Cost is obviously one of the most important factors in deciding where and when to travel. Before beginning, I should say that a lot of my trip was in the low season for many places (that is, not summer), and I would almost always travel in the cheapest class of transportation
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As I am starting a trip that will take me from China to (hopefully) Eastern Europe over the next several months, I thought I might go through what I am packing for this trip. There have been a few changes since my last trip's packing list (link for original packing post), mostly in terms of electronics, but for the most part it is very similar. Overall, my goal is maximum mobility and minimum weight, but not bare-bones, super lightweight (for that, see No-baggage challenge). My backpack is right around 25-28 pounds (11-13 kg), so it's light
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Bolod was the owner of the guesthouse that I stayed at in Ulaanbataar, and, due to it being the low tourist season, also my source of transport/translation when I headed out to the Mongolian countryside. His main guesthouse was actually closed, but I stayed in his "suburban guesthouse", which was just a room in his house with his wife and kids.
He grew up in a small village in Eastern Mongolia and came to the capital when he was young for school. Coming of age when
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Preparing for my trip to Asia, I had to obtain visas before arrival to China and Russia. Since I am just finishing up this process, I wanted to describe the steps that I went through in case anyone might be doing the same thing and wants to save some time on research. This is geared for the independent traveler without set itinerary.
5:30 am. I'm leaving my hostel in San Cristobal as the sun breaks, already reminiscing about the cool weather, good people, and nice local markets stocked with fresh produce every day for pennies. I have left myself two weeks to hitchhike back to Michigan (click here to see the route). After talking with a few of the dread-locked, unicycle-riding sort on the street last night about hitchhiking, I decide to take colectivos up to Villahermosa since hitching in Chiapas is supposedly fraught with long waits and suspicious people. Another big plus is that the main highway to
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This story is the other side of the news reports, the non-profitable story, the anti-State Department website of the capital of Guatemala, Guatemala City. Instead of pointless violence, I am writing about pointless kindness.
After being abroad for a long period of time in non-traditional tourist spots, a certain persistent question always and unavoidably comes up: “But, isn’t it dangerous in [insert city]?” Even between long-term travelers who should know better the question is frequently asked, with swapping stories of tourist crime (usually second or third hand and undoubtedly exaggerated for narrative effect) being an entertaining way to pass the time
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You have set out to travel to extract yourself from the daily routine, but there is one chore that will never go away: dirty clothes (nudist colonies an exception). And if you´re trying to save money on the road, or just don´t trust that random lady on the corner lavanderia, washing your clothes by hand is the only option that´s left. The good news is that it´s easier than you think, and with practice becomes no chore at all and you can tailor it to your situation. Here´s a quick run down on how to get it done.
With the cash economy spread to every corner of the globe, it´s no hidden fact that travelers abroad are many times looked at more as breathing cash machines and less as curiosities from foreign lands. It´s not that people are necessarily looking to grab money from tourists, but rather that poverty incentivizes creative pricing where price tags are lacking. Those of us traveling on a budget for extended periods need to economize since we´re already putting a hefty bit of cash into the local economies of the places we visit, so let opportunists prey on the less saavy traveler. There
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After leaving Beijing, my next stop was Mongolia. This video covers some of the time I spent in the countryside, and shows a little bit of the everyday life of the nomadic families I visited. Early spring is when the animals are giving birth, so just a warning to those of you who melt when you see baby animals. There are a few clips of making buuz (Mongolian dumplings), lots of animals, a Buddhist monastery in Terelj National Park, nomad corralling horses, how they get the goat fur to make cashmere, and just random shots.
Again, don't expect too much...it's from a point and shoot camera.
Eager to get out of the congestion of China I hopped a short, unusually cheap morning flight (cheaper than the bus) to the border of Mongolia at Erlian, supposedly known for its dinosaur fossils. From the airport the shuttle passed bizarre dinosaur sculptures in the middle of the desert and dropped me off at the border where I had to do the usual passport stamping rigmarole after haggling a ride in the trunk of an SUV (no walking permitted). On the other side I regretted not having some Mongolian phrases written down since no one spoke Chinese or English, but I still managed to get a meal and buy a train ticket to Ulaanbataar (capital of Mongolia) from the town I was in, Zamyn-Uud.
Although it was your average, melancholy border town, I was in good spirits since the lunch that I had was astoundingly delicious for only a few dollars. It wasn’t the lunch per se, but rather that fact that Mongolian food already had surpassed Chinese food in my tastes. I didn’t taste any weird chemicals and the meat, vegetables, and rice were incredibly seasoned with flavors that I associated with Middle Eastern food. +1 for Mongolia. Another mood-booster was
While on the road and back home, I frequently meet people who confuse independent travel with vacation. That it, when I describe a few months-long trip across Asia, what comes to mind is some sort of luxurious tour guided through the gems of the continent. The reality, though, is not like that for someone with a backpack and figuring it out for themselves as cheaply as possible (unless you consider riding across the border of China and Mongolia crammed in the trunk of a car with 12 other passengers “luxurious”).
In any case, I originally wrote this for other travelers who were trying to figure out ways to get across the border from Beijing to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbataar, for relatively cheap, but I think it is also an illustrative glimpse of the day-to-day logistics that a traveler has to figure out and that I don’t really write about on my site (it is boring).
After finishing going down the Yangtze River and visiting Zhangjiajie Park, I hopped on a direct train to Beijing. I had a pretty standard visit there and made the rounds at all of the tourist sites, including Tian’anmen Square, The Forbidden City, The Great Wall (a bit outside Beijing), etc.
The most exciting thing that happened in any of these places was in Tian’anmen Square when I hopped on a trash can to get an elevated view and police cars and foot officers rushed up to surround me and followed me the rest of the time I was in the square. If you aren’t familiar, Tian’anmen was the site of massive pro-democracy student protests in 1989 that ended in massacre, so the “People’s Square” is in reality the government’s square and you can’t even get in without a security check. There are also massive flood lights positioned over the huge square in case they need to spot any miscreants.
Both Foo and I were interested in making a trip to Zhangjiajie Park, renowned in China as “the real life Avatar” (like, the movie) due to the massive natural pillars that jut up from the park and an entrance fee to match it (~$40). We were tired from cruising down the Yangtze but also tantalized by the photos that we saw of the park, so we agreed to a tour that would take care of all of the logistics to the park and overnight for only about $15 more than if were we to do it alone as figured from Foo’s Lonely Planet. We never should have done it, and it just reinforced my aversion to tours.
Our first mistake was assuming that the same company that did the boat trip also did the trip to Zhangjiajie, which was not the case. We also assumed that they described the trip in an honest, straightforward manner, which was definitely not the case. Even double confirming in my terrible Mandarin didn’t help. It started off well when we were personally picked up in Yichang and given our train tickets, but after that it was pretty much downhill.
With a last minute look at train schedules and finding just the right night train from Chengdu to Chongqing, I took off with Foo, a 26 year old Scottish guy I had met in Xi’an, to find a cheap boat down the Yangtze River. Foo’s full name was Fioonlaugh or something like that, which he shortened, and we decided to meet up further south to do the boat trip together. The Yangtze (chang jiang) is the most important river in China, along with the Yellow River, and is renowned for its Three Gorges which rise up around the river (which starts in Tibet). It has also been the center of controversy over the Three Gorges Dam, which was where the boat trip would end. To build the dam, the largest in the world and a massive source of hydroelectric energy, the Chinese government instituted forced migrations of millions of people and aroused an expected outcry. The Chinese government unsurprising prevailed and finished the dam in 2006.
We were both wary about being trapped on a 3rd class Chinese tourist boat alone with chain-smoking, elderly Chinese tourists, so we met again in Chengdu
Without much clue about what there actually was in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province) besides a panda reserve, I bought a train ticket there from Xi’an figuring it was worth a look. The first day there I met a Chinese couple in the hostel and we went out for traditional Sichuanese hotpot, or huoguo, which consists of a fiery, boiling, oily liquid to which you add whatever sort of assorted foods you order. Not being able to read Chinese, I left it to the couple I was with; we ended up getting rabbit kidney, beef cutlets, lotus root (still not sure what it is), lamb cutlets, a few types of mushrooms and vegetables, and a particular kind of small fish that only lives in rice paddies.
Wanting to get away from the cities and smog, I took an overnight trip to Huashan, or Hua Mountain, a few hours away from Xi’an (click for my post there) by bus. It was apparently a central place for Daoism (maybe still is?) and was dotted with temples and other holy sites over its five main peaks. Nowadays it is catered toward the tourist and has food shacks and souvenir shops that are fed by the cable car that skips about 85% of the ascent.
I decided to hike all the way up from the town below to save some cash, but the vast majority of tourists (mostly Chinese) chose to take the cable car. I held a fair bit of unnecessary resentment after going up the frequently terrifying and exhausting climb only to see hoards of other tourists gliding effortlessly off the cable car. Even at the low altitudes of the ascent, many of the steep, carved steps were covered with ice and snow on slick granite and
After checking out some of the cities around Shanghai, I made a quick decision to head west toward Xi’an in Shaanxi province, mostly known for its army of Terracotta Warriors. The 16-hour overnight train from Shanghai was quite fun with a jovial old lady from Harbin in my six-bed sleeper car who tolerated my poor Mandarin and force-fed me juhuacha with gouqizi, which is a tea made from chrysanthemum flowers and berries from the Chinese wolfberry. She was also adamant that Obama had a half-brother (same dad, different mom) who lived in China, a claim that I was initially reluctant to believe until a Google search vindicated her (his brother is a fairly successful guy named Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo).
I also ran into a Mexican family who was doing an around-the-world style trip, and it was the first time I had exercised the Spanish-speaking part of my brain in more than a year. I eventually got into my hostel in Xi’an and was dragged up to the top floor of the hostel by a ping pong master that the hostel hired to do free lessons once a week