Beijing, Summer Palace and the Great Wall of China.

Due to our limited time schedule and what we wanted to see, we booked a private guide for the day. Mr Ping was our man and what a day we had! Jam packed of so much awesomeness, with a large helping of tranquility and peace.

Started off at the Summer Palace, a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palatial buildings. It is mainly dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming lake, of which the later takes up three quarters of the 720-acre expanse. Longevity Hill is about 60 meters high and was entirely man made as a result of the excavated soil from the lake. Although it was absolutely overrun with tourists, there was still an incredible sense of peace and tranquility throughout the whole entire Palace.

Drove past the Water Cube and Birds Nest from the 2008 Olympic Games….

Guess what… China has a Chinatown. In Beijing there is an area called Chinatown, it is a place that celebrates all the 56 nationalities that are present within China. We also stopped off here to check out some delicious Chinese Tea and learn a little about it all…

Headed out to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and on the way came across a crazy sight… they had harvested corn in the fields, then just laid it all out on the road! So the road was down to one lane through parts of the village we were driving through…

We also stopped in at a place where they make Cloisonne… such an incredibly intricate process from the Ming Dynasty. First up they make the object out of copper, then add by hand thin copper wires. Next they fill in with coloured enamel, fire it, polish it, glaze it, polish it. Making one vase can take weeks…

Made it to the Mutianyu section of the wall after all the crowds had left from the morning. Perfect. Rode the cable car up to the wall and then hiked up and down it for a couple of hours…

Such an amazing feat of construction. This particular section was first built in the mid sixth century during the Northern Qi. In the Ming dynasty, under the supervision of General Xu Da, construction of the present wall began on the foundation of the wall of Northern Qi. In 1569, the Mutianyu Great Wall was rebuilt and till today most parts of it are well preserved. This particular section has the largest construction scale and best quality amoung the sections of the wall. Built mainly with granity, the wall is 7-8.5m high and 4-5 meters wide in sections on the top.

Once we were done, we tobogganed down! Amazing. Kind of like being in a small cart on a bobsled track… got told off on every single corner for going too fast!

Made it back into the city eventually. Traffic is insane here in Beijing in most parts. Haven’t seen as many bicycles around the city as I thought I would, turns out with the rise of China there are many more cars these days.

Went and hunted out another restaurant recommendation this evening, Source.

The Chinese can eat some food. I just can’t keep up! You could order one of two set menus of different price depending on the ingredients. You didn’t know what you were getting, they just kept bringing it out… and bringing it out…. annnnnnd bringing it out. Full spicy bellies all around!

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Peking Duck in Peking.

We had a place in mind that had been recommended, so off we set this evening in search of it. Found it eventually down an entrance to a Hutong and tucked in deliciously…

So it turns out Chinese restaurants back home are super authentic… as here they too have plastic over the tablecloths, pictures in the menu and napkins that do diddly squat. Loved it. Have a new level of appreciation for Chinese restaurants and their authenticity back home now!

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TransMongolian: Day Seven.

Awoke this morning to rural China, full of smog…

Received a voucher last night for a free breakfast in the restaurant car, so headed off with semi grand sights in mind as we had read that the Chinese restaurant car was by far the best out of all three. Sadly, we were mistaken. Upon sitting down we received two pieces of cold bread, an egg, hard butter and some jam. Asking for the menu… we were told there wasn’t one. Riiiight.

Was waiting for Kilometer 284 between Datong and Zhangjiakou to catch a glimpse of the Great Wall as we ran parallel to it. Almost missed it for the smog, but got it just at the right moment…

Not long after we were climbing through the spectacular mountains north of Beijing. Many of the valleys were filled with apple orchards lining the rivers…

The closer we got to Beijing, the more intense the smog.

Seven days, six nights and 7865 km later we arrived in Beijing just after 2pm…

Wow. Just wow. What a trip. Almost can’t process everything my eyes have seen in the last week. So much gone on by! Trip of a lifetime though… absolutely. Wont be rushing to do it again in a hurry, and next time I am totally taking my pot for a cook up on the coal burner like the Chinese attendants do. Pot noodles were never my friend, and even less so now.

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TransMongolian: Day Six.

Awaking this morning we were pulling out of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. We were surprised to see so many yurts in the suburbs as we passed through…

Braved the Mongolian restaurant car that had been attached in Ulaanbaatar in search of some breakfast…. Usually it is a piece of fruit and a cup of tea alas stocks are getting low. Upon deciding what we wanted from the ten page menu, we tried to order it, only to find that the only things were available were an omelet with onion, omelet with sausage or two eggs on bread (note bread, not toast). I went for the omelet with sausage…

Paying became another issue. Last night we changed some roubles into tughrik with a rouge trader passing through the train (the scots next door informed us of the going rate and the okay rate) and attempted to pay for a seven-thousand something breakfast with a ten thousand note. Apparently we could come back after three pm for our change. Then we tried to pay with a five thousand note and say we would pay the rest in the afternoon. Eventually, change appeared. And to think this is an enterprise!

Spent the entire day traveling through the Gobi Desert. Even less variety than the days of the Russian birch… at least they change density frequently!

Here are the two windows I spend the vast majority of my time, one in the compartment and the other one directly outside our compartment door in the hallway…

Length of the hallway, the samovar (water boiler) and our toilet…

I swear I will get off this train and instinctively attempt to flush toilets with the foot pedal!

Still out in the Gobi Desert…

Stopped at Choyr station where there is a statue painted in silver out front of VVT Ertvuntz… the first Mongolian Cosmonaut. The soviet airbase here has now closed.

More station action… the first we passed through, stopped for two minutes and left, the second being Saynshand, here looking back to the town of 29,400 inhabitants…

Still traveling through the desert at dusk…

Spent an hour and half at the Mongolian border crossing at Dzamyn Ude before going 20 minutes further south and spending four hours at the Chinese border crossing at Erlian. As soon as the train pulls up they start playing The Vienna Waltz… so bizarre and surreal, especially when you see the weird fountains they have along the platform! The main reason for such a length at this crossing is for the bogie-changing. The Chinese railway system operates on standard gauge (as do Europe and North America), which is three and a half inches narrower than the five foot gauge in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Giant hydraulic lifts in the bogie changing shed lift up the carriages individually while the bogies are rolled out and replaced…

Such a fascinating procedure to watch out the train windows while we are all hoisted up in the air! Back on the platform waiting for them to connect the train up again and await our departure…

The other highlight of the day, apart from the bogie changing, was finally getting some windows to be opened… changes the whole photo taking experience dramatically!

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TransMongolian: Day Five.

All the days have rolled into one with the only distinguishable feature coming with the mental calculations between the kilometer markers, time in Moscow and whatever it may now be here, crosschecked against the piece of paper on the wall letting us know when and how long we may step off the train for. Between this are loose mealtimes, happening when you want a break in book reading, watching out the window, or sometimes simply when you want something new to do. I dreamt of fresh vegetables last night, in my incredibly broken sleep. I think that adds to the delirium too… the first night or two are fine, but when you are four nights in between the lack of exercise and being busy coupled with the forever moving train sleep becomes a foreign concept, there is only rest.

Today in the corridor (where most conversations happen) we joked about going back to civilization and upon rising from the toilet we will turn around and instinctively push the foot pedal. That’s what the train does to you.

Started this morning with I would like to say completely new scenery, when in reality it was only ninety percent… those birch trees are still lurking. Lake Baikal was the first order of the day, most of the train arose early to catch a glimpse of it as we trailed along her shores, unfortunately it was still dark when we rose at 7:30am and when we tried again an hour later the inclement weather hindered most of the photo taking with such low blue light.

Eventually, just as we started to turn inland away from the lake the weather started to clear…

Lake Baikal is 1637m deep and is estimated to contain more than 20,000 cubic kilometers of water, roughly twenty percent of the world’s freshwater drinking supplies. Known as the ‘Blue Eye of Siberia’, it is the world’s oldest lake, formed almost fifty million years ago. It is also among the planet’s largest lakes; about 400 miles long and between 20 and 40 miles wide. The lakes remoteness kept it safe from environmental damage until the building of the Trans Siberian railway at the end of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately now, due to industry surrounding the lake including a large wood pulp mill at Baikalsk, pollution is rife with inefficient government law.

Looking out the back window down the train tracks later in the morning…

According to retrospective cross referencing with the book, the following photo is either Timlyuy, Talovka or Lesovozny…

Stopping at Ulan-Ude, changed locomotives, picked up supplies and strolled the platform before jumping back on and rolling slowly through the suburbs. Looks a lot bigger than the 386,000 people that live there… went for miles.

Up in the mountains passing through Selenduma…

Spent the first hour of today in the snow, then thought we had passed through it all and it cleared as we were heading south in to Mongolia. Late afternoon we rose through some elevation and went back into the freezing cold and snow…

Blanketed wonderland…

This evening we spent three and a half hours at the Russian border, went half an hour down the tracks and spent two hours at the Mongolian border. The Russian took longer than anticipated, but then the fuwuyuen (carriage attendant) wouldn’t let us out!!! We weren’t overly concerned with the two hours coming up at the Mongolian border in half an hour… after all the proceedings were over, they still wouldn’t let us out!!! Cabin fever getting rife today as we have only been out once for 20 minutes earlier this morning…

The blanket incident also happened today. On the first night Dad stole the two out of the four blankets from the compartment next door. Two Dutch gentlemen got on at 5:30am this morning and later this morning when we were talking to them they asked if we just had the small blankets they had… we said we had more and to ask the attendant for some more. A while later, the attendant came around and figured out we had two blankets each on the top of the bed. A numbers game followed, he tried to take them off, I tried to stop them and inform him that there was three carriages full of empty compartments… so go take those! It wasn’t till dad got up, raised his voice and lead him down the corridor that he finally got blankets out of an empty compartment. As dad said, that’s communism for you! One blanket each, no matter how freezing it is when they fall asleep and don’t stoke the heater!

At the end of our train is one Russian car with a provodnitsa (Russian women attendant, provodnik is a Russian male attendant, fuwuyuen in Chinese) which is the cleanest car of the lot by a mile. The attendants are supposed to vacuum everyday, clean the toilets and bathrooms, keep the heaters running, the samovar (water boiler) warm and provide clean sheets for the compartments. The 004 TransMongolian train is actually a Chinese train, so all the attendants are Chinese men bar the last car which is a Russian car tacked on the end with a provodnitsa. Turns out the fuwuyuen are more interested in sitting around smoking in the empty compartments, gambling and having the most insane cookups multiple times a day on the coal rage for the heaters at the end of each carriage! Occasionally they will douse the toilet with a spray of water, and mop a half square meter of floor. That’s all we have seen them do in a week. Almost like I will get out the vacuum and do it tomorrow, not just for something new and energetic to do, but for the levels of dirtiness impending around these parts!

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TransMongolian: Day Four.

Bumpy night last night, not much sleep to be had anywhere. Its almost like they speed up the trains at night and slow down in the day time?! First daylight stop of the day was Krasnoyarsk. We do stop about every four hours… but there is no way I am getting out of bed to go snap a picture in the darkness in some unknown temperature… stepping off in the daytime is an balmy -2 degrees at the moment!

Made our way down to the restaurant car in search of brunch… we have been getting up about 9-10am in the morning as with the blackout curtains, our flat out schedule everyday and loosing multiple hours every day across time zones, that’s just what happens. Snapping out the window during breakfast…

Landscape has changed quite dramatically today, we are weaving our way through rolling hills, alpine looking forests, across multitudes of rivers all blanketed in snow. We are sure we don’t want to live here if this is what the snow is like at the end of October in autumn! Does make for pretty window watching however. Snaking out way up a hill…

Next stop of the day was Ilanskaya where the platform was filled with ladies and their carts selling food and drink. This is the way I had expected it to be from what I had read, rather than the little kiosk huts we had been seeing.

Had a little buy up…  cured sausage, a piece of chicken, what we thought was a Russian pancake that turned out to be an average completely solid donut like thing, sweet pancake filled with cheese and a waffle rolled with condensed caramel. The waffle won the stakes, and the sausage was pretty decent later too. Always a gamble, but always one we are happy to play!

Spent a lot more time by the window with a camera in hand today attempting to pictorially describe this epic journey… with such dirty windows and a compact its more a numbers game than a quality one at this stage. Common sights…

If it was an accurate representation of common window sights… I would have ninety one photos of birch trees, four of alpine like trees, two of wooden shacks, one of a river and one of a large industrial town.

By late afternoon the snow had really set in. When walking to the restaurant car for some potatoes to compliment our platform sausage and chicken we were greeted with this sight clambering through the ends of each carriage…

Didn’t realize just how heavy the snow had got when I attempted to step off the train at our stop in Nizhneudinsk, and realized I couldn’t or my slippers would get nailed… felt like an idiot carrying around my winter slippers in thirty degree heat in Morocco, now they are a godsend and are always on my feet every waking moment!

The snow is continuing to fall as I write this, occasionally I can see it when we pass through large lights. Tomorrow might be a blanket when we wake up… or it may not be. That’s the thing when you travel about 600-700km in a night!

Only passed through one time zone today. Dad and I have a little ritual going, he will call out the kilometer post reading from out the window with his face pressed to the glass and I will cross check it with the book and read about what we are passing through. A lot of the information is about the railway, when towns were built, brief history of places and areas. It is amazing to learn how many places have come about as a result of the prosperous nature of the railway. When the railway was complete in the very late 1800s, the first journeys took around forty hard days. Seven is long enough for me thanks!

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TransMongolian: Day Three.

Got a new carriage and driver at 1:30am this morning so had a smoother ride from then. Awoke just in time (black out curtains are ideal sometimes, not others… but have to keep them closed at night as the window is too draughty) for our first daylight stop…

Somehow the day has slowly disappeared between watching out the window, book reading, talking, making food and cups of tea, just general fluffing. Cranes out the window on the way into Omsk…

Sunset late evening out the window, amongst the birch trees… as if it would be amongst anything else out here in Siberia… beginning to think that’s all there is out here….

Check out the metal sections that flip in the road when a train is coming past….

Women selling smoked fish on the platform…

There was about a dozen of them, all hawking their wares. These were in addition to the kiosks that adorn most of the platforms that sell drinks and snacks. Dad brought some bun things from a woman, thought they were filled with sausage… turned out to be potato wrapped in a dough and deep fried. Was warm when he brought them but by the time we had boarded the train and escaped the -2 degree weather outside they were cold! Average at best, but its not like you really need to polish much if any food off as sitting doesn’t require a great deal of energy.

Didn’t pass through many places of importance today (have this wonderful book that informs us of what we are passing through in reference to the kilometer markers on the south side of the tracks) but did go through another time zone. All the trains run on Moscow time, makes it interesting to calculate stops and when you should go to bed/rise and eat! Plenty of time for the mental calculations though… plenty of time for everything, but somehow, the day escapes you and you are back down to bed again!

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TransMongolian: Day Two.

Are you ready for the onslaught in pictures out the train window?! Actually, surprisingly I didn’t take that many. There is no way an onslaught of pictures would ever be able to convey this journey. Sure, having a time lapse camera might, but you will only get one sense of it… not what it is actually like to live it for a week.

A few hours after leaving the station last night our carriage was still freezing cold but even when they finally fixed the heating (done by a coal shoveled boiler at the end of each carriage!) it still wasn’t balmy as it should have been. We have no neighbors through our bathroom yet so Dad promptly stole their blankets at bed time to stop us freezing to death. Still was a little chilly.

For some reason, it never occurred to me that we would be sleeping on a moving train for six nights. It never occurred to me. Not with all the planning, the thinking, the envisaging the journey. I laugh at it now. Bed time is a rather interesting affair… all the bumps, grinds and halts are felt at a completely new level.

I did sleep well however (or as well as one could hope on such a journey) and with the black out curtains we were up at a leisurely pace this morning. Not long after was our first daylight stop of the day so we got off for a stroll and caught them hand loading coal into each compartment…

The majority of today’s scenery has been birch trees and small wooden houses. I wonder what they are like in the depths of winter, I am sure for all the years they have existed here in such temperatures they have them well sorted, it just bears such a strange sight to the rest of Europe.

Arriving into Perm…

For our last daylight stop on the cusp of dusk. Dad was out cleaning the windows again (so incredibly filthy) and we saw them loading postal freight into the front carriage…

We stop about every four hours, different things happen at different times… this morning it was coal, this evening it was water. We stop anywhere from 10 to 23 minutes, but you never move far and you never spend the entire time off the train in fear of it leaving without you! It seriously just glides away from the platform… no announcement, no whistle, no nothing. Always leave the train with your passport just in case! Fingers crossed we always make it.

Braved the restaurant car at dinner…

Was surprisingly better than we expected. Not that we were expecting much, but it was actually cooked fresh. A change from the weird breakfast we had reheated in cardboard on the way from St Petersburg to Moscow!

From my walk through of the train this afternoon, it seems that there is almost as many staff as passengers. I would say that there would be about 25-30 passengers with about 20 staff. I know we are traveling in the shoulder season… but I expected there to be more than five people in our entire carriage that sleeps 16!

Places of interest that we passed through today… Mendeleevo (the town named after Dmmitri Mendeleevo who invented the periodic table, he often visited the down during his inspection of plants) and Chaykovskaya (the stationed named after composer Tchaikovsky who was born 180km south of here). Passed through two time zones and got a new locomotive and by the feel of it a new driver at our afternoon stop in Balyezino… lets hope he learns to drive or changes shortly so we get some sleep!

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Boarding the TransMongolian: Day One.

Stepped on just a little before 21:35 to our digs for the next week…

Super cozy, SUPER EXCITED!

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Moscow.

Weird and strange were the flavours of the day. Started at the All Russian Exhibition Centre where the old initials by which it’s still commonly known, VDNKh, tell half the story – they stand for Vystavka Dostizheny Narodnogo Khozyaystva SSSR (USSR Economic Achievements Exhibition). It was built in the 1930s, expanded in the 1950s and ‘60s to impress upon one and all the success of the Soviet economic system and cut of by 1990 from funding. Now today it stands as a strange place with its pavilions given over to miss match of sales of the very imported goods that were supposed to be inferior. And some super eerie music blasted through the park!

Walked passed Cathedral of Christ the Savior…

And over the river…

Before stopping at United Kitchen for a delicious lunch…

On our way to The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography… that was closed. They were installing the next exhibition today so we couldn’t have a look through all the galleries. Subsequently we went in search of another gallery in the same area… we finally found it, got super confused trying to find the entrance in the stairwell before finally concluding perhaps the stairwell was the exhibition? Still not sure… as I said, strange day.

Spent the next few hours this afternoon in search of large cups to take on the train with us. Russian shopping centers are weird places, just like their metro supermarkets. Rabbit warrens galore and nothing of what you would expect! Do you think we could find a vessel of some description?! Yes would be the answer, no would be the result. We eventually stumbled on some absolutely delightful mugs… which shall see us through the week. That is if they don’t break.

Also saw some Metro Palaces on our way home…

Since arriving in Moscow a few people have asked us where we are going next… when we reply Beijing, they look super perplexed! Turns out the majority of tourism here in Russia is just for the train routes, and as much as I have read about how the locals take it as their main form of transport it is transpiring that perhaps they do not? Or maybe just not as far as us crazy people…

Tonight we will board the 004 train bound for Beijing. We will pull out of Moscow at 21:35 and arrive into Bejing Monday at 14:04 after six nights on the train… see you next week!

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