Monthly Archives: December 2011

So This Is Christmas

“A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.”  -Lawrence Durrell

However, when you have a big family and lots of amazing friends all over the world, one city doesn’t cut it…

I MISS MY FAMILY AND FRIENDS SO MUCH!  I try to justify my present lifestyle and think that there isn’t one single place where all these wonderful people live.  So what am I supposed to do?  Well, there is Christmas.  One of the times where a majority of these people are found in one place.  So, why am I spending Christmas away?  I have no idea.  There has to be a reason for it.  I just know it!

Who am I kidding?  The Great Wall could never compare to my crazy family parties and reunions at The Libertine with old friends.  Food, dancing, singing, and St. Louis snow (the only other place besides the farm I would see snow at Christmas.)

This year, my Christmas Eve consisted of bad Chinese food (yes, even in CHINA), a Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie (my least favorite), and a cold from the horrific pollution that consumes this country.

Woah.  Am I complaining?  Maybe just a little bit but soon after the embarrassment of fretting do I realize how lucky I really am.

Christmas at the Intercontinental in Suzhou, China…not too bad.  And yes, that is a bathtub in the background.

Ok, in all seriousness…

This time of year reminds me to celebrate all the amazing people in my life and all the love I have found in this world.  My good friend Joy says that all of our relationships are sacred contracts in our lifetime.  We are all here to share something with one another.

Even though I miss my family and friends (A LOT), at least I have my travel companion to share this Christmas with.  This companion is one contract I know I will never lose because when you share new experiences, especially in the form of travel, you cannot help but grow simultaneously.  Maybe not in the same way or direction but some kind of growth is inevitable and that makes the memories stronger.

So this Christmas, I think about my family and my friends in all of their places all over the world and am grateful for having memories of the wonderful times spent together.  I know there are more times to come and more memories to be made.

Even though I long to be with my amazing family, Durrell’s quote did remind me that there is love to be found all over the world.  I have been so lucky to have seen it in every place I’ve been.  An incredible example of this is my cousin Zoe who is from this country.  She has brought so much love and light into my family and she was born thousands of miles from where she lives now!

Well, it’s 5am here and I am exhausted.  After our truly bad Christmas Eve dinner and during Die Another Day, fireworks went off right outside the window.  The fireworks and an ice cream shop we found made up for everything…It really is all about the simple things.

Have an amazing Christmas and be grateful if you are lucky enough to spend it with your family and friends.  I am excited to skype with my family in the next few hours.  Thank God for skype!


Filed under China

Laughing at Absurdity

Now that I have the time to reflect do I finally feel comfortable telling the story.  So many things have happened since St. Petersburg and I have decided that telling the story chronologically would not give the same effect as if I went ahead and focused on recent events.  Wonderful stories, people, and events will come from the Trans-Siberian and Mongolia I promise.

Right now we are sitting in an amazing restaurant in Erenhot, China.  We left Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Sunday on the train.  We bought our tickets a day in advance and even then they had sold out of platskart beds.  So sadly, we had to get a hard seat ticket for the train.

The train from Ulaanbaatar to Zamiin Ude (the border town of Mongolia and China) leaves at 4:30pm everyday and arrives at 7am.  Ticket cost for a hard seat (not recommended – it is very uncomfortable for a 15 hour train ride) is 10,400 Mongolian Tugriks = 8 USD.   If you can get a sleeper, it is worth the little bit extra – 16,400 MT (13 USD.) 

Once we stepped off the train we were instantly approached by a man asking,

“China? China?”

He gave us the price for two people; 22,200 MT.  He led us to another man who motioned us to follow him to his jeep.

The jeep was definitely known to us.  We had taken one from a town called Olgi in Western Mongolia 7 hours southeast to Khovd, Mongolia.  On that trip, I had to sit on Todd’s lap for the entire 7 hour journey.  If there could be a national Mongolian thought it would be something like, fit everyone and everything you possibly can in the car.  On this trip from Olgi there were six of us in the back of the old Soviet jeep and four, including the driver and a 1 year old baby, in the front.  An elderly woman in the front seat held the baby for its mother who sat in the back seat.  Let me make it clear that this vehicle should normally only fit 5 maybe 4 comfortably and we were 11.  During the 7 hour drive the doors on our side would sporadically and spontaneously open.  The driver tried to adjust the latch that was not locking by hitting it a few times with a rock…this helped for about an hour.  Each moment Todd or I would finally doze off, the door would suddenly fly open letting in the bitter chill from the Mongolian night.  I counted about 12 times that our door opened.  I would say, with confidence, the front passenger door where the woman and baby sat opened about 18 times.

So from this past experience I was very skeptical about the jeep at the border of China.  Luckily this time we were not packed in like sardines and after 30 minutes left the train station with everyone in their own seat.

The jeep from Zamiin Ude to Erenhot in total cost 12,100 MT per person (11,100 for a ride + 1000 for the driver’s tax.)  At the Chinese immigration they require a 5 RMB.  With an exchange rate they charge 1500 MT = 1.09 USD.  Make sure to take a mental picture of your driver’s face or write down the license plate because there are several similar looking jeeps and you have to get in and out at each border crossing.


“Welcome to China!”  My immigration official said with a smile.

While he was looking through my passport I noticed a machine with buttons labeled, satisfactory, average, and dissatisfied.  Above it had a small picture of the man who was looking at my passport and his full name.  A rating machine for immigration officials?!  AMAZING!  I happily pressed satisfactory but was disappointed to find that the machine did not work.  This was not the last time I was to be fooled by the Chinese.  Later that day I bought instant coffe that turned out to be strawberry milk tea.  The front of the container had a picture of coffee beans, a mug with brown coffee in it, and the seller was insistent that what I was buying was coffee.  I opened the container and found a bag that said, strawberry milk tea in English and a separate, unidentifiable packet containing some sort of coconut syrup (?)  So weird.

Our jeep took us to the border town in China where we quickly found the bus station.  We bought a ticket on a sleeping bus to Beijing and then found this wonderful restaurant to eat.

The taxi was 5 RMB to the Erenhot bus station where a ticket for the sleeper bus (beds and all!) to Beijing is 220 RMB = 35 USD.  The bus leaves at 3pm everyday and arrives in Beijing at 1:30am.  Do not worry about arriving in the middle of the night because the bus drivers let you sleep on the bus until morning!

I wanted to add all the costs and specifics for people who might do the same thing and cannot find information.  Travel blogs have been really helpful for us in these situations.  You see, we could have gone straight from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian.  Why didn’t we?  Well, ultimately we needed to save time and most importantly money.  The train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing costs about 200 USD and our trip did not even add up to half of that.  Also, the train across the border has to change tracks and this process plus having the immigration officials board the train can take up to 4 hours (or more!)

Even though taking a train, jeep, and sleeper bus was a hassle (moving our bags, trying to find our way) it was worth it.

I will end with saying that Beijing is an amazing city.  Maybe I’m just happy it’s not -25 degrees anymore but I think it’s more than that.  Beijing is BEAUTIFUL and exciting.  No one speaks English, all signs are in Chinese characters and completely undecipherable to me, everyone is SUPER friendly, and I DO NOT HAVE TO WEAR GLOVES!!!!!!!!

Tomorrow we will go to the Great Wall.  Beijing has especially been exciting for me because it has made me realize how far we’ve come over land and how small the world really is.  Only 2 months ago was I enjoying the ease and warmth of Italy.  Only one month ago was I enjoying the thrill and beauty of Siberia.  Only a week ago did I think I was going to die on a bus with a broken heater in -25 degree weather in the middle of NOWHERE Mongolia with two New Orleanians, 6 Kazaks, and 2 Mongolians.   Did I mention that this specific bus ride was 3 full nights and 2 days long?!

“Wow!  You’re like a warrior,”  my friend Erline said to me after I told her the story of THE TORTURE MACHINE (which will be a story I will soon share in full detail.)

I could not come up with a better title myself.  Erline, thank you for that.  I WILL take that title and give it to Todd and Manus (my travel companions) as well because I have to say I am truly scarred by that experience…I say this with a smile because even though it was absolutely horrible (Let me repeat – 3 nights and 2 days in a bus with no heat, ice on windows, waking up to one of the Kazak women sitting on my lap for warmth while the driver pulled over to take a 2 hour nap, no leg room, bad smells, COLD COLD COLD, and NO ESCAPE!  I mean that was actually the worst part about it because there was NOTHING you could do to change the situation.  We were in the middle of NOTHINGNESS!)

OK one more time…even though it was horrible I smile because the only thing my fellow warriors and I could do was laugh.

Laugh at the absurdity of it all.


Filed under China, Mongolia