One of the great things about eclipse touring is having the opportunity to visit places that are really "out there". For the Gobi desert eclipse trip we were supposed to tour Tibet the week prior to the eclipse, but sadly the Chinese government closed it off to visitors due to the world-wide protests in support of the Tibetan people.
As we were already scheduled to fly to China via Seoul, we decided to tour South Korea as plan B. The trip was fantastic. We visited several places that we had not seen in earlier visits, including Jeju Island, a beautiful resort island off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula with black sand beaches and its own history and culture, Gyeongju, which has many sites and relics from the ancient Shilla empire, and the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the border between North and South Korea. The two countries are still at war; in 1953 they signed an armistice and not a full peace treaty. Just a few weeks prior to our visit, a South Korean woman was shot to death for accidentally strolling onto a restricted stretch of road. At the DMZ we toured one of several incursion tunnels dug by the North Koreans, each of which would have permitted passage of an entire division per hour, presumably for invasion purposes. Pretty scary stuff.
From Seoul we flew to Shanghai to meet up with the main eclipse tour. We had previously visited Shanghai and Xian, our next destination, but what a difference 20 years makes!
In 1988, the excavation site of the famous terra cotta army (discovered near Xian in the mid ‘70s) had just one building covering it and a few vendor stalls along the dirt roads leading up to it. Today the excavations are much more extensive, comprising three pits instead of one plus several large museum buildings, all connected to a huge shopping/dining complex with what I’m sure is the world’s largest parking lot. In 1988 you could cover the terra cotta warrior exhibit in 30 minutes (especially since you couldn’t walk around it or take any photos); now it takes that long just to walk from the bus to the entrance to the grounds.
Emperor Qin’s Tomb, on the other hand, hadn’t changed much at all, probably because it has yet to be opened. What had changed was the effort required to climb the hundreds of steps to the top of the mausoleum mound. Stupid knee.
From Xian we flew to Dunhuang in northern China, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Dunhuang was one of the major cities along the Silk Road, the ancient set of trade routes connecting China to the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. From Dunhuang it was an all-day drive to the eclipse site, which was in the middle of nowhere, very close to the Mongolian border.
Although we were spending the week following the eclipse in Mongolia, to get there we had to backtrack to Dunhuang, Xian, and Shanghai, and finally catch a flight from Shanghai to UB via Seoul.
UB, or Ulaanbaatar (pronounced oo-lahn-bah’-ter, not oo-lahn-ba-tahr’) is the capitol of Mongolia. The Soviet Union helped Mongolia gain independence from China in 1924, and its influence is still apparent everywhere in UB. We thought we were back in Russia; not only are all the older buildings Soviet-style, there is Cyrillic writing everywhere, and the memorials we visited looked very, very Russian. The Mongolians, who changed governments in the early ‘90s (along with the general fall of communism in Eastern Europe), are still developing a market economy. And they’ll take any cars they can get, regardless of whether they are right-hand or left-hand drive, making driving (and van-exiting) pretty exciting.
Once you get outside of UB, you quickly leave all this behind, although you also quickly run out of paved highway, or even a formal road system. Mongolia is the most sparsely populated independent country in the world. It contains very little arable land, and for long stretches we traveled through terrain where there was nothing taller than a soda can (which made for some very interesting rest stops).
Much of the population outside of UB is nomadic or semi-nomadic, living in ger (yurt) tent houses, and moving camps with the seasons. We were able to visit two nomadic families, one living in the greener steppe region of central Mongolia raising horses, the other living in the Gobi Desert raising camels. Hospitality mandates that every visitor be served a bowl of fermented milk, as well as dried curdled milk bits. The fermented milk wasn’t too bad (I preferred the camel’s milk version over mare’s milk), but the dried curd had a strong, sour, funky taste and was way too hard to chew.
We stayed in ger camps, which was like sleeping in a cross between a tent and a dorm room. We were also treated to two throat singing performances, one in a ger camp and the other in a theater in UB. Both times we were lucky enough to have front row seats, so we could actually feel the vibrations given off by the performers as they produced their eerie, resonating overtones. It was like they were human bagpipes or didgeridoos, in a way that is impossible to describe. But it was very, very cool.
The Mongol empire was the largest contiguous empire in world history, and included all of China, Korea, central Asia, and much of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The Japanese believe that kamikaze ("divine winds") stopped the Mongol invasion of Japan, however some modern day Mongolians jokingly blame the shoddy Chinese fleet which Kublai Khan was forced to use (Mongolia is a landlocked country).
All the Mongolian people we met were extremely friendly and welcoming, and we really enjoyed visiting their country.