On the Scene: News in Mongolia and San Francisco

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Exciting news to announce – the Bay Area Cabaret, the local non-profit organization devoted to presenting audiences with top performers will open the season with Tony winning actress singer Lea Salonga on September 16 at San Francisco’s premier showroom – The Fairmont Venetian Room.

Had the opportunity to speak with Lea and she said that she is looking forward to coming to San Francisco and performing before an intimate audience, which she finds very challenging.  Instead of facing large theater audiences like she has when performing in Broadway’s Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, singing to a small 100 person room audience, she says, leaves you vocally naked where you are on your own.

Although Lea calls the Phillipines her home where she is raising her five-year-old daughter, she has toured internationally and her most recent stint was in China playing in Cinderella. For her one-woman show at the Fairmont, she plans to sing an eclectic mixture of pop standards, theater songs, and traditional Filipino numbers.  We’re sure the 40 year old star will prove as enchanting as the princesses whose voices she provided in Disney films Aladdin and Mulan.   Be sure to catch this one night performance of Salonga September 16 atop Nob Hill at the Fairmont Hotel. Ticket info:  (415) 392-4400

or www.bayareacabaret.org.

Adventures in inner Mongolia, China

Happy ladies with Mongolian herders hats

Bright-eyed and eager, we joined 10 other enthusiastic travelers at San Francisco Airport on July 24 for a Korean Airlines flight to Beijing.  Some nine hours later, a bit bleary-eyed from watching innumerable movies on the tiny screen in front of our seat (a wonderful KAL treat not found on our previous UAL flights), our mighty group (Steven and Phyllis Gee, Ruby Fong, Dali Jones, David and Jayne Yee, Roger and Sylvia Eng, Larry and Loretta Louie, Calvin and Gerrye Wong)  happily found our favorite USA guide Frank Chang and the six people (Werner and Jeanette Yee, Dickie and Patsy Ja, Gary and Pauline Lee) who had journeyed three days ahead with him to visit the Hanging Monasteries and Yung Gong Grottoes. We agreed, the worst part of the trip was over – getting to Asia!

The next day we were up and at ‘em at 6:00 am to catch a plane to Erdos, Inner Mongolia.  Our guide, Peter welcomed us there with a nice shiny bus, which took us 1 ½ hours through Yijinhuoluo County to enter the giant entrance gate to the outdoor Mausoleum of Genghis Khan.  We walked through big fields greeted by many iron figures of animals and soldiers, simulating the entourage who would accompany his marches through Mongolia centuries ago. At the end of the walk, we found a large round building that housed the Museum of History. The museum contained a long mural chronicling the history of Mongolia and its leaders, who spent so many decades fighting for each other’s territory instead of settling down to help unite the country.

A Mongolian Goat Ceremonial Feast

The best part of starting the days in China are the hotel breakfast buffets, featuring my favorite jook or soup noodles cooked before your every yes. Our guide Peter also took us to one of the three rings of sand at Kubuqi-Yinken. We enjoyed the scenery of Tumochuan along the way sprinkled with sessions of “senior citizen resting eyes” also known as sleep. Alas – we arrived at the famed Mongolia sand dunes we have heard so much about but unlike the desolation the early settlers discovered, we found ourselves in a well-outfitted area planned to give the visitors a variety of sand experiences.

First we rode a two man chair lift up to the top of a sand dune of Alashan Desert; then after outfitted with bright colored cloth booties covering our shoes, we walked a steep sand path interspersed with wooden slats for easier climbing under a strong sun to finally reach an area where former amphibious army “ducks” were transformed to look like arks. Each could carry 20 people up and down the sand dunes (with no water in sight for them to travel on water like they were originally made for!). From there, our sand booties carried us on another long walk to find a herd of bactrian camels ready for us fearless foreigners. Led by one man, we climbed aboard a team of 6 camels tied in a row, swaying gently saddled in between their two humps as they trudged up and down more sand dunes.

Visiting Mongolia's sand dunes

Wobbly legged, we trudged through another sand path past giant sand sculptures of Buddha, and got on a pseudo open air elephant train back through more sand dunes to the starting section. Heaven help us if we had to find out own way back, as by then we were all turned around – and frankly, every sand dune looks likes another.  The brave ones of our group opted next to take the “easy way” down by sitting in a small crudely made wooden-sided and plastic bottomed box, and sliding down the hill, minding to keep their feet in the box so as not to kick sand in one’s face during the rapid ride.   Needless to say, we had a wonderful day experiencing Mongolia’s sand dunes, but were tired and happy to climb on our trusty comfortable air conditioned bus for our two hour ride crossing the Yellow River Bridge to the city of Baotou,

One thing we noticed about Inner Mongolia’s hotels is they like to design see-through windows from bedroom to bathrooms. If one is a mite modest, you press a hidden button, and shades sweep across to hide the forbidden views. China’s hotels also like the new overhead rain showerheads which may feel good for itchy scalps, but their poor floor engineering and unsealed shower doors lets the water seep right into the bathroom.

Mongolian costumed natives

On our way to the Mongolia Grasslands, we start off the long ride to visit a temple on the way via a short cut off the freeway.  In theory, the idea is good, but in practice on the dirt road, we ran into long lines of trucks loaded with coal, their drivers telling us they had waited and slept all night on the road with very little progress. Seeing the writing on the wall that no one was going anywhere, our bus driver did a u-turn and decided to head directly for the Gegentala grasslands.  In this coal-laden land, everyone is trying to get in and make a nice yuan commission on a load of much needed coal.

Arriving at the grasslands, we found in the middle of grass areas, some horses grazing, some people practicing their archery skills, and suddenly before us – a community of some 40 round Yurts waiting for us. Unlike the traditional modest nomad Yurts, our modern one has an enclosed bathroom and plate glass windows opening up one side, which gave us a view of the vast grasslands.  As Calvin and I gazed out, we saw men on galloping horses practice all kinds of acrobatic antics. Some of our group gathered in an outdoor fireside entertainment area to watch a wrestling match, between the local men and audience volunteers. The highlight of the day was in the massive dining room where the costumed wait staff rolled in a cart carrying a whole cooked goat/lamb/sheep or whatever it was. Oldest guy Calvin and Larry got to untie the bow around its neck, while I got to make the first cut. While they sang, they draped royal blue silk scarves around our necks and offered us small cups of beer as a show of respect and friendship. Roasted on a spit, the meat was very tasty and tender, and although the rest of the Mongolian dishes were not memorable, everyone enjoyed the moment.  A nasty wind had come up with some rain, so everyone was anxious to go to their yurt for a comfortable retreat – Wrong!  The bed was a board covered with barely a half inch mattress designed more for hardened hikers than our delicate-back seniors!  Somehow weariness lulled us to sleep dreaming of seeing the famous Naadam Festival tomorrow.

“Naadam” is a Mongolian/Chinese word for athletic outdoor games and entertainment and the festival is held July 25-31 annually with exhibitions in archery, horse racing, wrestling, folk dancing and wedding ceremonies. It is the main sports event of the country, celebrated for thousands of years and costumed herders greet tourists who travel from all around to join in the festivities.   That’s what we came for.  That’s what we didn’t get to see.  Mother Nature intruded, bringing such heavy rain that it would have been too muddy and dangerous for us to horseback ride as planned, or to even ride horse drawn carts to visit the festivities.  All activities were cancelled for the day – the one day we were scheduled to see the festival!  No comment.  Goodbye Grassland, we’ll experience the Naadam via a DVD, so dejectedly, off we went for the 3 hour ride in the rain to Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator, the largest city with over 2 million people.

A modern tourist yurt.

On our last day in Mongolia – we’re going to get history lesson 101.

First stop was visiting the Tomb of Wang Zhaojinm who was called one of the four beauties of China. Once a concubine in the Han Kingdom, the opposing leader of the Hun tribe saw her and must have said, “She’s for me!” for he bid for her in exchange for a promise not to bring war in 100 years. As she reigned side by side with her husband, she became a role model for all the Hun people, so she was a pretty good bargain babe after all. In the center of town we visit a very modern building housing the Inner Mongolia Museum. Built in 2005, the museum takes you through 22 rooms of exhibits, dating back to the dinosaur age, and our brains went into overtime to try to keep all the history in our dwindling memory banks.  Exhibits were well done and they claimed the giant skeleton figures of the dinosaurs were all constructed with their original bones. Through the displays of Inner Mongolia paleontology history, plus its cultural and revolutionary relics, we found most interesting the history from the Genghis Khan days to May Fourth Movement up to the founding of New China’s history of revolutionary struggle up to 1945.

As our prize for being good little tour kids, our Santa Clara , CA leader Frank Chang treated us to a wonderful meal at the Zhi Min Restaurant with over 30 dishes, many outstanding in both taste and presentation.  Some of our specialties that night were Buddha Jumping Over the Fence, Another 24 hour soup contained shark fin, abalone, mushroom, pork tendons, quail egg and fish maw. Other specialties were lion head soup, and lamb shank stew. We sat at one huge table set for 20 persons in a private room devouring the feast at a meal cost of about $35.  Try to order a menu of 30 different dishes someday in the US, folks, and find out how many waiters will laugh you out of their restaurant.

A smooth but very crowded flight to Beijing brought us back in central Beijing capital with all of its masses of 13 million people.  We visited the art area called 798 Art District which is an enclave of original boutiques, art galleries, and antique stores surrounded by large statues on adjoining blocks. The strong shopping instinct in we women had the group running around the very crowded Silk Street Building where the booth hawkers were grabbing the meek and mild Jayne, Patsy and Ruby in their zest to sell you something. What did we buy? – what didn’t we?  From teeny flashlights to large golf clubs, to more purses, tote bags, watches, colorful scarves and jewelry.  Enough said! Our ride back to the Doubletree Hotel took us past Tianamen Square, which was empty as there is a curfew time when people aren’t allowed to loiter there, so they mingle across the street in a mob scene outside the Forbidden City. Other interesting sights of the city are the myriads of people all over, no matter what time, place or heated temperature of August Beijing.

Beijing is a city of cars and more cars, with very few bicycles around.  We drove by the National Grand Theatre, often called “The Egg” for its odd shaped modern building. Its appearance doesn’t quite fit the surrounding buildings, but is certainly distinctive looking. We then visited a Hutong area, which we viewed from the inside of a bicycle drawn rickshaw. The Hutong area is one where the original buildings of old time Beijing are still standing. People still live in these alleyways with small entry courtyards, although more often than not dwarfed by tall modern buildings nowadays.  Our rickshaw ride took us along the perimeter of the Hutong seeing glimpses of the old neighborhood.

Lunch was at the fabulous Da Dong Beijing Duck Restaurant with its modern décor, its chefs carving masterfully the duck skin before our camera lens, and the meal always the piece de resistance of our China gourmet meals. We were able to meet the owner of these very popular and successful restaurants. With Frank Chang, this is always a wonderful farewell meal to end a trip with because it erases all the past mishaps, dirty bathrooms, hard beds, smoky rooms, sore feet, aching muscles and stomach disorders with one titillating taste.  Hail to the Da Dong Restaurant – and to our great leader China Stix Chef Frank Chang who always takes us for fabulous feasts in China.

It’s been a wonderful 8 days together with a happy, most agreeable, fun loving group of 18 savvy senior travelers. Only one fallen one, and many bathroom runners were the crisis’ we faced together. We all agreed Inner Mongolia was a disappointment missing its famous Naadam Festival, not seeing its renowned starry skies nor riding horses through its glorious grasslands and seeing more of the nomad tribes we had heard so much about.  However, when we could laugh together against all obstacles and misfortunes, that was the fun of traveling with a great group of friends.

As I kept saying in my fractured Mandarin to anyone who asked where I came from – “Wo hai jung guo yun mei guo lai de” – They would all smile and nod their heads knowingly, and through our kinship, I felt very proud to be a Chinese American visiting the native country of our forefathers.


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