Sunday, April 26, 2009

Two Weeks on the Trans-Mongolian Railway

Welcome to the best, most bizarre experience of my life!
Well, I didn't start the trip on the most positive note. It was probably the lack of sleep, but I spent the whole day bitching to myself about the insanity of getting up so early, of going to where we don't speak the language, of leaving home for a whole year, and the about boredom of long haul flights (very boring, even with all the TV/movie options) Finally, however, we arrived in Beijing to be greeted by oppressive heat (and me carrying my coat) and our transfer to the hotel. Crazy Chinese drivers aside, we made it to the hotel nice and easy, and were checked in with minimal fuss. We made it to our room and more or less just crashed. The hotel wasn't much, but it was clean enough, with air conditioning and an en suite, so that was fine. The biggest issue was twin (instead of a double) beds, but I gather that's normal for Asia.
We started our first day with the search for food. Andrew had spotted a 7-11 the night before so we headed for that. Unfortunately, it was quite a hike, but eventually we found it, negotiated our way through a lack of English labels and bought bread, water and Pocari Sweat (a sports drink) and ate breakfast outside. From there we went back to the hotel for sunscreen reapplication (mm, blue sunscreen with cactus extract....) then decided to head for the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, our map apparently didn't match the actual streets (may or may not have something to do with all the construction works) and it wasn't long before we were slightly lost. We stopped to look at our map and after a few minutes a friendly older man came to give us a hand. He didn't speak much English, but with a lot of pointing to the map and hand gestures, we indicated where we were headed and he pointed us in the right direction. He seemed very impressed (gave me a thumbs up) when I thanked him in Chinese - sadly just about the extent of what I remember from high school. We knew we were reaching a tourist area when people started offering rickshaw rides. We bought frozen water off the back of a guy's bicycle as we reached the moat of the Forbidden City and headed into Jingshen park to the North of the city. This is a nice enough park, with the main claims to fame being hills created by the excavation of aforementioned moat, with 5 pagodas on top (all of which used to contain buddhas, but now only the central one does, the others having been stolen by the Eight Allied Powers (don't ask, I don't know) early last century)
From there we headed into the Forbidden City, where we accidentally ended up with 2 automatic guides instead of one (trouble with having to point) but it was just as well as the only came with one earphone each and don't replay. They are kind of cool though - they sense where you are up to and talk about the relevant features, so you can take any path through the city you like. Some of the messages ended up a little bizarre though as apparently it assumed that you started at the other end of the city from what we did, so it kept directing us back to where we'd come from. Partway through the city we got ambushed by a bloke claiming to be a student, wanting us to see an art show. No matter we put him off he kept coming back, so eventually we gave in. The art was amazing but a totally impractical souvenir so we passed on it. We later discovered that the art show ploy was common through Beijing, and most of the artworks were copies. The Forbidden City was amazing but huge, so we didn't manage to see all of it. One of the major buildings was undergoing restoration work too. We did by chops (stamps) with our names in English and Chinese on them, and topped by our Chinese starsign - we even got to watch them being carved. By the time we made it out of the Forbidden City and into Tianamen Square, we were exhausted and my legs were stiff, so we pretty much just caught a cab back to the hotel. From there we took a rest then headed out for dinner, taking what we thought was the easy option - Maccas. Turned out the menu was in Chinese, with virtually nothing recognisable. After we had stood there for a few minutes though, one of the girls beckoned to us and pulled out an English menu card, and we were able to order through pointing. We finished the day by grabbing a few supplies at the supermarket next door (much closer than the 7-11), booking a Great Wall tour, and heading for bed.
The next day started bright and early, with us having to be in the lobby ready to be picked up between 7:30 and 8. Our group consisted of us, and American girl in China teaching English and a Chinese girl showing her around. There was also a trainee guide in addition to our 'English speaking' guide (I understood about every 3rd word). Also, in addition to the advertised Great Wall and Ming tomb visits, plus lunch, our tour apparently included stops at a jade factory and tea house, both of which were government run, and clearly a ploy to get us to buy stuff. Still, it was interesting and I was amused. The Great Wall (Badaling section) was very cool (just being there was cool) but much steeper than I'd realised.
We were given two hours to climb it, so we allowed 1 up and 1 down. In one hour, we made it to tower 4 of 6, and headed back down, legs shaking. A guy made us pose with him and a Mongolian weapon (I though it was a sales trick at first but apparently he just wanted a picture of us) and I was receiving so many stares that I was beginning to feel like a freak (apparently pale is 'in' in China, making me cool for the first time in my life and explaining all the women with umbrellas - everything from plain to embroidered) From there we had lunch, which wasn't very good. I know coming from me that doesn't say much, but the Chinese girl was particularly unimpressed, and I think the restaurant catered for foreigners who don't know better. The Ming Tombs (or tomb truthfully, as that was all we saw) weren't hugely interesting except for the concept of stepping through the gate between heaven and Earth and having to shake off spirits on the way back.
Finally via the tea house we made it back to the hotel in time to dump our stuff and meet our Vodkatrain group. People trickled in and conversation started slowly, but as we filled in paperwork most of us (a couple arrived late) got chatting and six out of 10 headed off to dinner together. We ate on the roof of this funky little bar/cafe with Hannah, a teacher from England, Catherine, who's Irish but teaches English in Japan, Lena, a Dane who lives in England, and Lenny, a Kiwi electrician. We all shared basic info and Andrew and I copped some mild derision for being a couple (though thankfully not the only one).

The next day the group spent separately as we had all spent varying amounts of time in China, from Hannah who arrived an hour before the meeting, to Lena who spent several weeks travelling the country first. Andrew and I headed to the Summer Palace which was amazing and beautiful and huge (more like a park with buildings) but we were beginning to feel that all Chinese monuments were the same, so we didn't see it all. I was too sick of steps to climb the Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha (Andrew did and there was a cool statue up there, but not enough to justify the steps to me) and we were both tired after days of walking so we decided to go to the Temple of Heaven. First we encountered a taxi driver who wanted to bargain, quoting a price we thought was too steep, and when we insisted on using the meter, we were whisked into another cab, which ended up costing more than the quoted price anyway. We entered the Temple of Heaven grounds, but did little more than eat lunch and use the toilets (mostly squats but fortunately one western one) before heading to the Pearl Market (across the road) so I could buy a charm for my souvenir. A most unusual place - multi-level selling everything from electronics to clothes to jewellery (including pearls) it must be a really hard place to work because everyone is selling the same stuff virtually. I found my charms and we left. Another bargaining taxi driver wanted to charge us a price we knew was too much, due to the traffic, but we were too tired to argue.
And finally, the following day, we left Beijing. The day started very early with us having to be in the lobby by 6:20am. We met the remaining members of the group - Oli, from Wales, Hannah (another one) from England and Dave and Nuala, the other couple, who are English, and we all headed off to the station and the Trans-Mongolian Railway at last. Once on the train, we found it to be fairly boring with the major highlight being stopping at stations and buying food.
We slept, read and ate. We hit the Chinese/Mongolian border in the evening and spent a couple of hours on the station talking, eating, singing (a guy from another Vodkatrain group had a guitar) and with a bunch of guys playing soccer, while the bogeys (wheels) were changed to fit the Mongolian and Russian tracks. Customs was boring but painless in both countries and finally we could sleep.
China is hot, crazy, a bizarre mix of ancient and modern with slummy and...less slummy areas. Fashion fascinated me with everything from traditional/semi-traditional, to stuff that would be the height of fashion at home to the bizarre, and babies with their bums hanging out (apparently nappies aren't done, so babies clothes don't cover their bum. I don't know what they do though....) There is just enough English to let you get by and little enough (and badly translated enough) to confuse and bewilder.
We reached Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, in the early afternoon and where greeted by our rather hyper honcho, Elmira (we did have one in Beijing, but he was pretty much a non-event) After a couple of hours in our hotel (no air conditioning this time, but Andrew and I had a fan. We found out later we were the only ones) to shower, we were taken to the museum, a cultural show and dinner at a Mongolian BBQ, which felt like a tacky theme restaurant. We all had phrase books and were learning important words. Sain bain uu! (San ban or - hello) We went to a pub on the way back to the hotel for a drink and I got a not-cold milkshake....scary.
Day 2 in Mongolia didn't start well, with our bus driver not showing up. Elmira sorted it out but we had to leave our bags at the hotel and catch taxis to the monastery. We were shown around by a monk and there was a really cool buddha statue, and some monks in BMWs, then we were picked up by the bus, collected our bags, bought supplies (mostly water) and headed out to the Ger camp. The countryside is where Mongolia really shines. Ulaan Baatar is a bit of a mess really (though the Gers in the city are kind of amusing - 60% still live in them) but the country is amazing - it looks like the set of a Western movie (and the temperature matches). We (along with the other Vodkatrain group previously mentioned) were given 5 gers a 5 minute walk from, and out of sight of (thanks to a hill) the main campsite. They are accompanied by a long drop toilet - thankfully there were real toilets at the main camp so I managed to avoid using it. After lunch we headed out to Turtle Rock (just what it sounds like) which we climbed - including slithering through a little gap, then we visited a nomad family. This obligated me to taste airag (fermented mares milk, as delightful as it sounds) and we had a fascinating conversation using our phrase books ("Are you spending the summer well?" nod "Are the cattle fattening well?" nod "Is it going to rain?" shake, at which point we ran out of relevant phrases). From here we went to a horse show, which also included music, archery, contortion, and wrestling - Lenny, Dave and Oli had a go at this, then we went back to the camp for dinner of buuz (borz - mutton dumplings) and a kind of beef pastie. We were able to watch (Andrew and I did) The Weeping Camel, a film about a nomad family, in one of the gers, and dress in traditional costume. There were two 'football' (one soccer, one rugby) games, and finally, in the blessedly cool night we went to bed.
The following day consisted of breakfast before a horse ride - one of the best experiences of my life. Nuala and I decided to have our showers after this, but ended up miserable as part way through a pipe burst (didn't know this till afterwards) and we lost all pressure :( We quickly packed and headed back into Ulaan Baatar to buy supplies (food too this time) and hop back on the train.
Four days on the train was a lot like a 4 day pajama party with no showers and bad food (I may never eat pot noodles again) The first evening had us reaching the border, with the Russians being much more thorough than the Chinese or Mongolians had been, and still missing all the smuggled goods (We had a woman trying to get us to take a couple of pairs of pants, Oli agreed to mind some jeans for the carriage attendant and one of our compartments had some blankets stashed in it) which suddenly reappeared as soon as they got off, which was around 3am. I fell asleep waiting for the toilet to be opened (they're shut at stations as they empty directly onto the tracks) and was awake at 5:30 watching the sunrise (accidental but very cool) Days on the train started very slowly with everyone (except me) sleeping quite late. We then lounged around reading, talking, listening to music. The highlight was once again stopping at stations, this time because the traders all got off and the station suddenly became a mad market place selling everything from clothes to curtains. We made friends with traders - Oli has quite a talent, and by the last day was selling towels (or at least trying to), Andrew and I got shanghaied in the dining car into a lunch we didn't want and couldn't eat and were then charged USD34 for! The first two days were stinking hot, before the weather turned cool, several of us didn't bother to change out of pyjamas (I did only when I got Vegemite on mine) and the Russian countryside is very boring, consisting of trees, fields, chalet type cottages with bright blue and green window frames, grubby industrial areas and one very big lake (looks like the sea) Poor Lena spent the entire time sick and only perked up on the last day.
At last we reached Moscow, and were greeted by another hyper honcho, Marina. We were her first group, poor girl. She knew nothing about registering our passports/visas (required in Russia), Dave and Nuala complained so much about being in separate rooms (there was a girls dorm and a guys dorm) that they ended up moving to a hotel and Lenny and Oli never stopped talking. We were given time to shower, then we took a walk to Red Square (closed at that hour) and went to dinner at a buffet - sort of. It was laid out like a buffet, with people to serve, but you paid for what you took. All of us staying in the hostel (which will be nice when the renovations are finished!) except Andrew and Lena headed out for a drink. The place Hannah (the first one, the loud one) was leading us to turned out to be too swish for us, so we found another, which was pretty cool. We headed back via a photographic display in a park.
Our one full day in Moscow started with breakfast in a similar style to dinner the night before, then we headed back to Red Square. Marina directed us to buy tickets to the Kremlin and stash our (read: Andrew's) bags at the luggage check, then join the queue, or bribe the officials, to see Lenin's mausoleum. She took Lena to the British Airways office to try to get an earlier flight home. We finally met Dave and Nuala in the queue (there had been confusion about the time), and Andrew took them to ditch their bags, before we bribed the officials (Loud Hannah was horrified, but it seems to be the norm) I am quite convinced 'Lenin' is a wax dummy. We wandered Red Square and checked out St Basil's Cathedral, before meeting Marina (Lena-less, she still hadn't sorted it) then going to the Kremlin where we basically saw more churches - interesting but only to a point. From there, we met Marina again and she took us to lunch in a funky little underground place we never would have found on our own. From there we wandered a bit, met up with Lena (who still didn't have an earlier flight) and checked out a shopping street, before heading to dinner in another funky little place, that appeared to have been built in a tunnel. The menu was only in Russian, so Marina had to translate for us. From there, Andrew and I headed back to the hostel, while the others headed out for drinks that they never managed to get.
Our final day in Moscow, had Andrew, 'other' Hannah and I, heading out for a 'quick' breakfast with Marina, where the waiter was stoned and thus breakfast took forever. Lena and Catherine joined us (since Andrew and I had been supposed to meet them) then we finally met loud Hannah at the baths. Andrew and I decided not to partake as it was getting late, and we didn't have enough cash left, so Marina took us to try to find somewhere to exchange our remaining Mongolian money - no luck. We returned to the hostel to wait for loud Hannah and our taxi to the airport.
After two mad weeks, we finally flew to London, where my brother did not meet us at the airport (due to being asleep), but did give us tube instructions and has given us a place to stay. We've had dinner at a pub, sorted our bank accounts, seen Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, the Millennium Eye (not been on it yet), and the Star Wars Exhibition. Just speaking English makes it feel like home.

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