Trans-Mongolian to Beijing and on to Xi’an

Our train (#24) pulled out of Ulanbaatar, like all our other so Trans-Mongolian trains precisely on time at 07:15 (yet another early morning).  It was a nice clean and modern Mongolian run train, much better than our Chinese train from Irkutsk. There were lots of western tourists, many of whom we knew from previous journeys, as well as Mongolians and Chinese passengers on the train not surprising as there is only one or two trains from UB to Beijing per week.  The train wasn’t full though – Lisa and I had our 4-berth cabin to ourselves, which was a nice luxury :-). tye Swiss guys were in tge next cabin, the dutch in the next carriage, and the Belgians living it up in first class (not too different apart from being 2-berth and sharing a toilet between two cabins).

Soon after leaving UB the scenery changed to rolling brown plains that spanned as far as the eye could see as we traversed the about 600km of the Gobi desert to the Chinese border.  Not particularly sandy the desert was impressive for its emptyness, with few settlements just the sparadic Ger and herds of horses, cattle, or camels.  We had dinner of sizzling beef and rice in the resturant car and watched the scene outside.

Unfortunately this was ruined slightly by some very drunk abnoxious Brits wearing “Kiss me I’m a Mongolian” T-shirts and souvenir Mongolian hats – cringeworthy.  I think there were on a package tour with vodkatrain.com, don’t do it, it’s not hard to arrange everything yourself using an agency such as Real Russia to book your train tickets – we saved about £1000 by doing this.  Of course some people prefer a set schedule and the security of being guided, but it really is not as scary or as difficult as you probably think to do it yourself – plus you deal directly with local people rather than a middleman.

We reached the Mongolian border post station of Zamlin Uud around 19:30 where solidiers lined the platform saluting the train as we pulled in, and wide hatted serious looking officials boarded to take our passports and inspect the train (very briefly on our wagon).  The process didnt take too long and we soon had our passports back (with exit stamps) and were soon rolling into China.

China welcomed us by playing the ‘Vienna Waltz’ as we came into the platform at their border post station, Erlyan, which was decked out with red neon lights.  The Chinese officals were surprisingly friendly and spoke some English as they collected our passports and searched the train (again pretty loosely).  Whilst our passports were taken away to be checked we were shunted into a big shed with hydraulic lifts that raised the carriages in order for the bogies (techy term for the wheels) to be changed.  This was necessary as Russia and Mongolia have a 3.5 inch larger gauge (track size) than China and indeed most of Europe, which use the ‘standard’ gauge.  This process took several hours, and I wondered if it would not be easier to change trains, but nevertheless it was quite interesting to watch.

Once the boogies were changed our stamped passports were returned and we were on our way, about 5 hours to cross the border – and as we set off again there was a mad dash for the toilets, which had been locked throughout the whole process!  By this time it was past midnight so we went to bed.

We woke at 10ish, sleeping on these trains is easy especially as we had the cabin to ourselves. The scenery had changed to farmland with people working the land by or with donkeys. there were also sone big mountains in around and we keenly looked out for a glimpse of the ‘Great Wall’ but were told that the route was changed in 2007 so we wouldn’t see it :/  We passed lots of industrial sites and what appeared to be power stations, China it seemed was a big contrast to the vast emptyness of Mongolia.  We went for lunch in the now Chinese resturant car (always provided by the host country), first meal in China – sweet and sour pork 🙂

The scenery got even better as we passed through tunnels cut into the mountains rolling alongside rivers in the valleys.  Trees were now sprouting green leafs, it seemed we had caught up with spring again.

We arrived in Beijing about 10 mins late at 14:15, we had reached the end of our Trans-Siberian/Mongolian journey covering 9651km of track since leaving St. Petersburg – about 150 hours of train travel. Strangely looking back it felt like the journey had gone in a flash – a proper adventure, better than we imagined.

Unfortunately as we arrived it started to rain quite hard so we got a bit wet and also had to push through the crowds of people sheltering in the station to an ATM to get some Chinese Yuan. As it was raining we decided to splash out the £4 for a taxi to the hostel – or first taxi of the trip.  After a quick shower we walked (it was now dry and sunny outside) to Tianamen Square, which was only 10 mins away. I came here in 2006, it was Lisa’s first visit, and it seemed the city has been modernised since my last visit – probably due to the 2008 Olympics, signs in English were a particuarly nice improvement.  Still a large police presence and plenty of communist monuments – Mao is still the man.

We went through the impressive South Gate and into the hutongs (alleys) beyond, quite chaotic, stinky, and a stark contrast to the spotlessness of Tianaman Square across the road. We found a restaurant packed with locals and went in for our first Peking Duck – lovely jubbly 🙂

On the way back to the hotel we walked through the buzzing Wangfujing Dajie street, with it’s markets selling anything from souvenirs to strange snacks such as live scorpions or star fish on a stick – grilled on demand. Of course everything could be bartered for, I love that and bought a copper Buddha head (Mum, expect a parcel!) getting nearly 50% of the initial price 🙂

Next morning we were up at 6am as we took a day trip to the Great Wall of China at Jinshanling. As we had not much time in Beijing we had prioritised visiting the wall and we were a little worried that it might rain and ruin the experience, thankfully though it was a sunny day. Visiting the wall in 2006 was one of the highlights of my trip, this time we visited a different part and it was equally impressive.  A massive engineering feat spanning as far as the eye can see, and considering it was built continuously from the 2nd century is even more remarkable.  In fact our guide referred to the wall as a giant cementary – in memory of the many soldiers who died building it.  There are several parts of the wall that can be visited including some very touristy sections, we opted for Jinshanling as it gave us the chance to hike along the wall.  I was a bit worried as there was a cable car to take people up to the wall, but actually it was a good time and energy saver as the wall is very steep in places. We hiked up and down for a few km from the cable car passing through watch towers along the way.  All the effort was worth it, first bit of exercise for a while, as the views and experience were great.

Once back in Beijing (the wall is a few hours drive) we went for more duck(I love it!) and then met the Swiss guys in the Hou Hai area, which has loads of bars located on a lake – very cool.  We went into a reggae bar that had Chinese guys with dreadlocks playing Bob Marley songs, amusing and surprisingly good.  After a few beers the Swiss guys got the munchies and on passing a stall selling fried scorpions and grasshoppers tucked in. Andi in particular seemed to enjoy it, trying pretty much everything! I couldn’t face it but Lisa tried a scorpion – tasted like crispy prawn apparently.

Next day we had a look round Beijing, we had intended to go into the forbidden city but it was packed and Lisa was feeling a bit icky (scorpion poisoning?) so checked out the Bahai Park and the Temple of Heaven instead.  Both have ancient Chinese buildings and are a nice place to wander through, retreat from the busy streets, and people watch.  The Temple of Heaven is architecturally impressive, and there seemed to be lots of Beijingers enjoying it’s grounds – especially a large group who were dancing!

In the evening we caught the train to Xi’an from the massive Beijing West station, which apparently is the biggest station in Asia.  It was pretty busy inside and when the train was announced it was a rugby scrum to get through ticket checking and onto the platform, once on the train though it was much more peaceful.  We were travelling hard sleeper class, which meant 6 berths to a cabin so we had less space than we were used to on the Trans-Sib but the beds unlike the name were soft! (soft sleeper class is 4 berth).  We were the only westerners on our carriage so we were travelling as the locals do, all of whom were really friendly and helpful in showing us which was our bunk.

We slept well and arrived in Xi’an about half an hour late at 07:45, we were immediately surprised about the weather as it was really hot – 25-30 degrees.  After checking into our very nice hostel it was time to put shorts on for the first time in the trip 🙂  We then headed for the bus station where we took a public bus about an hour out of the city to the site of the Terracotta Warriors, which were built around 2000 years ago depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang (first Emperor of China) at his mausoleum.  They are very impressive with each warrior having a different facial expression and stance.  It is estimated that 6000 warriors were made over about 100 years, and only 2000 have been unearthed.  They were discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well, and he was in the souvenir shop (7 days a week) to personally sign his book.  The escavation is ongoing and many of the warriors are discovered in many pieces and then painstakingly repaired by archiologists – a labourious job.  There are also chariots, horses, and bronze weapons in the tomb, it is incredible to think how much work was involved in the construction. 

We also visited the mausoleum of the Emporer, about 1.5kmn from the warriors, basically a big mound covered in trees – not much to see(they have not looked inside) but the grounds were nice.

Back in Xi’an we chilled out in the hostel bar and tried to call home but unfortunately China’s internet is rubbish, sorry Mum, they filter everything which makes things slow and sites such as Facebook are blocked.  Today we checked out central Xi’an including the Bell and Drum towers, and the vibrant Muslim quarter with its street food and markets – seems like a nice city and being much smaller than Beijing much easier to get around.

Tonight we are taking the train to Xining where we will spend half a day sorting our permits and tour for Tibet before taking a 24 hour train to Lhasa tomorrow afternoon.  We should arrive in Lhasa on Thursday and are very excited about travelling through Tibet.  I suspect the internet will be even worse there so will post the next update probably from Shanghai around May 6th.

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