Thursday, 16 August 2012

The train to China

Ulaanbaatar's parliament in the main square.
My time in Mongolia had come to an end. I was actually slightly sad to be leaving; I'd had a great time in the country, I'd met a host of great people and was enjoying their company and getting to know them, and was enjoying my life in Ulaanbaatar. It was very comfortable, I could eat nice food, and my days were spent casually doing the little bits of work I had to do, whilst popping out to meet people for drinks or on a casual errand, with no stress or pressure. Lot's of people say they don't like UB - it's too polluted, the traffic is too hectic, and few things are reliable. I had come to accept all of these annoyances, along with the dangers of loose manhole covers, random holes in the pavements and various hassles, and had a strange fondness of the city. I had nothing but good times there, but now I am in Beijing I can see how difficult and frustrating the city can be, and comparatively how underdeveloped it is. My initial culture shock had worn off and been replaced with the comfort of familiarity. This was pointed out to me by my friend Patrick Duce. I'd told him the story of how I'd been in a nightclub and ended up covered in my own blood after I'd badly cut my thumb without realising in a vodka haze, and then proceeded to throw up onto the broken streets on my walk home. I'd almost become the brawling Australian miners I had seen on my first night here; and as I like to jokingly claim about Peterborough - UB was now my fucking town.

The iconic Blue Sky Tower in central UB.
The UB traffic.
Anyway, as visas dictate I had to leave and despite my willingness to remain in UB for longer, I was still looking forward to seeing China, and having a much better food menu in front of me. I left the apartment I was staying in just before 7pm, with my train leaving around 8pm. The roads were a car park stretching for as far as the eye could see. With nobody moving anywhere I decided to walk to the station, deciding I could make the two miles in time. I was making decent progress, sometimes even trying to jog to assure I would make it on time, but with nearly 30kg strapped to my torso the sweat was  trickling down my sternum like never before. I was perhaps about 15 minutes away when the traffic cleared a bit and I decided to flag a taxi to take me the remainder of the way.

I arrived at the station with a little bit of time to spare. I bought some noodles and drinks for the journey, unsure if there would be a restaurant car or food available, and made my way to my carriage. I had seen no other foreigners at the train station or boarding the train. The first I saw were when I entered my four person compartment, to find two thirty year old German guys sat there. We spent the evening getting to know each other and casually catching up with our journals whilst drinking the beer which they provided.
The train leaving Mongolia that evening.

I awoke in the morning when we stopped at the border with China on the edge of the Gobi desert. We were stationary for a while during which time passports were collected and customs duties carried out, and were able to go for a brief wander. We'd got chatting to a beautiful young Mongolian girl who had caught my eye the day before. Once we had entered China, we had an hour or two of free time before our train continued, and she very helpfully took the three of us off into town to change our Mongolian money into Chinese, and then to a fast food restaurant to grab a quick bite. Without her we probably would have sat bored at the station for a couple of hours, instead we had a productive and pleasant introduction to northern China.

The border town on the edge of the Gobi.
We re-boarded the train and our new friend joined us in our compartment. It turned out she worked as a music producer and composer of film scores, and also has a bit of a career as a singer and performer. She was perhaps being a bit modest as on YouTube she has a few highly produced pop videos with people calling her Mongolia's Lady Gaga. She was incredibly friendly, very sweet and attractive to boot, and had the train journey been a bit longer I may have fallen in love with her. The German guys, Lars and Frid, had a guitar and a melodica with them. I had never really seen a melodica up close before, but it's a keyboard you play by blowing into a pipe. We spent the entire afternoon making music and writing songs in our little room, and she was a very talented musician. I bashed out a few tunes on the guitar and she produced wonderful harmonies on the spot, and we all had a great journey into China.

Making music in our compartment.
Rolled past many of these idential farmsteads in northern China - were they communes?
We arrived at our destination in China at around 7pm - a town called Jining in Inner Mongolia. Nora, our Mongolian musician friend was continuing to another city where she would be performing, so we waved goodbye and arranged to meet up in Beijing having swapped details. I needed to buy a ticket from Jining to Beijing, and before that I had to get some money, and after trying a few ATMs unsuccessfully I eventually had enough cash to see me through. I went to the ticket office in the train station and it was heaving with people. I queued for over half an hour to get to the desk for my ticket. It was interesting watching the Chinese while I waited, and it wasn't the most pleasant of introductions. They're not famous for their queueing etiquette, and I witnessed them pushing their way forward like annoying coked-up-drunks in a throbbing festival crowd. They also spit like professional footballers, and everywhere, even the women. In China you never seem to be more than 10 feet from someone emptying the fluid from their lungs in the noisiest way. Two women had an almighty argument in the ticket hall, and I was half hoping it would come to blows just for my own entertainment; instead they just squealed at each other like two pigs in an abattoirs. Watching the Chinese aside, I got to the front of the queue and mimed what I wanted. I got my ticket for just over £10 I think, leaving at 2am and arriving at 8am. I was on a different train to Lars and Frid, they had tickets for a slightly earlier train that left just after 1am. We also met a guy who had spent six years in the Israeli army, and was now traveling for a while. He had been talking to a couple of young Chinese people, who took the time out to take us to a nice restaurant in a backstreet and help us, even though they had already eaten. We had some delicious food, a couple of huge dishes between us and beers to drink, costing £2 each. It was a lovely act on their behalf, who spent an hour with us before going on their way, and we bought a few beers to drink at the station as we waited.

Back streets of Jining.
A great meal with friendly strangers.

The evening passed and my short term friends caught their trains and I was then on my own. The nice leather sofa lounge we had been occupying closed for the night, so I was taken to the plebs lounge, which smelt like a public toilet. It probably was. The time my train was due to arrive came but my train didn't. The previous trains had been slightly delayed so I wasn't fussed. I decided to go outside and wait on the platform as the Chinese staring at me like ECT patients and the overbearing smell of piss were getting a little bit much. Outside felt fresh and I wandered down the platform to look for somewhere to sit. Within a minute a Chinese train guard was barking something at me. so I ambled over towards him and he escorted me to the guards room, where a load of them were sat around dozing and smoking. I sat with them for 15 minutes, slightly unsure of why they had invited me to sit in with them, I assumed because I was foreign, and because of this we weren't able to communicate with each other, but I studied the room and the things in it inquisitively.

My train screeched into the station, and I boarded my carriage. The ticket I had purchased was a hard sleeper; the beds were just as soft, but the lay out is much more public. It was the middle of the night when I got on, and everyone was asleep. Id not been in this class before, and I walked the length of the carriage trying to figure out which one was my bed. It was a bit strange to walk past 60-odd strangers sleeping. It looked like an open plan morgue. I found my bed and settled in for quite a comfortable nights sleep.
The platform in Jining at 2am.
My train arrives.
I awoke on the approach to Beijing. On the outskirts were attractive hills swamped with lush vegetation. There was a pleasant haze and the sun reflecting through the hanging veil of mist made everything shades of white. I watched the suburbs of Beijing roll by and before long I was out on the platform at Beijing train station. I made my way through the terminal which was swollen with a sea of people. It was rush hour afterall, and it seemed to be a mixture of commuters and Chinese visitors towing suitcases. I felt a sense of excitment, and also satisfaction having made it all the way from Peterborough to Beijing on the train. It took me five train journeys to get here, and incredibly, it can be done in just four. Sometimes you need more than four trains to cross London, and I'd crossed half the world in five. I also felt slightly disappointed, that it had all been so easy. Everything so far has been great, a wonderful experience that I don't regret for a second, but perhaps I had been hoping for more of a challenge.

Hard class sleeper - everyone's in it together.
Arriving in Beijing train station.
Just a few of the billion Chinese moving through the station.
Peterborough to the Pacific (almost) - I'd made it.
Beijing Railway Station.
I stepped out into Beijing to the smell of cooking food and concrete dust. I popped into the McDonalds to grab a familiar breakfast, but mainly to try and use the wifi. I wasn't really sure of where I was meant to be going, I'd never located the exact address. I couldn't use the wifi as I could't read the Chinese registration screen. I asked a 10 year old girl sat next to me to help me, she flashed a big smile and said 'OK I help', but it turned out she was unable to. I went and found the subway and joined the long queue for tickets, before figuring out where I wanted to go to. I knew the name of the general district of Beijing I was booked to stay in, so took a train there and thought I would figure it out once I was in Dongcheng. I got out at a station but the neighbourhood looked fairly business-like, with big modern office blocks all around, not somewhere you usually find a hostel. I walked for a bit looking for an open wifi network to jump on, and shortly found one. I was a tube stop away from where I needed to be, so got back on the subway and easily found my way to the place I would be staying.

It turned out that I'd actually booked into their sister hostel but the website never made that clear. I asked if I could stay here instead as I didn't fancy trekking it across town with all my luggage again. They booked me into a nice private room for one night, and I emailed the other hostel to say I would in fact be arriving tomorrow.

After relaxing I went to explore the local neighbourhood. I was impressed with Beijing. It was very clean, very modern, nicely paved and the traffic seemed less heavy than home. I walked into a commercial area with many big shops, huge billboards on roofs and twinkling neon lights everywhere. I was half looking for something like Tiananmen Square or something famous. The map I had lacked detail and although I was close I never found it. I walked along a street with dozens of foodstalls, that seemed to be as much for tourists and a novelty as a genuine eating place. Most of the food were things on sticks. I walked along as people shouted at me offering me the goods on their stall. Some things looked acceptable, like marinaded meat or squid legs; and then came the scorpions, crickets, grubs, entire miniature sharks, tarantulas, crayfish, and huge worms found inside the stomach of sheep. All impaled on little wooden sticks waiting to be grilled. It was like a zoo on skewers. I opted not to try any of these ridiculous delicacies at this moment, and continued walking. I ducked into the hutongs. The old narrow side streets away from all the commercialism. These alleyways twist and wind between the main blocks, and it just seemed to be family neighbourhoods. They had a really relaxed atmosphere and I could feel the community. Old people sat out chatting and children played games with each other. No one paid any attention to me as I drifted through, and I was looking forward to exploring more of these as time went on.
One of the first things I found while exploring - a Catholic church.
Downtown Beijing.
Food on offer - that's squid tentacles hanging down in the middle.
Entire baby birds on sticks.
The food vendors.
Scorpions and grasshoppers fried and on a stick - what more could you want.
I'd moaned about the food in Mongolia...
Tarantulas, small sharks, sheep worms - I'm not that hungry.
The hutongs - alleyways and communities in more traditional Beijing.
I enjoyed watching the Chinese. They were different to the Mongolians. Perhaps appearing a little ruder, with their constant spitting and more pushy approach to sales. I enjoyed listening to their conversations. It's an interesting tonal language, full of long vowels. To me it sounded like somebody speaking backwards whilst getting into a hot bath. Also many of them seemed to be rowing constantly. I don't know if it's just the way in which they speak, or if half of them are arguing. It sounds like a frustrated and short tempered arguing, like somebody bollocking an inept colleague for the umpteenth time. At first when I was riding the subway, I noticed how unattractive I found most people, especially compared to Ulaanbaatar which actually was quite an attractive city. Looking around the carriage I thought most of them must have been born in the year of the pig. I must've been in the ugly carriage however, as as time went by, the attractive tally rose as I spotted those born in the year of the fox, and it wasn't the yellow fever kicking in.

In the evening I took myself for another walk around my neighbourhood, going the opposite direction and in search of food. I settled in a place that was bright and had lots of Chinese people in and picture menus. I chose a safe dish of beef and vegetables in some sauce with steamed rice and a beer, and had a pleasant time for £4. I'd had a nice first day in Beijing. I hadn't done much, but it felt a bright and exciting place and I had a feeling I was going to enjoy my time here.

Neighbourhood by my hostel.
Night time street life - Chinese sat out playing a game that looks a cross between dominoes and rummy.
Eating out.

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