We escaped the beetle plague in Tsetserleg and headed for Kharkhorin, popular tourist destination due to its 13th century status as capital of the Mongol Empire: Karakorum. On the site of the ruins of the great city of Karakorum is now the large monastery of Erdene Zuu (whose construction began in the 16th century apparently using the stones of the ruins). In Kharkhorin we settled in a ger hotel where, as night approached, we became increasingly worried about beetle infestations and wondered about our choice of accommodation in the breezy ger. Our fears were assuaged when the hotel manager told us we could sleep on the restaurant floor if ever the bugs got out of control (that's what they did last year with the foreign tourists who complained). But we slept peacefully, the bugs having not yet migrated as far east. After Erdene Zuu Monastery, the city's next tourist destination is Kharkhorin Rock the holy phallic rock that apparently keeps the area's monks celibate. In recent years an even larger penis statue (complete with flaming testicles) has been built on the hill next to Kharkhorin Rock. From Kharkhorin we used public transportation for the first time in weeks, catching a bus to Ulaan Baatar. We had a few days of relaxation in the capital until our 30-day visa expired, we spent it shopping for souvenirs at the huge Naran Tuul Market (also known as the Black Market) and counting down the days until we could eat something other than Mongolian food.
We also took in a performance of the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble. Our border crossing into China was no less chaotic than the one into Mongolia (although this time we had purchased train tickets ahead of time to get us to the border). Arriving at the border early in the morning we hired someone to drive us in to China (a mandatory border crossing-requirement). He managed to get himself up to the front of the queue of the hundreds of run-down Mongolian jeeps lining up to stock up on Chinese goods. Nevertheless, our crossing dragged out over many hours thanks to Yann and I who were held up by border guards who wanted to confiscate our antique Mongolian teapots. Who knew the metal detector was functional?
Throughout the teapot detention, our jeep driver who had worked so hard for his prime position in the jeep queue, huffed around threatening to abandon us at the border if we didn't abandon our teapots. Luckily it seemed that the border guards were not allowing him to do this. After much patient resistance (which I didn't think I was capable of), the border guards took photos of our items, send them to an antique expert in Ulaan Baatar, who several minutes later sent back the ok to leave the country with the two teapots in our possession.
Over the border, we had a little bit of trouble securing bus tickets to Beijing due to high demand. My broken Chinese and overly assertive tone attracted the attention of two fellow travellers, Neil and Mike, retired high school teachers who were also trying to get to Beijing. They were extremely positive and good-natured and were a great contrast to the unhelpful ticket dealers (and me). We ended up securing four spots on that evening's sleeper bus to Beijing and we set off together.
In Beijing, our new friends joined us at our favourite hostel where we all booked rooms. Neil and Mike enthusiastically set out every day and came back every evening with hilarious stories (always telling them with an extremely positive spin). Yann and I mainly lounged around waiting for our flight home, but we did take the time to see some of the city's sights that we had skipped (or did not exist) on our previous visits; the trendy 798 Art District and the Olympic Village and the National Grand Theatre. As always, we savoured the cheap and delicious Chinese food (which was even more delicious after 30 days in Mongolia) and Mike and Neil even treated us to Peking Duck at one of Beijing's most popular restaurants. We finished our trip in style and comfort, a 35-hour trip home, with a night on the floor of the Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome.