Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The end was drawing near for the the Vodkatrain tour, and our time as a group was almost over. So I have to admit, I felt a little bad about not getting out of bed the following morning to join the others on the boat tour through the canals and rivers of St Petersburg, but I was far too tired from our night out at Blue Oyster. Though the price of the tour sort of deterred me a little bit as well – it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but I was aware of the money I’d spent last night. Moving into Europe, I had to face the reality that things weren’t going to be as cheap as they had been in previous places. I wasn’t to fussed either way about the boat tour, and I still managed to see a lot of the city by foot. It was a moment of realisation for me, I suppose, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, so I had to prioritise and do the things I really wanted to do. I had an epic night out at the Blue Oyster, so I stand by my choice.

I had a slow and steady rise late in the morning, and met Kaylah at Nevsky Prospekt at around lunchtime to go and visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral. We didn’t bother looking in any of the museums – neither of us were entirely in the mood – so we just took some pictures of the buildings and sat down in the sun, admiring the architecture while recapping the frivolous events of the previous evening. “It wasn’t my first time at a gay bar,” Kaylah would later tell me, “but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had in one.” It wasn’t the famed party haven of Moscow, a scene I’m still yet to experience, but St Petersburg definitely had our seal of approval.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

We’d walked across the bridges to get to the cathedral, but we took the subway back, so I could practice catching the metro when I would have to do it by myself in a few days to get to the major train station. The peculiar thing about the stations is that they are so far underground due to all the water and rivers in St Petersburg that they need to burrow under. They’re about two, maybe three, times longer than the “long” escalators in the stations back in Sydney, and since the trains are so fast and efficient I made a joke about half the journey time just being the trip down from the street to the platform. Afterwards, we spent a little while just wandering around the streets, browsing along Nevsky Prospekt, and just getting lost amongst the beautiful city. Literally.
“Err… Kaylah, where are we?” Both of us had grown extremely weary, and had decided to head back to the hostel to nap before dinner.
“Umm, we’re… we’re… umm.”
“Yeah, none of this looks familiar.” We looked up Nevsky Prospekt, and back down the way we came, but for all the times we’d traversed it in the last two days, it was still such a foreign world. It was interesting that I’d come so far to Europe, yet English was so much more scarce then pretty much the entirely of South East Asia, which is a reflection of just how prevalent tourism is down there, and now… not prevalent it is in Russia. That’s not to say there were no tourists – the Hermitage was full of guided tours – but Russia as an economy doesn’t seem to be so dependant on holidaymakers, otherwise the visa application process might not be such a gigantic hassle. Anyway, eventually we just backtracked to discover that we had both blindly walked past the street we were meant to turn off – probably in indication of just how badly we needed that nap.

That evening was the last time we would spend together as a group. We had one last final dinner together, and then afterwards we went to a nearby bar for a last round of drinks. We shared our high points and low points of the trip, reflecting on memories and laughing at all the running jokes that had kept us amused for the whole trip. It was crazy to think that we’d only been together for three weeks, yet we’d grown so close and come so far that it felt liken it had been a lot longer. I found myself feeling a little sad that we were all going our separate ways now – I’d grown used to having travel companions, and the sense of security that a familiar group can bring. In the morning everyone took their leave at various times – Dan and Claire being the first at 5am – and I said a few emotional goodbyes to the people I’d grown quite close with. The numbers dwindled, until finally I was on my own again, and the next part of my journey was about to begin.

***

The time I spent travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway with Vodkatrain was nothing short of incredible, because it was more than just a holiday – it was an experience. As I’ve said before, it was particularly challenging at times, to the point where when I’ve told people about it, they’re not so sold on the fact that I even enjoyed the trip. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I honestly think the challenging experiences are often the best. I complained about how the train didn’t have any showers, but in the end it’s really a learning curve about some of the luxuries we take for granted, and I proved to myself that I’m not such a princess when it comes to personal hygiene after all – or at the very least, I can cope when my hot showers are taken away from me. But the challenges weren’t just in the train ride – I was so sure I was going to tip over that quad-bike at Lake Baikal, but in the end I feel accomplished in being able to say I’m slowly regaining my confidence behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Then there were the real highlights. I’ll never forget the breathtaking views of the Mongolian wilderness, or the beauty of a fresh, crisp morning at Lake Baikal. All the challenges aside, it was really something to travel overland across such a huge distance and observe the changes in scenery, climate and culture. It was a long way, but the fact that we did it reminds me that it really is a small world after all.

Though the thing that I reflect on most about this part of my journey is my companions. I set out travelling by myself because in previous travels, I’d found some clashes in the way people like to organise their holidays. I’m pretty laid back, and usually not the kind of person who is out the door at nine in the morning to cram as much sightseeing into a day as possible. I enjoyed the leisurely pace through which I traversed South East Asia, and though I wasn’t really concerned as to what my fellow travellers would be like this time, I was just curious to see the types of people who would choose to do this kind of trip, and how they would plan their days.

Everyone on the tour was quite a seasoned traveller. I was glad that I at least had the six weeks of South East Asia under my belt by the time I arrived, but after discovering that I was the ‘baby’ – the youngest – in the group, I didn’t feel quite so bad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk to all these people and learn more about travelling. Rach and Marti were great for that. They’d been travelling the world together for almost 5 years, and Marti always had some tips or advice or recommendations, whether it was where to go or where to stay, what to do and things to be wary of. Kaylah and Alyson had been on a trip to Nepal and Tibet the previous year, so they opened my eyes to some destinations I wouldn’t have ever really considered before now, and Tracy knew a lot from her working as a tour guide in both South America and the Middle East. Most of the group probably thought I was really shy – which I suppose I can be when I first meet people – but most of the time I was just too busy listening.

Because whether it was travel, politics, or the difference in our respective countries health care systems, I found myself surrounded by a passionate group of intelligent individuals, with the perfect combinations in sense of humour, food for thought, and thirst for adventure. I could trek it through those seven time zones again and again, drowning in the Beijing smog, marvelling at the Mongolian wilderness, getting lost on the Russian metro lines and even getting cabin fever in the middle of Siberia, but I think I was incredibly lucky to meet the people that I did, because I feel like they all played a major part in making the trip what it was. I know some of them will be reading this, so thanks for being so amazing guys! Hopefully some of you will feature in some future posts on this blog.

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All Aboard

So far in my journey, the only train travel I had done was the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani – the rest of South-East Asia had been traversed via bus, boat and plane. When it came time to board our first train of the Trans-Siberian adventure – the Trans-Mongolian leg of the trip fro, Beijing to Ulaanbaatar – I was quite excited, unsure if it would be similar to my experience in Thailand or something completely different. Snow met us at our hotel at 6:30am, and we piled into a minibus that would take us to the station. After a few security checks and little bit of waiting, she showed us to the platform and talked to the train attendants who took us to our cabins. We would be getting a new guide in every city of the tour, so we said our goodbyes to Snow as we climbed aboard. She had been a peculiar little woman, soft-spoken and shy but very polite, and had been quite helpful during our stay in Beijing.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

***

As a group, most of our time had been spent sightseeing, wandering around streets and temples and other attractions, and eating together at meals. However, we would be departing Beijing at around 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and wouldn’t be arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, until about 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the Monday. If ever there was going to be a time to properly get to know my fellow travelling companions, it was going to be during the periods of transit where there was not much else to do other than talk to each other. It was interesting to get to know a little more about everyone: where home was, what they did there, where they were going after this tour, how long they had been travelling for, and how long they still had to go in their travels. I also discovered that I was the youngest of our group – the tour was for 18 to 35 year olds, but majority of the group was at or around the 30 mark, with a few in their mid-twenties. Most of them were also seasoned travellers, and listening to their stories made me realise that despite my travels extending right around the globe, there would still so much more of the world left to see once I finally arrived home.

I’d also been wondering who I would be sharing a room with, after having spent my nights in the Beijing hotel alone. Yet as Snow gave us our tickets for the train, she said to me, “I think you will be on your own. Each cabin has 4 people, but there are 13 people. Your name is last on ticket, so you might be with strangers.” She had seemed concerned, but I had assured her that I would be fine. I’d been sleeping in dorms with strangers for most of the past 6 weeks – another night on a train wasn’t going to kill me. The cabin set up was quite differently from the Thai train though – instead of single seats that lined the carriage and transformed into beds, the Chinese train was divided into cabins, each one equipped with two sets of bunks, which served as seats during the day and beds at night. I spent most of my time during the day in the next cabin over, with Kaylah and Alyson, the American girls, and Claire and Dan, a British couple who had been temporarily living in Australia and were returning home to the UK.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

***

While I loved getting to know my tour companions, acquainting myself with the fellow travellers in my cabin was a different matter. When I’d first been shown into my room, I found a couple sitting on the end of my bed. Snow said something to them in Chinese, but they stared back at her with blank, uncomprehending faces. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Snow ventured out and asked “English?” The woman of the pair slowly shook her head and said, “No… not well.” Snow turned to me, a little frustrated.
“They are Mongolian, so I cannot speak with them…” She peered out of the carriage and down the corridor, looking for assistance from the attendants, but I assured her that as long as I had a bed in the cabin, I really wasn’t too concerned with where I slept. After a short while another older man joined us, and placed his things on the bunk above mine. Shortly after departing the station, he climbed up into his bed and settled down, and the couple seemingly disappeared. It was a 13 carriage train with a dining car at the end, so I figured that that’s where they had relocated to.

A few hours later, when I decided to do a little bit of exploring myself, I wandered down to the dining car, where my suspicions were confirmed. The Mongol couple was sitting at one of the tables, with about six or seven cans of beer sitting in front of them. The woman had her back towards me, but her boyfriend must have recognised me and said something, because she whirled around in her seat to face me, her beehive of hair flying all over the place, and shouted “Hi!” in a long, drawn out way that made me sure she was at least extremely tipsy. I said hello and waved back, but I had only come for a quick investigation, and didn’t stick around long enough for any other kind of exchange. It was still fairly early in the afternoon at that point, and we would be crossing the Mongolian border later during the night. I silently hoped that they wouldn’t cause too much trouble for our cabin during the border crossing and customs procedures.

***

Fast forward to about 8:30 that evening, and we had finally reached the Chinese side of the border crossing. I had been moving around freely at that point, but now we were required to return to our cabins to clear Chinese immigration and customs. Gramps and I sat patiently on our side of the cabin. The young Mongol man sat on his bunk, stumbling through a hangover after an afternoon nap and frantically trying to fill in his departure card. The Amy Winehouse look alike was no where to be seen – I would later discover that she was sleeping in the neighbouring cabin, which had thus far remained empty. An austere Chinese man came and collected passports, and we were ordered to stand up so that the under-seat luggage compartments could be checked for stowaways. However, he was speaking in English, which my Mongol companions failed to understand, and he must have started yelling in Chinese after that, because what followed was a lot of exasperated sighs from the border personal as they snatched up passports and shouted orders at the travellers. It must have been more of a nuisance than an actual problem, because they eventually moved on to inspect the rest of the train.

After that ordeal came the time for changing the trains bogies. The railway tracks in Mongolia have a different gauge of thickness to those China. Travellers were given a choice – get off the train and wait for three hours while this happened, or stay on the train for three hours while this happened. Whatever your choice, you had to stick with it, as you couldn’t come and go during the procedure. While most travellers chose to get off the train, everyone in our group decided the stay – there didn’t appear to be a lot to do so far out in the Chinese countryside on a Sunday night, and I was curious to see the bogie changing process. It just involved each carriage being jacked up and sliding out the old ones and slipping in new ones – though some other more interesting things occurred during that time…

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

I had been sitting in one of our other group cabins when I heard Alyson call out to me. “Robert, I think you’re locked out of your cabin.” I stuck my head out into the hallway to see at my cabin door was indeed shut, and they were the kind that could only be opened from the outside with a staff key. At first I thought it had accidentally shut, but after a while we heard noises coming from inside the cabin.
“I think your Mongols are having a bit of couple time, Rob”, Dan said with a slight chuckle that was sympathetic but still quite amused.
“Really? Eww, no they’re not… They can’t be, surely? Right?” I didn’t know whether I should be laughing or crying. There were a few muffled shrieks, and from inside Alyson, Kaylah, Dan and Clair’s cabin, we heard banging against the wall.
“Oh yeah,” Alyson said, her eyes widening in horror, not wanting to believe what she was hearing, but unable to unhear it now it was happening.”Definitely some serious couple time going on in there.” I was just hoping that Gramps had actually left the train for the bogie changing.
“Oh my God, can’t they just wait?” someone else had said, perhaps Claire. “It’s just one night!”
The entire group, all thirteen of us, stood around in our cabins and the corridor, half laughing and half standing around in a stunned silence. I was almost at a loss of words, but I tried to remain optimistic.
“Well… as long as they’re not on my bed, right?”

***

The Mongol couple hadn’t been on my bed – but it turns out they had been on someone else’s. After the bogies had been changed it was well past midnight, and after we went through the Mongolian side of the border and had our passports collected, most of our group began to fall asleep one by one. In the end it was only Dan and I left in the corridor, watching the hallways as the train acquired more passengers. A train attendant came to my cabin and started having a very heated discussion with the couple, though it was all in Mongolian so I have no idea what was actually said. Then, rather abruptly, they gathered their things and stumbled out of the room. I exchanged a look with Gramps – he obviously knew what going on, but his expression gave nothing away about how he felt about the situation. Like me, he was probably just waiting for everyone to settle down so he could go to bed. But the couple had obviously been in the wrong cabin for the first leg of the journey and had to be shifted, because the space that Amy and her lover had vacated was quickly filled with some new Mongolians.

Our two new roommates were a peculiar duo – I nicknamed them the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar. They had luggage that looked like it weighed about 30kg, or at least sounded like it when they clunked the bags down onto the floor, and they tapped away on their touchscreen smartphones with their flashy acrylic nails while the shiny metallic decorations on their t-shirts caught the light like a disco ball, sending flecks of glare all around the cabin. They exchanged a few words with Gramps – I may as well not have existed to the , so after the official business had been conducted I slipped out of the cabin to rejoin Dan in the hallway. It would appear that the Real Housewives were not the only new passengers in our cabin – Dan and I had to duck out of the hallway and back into our cabins to make room for a group of six men, all of whom were incredibly filthy. You could see the dirt that lined their clothes and caked their faces, but the worst thing was the smell. The pungent aroma of raw fish wafted down the corridor, sending the cabin attendants running down the hallway, shrieking, covering their faces and spraying air deodoriser every time they had to open one of the two cabins which these men occupied. It was quite amusing, but would have been more hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that our carriage was now stained with the unpleasant stench.

However, the cabin doors appeared to be fairly airtight, and managed to either block out or, more importantly, contain the smell. So long as the doors to their cabins stayed shut, the smell didn’t bother us too much. I had to chuckle to myself though, as I realised that the Mongolian lovers who had soiled my cabin had been relocated to one of the two rooms occupied by two of the dirty fisherman. To me it was fitting, almost as though the universe had matched and raised them on their attempt to get down and dirty. As I bid my group goodnight and headed back to my cabin, I made another discovery. In the space of about half an hour, the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar had also been relocated – I’m still not sure to where – and in their place was a single Mongolian woman, sitting on the bottom bunk and quietly arranging her things. She looked up as I walked in and gave me a small smile, which I returned before going about setting my bed up. I had laid out the bottom sheet and was about to climb into bed with just the top sheet to cover me, when the woman motioned to the blankets that were piled onto the top bunk above her, which now appeared to be empty.

“It will be very cold,” she said to me as she pointed. Pleasantly surprised to learn to spoke English, I thanked her and pulled one of the blankets down, making sure my actual body came into contact with it as little as possible – I still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened in this cabin earlier. I laid the blanket down, climbed under the sheet, and waited until the woman was ready for bed. Gramps had already been waiting patiently above me. When she finally moved to turn off the night, she turned to me with a smile and said goodnight.
“Goodnight,” I replied as the lights went out and we were thrown into darkness. After the confusing game of musical chairs that my day in this cabin had been, I was quite happy with how the evening had turned out, and I drifted off to sleep to the gentle rocking motions of the train.

***

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

The following day went by rather uneventfully, watching the Gobi desert and the surrounding landscapes pass us by. It had felt like quite a long time, but it was a little daunting to think that the Trans-Mongolian leg of our journey was actually the shortest trip of all, with the exception of the train between Moscow and St Petersburg. Having well and truly left China behind us – other than a bottle of alcohol the shopkeeper had described as “good for health” – we climbed off the train Ulaanbaatar, eager to see what Mongolia had in store for us.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

Bird Flu and Beer – Chicken in China

While my days in China were spent doing typical tourist activities, at night Snow took us out to eat at some authentic Chinese restaurants. Most of the waiters at the places we went to had fairly limited English, so we had to rely on Snow to do all the ordering. We ended up getting a range of dishes and splitting between the group – it was amazing how much food you can order for a group of thirteen and still only end up paying approximately $7 each. Needless to say, nobody went hungry, and I feel I can safely say that some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had, I had in China.

One thing that made me uneasy at first, however, was that Snow ordered a chicken dish. Alarm bells went off in my head immediately – all throughout my travels in South East Asia I had been following the news and tracking the progression of the new strain of bird flu. At the time I arrived in China, I knew there had been the most cases in the city of Shanghai, and even a few confirmed reports in Taiwan. Some people had suggested I not go to China – others, including my mother, had just strictly warned me to stay away from live poultry and to not eat any chicken. At this point in my trip, I can safely say that I am yet to handle any living poultry. As for eating chicken… well, to be honest, I completely forgot. The alarm bells didn’t go off until after we’d finished our meal, at which point I had eaten a substantial amount of chicken.

But so had everyone else in the group, and no one seemed to give the danger of bird flu the slightest thought, and if they had then they certainly hadn’t mentioned it. Snow hadn’t seemed too concerned, so I took that as a good sign – I figured the local people tend to know more about what’s going on in their areas then CNN, although with China you never really do know…

Tim, one of the Australian guys, had been travelling throughout China for the last three weeks on a different tour before joining our group. He was telling us a few stories about his travels and some of the places he had been, and at one point mentioned something about Shanghai. Alarm bells did instantly go off this time, and when he finished his stories, I leaned over to have a one on one conversation with him.

“Did you say you were in Shanghai?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“Yeah, probably about a week or so ago.”
“For how long?” I continued to quiz him, with the nonchalant faƧade probably failing miserably.
“Just three nights,” Tim replied, quite matter-of-factly. I thought maybe the direction I was going might have been apparent, but he didn’t appear to have any idea where I was taking the interrogation. I leaned over further and spoke a little quieter, suddenly feeling a little silly about my paranoia.
“What about bird flu?” I asked in a low, hushed voice.
“Bird flu?” Tim repeated. “What about it?”
“Wasn’t it a problem? Like, weren’t you kinda scared going through Shanghai?”
He looked genuinely surprised, or at the very least confused. “Umm… No, not really. I mean, it might be around, but… no, I wasn’t worried. It’s mostly fine, really.” His tone carried the nonchalance I’d tried to attain in my original question, and I very much believed what he was saying.

So between Tim having survived a visit to Shanghai and our entire group eating chicken seemingly without a second thougth, I decided that perhaps bird flu wasn’t as much of a serious concern in Beijing as my loved ones would have me believe. I know most of them will be reading this either sighing, face palming, or rolling their eyes, but in my opinion it just really shows how a little bit of media hysteria can go a long way, and terrify the on-lookers more than the people actually living the experience.

***

The other part of Chinese night life I experienced was the Hou Hai Bar Street, where a bunch of different small bars lined a riverside street. I visited the street after dinner on our last night in Beijing with Tim and Alyson, the other American in our group. As we strolled down the street trying to decide on a place to have a drink, Tim made a comment on how unlike the rest of China this street was, or more precisely, how much American influence there was. Almost every bar had live music and karaoke, with many of them butchering Western music with their limited English vocabularies. Most bars had people outside trying to beckon you into their venue, but we kept walking until we found a place that lacked the hecklers. We ended up taking a seat at a Jamaican bar, sitting outside so that we could hear each other talking over the live music inside, and sampled some of the local draught beer. It was nice to get to know some more members of our travel group, though we didn’t end up staying out too late, as we had to get up early to get the train to Mongolia the next morning. But it was nice to catch a glimpse into the Chinese nightlife.

Beijing's riverside bar street.

Beijing’s riverside bar street.

China’s Greatest Hits: Sightseeing in Beijing

My overland trip through Central Asia was going to have one major difference from the rest of my travelling – I was going to be on a tour, travelling with a bunch of other people. After travelling solo for so long, I was actually quite excited to be returning to some sort of a schedule where there was a little less uncertainty at the beginning of each day. I was also going to be going through some countries where English is not as common as it is in places like Thailand and Vietnam – in that sense, they’re not places I’d be able to visit at all unless I was under some sort of guidance.

When I arrived back at the hotel after my trip to Beijing Zoo, I was greeted by our guide, a Chinese woman whose English name was Snow. She led me into another room where some of the other travellers were waiting, so I took a seat and waited for everyone to arrive. There were thirteen people in our tour group – two girls from America, two couples from the UK, and then four girls and two guys who were Australians. Snow briefed us all about the Chinese part of our trip, and talked to us about what we wanted to do. The tour I was on was a little different to most – there was no strict set itinerary, and each individual was allowed to chose whatever they wanted to do, and decide how they wanted to fill their time in between the train journeys between cities. However, there was a unanimous vote to see China’s most popular tourist attractions: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China.

***

The following day was supposed to be quite cool and overcast, so we decided to hold off on our journey to the Great Wall until we had better weather. So on our first morning as a group, we met Snow at the hotel and then walked to Tiananmen Square. We were told it was the largest city square in the world, and could hold at least one million people. There’s also a flag pole where a flag raising ceremony is held at sunrise every morning – Snow told us we could attend it tomorrow morning if we wanted, but I decided that after Angkor Wat I had already played my “awake at sunrise” card for this month. The square itself was an interesting space though, not dissimilar to places like Martin Place back home in Sydney, although exponentially bigger – I was informed that the vast space in front of us was only half the square, and that it continued on the other side of the central monument, a memorial dedicated to the people who died in the Chinese Peoples Revolution, and the mausoleum of Chairman Mao, which has thousands of visitors every day, coming to pay respects to the former leader. However, I was surprised to find that many Chinese people still don’t know about the fatal student protests that happened in that very square in 1989. For me, it was a shocking example of just how much censorship the Chinese government imposes on its population – and here I was thinking how terrible it is that they block Facebook!

Myself in Tiananmen Square.

Myself in Tiananmen Square.

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City.

After having a wander through Tiananmen Square, we crossed the road to the Forbidden City. The name sounds more intimidating than it really is – it simply comes from the fact that the Forbidden City was former the home of the Chinese Emperor, and therefore the common people were forbidden from entering. Snow took us through the City, pointing out some of the finer details in the architecture and design, and telling us stories about the history of the buildings and the people who once resided in them. The Chinese royalty haven’t lived in the Forbidden City since 1912, and it was opened to the public about a decade later. I also noticed that many of the buildings had scaffolding around them, indicative of reconstruction and repairs that were underway. It reminded me of places like the palaces in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, and the temples at Angkor Wat. When you see pictures of them, they look like impressive buildings that have withstood the test of time, but in reality they are in a constant state of upkeep and conditioning, something that you can only really see if you visit the places for yourself – or see amateur photographs that don’t make it into the advertisements or guidebooks.

Standing with a lion statue inside the Forbidden City.

Standing with a lion statue inside the Forbidden City.

The Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City.

The Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City.

After spending a couple of hours wandering through the Forbidden City, Snow took us to a garden behind the city called Jingshan Park, where there was a tower from which you could have a wide, panoramic view of the Forbidden City and the surrounding areas of Beijing. From that vantage point we could see just how bad the city’s pollution really is. Part of it may have been due to the overcast weather, but there was still an undeniable thick smog that clogged the horizon. It was still an interesting view in its own weird way, and didn’t diminish the enormity of the city – buildings and civilisation stretched on in every direction, as far the eye could see.

The view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park tower.

The view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park tower.

***

After lunch, we caught the delightfully efficient subway system out west to visit the Summer Palace, another ancient building that housed different members of Chinese royalty throughout history. We walked along the banks of the artificial lake while Snow told us stories and explained different aspects of the landscape and buildings. Within the Summer Palace was a building called the Tower of Buddhist Incense, a large tower which also provided us with spectacular views of another area of Beijing. Even though the air was thick with clouds and smog, we could still see quite far into the distance over the lake, and the weather gave the whole place a sacred and mystical feeling.

Inside the ground of the Summer Palace - an area about 4 times the size of the Forbidden City.

Inside the ground of the Summer Palace – an area about 4 times the size of the Forbidden City.

View from the Tower of Insence.

View from the Tower of Insence.

One thing I began to notice, after having it pointed out by some of my other companions, was that Chinese people just love to get photos with white people – whether or not they have your consent isn’t really even an issue. As I stood at the top of the tower, looking down at the scene beneath me, a noticed someone standing a couple of steps below me. She was a Chinese woman who had been standing next to me just moments ago – she had repositioned herself and was now holding her camera up to take a photo of herself, clearly angled to have me in the background. My reaction was one of both amusement and annoyance, and I rolled my eyes as I side-stepped out of the picture. It wasn’t the first time it had happened – sometimes they’re even quite direct and simply approach you and ask if they can have their picture taken with you. Sometimes I oblige, other times I can’t be bothered, but I found it kind of rude to try and take pictures like that without even having the decency to be discreet about it. The local Chinese tourists love to pose and have their photo taken in front of everything – from the biggest landmarks to the most basic and insignificant details. I just wondered how they would react to one of us coming up and shoving a camera in their faces and calling it a holiday snap.

***

Our second day in Beijing would see us headed to the Great Wall of China, which is about a two hour drive out of the city. There are a lot of different locations where you can visit and climb the wall, but Snow had suggested we go to an area called Mutianyu, which was a little further than the other more popular tourist section of the wall, but was supposed to be one of the most beautiful spots. All I can say is if Mutianyu wasn’t the most popular section, I’d hate to see how many people were at the bigger tourist area. There were lots of groups of Westerners, but there was also huge amounts of domestic tour groups from other parts of China, including a massive group of school children.

There were two options for getting to the top of the Great Wall – riding a cable car or climbing the steps all the way to the top. Most of the group wanted to get the cable car, but I kind of wanted to walk. “I want to be able to say ‘I climbed the Great Wall of China’, not ‘Yeah I took a cable car to the top ’cause it seemed like a lot of stairs'”, I had said, and luckily Kaylah, one of the American girls, had shared a similar sentiment. So the two of us set off to climb the stairs while the rest of the group piled into the cable car. I quite enjoyed the walk up with Kaylah, because it was the first time I’d really gotten to get to know someone from the group one on one. Since we had an uneven number of people in our group, I had ended up being by myself in my room at the hotel. While I loved the little bit of privacy, it meant that I’d only really interacted with my group members in group situations. I hadn’t really made new friends or gotten to know anyone since meeting Laura back in Cambodia, so it was fun to talk to Kaylah and get to know a little more about each other, making jokes here and there and motivating each other as we made the steep ascent up the hill to the Great Wall.

Snow had said it would take about half and hour, but together Kaylah and I managed to conquer the steps in just under twenty minutes. We thought it was an impressive achievement, regardless of how out of breath we may have been once we reached the top. We stopped for a moment to catch our breath, and take some photos of the magnificent view. It was completely different from the kind of views we’d had back in Beijing – the sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky, and you could see the Chinese mountains and countryside stretch on in all directions. The wall itself was an interesting structure – after the trek from the ground level up to the top, I hadn’t expected there to be more stairs. But as the wall snaked up and down the contours of the hill, there were old flights of stairs going up and down, made even more peculiar by the fact that many of the flights tilted either left or right, as well as having vast variations in steepness from flight to flight. It made for an interesting and somewhat challenging walk along the wall, though the real challenge was trying to take a photo without a horde of other tourists in the picture.

Feeling very proud of myself after claiming the Great Wall of China.

Feeling very proud of myself after claiming the Great Wall of China.

At the highest point of the wall with our guide, Snow.

At the highest point of the wall with our guide, Snow.

We walked along a section of the wall, enjoying the views and taking photos, until we caught up with the rest of the group who were on their way back down. Kaylah and I continued on until we reached the highest major outpost that was accessible to tourists, and then made our way back to the bottom of the wall. However, instead of walking down, we decided to take the fun option and ride the toboggan down. It was a similar set up to theme parks in Australia like Jamberoo – a metal half-pipe tube that snaked down the mountain, which you rode down on a toboggan with a single lever to control acceleration and breaking. It was a fun way to reward ourselves after all the walking we’d done on the way up, even though we were slightly stifled by the Chinese tourists who weren’t as enthusiastic about gathering speed as Kaylah and myself. We just laughed it off and puttered along behind them, enjoying the fresh air, amazing views, and the fact that we’d just walked along one of the great wonders of the world.

***

The last stop of the day was the Ming Tombs, a huge mausoleum complex where thirteen of the sixteen emperors of the Ming dynasty were buried. We went down into the tombs to see the coffins, and visited the several exhibitions and museums, before piling back onto the bus and heading home. While we’d had two full days of sightseeing in Beijing, looking at maps and guidebooks and seeing all the other things we didn’t see made me realise just how huge a city Beijing is, let alone the enormity of the country of China. I’d had a couple of unpleasant experiences, but on the whole my visit to Beijing was interesting and enjoyable. Despite that, I definitely felt I was ready to get up early the next morning and begin our trek to Mongolia.

Huge coffins in the Ming Tombs.

Huge coffins in the Ming Tombs.

Hello Panda: Beijing Zoo

After my first night in Beijing, I still had a full day before meeting my tour group at the hotel in the afternoon. I knew that once I met up with them, most of us would want to do the major things in Beijing such as the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, so I decided to find something else to do that might not as be as popular among the group. After collecting a city map from hotel reception and studying a guide to the Beijing subway system, I discovered that there was a station not too far from the hotel, and also one located right next to the Beijing Zoo. Figuring it would be a quick and easy expedition to manage by myself, I set out into the streets again to tackle Beijing in the daylight.

***

Getting to the first station was a mission in itself. I thought I was going the right way, following the major roads, but I ended up at Wangfujing Station, which was in the complete opposite direction from my desired destination of Tiananmen East Station. It was only one stop difference, so I just considered myself lucky I’d found a station at all and descended into the underground subway system. Every entrance point has a security check and bag scanning conveyor belt, just like going through customs at an airport. When I finally made it down into the station, I tried to buy a ticket to Beijing Zoo Station. It took my a while to realise the fare for the subway was just 2 yuan – less than a dollar – no matter where you were going. The train system was also clean, fast and efficient, much like the public transport I’d used in Bangkok and Singapore, and I found myself internally cursing Sydney for still not lifting its game. I had one stop to transfer to a different line, but soon enough I had arrived at the zoo.

Given that I was in China, it was very clear as to what was the major attraction at the Beijing Zoo. On top the entrance fee into the zoo, there is an additional charge for admittance into the Panda House – the exhibit that in home to the zoos five panda bears. Once you make your way past the billboards of panda history – of which the English translation was almost too painful to read – and the scores of iconic panda merchandise, you can actually get a glimpse of the animals. I have to admit they are cute, and their colouring definitely lends them a cuter appearance and reputation that almost all other bears lack. Yet like most animals in zoos, they didn’t do a great deal. Even wild pandas are known for being particularly lazy, so I wasn’t surprised to find that all the pandas were either sitting by themselves, chewing away on bamboo, or sleeping. All around me were crowds of Chinese tourists, squealing with excitement and posing for photos with the pandas in the background, and while I appreciated the rare sight, I didn’t exactly share their enthusiasm. After all, for all that the bear was doing, it could have easily swapped places with me in a day in my life back home, and I don’t think anyone would have really noticed.

Eating panda.

Eating panda.

Sleeping panda.

Sleeping panda.

***

The rest of the zoo was, to be completely honest, quite depressing. There were some nice sculptures and some beautiful scenery, but on the whole the zoo was quite dirty. A lot of the animals exhibits looked quite inadequate too. While the pandas were treated to luscious floral fields, I found wolves who were living in no more than a red dirt landscape with a few burrow holes, and no real space to run around. One on the two pools in the polar bear exhibit was a foul green colour, though one of the bears did put on a bit of a show swimming around in the other, less filthy body of water. The highlight of the whole complex was probably the aquarium – obviously newly built, and incurring another entrance fee of its own. It provided the chance to get particularly close to some of the marine animals, though again I wondered if there was adequate space for some of them – four turtles circled around a small, shallow rock pool, seemingly trying to mount the rocky walls and escape. There was also a show with the beluga whales and bottle nose dolphins, and though I couldn’t understand any of the commentary, I watched and enjoyed the tricks that they performed, including synchronised jumping, and one of the animal trainers riding a dolphin like a surfboard.

The wolves in their less than adequate exhibit.

The wolves in their less than adequate exhibit.

Polar bear swimming in the cleaner of its two pools of water.

Polar bear swimming in the cleaner of its two pools of water.

Turtle almost trying to escape from it's exhibit.

Turtle almost trying to escape from it’s exhibit.

The dolphins still seemed quite enthusiastic about life, at least.

The dolphins still seemed quite enthusiastic about life, at least.

Synchronised jumping in the dolphin show.

Synchronised jumping in the dolphin show.

***

I’ve never known how I really feel about zoos. I know they play important roles in the conversation of endangered species, but I sometimes feel great sympathy for the poor animals locked away inside less than adequate exhibits. When I visited the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo last year, I learnt that some of the animals that won’t breed are castrated to keep them under control. I was horrified – I pictured some science fiction scenario in which humans were the animals in a zoo, and myself being castrated because I refused to mate with the other female “animals”. I found it a little disturbing, and have ever since found it hard to pinpoint where zoos stand on my moral compass. Pandas might be content to sit around and eat and sleep, but my heart goes out to those captive wolves, locked in a glass box when they should be running free in the wild.

Back to Square One: Life Lessons in Beijing

As the captain announced our descent into Beijing, I peered out the window and down at the thick layers of cloud that the plane was heading into. As we emerged from the other side of those clouds… well, it’s hard to be sure if we ever did. I’d heard about the high levels of pollution in Beijing, and as I stepped off the plane and looked out onto the smoggy runway, it was clear – unlike the air – that these tales had been no exaggeration. It took me a while to get out of Beijing airport, considering you have to take a short train trip to get from customs and passport check to the baggage claim area, but after about an hour I was on my way in a taxi. As we drove along the highways and into the heart of the city, I sat staring out the window in something close to a state of shock.

The sky was a distant memory, hidden behind a thick layer of cloud and pollution. It could simply have been overcast, except there was no chill in the weather, nor did the air feel particularly humid. But it was a different kind of heaviness, a weight that hung in the air unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and something that I have great difficulty trying to explain. But every now and then the blanket of smog would ease up a little, and the glowing disc of the sun would be visible through the haze, burning a deep, demonic orange and bleeding into the sky around it. Buildings and warehouses and construction sites whizzed past me on the roadside, and even the regular clusters of trees and other greenery didn’t help to diminish the feeling that I had landed in some kind of post-apocalyptic industrial realm. Even with a population of some 18 million people, all I could see was the gridlock vehicles on the highway, feeling slightly alone in the big grey smog. As far as first impressions go, I guess Beijing was living up to its intimidating reputation.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

***

The next leg of my gap year was going to be a tour – the bucket list-worthy Trans-Siberian Railway trek, starting in Beijing and ending in St Petersburg, Russia. I had flown into China a day early, and had a full 24 hours to spend in the city before meeting my guide and the rest of my tour companions the following afternoon. After settling into the hotel room and taking a quick rest, I decided to go for a wander and see what I could discover, and make my comparisons between Northern and South-East Asia.

A short walk from where I was staying found me at the beginning to Wangfujing Street – one of the most famous and busiest areas in Beijing. Though of course, I had set out into the streets with nothing more than my trusted sense of direction and definitely without a map, and had stumbled across the strip by accident. I have to admit, it didn’t look much like what I expected from China. There was obviously a huge Western and/or American cultural influence on this particular street, with an Apple Store, Forever 21, and the Beijing Foreign Language Book Store. It kind of reminded me of the main strip of Pitt St back in Sydney, except it was four times as wide and probably at least ten times as long – I can’t say for sure, since I never made it to the end. There was the occasional car or bicycle nudging its way through the crowds, but for the most part it was a street heavy with pedestrian traffic.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

After a short time I was approached by a small Asian woman, probably in her mid-twenties, asking me where I was from. The cautious, mistrusting nature I had developed in South-East Asia suddenly kicked in. Until now, I had just been thinking how less geared towards tourists this place had seemed. There were a few souvenir shops and English speaking shops and restaurants, but there wasn’t someone on every street corner trying to sell you things or screaming at you to get into their taxis. I’d also read that Chinese people are often just naturally curious about Western people, so as she asked a few more questions about myself, I began to slowly warm up to her. She told me her name was Charlie, and offered little bits of information about herself in return to all her questions. I let her walk along with me as wandered down the street.

“What are you doing? Are you shopping?” Charlie asked me as I gazed at the buildings round me, the neon lights developing their own glowing aura within the clouds of low-hanging pollution.
“I’m just looking for something to eat, actually.”
“Ahh… You want to try the night markets? They have some very good street food.”
“Umm…” I hesitated for a moment, but so far Charlie had seemed relatively genuine. Surely there was no harm in going for a little walk, right? “Sure, okay.”

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Charlie lead me a short way to a street joining onto Wangfujing, lined with market food stalls on their side. The delicacies were like Khao San Road on crack – there were starfish, dried seahorses on skewers, and even scorpions that were so raw that their legs continued to wriggle and twitch. While I’d been game to try tarantulas served in a Cambodian restaurant, the street food is just one step too far for me, so I settled for a cob of corn. We wandered for a little bit longer, and Charlie suggested finding a place to sit down for a cup of tea or coffee. By this stage I was starting to feel a little more comfortable, so I followed her through another street and into a small tea house. There we sat and chatted for quite some time – we talked about ourselves, the kind of music we like and our different hobbies, about travelling and where we’ve been, and where we want to go, about China and the differences in our cultures. We had two pots of tea, and Charlie explained to me the subtle differences in the flavours, and the Chinese delicacy that is a good brew. Afterwards we also had a glass each of Chinese wine.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I'd seen of Beijing.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I’d seen of Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

I was just thinking about how I hadn’t had wine in a little while, since the beer had been so much cheaper in South-East Asia, when our bill finally arrived. The waitress handed it to Charlie.”Oh, it’s not too much. Do you want to grab this?”
I have to take some of the blame – I wasn’t looking at the menu, so I failed to look the prices as Charlie had ordered. I was a little taken aback by the way Charlie just assumed I was going to pay, and when I looked at the bill and did a rough conversation from Chinese yuan to Australian dollars in my head, I nearly spat out my mouthful of wine.
“What the hell, Charlie? This isn’t cheap!”
She looked surprised, and stammered through her words for a moment. “This isn’t too much, this is what it usually costs for two people.”
I was skeptical. The total amount could have got two people blind drunk in a moderately priced bar in Sydney – it was a lot more than I was prepared, or willing, to pay for two pots of tea in China.

“Can we split it?” I’d asked her. Not for the first time on this trip, I cursed myself for going along with a girl on what could easily be interpreted as a date. I was not going to foot the whole bill for another night out, and especially not this one.
“Oh, I only have 100 yuan,” Charlie said as she offered me a few notes from her wallet. It was approximately $15, and only about a tenth of the total bill.
“That’s a start,” I mumbled to myself as I snatched the notes up, abandoning any pleasantries or niceties. The whole thing had gone pear-shaped, and only now – obviously too late – but my suspicions started to kick in. I even considered just walking out without paying, but I didn’t want to risk causing any more trouble for myself.

So I paid and stormed out of the tea house, Charlie hot on my heels.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she said as she shuffled along beside me.
“Know what? How much if would be?”
“I’m sorry, I just thought that Australian are wealthy, I just wanted to show you some nice tea and Chinese culture.”
“I’m a traveller, Charlie. I’m on a budget. I don’t have that kind of money to waste on tea.” She almost seemed offended, as though I was devaluing her culture or tradition, but I refused to believe that Chinese tea should have costed so much in China.
“But, you can just ask your father to send you more money, can’t you?”
I was shocked. “Ahh, no? My dad doesn’t give me free handouts to waste on expen-”
“But you’re his only son!” Again, I was almost shocked into silence. Almost.
“Well I hate to break it to you but that’s not how it works in Australia!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know Australia! I only know China!”

It was a slightly profound moment. Here we were, voices raised and arguing in the middle of Wangfujing Street, and suddenly I was the one who felt bad for Charlie. I was getting quite rude and annoyed, but I hadn’t even considered that maybe she was just acting on the limited knowledge that local Chinese people seem to have of Western culture and customs. Maybe all abroad Australians are very wealthy compared to her. The bill had been paid for, yet I suddenly felt guilty for berating her in an attempt to take out my anger to feel better about the situation.

I let out a long sigh. “Okay. It’s fine, just forget it.”
“I’m really sorry, Robert. I had a really good time chatting to you. Maybe we can go to karaoke, I can buy you a beer?”
I still couldn’t figure her out, but I wasn’t going to risk my wallet taking another beating. “I should really get back to my hotel now, I’m feeling pretty tired.”
We awkwardly bid each other farewell after our argument, and I quickly paced home through the backstreets of Beijing, the sense of excitement I’d had from being in a new city replaced with the awful feeling of having another country and currency get the better of me.

***

The following afternoon I met with the tour group I would be travelling the Trans-Siberian with, and our guide gave us a run down on the basics of the city. As she warned us about some of the potential tourist traps and scams, I hung my head in shame as she outlined a scenario so similar to the one I had experienced last night – it was almost as though our guide had been there and was recounting the scene blow by blow. I’d been warned that there are lots of false taxi services at the airport who will try to charge you exorbitant amounts to get from the airport to the city, and I had been so proud of myself that I had managed to spot and avoid them and make my way to the hotel in a legitimate taxi. So it was rather deflating to learn I had quickly fallen into the very next scam to come along after that.

It turned out to be more than just a shallow than a culture clash, but I guess I leant something from the experience in the end. In these unfamiliar places, learn to trust your suspicious instincts. Though I can only hope that every tourist trap I do fall for will better prepare me for avoiding the next one.