Monday, 24 September 2012

The Big Smoke - Běijīng

Our train trundled through Inner Mongolian haze to finally release us on the Chinese capital, Běijīng. To tell the truth, I was apprehensive about China. This was the land of my ancestors, but this was also a country that had undergone dramatic social changes since. I had no real idea what to expect.

We arrived at Beijing's main train station, and met with "the crowd". At least it wasn't rush hour. I know Beijing had a lot of people and I expected crowds, but I didn't expect the presence of crowds to be just so constant. So many lives bustling about throughout night and day, routine and life changing journeys crossing paths seemingly all at once. We resigned ourselves to the idea that "the crowd" would most likely accompany us throughout our China journey. So we fought the queue-jumpers to get our next train tickets (elbows, shoulders and big backpacks help), shrugged off the aggressive fake taxi touts (just be typically Chinese and avoid eye contact), successfully dodged the poopy land mines left by children (that's right, parents encourage their kids to defecate openly in public), and navigated the constant stream of electric bicycles to find our way to our hostel in Nianzi Hútòng.

Bicycles in the Hútòng - NianZi Hútòng, Běijīng
It was tucked quietly away amongst the web of Beijing's hútòng, an endangered network of small tiled buildings and alleyways in the heart of the city. Somehow in these little enclaves, a local community culture survived, complete with morning table tennis games, bird singing in the park, and card games in the afternoon. One could almost forgive the sight of a mother teaching her child to urinate in the sink instead of the perfectly functional toilet nearby. Our hútòng was amazingly crowd-free, people helpfully pointed out the direction we needed to go, and there were plenty of greasy street snacks to be tasted.

Typical Chinese Stir-Fry - Běijīng
We all like a good barbeque. Grilled Stuffed Jalapeño Peppers - Lao Bei Jing Kao Rou, Běijīng
We were well situated in Dōngchéng to get to some of Beijing's main attractions. We discovered 800 year old cypress trees at Tiāntán Park, amongst which city folk spent their Sunday practising their ribbon twirling skills with friends, or whiling away a solitary afternoon with a bout of water calligraphy.

Ben at Tiāntán Park - Běijīng
We browsed the bustling streets of Nanluogu Xiang, an historic hútòng street converted into a colourful shopping, eating and sightseeing destination. It had a upbeat, albeit more crowded, atmosphere, where Ben soon found that owning a large DSLR in China did not make you stand out.

Impressive lion dancing for a wedding in the hútòng alleyways of Nanluogu Xiang - Běijīng
And of course we visited Tiān’ānmén Square and the Forbidden City.

Meridian Gate entrance to the Forbidden City - Běijīng
The huge, sprawling complex was thankfully vast enough to spread out the crowds, and the audio guide commentary was informative, although rather dry.

Tia enraptured by the audio guide at the Forbidden City - Běijīng
Artefacts from various periods of Chinese imperial history were displayed in various halls with superfluous names like "Joyful Longevity", "Heavenly Purity" and "Military Prowess". One cool highlight was the Clock Exhibition Hall with hundreds of exquisite antique timepieces gifted to Qing emperors of the 18th Century, including an automaton robot that could write Chinese calligraphy.

View from the Gate of Supreme Harmony. People at the Forbidden City - Běijīng
Despite the crowds and some restoration efforts of questionable authenticity, it was a pretty awesome place to see, and we did find some nice architectural features that we'd love to include in our future dream home, one day.

A calming courtyard in the Forbidden City - Běijīng
Funky Door in the Forbidden City - Běijīng
We met up with an old friend of mine from Australia, Meilian and her partner George, who had carved out a life for themselves in Beijing. They took us out to try some amazing Beijing hot-pot - a big city blend of the Mongolian (tasty, mild) and Sichuan (tongue-numbing pepper) styles of hot-pot, including a spinning display of noodle pulling at our table.

Běijīng Hot-Pot. A combination of Mongolian and Sichuan styles of hot-pot - Haidilao Hot Pot, Běijīng
We queried our hosts on what life was like in Beijing compared to Sydney. Yes, the pollution is bad, often very bad. Yes, people are rude, often very rude. Yes, children are often found peeing and pooing in awfully public places, but you weren't here at this very restaurant a few months ago when one child was directed to relieve himself into a soup bowl … WTF! But there are certain freedoms one has when moving from an orderly, ordinary established western society to the wild, exciting contrasts of a developing eastern society. Plus Meilian was fully committed to her up-and-coming Sweet Tooth venture.

They also took us to a top class Peking Duck restaurant, where we enjoyed the whole shebang of Peking Duck: start with the crispy, delicate skin of the duck breast, sliced separately for you to dip in sugar; followed by the carving of the tender, lightly seasoned duck meat, which you wrap with scallions and dipping sauce within a pancake; ending with the rich broth made from the remaining fat, meat and bones.

Peking Duck - Quan Ju De, Běijīng
The real deal, Peking Duck in Peking - Quan Ju De, Běijīng
The whole bird even came with it's own certificate to "prove" it was a quality specimen. Decadent.

Certified and everything. Peking Duck - Quan Ju De, Běijīng
I was lamenting how we didn't have time this trip to check out any of the famed Chinese acrobatics, when all of a sudden, the restaurant lights dimmed and we were treated to a complimentary show. Score! It started out with four musicians on traditional Chinese stringed instruments, followed by a girl throwing bowls with her foot, catching and stacking them on her head, all while balancing on a unicycle, a Chinese opera singer in traditional elaborate costume, a guy who could pour water in some crazy ways, a dual character with a flipping mask, and a juggler of one huge ceramic pot. It was a happy evening, and a great entertaining way to catch up with good friends.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Saga - Part 4

It was the final leg of the Trans-Mongolian train journey - Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. This was a two-day one-night journey on the #24 train departing at 7:15am. An early start, but as much we liked Mongolia we had a schedule to get out of the city, plus we were excited to see some bare Gobi Desert.

Leaving - Ulaanbaatar Station
Our compartment buddies were a non-talkative Chinese man who spent the whole time either sleeping or smoking, and a young Australian called Johnno. Bloody Aussies were everywhere it seemed. He was a chilled out Fitzroy Melbournian who had some interesting travel experiences. We chatted about books we'd read, people we'd met, and his time with the nomads in Mongolia which was much more intense then ours. He had also been to Tibet, a part of China we would not be travelling to on this trip. His accounts of a Tibetan Sky Burial were captivating to say the least.

However most of the day was spent reading, occasionally picking up the camera to snap the hours away and capture the last bits of Mongolian Gobi Desert scenery.

Our Train to China - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
The Gobi Desert - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Gobi Desert - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
The sunsets over Mongolia - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Unlike the Russian trains, we could open the windows of this carriage for some cool fresh air, as well as some cool shots of ourselves when the train went around a big sweeping corner.

Tia out the Window - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Ben out the window - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
We reached the Erenhot/Erlian border around midnight and were greeted with marching Communist music trumpeting over loudspeakers. Chinese customs officers boarded the train and our passports and luggage areas scutinised for any contraband. One officer looked at Tia, looked at her passport, frowned and asked if she was Chinese. "Uh, sort of ..." she hesitated, to which he asked could she speak Chinese. "Oh, not really," she replied, "Ni Hao?" in a very Aussie-born-Chinese accent. It was clear to the officer that she did not belong to the People's Republic of China, so he moved on.

We were then treated to a minor spectacle. Mongolia's railways were built by the Russians using Russian gauge, 1524mm (5ft) while China built their railways to standard gauge, 1435mm (4ft 8½in). So how do they deal with the inconvenient fact that fat Rusky-Mongol trains don't fit in China? Don't bother getting up good passenger, China will change your wheels for you!

At the Chinese border - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
At the bogie exchange, the carriage wagons were decoupled from each other and lifted off the bogies using a series of hydraulic jacks. The set of bogies underneath were rolled away, and then the smaller set rolled in. Everything got re-aligned, they set the wagons down again, connected them back together and hey presto! we were on a Chinese train. All this took about an hour, and we stayed on the train the whole time, watching the process in fascination. It was a noisy job so there was no chance of sleeping through it, quite fun really.

Changing of the Bogies - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
It was a late finish, so we were soon snoozing to the familiar rocking of the train journey.

Waking up in China was an unreal experience. Gazing sleepily out the window, it looked like the entire countryside was covered in thick morning fog, but the haze never went away. After a while we realized it was smog. I'd heard that it was a polluted country, but I thought that that was just around the big cities , not in the country. Bewildering.

Our first view of China.
Despite the best efforts of the smog, we managed to spot the Great Wall for the first time. It’s a little hard to make out in the photo, but it is there, running up the ridge-line from the center to the right.

Our first view of the Great Wall of China (running up the ridge from mid photo to the right) - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway
We were excited to arrive in Beijing. As odd as it sounds, I was craving rice. Food hadn't been that great over the last few months; yeah there has been some good meals, but nothing like South East Asia, Spain or Italy. This also meant the end of our Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Train Saga - 10,000 kilometres travelled over 7 days and 8 nights, with a few weeks of exploring in between to keep it fun. We met a lot of amazing people, more than any other part of this year's trip so far. A lifetime highlight to remember.

So China, bring it on.

Through the tunnels - On the Trans-Mongolian Railway