If You Go Down In The Woods Today…

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 27, 2010

Pingyao, China

“He’s going on about Ming, Ding and Hot Wings, I don’t know what shit is going on” – Marlo

“Don’t share with The Bear” – Ancient trip saying

THIS trip is full of contrasts as we tick off the countries, cultures and assorted accommodation.

The cramped, smelly and uncomfortable days on the Trans-Siberian, where food was limited to what we could buy on the platforms and cook with boiling water, are a million miles away from the luxury of the Diamond Princess, with an army of staff waiting to serve us an array of food available 24 hours a day and look after our every need – even if four blokes sleeping in one room is still a bit cramped.

And the differences between China, Russia and our early destinations through middle Europe are many and varied.

De Je Yuan Guesthouse, Pingyao
The main entrance, De Ju Yuan Guesthouse, Pingyao

But rarely have we swung so rapidly as the relatively short hop from Xi’an to Pingyao, which marked the start of the return loop to Beijing.

Whereas Xi’an is a modern, bustling city where you want for little, the ancient walled city of is very much hanging onto its past.

Tower blocks, new buildings and wide highways are replaced by narrow, car-free streets and single-storey shops and guesthouses, while our sparkling new hotel was replaced by an old-fashioned guesthouse.

And a charming place it was too – at least the guesthouse was.

Guesthouse courtyard, Pingyao
Open to the elements – Snow storm hits the courtyard of the guesthouse in Pingyao

Pingyao itself, once the initial charm has worn off, does not have that much on offer.

It was also the place I ignored the acknowledged wisdom of the trip and shared with “The Bear”. And what’s more, did it in a double bed.

For double bed, read huge expanse of mattress and duvet which provided more than enough room for the two biggest blokes on tour to enjoy some of the most comfortable conditions of the trip, as well as sprawling large chunks of kit all over the bed.

At one point we had four people on the bed and it was not in the least bit crowded – although one of them had to be asked to leave for eating biscuits.

Downtown Pingyao
The mean streets of downtown Pingyao

As for “The Bear”, that is the nocturnal name for Phil, all 6ft 4in of him and my only serious rival for the title of biggest snorer on tour (although we are not as far ahead as some others would like to think).

He reckons my snoring’s not actually that bad. Wish the same could be said for him. My iPod and headphones came in handy.

Away from the sleeping arrangements, Pingyao did throw up a few moments to remember – not least biting wind and sudden snow storms, little more than 24 hours after wandering around Xi’an in shorts and sunglasses.

There’s not that much to see – most of the streets blend into one after a while – but our softly-spoken guide managed to find a few places to visit, although if any of us had realised just how close we were to the guesthouse for much of the tour, he would have found it even harder to keep our attention.

Taoist Temple, Pingyao
Taoist Temple, Pingyao

He led us around the city walls in a bitter gale, an old bank, the historic local government offices, complete with prison, and (most interestingly) a Taoist temple, but the real high (and low points) came from our food and drink outings.

Our hosts treated us to a noodle and dumpling making lesson. Several of our number joined in with contrasting results, before serving up the results – and some they had made earlier – in possibly the finest feast of our Chinese leg.

It was given an extra frisson of danger by a sudden gale which blew down the ramshackle wooden scaffolding on the building opposite, although that was rather less exciting for those of us sat in the window as it clattered down inches from us.

An afternoon diversion into a tiny, sign-laden bar by Phil, Nick, Phoebe and myself (ostensibly to escape another bout of winter weather) produced another unexpected gem. Once, that was, we had discovered we weren’t meant to balance our drinks on the uneven tables, but pour them into bowls and drink from there.

Pingyao Bar
Leaving our mark in the bar in Pingyao

We left our mark with an addition to the signs which decorate the walls and while we are proud of the alliteration, we apologise for the language.

But from there it all went downhill, a disappointing meal back at the guesthouse followed by an even more unfulfilling trip to the Pirate bar around the corner, which not only failed to satisfy our growing pirate obsession (all will be explained), but has earned a nomination as the worst bar any of us have ever been in – which provides plenty of competition.

Empty, cold, black and with just a few Pirates of the Caribbean posters to suggest any pirate link, we also had to endure the eccentric landlord playing guitar to us. At least that was a break from the dreadful music we were subjected to.

Pirate Bar, Pingyao
Warning signs – The Pirate Bar in Pingyao

Duncan’s assessment (“Let’s wreck this joint”) was met with support until we realised it looked like somebody already had.

Things did improve at our next port of call – but only just. Not only did we have to put up with sporadic power cuts, but a visit to the toilet entailed walking through the middle of a foot massage parlour.

Sadly, nobody was too reluctant to hit the road the next morning, although our 6.30am departure was heralded by my opening words to Phil which, tidied up for family viewing, were: “Phil, it’s twenty past ***%$* six”.

Latest travel tip: Don’t leave setting the alarm to your roomie.

Going out in a bit of a rush and missing breakfast was not that bad an error as having no food in my stomach proved a blessing for much of the day (particularly considering the next day’s events).

Hanging Temple, Hengshau Mountain
‘We’re going up there?” – The Hanging Temple

A fairly terrifying drive on, for large chunks, the wrong side of the road, was followed by the climb up to the Hanging Temple at Hengshau Mountain.

Composed of places of worship for Taoists, Buddhists and Confucius, the temple is built halfway up a cliff face with sheer drops off narrow wooden walkways and the path up to it is treacherous in the best of conditions.

In the snow and ice which greeted us, it was even more so, leading both to snowball fights and one or two people looking less than enamoured by their precarious position at the high point.

Hanging Temple, Hengshau Mountain
Long Way Down

There was more Buddhism at the Yungang Grottoes, a series of caves containing thousands of statues ranging from 2cm to 70m tall.

Very impressive it is too, but to echo Marlo’s immortal summation of the situation, our guide bombarded us with so many names and dates, it all became just a bit too confusing and we were reduced to using the caves for shelter from the biting wind.

Listened a bit more would have paid off as Gary struck me with an impromptu quiz on Buddhism. Not was expected when asking someone where the toilet is.

Thankfully, we were well sheltered from the wind when we reached our hotel in Datong which – apart from the first bath of the trip – was notable mainly for most of us not leaving the premises in search of a drink.

Yungang Grottoes
The largest of the thousands of Buddhas at the Yungang Grottoes

Sadly, it was also notable for the worst ordering of the trip and left four of us trying to down a bizarre collection of fat, gristle, bones and red-hot chillies. Well, three of us, Duncan opted to throw most of his over the tablecloth as he tried desperately to show off his new-found chopstick skills.

It all added up to an early night, but it was to bite back in some style the next day.

Of which, more next time…

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Working For The Xi’ankee Dollar

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 24, 2010

Xi’an, China

RIDING along with us  – or hidden somewhere in Phil’s bag – is a folder containing pretty much all the trivial (and the odd important) facts we need to know.

Emblazoned on that folder are a variety of stickers, the largest of which reads: “I am not a tourist, I live here”.

We shirk away from accusations of being tourists. We will tell you, at great length after a few beers, that we are travellers.*

Xi'an - Big Wild Goose Pagoda
The sun beats down on the Big Wild Goose Pagoda

But for a few days in China, guided around by Gary and a succession of local experts, we joined the tourist trail for the major sights of the provinces.

It was all a bit of a culture shock.

Used as we are to being a largely self-contained group, informed by Phil’s whirlwind histories of 20th century Europe (“Someone invaded, people died, somebody else invaded, more people died”) or guides he knew before securing their services (the wonderful Anna and Galina in Russia), we suddenly found ourselves among the hordes.

All of a sudden we were one of many buses being delivered to a restaurant – all entered or exited through a gift shop – to join the conveyor belt of tourists, dominated by large gaggles of Americans, to be processed and spat out towards whichever major sight was next on the agenda

Nowhere was this more apparent than the trip to the Terracotta Warriors, which – sadly – ranks as a disappointment.

Our trip out to the warriors followed our overnight dash to the city of Xi’an, right in the centre of China, and the pace never slackened throughout the day.

Whisked away from the station by our diminutive guide An, we were fed a huge breakfast at the hotel and spirited away for a whirlwind tour of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which once housed the first Buddhist scripts in China.

Golden Buddha, Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Golden Buddha, Big Wild Goose Pagoda

It comes complete with the requisite gift shop and my discovery that being born in the Year of the Dog makes me honest and loyal. I will also roll over and let you tickle my tummy for a treat, but draw the line at chasing sticks.

From there it was off to another shopping opportunity at a jade factory – adding a piece of neophrite to the growing collection of things dangling around my neck – and, via the conveyor belt roll-em-in, feed-em, ship-em-out lunch, onto the Terracotta Warriors.

Built to guard the tomb of Emperor Qin and discovered by farmers in 1974, the attraction is billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World (wasn’t that Patsy Kensit’s short-lived pop band in the 1980s?).

And while it is impressive, it just doesn’t really live up to that billing.

What you rarely get told in the blurb is that Qin’s successor ransacked the tomb and wrecked the warriors, meaning most of the many thousand there are either undiscovered (so how they know how many there are, goodness only knows) or broken.

Terracotta Warriors
The Terracotta Warriors stand guard in the elegantly named Pit One

Restoration work continues apace (well, quite slowly actually) and while what is there is worth checking out, it is not on the sheer scale we were expecting – most of the huge pits on view are devoid of warriors.

Underwhelmed by what we had seen, we headed back to Xi’an and, stumbling off the tourist trail for the evening, again fell across a real gem when least expected.

Tucked out of the centre on a main ring road, our hotel – possibly the pick of the trip – was not exactly blessed with too many neighbourhood bars or restaurants, so the usual suspects stumbled down the road to the nearest noodle bar with the express intention of a quick snack and a quiet night.

What followed, once our idea of keeping the ordering simple ended with our table being presented with a whole chicken, complete with head, on a plate of prawn crackers, was a real taste of China and its people – with the odd piece of ornamental fish kidnapping thrown in.

We first attracted the attention of a bunch of young lads who were determined to drink and eat as much as possible, make as big a mess as possible and practise their limited English on us.

Terracotta Archer
Terracotta Archer, sadly without his bow

By the time they had gone, Phoebe and celebrity traveller Marlo were chatting – or attempting to chat with – four older Chinese guys, so as the others left, the easy solution was to join them and finish my beer.

But for the next couple of hours, it magically never emptied – every time our glasses dropped below half full, they were refilled by our hosts, who refused to take a cent from us in repayment.

One of our new companions was the oldest there, therefore he was the host and had to pay for everything – a system worth introducing whenever drinking with Nick for the rest of the trip.

With the help of their restricted English, our even more limited Chinese (you can’t get very far with “How are you?”, “Thank you” and “Cheers”) and the translator on our host’s phone, we stumbled through a conversation – I was “heavy, but with a good soul”, making me sound even more like a Labrador, while Phoebe has “temperament” – until the passing Gary was dragged off the street to help out and a hugely enjoyable evening ran well past closing time.

The next morning saw me run into one of our companions again.

Or, to be more accurate, he nearly ran into me while riding a bike around the ancient city walls of Xi’an.

Xi'an's City Walls
The ancient city walls in Xi’an

The walking option had seemed more appealing, but a group had headed out to do a full circuit on two wheels. Others completed the full 14km loop on foot, although Julie and Gerda paid the price with a touch of sunburn as the Mediterranean-type climate produced a lovely day.

After an afternoon fighting off the salesmen at another market, it turned into a lovely evening back at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, enjoying the spectacular fountain display, before adjourning to the hotel and a late-night, filling street snack which cost six of us the grand total of just over £2.

And that was that for Xi’an, a city which succeeded in charming us during our limited stay.

The third biggest city in China – after Beijing and Shanghai – it has a much more relaxed feel than the capital (unless you are sat in the back of a taxi, where relaxing is the last thing possible) and while you can give directions around Beijing using branches of KFC as guiding points, you get the feeling Xi’an is much more like the old China.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda at night
All lit up – The light and fountain show at The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

But nothing like as old as our next stop – Pingyao, of which more next time.

Coming up: Sharing with The Bear in Pingyao, Redecorating the Great Wall and Norwegian Wood in Beijing.

*NB – The traveller v tourist argument is the oldest in the travelling world. Having worked in the travel industry since this blog was originally written, it is quite clearly pointless and merely a form of snobbery. The whole point of travelling is freedom and experiencing the world around us – how each of us do it is down to the individual.

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Seventeenth Chinese Brother

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 20, 2010

Beijing, China

“I do hope Berlin’s cafes are well stocked because everybody seems determined to eat out the moment they arrive” – Captain Edmund Blackadder

“Whatever I need, I’ll go out and get it in Beijing” – Just about everybody on the trip

Tiananmen Gate, Forbidden City
The Tiananmen Gate into the Forbidden City, Beijing

THANKFULLY, our cunning plans to restock our kit and refresh wardrobes ahead of 15 days on a cruise ship have proved rather more successful than Blackadder and Co’s plans to eat as soon as they got “sausage side”.

Even with large chunks of stuff left back in Beijing for our return, our scaled-down bus which is currently whisking us from Xi’an (of which more in a later episode) to Pingyao (pronounce as if a bullet is ricocheting off a bucket, Ping-yao) is rammed with bags stuffed full of gear plundered from Chinese markets. And toy swords and cutlasses (again, more later).

It hasn’t always been easy.

Mike and Nick’s search for deodorant took five days before it paid dividends (much to the relief of the rest of us), Phoebe has discovered the Chinese are not all that big on pirate gear (as in Captain Pugwash, not knock-off gear – we know we’ve got plenty of that) and we have all been manhandled, chased and, in my case, physically prevented from leaving a market stall by three small Chinese women hanging onto me (tune in next time for that tale).

Marlo even got whipped by belts from eager sellers, but he lost any sympathy when he went back for more.

Marlo, Tiananmen Square
Coke, Mao and Marlo – Mixing it with three cultural icons in Tiananmen Square (and rescuing one from his adoring public)

But that’s all getting ahead of ourselves, let’s rewind to where you last left us, rolling towards the Mongolia-Chinese border (and the Great Firewall of China which has hampered updates, or would have done if we’’d had much time to write them) on the Trans-Manchurian Express.

It would have been a remarkably quick, efficient border crossing – once they had finally realised it really was Mike in his passport picture – if we had not had to wait for hours while the wheels were changed on the carriages to fit Chinese tracks.

The whole process involved plenty of shunting, banging and moving us into a big shed before lifting us off the ground and onto our new wheels.

Sadly, if you are looking for an informed, educated insight into exactly how such a mammoth task was undertaken, rather than watch on from the corridor window, the residents of Nick’s Bar slept through most of it.

That at least meant we were wide awake for the final approaches into Beijing which included a free breakfast (prompting much jealousy from Nick as he watched one of the staff tuck into one of his beloved dippy eggs), the discovery that my much-maligned railway platform biscuits went well with Freddie’s discarded peanut butter, a free lunch about two hours later (a first attempt at chopsticks for those of us who shunned the use of a ‘spork’) and endless miles looking for the Great Wall which finally stumbled into view on a green hill far away.

Beijing - The Great Hall of the People
The Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square

The sustenance and rest was needed as we rolled into Beijing, which lives up to its billing as one of the world’s great cities.

Having been escorted to our hotel (we are living in relative luxury on this leg of the journey) by Gary, our guide for the circuit of China, we spilled out onto the streets in late afternoon to get our first taste of Chinese life.

And what a taste.

Bang in the heart of the action, with Tiananmen Square and Mao’s Mausoleum at the end of the road, we scurried off down the side alleys (Hutongs) to experience what Beijing had to offer. Or find some deodorant.

It is a frantic, bustling mass of people, noise, smells (not all of them pleasant – even with deodorant) and sights. Nick, Mike and I fell instantly in love with the place.

Yes, it is daunting, yes it is in your face and anyone selling anything is onto you as soon as you go near their shop or market stall.

But it is a thrilling assault on the senses and the people are so good humoured and genuinely excited to try out their English or get to meet Westerners, that we were grinning long before our first encounter with Chinese food.

Crowds in The Forbidden City
The colour-coded tourist groups flock into The Forbidden City

That came from a street vendor with what we originally christened “sticks” – wooden skewers of cooked, spiced meat of occasionally questionable origin – which have become our staple snacks when out and about. Delicious, hot, filling and all for about 25p each.

By then we needed a rest from all this scurrying about, so found a bar down a side street and settled in for a couple of beers, only to add some Beijing Duck, a beef platter and some sweet and sour chicken – complete with obligatory rice – to the order.

It was our first proper taste of what was to come – the most beautiful food served in huge mounds at ridiculously low prices. That little lot, complete with beers, set us back about £5 each.

So enamoured were we with our new find that when we met the others back at the hotel – all wide-eyed and talking too fast from their own explorations – we took them back to the same place and, what started as one quick drink, eventually ended with our hosts waiting for us to leave so they could shut up.

In between there was much singing, drumming (Nick led us all in a version of Wonderwall on a drum), dancing (Phoebe led us all, and one slightly bemused young Chinese guy, through several versions of… well, not quite sure actually) and making friends (hello Katie and Rachel from Wolverhampton).

Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven

Which is why some of our number were still up and about for the 2am arrival of Dave – the latest (17th) addition to our ranks.

The rest of us met our second Irish tourist rather bleary-eyed over breakfast before heading out for a day seeing the sights.

And most of China had turned up to greet us when we descended on Tiananmen Square.

Either that or they were waiting, patiently and in co-ordinated hats to designate their different groups, to enter Mao’s Mausoleum.

It is hard to reconcile the friendliness, politeness and air of calm – even with so many thousands of people milling around – with the events which made this place so famous in the west 20-odd years.

Certainly any fears that we would be met with suspicion and doubt were quickly dispelled – as they have been wherever we have gone in China – by the welcome we received.

Feast leftoversBecause so many of the people in the square and the Forbidden City are tourists from rural China, they are not used to seeing Westerners and so we became tourist attractions in our own right.

At times it was surreptitious. You would turn round and find a camera pointing at you and any smile or wave would send the photographer scurrying for cover.

At other times, you would suddenly find somebody stood next to you while their companion took a quick snap.

But the braver ones would come up and, in whatever English they could muster, ask for a photo with us.

Think we all got approached at some point and such was the delight and interest they showed in us, it was a pleasure to help them out.

But nobody had to deal with as much interest as Marlo.

He has been a tourist attraction since we entered Russia and a black man in Tiananmen Square is always going to stand out.

Group Shot, Imperial Gardens
Reinforced group shot in the Imperial Gardens

And once one guy had approached him for a picture, a crowd soon gathered – our Dutch master of cool taking it all in his stride and responding to each request with a smile. He was even spotted signing autographs at on point.

While we were walking tourist attractions in our own right, there was plenty for us to see and photograph as we wandered through the Forbidden City (a trek of more than five miles evidently) and, via an exquisite banquet for lunch, the Temple of Heaven and a rickshaw ride through the backstreets of Beijing.

After all that, you could excuse us an early night but…

Gary came up trumps as we headed out to a district where a lake is lined with bars and restaurants and the bustle of people.

We instantly felt at home and tried out the facilities before retiring to the hotel and a few bottles of Tsingtao bought from reception and downed in the empty restaurant – complete with Mike using Fran’s mouth for target practise with M&Ms.

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Everybody Ger-ts

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 18, 2010

Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Four Men And A Ger
Four Men And A Ger – Our home from home for a night in Mongolia

THE United States Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Those of us who took up residence in the back half of the bus have not quite got round to declaring our independence, but we too hold these truths as self-evident:

  • That we will not go out for “just one drink”.
  • That whatever city we are in, there will be an Irish bar.
  • That the Irish bar’s sole concession to being Irish is serving Guinness, which will not be worth drinking.
  • That however organised you are the night before, you will always end up ramming stuff in your bag at the last minute to get on the bus the next morning.
  • That at some point during any journey, most of the inhabitants of the bus/train/minibus will fall asleep.
  • That the places you expected very little from will end up as one of the highlights of the trip.

The last maxim has now come true twice in a row.

Following on from the delights of Lake Baikal – a trip pencilled in as something to be endured before getting back on the road, but which provided a real moment of discovery – came Mongolia.

Ulan Bator - Parliament Square
Parliament Square in the heart of Ulan Bator, surrounded by the mountains

Mongolia was, in my mind, merely a bridge between Russia and China while the prospect of spending a night in a traditional ger after two nights on the train was less than enticing.

But what we found was the best welcome, the friendliest hospitality and the most complete, relaxing break from reality we have found, to the extent that it was with regret that we climbed onto the train to Beijing with just 48 hours in the country under our belt.

Capital city Ulan Bator is far from the prettiest place you will stumble across. It is functional and fairly crammed – one third of the country’s three million population live in UB – and had been given a fairly damning press by people we had met coming the other way.

But it is welcoming and, like the countryside around it, carries enough charm from its people alone.

None of them more charming than the crew of the Golden Gobi hostel and tours, who whisked us from the train and steered us through their country with oodles of pride, abundant good humour and an obvious feeling that absolutely nothing was too much trouble for them.

What faced Bob (the boss), guide Khishgkee and their team when they met us off the train just after 6am was a pretty sorry-looking mob.

Having finally rolled away from the border crossing from Russia nine hours after arriving, Nick’s Bar opened for one final blowout to get rid of the final bottles of vodka.

Genghis Khan, Ulan Bator
Genghis Khan stands guard outside the Parliament Building in Ulan Bator

Packed to capacity, seven of our crew were joined in our carriage by George, the poor soul who shared with Phil for two nights and got dragged into the last-ditch attempt to down all our booze.

We proved a little too good at it and ended up scurrying around a late-night stop for a few extra supplies, which then had to be downed and left various people embarking on early-morning life in Mongolia in less than pristine shape.

But our hosts ensured we were son back on our feet, ferrying us off to a bountiful breakfast – created by a brigade led by Bob’s mum – and a hurried shower (something which is met with increasing delight) before whisking us off to see their country.

After a tour of the highlights of Ulan Bator, we headed out of the city and into the wilderness of the Terelj National Park and our home for the night – a traditional ger.

Inside Our Ger
Our ger before it was turned into a sauna

What had been largely approached with trepidation proved to be the most comfortable, most relaxing night of the trip.

The pillows – which are becoming one of the first things we check out when arriving at a new destination – may have come second to Lake Baikal, but the whole package was just superb.

At least in our ger. While others shivered in the sub-zero temperatures, Freddie’s fire-starting skills ensured our room turned into a sauna.

Not only did my sleeping bag remain unused, but we actually resorted to opening the door for much of the evening to let some of the heat out.

View From The Meditation Centre
They may have been shut, but the climb was worth it for this view

The overall feeling of relaxation was helped by some stunning food and an afternoon’s yomp up to a Buddhist spiritual centre in the mountains.

The occupants may have been out, but it was well worth the trek up the slope and 108 steps. Climbing up them, it is said, cleanses you of your sins. Several of our number contemplated a second assent to make sure.

Refreshed from our night’s sleep and another wonderful breakfast, we headed out into the wilds of Mongolia – first to visit the giant, and I mean giant, silver statue of Genghis Khan and then to have lunch with a nomad family.

The trouble with nomads is they tend to move around and when we eventually tracked them down, it was on the other side of a river beyond the paddling abilities of our bus.

There was much discussion, phone calls and suggestions – among the Golden Gobi crew that is, we were making our own entertainment and playing Dodge the Pooh with the only things that came to hand – about how to solve the problem.

No problem, we simply descended on another nomad family without any warning and as we persuaded Fran that she had to hand the baby goat back, they plied us with their version of tea until Bob’s mum rode to the rescue with oodles of food from the original nomad family.

Personally, if a coach load of foreigners knocked on my door asking for cups of tea all round while somebody commandeered my kitchen, the response would not have been with such grace and abundant good humour.

One of many differences between Splott and Mongolia.

Golden Gobi Group Shot
The masses ranks of the OzBus and Golden Gobi

After all that, there was just one thing left to do – head out into Ulan Bator for a Saturday night out.

The Guinness in the Irish bar was, as expected, pretty awful, but the Tiger beer rolled down well, the band spent ages setting up, played a set of eight songs and then headed off and Paul Scholes settled the Manchester derby with a 93rd minute header.

An excellent night and a fine way to bid farewell to Mongolia.

China here we come…

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