Friday, 9 September 2011

Ulaanbataar to Beijing

In which the entire train (with us in it) is lifted into the air
Starring a girl who had taught herself English

We got a really early train out of Ulaanbataar and given there was very little to see until just before the Chinese border slept most of the way.  Formalities between Mongolia and China last around five hours and involve 4 forms, two sets of border control personnel.  The whole process is made decidedly less dull by a changing of wheels which lasts about an hour and involves decoupling all the train carriages from one another and lifting them into the air as new wheels are rolled in underneath and attached. They divide the train into two sections and line you up alongside each other so the tourists in one half of the train can take photos of the tourists in the other half of the train being slowly raised into the air.  We were face to face with a sulky woman in a pink tracksuit top in carriage 7. 

I was sort of dreading Beijing (and most of China) as a means to an end but that was all instantly turned upside down the minute we got off the train.  Yes it’s busy and crowded and HUGE (our tour guide told us it’s the size of Belgium?!) but it’s also absolutely spotless with wide flower bed lined streets, an incredibly easy to use subway and enormous and very strange modern buildings including that is called ‘Big Underpants’ by the locals. 

The Big Underpants Building
There’s an obvious must see list for Beijing (Forbidden City , Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square) all of which are interesting and crowded

Tiananmen Square

 but it’s the things that aren’t in the guide books that are the most intriguing. Off the main shopping street we spent a happy evening buying random food from the night market – they have scorpions (still alive and wriggling) on sticks, heaps of octopus legs, ducklings on sticks and some edible stuff as well. 
The Forbidden City
The day I went to the Forbidden City there were so many people streaming in that I got worried it was some sort of festival.  The complex is enormous with courtyard after enormous courtyard. The roofs are covered in yellow glazed tiles and have the same round emblem on the end of each row of tiles.  Millions on them.  The tour groups seem to walk briskly through the centre so it’s easy to lose them by diving into the less busy areas off to the side and find yourself, all alone in a bamboo choked courtyard following signs for the ‘Hall of Clocks and Watches’ (never found it). 
The Temple of Heaven
South of Tiananmen Square is an area known as Qianmen with a street that has been built to look like ‘old Beijing’ complete with a clattering trolley bus and plenty of dragons decorations.  It all felt very sterile though compared to the much more interesting Hutong behind. Beijing’s Hutongs are crowded living areas with interesting pokey little shops, crazy cafes and great food stalls.  The houses here don’t have bathrooms so there are communal toilets on every block – a not toilets so much – more tiled just a long chute with some low walls instead of stalls.  There isn’t even a door on the bathroom.  I had a yoghurt at one of the stands – you drink it from a little terracotta pot by punching a straw through the paper lid and then leave the pot behind when you’re done.  A girl who had been teaching herself English for two years from tapes and books came up to say ‘Hello’ and have a bit of a chat.  Her pronunciation was almost perfect. 

From Beijing we did a day trip out to the Great Wall at a place called Muttinaya where there about three kms of reconstructed wall rendered fit for tourist footfalls.  It’s quite a walk – and not exactly easy going – it was raining on and off so quite slippery and several people fell over. Throw in a couple of ladders to get up the watchtowers and 456 steps up to Tower 23 and you’ve got a good hike on your hands.  Of course it was only to have as much time on the actual wall as possible that we got the cable car up and only for the views that we got the chair lift back down.  There’s not much that can be said about how utterly spectacular it is that isn’t covered off by the no doubt 100 pictures I took.  The rolling mist and rain was an added bonus probably keeping off some of the other tourists and creating lovely atmospheric vistas.

More pictures here:

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