Friday, 5 November 2010

Train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (29th/30th of August)

Train no. 4, which we had expected to be rather plush but wasn’t, left Ulaanbaatar station just after 7:15am. We’d got up at 5:30 and had taken the bus from the hostel at 6.00. We thought we might have the compartment to ourselves but shortly before it left some Mongolian men started loading it up with luggage. There were a lot of suitcases. Two big ones went in the overhead storage, another suitcase and three bags under the bed and then another three bags. Later we learnt they weighed 100kg altogether and that their owners were hoping to add another 20kg with cheap Chinese shopping. One bag contained a carpet from the black market and two of them Mongolian clothes purchases. We thought this might be one of the Mongolian students we’d heard would be filling up the train on the way to China and beyond. It turned out however to be a family of four Mongolians on their way home to London after a two month summer holiday. The man’s parents had worked in Mongolian embassies in Russia and he had grown up in various Russian locations before he left and tried to live in Germany and then England. They had two five year old twins, dressed identically and carrying pink rucksacks with Mini Mouse on them and Tinkerbell cups with a snow globe at the bottom. The family slept most of the day, having had a send-off gathering into the small hours of the morning. The two girls were hoisted on to the top bunk and the parents slept head to toe in the bottom bed. Sleeping arrangements were revised in the evening, with each parent sharing a bed with one of the girls. When they weren't sleeping the girls kept themselves entertained while their father told us of his concerns for their education and his plans to send them to Mongolia for secondary school because of the inferior standard of British education.

We were pretty convinced that we’d arrived in China when we were bombarded with street lights on unused roads and arrays of neon lights. At the station there were flowers in pompous stands, lights and an entrance hall with even more lights. The wheels of the train had to be changed so it pulled into a shed and they raised the carriages up and did something underneath. Someone came in to our compartment, rolled the carpet aside, opened a hole in the floor and banged a peg down. And another came in to 'assassinate' us with his temperature gun, firing it at our foreheads. Fortunately none of us had a temperature and we weren't kicked off the train or forced into buying Chinese medicine.

China was so different from the wild and empty expanses of Mongolia that we’d spent the day passing through. The most noticeable change was a rotten egg smell that filled up our compartment as soon as we crossed the border. We thought it issued from the toilet next door, but no, we soon gathered this was the smell of China- the sulphurous smell of pollution.

In the morning there were houses everywhere, and skyscrapers being built in what seemed like small towns. The power stations were everywhere too, belching out their smoke, as well as the mines with piles of coal next to them. A lot of the land was under cultivation, most of it fields and fields of maize with the odd sunflower in between- a stark difference to Mongolia. The landscape was slightly Californian looking, with rolling hills and later some rocky mountains. In one place people had built their houses into the cliffs/ground. As we progressed through the countryside I felt cold number three coming on and discovered my snot was dark black. Maybe the people that live here are unaware that it’s meant to be clear. It'll be a while until we can breathe freely again.

More reassuring was the number of solar panels on the houses and apartment blocks of some of the towns and villages we passed by. The houses were nice with red tiled roofs and brick walls. As we neared Beijing the air got thicker with pollution and we were in the midst of the smog. We went along a river that had been dammed upstream and didn’t contain a lot of water, but the surrounding valleys were very pretty.

In Beijing it was sweltering and the area around the station was swarming with people. We got money out once I managed to get the pin number right, because the numbers were in different places. There were escalators to get over the road to the bus stop, which saved our backs a bit of extra pain, but was really a bit extravagant. After locating our hostel we roamed around the neighbourhood and some seemingly innocent looking individuals tried to con us in to going to a tea ‘festival’ with them (and most likely would have made us foot their bill). Many of the roads were tree lined and the alleys between houses very pretty. Courgettes were growing along and above the alleys and cucumbers were hanging out in strips to dry. We wanted to go to Tiananmen Square, but Jenny had her penknife in her rucksack and we thought we wouldn’t make it through the security check (which in hindsight we probably would have got through no problem). There seemed to be policemen everywhere in Beijing just frozen in pose on street corners, in the underpasses, squares and anywhere else not already occupied by the Chinese public.

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