Train trip including the Trans Siberian railway May/June 2016
May 15th 2016
It was Clive’s idea to do this and I thought ” why not ?”.Russia is not the most exciting motorcycling experience particularly the route to Mongolia from Europe. China is not possible on our motorcycles so this was a way to see some bits that we have not been too yet. The idea was hatched late last year.
We used Real Russia as agents for some of the train tickets notably from Paris to Moscow and on to Beijing. We ourselves booked the London to Paris and the King’s Lynn to London. Yes, this train journey is going to start as close to home as possible. My sister is driving us to the station. Two more train journeys in China itself we have booked ourselves using Travelchinaguide.com.
We will be flying back home from Chengdu.
We set to on the visas….4 of them…after Christmas. But I went skiing twice and Clive went to Thailand and Portugal which meant it has not been an easy job. We had to have an itinerary for Russia and an invite so an agent was required. China also required much paperwork re bookings of hotels but , as it transpired, NOT the internal travelling by train. Our initial quote from Real Russia which included the train from King’s Lynn proved useful for China required to know not that we entered from Mongolia but how we left the UK! China also needed to know that we had a flight booked out. Russia wanted finger prints so that meant we had to go in person as well as using an agent. it has been a costly business…about £500 each for the 4 visas. One visa is for Belarus. It is needed because the train travels through even though we do not get off. Perhaps we should make a point of putting a foot on the ground in Minsk station.
Flight about £500. Train tickets about £1500. Hotels booked by us on booking .com and mostly unpaid for right now.
I get worked up about some of this needless bureaucracy . What if we don’t stay in those chinese hotels we booked whose names had to go on the passport form?. Will they come and check we are there? My fingerprints for Russia!. I am not a criminal. We also , supposedly had to list on the russia visa form, everywhere we had been in the last 10 years with the date of entry and exit. VERY luckily, we both have new passports with only a couple of stamps. Thus that was all we had done in the last 10 years. Mongolia was straight forward and not a rip off.
21st May Saturday
Zoe, my sister, came and picked us up at 8.15 am and took us to King’s Lynn to start our train journey. First leg to London King’s Cross went well. We then had to cross the street to St Pancreas International to catch the euro star to Paris. We had enough time to sit down and have a cup of tea etc after checking through the airline type check in.
I have a much larger bag on wheels than Clive. Now why should that be a surprise? It isn’t, as I have always carried more than Clive on the motorbike. I had packed last night in to a smaller case and got everything in. Then the issue of carrying food and drink came up. We have read that we can’t always rely on the restaurant car on the train. We like to carry milk and water for cups of tea too. Whilst Clive had fitted the kettle, tea bags and mug into his bag and I had the camping gas, sugar and mug in mine, there seemed no give in Clive’s luggage for more. So there was only me who could pack into something else! Thus up this morning, back into the attic and am packing into a bigger bag. It was too big so I had to put a bag inside to keep my clothes separate etc. Now we could carry any thing as long as I could lift it on to and up steps!!
Second train journey went well too and the euro star took us at up to 284kms an hour across France to Paris. Very smooth. Our regular seats were a bit tight.
Quite warm in Paris as we hauled our wheeled cases from Gare du Nord to Gare du Est,a journey of 650m according to google. We had two hours for this and again a very nice sit in a cafe opposite the station. Train came in about 20 mins before the departure time. However the train did not move and did not move until finally we left an hour and a half late. Supposedly going to make up time in the stations by not loitering for too long. So far we have not stopped in a single station and we have been going for 3.5hours.
Seem to be more young than oldies on board. Each carriage has a person in charge. It is a russian train. We were given a hot drink after we set off (tea/coffee).We walked along to the restaurant car, fighting our way through heavy doors along 5 carriages. But it was worth it even if the meal was mediocre. Beer and vodka the current alcoholic drinks if you wish; Bottle of french wine was 40/50 euros!!!Vodka and beer a mere 4/5 euros.
22nd May Sunday
Not the best sleep but then there was no pressure on getting up early EXCEPT wanting a pee which was down the corridor and required getting dressed. Then back to bed! We were on the Polish border by about 9.30 am which is when I at last got my phone to find its location.GPS does not seem to reach through the train…have to hold the phone near the window. Now must do some research on Moscow.
Food preoccupies us a bit. We bought some picnic food yesterday and eat some for breakfast. Will what we have last till Moscow? The restaurant car is a bit of a battle to get through via 5 carriages. We will try again at lunchtime.
My reading in the Trans Siberian handbook ( very useful book) tells me that the first time one could take a train all the way from Calais to Vladivostok was in 1904…112 years ago. It was pretty slow, going at walking pace sometimes due to the shoddy building work of the siberian part of the line. Strictly speaking we will be on the Trans Siberian till Irkutsk and then it is called the Trans Mongolian as it heads south to Ulaan Baatar and then on to Beijing.
Taking photos out of the window, or rather through the window is difficult. Speed is too great, window does not open and it is now a bit dirty after 15 hours of travel! It is a lovely looking day though. Polish countryside very green and lush with grazing cattle and horses.
Great excitement later…..relatively…as we watch the bogies being changed on the Belarus border. Russia has 3.5 inches wider track. It is quite a lengthy business even slickly done as they did, in a shed with all 8 carriages. Each carriage is jacked up, one set of bogies pushed away and another set rolled in. We remained on board as the carriage went slowly up…about 4 foot?
New restaurant car was added to replace the Polish run one. Much older rolling stock. We took the opportunity of nipping down the platform to it instead of fighting our way along through the carriages’ heavy doors. Food was better but service was dreadful to non existent from the two useless waiters. We waited an hour for a drink! There was probably only a dozen customers. The lady waiter was like a bolster with a white shirt fit to pop.!
Belarus looked poorer. Small houses with thin looking walls. Flat countryside with good fields. But we shall miss seeing Minsk as we will pass through in the night. Bet we are woken up by border guards as we enter Russia. Train now travelling slower on its older wheels!
23rd May Monday
Having set off from Paris at high speed intent on making up the 1.5 hours delay the train now travels a great deal more slowly in Belarus and Russia. The high speed chase meant wheels screeched on corners ( the train had made up the time by the time I asked in Warsaw) but now the old bogies and track meant all sorts of different noises and movement. The springs of the bogies squeaked, the train groaned and lurched over the uneven rails. Brushing ones teeth was interesting, leaning over the tiny basin etc.
We were not woken by border guards. We think it was all dealt with at the Belarus border. It was a joke having to get a separate visa when it is a mere puppet of Russia. Three unfortunates had not got the Belarus visa and had to get off the train.
However we finally arrived in Moscow about an hour early!!! Into the metro where we did not get lost but Clive’s directions meant we walked on foot for one metro stop and a little bit more as we oriented ourselves. Have to say ..kind and helpful russians around.
Technically we have had wifi in the hotel. I have used a VPN which I subscribed to for 2 months before setting off. It has already been useful as I realized that emails written on our tiscali account were not sending. Over the VPN they sent. It is much safer. Clive also had problems with his BT openworld acc. Would not send. I wanted to look up some local news on google but the local server would only allow us to be on goggle.ru which did not find local english news. Again the VPN worked there and I was soon on google.co.uk.
Mobile network is fine and we fielded a few english calls! Think we will now be without wifi for 3 nights and days…my goodness what will happen?
We took metro to the centre of town and walked round the Kremlin and environs. Red Square was shut to us tourists for a while but it did open again and I guess it was slightly underwhelming. We stopped in a cafe near the Kremlin and the prices were very reasonable for such a nice spot in tourist land. Moscow is currently cheap with the exchange rate at 90 to 95 roubles to the £. The metro is a great deal with every journey costing 50p only. Destination names are confusing but they are on the map in both scripts so it can be worked out. Trolley buses and trams in places but the metro rules supreme. Trains literally follow each other coming every half minute or so.
We are now sitting waiting at Yaraslovsky station for our train. We think its the one saying Pekin in russian script. We hope so. It’s not in yet so we wait and see. It is raining on and off and the station is quite basic and rough. Not quite what you would expect for a long distance train departure. Train arrives and we go quite along way down the rough platform to find our carriage. We are once again 5 carriages from the restaurant car. The compartment is pretty rough looking at first sight with a fairly seedy chinese attendant. This is a chinese train. Clive is taken aback expecting something much plusher for the first class ticket. Most of us in this carriage seem to be foreign and all are slightly gobsmacked. We have to make up our own beds with the sheets that have been chucked down for us. We do have a shared basin with the next door compartment. Half a seat on one side because of the washbasin so I am in the bunk up top. Sleep badly as the train screeches and bangs around!!
25th May Wed
Seems a bit better in day light! Nice warm day. Trees/forest outside. Get hot water from the samovar thing at the end for our tea. Work out that there are two loos and where rubbish goes. We are now one more time zone on too. By the end of the day we are 2 zones on.
Get disappointed that there are no ladies selling homemade food on the platforms when we stop. We have all worked out now where we are as there are kilometre signs by the track denoting how far from Moscow. The whole way to Irkutsk where we take some days out, is just over 5000 kms. By 10pm tonight we will have done about 1500kms. The book Clive bought me is very useful as it points out what to look for and has the timetable etc. So armed with a little knowledge we now know roughly where the train will stop and for how long.
Food is a worry for Clive. The restaurant car seems useless. We tried to get supper there but were told the swedish pair sat for 4 hours waiting for a bowl of chicken soup. We gave up quite quickly…it was obvious the woman was not coping with the small demand. So we picnicked tonight. Hope for better things tomorrow!! Will try the restaurant car for breakfast….we saw her buying eggs. !
Several scandinavians on board. Mixture of ages. Older american couple we chatted to in this carriage. Took photos rather futilely. Its been a hot day. Lush green countryside with big rivers, poor housing ( wooden, small buildings with tin roofs).
26th May Thurs
Sleep better and obviously Clive does too as he sleeps through the jerks and clangs of stopping in a station which wakes me. Still time is not important. Eat picnic breakfast and later make a trip to the boudoir of a restaurant car that is not functioning properly. Draped with red curtains and red nets over the window that we are not allowed to lookout of we order scrambled eggs as the only thing apparently going. We get a pretty good dish of fried eggs with onions and potatoes, a side dish of cooked cold chicken and some very pink sausages and meat. Still we did not wait too long…partly because there was only one other man there! In order to leave without waiting forever as she was no getting stressed with more passengers we had to get up and stand till she finally got us a bill. We wil not try again. I think she can only cope with one table.
Only one small stop so far today. Quickly bought some milk as ours had gone solid. Its another warm day. We have a stop tonight where we are rather hoping for very good food things…
27th May Friday
It’s amazing how little one can do. Its 12.30pm and allI have done is have breakfast really. Breakfast was another picnic of leftovers from previous picnics and our food we bought last night. There were ladies with food on the platform! We bought a cooked fish, two blinis, some strange flat things( fishy) and some doughy things stuffed with potato and another with vegetable. All cost £4. The fish was a muddy carp. Clive took a mouthful, said “too many bones” and spat it out. I ate my share. It was carp… The flat fishy things were good; they were fish roe mixed with something to bind them. The stuffed doughy things were okay though again Clive not keen. The blinis were good…stuffed with sweet cheese.
Its colder. Outside is less green and I was cold in the night. Cold and train/carriage wheels noise meant a fairly bad nights’ sleep. Did better the night before. Getting out on the platform it was pleasant with a cold wind.
4 nights with no shower or bath. That is how it will be. We have two loos in this carriage each with a washbasin with cold water. Tiny washbasin. One loo seems taken up by the chinese attendants who lounge around sleeping in empty cabins and doing nothing. Loo paper ran out on day one. Perhaps none of us has complained; we haven’t and use some we brought with us. Our own wash basin closet, shared with the cabin next door, has a dribble of cold water and the shower attachment does not work. Hot water could be got from the samovar at the end of the carriage . There is a thermos we could use. So far I have washed in cold water. Hair wash…forget it.
It’s pretty and hilly as I write, just east of Krasnoyarsk. It’s been far more interesting scenery than I would have thought. It is early summer so I think a good time . Though some of me would enjoy the fun of extreme cold and snow. Houses remain basic and in winter must be cold. Constant fire a must . For that they do have plenty of wood and lovely birch wood at that.
We chat to those on the train. This carriage has americans, swedish and brits. There is a large bunch of Norwegians on an organised tour on another carriage.
We have a stop in 300 kms time where we hope to buy supper from ladies again. That will be about 5pm local time.
Trying to take photos out of the window in the corridor is quite good fun. Best obviously when the train slows down which is pretty often. The windows in our compartment do not open. All windows are dusty dirty and getting worse as the journey goes on. I keep trying to get the ultimate house photo. Old, run down and wooden. Mostly tiny.
28th May Saturday
We are now 8 hours ahead of home. Same time zone as my Emma in Perth, Australia. After another pretty bad night’s sleep on the hard beds/seats on our train we disembarked, on time, at 7.30am this morning. We got our ticket back from the chinese attendant thank goodness. That was the ticket for the next leg which he had refused to give back till now ! We stumbled outside and within 5 mins were on an ancient tram costing 16p each. This took us to the local bus station where we bought a ticket for a bus at 8.30am costing £1.30 each which would take us 60kms to Listviyanka. So rather weary we reached the quite cold Lake Baikal by 9.30am and not much was open. It took us a short taxi ride to find the hotel which was very welcoming and warm and we collapsed on the nice soft bed in a very exhausted state.
The russians have all been very helpful, particularly the man or woman in the street. Its those in authority like guards that are less friendly.
The weather has been kind and the sun shines. Recovering a bit we sit in the sun and take stock. We are staring across Lake Baikal at a wonderful range of snow topped mts. The range of mts are called Hamar Dapan or Dapau. The Lake is crystal clear. It is hugely deep…up to 1.5 miles deep. It has amazing fauna and masses of strange fresh water sponges that keep the water so clear. Strange fishes too, unique to it. No doubt we shall be eating Omul, one of these fishes. To Clive’s horror I have spotted we can hire some cycles so we shall be cycling slowly along the Lake tomorrow to see a museum or two. Or a cafe or two!!
29th May Sunday
In the event we do not cycle!! We catch a taxi up the other end for £1.50. Later we learnt that you can take a minibus up and down for 25p a go. Russia is cheap. Petrol is about 50p per litre. We go shopping in the market .I buy myself a pair of earrings made from the local semi precious stone called Charoite. It is purple in colour and unique to here.
Quick visit to Baikal museum. They actually have two poor freshwater seals there, completely unique to Baikal. They are very fat, with their little faces just sticking out of the fat all around. We discover in the museum that the lake water hardly gets any warmer than 11c so no wonder that the seals have to be very fat. The following link gives a good photo which I failed to get.
There is also a fish that is 35% fat. The lake is frozen over for 4 months to a depth of 3metres.
I then climb/walk up to take a ski/chair lift further up. It gives lovely views over the Lake.
30th May Sunday
Late start and then catch a minibus back to Irkutsk. Cloudy when we get up giving a completely different feel to the lake. No snowy mts to see, water all grey looking and all more cold looking. Have been so lucky…. Set off with our bags on wheels up the road ( no pavement) to the minibus stop. We probably look quite strange. Lots of minibuses ply this route to Irkutsk, all for £1.50 or even less perhaps. We arrive and then plod quite a long way with our cases on wheels, up and down pavements, until we find our hotel. Its in a trendy pavement part of town with repro wooden houses etc. We eat soup in a russian restaurant playing old films. All decadently kitted out with piano, old gramaphone and lots of old stuff. Later have a cup of tea from a cast iron teapot. I can only lift it with both hands when it is full. Watch people go by….
Sort out tomorrow’s sightseeing and generally wander..
31st May Tuesday
Did not sleep well in spite of good bed. Had nightmare about tickets!! It was hot as well. Big breakfast and off we go to a money changer. Need a little bit more before hitting Mongolia. Cup of tea and Clive is off to look at The Angara, an old boat made by the Brits. Its near the Angara Dam ( 1959) which he wants to see as well. In the event he saw the boat but the dam was a long way across. I, in the meantime, wanted to see to old houses owned by two members of the Decemberists. They were an aristocratic bunch that rebelled in the early 1800 against the government and were consequently exiled to Siberia. After they had served their time they set up home in Irkutsk. Grand life styles. Their money seemed to have got exiled with them! I found both houses but one was shut on Tuesdays! So I went into the one belonging to Prince Volkonsky. Paid to go in, old wooden house with peeling paint on the outside. I was one of about 3 people visiting. Horrible russian lady “guides” followed me around like ghouls. They spoke no english and were singularly off putting. I beat a retreat. It was a nice big grand house. I then plodded the streets a bit and made it back to the vicinity of the hotel…best part of town. Clive did well with his booking.
It was then a hanging around job. Irkutsk has a few more museums but apart from some grand old buildings now in disrepair and quite a lot of original wooden buildings in dire straits, there did not seem to be much else apart from people watch on this beautiful day. It was hot! I had wandered past enough old buildings.
Eventually we grab our bags from the hotel and head for the station by tram. Getting good at the trams! We are second class on this train so wondering who we shall be sharing with. There was no first class.
1st June Wednesday
The carriage compartment looks much better than on our chinese train. Nice lady attendant and we are currently not sharing. Good mongolian type mattress to put on the seat to lie on so all is good. No screaming wheels, no jerks of the carriage. That is not to say I slept well for I did not!
We woke to a much drier looking countryside with few trees. Train had just left Ulan Ude still near Lake Baikal. We are travelling much slower with little stops. At 8.45am things are okay! The weather looks great. The windows are clean but do not open downwards which is a shame so it is photos through the glass.
I am reading for the second time a book called “The Long Walk”, by Slavomir Rawicz. Exiled bunch of people escape from Camp 303 south of Yakutsk by the Lena river. It is about 600 miles north of the tip of Lake Baikal. They head south past Lake Baikal, into Mongolia and onwards to India. They do not all make it. It is interesting reading it as we travel through some of the same countryside at the same time of the year. It is a great book of endurance.
We spent a horrible amount of time at the borders. Scheduled for a longer train and problems. We wandered around while the train sat keeping to its timetable….which has been immaculate. On the Mongolian side we found an English speaker…well he found us…and soon we were in a rough little cafe eating local dishes costing nothing. They were good. We encouraged two French men from the train to join in and we had a jolly time.
It is nearly dark before we finally get underway to Ulaan Baator . We will arrive about 7am. The scenery so far in Russia and Mongolia has been much more interesting than I expected. Rivers , trees, greenery, houses etc and Mongolia is not just plains without trees. That much I have seen! Our motorbike ride in the south of Kazakhstan was much duller with fewer features.
2nd June Thursday
Time flying by. We woke early to get off the train. The countryside had changed completely. Now looked desert like on the north side of this town. We walked from the station to our hotel after having fended off the taxi touts who wanted $10 for the mile walk. Not even a mile…..we managed towing our bags. Still hot weather, even at 1500m which is what the height is here. New West hotel let us in to our room even though it was well before mid day.
We manage Ggingis Khan square ( main sq) in front of the parliament building, a temple and a bit of shopping. Also sort out a day “tour” to the Teragi National park outside town where there is a giant statue of Ggingis Khan. That is a Clive must do and I want to do it properly…with a guide! So that is tomorrow and the final day here will be the local market….my must do.
3rd June Friday
Our driver comes at 9am ..as promised. We go via the office to pick up the guide and a japanese customer. We wait and wait. He is an hour late..his watch is on Tokyo time! Off we go to the National Teragi park. First Turtle rock, then a fairly new, 25 year old Buddhist mediation centre. Much up hill which Clive did not like but interesting for us. Our japanese guy is a marathon runner and has come here to run in the Ulan Bator marathon tomorrow. He speaks little. Our guide, a female, is fairly hopeless but nice. Next it is off to a yurt and local lunch followed by horse riding. Actually it was quite interesting. Hanging about while lunch prepared we walked about and peering down the water well I was amazed to see ice about 1 foot below the earth I was standing on.
In other words the well was encased in ice with only the centre as water. So cold! In winter it is obviously out of action…melt snow. They have solar panels. The yurts are cosy. The meal was the predicted mare’s milk and mutton stew. Clive drank the sour mare’s milk and I battled royally with mutton bits that looked fairly horrendous. I learnt that yurts and houses can be in a compound but that the land still belongs to the state. They kind of rent it for the time being…or pay a kind of tax? They can roam the land for free. As can anyone. We then rode horses for a while. Not Clive. It was fun.
We rode along a river and saw herds of horses, cows and Yaks and some Ruddy Shelduck. There was a huge bird of prey circling over the yurts when we got back hoping to get some of the mutton they were chopping up in the open.
My pony had won races! The guy who took us , friend of our driver, had ridden round the borders of Mongolia with a friend covering 8000 kms and using 80 different horses. Quite a feat, he is a national hero.
Next it was the big statue of Ghingis Khan.
Clive ‘s goal. He had gone on all day about getting there. It was bump bump away from the locals in their yurts on dirt track, back to the road and out of the park and a different road to this huge statue. It is modern, erected in 2008 and is the largest horse statue in the world . With Ghingis Khan a top it is about 50m tall plus its plinth building. The biggest statue we have seen is The Motherland Calls in Volgograd which stands 91m tall ( but it is not a horse!). This is made of stainless steel. You can go up inside it and stand on the horse’s mane in effect. This we did, including Clive who had had this ambition to see it after seeing Joanna Lumley on television do it.
Back to Ulaan Baator. It was about 60kms on a traffic filled road which ended in a traffic jam in town. Ulaan Baator has a problem with traffic. The 3 million total Mongolian population ( of whom 1.5 live in the capital) own 7 million cars. Seems surprising.
4th June Saturday
Well we had warnings of the marathon. We were told, when we enquired about how to get to the market , that it was shut because of “No machine day”! Also the new market was shut and the winter palace. What to do? They should have been open. I was disappointed but we decided to go to a department store up the main street. All became apparent that no machine day meant that the roads were closed because of the marathon and therefore no cars/buses/machines. So we watched a runner or two and wandered up the middle of the big wide Peace Avenue bereft of traffic and watched the populace enjoy themselves. We walked miles with cafe stops. We were then forced to go to the National Museum as it was nearby. I walked all the way home. and Clive caught a bus for a stop or two though he got off one stop too early and had a pretty long walk too. We have exercised enough for our next day and night on the train which starts tomorrow morning at 7.30am.
Ulaan Baatar is a modern city in many ways. Lots of high rise buildings, modern ones too. Building going on everywhere. The Mongolians are friendly and helpful. Many can speak reasonable english. They do learn it at school. I enjoyed doing our little trip to the countryside. Was fascinated to learn that families live in a yurt in the winter and in a brick house in the summer. You see the two side by side in their compounds. They do not own the land and can up sticks when they like. Everyone from outside town can ride a horse. They also enjoy dressing in the traditional Mongolian long coat, both man and woman. These are colourful. We saw a wedding party and many ladies were wearing these very bright long wrap around coats as well as some of the men.
5th June Sunday
Woken early by Clive’s alarm.I would have got up half an hour later! Hotel take us to the station where wait and wait in the cold. Its about 8c. The train is late. We are getting on a Moscow to Beijing train one week later than our own ( they go once a week). So the carriage is identical, rather faded as before, but with a more friendly and more efficient chinese attendant.
The train heads east and then south. This is real Mongolian steppe. Grass land, plain, as far as the eye can see. The odd yurt dotted around and vast flocks of sheep or goat and huge herds of cows. Horses roaming too in abundance. The grass is green in parts but becomes very yellowing looking and non nutritious. There are also wild antelope in fair abundance . I spotted two cranes…birds! It becomes flatter and more yellow. Still high up…1600m.
Quite a few tourists got on with us in our carriage, including some Brits for the first time.
It slowly gets warmer as we head south across the Gobi. It really looks desert like but animals continue to appear. Camels too. Very few yurts now and mining type industries are the only thing that seem to bring people here.
It rains, pours for about 5 mins and the desert looks odd with temporary standing water. When we stop at a station for a while I have a go at cleaning our compartment window with our selfie stick (the windows are high up) and my little tiny flannel. Fed up looking through filthy windows. Someone else started the window cleaning idea off and soon others are at it. You think it might shame some of the attendants to have a go.
As it is, it then poured with rain, making the desert scenery look very strange with surface water. The windows soon got dirty again with the dirty rain!! It was raining when we got to the border , tipping it down. All the officials were running around. We were in the right spot on the train. The border itself was not too bad and then it was bogie changing time again. Lots of shunting around, much banging together of carriages. By the time they had finished it was midnight or so.
6th June Monday
I slept pretty well as we headed into China on smooth rails. We had had good chats with fellow travellers and had even had a good experience in the Mongolian dining car. What a shame that the Russian dining car on the chinese train across Russia was so bad. We have discovered that the russian siberian express is better than the chinese one. We are amazed that 1st class passengers have to make and strip their beds, have no loo paper or hand towels. The only difference between 1st and 2nd is you are either 2 or 4 to a compartment.
First impressions of China? Dirty piles of concrete and rubbish. Derelict factories. Beautiful dry craggy mountains but a small river coming down looked polluted. The sky is very hazy even through our dirty windows. We got given a ticket for a free breakfast in the dining car so off we trotted to the chinese dining car and got given rice , faggot like meat balls, shredded cabbage with shredded kelp and chop sticks to eat with…naturally!
The station is huge and busy. Before we leave it we have to pick up our tickets for the next two stages of our train journey from the Pick up office. We do find it, and succeed after queuing for a while. Then a taxi to our hotel. We see a little motorised rickshaw thing . The hotel is not far. He wants 80 yuan ( about £10). We are not impressed and walk away at about 50 yuan. Try a proper taxi and he wants 150 yuan ( £17) !! So we squeeze with cases into this little electric thing for 50. He drops us off near by the hotel but not actually there, with me on google maps trying to see where we are. Eventually we get good help from a lady with her phone map and I realise that mine has us in the wrong place. Remember too late that China and Google don’t work well together. Anyway find place to eat and they have wifi and soon I have google maps working with the aid of the VPN I have joined. We are of course towing our bags still. The hotel was difficult to find even with the right help!
Later we hailed another of these electric rickshaws. Clive thought he had the price at 20 yuans ( £2), which made sense. At the end of the short journey the man asked for 200 ( £22). Bit of a scene but we made it clear that we knew that was a rip off. We paid 38 in the end. Going to have to watch it! So on to Tienanmen Sq which we plodded around. Had to go through security on the pavement to reach it. Police and soldiers everywhere. The hazy sky made photos look dull. Bicycles are used but so are lots of small electric mopeds and tiny electric bicycles and other assorted electric vehicles. Not the mass of two wheeled machines that one had expected. They seem to have moved to cars or the subway.
Out to eat, good and not too expensive as we shared one enormous portion.
7th June Tuesday
This is the main sight seeing day! It’s off to the Forbidden City. Our hotel is nearby so it is a walk there. We start well with some huge buildings and not many people. Then we hit the main bit and the Imperial Palace etc. Huge crowds, not of European tourists particularly but chinese tourists who tended to be in groups and played follow my leader. The one way from south to north flow was never ending. One massive building after another. The scale is enormous. Not much going on inside apart from throne like chairs. We did manage a side bit to the Hall of clocks and watches. The back tracking was worth it to see some amazing ornamental time pieces. Many had been made in England in the 17th century.
On we went to the Jingshan Park where I climbed the hill to see the view. Down the other side and off to the Drum tower and the Bell tower. They were near each other. We took another little electric rickshaw ride. This time we got the price sorted but he only took us some of the way! Muttered something about police.? Perhaps they are not allowed. They tote for business…..perhaps another way of ripping us off. We make it the rest of the way on foot. Its quite warm again so many stops for drink. Our food purchases today have been bad. Breakfast was overpriced and not good, then a pink sausage was so so, corn on the cob was tasteless and gluey (these were Clive’s choice from a truly limited choice at the time). Then the worst purchase he made by himself was a piece of hard bread that he thought was something else!
Drum tower had some great drums that we heard drummed. The Bell tower had one enormous bell. Both attractions were fine, old etc. The downside for Clive were the 69 steep steps up them both. He made it though…
Off into some old streets..touristy ..near there and near some water for a sit down. This time Clive has success and chooses a frozen yoghurt with lots of fresh fruit. Caught a bus back which in fact worked OK with help from a transportation guy at the bus stop and only cost 2 yuan. Only standing room though on our tired legs.
Of note….now we are over 60 we got some recognition by being eligible for half price tickets for the Palace etc. Also Clive seems to go down very well with the chinese who keep asking to be photographed with him. The bald head? The white hair or what? Men and women keep wanting to do selfie’s with him!!
We eat round the corner again but Clive not happy with the dish as apparently too tough!
8th June Wednesday
Off to the Great Wall. We have booked a driver. It is possible to get to the Wall by bus but takes a while. Whilst it is no doubt cheaper this was a nice way. It took an hour and a half to get to Mutianyu, our chosen part of the wall. Second most popular amongst the tourists apparently. As per usual tourists have to run the gauntlet of a hundred and one gift shops before getting to the spot you wish to see. Milking the tourists, you first had to get a shuttle bus…15 yuan , then in this instance a chairlift, 80 yuan, or a bubble lift, 100 yuan. Then choose, whilst still at the bottom and could not see what anything entailed, your way down. Bubble..an extra 20 yuan, chairlift an extra 20, toboggan ride 80 yuan, or walk ( said an hour but was free!) I fancied the toboggan way down but 80 yuan, so opted for walking while Clive bubbled down. In between the shuttle and the lift you had to walk up hill quite steeply. Clive laboured with frequent stops and complaints about how far. There was a map so I could see where the walks down were.
Murky skies gave for some murky distant shots with the camera.
I went off and walked some of the wall whilst Clive did his bit. Not too many people so it was fine. I walked down in an easy half hour. masses of steps. The toboggan ride looked fun! It was on a steel course like a water flume.
Traffic as we came into Beijing meant it took half an hour longer than going.
Managed to persuade Clive that we needed to see one of the food streets at night. We had one nearby. There were some exotic things to eat especially in the insect line and tripe ( or at least what looked like tripe sliced up).
Sadly the vendors were not good at letting you have a tiny taste. Either buy 6 pieces/dumplings/insect/etc or none. shame as I would have had a go at a few things more. Having eaten some funny things we then went to a smartish hotel and had a civilised drink!
9th June Thursday
I am sitting on a concrete block with the edge of my bag keeping my bum clean . Clive is having his shoes re soled by a little shoe mender recommended by the hotel who has set up stall in a side street on a couple of cabinets. Clive sits on a chair.
He has been given plastic shoes to put on while his are done. All proceeds slowly. Old soles off, leather roughened etc. Then the glue, then a fag, drop ash, have a spit/gob onto the pavement, then a walk about down the street and back. Now we are hammering new sole on. So far 40 mins Clive has not asked the price. Will he be ripped off? Just after an hour of being here Clive is ripped off. The “nice” man asks for 600 yuan…that is £66. Clive remonstrates. He actually does not have the cash. We walk off leaving Clive’s nice leather Barker shoes. Clive is in a pair of blue rubber flip flops with his black socks!
The bank as it happens is shut. Clive does not want to use an ATM as he has cash pounds. Does he pay the man or leave his shoes? We wander off to the main shopping street. It’s pretty hot. Clive finds a Costa coffee to make him feel better. We get on wifi and skype the hotel. Arrange to meet hotel guy and challenge the shoe man together. This is done and the final result was 200 yuan and Clive gets his shoes back. Still a rip off at £22. We had looked for another pair of shoes in the shoe shops but no size 46 anywhere.
During our wanderings we found more food streets ( hutong) and again watched poor scorpions being roasted on skewers from live. They were actually wriggling on their sticks. There were also sea horses….
Clive exhausted so we relax. Out later to eat and then have to run home in the rain.
10th June Friday
I go off after packing to the Bank of China with Clive’s £s to get them changed. Bank still shut! It’s now a 3/4 day holiday for the dragon festival but the hotel thought the bank opened today. The hotel people then told us how careful we should be about fake money. ie they did not trust money exchange places nor it seemed anyone in the street. Well we had survived in our purchases so far without falling foul of fake money thank goodness. They recommended that we photograph our bank notes!
On this note we catch a taxi to the station to leave Beijing. We are sad that there are nasty scammers out there targeting the tourists in such a cruel way. Bag snatchers etc in every city but not this rather blatant “lets rip the tourist off” attitude. Some chinese were fine and friendly. Our hotel could not have been more helpful. Shame about the “rickshaw ” types too as we like that mode of transport, appealing to us as motorcyclists. I have come away from Beijing feeling that the chinese are rather cruel. I suppose I know that from history but have not been close enough to see it. There is a lack of trust.
So, we are herded onto the bullet train with baggage checks and ticket checks headed for Xi’an. A chance to look at the countryside if the speed allows.
Neat fields bordered with small neat trees and market gardens , but they can leave a mess when they get a chance. Cereal fields. Saw one combine but the plots are small and strip farming in nature. The combine would be able to combine the entire strip with one pass they are that narrow. We are travelling through a huge flat plain that stretches to the horizon or the murk. The train reaches304kms an hour. It is very smooth. The temperature outside is 34c! The houses look pretty conventional. Have seen very few people in the fields until we reach a cereal area.
It is harvest time for the cereal. See lots of combines…all small, all very old fashioned. They are the type that do not have a holding tank so the grain has to be sacked off on a sacking platform as the combine goes along. Then the sacks are loaded into a small lorry. Lots of people involved in this. The grain seems to be being dried on side roads and so is the straw which has been gathered up and spread over the road. Tiny tractors with cultivators cultivating the fields after harvest. .all small scale.
We manage the subway for 14 stops with the help of my screen save of the route. Showing the phone to our fellow passengers, they could tell us when to get off. Catching a taxi for the rest of the journey proved more tricky but no rip off! Xi’an is big..the tube took half an hour to cross the middle of it.
11th June Saturday.
My phone shows thunderstorms. The sky is murky, ie cannot see weather! Plan is Big Goose Pagoda and the Tang Paradise Park to see lotus ponds. Should be able to do this on foot.
Its hot. Around the Pagoda are fountains and other buidings and shops etc so we quite enjoyed wandering along. The entrance was all the way around the back and by the time we got there we felt it was not worth going in. Its a big old Pagoda with not much inside except views of the city and steps to climb so not Clive’s thing. Took photo and went on to the Tang Paradise Park. By this time we had had several stops for drinks and an ice cream. Entrance fee for the park was 120 yuan…£13. Bit steep. However I got in free being 65 ! So both paid for Clive and in we went. We wandered around getting hotter and hotter. It was a pleasant place. Lots of nice repro Tang dynasty sculptures which were well done.
Watched brides and grooms getting the ultimate wedding photos by the lake. Saw giant goldfish in the lake and some lotus plants just coming in to flower. More drinks and sit downs. Also did a paddle boat ride with me doing all the pedaling. It was my idea…thought it might be cooling but it was not! We went pedaling around in a thing that looked like a duck.!
The idea was to get a taxi back. Would one stop! No. In Beijing they would be queuing up to rip us off, here they did not want to know. In the end we had to plod all the way back to the hotel. As Clive said…another marathon day. It was not meant to be. It was very hot, about 34c. My hair style does not allow for cooling of the head! Clive better off!
Hotel restaurant hopeless and expensive so it was round the corner….in the rain by then…and we fell into the first little place. It was very interesting and good food, no rip off either.
12th June Sunday
Terracotta warrier day. We spent some time with reception last night getting bus numbers and the bus stops worked out and written on a piece of paper in chinese. They were positive the bus stop was at A, let’s say. Off we go. Get our breakfast…like yesterday…from the 4th floor of the IT Mall. It is for the staff in the mall possibly but in this huge room through a small entrance were lots of food counters. We ate for £2. In the hotel they want £12 each plus service charge. Bus stop is NOT at A. Everyone points back down the road. Clive moaning but we walk where they suggest and suddenly Clive sees a 307 bus and runs! Once on the 307 bus we know it will take us all the way there. 1.5 hour journey for 70p each. Taxi would be £22 . We thought about a taxi coming back but again opted for the bus.
Now getting pretty hot as we walk to the official ticket office where there are various queues. 150 yuan. I get out two 100 notes from the back of my bag where I keep them separately from the smaller notes, and push them through the hole. With a very clever sleight of hand the woman is soon pushing a 100 note and a 20 note back to me and saying not enough. She has swapped my 100 for a 20. It was on camera and the supervisor was called but she had it all worked out and had done it before. Diddled again though this time me and not Clive. It made me so cross. I would never do that to someone. How mean can you get.?
Once there, the 3 Pits were comparatively easy to go into and enjoy. Not too many people and all chinese. In the afternoon just as we had had enough we noticed more europeans. I think they fly down from Beijing for the day and only get there in the afternoon. We would recommend our children to come in 20 years time when more of this huge project would be restored to its former glory . It is going to take years to stick more terracotta warriers back together.
The restaurant there was another rip off with only super expensive buffet food. We managed to get some drinks. Even that has to be bargained for as they all try to add some extra on. We now know that our favourite chinese orange juice should cost 4 yuan. But the price can vary all the way to 10 or more.
Leaving the site we had to go a certain way so that we all had to run the gauntlet of the souvenir sellers. Oh, how I hate it.
13th June Monday
Clive having a day off while I see the old wall. It is completely intact and very impressive dating from the Qing dynasty, ie 1700’s . It was begun in the 1300’s and was made of clay, now it is brick encased. 18 metres wide at its base and 12 metres high it has a walkway that takes you right round the whole rectangle of the wall….14 kms.
In 34c heat do not imagine that I did it. In fact I had to succumb to buying a sun parasol. With no shade at all on the walkway I really needed it. That and my selfie stick, I am feeling quite chinese. I am also walking around with a bottle of drink..rather unheard of for me. Virtually everyone in the street is doing the same…plastic bottle in hand.
Got there by walking and subway and walked back. Now cooling down.!
We ate in our same spot but nice lady not there and with little help on the menu we got it wrong and ordered 3 dishes apparently, one with chickens head and feet sticking out of. The juice was nice. We had done well with breakfast today, eating further down the road in a dodgy spot which produced a remarkably good and sane scrambled egg with tomato mixed in.
14th June Tuesday
Very leisurely as we only have to catch the train for 1.20pm today. Now heading to Chengdu. Train is a wee bit late but we are finally released from our waiting room pen which was crowded and board the train. We are soft sleeper class and for the first time on this trip we are sharing. A young chinese lady plus child of about 7 and a husband. They pretty quickly try and sleep but as it is day time the child does not want to. Nor do we want the curtains drawn nor the door shut. So one way and another they remain open!
Actually we think the husband is just another passenger feeling very out of place in this compartment. Enjoy the lush scenery when we reach a mountain range between Xi’an and Chengdu. Train winds slowly up with numerous tunnels to about 1200 m. Then slowly down till darkness over takes us. We will arrive at 5.30am unless clock goes back…we are not sure.
We ate in the dining car with quite some success. The night was quite grim. Child and mother would suddenly talk loudly and /or turn on electronic speaking gadget. Youngish man, who was not connected suddenly made a very loud mobile phone call in the night. I really was nothappy. He and I were on top bunks.I had to sleep in my clothes which was uncomfortable and also hot feeling . At one point Clive and the other man were doing synchronized snoring. The train rattled and banged, jerked and stopped in many stations. We were woken at 4.30 am for our 5.30am arrival.
15th June Wednesday
We fought our way through masses of taxis all touting for our business. This was after Clive had luckily realised that he had left his camera on the train. He had to bang on some station doors to be let back onto the platform and then run to the train. It was still there as end station for it, so the camera was retrieved. We chose a female taxidriver who said she knew where the hotel was. One taxi driver asked for 100 yuan and the lady did it for 50 yuan which was probably double the price!
We had booked the room for the 14th so even though it was 6.30am we could go into our room. Nice hotel room thank goodness and we collapsed on the bed. I found it difficult to sleep again but Clive had no problems.
Out to see a monastery alone, then met with Clive and we mooch around. Less hot which is nice. Don’t do a great deal, check out some nearby narrow alleys but they are not the ones in the guide book. Wander round a modern plaza…..
Opposite the hotel, whose restaurant and ” cafe” are dull and sort of not right, is a very popular place. The queue is out of the door sitting on the pavement. Its an hour long..we go off to sister spot down the road. The first place is a “hotpot” place. This is the thing to eat apparently. Anyway we give number two spot a try. Like more minor places there are pictures of the food ( something we have been relying on) but unlike more minor places no english translation. We order, but not brilliantly. My duck dish had some pretty tough bits and some very inedible bits !
16th June Thursday
Off we go to Panda research station! By taxi….in traffic! We wander the pretty research station amongst lots of bamboo canes etc. Pandas are not in great evidence unless in their houses which was rather like seeing them in a zoo. We were a bit disappointed. The souvenir shop was a bit of a surprise…it had some remarkably nice panda motive goodies. We did not buy ..Then lunch at a vegetarian spot near the monastery. All very ethnic….
Last meal in China…we wandered around the block near us and found the most amazing place. The experience was a bit lost on us due to lack of language. Essentially you had a boiling pot…huge…in the table.. where you cooked your food. We asked for fish trying not to have this tough or strange cuts stuff/meat. So we got a boiling pot of fish stock. One added herbs, garlic, salt etc to taste. Then raw sliced fish arrived. God knows what it was. We could have had a divided boiling pot with fish one side and meat the other. Sadly the menu did not have pictures or any english. The staff were no good either. Very friendly, trying hard, but it was tricky. Some girls tried translation on their iphones but too late by then. We managed some banana fritters as well as the fish. Everyone very friendly and it would have been worth another try armed with some more google type translations on our phones.
17th June Friday
We slowly pack…Clive not in any hurry. Where to breakfast is debated. Expensive but lots to eat in the hotel, round the corner chinese style or…my compromise…Redbeard Burger a taxi ride away. This was finally the choice and became a brunch. Traffic is bad in Chengdu centre. The taxis are quite cheap but it all takes a while. Redbeard Burger…as in Tripadvisor….made a good burger and we ate them with a shared shandy. Clive then really got to me moaning on and on about things back home so I walked out and left him to it. I got on the metro and found the old alleyways. Tourist attraction for the chinese as well as foreigners. There were three alley ways and it was all very pleasant. There was decent stuff but at silly prices. Nice eating courtyards and pleasant to watch people wandering by etc. Great icecream stalls which Clive missed out on as he did not come and join me….wouldn’t. He had planned to do nothing anyway…I went back to the hotel, found Clive sitting all by himself as ever. Changed a bit, got our bags and then had trouble getting a taxi as it was rush hour. Eventually one is got and we share the ride to the airport with another couple from the hotel. He was Italian and she Chinese. Traffic was bad and it took a while. Off we go with Etihad airways via Dubai to London.
I have been surprised at the lack of european tourists at the tourist sites we visited. Lots of tourists but chinese ones..maybe Korean, or Singapore too! We have met /heard very few english since leaving home, even on the trains.
Liked the Azure winged magpie in Xi’an, The golden pheasant at the Panda place.
The chinese streets are full of noise from loudspeakers. Horrible speakers in shops trying to sell stuff. Many had high pitched chinese ladies’ voices , many repeated the same thing over and over as though there was an SD card in the speaker. Public places often had taped music.
The price difference between local shops and tourist shops was huge. Chinese always trying to take you for a ride. But Chengdu was better than Xi’an which was better than Beijing. The tourist who never left his tour and got local was never going to realize how cheap things could be.
Chinese are selfish. They give no quarter. They will barge through doorways and virtually push one aside.
Clive did try and look for shoes but chinese shoe shops only have up to size 44 for men.
Loved all the different electric bikes. Want one….
These three cities never sleep. Horns honk all day and night. The roads are a bit like India…might is right. The more noise you make the more likely you will get somewhere. Traffic lights are obeyed but sometimes a bit vaguely. Pedestrians get green lights to cross but the traffic does not always stop; particularly in Chengdu. The silent electric bikes have their own parts of the road and seem to go when they please across junctions!! Many drivers hedge their bets about which lane they are in. Buses had their own lanes and they too seemed to cross junctions when they liked…especially on a right hand turn.
We finally arrived home from London Heathrow by catching our last train from London to King’s Lynn. Full circle.