Son Noah and Howard

Daughter Sarah

Wife Rebecca


Mongolian Adventurers: Leo Murray, Mongolian Horseman, and Howard

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mongolian Horseback Riding Trip

I'm back in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, after an amazing adventure in Mongolia. Here is a brief summary of the trip.

The trip was quite the adventure, a real stretch for me, both physically with the horseback riding and socially with the expats group on the trip who had traveled together many times before. At the end of the second day of horseback riding, I sat in my tent, body aching with soreness, feeling not yet apart of the group, wondering what I had gotten myself into. But I took it on as a challenge and by the end of the trip was galloping on my dependable and spirited Mongolian horse, had become part of the group, and was having a great time.

The country was magnificent, grand valleys surrounded by rolling hills and forested mountains, each inhabited by just one family living in a ger (Mongolian yurt), with about 200 livestock, sheep, goats, cows, yaks, and horses, no surfaced roads, and no fences or concept of private land, all welcoming us into their home for snacks (fermented cheese). Great country for horseback riding! The weather was incredibly variable, raining (or snowing) one minute and sunny and hot the next. The temperature varied from 80 degrees during the afternoon to below freezing at night. My sleeping bag was not adequate, but I used my daughter's advice and sometimes wore 6 layers of clothing in my bag at night to keep sufficiently warm. It rained 3 days but I somehow managed to make it through and keep dry.

I return to California with fond memories of an amazing adventure, the sights of China, a vast culture in rapid transition, and the magnificence of Mongolian countryside and its people, as seen on horseback.

Monday, July 26, 2010


I'm trying to see as much as I can in a week in Beijing. I've seen the Forbidden City (where the emperor lived and held court), Tiananmen Square, Mao's Mausoleum, Lama Temple, Confucius Temple, Temple of Heaven (where the emperor gave offerings to the Gods for a good harvest), and the final two days I will travel to the Wall, see some Ming tombs outside the city, and visit the Summer Palace. So lots ... but it is exhausting and not the most inspiring architecture. The emperor architecture is all on such a grand scale, meant to intimidate, I think, that I do not find it most exciting.

It is very hot, and I have found both the three wheeled vehicles and taxis unreliable, so it is all either on foot or by subway. The subways are good and cheap but still lots of walking is required. I think perhaps the Olympics and the current atmosphere of greed in China has affected the taxis and other hucksters with the tourists, so that Beijing has been the least interesting and enjoyable part of my trip. Chinese come up frequently and want to talk with you and I have become immune to it because everyone seems to want to take you for a ride for your money, one way or another. A typical ploy, to which I have not succumbed, is for someone to speak kindly in English to you and invite you to a tea house. You proceed to share some tea and then receive an exorbitant bill of $50-$100 USD. I have met several tourists who were taken for that ride, and others who have been robbed in the streets.

The hostels and hotels always are friendly and safe so I appreciate that. Also internet service is readily available. Although the Chinese seem very business like and hard-hearted, I have had enough acts of kindness, particularly from younger Chinese students, to leave me with at least a mixed picture of the Chinese. It definitely has been interesting to travel here but I am not sure I care to return. You don't enjoy it so much because of the difficulties of travel.

So I will be glad to end this part of my journey and be on to Mongolia. I will take the train there July. 31 - Aug. 1, stay at the Palace Hotel in Ulaanbaatar, then go for 17 days on horseback until Aug. 15 when I return to Ulaanbaatar.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I was told and had read that Xian is the most interesting city in China, and I was not disappointed. The taxi driver taking me to the hostel from the train station couldn’t figure out exactly where it was, somewhere in an alley hutong. Fortunately, two young students took me by the hand and led me to it ... one of the random acts of kindness that I repeatedly encountered throughout the trip that tempered the contrary negative experiences I sometimes had in China. The hostel turned out to be quite wonderful, very centrally located in the city center, inside the ancient wall which still extends completely around the inner city, near the bell tower and drum tower, and near the mosque and Muslim quarter. The service was excellent, with tourist information and good readily available food night and day. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming. And, I had a very nice, new, clean private room, with TV having a few English channels. I had only two days in Xian but managed to see many of the sights. On the first day I walked around the down town area and did some tourist shopping.

On the second day, I took a bus to see the terra cotta warriors. They were truly amazing. As you may have read, a local farmer in 1974 was digging a well and at 6 meters below the ground encountered some of the ruins. Instead of stealing them and selling them on the black market for a good price, he notified the authorities to ensure their proper preservation. So he has become a national hero. He was there, at the gift shop, signing copies of a book about the site. There were over 8000 terra cotta warriors discovered on the site, all of different individuals and military roles ... infantry, foot soldiers, generals, etc. 200,000 slaves and 70 sculptors constructed the terra cotta warriors, chariots, and horses on the site. The site was constructed by an emperor in the Qin dynastic around 200 BC who was the first to consolidate all of China. It was destroyed just 4 years later by an opposing army with a fire, collapsing the wooden structure covering the terra cotta figures and filling the site with soil that had been covering the wooden roof. The ensuing Han dynastic then used the site as a burial grounds and the Qin structure was soon forgotten until the farmer brought it to life.

On to Beijing for the next part of my journey.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I became frustrated, irritated, and even a bit homesick from the trip to Lhasa, around the time in my journey that I expected to experience some culture shock. After making the travel arrangements to go to Lhasa, I found out that I needed a Tibetan Permit and that to get the permit I needed to sign up for a tour. So I found the shortest least expensive tour of Lhasa available on the internet, a 2 day tour, and signed up with that company for several hundred USD. They turned out to be lax about the tour, assigning me a young inexperienced guide, a sweet 21 year old Tibetan girl Tenzin, who unfortunately didn’t really know how to conduct an efficient tour. She couldn’t explain the cultural sites to me very well. Often the transportation vehicle didn’t show up and, in the interests of seeing as much as possible in a short amount of time, I would suggest we take a taxi, which I would sometimes even pay for, though the tour was to provide transportation. One advantage of her youth and naivety, however, was that she would speak frankly about the political situation in Tibet. The Tibetans do not like their status as an occupied colony of China. I saw instances of extreme rudeness and condescension of the Chinese towards the Tibetans while there. Additionally, there were military posts stationed every few blocks in Lhasa. The tourist literature on the plane and at the sites was propaganda lauding the so called “liberation” of Tibet and the noble efforts of the Chinese to modernize it. It was not a pretty picture and you just want to speak up against it ... capitalist, imperialist roading by the Chinese Communist Party.

My hostel in Lhasa was not very satisfactory. The room was only marginally clean and the service at the front desk was non-existent. I didn’t figure out how to get hot water until the last day there when a maid helped me … you turn on the cold water tap and let it run for 10 minutes.

Nonetheless, Lhasa was quite fascinating. I managed to see the Sera Monastery outside the city some hour’s drive up to the top of a local mountain. I also visited the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace and Summer Palace. I enjoyed rambling around the street markets in the evening around the Jokhang Monastery, with the pilgrims prostrating themselves in front the entrance. The Drekung Monastery was closed due to repairs. However, I visited the museum which was quite interesting. Each early morning I made my way down to the Yak Hotel for a British breakfast, enjoying eggs and bacon along with muesli.

I had taken a plane from Chongqing to Lhasa to get there and took the new train ride back from Lhasa to Xian. The train was comfortable and clean, but very cramped. Chinese public bathrooms, though plentiful, are always unmaintained and foul-smelling. I enjoyed the company of a British couple who had been backpacking around Asia for a year and a half, taking a break from work in their late twenties. I also befriended a bunch of wild retired Aussies. When I introduced myself to one of the grizzly looking Aussie men, I asked him, I thought jokingly, if he was a crocodile wrestler. Without batting an eyelash, with a straight face, he told me that he had had several interesting encounters near his home with crocs. There were two couples and they had traveled all over the world, staying at hostels wherever they went. They looked to be in their 50s, but, with all that croc experience, they may have aged more quickly than their years.

The train ride was not what I had expected. I thought I would be traveling over high mountain passes, but instead we mostly traveled along high dry plateaus. There was almost no human habitation for the first 2/3 of the trip, until we gradually descended into the lower elevation mountain valleys near Xining. After a day and half, our train arrived in Xian which will be the next chapter of my journal.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Yangtze River Boat Cruise

I had been warned, and had read, that the Yangtze River cruises were highly overrated. That was not my experience. I found my President IV boat 4 day cruise well worthwhile. I had a private room which was very comfortable, with a balcony overlooking the water. The food was good and ample with many courses each meal and a buffet breakfast. Most travelers on my boat were middle class Chinese, which was good, but there were a small group of westerners, Germans and Dutch, whom I befriended who spoke enough English to keep me in the conversation. They were backpacker explorers accustomed to traveling. The crew on the boat included an English speaking guide to keep us informed of the sights as our tour unfolded.

I had taken the flight from Shanghai to Yichang, then taxi to the boat, on the date of arrival. We spent the first day visiting the dam, largest in the world, that will stabilize the waters of the Yangtze River upstream and provide power for 3% of China. The environmental damage is yet to be determined. I did not find that it detracted much from the tour, though the water was, of course, elevated and over 1 million Chinese needed to be evacuated from their homes as the river rose after completion of the dam. We were told they had the choice of moving elsewhere with an compensation equivalent to $7000 USD, regardless of the value of their current home, or they could move to new homes constructed nearby uphill from the river above the new water level.

Our cruise took us through 3 gorges as we traveled up the river from Yichang to Chongqing. The vertical cliffs alongside the river were quite spectacular, some comparable to those in Yosemite Park in the USA. At one stretch in the river, there were hanging coffins high up on the cliffs. We were told they dated back 1400 years and were placed there in the belief that their vertical height brought them closer to the heavens for a good afterlife. The ancient people managed to construct a temporary system of trellising up the cliffs to place the coffins there. The wood was made of an insect repellent wood that helped to preserve the coffins.

At another stretch of the river, we went by smaller boat up a tributary. The boatsmen at a certain point got out of the boat and hauled it upriver by rope along the bank of the stream because of the shallowness of the water. Before 1991, we were told, they did that naked because their local natural clothing was made of a rope-like material that injured their bodies. Better to do the job naked than suffer the injury.

Rains were beginning to get very serious in the monsoon season, and the river level was getting very high, so our boat needed to dock well before our destination, Chongqing, and we transferred to bus to conclude our cruise. I took a taxi to the airport and prepared for my visit to Lhasa in Tibet.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I arrived in Shanghai after an 18 hour plane flight, with two stops along the way, in San Francisco and Beijing. My taxi ride in from the airport was a shocker, with a $50 fare, taking me to the wrong hostel late at night. Fortunately, my reservation was at a hostel just two blocks away. I managed to sleep most of the night, avoiding too much jet lag.

The next morning I arose early and spent the day scouting out the city. Much walking and many, many crowds of people. Almost no litter in the streets. Many sky-scrappers, with blocks of old colonial style housing, two and six story buildings with shops and restaurants on the first floor, interspersed. Despite the business-like atmosphere of Shanghai, hustle and bustle, there were a surprising number of gardens with plants, bushes, and trees along the streets. There were even planter boxes of green plants along the freeway, looking well maintained. Perhaps the cheap cost of labor contributes to making this possible. During my day's walk through the city, I stopped by the museum that features a remarkable display of Chinese art, paintings, jade sculpture, pottery, and coins, some dating back to 6000 BC. I begin to be able to distinguish the different styles of art and associate them with the different historical periods of China, the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. I also went to the Lu Gardens, an amazing complex of plants, rock formations, pools, waterfalls, and ancient buildings. I returned to my hostel exhausted from the day of walking and jet lag.

I have been enjoying rereading Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, relating his travels around China by train in the 1980's. He travels through Mongolia and Tibet during this trip. It will be interesting to compare his observations with mine during this trip some two decades later and a China that is rapidly changing.

The next day I went to expo. It was raining and there were tremendously long lines, including an hour wait to buy a ticket, an hour wait to pass entrance security, then a minimal hour wait to get into any exhibit. The exhibits amounted to advertisements and propaganda for the virtues of nations, of little interest to the seasoned traveler. Some of the exterior architecture was exciting, of the China exhibit and several European countries. In summary, the day at expo was one of the least interesting days of my trip.

I returned to the airport the next morning taking the brand new Shanghai subway line for a 1 USD fare.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


July 7, 2010

This blog will chronicle notable highlights of my adventure trip to China and Mongolia. I make this journey July 10 to August 17, 2010, visiting Shanghai, the Yangtze River Cruise, Lhasa, Xian, and Beijing in China for the first three weeks. As some visiting Chinese students have told me, I am taking the rich-cities China tour. A journey to rural China, probably focused around the southern province of Yunnan, will have to wait for another day.

Then I travel to Mongolia for a 17 day horseback riding trip. Am I prepared for such a horseback riding experience at my advanced age? No! Training will have to be "on site." I have gotten away with such physical challenges before, bicycle riding in the mountains of Laos and scuba diving in Lake Malawi in Africa. Hopefully I will get away with it again on this trip. This horseback riding trip has been arranged by my Williams College classmate, class of 1964, Leo Murray. I actually don't remember meeting Leo at Williams but he is highly recommended by friends from my college class and is clearly quite the adventurer himself. He lives in Hong Kong, with his Chinese wife, and makes several adventure trips each year, to Mongolia, Nepal, Myanmar, etc., taking friends with him. He has been inviting me for several years to join him on one of these trips and the time has now arrived for me to do so. I am semi-retired and available to make this trip. He has assembled an interesting cast of characters for this horseback riding trip, from the USA, Canada, England, Germany, and Hong Kong. The Mongolians are reputed to be very wonderful and hardy. And, I hear the countryside is gorgeous and isn't fenced in with a privatized concept of land ownership except around its capital city! What a concept!

Today I am finishing some last minute preparations for the trip, making copies of tickets and credit cards, confirming plane reservations, and making the final arrangements with my wife before departure. I am also taking crash courses in Chinese language and history, specifically a Learning Center series of lectures on the History of Modern China by Professor Richard Baum from UCLA. Very, very interesting! I am a world traveler, particularly to SE Asia, Central America, and Africa, as well as Europe, but have never managed to visit China and Mongolia. It is time! Let the adventure begin!