‘I have a cork and gas meter key on my list, can someone remind me what they are for?’ Having toasted our success obtaining visas for China, Mongolia and Russia, my husband (Howard), myself, and two close friends (John and Lindsay) were having a pre trip planning meeting. We remembered that the gas meter key had something to do with locking carriage doors on the train, but nobody could recall what the cork could be useful for. A couple of weeks later, and cork safely packed, we were on our way to Beijing. Although it seems that the Trans-Siberian trip is more often taken from Russia to China, we decided we would get the longest flight over with first, getting closer to our own time zone as we travelled back towards Moscow.
We were greeted at Beijing airport by our enthusiastic guide, David Zhao. In the traffic jam approaching the city we chatted about many things from pandas to Trump, probably mixing up the two in our jet lagged state. After dropping our bags at the hotel in the Dongcheng district, we wandered around the local area, taking in nearby Exquisite Park where senior citizens were dancing and singing the afternoon away.
Early evening, refreshed after a quick nap, we headed to the ‘Great Leap Brewery ‘, hidden down dark winding alleys in the Doncheng Hutong district. Home to a huge selection of craft beers, it was a lovely little oasis with outdoor seating. We chose ‘Many Daughters Lager’, and were soon grinning and giggling so much that we unanimously decided it was most necessary to order a second round. Wandering a little unsteadily back into the narrow streets, we made our way to a small restaurant selling Peking Duck wraps. They were delicious! (vegetarians, please close your eyes and scroll down)
Next morning we excitedly set off on foot for the Forbidden City which served as the imperial palace for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1912). Nothing could have prepared us for the beauty and vastness of this site. Davey Zhao deftly navigated us through the throngs of people, and we followed him closely, trying to take in as many facts and figures as we could along the way.
Beijing was already beginning to be a stimulation overload, and no sooner had we zipped through the Forbidden City, than we were on our way to the Great Wall of China, an hour and a half drive out of the city.
As we rode the cable car up to one of the great wonders of the world, the wall came into sight and it was hard to believe we were actually there. It’s stunning.
For such a hot day we were all inappropriately dressed. We hadn’t expected the temperature to be so high in late September and sweated in long trousers as we ascended.
My one abiding memory of this amazing site is of a Chinese gentleman at one of the watch towers. He swiped through his music selection on his iPhone, selected Swan Lake at high volume through the speaker, and off he strode along the next section of the wall to the strains of the Viennese waltz. One of the happiest people I’ve ever seen.
That evening we took the plunge and flagged our first Beijing taxi to Ghost Street – a 1.4km strip of Dongzhimennei Dajie, jam packed with over 150 restaurants. Our driver pulled up and pointed and grunted in an animated manner which we interpreted as a cue that we had reached our destination. Once we had fumbled about working out how much yuan we needed for the fare, we were tipped out into the bustling thoroughfare. So many restaurants to choose from and we ended up at a hot pot restaurant where we were presented with an iPad containing a menu only in Chinese, and not one person spoke a word of English.
And so the fun began. Little did we know that at each click of a button, we were ordering ingredients for our hot pot which to our surprise kept arriving promptly at the table. We ended up with an eclectic mix of raw food which we cooked ourselves in a bubbling cauldron of stock in the middle of our table.
Leaving the restaurant on a high, feeling proud of ourselves for managing to overcome a Chinese menu on an electronic device, we hailed another taxi. Thinking ourselves well prepared, we gave the driver a card upon which our hotel name was written in Chinese. Squinting and holding the address at arm’s length it became immediately apparent that he didn’t have his glasses with him. On borrowing Howard’s reading specs who was sat up front, he looked at him, gesturing at a map to see if that’s where we were headed. But having given up his glasses, Howard now couldn’t see, and was unable to help. Trying to stifle laughter at witnessing this comedic act in the back seat (admittedly not very helpful) we all tried to remember the journey in reverse and somehow managed to navigate our way back to our beds for the night.
Another day, and more amazing sites. First, the summer palace, allegedly the best preserved imperial garden in the world, just a short 15km drive from downtown.
Next, the Temple of Heaven situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing. Built in 1420, it’s the largest building for religious worship in China, originally used by the Ming and Qing emperors to pay homage to Heaven and to pray for a year of rich harvest.
In the gardens leading up to the temple, local retired friends played games, chatted, and sang together. It seemed like a great sociable way to spend your golden years. I must have been paying too much attention, for it was here that I somehow managed to get separated from our group and for me the Temple of Heaven temporarily became the Temple of being completely lost and slightly anxious. There were four exits and I had no idea at which exit our guide was waiting. I hadn’t been paying attention when we arrived. Time to turn roaming on the iPhone!
Several frantic phone calls and texts later, we managed to find each other, with enough time remaining for a walk around Tiananmen Square back in the city. Security was high and we had to have our bags checked and show our passports before having access to this vast landmark. It was a fitting end to our sight seeing in Beijing.
Bleary eyed at 6am in the morning the following day, we stood in reception waiting for a passenger van to take us to the train station for the start of our Trans-Siberian railway trip. Just over an hour later, laden with bags of pot noodles, dumplings, snacks and drinks, we boarded our train, the K23 to Ulaanbaatar.
Our berth had two seats/beds, one above the other to the left as we entered, and a comfortable chair to the other side of a table. We were surprised and delighted to discover we had our own toilet and shower.
The train pulled away promptly at 7.27am, and we were on our way. It was very exciting, and it took a while to adjust to our new surroundings and relax into the rhythm of our new mode of transport.
Our train guard provided us with sheets, pillow cases and blankets and there was a constant supply of hot water from a tap by his cabin. You have to bring your own tea bags, coffee and travel mugs and get used to using powered milk, which isn’t as bad as you’d think.
In the corridor, our guard made sure the windows were always locked. We weren’t quite sure why. In our berth, however, with the use of our magic gas meter key, we were able to open our window and get some fresh air. We were able to use the same key to lock our door when we ventured out of our carriage. As a rule, most people kept their carriage doors open as that way you could take in the views on both sides of the train.
We used the dining car for lunch and dinner where we met other travellers, and were about to enjoy another round of beers with a Dutch couple we were sat with, when it was announced that the dining car was closing. It was about 8pm and we realised we were approaching the China-Mongolian border of Erlian. This was where new bogies would have to be fitted to the train for the Mongolian gauge, with us still in it!
A train guard ran through our carriage, locking all the toilet doors (we would be regretting those meal time beers), and for the next 4 hours we sat in our carriages being shunted backwards and forwards into huge sheds. We watched from the corridor windows in amazement as we were lifted up for the new set of wheels to be fitted.
We were relieved in more ways than one, as the one final jolt meant the job was done, we were were on our way again, and the toilet doors were opened. However, although it was now after midnight, there was wasn’t much of a chance of rest. We’d just got our heads down when there was a knock on the door. We’d arrived at the Mongolian town of Zamyn-Ude for immigration formalities. You learn to have all paperwork nearby at all times for this journey, so you can put your hands on your passport, train tickets and customs paperwork at any moment. It wasn’t until 2am that our passports had been returned and we could get some sleep before waking up in Mongolian daylight.
Emerging into the corridor mid morning, a fellow passenger alerted us to the fact that a Mongolian dining car had been attached to our train, so we headed there for breakfast. And what a dining car!
Not really knowing what time of day it was I selected a bowl of borscht which was really tasty. We’d already eaten some dumplings that we bought on a station platform earlier. Extraordinarily, our travel buddy Lindsay, had bumped into (quite literally) an Australian friend that she had met on a course in Iceland a couple of years ago! They were in next door berths. We whiled away the time chatting to each other in the finely decorated dining car and then prepared for our arrival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
As we alighted at the station looking for a guide with our names on a card, we watched as passengers were greeted by family or travel companies. Everyone slowly drifted away until we were the only ones left on the platform, portraying a rather forlorn group of travellers. Trying to give the impression we were in control of our situation, we rifled through bags and found an emergency contact number. After an hour of phone calls and waiting, our young guide, Anka, apologetically found us. There had been a bad traffic accident, delaying her journey in. Phew! Our exploration of Ulaanbaatar could begin.
[ALL PHOTOS OWNED BY CHRISTINE NEWBY. PLEASE ASK PERMISSION TO USE]