Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Friday 17th July - Day 3

I was woken up by the phone ringing at about 07:00. It was Serena saying that as the weather was bad that we were going to swap Day 3 of the Chinese programme with Day 5. So today instead of the Forbidden City it would be free time until 13:00 an then off to shop at the silk market. Dan and Rich rang round each room to let the participants know the changes.

We then went to breakfast which was in a different building. It was a buffet and consisted of fried rice, noodles, steamed buns and other things that we didn't know the name of. After breakfast PJ, Dan Rich and myself "The Intrepid 4" waded out to explore Beijing.

It was in the words of Dan "Hooing it down". If the four of us had jumped into the moat surrounding the forbidden city we would have stayed marginally drier. Our water proofs stayed waterproof for about 20 minutes. Dan and Rich bought some rather fetching umbrellas. PJ and I took the mickey out of them for about 5 minutes and then cursed our decision not to buy one.
They may have both looked camp - but they were dry!

We decided that we wanted to go and see the Blue Zoo Aquarium which was to the east of the city. There were no tube stations near our hotel so we ended up walking a few miles until we got to the nearest one getting wetter by the minute. The tube was excellent with a glass wall separating you from the track. Doors in the wall opened when they were in line with the train doors.

We got off at the station nearest the Blue Zoo and then tried to find our way there - it took a while and several stops at maps saying "here you are!" But Dan's homing instincts eventually led us there. We realised that we only had about hour before we had to get back, so Dan went to see how crowded the Aquarium looked. He came back with the suggestion that we forget it and go and find some lunch.

We had passed several restaurants on our way to the Blue Zoo, but the thought of food was forgotten when we saw the gym equipment at the side of the road. Like an adults playground there were lots of different machines for doing press ups/squat thrusts etc.. After playing on there for a while much to the amusement of the locals (apart from the old lady who was hogging the best piece of equipment - You know who you are!) we found a duck restaurant and ordered duck for us all.

This took some time coming and initially we were worried that we had ordered a duck each! Luckily we got a duck between us and it was very tasty. I had what I thought was a wing and started chewing away. I looked up into 3 horrified faces and was told I was chewing half a duck's head - I hadn't realised. Honest!

We realised that we then had 5 minutes to get back to the hotel, which was worrying as it had taken us over an hour to get here. We jumped in a taxi which had cool light strips on the inside of the front windscreen which were activated by sound. The taxi driver had to put up with us trying to make the lights move by being noisy as possible, which is why I think it only took us 5 minutes to get back - he wanted to get us out of the vehicle.

We nonchalantly got out of the taxis and onto the 2 coaches and drove to the Silk Market which was a multistory shoppers paradise - or hell depending on whether you liked shopping. As you walked through the door it just like any indoor market but you then had to run the gauntlet of each stall holder shouting/begging at you to buy something from their stall.
"Hey Sexy man you want to buy some Jeans?" shouted one woman to me. In her defence she was wearing glasses. She just needs to get stronger lenses!

Everyone split up to go and search for their bargains, and we spent several hours haggling and saying "Bu yow" (not want!) very loudly to anyone who approached. I was with Angus, Jordan and Hendo and we ended up buying 2 pairs of shorts that we didn't really want. I was making up excuses "I am very big!", to which she replied" We have fat ones!" - cheers love! I did buy a yellow jade Mala (prayer beads) for Dawn as she was taking refuge in Mongolia.

Eventually some of us left and went for a tour with Tony and Serena who showed us some of the new buildings that had been built for the Olympics. The CCTV building known locally as the "pants" was cool and you could still see the burned out side caused by fire crackers at New year.

We wandered back to the Silk Market and got the coaches to our evening meal which was a Mongolian Hotpot - it actually comes from Taiwan and has nothing to do with Mongolia! - anyway wherever it came from it was great fun. A large circular table with heated sunken bowls that contained a broth, you then were given raw meat, veg and noodles to put in your hotpot to cook. It came with a peanut satay/chili dip which was great. It also came with raw/sweet garlic loves which were very tasty, but the hostess was shocked when I put one in the broth - "no, no ,no!" ,"Relax love. I'm a Scout!

After the hotpot we went back to the hotel and had our temperatures taken again before we went to bed - just in case!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Thursday 16th July - Day 2

I was woken up by a stewardess handing out our "swine flu cards" which asked for your seat number, hotel etc.. so you could be quarantined in case you grew trotters.

We were told that our flight was slightly early and that we were making our descent into Beijing. Outside was foggy and grey. Everyone thought we were in the clouds - until we landed and outside was still foggy and grey - welcome to Beijing!

We arrived about 09:00 local time and after departing the plane, we had to fill in more forms, and then even more forms until we cleared customs, got on a monorail and picked up our bags. Eventually everyone arrived and after after several head counts we were met by our Chinese guides Tony (Ming) and Serena (Chun Li).

Apart from the fact that the sky was grey, the first thing that hit you was the humidity. Luckily the coaches had air conditioning and after a 40 minute journey we were taken to a restaurant for lunch - which oddly enough was Chinese.

The format was one that would be repeated in most of the restaurants we visited in China, (except McDonalds which to be honest is pushing the term restaurant to its limit) a round table seating about 10 people with a "lazy Susan" (circular revolving glass tray) in the middle.

Dishes were brought out and placed on the "lazy Susan" which you then turned/stopped /wrestled with until you had managed to transfer the food from the plate to your bowl with chopsticks. Bottles of traditional "Sprite" and "Coca cola" were given to each table as well as beer and tea.

After filling our faces/fighting with chopsticks, we left the restaurant and travelled to the hotel which was called the Hua Yu hotel. The hotel was to the North East of the Forbidden City in a "hutong" district. Which is another way of saying that "the courtyards hide the secrets of hundreds of years of Imperial Chinese rule and the streets are old" - and are way too narrow to get a coach down, so you are carrying your bags!

As we lugged our kit to the hotel it was obvious that in Summer, Chinese life is lived outside, to the full and at the top of people's voices. The delicious smells of cooking food in the shops either side of the road was tempered by the ever present background stench of latrines which took me a while to get over.

We got to the hotel which was large and proceeded to dump 72 bags in the foyer, much to the joy of the management. As we were allocated rooms - Mr PJ had agreed reluctantly to share a room with me - Serena took back the room card I had been handed and gave me another one instead as I was "Mr Troll". It turned out that our room was bigger than all the rest - although the "jacuzzi rumour" was untrue.

After having a shower PJ, Dan, Richard and Myself decided to go for our own hutong tour. We walked around the back of the hotel and wandered through the hutongs - which are currently like building sites. This is because people thought they were going to be pulled down so didn't do any DIY. Now there has been a reprieve so everyone is getting all the jobs done -at the same time.

Those who know me know I have "a bit" of a gut. As I walked along a Chinese man of similar proportions to myself saw me, stopped, rolled up his t-shirt and proceeded to rub his belly while smiling broadly. I then responded in the same fashion and we went our separate ways - belly Esperanto!

After our expedition we made our way back to the hotel and met up with Dawn, Natalie Cook and a few others. Just as we were getting ready to go out there was a knock at the door. Two women stood there with a thermometer and a notebook to take our temperatures - we both passed and as we had no trotters they left us alone. We decided to wander around and find somewhere to eat. In the Summer all the old people are out in the parks doing line dancing/tai chi, which was fun to watch.

We found a brilliant restaurant and ate a meal which had about 10 courses. At this point I decided that Tofu was invented by the Chinese to punish vegetarians - foul stuff.

After that we wanted to find Tienanmen square. I was convinced it was in one direction and when a local said it was in the opposite direction, I was saying "I think she's mistaken!" Everyone just looked on in disbelief - " Troll she's a bloody local!" I conceded the point and we made our way back to our hotel, where we went back to our rooms and crashed out.

Wednesday 15th July - Day 1

I woke up around 06:30 and went with Dawn and Lyndsey to Sainsburys to get some last minute things. We then packed up our kit and were dropped of at Terminal 5 at around 12:00.

A few people were already there, and as we had e-tickets we checked ourselves in using touch screen terminals. Mr Kiy showed me the procedure and was rattling through the screens at some speed. When it got to the question "Could anyone have placed anything into your bag without you knowing about it?", he inadvertently pressed "YES" - much to my joy.
I then had to find someone and explain that there had been an input error.

Anyway everyone arrived. I handed out language cards in Mongolian and Chinese and we went through customs, without much hassle and boarded or flight at 16:40.

There was a huge choice of films to watch (after the stewardess had got the helpdesk to reboot the entertainment system) and my plans of going to sleep went out of the window as I watched the films I had meant to see at the Cinema - Monsters V Aliens (best quote - " I'm so proud I could cry. But I lost my tear ducts during the war), Watchmen and Batman. I eventually did doze off and fell into dreamless sleep.

Tuesday 14th July - The day before

OK. Everything was packed in my cool (yet cumbersome) expedition bag. Well everything of mine was packed. All the presents for my family in Mongolia (baby clothes, 2 handbags, rattles, 10 boxes of Roses Chocolates, etc..) were not.

It was 16:00 and I had a train to catch from Manchester to London at 19:30. Munkhjargal (my wife) was sure that we had more baggage allowance that could be used to pack even more gifts. So we went to check on the scales - or where the scales would have been if we still had them.

Undeterred we got all my kit (plus the bag of extra gifts) and jumped in a taxi to Tesco to buy a new pair of scales. Tesco did not have any in stock. The time was now 18:15 and I wasn't starting to panic at all. Honest!

I had the idea of using the scales that sit in between the in store ladies and gents toilets. We went to the scales, but it was one of those fancy ones that measure your height and body fat. I had to trick the scales by placing my hand above the bag to show the height. We got the correct weight but the scales kept shouting "incorrect data, incorrect data" as it must have thought it was dealing with a very fat midget!

We then caught a tram to Manchester and had a spot of low fat KFC for tea at Piccadilly train station. I said a fond farewell to Munkhjargal and boarded my train to London. I spent most of the journey reading and arrived in Euston station at 21:00.

I was spending the night at Dawn's parent's house and they lived close to Heathrow Airport. I then got on the black line and the maroon line until I reached my destination at Hillingdon. Mum of Dawn, and Dawn picked me up at the station and took back to their house. Lyndsey Ross was also staying over and we packed neckerchiefs and created t-shirts for Dawn's Aravt before going to bed.

The beginning...

Well obviously not the beginning, but the beginning of my tale.
The tale itself is long and arduous, and although not fraught with danger, there may be a few posts where you will have to close your eyes, lest the very words on the screen imperil your soul! (or at a push give you a nasty migraine)

Back in the mists of time (2007 to be precise) after the 21st World Jamboree and the Mafikeng Centenary Moot I came up with a cunning plan.

The plan was to organise an expedition to Mongolia and China, via Russia. I have family in Mongolia and friends in the Mongolian Scouts and knew that I could put something together to show people what I loved about Mongolia. I spoke to some friends from previous expeditions and put together a team to help me realise my plan.

During the course of the 2 years the team itself changed (as teams sometimes do) and even though people had to leave for various reasons their input and commitment was invaluable and I thank them for it. Without their help the expedition would not have happened.

The Expedition itself changed. Due to price increases in Russia, a 2 day stopover in Moscow was no longer feasible. Alternatives were Seoul in South Korea or Irkutsk in the Russian Buryat Republic north of Mongolia. Once again our plans were thwarted as Seoul went above budget.

Visiting Irkutsk meant 5 days on a train; so the participants were given the choice of 3 Nations or more time in 2 Nations. The 2 Nations option won the day and we were too far down the road to change the name, so the UK became the 3rd Nation. Not ideal but there were no other choices.

The Mongolian/Chinese program changed several times testing the team to the limit. In one instance we had 6 hours to make a decision on booking flights for 72 people, which meant changing 2 other flights. Again a credit to the team who pulled it off with nothing more than a few grey hairs to show for it.

The beginning of July came around faster than we would have liked (flights - sorted, visas - nearly sorted) and people were on facebook going "Only 14 days to go!!" and we were thinking "We Know! Stop reminding us!"

Things started to finally fall into place like a huge puzzle (created by Sadists for Masochists). I had the four corners and most of the edges but could I find that bit of sky - no!
A week beforehand and everything was running smoothly. We were all waiting for the other shoe to drop - but luckily some one had pinched it.

Now sit back and let the journey begin...