Ulaanbaatar and Beijing, July 1-4 2011

It somehow took almost a full day to get from Olgii to Ulaanbaatar, even though the Aero Mongolia flight itself was under 3 hours. Bold Purev, who'd arranged the entire Mongolia portion of our trip, was on hand to join a final dinner in "UB" and hear how everything went. Although Bold was anxious for us to have a traditional Mongolian meal -- complete with ger (yurt) atmosphere and special singing & dancing -- we were tired of Mongolian food, wary of a touristy experience, and most importantly we'd been dreaming for a week about a highly-regarded Indian restaurant in Ulaanbaatar; we all love Indian food. Hazara was everything we could have hoped for in our return to culinary civilization. The hotel was true luxury as well --- Ulaanbaatar certainly felt a lot more cosmopolitan than it had when we stopped through the first time.

The next morning we visited central Sukhbaatar Square, which was just getting going with a number of friendly political groups and a few tourists milling about (photo 1), under the watchful eye of the ubiquitous Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan (photo 2). We then flew to Beijing for 48 hours of tourism.

Our first impression of China wasn't ideal: a variety of attempted taxi ripoffs at the airport (all successfully rebuffed), then pressure to upgrade rooms at the Park Plaza hotel (rebuffed as well).
But things improved, and the majority of the people we met in Beijing were genuinely honest and nice. A rundown of our Beijing activities:
  • Dinner at the venerable Dadong Roast Duck restaurant. It's arguably the most famous restaurant in Beijing, but we waited "only" 1½ hours for a Saturday evening table (with free boxed wine during the wait), the final tab was reasonable, and we very much enjoyed the restaurant's signature lean Peking Duck.

  • A walk through the Dongjuamen night market, to gawk at every imaginable creature (snakes, scorpions, seahorses, silkworm larvae, private parts of a sheep, ...) skewered and barbecued for consumption (photo 3).

  • The highlight by far: a 5-hour hike along the Great Wall, starting in the unrestored Jiankou section, and finishing in the touristy restored Mutianyu section complete with luge ride down to the parking lot. Gary of Great Wall Hiking started his business a couple of years ago when he observed a niche market for western adventure travelers passing through Beijing. (That's us!) He's ramped up to a very steady stream of business; we enjoyed our day greatly. Photos 4-9 give the flavor. As an added bonus, Gary noted it was Tim's birthday and produced a beautiful cake when we returned to our hotel (photo 10).

  • A visit to the Silk Market to peruse a huge array of counterfeit merchandise. We've been in many Asian markets; we found this one to be the highest pressure and in some sense least pleasant -- the bargaining atmosphere has gone beyond fun.

  • Finally, the obligatory visit to Tiananmen Square (photo 11) and the Forbidden City (photo 12). The heat was sweltering and the crowds were thick (including one of the more unusually dressed tour groups we've seen; photo 13), but the sights are indisputably important and impressive.
(Aside: During the touristy part of the Great Wall hike we noticed a group of Scandinavian (?) tourists pointing at Tim and saying "Justin Bieber." We don't know whether they thought he actually is the teen sensation, or they were just pointing out a resemblance. Either way it's not the first time -- we had a similar experience in Indonesia last December. Any ideas for putting the resemblance, if there really is one, to good use?)

We've visited almost all of the major Asian cities by now. Beijing wouldn't rate at the top of our list, but our activities were enjoyable, and our hotel was another step up in comfort from the trek, then Olgii, then Ullaanbaatar. (It's a bit embarrassing, but the kids were thrilled when they spotted a Beijing Starbucks from our 8th floor hotel window.) Overall, Beijing was certainly a worthwhile stop on the way home.

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