Finishing The Trans-Mongolian: Beijing, China

Finishing The Trans-Mongolian: Beijing, China

 

After yesterday’s shenanigans on 2 trains, we slept in for about 3-4 hours before having to wake up for a 7:10am arrival at Beijing Railway station, thus formally and sadly concluding our Trans-Mongolian Railway journey.

 

 

After picking up our night train tickets at the ticket office, dropping off our bags at left luggage, and grabbing breakfast at the nearby Kung Fu fast food joint, we walked about 30 minutes south to Temple of Heaven.

After nearly 5 times in Beijing, I finally make a visit here.

 

 

The Temple Of Heaven (finally) got served

 

After about an hour people watching, singing along in a public Chinese opera, and checking out the other sites here such as the Echo Wall (where you can hear someone from the opposite side of the complex given the acoustics of the wall), we walked up about  another30 minutes to Tiananmen Square.

There are tons of people here no matter what time of day you come, and there is an equal amount of bureaucracy to get around: We had to wait in line to get through security, then get through security again to drop off our bags at the tourist information office, and then another round of security across the streets to visit the pickled, preserved remains of Mao Zedong at his Mausoleum in the middle of the square. 

Although similar to that of Lenin’s Mausoleum that we had visited a week earlier in Moscow, the mausoleum here is much grander, more celebratory, and less creepier.

Photography is not allowed in here, obviously.

 

 

We then headed north to visit the Forbidden City (also known as the Palace Museum), the former home to China’s emperors and the largest palace complex in the world.

 

 

This place has to get served too.

 

 

Then it was nostalgia all over again when I took the group back to the pedestrian-only area of Oriental Plaza a few minutes east of Tiananmen Square, the same place I took a few fellow monsooners when I was here 6 years ago.

 

 

Once again among the bustling food markets by the plaza, and egged on by JC, I ate my live scorpions. How I’ve missed you.

 

6 years ago

 

We then had lunch at the place famous for creating the famed Peking Duck, Quan Ju De:

 

 

Saying our sad prolonged goodbyes to LaiYuen and David, we’re now about to meet up with the last traveler to join our group, Shanika, as we take the Z19 overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an leaving at 8:45pm.

To end on a poignant footnote that I’ll remember for the rest of my life — Perhaps it was the lack of sleep or the copious amounts of alcohol the night before, but I felt a range of complicated emotions the past 11 hours. 

And yet, the whole time I most struggled with taking this shit-eating grin off my face as I was finally seeing a place that had been so familiar to me, through the new lens of my wide-eyed fellow monsooners who were exploring Beijing for the very first time in their lives.

 

— EDIT — 

We just missed our train by 1 minute, no joke, (who knew that Beijing has over 5 TRAIN STATIONS and even their own train booking services get confused in directing us where to go?) and now we have to take morning flights to Xi’an instead. Fuck up is on me so I deserve the last 5 nerve-wracking hours of logistical hell.

No time is lost in the itinerary, really, but man is it difficult having to organize hostels, taxi cabs, airport pickups, flight purchases, check-ins, and etc. for 6 people all at the last minute. This group has been amazing with their patience and sense of humor this whole time, so I’m glad to be part of this collective experience, to say the least.

On the bright side, we finally all get to shower tonight.

“the glass half empty situation is that we missed our train by one minute and are scrambling for an early flight out tomorrow. The glass half full situation is that YESSS, we finally get to rinse off 4 days of sweat, horse hair, yurt smoke and train stink off of us from over half a week of not bathing. all of our fingernails are equally covered in soot.” — Melissa Weinmann, 31 minutes ago

 

 

- At time of posting in Beijing, China, it was 6 °C - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly clear

 

Through The Gobi Desert From Erlian To Hohhot

Through The Gobi Desert From Erlian To Hohhot

 

After a quick and yet harrowing stopover in Erlian at the border between Mongolia and China, we spent the next 8 hours on the train passing the time by mostly eating, talking, looking out the window into the Gobi desert, and engaging in depth soul-crushing philosophy.

 

 

The sun sets early in the winter at around 5pm:

 

 

We arrived in Hohhot — the dynamic capital of China’s Inner Mongolia — 41 minutes ahead of schedule at 9:30pm.

 

 

To change trains here you have to:

 

1) Physically exit the station

2) Go back through the main entrance 

3) Go through an initial set of security checks showing your printed itinerary and passport

4) Go through another set of security checks 

5) Enter the ticket office on the left of the main entrance 

6) Exchange your printed itinerary for physical tickets (or purchase them on the spot if you didn’t reserve them ahead of time)

7) Head back outside again 

8) Go back through another set of main security lines

9) Enter the main waiting area.

 

Oh, how I missed Chinese bureaucracy.

 

 

Wifi in the station is spotty and there are no free electric plugs. I was able to sneak behind a kiosk and fish out a surge protector to charge our stuff but an angry restauranteur tried to tell us off a few minutes later. After some charming in broken Chinese Mandarin and letting him know that I needed the electricity for work, he let us charge our stuff for 20 minutes before they shut the power down.

During our 30 minute wait to board, 2 more great things happened: Taylan found out they got accepted into Cambridge University’s Postgraduate PhD program, and a local cashier graciously bought toilet paper for Melissa when there was a confusion in translation (Melissa doesn’t speak any Mandarin and the cashier didn’t speak any English).

Because those are the kind of things that happens on your first day in China?

We finally boarded at 10:50pm for Train #264 leaving from Hohhot to Beijing, arriving the next morning at 7:10am. There’s no sense of waiting in line, obviously. I know my people.

 

 

The 2nd class cabins on Chinese trains are a vast improvement over the ones we rode leaving from Russia and Mongolia; the sheets are softer, the beds are designed more intelligently, and there are working electrical plugs at 1500V (instead of the 40V on the previous changes) inside every cabin instead of 2 communal plugs per wagon.

5 years later, it’s good to be back in the motherland.

 

 

8 more hours until Beijing. Time to drink! Our Chinese bunkmate is heading to Clemson University in South Carolina tomorrow, which is where Taylan is from. SMALL WORLD!

 

 

- At time of posting in Hohhot, it was -7 °C - Humidity: 75% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Crossing From Mongolia To China By Train

Crossing From Mongolia To China By Train

 

After a bit of too much drinking on the train last night and sleeping in at around 2am, we woke up at 9am for the border crossing from Mongolia into China at Zamin Uud.

 

 

Although it was a lot less serious than the crossing between Russia and Mongolia, the process was similar: train attendants gave us simple custom forms to fill, Mongolian border guards came onboard to take our forms and passport, and then returned them with an exit stamp before our train crossed over to the other side into Erlian, China.

 

Photo Credit: Mickey Christmas

 

Once in China, Chinese border guards then arrived and did the same thing but stamping us into China instead. Once we got our passports back, our cars were separated one by one and we rolled into a giant warehouse to get the bogies changed (as the track gauges between Mongolia and China are different).

 

 

At this point we stepped out and walked around Erlian. Not much to see other than long streets, funky looking auto-rickshaws, lots of cars, and train station noodle joints.

 

 

Then when we returned half an hour later, a random guard prevented us from getting back on our train and instead yelled at us to enter on the actual train platform about a kilometer away. We had no idea where this was so we hunted down a helpful, friendly office agent inside a random building by the tracks, and he offered to walk with us to the warehouse to get us back in the easy way. Mind you, this is all with my 2nd grade-level Mandarin Chinese as nobody spoke a lick of English here.

Once back on the train, the group felt they had their fill of an adventure in Erlian and we stayed on for about another hour before being well on our way into Inner Mongolia, China.

And this also happened:

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 11.58.09 PM

 

 

- At time of posting in Erlian, China, it was -11 °C - Humidity: 45% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

Ulaanbaatar In One Day

Ulaanbaatar In One Day

 

 

After streaking in -20ºF weather and sleeping in by the fire last night, we woke up to a beautiful sunrise in Terelj National Park.

 

 

After breakfast we headed out for about an hour back into the city…

 

 

…stopping by the 40m high, stainless steel Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue, constructed at the banks of the Tuul River at the site where it was believed Genghis Khan found his legendary golden whip:

 

 

Inside (7000 MTG entry) is the “world’s largest Mongolian boot”:

 

 

Take the elevator up to the 3rd floor and walk up a few flights of stairs (coming out of Genghis Khan’s crotch…we did all come from Mongolians didn’t we?) to get amazing views of the steppe and beyond:

 

 

We then continued further another hour back into Ulaanbaatar, passing by the Zaisan Memorial in the south, which we had already visited yesterday (highly recommended). We drove up a bit north from Zaisan, stopping by the Bodh Khan Winter Palace, a Chinese temple unique for being one of the few structures spared by both the Mongols and the Soviets for unclear reasons (8000 MTG entry fee).

 

 

Then we headed to downtown Ulaanbaatar where in the middle of the city lies the Chojin Temple Museum belonging to the brother of Bodh Khan. The place is closed on Sundays and Mondays in the winter, which we found out the hard way.

 

 

Then we walked around Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square), the heart of the city and the central meeting place for demonstrations (most particularly the ones in 90s the ushered in democracy for Mongolia) and concerts.

In the center is a statue of Damdin Sükhbaatar, one of the leaders of Mongolia’s 1921 revolution, who faces the massive Government Palace with the Monument to Chinggis Khaan at its entrance.

 

 

Then we had lunch 3 minutes east of the square at the highly recommended Modern Nomads:

 

 

After lunch we headed northwest to Gandan Monastery, where over 600 monks live and still perform processional rituals at 9am.

 

 

At around 6pm we went shopping at the State Department Store to grab Mongolian cashmere (priced at about $20 USD for a scarf) and last minute grocery items for our upcoming 28-hour train ride to Hohhot, China.

 

 

There my friend from NYC, who grew up here, Gana, referred me to meet with her childhood friend here Shirako!

 

 

As Shariko enlightened us to life in Ulaanbaatar as a freelancer and clothing line designer, our ballsy group elected to have dinner at a North Korean restaurant called Pyongyang, one of the 100 or so chain restaurants outside of the DPRK that serve legit North Korean beer and cuisine such as dogmeat soup (seriously), cuttlefish BBQ, and “cold noodle”. 

All their servers are handpicked for their youth, beauty, and all go through rigorous screening for their loyalty to the DPRK given that the worry for defection from these restaurants is high. Most randomly, most of them happen to be graduates of art schools, and none of us are sure why. When it gets more crowded, servers and staff perform a set of North Korean songs and dances from their days performing for the Arirang Mass Games.

Photography is not allowed in these restaurants, but…well…remember what I did on the 5th floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel 4 years ago? 

 

 

…so the 5th floor at the Yanggakdo? I’m feeling PTSD all over again. Why did they make this restaurant so dark?

 

After a quick hour dining here we dashed to the train station to catch our 8:45pm train for Hohhot, China.

 

It wasn’t long before we started drinking. Here’s to the next 28 hours on the train!

 

 

- At time of posting in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, it was -19 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Going Streaking In A Mongolian Winter

Going Streaking In A Mongolian Winter

 

Photo credit to Melissa Weinmann for the photo above.

 

The Zaisan Memorial just got served

Ulaanbaatar just got served
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Photo Credit: LaiYuen Looi

 

Hello from a balmy -15ºF (-22ºC) in the coldest capital city on the planet: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia!

After chugging along from Irkutsk, Russia, our attendants woke us all up at 6:15am, giving us about 30 minutes to dress up, warm up, and take down our sheets. Our train pulled in right on time at 6:45am.

 

 

And the cold just hit us IN THE FACE.

 

 

But our two local contacts Enda and MTT Ganba were there waiting for us on the platform, holding my name on a placard.

Enda comes from Modern Mongol Hostel, and was gracious enough to arrange us a driver and a comprehensive 2 day itinerary I helped him design, while MTT Ganba of Mongolia Train Tickets was there to provide us our onward Trans-Mongolia train tickets from Mongolia into China. Two trustworthy services I highly recommend.

 

 

They took our bags and drove us to Tom N Tom’s Coffee where were able to warm up our toes, charge up our electronics/cameras, and get on the internet to deliver this blogpost from yours truly.

 

 

While leaving our stuff to charge back at the café, we crossed the street to head up the 300+ steps for the Zaisan Memorial, a memorial complex that honors the Soviet soldiers of World War 2 that fought for Mongolian independence.

 

 

Keep in mind the subzero temperatures and the altitude…this climb can be more difficult than expected.

 

 

After 15 minutes, we were up at the top and treated to gorgeous views of Ulaanbaatar, the Tuul River, and its surrounding mountains:

 

 

Once up here, linger for the views and the 360º murals depicting the fall of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, the friendship between the USSR and the Mongolian people, and the launch of the Soyuz space capsule.

 

 

The sun begins to rise at 8:40am but doesn’t quite reach above the mountains at this time of year:

 

 

But once it does rise, so does the city:

 

 

…except for the pollution, which was unfortunate to acknowledge (all of us are wearing our N95 respirator masks right now; the difference in breathing with and without is quite stark here).

 

 

We then headed back to the shelter of the café, warmed up again, topped off our electronic charges and headed out to Terelj National Park.

 

 

We stopped by a Dinosaur Park inside the National Park along the way. Unfortunately it was shuttered, but it didn’t stop me from jumping over the fence and getting up closer:

 

 

Then we drove by Turtle Rock:

 

 

As we settled into our ger/yurt prepared by a local Mongolian family who lived just past Turtle Rock, we met a fellow Austrian traveller Kevin, who had also recently signed up for a YPT tour to North Korea:

 

 

For $20/hr we explored the park on horseback:

 

 

…and enjoyed a peaceful sunset over the mountains:

 

 

Then, fueled by the sheer thrill of the challenge, we decided to go streaking in -30ºC (-22ºF) weather. It wasn’t so bad; we lasted about 2 minutes outside.

 

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Photo Credit: LaiYuen Looi

 

We also took about a whole hour struggling to keep our fire going in our gers, and ended up giving up and making a massage train instead.

 

 

Currently we’re waiting for the moon to set so we can see the stars better, as well as our newest addition Mihaela to arrive directly from the airport where she will continue with us the rest of the way to China and Tibet.

Welcome to this wacky little travel family Mihaela!

 

 

- At time of posting in Terelj National Park, Mongolia, it was -30 °C - Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

From Russia (To Mongolia) With Love On The Trans-Mongolian

From Russia (To Mongolia) With Love On The Trans-Mongolian

 

This morning we woke up early for our 7am pickup for Train #004 from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar departing at 8:12am.

 

 

And there our train stood waiting for us, emerging from the hazy mist of an early morning fog as if out of a dream — this is where the Trans-Mongolian Railway diverges from the main Trans-Siberian.

A travel goal and dream finally come true.

 

 

The train attendants for Train #004 from Moscow to Beijing are Chinese, so the moment I began to speak in my other mother tongue asking if this was the right train, the attendants stood aghast how a bunch of USA citizens could befall their ears with such Mandarin in the middle of a Siberian winter.

The doors thus opened, and we were promptly assigned to our cabins.

 

 

JC was unfortunately and inexplicably paired by himself with a paranoid schizophrenic; the moment JC sat down on his bed, he was peppered with short, caustic anti-American statements by a man pacing in his room who spoke in a textbook case of paranoid delusions, flight of ideas, tangential responses, and pressured speech (yeah I’m diagnosing here).

From an opening introduction consisting of 9/11 conspiracy theories, accusations of treason, beliefs that the US government were tracking down his movements, while deferring questions of where he came from, this guy had bad news written all over him. After overhearing the bizarre conversation next door, I informed the train attendant in Chinese about the situation and JC was immediately switched with another passenger and moved into our room with the rest of the group. 

Crisis averted.

The rest of the trip wasn’t as dramatic; after an hour and half, Lake Baikal unveiled itself once more.

 

 

We then headed  over to check out the dining car.

 

 

While a charming place to sit in, the food is overpriced for what you get. Only eat here if you’re starving and you got nothing else.

 

 

Otherwise, feel free to linger here, play cards, meet other travelers, and stare out the windows, watching a magical Siberian winter roll by before you:

 

 

Thanks to the holy samovar consistently serving boiling water at the end of every car, we indulged in endless instant coffee, tea, and instant noodles while commandeering an empty cabin for ourselves.

 

 

At exactly 3:02pm in the afternoon, we stopped in Ulan-Ude for 45 minutes.

Knowing and having read in previous travel blogs of travelers rushing out to see the world’s largest Lenin Head Statue within the 45-minute stopover timeframe — with a few barely getting back to their train on time and others giving up altogether — we decided to take up the challenge ourselves. According to Google Maps it would be a 20-25 minute walk each way from the train station to the statue. That’s cutting it close!

So exactly at 3:03pm the 5 of us bolted outside the train station while Melissa volunteered to stay behind and take our bags onwards to Ulaanbaatar in the scenario that we wouldn’t make it back on time (the fail-safe plan was to take the faster 10 hour bus from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar and beat the train).

But reason prevailed as we said “screw this” and flagged down a taxi waiting outside. We then pointed to the Russian word for “Lenin Head” on Google Maps (there’s an actual word for this!) and made hand gestures indicating that we wanted a roundtrip after taking photos. The driver understood and the mission was in play.

The drive took just 4 minutes. Once it pulled into the parking lot, we barreled out of the car and darted past a winter holiday festival filled with little children bewildered to our sudden appearance.

 

 

And there in the center of the town square stood the statue of the world’s largest Lenin Head, staring at us cross-eyed and yet surreal in its presence, while striking us with this dumb awe that such a structure could even exist on this planet.

 

 

After taking our photos, we sprinted back to our cab as quickly as we dropped in and gave the driver 200 rubles for his troubles. We were back at the station within minutes at 03:22pm, with 25 minutes to spare.

Mission accomplished.

 

 

We then celebrated with Siberian vodka, making friends with our new German bunkmate Lucas, and eating more omul from Lake Baikal.

 

 

After 6 hours of stream-of-consciousness conversations, snacking, and the occasional cat nap, we finally reached Naushki located at the edge of the Russian frontier with Mongolia. There we were told not to leave the train as Russian border guards came onboard, took our passports, rifled through our luggage, searched our room, and headed back outside with our passports to give us exit stamps.

After about an hour and 40 minutes stuck on the train during this process (if you take the other trains that arrive in the middle of the day instead of at night, you get up to 3 hours to get off the train and explore), we were given back our passports before chugging along for another 30 minutes over to the Mongolian border town of Sukhbaatar, Mongolia.

Once in Sukhbaatar, Mongolian border guards came onboard to perform the same routine in reverse. And after another hour and 40 minutes on the train having our bags searched, room taken apart, and our passports stamped in, we’re finally allowed to proceed (they’re handing back everyone else’s passports as I’m writing this).

Anyways, we’re about to celebrate with more vodka now that we’re in Mongolia. Unfortunately we also just ran out of cups, so Melissa is going McGuyver on the plastic:

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Naushki/Sukhbaatar border, it was -14 °C - Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: light snow