Many people we met in China had a similar response. They would shrug and point out that China is still a developing country. They probably didn’t reveal the back of their tongues to us, but their reactions were are a lot more satisfying than what we call the “Russian Reflex”, which is to ignore any politically loaded question and to simply start talking about a whole new topic.

We said our goodbyes to Captain China, but not before we became WeChat friends, the Chinese version of a Facebook type messenger app (Facebook is blocked in China, as well as Google and many other services). From there we were on our own to explore the city of Beijing. Not an easy feat to accomplish, but the Captain recommended us to visit the Temple of Heaven, so that’s where we went.

First something to eat though. The strange thing in China is, that your mind plays tricks on you. Every shop has a name sign in Chinese, so it feels like every shop is a Chinese restaurant, because of course that’s how it’s like back home. Luckily for us, in Beijing it’s not even that far from the truth, there’s food everywhere. One of our favorite street foods was melon on a stick, which is exactly what it sounds like. Kind of like the healthy and delicious alternative to ice cream!

As we were biting away at our melon in the Temple of Heaven park, we were sending messages back and forth with our second WeChat friend: Sabine, a German girl living in Beijing and working as a German teacher. We got in contact through Couchsurfing and she kindly took the time to show us around town and gave us her insights on living in China as a foreigner. Strangely enough, none of the foreigners we met in China seemed to enjoy the country so much to consider building their lives there.

It’s different for the Chinese themselves of course. One of which we met is Owen, a journalist working for the New York Times. He wouldn’t tell that to anyone in China though, because the New York Times is blocked in China. No enviable lifestyle, living a double life, without earning much of a wage. So by the time he would reach his thirties he would ditch his ideals, quit journalism and find a decent paying job. In all the criticism he has on the current political situation and all the criticism he can’t even voice (he wouldn’t discuss what he called the three T’s: Tiananmen square, Taiwan and Tibet), he was also agonizing whether he wasn’t ignoring all the positive developments that are going on in China. There are of course many, the economic growth and increase in wealth of the middle class in China over the past 30 years is unparalleled, and it is one of the reasons why most Chinese are happy with the political status quo and not willing to demand more personal rights. We can only assume it must feel like a double-edged sword for many.

By this time, Mike had sent us a message on Couchsurfing that he would be able to host us. Like Owen, Mike is working in journalism. Where the Chinese Owen is working for an American paper, the American Mike is working for the (English language state-run) Chinese paper: China Daily. Self-censorship is a daily routine, but that’s how the media in China works. Mike showed us around town and allowed us to use his place to organize our visa for Pakistan, for which we had to send our passports to the Pakistan embassy in Berlin. Not the most reassuring country to be without passport, but there is no other way to get the visa and there is currently no other land route from China to India. Through Tibet would be an option, but the government doesn’t allow foreigners to enter Tibet without a permit and a personal guide, unfortunately too costly for us. Mike would soon leave China after having lived in Beijing for two years, just like a Brazilian colleague of his. His colleague organized a farewell party with a bunch of Brazilian diplomat friends, who all told us they couldn’t see themselves staying in China either.

Dan and Katie, a couple and two more American expats, shared similar thoughts. We met them through BeWelcome, a non-profit platform that resembles Couchsurfing. They gave us a little book: “Hiking around Beijing” as well as some great advice on where we could go to explore the Great Wall of China. We planned to be gone for two days, but we ended up staying out for a whole week…

Jeroen eating ice cream
Inside the Hutong
The lakes
Laundry and chaos
Lotus in Beihai park
Mao in front of forbidden city
Overcrowded forbidden city
Shopping street in the rain
Child in front of temple of heaven

Chinese saying goes, eat will not homesick

Beijing, August 2016

China took us by surprise in many ways. Perhaps we were simply living under a rock, but we were amazed about the development of the infrastructure, the modernity of the cities and the apparent wealth of the middle class. The first city we visited was Ehrengot, just across the Mongolian border and we literally couldn’t believe our eyes. The city looked so much cleaner and greener (there were watering systems everywhere) than anything we had seen in Mongolia (or Russia for that matter), with new and shiny buildings, broad roads, new asphalt and nothing but new cars or funny looking electro-scooters. It felt like a fake front, a polished city to impress foreigners crossing in- and out of Mongolia, the contrast with Zamiin-Uud was simply thát big. As it turned out, every city we visited in China was pretty much the same.

We were also amazed at how amazed the Chinese were to see us. In China, wé are the tourist attraction. Most are a little shy about it, and don’t dare to ask, but some will immediately pull out their smartphone to take a picture with us. The ones that don’t dare to ask will simply wait their chance until we’re looking away and then quickly snap a picture. It only took about 10 minutes in Ehrengot before the first Chinese came up to us, and then the second, and then we made a quick run for it to prevent a line from forming.

Though Ehrengot was just a place in between for us. We bought a sim card and a road map for China and then we were off again. The next city on our list was a big one, with a population of close to 22 million, more than the entire country of the Netherlands: Beijing. We were a little uncertain whether the Chinese are familiar with the concept of hitchhiking. From what we had heard and read, most aren’t. And it makes sense, China’s rapid economic development is still so recent, that there has only recently been a sharp rise in the middle class and their massive use of cars. It’s probably one of the reasons why you hardly see any old cars driving around. Before China changed course to more of a state controlled market economy, after the death of Mao in ’78, there weren’t even any highways. Today you’ll find 2×2 to 2×5 driving lanes in each city and perfect highways in between. We changed our strategy a bit though: instead of the thumb we are waving our arm up and down to suggest a stopping motion. And it works rather well. We managed to get our first ride out of Ehrengot within 10 minutes. After camping out in the steppe for the night, located in the “Inner Mongolia” province of China (which looks an awful lot like Mongolia), it didn’t take long for the first car to stop the following morning. We guess the mother and daughter in the car weren’t exactly sure how to interpret our waving and stopping gestures, as they only stopped about a 100 meter behind us. We hadn’t even noticed them at first, as they were already trying to back up. We explicitly use the word “trying” here. They were swirling their shiny Mercedes coupe left and right, stopping, then moving backwards again, breaking and turning, until they simply gave up, with their car parked diagonally on the right hand side of the road. We couldn’t help but laugh as we ran towards them with our backpacks. After a short and seemingly unsuccessful round of sharades we showed them a little note which explains our intentions. A friendly Chinese guy whom we met in Ulaanbaatar wrote it for us. That did the trick and after a short ride to the next biggest city, they went out of their way to drop us off at a good spot to continue our journey. We jumped a fence to climb up to the highway where Jeroen started to write his first Chinese: 北京, which translates into Beijing. Before we even had our sign ready, a Porsche Cayenne stopped. Again around 100 meter behind us and again in a situation where we weren’t sure whether our driver knew exactly what we were up to. Our little note proved to be worth its weight in gold and when our driver “Fan” explained he was heading to Beijing, we knew we had just hit our jackpot. As we were comfortably cruising the 600km to China’s capital city, we used a translator app on Fan’s phone to communicate. With mixed success. Sometimes we would burst out in laughter due to an obvious translation error, but it worked well enough to understand the gist of it. As soon as we tried to move the conversation to more political themes, Fan implied he’d rather not talk about it. Maybe because of the language barrier, maybe because of the big brother barrier, probably a bit of both. So Fan steered the conversation to a less sensitive topic: whether we would want to join him for lunch and what type of food we would like to eat. We of course excitingly replied we would love to have Chinese food, which presented us with our first little Shakespearean dilemma: “to slurp or not to slurp”. We solved it by giving a lot of compliments about the food, which really wasn’t that difficult. It would be yet another surprising thing we discovered about China: the food. For Jeroen, who only knew the fast-food-Holland-adapted-Chinese-cuisine, it was mostly a matter of incomprehensible, yet pleasant, disbelief. How could the Chinese possibly botch such delicious dishes to try and please their customers in the Netherlands…? Though maybe it says more about the palette of the Dutch as they’re not exactly known for their haute cuisine themselves. The variety of noodles, spices, sauces and vegetables, as well as the relative cost of the food, made us feel like a kid in a candy store whenever it would get close to dinner time.

But as soon as we had solved one dilemma, the next presented itself: what to do with a sniffy nose? The Chinese seemed to prefer to get rid of any excessive slime by taking a deep breath, followed by a preferably loud bear-like rumble of the throat (which served as a fair warning on the street to anyone coming from behind) to scrape clean the deepest inner workings of their body, which would then be forcefully flung with a no-look-spat to their either left or right hand side. Tissues, on the other hand, seemed to be only used to wipe off any leftover pieces of food, that got displaced across the face from their slurping and loud open mouth chewing. And the Chinese like to spice their foods, which doesn’t exactly help with a runny nose. In the end we just pretended to wipe our mouthes, when we were really wiping our noses.

As we continued our journey to Beijing, we continued to chat away on Fan’s translator app, which produced the following little golden nugget: “Dumplings are Chinese people will eat and eat dumplings is not this season then in the evening I take you to eat it leek dumplings you eat it”. Fan was taking the concept of hospitality to another level and invited us to dinner in Beijing. He might have ordered every vegetarian item on the menu, as the table was covered with the most delicious varieties of Chinese food. Fan probably noticed the smiles on our faces and as we tried to express our gratitude, he replied on his phone with: “Chinese saying goes, eat will not homesick”. For our time in China, it turned out to be definitely true.

Chinese saying
Chinese saying
First impression China - Ehrengot
First impression China – Ehrengot
Hitchhiking in CHina's Inner Mongolia
Hitchhiking in China’s Inner Mongolia
Camping in the steppes of China
Camping in the steppes of China
Sunset Inner Mongolia
Sunset Inner Mongolia
Fan and his Porsche
Fan and his Porsche

How we left Russia and started drinking Vodka

Zamiin-Uud Mongolia, August 2016

To our delight, we dodged all vodka bullets in the 2 months we traveled through Russia. Our superpowers weren’t as strong in its surrounding countries though, and just before we left Mongolia our vodka shield got shot to pieces…

It happened on our way south, from Ulaanbaator to a Buddhist temple near Sainshand in the eastern part of the Gobi desert, close to the Chinese border. It didn’t take long for the first car to stop in Ulaanbaator…. and then the second…. and then a third. All taxis, all not what we were after. We failed miserably in explaining our intentions to the three taxi drivers and when we finally gave up and walked off to find a bus to take us out of town, taxi driver no. 1 didn’t take no for an answer. He went in slow-speed pursuit. Shaking him off on a straight road into the desert with our backpacks stuffed with food and water turned out to be about as difficult as expected. The taxi driver kept tailing us and instructing us to wait. He got a friend on the phone, to whom we could finally explain we really weren’t looking for a taxi. To our surprise the friend told us that we could simply hop in, at no charge… We did not see that one coming and after scratching our heads for a second and assuring ourselves we heard it right, we happily obliged.

Our driver proceeded to call all of his English speaking friends, including the ones that didn’t speak any English, while handing us the phone. Most of the time his friends had no idea who we were or what was going on, which made for interesting conversations. Our driver kept pulling up at various places, to get gas, to buy cigarettes, to get gum, to drop off something, and even there, a random person would turn up with a phone and an English speaking friend. It was all a little surreal, but with good intentions and before letting us go, our driver even wrote us a note in Mongolian that explained our way of traveling. We could immediately put it to use when an older Mongolian man friendly nodded us in after reading the note, he took us further south to where he left the road to his ger. At this point we decided to take a small lunch break, which was abruptly ended by Kurdle who brought his truck to our screeching halt: whether we might be in need of a ride? We looked rather dumbfounded at each other, hitchhiking in Mongolia started to feel like cheating. Shouldn’t there be some waiting and waving involved?

We laughingly packed our stuff and climbed into the cabin of the truck and while Linda got comfortable on the bed in the back (taking a rest from the strenuous waiting and waving), Kurdle happily chatted away in a mix of Russian, Mongolian, English and sign language. Kurdle was an apt communicator and pointed out an awful lot of Russian aerial bases, which we suspect to be an old defense line against China. When we stopped at a ger along the way with a big “airag” sign outside, we knew we would be in for another treat. With the lingering aftertaste of the fermented horse milk carved in our membrane we kindly refused. To our pleasant surprise it hat its desired effect, we got off with only a single small courtesy sip. Kurdle did insist on having a parting meal together in his truck, which we happily accepted. We shared all kinds of bread rolls, snacks and sweets before Kurdle broke out the vodka, 5 liters of it. Linda poured a hefty glass to Kurdles instructions and after we both took a compulsory sip, Kurdle threw back the entire thing. We took comfort in the fact that Kurdle was only a short dirt road ride away from home and after a small photo shoot with the three of us inside the truck, next to the truck and in front of the truck, we said our goodbyes. Kurdle let us know he would check our blog as soon as it was winter. Then he would be in Ulaanbaator, where he would have internet.

Halfway to Sainshand we camped out in the steppe with an amazing view of a full-moon-rise and woke up with a herd of horses on our way back to the road. We didn’t have to wait long for the friendliest Mongolian couple to pick us up. The car seemed completely packed, but the back seats were quickly cleared to make room for us and our backpacks. We were brought straight to the city centre of Sainshand and stopped only once: to walk three circles around a stone Buddhist structure. Apparently to guarantee the safety of our journey. We walked along, yet “naively” buckled up later anyway.

From Sainshand we got picked up by another friendly older Mongolian, who drove us out to his family in the desert to collect what we can only guess was horse milk. He floored his transporter van across the not so even desert plains, and as we were sent flying up and down in our seats, Linda laughingly referred to our driver as “Schumacher”, which he took with a smile and an encouragement to drop us off with lightning speed at the Buddhist temple Khamaryn Khiid in the Gobi desert. Here we decided to take a breather and a peanut butter sandwich, while staring in awe at the near by camels, face to face “in the wild” for the first time. A few Mongolian kids were staring at us in a similar way, when all of a sudden a joyful Spaniard came racing by on his bike. Javi had been lovingly taken in by the Mongolian family that was running a tourist ger camp next to the temple and shared much of his time and energy with us, as well as some of the breathtaking views of the desert sunset. Javi had biked through the Gobi desert and strongly advised us not to try and hitchhike the same route. There are almost no cars and the cars that do go there would be heading out to a far away ger, not to the next nearest village. We couldn’t boast too much survival experience, so it sounded like solid advice. Although we weren’t fully convinced until that one evening where we couldn’t find our way back to our tent. It was cloudy and raining, and in the pitch dark night we only had the far away lights of the ger camp and our memory to go on. We would hope to catch a glimpse of the hillside when a car in the camp would turn around and its headlights might reveal a hint to the location of our tent. We even tried listening, to maybe hear the rain dropping on the cover of our tent, but of course we only heard the rain coming down on our ponchos. After a good 30 minutes (it felt like an hour and a half) of aimlessly walking around, we started wondering what we would do when the lights in the camp would finally go out. But before we started spooking ourselves too much with possible horror scenarios, Linda miraculously discovered our tent, we were saved!

In the temple we met a young monk who not only answered our many questions about Buddhism, but also explained how even animals would be able to reach nirvana: “when a horse is standing in a meadow with its eyes closed, you don’t know whether its sleeping or meditating”. Hard to argue with that 🙂 The monk that started the temple in the early 19th century was a free spirit as well. His only fault was that he enjoyed his vodka a bit too much, so to this day visitors will grace the temple in his spirit by emptying bottles of vodka on its holy grounds. That they just as easily leave the bottles and any other rubbish behind is one of the weird dual things we experienced in Mongolia, similar to the Jeckel and Hyde style of their driving. You would find them stretched out on a supposedly energizing piece of rock on the grounds of the temple, meditating with some relaxing chanting in the background, while at the same time blasting horribly loud music through their smartphone speakers. We experienced some duality as well. Linda totally felt the vibrating spiritual energy while lying stretched out on the holy rock, while Jeroen wasn’t in touch with his inner chakras as much, as he only sensed the little stones piercing in his back…

On one of our last nights we met a small group of friendly Mongolians who were celebrating that Elka and Jackies daughter had passed her drivers license that day. Their way of celebrating was drinking large amounts of vodka, while kindly pouring us equal amounts. We did our best to decline, but happily accepted their offer to come visit them later in Zamiin-Uud, a Mongolian-Chinese border town. Hitchhiking down there was another journey in itself, with a memorable ride in the backseat of a car that screamed in agony on every small road bump (there were many), due to the weight of 3 people and 2 big backpacks coming down on the completely worn out shock suspensions of the car. We offered to get out and find another car, it really was that bad, but they nonchalantly waved our concerns away. A police officer that stopped us along the way didn’t seem too bothered by the three of us cramped in the back with no seat belts, but did want to check our papers and our bags. We took out the contents of our backpacks while the officer was meticulously studying our passports. He had a rather serious look on his face and we thought there might be some kind of problem. When he discovered our bread knife, he started making stabbing motions with it while looking sternly at us, before bursting out in laughter. The guy was bored and decided to have some fun with the foreigners… we were relieved enough to laugh along 🙂

In Zamiin-Uud we were picked up by Bayra and his cousin Mega. They invited us to a Chinese hotspot restaurant, where we enjoyed some of the best food we had in a long time. We did our best to express our gratitude while navigating the minefield of alcohol on the table. None of the usual tricks seemed to help, not even turning our glass upside down. Linda was let off the hook after three shots, but Jeroen was getting progressively drunk. He decided to pull out the method of last resort: shotting the vodka and spitting it out into an empty soda can. The other guys were drunk enough to not notice and when the third bottle of vodka was empty, our hosts looked drunkingly satisfied. We tried to convince them to allow us to sleep in our tent, but they didn’t want to hear any of it and arranged us a hotel room. We picked up the bill the next morning, to which our hosts angrily demanded our money back from the unsuspecting hotel staff, as the room was an arranged deal with the befriended owner of the place. After our hosts took their morning-after recovery-hit of vodka (we kindly declined) they escorted us across the border in record pace. We felt like secret agents, jumping from one car into the other, hastily saying our goodbyes to Bayra and Elka, being guided through different security checks by an alien woman that kept appearing and disappearing, but was somehow always in complete control and kept popping up every time we thought we got lost. And then, suddenly, we were there, we were in China…

Buddhist road ritual
Bird in Gobi desert near Khamryn Khiid
Camels Gobi desert
Gecko Gobi desert
Jeroen in cave near temple Khamaryn Khiid
Linda on magic rock near temple Khamaryn Khiid
Buddha in Khamaryn Khiid
Camel Gobi desert
Jeroen sunrise Gobi desert
Javi and Jeroen sunset Gobi desert
With Mega, Bayra and his wife in Zami Uud