Saturday, 6 October 2012

Trans Siberian - Part 6 - The Final Leg - Ulaanbaatar to Beijing

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - St Petersburg - Moscow - Vladimir
Part 3 - Vladimir - Ekateringburg
Part 4 - Ekateringburg - Irkutsk - Ulan Ude
Part 5 - Ulan Ude - Ulaanbaatar
Part 6 - The Final Leg - Ulaanbaatar - Beijing

Ulaanbaator toBeijing

This was last leg of our Trans Siberian journey.  We could not believe how quickly that journey had flown past, how much we had seen and how the landscape had changed as we passed through Europe to Asia and Siberia, and south through Mongolia.  Now we were heading to Beijing, our last destination on this part of our trip, the huge capital of China.

This time we had both bottom bunks but an older Australian couple, part of an organised tour which had started in eastern Europe, also ended up sharing with us so we gave them a bottom bunk, knowing it would be more comfortable.  We are sure not a lot of people would have done this but we just thought karma.

The Australian couple, Tony and Jan, were interesting to talk to. They were part of a smallish group of about 10 people who had taken the same Trans Mongolian route that we had, but on a much tighter schedule. They had spent 2 days at a ger camp not far from where we had stayed and only left the day before we caught the train.  

A light dusting of snow on higher ground
At the ger camp we had enjoyed warm daytime temperatures and chilly nights but Tony and Jan showed us pictures of snow covered gers and snowball fights as the morning they left the ger camp about 2 inches of snow had falled.  The climate really can change overnight in Mongolia and can be unforgiving.
Tony and Jan were heading to Beijing and then on to Shanghai before heading back to Oz. He was originally from Yorkshire but his accent was still really strong, even after 40 years! They were both widowers and had been together only a few years, obviously shared a love of travel, and had travelled all over the world – an inspiration to anyone.

Our train left Ulaanbaatar early in the morning (again!), and we spent the first day passing through Mongolian deserted landscape.  We had clear blue skies and passed through miles of unspoilt desert and mountain scenery, with a sprinkling of snow on upper ground so it was decidely chill outside but quite toasty on the train! 

Our train twisting round a bend in the tracks
A little more than a light dusting of snow!
On the platform at the Mongolian border.  Note
the provodnista "guarding" the train
Sunset from the train
As we continued our journey south west through the Mongolian hills and desert we passed through more snow.  Once again, we were reminded how harsh and extreme the Mongolian climate can be.  Time passed quickly and we enjoyed the views out of the window from the warmth of the train.

We passed through the Mongolian border check late afternoon and it was relatively painless (although ridiculously long winded again – about 2 hours), and then shortly afterwards we had the Chinese border control and the infamous bogey change. 

The Chinese border and customs procedures passed painlessly and without incident but the bogey change was going to be laboriously long-winded.  China’s railway system runs on a gauge about 3.5 inches smaller than the standard and rather than simply change trains at the border, which would be the obvious, and quicker option, a 5 hour stop is required to enable to each carriage to be winched up by a huge crane type thing and the actual wheels changed.  It’s vaguely interesting, particularly if you are a bit of a train spotter, and sometimes you are apparently allowed off the train to watch the process from the ground , or you can elect to stay on.  Once again, no standard practice exists and we were not given an option and had to stay on board while each individual carriage was lifted up into the air by a few feet and our bogeys changed.

This all went on at between about 9pm and 2am.  There is something about rail travel that you can be travelling along for hours on end and you don’t seem to notice it, but as soon as you stop, the time seems to drag painfully. Everyone agrees with this.

The bogey changing shed
We love travelling by train, and for journeys of up to a couple of day, as long as you are moving the time seems to fly by.  As soon as you stop, boredom immediating sets in and it becomes a little frustrating.

The five hours eventually passed and we were on our way again, beginning our journey through China in the dark.  We all soon settled down to sleep. 

I woke up at about 7.30am and wandered off for a cigarette. I should mention at this point that it had been mentioned in various reports I have read that the Ulaanbaatar to Beijing leg of the Trans Mongolian was not particularly interesting or scenic, and the general impression we had was that it would be disappointing. We had been led to believe that the train simply passes through the north eastern part of China which is primarily industrial and that you wouldn't be missing anything if you simply took a flight.

We both agree that we cannot impress enough how misleading those accounts are.  As soon as I looked out of the window to have my first proper look at China, my immediate reaction was how wrong those reports were (and the danger of relying too much of other people's perspectives).  We did, of course, pass through towns and cities, with factories and power plants, but the journey also took us through mountains and valleys, passed rivers and lakes, and acres upon acres of farmland (being worked by hand with little evidence of mechanisation and a lot of donkeys).  Certainly it was nothing like we had been expecting.
Our first glimpses of China

The first thing that struck me was that everywheres eemed to be flying a Chinese national flag – flying high from masts on farms, factories and what we assumed were homes. They were everywhere. You certainly knew you were in China and it was an odd feeling to have reached this far eastern territory overland from London.

The farmland itself was an incredible sight.  It covered vast expanses land with an amazing array of crops. The farming methods employed appeared largely archaic with little evidence of farm machinery we are used to in the west.  There were lots of donkeys and motorbike trailers, lots of people working in the fields but it was sheer size of the farmland and mountain terracing;  they were massive, stretching for as far as the eye could see with maize and grapevines, acres of fruit trees and leeks/onions/garlic and god knows what else. As it was nearly autumn, much had been harvested but you could see the fields being prepared for winter crops.

Farming terraces in China
This was not the industrial wasteland we were expecting. Neither were we expecting the amazing mountains, rivers and valleys. Nor the incredible feats of civil engineering, in the form of bridges, roads and railways. There was everything on this journey and much of it was jaw dropping and it was not a journey we would have missed for the world. It was a perfect introduction to China, a China that would fill us with curiosity and amazement, and all sorts of other emotions as we travelled around. In fact, it eased us in gently to a certain extent and, I think, helped us accept China as the curiosity and paradox it sometimes is.

As we journeyed closer to the final destination on our Trans Siberian trip, we caught glimpses of the Great Wall from the train.  There are 2 or 3 points along the route where you can see the Wall from the railway.  For most of us this was the most exciting part of this leg of the journey, to actually catch sight of the iconic Great Wall of China, that symbolic structure that almost everyone associates with this huge country.
We eventually arrived in Beijing at about 3pm on Friday 28thSeptember, expecting mayhem as this was the beginning of the National Holiday week.
This marked the end of our Trans Siberian/Trans Mongolian journey, and the beginning of the rest of our trip.
Final Word
Our journey from London to Beijing overland has been an amazing experience. It has been an incredible way to travel one third of the way across the globe, to see the landscape change, and experience the many differences in custom and culture in all the places we have stopped at. It is a journey we would both love to repeat, maybe from Vladivostock, maybe in the winter.

Some of the stunning mountain scenery on
the final leg to Beijing
We have certainly learned a lot from this part of our trip and there is not much we would do differently.
In order to sit on a train for hours (sometimes days at a time although we believe 48 hours is the maximum enjoyable stint before a comfortable bed and a hot shower is a necessity) you do need to have a flexible attitude towards diet and hygiene – not unreasonably so, but if you are particularly fastidious and require lots of home comforts then this is not really for you. Facilities available from train to train (showers are available on a few) but the best way to approach it is to assume that you’ve got access to a carriage loo which is going to get little attention on the way. That way you are likely to be pleasantly surprised (as opposed to bitterly disappointed) by the standards!

Personally, I love sleeping on a train and find the rhythm particularly soothing although I usually wake up when it stops at stations for any length of time, and I’m always keen to get up early when it gets light and start looking out of the window to see what’s happening outside and where we are. You meet all sorts on the train, and much depends on your own personality. We are both, by nature, very shy and although we both enjoy meeting new people and talking to people, at times we found it hard. Vodka helps, as does attempting to learn some of the local language and Paul excelled himself in this regard.

In short, if you like a bit of an adventure into the unknown, do it, plan a bit ahead, plan a few stops, and don’t rush it.  I bet you will love it.

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