Thailand, China, Mongolia, and North Korea: A Simple Plan

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By Hardie Karges

It really was a simple enough idea: a month-long trip to meet  up with my wife and her family in Thailand for 10-12 days, then continue on solo to Beijing, to use that as a base to explore the surrounding countryside—including Mongolia and North Korea—and the city itself, of course. And it probably would have been simple enough, except for the rainy season. Acts of God are hard to predict, sometimes difficult to deal with, and always necessary to respect. The first inkling of impending disaster came with a flash flood up-country in my wife’s hometown of Chiang Rai, Thailand. While we sat drinking expensive girlie coffee drinks and doing our internet business, the rain outside just poured…and poured…and poured. By the time we got out it was too late. Before I knew it, water was up to the car door line, and it was too late to turn around. Somehow we made it, though, without having to go wading, cars stalling out all around. One guy even asked for a jump start. Yeah, right, let’s play with electricity in a flood.

The oppressive heat and humidity continued in China, but at least Beijing seemed a bit drier than my brief stopover in Shanghai, if no cooler. I took a liking to the city right away, its hutong alleyways a link to the past that’d be hard to find almost anywhere else in China, even in places much smaller and more socially backward. Still the first main order of business was preparing for North Korea. That’s a travel bumfuzzle; you don’t just wander in, whether on a bus, train, or plane. It not only takes planning, but it takes guides; that’s the law. Still it can be done, with a fistful of dollars, and then a few dollars more… AND a lotta’ red tape. The whole thing seemed so sketchy and uncertain and bureaucratic that I felt obligated to check out the Beijing operation in advance, while I still might have some control over the monies involved, all this before I’d even gone to Mongolia, mind you, so something of an anomaly for me logistically. I managed to find their office, so I knew they actually existed, over in the Sanlitun “bar district” of Beijing nonetheless. It’s calm over there by Thai standards btw. I went to see the Great Wall with the time remaining.

That was enough to placate my concerns for the moment, so I felt free to turn my attention to Mongolia. I figured that’s where the real action is. I was mostly right. Mongolia is an unwashed traveler’s gem, waiting to be polished, and maybe one of the last great frontiers in the world. This is an area the size of Alaska perched between China and Russia at the latitude of the US-Canada border, and busy playing one off the other since time immemorial, or at least since China invented gunpowder and managed to keep the wolves at bay… for a while. The capital at Ulan Bator is just a hint of what lies out in the countryside. The last vestiges of communism have mostly disappeared and capitalism just pops up all around seemingly at random, a shopping complex here and a karaoke bar there, by some economic law of psychological value. This is especially evident with motorized vehicles, where seemingly everybody got the idea to buy a car and carry passengers for hire right at about the same time. So welcome to the world’s biggest traffic jams. Allow plenty of time to catch your flight.

Mongol culture goes much deeper than that, of course. These are a people with close cultural connections to the original Turks from out around the Altai Mountains of Central Asia and with some obvious physical resemblances to the Chinese and other north Asians. They ruled China for more than a century and a half, of course, and much of the rest of the world also, leaving an influence which persists to this day. Their hegemony allowed for the Silk Road to exist and for Central Asia to develop and diversify, a fact confirmed by the classic Mongol alphabet, which was developed by the long-lost ethnic-Iranian Sogdians, and soon to be lost by the Mongols themselves if they don’t re-adopt it as planned. The Russian Cyrillic script is the one now commonly in use. And Russia is still the prominent Big Brother and cultural influence these days, too. China is far too jealous of that big bite-size chomp that Mongolia’s independence left in China’s northern flank. Most roads lead to Russia. There’s that trans-Siberian railroad, too, but I took a plane. It’s cheaper.

Outside of Ulan Bator, the cityscape quickly devolves into the vastness of a northern plain that was likely one of the original marshalling yards for modern evolution in the inter-glacial ages when large herds of large animals would make their way across the Bering Strait and begin the long trek downward, all the while dodging the spears and arrows of the freakiest albino apes that the planet’s ever seen. Through a process of elimination I somehow decided that Tsetserleg (Hot) would be the focus of my journey, mostly just because of logistics; I had five days in Mongolia, and there just wasn’t any more time to travel than a day out, a day there and a day back, with an extra day for snafus, but much more time than I wanted to spend in Ulan Bator itself. Tsetserleg has a rep as one of the nicer provincial capitals… but that probably isn’t saying much. It also has something rather anomalous for the vast outback of northern Asia, a British B&B. I figure that was reason enough right there for the trip.

The terrain reminded me a lot of Alaska or the Yukon—except for the massive amounts of livestock—so that’s good. Travel on public transportation is a bit difficult, but not overly so. And then just when you think you’re the last lonely traveler at the end of a long lonely road, a pack of bikers on Harleys will pull up and fill the house with beer and laughter and tales of tire-wear… just like they do in Whitehorse. Tsetserleg itself was a bit disappointing, Stalinist architecture and all, but that’s no reflection on Mongolia as a whole, which is much greater than the sum of its individual parts. Still it was a pleasant sojourn, at least until the ride back. It rained the whole night before, so the ground was fairly soaked, and the road is not so good. So when the driver took the bus off into a pasture to avoid potholes, slipping and slopping and spinning up mud, there was more than a little anxiety to deal with, a pretty wild ride, actually. We made it, though. We usually do.

The main tourist attraction in Mongolia is nature, and that doesn’t convert easily to cities. So you have to get out into the outback for the full effect of Mongolia, the gers (yurts) and the cowboys and the livestock and the nomadic way of life. Still Ulan Bator is not at all bad. There are even encampments of gers there. And there are rock bands playing in the parks, too. And there are supermarkets. And then there’s Buddhism, something like a crucial link in the Mongolian historical dialectic of tribalism> empire> subservience> Buddhism> communism> independence. And it’s the Tibetan style, too, which must really bug the Chinese. Watching monks chant their chants in a replica of the temple at Lhasa was truly inspiring.

North Korea is something else entirely. If Ulan Bator is the wild wild West, then Pyongyang is the exact opposite, something so controlled and coordinated as to be almost devoid of instinct or logic. Getting there is the hardest part, though. After all the runaround and the red tape and the rigmarole and the razzmatazz, the actual being there was somewhat tame… after the Customs inspection, that is. There they confiscated all the cell phones, with almost religious fervor, as if they were the epitome of capitalist evil. Anything with GPS is strictly forbidden, so maybe that’s the deal; they don’t want anyone calling in an airstrike I guess. That makes sense. Laptops are okay in North Korea, but you’re back in the pre-Internet era with them. Most people probably don’t even realize there WAS a pre-Internet era of computers, as if that’s why they exist.

And don’t even think about Wi-Fi. Like Cuba, there is none. If you look for a connection, there is simply nothing there. Unlike Cuba, you’re not likely to be able to talk to anyone about it. None of the guides ever mentioned it. Few tourists speak Korean. In Cuba, I talked with many Cubans about many things, the most memorable quote being, “I’m fifty-five years old, and you’re the first American I’ve ever talked to.” The second most memorable was, “Why do you need Internet?” (Gulp). After spending the first evening at the Arirang Mass Games, the next day was a whirlwind of monuments and memorials and assorted minglings with the masses, in the markets and the metro. And there aren’t much in the way of markets, really, just stuffy old state-run souvenir stores and book stores full of Kim-style Communist propaganda.

But the restaurants were good, if uninspiring in atmosphere. Everything felt sterile and regimented, institutional. There were even fewer vehicles, mostly mass transit and a few private vehicles for government and diplomatic personnel. And there’s the epiphany right there. If the whole regimented system reeks of mind-control and brainwash, then the functionality of a city without private cars borders on true inspiration. These are cities truly intended to live in, something that cities rarely are. More often than not, a city is intended for commerce, and often little else, people scurrying home to fairytale suburbs at the end of the workday for the actual living of life. In Pyongyang the tallest buildings are full of apartments not offices. It’s actually quite inspiring, a city with no pollution or traffic jams, quite the contrast to Ulan Bator. Indeed Pyongyang is probably the quietest cleanest city I’ve ever been in, and something of a revelation that that would even be possible. A few days after I left, typhoon Bolaven hit, same time as Hurricane Isaac in the US, some of my tourist buddies still there. I hope they’re okay.

Back in Beijing there wasn’t much left to do locally, since I’d already visited the Great Wall, and I was saving the Forbidden City for the last day. So I went to Chengde, now only a few hours away after the completion of the new four-lane highway. We beg for high-speed Internet; they still beg for high-speed highways (hotels in China don’t have Wi-Fi btw; they have slow-ass hard-wire data ports). Chengde is on the UN World Heritage list for its Qing-era summer palace and Buddhist temples, but I’ll confess to not seeing much of them. The pollution was so bad on the day I was there I decided not to press my luck too much. I’ve still got a cough. It’s nice to see a smaller city, though, at a half million people Chengde being something of a village by Chinese standards. Back in Beijing I went to see the Forbidden City almost as an afterthought, that and to spend the hotel deposit that they refund at the end of your stay and which would all be eaten up in charges if you tried to exchange it. And it was way cool, like a magic Chinese box full of smaller nested boxes.

All in all it was a good trip, if a bit wet and unusually muggy, at least in the southern climes. Asia is a mother like no other, and it’s no longer a matter of working around China. These days China is right in the middle of it, and not a bad place from which to visit the neighbors. I’ve got a multiple-entry visa and just may use it again before it expires. They’re light-years behind with their English education, but that’s not a deal-breaker if you don’t mind learning a little Chinese language. That’s what travel is all about, right? No? The long slow cumbersome trips are quickly being replaced by fleets of fast buses and trains, so that opens up vast new possibilities. The old days of separate systems for locals and foreigners is pretty much a thing of the past, and the country is wide open for travel. My only concern is to get to Tibet before the traditional culture is all gone. Before that, though, I just might travel to the far west around Kashi/Kashgar. It’d be nice if there were a high-speed highway from there to Tibet, but I don’t think I can wait that long. C U there.

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