Habitat trip to Mongolia (side trips to Hong Kong,Macau,Taiwan,Russia and Japan)


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May 30th 2012
Published: June 18th 2012
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It is Tuesday May 29,2012 and I am packing and getting organized to leave for Hong Kong on Friday. The plan is to visit Hong Kong and Macau for 2 days ,then fly to Taiwan where I have a downhill bike adventure and mountain hike booked for the Tarako Gorge. After Taiwan it will be back to Hong Kong for the flight to Mongolia on June 7th. Total team size this trip is 14 and a number of people are doing lots of pre-build exploring. In addition after the build some of us are going to Russia to take the Trans-Siberian RR to Vladivostok and then home via Japan.

One more sleep and then the long trip to Hong Kong starts-early ferry (0615) then bus and skytrain to YVR , then 13 hours on plane etc.

Now here in lobby of Salsbury YMCA in Hong Kong waiting for the breakfast room to open.This is a great deal as it is about a $140 for a nice room - five stars next door are about $350/night. The flight in yesterday was pretty good,not crowded and I slept a bit. I read Up Country by Nelson Demille which is a bit
who knew?who knew?who knew?

I saw one snake and it was really moving...
of a prelude book for Vietnam in November.i also read a new Lee Child which is true escape literature and good for the plane. I gave the books away after so am gradually lightening the luggage.

We got in on time and had an easy time through Customs.The next key challenge was to figure out the train and subway system It wasn't too bad but because of a bit of flailing around,it took about 2 hours to get to the hotel

Today I am going to go to Macau on the high speed ferry,walk Nathan Road and go to the night market.I may also do a hike on Victoria Peak.

I have to be organized for the next morning as I am catching a 7.30 flight to Taiwan. Why do I schedule these complex early morning extravaganzas? I think this the only one on this trip but a lot is riding on making all the connections so as not to miss the downhill bike run through the Tarako Gorge.

Made it back from Macau , a place which is definitely off my list- 91 casinos and very little else. After my return I wandered Hong Kong and Kowloon for a bit, stole a poster (bartending school) and bought some contact cement for flag attachment. Streets are very busy with lots to see. I had a smoothie with chunks of lemon gelatin in the Charlie Brown Restaurant.(lots of Peanuts fans) I was saving the night market for the evening I got back from Taiwan but never managed to get there.

Very hot and humid so retired to hotel at about 5.00 -early start in morning and was in bed at 8.30 My jet lag is still in full force so was awake at 3.30 which resulted in being at the Airport a bit early. I am now sitting at gate 29 waiting for the flight to Taiwan.

Great flight on Cathay,then taxi to bus station.I took a taxi because of my very tight connection to get my bus to Luodong- if I miss bus then the planned Tarako down hill bike ride could be in jeopardy. Anyway the bus worked out fine - really helpful people in the bus station who actually got me the best seat on an earlier bus. Instead of 25 minutes to make train connection I will have almost an hour.I am starting to really like Taiwan.The highway from Taipei is spectacular with huge mountains, lots of green vegetation and some really long tunnels. When we got to Luodong a fellow passenger assisted me to find the train station,then helped me buy the train ticket AND then bought me an ice cream.Did I mention I like Taiwan?

I got off the train in Xincheng and was picked up a few minutes later by Rihang , proprietor of the B and B. (it is raining ) After a quick checkin to a nice place, Rihang drove me up the mountain into Tarako National Park.An amazing road with lots of drop offs and canyon/gorge views (rocks are marble) We unloaded the bike at the top in a slight shower (soon to become a deluge)and I started down the mountain.

The main drawback other than the rain is the sharing of the road with the huge tour buses that are all over the park and full of people from China. I had a few close encounters during the 24 km trip back down to Xincheng. The rain was quite fierce but it gradually came to an end and I was able to stop and get a few pictures. I arrived at Rihang B and B and had beer and a well earned shower. Dinner was home cooked Taiwanese and very good. This is a great B and B.

In the morning it was eggs and toast and then off at 8.00 to go to the hike starting point.Not raining but it could-also hot and humid. I started up a gentle slope on the Shakadong (I am carrying 6 liters of water) First part is 4.4 km to a village of sorts-spectacular scenery and an easy walk.There are warning signs about poisonous snakes and killer bees ( saw one snake???)

After the village I switched to the Dali trail which is a very steep 1000 meter climb on a recently cleared trail. Very tough and I am a little uncertain about being on right route as signs are in Chinese and there is no one else on the trail. My map is dog ¥£#~

In any case no choice but to keep going and I finally arrived at the top. Going down was a bit treacherous so got a staff and stepped very carefully.

One or two interesting spots including a tilted bridge and a chain crossing on top of a waterfall. Still not sure of route but kept on and then met 2 hill tribe people (no English) but they confirmed my route is ok and it appears I have 3.7 km to go. I think my total will be 12 or so.

After fighting off some dogs in the village (another reason for the staff) i started on the last part which was 2 kms of a very steep descent accompanied by the sound of falling rocks. This was amazingly hard and I was totally tired. However finally arrived at park hq at 4.30 ( 8 hours to do about 12 kms) where I shared the area with bus loads of tourists from China. ( tip buy tobacco stocks)

Rihang picked me up and handed me two life giving cold beers. We then went on a brief tour of the beach area and then back to the B and B. In the evening Rihang and his son took me out for special Taiwanese food in the nearby city. Absolutely great back alley dim sum and egg foo yung.

The next day I caught the 10.30 train back to Taipei to catch my flight to Hong Kong. No problems -Taiwan is the best and I highly recommend it. Best place I have visited in Asia.

An easy trip back to Hong Kong including plane,train and subway back to the Salisbury Hostel.

The next day it was out to the airport for flight to Ulanbaator at noon.I (as usual ) was early so shopped a bit.Out at 12.30 and good flight on AirMongolia to UB. I was picked up by Billy from hfh and transported on really pot holed road to Zayas Hostel which turned out to be great. Bruce, Daniele, Barb and Anne were already there having come from Beijing on the train-apparently a great trip.

We went out to dinner at night then had a free day on June 8th , which I used to organize money and rooms etc. At night we went to the Mongolian National Orchestra Concert. Great performances....dancing,singing,contortionist etc.

June 9th was day one of the official HFH trip and the other 9 people arrived in two planes.Both had big delays so had a late night-1.30 AM.

The next day ( Sunday) we did the Zaisan Hill climb/tour with Zaya- 14 km plus 300 steps and very interesting.(Lots of Communist "Art") We did Mg BBQ on Sunday night. (underwhelming)

Monday was day one of the actual build. Our task was to build 15 concrete foundations including the form work. After the foundations are done the Mongolian Army will do the floors. If we get things done in time, we may also do some block walls.

In any case day one started with a long, bumpy and dusty drive to the site, where we started right in with a safety orientation. After the safety talk, it was cement forms, cement mixing, cement pouring and then more of the same. By 5.00 our team had finished 4 foundations.The next day was a repeat and so we had 8 done by the end of day two and all 15 completed by Friday.A typical day saw us up at 7.00 (or earlier for some), breakfast at the hostel, and then bus out at 8.00. We usually took an hour or so to get to the site but some days it was 1.5 hours. Lots of interesting sights from the bus as we learned how Mongoilians get to work every day. We are here in the period before the national election so there are lots of billboards as well as speaker trucks on the street shouting out the merits of the various candidates.

On Friday we had a logistical delay so we were able to eat lunch at an village restaurant near the site - rice, lamb stew and meat chapattis for some, while others opted for the vegetarion fare. We have two people with minor stomache issues who are back at the hotel.For some reason on these trips we all seem to enjoy having cold saft drinks (Pepsi, Coke etc.-most of us wouldnt be caught dead doing this at home)

On the way home we stopped at a Ger settlement to see how one of the families is currently living. (about 7 people in 230 sf) Gers are basically yurts with wool walls on a platform. The settlement has pit privies in each yard and water is hauled from a central well. The Gers are heated with small coal stoves and winter temperatures probably are about -35C at maximum so life is a struggle. The new house will be about 500 sf and a lot better insulated (foam blocks) We all felt that we were really making a difference after seeing the current home.

On the weekend we started the day with a visit to a Buddhist temple for the morning ceremony- interesting with lots of mildly persistent but good natured vendors. (I bought some chimes) We then loaded on to the bus for a trip to the famous Ulanbaator Black Market. We planned an 90 minute tour which turned out to be more adventurous than we had hoped-one of the team was the victim of a purse slashing which included an arm cut. With the valued assistance of our interpreter we got a cab and rushed to the medical centre -excellent service and 4 stitches. A lesson to all-dont wear a backpack or carry a purse in the Black Market. However shoes were a good price...

After yet more shopping we returned to Zayas Hostel and ordered pizza-excellent

Sunday was a free day.Everyone on separate missions including various museums, shopping etc. We had one more person robbed-the pick pockets are really good. Hot tip number two-no back packs on the street.

I bought a really interesting photograph of a truck convoy in the Gobi Desert at the Zanzabar Fine art Gallery. For lunch today we all met at a Russian Restaurant for lunch-excellent borsch. Our evening meal was at a really good Indian Restaurant.

Monday was very windy so we only were able to work until noon on form removal and block laying on one house. Windstorm with blowing sand and hot temperature so we quit at 1.00.I think most people napped and then we ordered in chicken dinner - very nice evening with a bit of wine-a great team!!!

Tuesday we had much better weather and we worked on block walls. The blocks are a mixture of styroform beads and concrete. They are kind of crumbly but are apparently very energy efficient and allow the average Habitat home to be heated with one fill of coal in the wood stove versus 3 or 4 in the traditional Ger. Good for the environment and the homeowners.

Wednesday was our last day on the build site and we had the dedication ceremony. Three families attended which was excellent. Our team really enjoyed meeting the home owners. Lots of pictures and an emotional time for everyone. We left the site for the last time about 1.00 and headed back to UB for lunch and various banking activities plus one last trip to a shopping place beside the train station. The station parking lot was a trip highlight-lots of activity and vehicle abandonment etc. Our driver did several amazing tricks to get us out... We returned to Zayas for showers, dinner at the California Restaurant and a small birthday celebration for one of the team.

R and R started the next day under the capable hands of Flower the guide. We headed out of town by bus to Terj National Park. Road a bit better and we arrived at first stop fairly quickly. This was a roadside stand where a Mongolian guy had three birds of prey on a stand-2 Golden Eagles and a Big Vulture. We got to have one of the birds sit on an upraised arm -quite interesting to have a vulture stare right into your eyes..I was hoping he wasnt hungry.

We then went on to the park and did some cave exploration before checking in to the Ger Camp. After lunch it was on to Turtle Rock and then a horseback ride to a temple. One of our team had her horse spook and was bucked off-few minor bumps and abrasions. The climb up to the temple was great but I had a fast trip down to get the first aid kit for our injured horse person. Some people on the suspension bridge werent happy with me running over it...

The next day the plan was an early mountain climb/hike starting at 5.30. This event was not received with universal enthusiasm and only myself and Flower did the hike. Great climb just at sunrise.

After breakfast we left for a day of sight seeing including the Chingis Khan Centre plus a series of ancient re-enactment sites. We also got to sit on a 2 humped camel at one of the farms. Lots of bus travel again as the sites are quite spread out. We got back at 7.00 and had lamb with noodles.

The next day we did a long bus ride to get to Husang Park to see the Mongolian wild horses. In retrospect would probably not do 2 parks in 3 days given the road situation. We arrived back at UB at 5.00 and had our farewell dinner. Everyone will go their separate ways in the morning.

On Sunday it was off to Ulan Ude in Russia by bus. ( I plan to do another bus trip in 2030) It was a long 11 hour trip including 3 fun filled hours at the Russian border. We (three of us) then checked into Olga's homestay thanks to arranged pickup by Russian tour company. Olga who is Russian was a french professor at the local university-no english but a great person who was absolutely a wonderful host. We had dinner at the hostel.

The next day we did a city tour with Sayana who is a student and guide. Very nice person. We also did shopping for food to take on the train. I am on Cipro.

The next day it was on to the Trans Siberian RR (train # 8) leaving Ulan Ude at 1452. Big help from Baikal Intour (Indira) who took us to the train and made sure we were on the right car. We met our stern looking car attendant who turned out to be quite nice-see picture. Our train trip will be 62 hours and three of us will share a compartment with whoever gets on-during 3 days we had 3 different guys join us including one who was packing heat (glock in his belt)

We typically ate our own food for breakfast and lunch and then went to the dining car for beer and dinner. Russian beer is somewhat of an acquired taste - they have MGD under license and it tasted somewhat like I would expect cat urine would be like.

The washrooms are far better than expected. Russian trains on this run have a bit of a reputation but our car attendant is right on the program and things are pretty good. There are 2 compartments of Germans in our car and they are having a good time-lots of singing with beer and vodka. I ended up having vodka shots with tem and it turned out one of them owns property near Steinbach.

The country side is rolling by - lots of wildflowers, birch trees and pine forest but no wildlife of any kind except for a few birds. We also passed by what looked like the remnants of a Gulag/concentration camp.The villages also look very poor.

This is a very busy and efficient railroad with lots of meets -coal, lumber,passenger,etc. We seem to be on time but I didnt have an english time table or a map. Finally one of the Germans showed me a map and we looked at the Russian timetable in the car and determined we were 2 hours late.

Our mid trip compartment guy (the one with the glock) became more friendly as time went on so we bought him beers before he got off in Khamarousk. (He loves Putin and hates Obama-Russians seem to like strong leaders)

On the last day we were supposed to be in Vladivostok at 6.30 but the actual time of arrival was 7.30. No guide to meet us so we took a taxi to the Zemchuya Hotel where the check-in process was like a border crossing. Bonus was that my room wasnt ready so I had to wait a few more hours for the much needed shower.

After showers we arranged a city tour and looked at all the renovations in process for the upcoming Asia Pacific conference. (new freeway,bridges,railroad etc.) The next day two of us flew to Japan and spent a day in Tokyo-quite the contrast to Russia and Mongolia. Tokyo has a bike lend service so we rode around our section of the city on bikes. I like Japan.

Great flight home as I was in front row, also only 8.5 hour flight- but good to be back in Canada-only 3 days until my next trip!

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