39.9042° N, 116.4074° E
So, we finished our last leg of the Trans-Mongolian Railway. What an experience! We have been planning this trip for months, and everything has gone so well. I had high expectations for this trip and it did not disappoint! For our last leg of the journey, we were spoiled with a really beautiful (and clean) train to take us from UlaanBaatar to Beijing. This was a Mongolian train, and it was quite a bit more comfortable than our previous Chinese train from Moscow.
When we got to the train station, we stood outside of our car waiting to board the train. There were a few people waiting as well, and we saw a group of 3 or 4 Mongolian passengers with a dozen banana boxes and big duffle bags. We didn’t really think much of it because that is fairly common, especially in the summer months, but we hardly saw any of this while we were there in winter. When they opened the doors for us to start boarding the train, that group went first and that’s when I started to worry a little bit. One of the first ones to walk up the steps onto the train was carrying a duffle bag, and I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the duffle bag was so heavy that he needed someone else to move his legs for him up the steps because he couldn’t move….Robin and I looked at each other and were just amused/intrigued! Robin leaned over and said “I hope they aren’t in our cabin!! Haha!”
We got on the train and found our cabin…..and there they were. Packing the boxes and bags down in every space they could find. The hallway in the trains are obviously really narrow and there were still people coming on, so I slipped into our cabin and sat down on a bed and just watched them. Robin stayed out in the hallway because there was just no more space in this little room. I was kind of starting to panic, I wasn’t sure what was in these countless boxes and bags, and none of them could speak a lick of english.
There are always stories about people smuggling things back and forth through Europe and Asia since that is the main line between them, so we didn’t want to be anywhere near any of that. But there we were, right in the thick of it. So they were still bringing loads of boxes into the room, when one of them popped their head in and saw me sitting there on the bed, probably looking a little bit lost. They all started speaking to each other and looking at me and Robin and apparently pieced together the fact that we were in that room too.
So the old man in the room putting all the stuff away kind of just looked at me and laughed and waved his hand-and then they started taking everything back out again! They moved all of their stuff into a a cabin just a couple of doors down, and didn’t come back into our room for the rest of the time! We were so confused, but hey- it worked for us. After a while, we were wondering if they were going to be in that other room during the day but then maybe since it was so full that one or more of them would come back into our room to sleep, so we were kind of prepared for that.
Anyway, it turned out that they were getting off at the first stop after the Chinese border, so they were not staying the night anyway. It was a funny little experience!
The rest of the train ride was great. Now we had a whole room to ourselves, and we had some nice neighbours from the Netherlands who graciously fed us coffee and rolls and we talked for a few hours as soon as the train left. The rooms, bathrooms and hallways were much cleaner on this train. The bathroom had toilet paper which was a huge score, and apart from there being unlimited hot water for tea/coffee/soup, they also had unlimited cold drinking water as well! That was great, we didn’t have to always stress when the train stopped to grab some water if we were getting low. This car even had a shower as well! We were living in the lap of luxury at this point.
When we told the Dutch couple that we had been on the Chinese Train for 5 days, they almost spit our their drink because they were only on it for a day and thought it was very…uncomfortable. Luckily we did that train first so we didn’t realize actually how bad it was.
So we relaxed, watched a couple movies, did some reading and also went to the Mongolian food car. It was not as decorated and adorned as we were told it would be. I think on some trains they really decorate the food cars according to the country it comes from, but this one was just nice, simple and clean. We had lunch which was really good, really huge and really expensive. We thoroughly enjoyed it though, all 3 courses of it.
At around 7pm that evening, we got to the border and first went through the Mongolian border patrol to leave that country; that all went smoothly for us. We were at the border for around 2 hours. Then half an hour later was the border into China, and that was very interesting. We first went through Passport Control, and again that was no issue for us. We filled out the necessary forms and showed our passport, and all was good.
After Pass Control, the train divides up into two sections and goes through this extremely long shed, where the bogies(wheels) are changed. The railway track gauges in China are narrower than they are in Russia and Mongolia, so when the trains arrive from there, they have to change the wheels to accommodate the Chinese rails.
So how do they do this, you ask? Well, first, all of the cars are detached from each other, and then each car is lifted up. Then they just take off the wheels, and replace them with the smaller ones. All of us passengers are locked up in our cars during this so we get to watch from our windows as we are being lifted up! Its actually quite a crazy experience.
All in all, we were there for 5 hours. Thats a long time for the bathrooms to be closed as well…..makes sense though. I can understand they don’t want people going to the bathroom in the train and then “flushing” the toilet…just a hole in the train that opens up to the ground. That probably wouldn’t go over well in the shed.
When they were finished, it was time to reattach the cars. That was the loudest, most forceful handling of machinery that we’ve ever seen. We almost got slammed out of bed every single time a new car was attached….and theres a lot of cars on that train…but we managed.
So after watching our whole train get lifted up one car at a time, we were finally off again, ready to get our butts off to Beijing. We went to sleep, and by the next morning we were looking out the window at the beautiful Chinese landscape, frantically searching for the Great Wall of China as we passed through.
Unfortunately we had no such luck in finding it, so we have yet to see the Great Wall! We arrived at the Beijing train station at 11:40am and got off the train. That officially ended our Trans-Mongolian Trip! We walked away with three other girls in search for the metro station. After some looking, we finally found it and got to our hostel. We are loving the metros, its such a fast and cheap way to get around. Our hostel is a 2 minute walk from the closest metro station, so we are really lucky! We have a great little hostel here. Its called the Dragon King Hostel, with the nicest staff in the world. (And english-speaking too!)
We arrived on Friday the 27th, which is the day before Chinese New Year- lucky us! There is a restaurant and bar in the hostel we are staying at, and they were having a New Years Eve party that evening. We spent the afternoon walking around the city a little bit and getting our bearings, and bought a few beers at the closest 7/11, costing a hefty 3.50CNY ($0.65 CAN or NOK 4.0) each. So…..we were pretty happy about that. We got ready back at the hostel and went to the bar for our Chinese New Year festivities! We started off with a meal and some drinks, and it just went from there. We met some amazing people that evening and made great friends from all over the world.
We played some games together and had lots of drinks, then at 12:00am we went outside to watch some fireworks. It was the most dangerous fireworks show I’ve ever witnessed, these Chinese are crazy with their fireworks! This hostel is on a little side street, so small that cars don’t even drive down it, and the hotel staff literally just put a bunch of fireworks on the ground right outside the door of the hosel and lit them! So you couldn’t actually really see the fireworks in the sky…you could just seem them when they go off from the ground.
Was not pretty, or charming…it was down right terrifying. It is now Monday morning, and we can still hear fireworks going off. They have been going pretty steadily since Friday midnight, and the celebrations will continue for at least 15 days, so thats a lot of fireworks! The only problem is that because of all of the fireworks, the smoke lingers in the air with all the smog, so the visibility is typically worse. But all in all we have been so lucky to have been able to be here to experience Chinese New Years here in Beijing. We are loving it!
Today, we decided to go to the zoo. It was certainly an experience…that in itself. On one hand I am upset that we spent money to go into the zoo and support the business, but on the other I am glad that we went so I could see first hand how sad zoos really can be. One positive is that we were able to see a Giant Panda, a must see in China. Such an interesting animal!!
I think the most upsetting part about going to the zoo was probably just the sheer disrespect towards the animals that we saw from the people. First of all, we’re in Beijing. A huge city with a massive population, a zoo should not be smack dab in the middle of a city because there is just not enough space for the animals. Every space for every animal was too small. Also I don’t think we saw one worker there, not one zoo keeper or any sort of enforcement to watch people and the animals.
People were actually bringing food from home, in their bags and feeding animals from their hands. I couldn’t believe it! Parents were giving their kids all of this food to hand feed to the animals. They were knocking and slamming on the glass and taking every photo with the flash on, and Robin and I were just taken aback at the behaviour at this zoo. It just seemed so disrespectful, and it made me kind of sick.
Anyway, apart from that Beijing has been absolutely wonderful so far. Our visit here has really still just begun and we have the rest of the week planned. Tomorrow we will finally go and see the Great Wall of China, and we’re going on a hike on the wall that not many people usually get to do…so more on that tomorrow! We will also go visit The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and a few other things in the next week. Hopefully it will be just windy enough tomorrow so the smog doesn’t stick around too much for our hike.
Wish us luck!