Click the link to follow the journey in the series, Train Of Thought
There are three trains on the Trans-Siberian route: the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok, the Trans-Manchurian to Beijing via Harbin, and the Trans-Mongolian train to Beijing via Ulan Bataar. From Ulan Bataar, I took the Trans-Mongolian train to Beijing. The 1,553km journey through the Gobi dessert and the beautiful mountains of Northern China takes 28 hours.
My cabin mate was Annina Fisher from Switzerland, travelling alone for two months before settling down with her boyfriend of six years, Sandro. I was surprised he agreed to let her go. “He had to agree,” she said. “Two months in six years is not a lot. I need my freedom in my relationship.”
Fisher travelled to St Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk and Olkhon Island before spending 15 days on guided trips in Mongolia, staying with nomadic families, one with an extended family of 12. She was as much enraptured by the warmth and honesty of the nomads as the clean atmosphere and the peaceful silence – and was not looking forward to noisy Beijing.
The Finnish couple, Henna Massinen and Antti Eronen, whom I had met on the train to Ulan Bataar, were also there, sharing a cabin with Mark Craven, an English structural engineer, who was travelling on to North Korea.
I had read so much about the changing of the bogies (wheels/undercarriage) of the train, at Erlian, the Chinese border station. But first, a surprise from the Immigration officers who had some beef about me. Having paid an extortionate £122 (RM683) for the Chinese visa, I was infuriated when I was marched down to the office like some belligerent schoolchild. I was just left sitting there – and then told I could go.
Russian tracks have a wider gauge so when the trains reach Earlian the bogies are replaced so they fit the narrower Chinese tracks. It was already 9pm and we were all tired out. I did not know quite what to expect. Amid a lot of shunting and whistle-blowing and banging, each carriage is detached and shunted to a shed to be hoisted up a couple of metres – passengers and all – while the bogies are wheeled out and replaced. While waiting for our turn, both Fisher and I fell asleep. We never felt a thing.
When I arrived at Beijing Central station, the taxis demanded RMB150 (RM94) for a 4.5km journey. The metro station was packed. Filippo Balbi, a young Italian doctor, helped drag my bag across to the main road and we walked several hundred metres in the scorching 34°C sunshine to look for another station. There were no escalators so he helped me with my bag but after that I had to change lines and had to cart both bags up and down the stairs. When I reached my station in the Dongcheng District, I stopped on the street looking at my phone for directions. A young man approached me, saying he was a student of Business English, visiting Beijing and that he knew where my hotel was and would take me there. Exhausted, I was grateful for the help.
He suggested we stop for some tea and I thought nothing of it. We turned off and entered a teahouse. There was nothing on the ground floor and the doorway had plastic sheets like the ones you get at the back of a butcher’s. He carried both my bags upstairs. It was empty but for a waitress. I looked the menu. There was only tea, fries and melon seeds. There was no RMB sign, just numbers, which I thought was some kind of code. The pot of tea had 380 and the fries, 30. I asked for a pot of tea and then he said he wanted me to try something. He went to the back and brought back two glasses of wine. I sniffed and said: “No, I don’t drink alcohol.”
Before I could drink my tea, the waitress brought another pot. I suddenly got worried and asked him how much all this was going to cost. He said: RMB1,200 (RM754).
“I’m not paying that!” I stood up.
He said, “You drink, you pay! We share!” He took out a credit card.
I walked towards the stairs and he blocked my way. I suddenly sensed danger. I was carrying thousands of ringgit worth of computer and photographic equipment and a few hundred pounds in cash. In my pocket, I had RMB97 (RM61) change after buying the RMB3 (RM1.90) metro ticket, and gave it to him.
I asked for some back to buy a metro ticket. He took RMB5 (RM3) and threw it on the floor for me. Then, as I grabbed my bags, he took them off me and said, “I am a gentleman,” and carried them down the stairs.
And there but for the grace of God, go I. I had endured walking in the blazing hot sun and dragging my bags up and down the stairs in the metro to save some money and he could just take it all in a flash. He could have taken everything and even harmed me and nobody would know. Although my loss was minimal, I still was deeply hurt, for I had extended the hand of friendship to this man as I had done with everyone throughout my odyssey. I had given him my card with my full address and contact details, always reminding people to check out my blog. I felt like an idiot: “Why don’t you read my blog about you cheating me?”
I had chosen Beijing Wang Fu Jing Jade Hotel in Dongcheng because it is within walking distance of the Forbidden Palace, Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing (Beijing’s Oxford Street) where I could get cheap fast food. Just on the main Beiheyan Street is the Huangchenggen Relics Park, where I discovered some very interesting sculptures, like the one of a sage overlooking a woman on a bench, looking at her computer screen.
On my third day, I took an excursion to the Great Wall of China, arranged by the hotel. A fellow guest had suggested Mutianyu, 73km away, which is less crowded than Badaling. The guide left us at the car park and gave us three hours to climb the wall and return for lunch (included in the package). There are 23 watchtowers on this part of the wall, built between 550 and 577, under the Qi Dynasty and fortified in 1404 under the Ming Emperor Yongle’s reign.
I took the cable car to Tower 6 and walked to the top. It was tough with my prosthetic knee, not to mention the summer heat. The view of the mountains was spectacular. The last tower was so steep, I almost gave up but you can’t say you’ve done it if you didn’t finish, so I virtually crawled up that last stretch. Miraculously, my knee held out.
While in Beijing, I was amused to hear word “Aiya” being used extensively so, when an old man photo-bombed my picture, after I had taken all that trouble to find a willing photographer, I screamed “Aiya!” and a woman turned and said, “Are you from Malaysia?” It was a Sabahan woman, Joanna Kong, and her husband Lau Chuan Bing who were on holiday with their family.
Mutianyu is only 2.5km long but you can see the wall stretching into the distance. It was first built by the Warring States in 475 BC and continued under seven Chinese dynasties until 1644. Imagine how much labour it must have taken to transport the materials and build the whole wall, which extends across the mountains to 21,196.18km. Of all the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Wall of China has to be the greatest.
What’s in store for our intrepid traveller next? Catch up with her in a fortnight.