We were on the final leg of our Trans-Siberian adventure, from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. Another early wake up, taxi to the train and off we set.
Similarly to the previous stage of the trip, the border between the two countries was about half way into the journey. This meant that some time in the early evening we would be crossing over to China. We were more prepared this time for any potential delays at the border which would inevitably lead to no toilet access for an extended period of time.
The journey from Ulanbaataar to the border was an interesting one. I sat and watched as the train travelled through the baron desert environment, thinking that some people, at some time, had to build this route in the middle of the desert. As Ulaanbaatar disappeared into the distance the train snaked along the sand, moving around naturally formed rocks and boulders.
We arrived at the border and the Chinese authorities boarded the train to check everyones’ credentials. As they did so the engine and restaurant cart were changed too. The border crossing was about the same duration as the previous one, however we’d been holding back on beers (and water) just to prepare for this eventuality.
After the interval, the train started to move again and we were on out way to our final destination, Beijing. The scenery was magnificent and the restaurant cart my favourite so far; it consisted of Chinese delicacies and also it was decorated accordingly too. Initially the scenery was very similar to that of Mongolia (it was the same desert, after all). But as we travelled further inland towards Beijing, the landscape became hilly, green and like a different world to what we’d experienced so far.
We knew we were getting close to Beijing when The Great Wall of China came in and out of view. It was spectacular and somewhere we had definitely planned to visit during our week in China. We shortly arrived into Beijing’s main station and, just like that, our Trans-Siberian adventure had finished. It’s strange; being stuck on a train for seven days, without a shower and with only basic food, doesn’t sound that exciting, but there is something weirdly romantic about it. There are many ways to plan this trip, from first class to third class, to Vladivostock or Beijing, stopping as often or as infrequently as you’d like. The season you travel adds its own dimension to the type of adventure you would have and also the people you travel with. For these reasons, you could redo this trip several times with it feeling like a brand new experience.
China was incredible, but the thing that hit me the most on arrival was the humidity. It was something that i’d not experienced for a long time and was making me very tired! We got a taxi to our hostel in the Houhai district. This was a quaint little area which wasn't amongst the tall buildings and was just like i’d imagined China to be.
The hostel was a guesthouse which had a courtyard in the middle. Beers cost 40p for a large bottle and perhaps this, combined with the humidity, caused for the next 14 hours to be a blur! But, once I awoke from my stupor we were all set for exploring the Chinese capital in all it’s glory.
Our first stop was The Great Wall of China. We got a bus, which took around an hour, to one of the closer parts of the wall. Bear in mind the wall is 21,000km long there was plenty of it to choose from. Built by several dynasties across thousands of years, it’s widely considered to be the most impressive architectural feats in history; and it didn’t disappoint. We got there relatively early and there was an eerie mist hovering over the walls. It soon lifted to exhibit what was a breathtaking view of the wall climbing up the hills and dropping steeply in between the peaks. It was fascinating to look at and we walked for several hours on a round trip marvelling at the design of the wall. Sure, it had a bit of wear and tear, but this only added to the fascination; this wall was built to withstand the penetration from enemies, but much of it has withstood the test of time also.
The next two days included highlights of visiting the Forbidden City - which is far from forbidden actually, in fact they encourage you to visit it -and a run in with some local, tuk-tuk-riding, con-artists. Having decided to travel in some tuk-tuks from one location to another we noticed that we were slowly becoming separated. Soon after my friends were out of sight the tuk-tuk stopped down back a road and the driver demanded I pay 10 times the price that had been agreed before travel. Being extremely stubborn, and looking back probably quite stupid, I refused to pay anything, including the agreed fee. After a few minutes of us trading higher and higher pitched slurs he thankfully realised I wasn’t worth the hassle. To this date, touch wood, this is the only trouble i’ve ever had travelling. Stuff like this does happen though and it’s unfortunate, but it definitely didn't ruin our perception of China. Having caught up with my two friends, they’d also had similar encounters. One had paid up immediately, the other had similar story to mine.
It wasn’t anything to do with the previous day’s experience, but we felt that staying just in Beijing for a week wouldn’t be time well spent, so we jumped on another train to Shanghai (It was far more laborious to get the ticket than i’m making out, as we had to queue for over an hour in the heat the day before to purchase them). Thus far, we’d been used to a slow moving express train that gave you time to soak up the surrounding environment, but this train was something completely different. It was my first time on a bullet train, which covers 1300km in around 4 hours. The top speed of the train is around 330km per hour, but the thing that amazes me is that this train was the smoothest one we’d been on yet. It was like being on a plane. Travelling through the Chinese countryside definitely made us realise that there was another whole world of China to be explored, which is something I plan to do sometime in the future.
We arrived in Shanghai and went to a hostel in an area I have no recollection of. This caused issues one night when we were attempting to get a taxi back to our accommodation. We only knew the English translation for the area, which obviously the taxi driver wasn't familiar with. We spent over two hours in the taxi, with a street-food stop halfway, trying to work out where we were. Somehow, the taxi driver eventually got us home for which we were very grateful.
A friend of ours met us in Shanghai as he’d been teaching English in the nearby city, and old capital, Nanjing. We used Shanghai as a bit more of a holiday than the rest of the trip and partied and chilled out. It had been an intense, memorable trip which was coming to an end. We were soon heading back to Beijing to catch a flight home and back to our normal lives.
It’s the most exciting adventure i’ve ever done, for sure. And, as previously mentioned, it’s something i’d love to do again, especially because there are so many variables which would make the trip different. It’s not like going back to the same holiday resort each year. But with so many other areas of the world still to explore I think I need to prioritise those first before returning to what was the greatest train journey i’ve ever done.