To the End – Beijing

Thursday 7th November
As we said goodbye to Odka and boarded our final train at around 7am I (we) knew that this stage of our journey was coming to a close. For all of us except Sara it was the beginning of something longer and before I go further I want to say this: Guys i don’t want to get all mushy about it but if the people I meet in New Zealand in a weeks time are half as decent as you I’ll still be in for a good time.

As we boarded I found out our family was being split up slightly earlier than planned and I was to be in the cabin with one of the groups we’d met the night before. I ended up spending most of my time inviting myself round to Paul, Clare, Callum and Fi’s cabin a bit like Kramer from Seinfeld. The 4th space in the 2nd cabin (Sara, Gary and Chris) was taken by a local and more shall be said about him later.

After having a nap I awoke just as we left Choir and started to cross the Gobi desert. i looked out of the window for a bit and decided to get some lunch which as before consisted of a king size super spicy Bombay Badboy pot noodle equivalent and the staple instant mash. After looking out of the window some more I realised that whilst it was amazing to be crossing the desert there wasn’t much variation to the view except the occasional herd of horses. I therefore decided to have another nap.

I awoke to hear Paul talking about going to the restaurant car, the code name for beer(s) and I couldn’t jump down from the bunk quick enough. First though we had one final chance to stretch our legs at a station as we had a long stop which we wouldn’t have again until we arrived in Beijing which was still over 20 hours away.

We must have spent a few hours in the restaurant car because the sun started to set which was pretty but I still maintain that on a good day Aberystwyth is the best. I hadn’t had much to drink because I didn’t want to be drunk for the immigration process and left to get my final dinner of mash and noodles. Soon the others returned as the restaurant car had been closed. We were at the border.

As I was getting used to one of the officials took a dislike to me, this time because I’d been sitting on my bunk which hadn’t been a problem at any previous crossing or when I’d handed my passport over to his colleague a few minutes earlier. Still I apologised and scrambled down quickly for the second time in a few hours.

There was a minor scare when I couldn’t locate my customs declaration form that I’d completed on entry to Mongolia and which I thought we’d handed over and not had returned. I decided there were worse places I could be left behind but luckily I did find it, scrunched up in my hip pouch and what I handed in must have been ok because my passport was stamped and I was allowed over the border.

Next the cabin was searched and then we were given forms to complete for entry in to China. This time I made a note to safely look after the departure form which was returned to me in case I needed it when it came to leaving. I did however start to complete the customs form only for half way through to realise I only had to do so if I had something to declare (which I didn’t).

When we reached the Chinese side of the border we were told that we had to remain on the train which was annoying for me as I had a bit of the Mongolian currency I had hoped to exchange left over. It did however mean I had plenty of time to get to know the guys I was sharing a cabin with.

We were also at the part of the process which seemed a bit surreal. I had learnt during the journey that whilst the ‘Transmonglian Railway’ is one route the track width used in Russia/Mongolia is different to China. Rather than swapping trains, the carriages are lifted in to the air sometimes with the passengers still on board and the wheels are swapped.

We entered the shed and stared at the workman from the window wondering exactly when the process would start and how it would do so with us on board. After a while Chris noticed the workers had shrunk and we realised it was actually in full swing. I wasn’t sure if the immigration process was over but once we had been lowered it was gone midnight so I decided to have a nap. This nap ended up being bed as we were not disturbed again except for some violent sounding noises from the engine.

Friday 9th November
I awoke early by mistake but knew we would be passing the great wall at some point so gathered everything I might need for the next few hours and left the cabin. Sara was there as well and together we waited. Soon people started to join us and after a few false claims including one which appeared very wall like but turned out to be a house we saw it. Or at least we felt fairly convinced we had.

Gary who was normally very active looked a bit sorry for himself and it emerged that after everyone had gone to bed he’d started to use international language (alcohol) to communicate with the Mongolian staying in his cabin. Apparently sometime after the border crossing the two of them had left the train at a station to get fresh supplies. It sounded like a great experience and both spent most of the morning trying to sleep.

A few hours later and we were on the final approach to Beijing. Passing through a number of tunnels each time we emerged from one the scenery was different and spectacular. Unfortunately the windows were dirty and no photo could do the view justice.

As it was Fi’s birthday we had decided to see a acrobat show and once we arrived in Beijing we tried to seek help from the honcho of the group I had been sharing a cabin with. She didn’t look prepared to help advise us on how to book tickets so we went to plan b. Me and Sara would try to take a ride with Gary and his guide Peter back to our hostel where we would book the tickets. Luckily we could get all fit in which it later became apparent was a huge bit of good fortune because the metro was not only stupidly busy but the nearest station was a 30 minute walk away.

We got to the hostel and Peter booked the tickets. We agreed to all meet outside the theatre at 18.45 giving us some time to wash and sort ourselves out. To get to the theatre we took a bus and the metro and it made the rush hours of London, Moscow and St Petersburg look tame but I have to admit the signs were clear and out of them all it wins. Still I was done with trains and i made the decision there and then that i would get a taxi from the hotel when i needed to leave for the airport.

The Leeds lot were second to arrive and explained they had to get a rickshaw bike ride because the walk had been longer than expected however no one could contact the kids who had last told me they were at the wrong theatre. We went to the auditorium and showed Peter a picture of them so he could give them the tickets when they arrived. Amazingly they only missed about 5 minutes which was a introduction dance routine.

Some of the acts were stunning. The contortionist in Mongolia had been good but here were 5 where the finale was the same principle as in Mongolia but to be honest even more stunning. Other acts included a ballet dancer dancing on the shoulder and head of her male dancing companion. The finale was a ball of death where not 3 but 8 motorcyclists drove around and did various stunts. The whole show only lasted an hour but what an hour.

We tried to find somewhere to eat and shunning McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza hut we found what looked a cheap Chinese fast food style restaurant. We had no idea how the restaurant worked and we ended up just pointing at various things on the menu hoping for the best. The lady serving looked increasingly frantic and we later realised this was because they closed at 10 and it was already nearly 9.45. Still who would turn away a group of 8 hungry tourists?

Soon a pot was brought out with whatever sauce we had asked for which was put on to a hob in front of us Ah. We had to cook our own dinner. We all ordered far to much and i had dumplings, spinach and tofu which were all added to the mix. It tasted alright, the others seemed to enjoy theirs more but it didn’t help that my use of chopsticks is still pathetic which meant I could barely pick up the dumplings. It was however very cheap for the amount we got.

Leaving the restaurant we started to walk back to our hostels or luxurious hotel in the case of the Leeds lot. Finally we got to a cross roads where we said our goodbyes. Me Sara and Gary continued alone and started to realise how big a city Beijing was (if we hadn’t already been aware of this fact – though Katie Melua it is not a fact there are 9 million bicycles in the city).

We were probably temporally lost for about 10 minutes including a moment we thought we were very lost when even a taxi driver didn’t seem to know the street. I won’t go in to the details as they don’t matter but luckily when I took the map by a pure stroke of luck the first road name that caught my eye was the one we were on. Whilst we had begun to take a slight detour we weren’t far off and were back about 30 minutes later.

Saturday 10th November
Sara and I both had booked personal honchos in advance however we both wanted to do the Great Wall. The group I had shared a room with had also booked a trip with their honcho to the Great Wall. We all therefore felt as we had booked through the same parent company the local company would oblige us in going together to reduce the cost.

Sara and me were quoted (approx) £70 each for a individual taxi or £35 each if shared. The other group were paying (approx) £30 each for a minibus with 3 spare seats. If we all went in theirs it brought the cost down to £18 each. However the honchos were very reluctant to let us do this even to the extent that they tried to convince me and Sara to do a city tour instead. Unlike with Elena in Moscow we’d learnt our lesson and put our foot down. It was our day out not theirs.

Eventually they agreed and my honcho was despatched which was a shame because she seemed really sweet and more relaxed than Sara’s. The honcho of the other group ignored us for most of the day.

We finally arrived at the Great Wall and after agreeing a meeting place and time started to walk up. It quickly emerged the 3 lads were fitter than me and Sara and when we got to the top we quickly realised it wasn’t going to get any easier. We started by walking a relatively short section that still took nearly an hour and in the process accidentally ventured on to a part of the wall that is unrestored and meant to be closed to the public.

It really was stunning. Some of the must see sights in the world can be a bit underwhelming but maybe It’s because we were interacting with the wall we began to appreciate just how big it was and how much effort went in to creating it.

We double backed and began the tougher longer section. Some parts were so steep we had to climb with our hands to haul ourselves up the giant steps. Every time we thought we were at the end we’d round a corner and see another watch tower in the distance. Eventually having got to the top of a section that was particularly steep and with it getting towards the time we had to be back Sara and I dropped out going further.

The others continued on but I felt pleased with what I’d seen. The walk back was mostly down so quicker and eventually after about 40 minutes we were back at the start of the wall. During this period of time I convinced Sara to get a toboggan to the bottom as It’s not everyday you can say you tobogganed down the Great Wall of China. It actually also ended up being even more fun than we expected.

We got to the bottom and both honchos looked stressed. Apparently we were an hour late and obviously the others were still at the top somewhere. We got some homemade pancakes whilst we waited for the others to get down. After 15 minutes they arrived and around this time our Honcho said he’d have to leave early and wouldn’t be with us until 21:00 as we had originally been told. This was annoying because it meant we should have kept the one designated to me instead.

Once we got back to Beijing he showed us the direction of the food market and left us to it. Ironically this was the only time in the day we’d needed him. We had no idea what to eat so took to pointing however we soon realised the traders were trying to charge us tourist prices. We wanted to be a bit adventurous but when someone tries to charge you £6 for a spider you want to give up. After eating some fried dumplings (safe) and some snake which I couldn’t swallow quickly enough we left to get some restaurant food.

First though we went to Tiananmen Square and saw that all lit up which was quite spectacular. As expected the Forbidden City was closed off but we were able to see the Gate of Heavenly Peace (the Tiananmen) with the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging from it.

By now we were hungry so went to a restaurant the honcho had recommended. I wanted to be adventurous but decided snake was enough so went for deep fried spicy pork. Sara went for duck with mustard. When it arrived it emerged it was ducks feet. I had a nibble but it had no taste and mentally I couldn’t get over the fact it was ducks feet.

We returned to the hostel and saw Gary. We all decided to get a beer and soon the other group of lads joined us as well. We literally drank the hostel dry even though we only had one beer each and I decided to call it a night.

Sunday 11th November
My flight wasn’t until 1am on Monday so I had the day to explore the city. I’d arranged to do the forbidden city with Callum and Fi however checking out took longer than expected so I was a bit late.

I arrived at Tiananmen Square and saw a queue and as i couldn’t read any of the signs and I wasn’t sure what it was for naively kept going. I met up with Callum and Fi and only realised after the queue had been a security check to enter the square. I’m not quite sure how I managed to avoid that but it certainly saved some time.

We arrived at the entrance to the Gate of Heavenly Peace and joined another security queue. We were rushed through but it seemed the locals were being held and searched more thoroughly.

The Forbidden City itself was massive and appeared totally symmetrical and it’s quite amazing they are the best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. It was however incredibly busy and there was almost to much to take in so after a couple of hours we were at the exit when we could easily have spent longer.

The exit took us to Jingshan Park which we then paid to enter to get a panorama of the city and a birds eye view of the forbidden city. From here we realised just how big it was and that we’d actually only been in a small fraction of it.

I did briefly consider visiting the Temple of Heaven Park but by the time I’d eaten I just wanted to be back at the hostel so I could start preparing for the next part of my trip. Next stop Kuala Lumpur.