John’s Walkabout; The Budgeting Bolshevik Diaries
Another one of the great entries for ‘Best Written Piece’ in our Vodkatrain Traveller Awards. This account of our Budgeting Bolshevik journey is written by John Catchpole.
John’s Walkabout; Budgeting Bolshevik Tour by John Catchpole
Tuesday 29th October 2013
Having explored Red Square and The Kremlin we had 1 hour and 5 minutes to get back to the hostel and then to the station. Tensions were high – but the group vowed not to leave anyone behind…
The race was on. Had I been on my own I’d have been at the station at the time we left the Kremlin. Most of the group agreed they’d have done the same. The mission ahead looked impossible.
Our Honcho was stepping up the gears, and we were expected to run up the metro escalators. This was a sign that she was also starting to panic. We got to the hostel grabbed our bags and left.
There were 45 minutes until the train to Irtusk left. We had to near enough run with all our bags and all the supplies i’d brought started to feel like unnecessary weight. We got back to the local metro station and had to make a change again running. The metro train was in the platform. Me and Callum were at the back of the group and the metro train was already packed but we couldn’t afford not to get on. As the doors closed we surged forward and just made it.
I looked at the watch 25 minutes until the train to Irtusk left. We had no idea how many stops it was but soon we were off the metro and walking at a brisk pace to the mainline station. We found the platform with 10 minutes to spare and started to put our bags through the scanner. It was at this point our guide realised we were in fact at the wrong platform.
Now we really were in a rush. it sounds harsh and perhaps it was organised chaos but it felt like she hadn’t got a clue where we needed to be. Finally we found it and ran to our carriage. The attendant had to check all our passports and allocate us to our seats.
I was allocated to be sitting with Claire, Callum and Fi. We let out a sigh of relief once we were all sat down and it was this moment the train started pulling out. We were the last passengers on. A unique experience we would all have been happy to avoid.
Gradually it dawned on us this was home for three whole days and two half days. There didn’t seem much urgency to do anything but eventually we put bags away and made the top bunk beds.
After that time just seemed to slip by. We were lucky that our local companions were a group of 15-17 year old students that were interested in learning about us and who were so much better behaved than children of a similar age in the UK. One of the girls was particularly good at English and was very excited to know about London.
I had a nap and waking up about 6pm went to the restaurant car in the search for beer and once we returned shared some Vodka. It was ‘only’ 10pm but it seemed that activities were slowly winding down throughout the carriage and by 10.30pm we were asleep.
Wednesday 30th October 2013
I was able to sleep but it felt very bumpy at times and for some reason I got a nose bleed as I woke up. I think it’s because we were entering the Ural Mountains which resulted in a change in pressure. I tried to explain to the attendant that I needed new sheets and she beckoned the girl who could speak English over to act as translator. Luckily the situation was resolved easily though with a bit of embarrassment on my part.
Wednesday was our first full day on the train. Again it was all a very easy pace. If something needed doing it felt it could wait. We got to one station and Claire and Paul got off and made an attempt to clean the window but it was the second station when Chris put Callum on his shoulders true progress was made and we even had a fascinated crowd. The attendant looked predictably annoyed but didn’t say anything.
After this we entertained the kids with connect 4. I realised I’m quite competitive because I found it really hard to let them win. Paul and Chris said they felt the same but ‘little lad’ as he was dubbed was good and beat me fair and square to much excitement. After a few more games I was ‘cool John’.
After this we went to the bar and I had more types of the local beer Bajithka. The number 9 was 8% and reminded me of leffe. Having tried number 7 the export larger i eventually I settled for number 3 which went down more easily. It was good to chat to the other members of the group. I bailed earlier than the group from Leeds who returned in good spirits.
i was in my bunk in bed but awake and whilst we weren’t doing anything wrong as a general group we were probably causing a bit more noise than we should have been. Eventually the attendant came down and angrily said something in Russian which seemed to include the word police so we quickly went to bed. We probably looked like classic ‘Brits abroad’.
Thursday 31st October 2013
I woke after 11am next morning and felt surprisingly refreshed though we came in to a station just as I entered the toilet to clean my teeth. The attendant didn’t realise and therefore locked me in because they are meant to be out of use when the train stops. I waited until we were moving and eventually I heard the door unlock and was able to escape from my prison.
We stopped off at a station where I got some pictures and brought a few more supplies for Friday as I realised my rations were getting low. I’ve already started on the advent calendar and it’ll probably be finished before China. Returning to the train the scenery looked a bit unspectacular so with another whole day on the train tomorrow I decided to have a nap.
I woke up to hear Gary telling the kids a story about life in Norway; one of these was when he lost a bet and had to swim for 3 days in a lake. It sounded amazing and I hope we do have the chance to have a dip in Lake Baikal.
Soon we were at another station and I was finally able to buy some of the famous platform food. I was pleased with my choice, it looked like a doughnut but had a potato filling. I still felt a bit hungry so when the trolley lady came down I brought another pot of instant mash.
That evening we had a quiet one and just chatted. The kids on the other hand were having a noisy night and wanted a game of snap before going to bed. The clocks had changed so it was gone midnight.
Friday 1st November 2013
Next morning I woke up at 11.25am again so by the time I was washed and changed it was lunchtime. I haven’t said what my lunch has consisted of, but I can confirm it was a proper gourmet experience consisting of powered soup, powered mash, crisps and the advent calendar chocolate. Soon we arrived at Krasnoyarsk and It was at this point I realised we’d gone forward another hour and I’d actually missed the entire morning.
Later on I found out some of the group had been told off by police for carrying Vodka on the train. I had none on me myself but this seemed a bit unfair as the guide books all say sharing vodka is one of the best ways to make friends and break the language barrier. Still there were no fines and the female officer was apparently trying to pull the male officer away as she understood we were tourists. Whilst I’m all for respecting other countries laws it sometimes feels as though the law here is up to individuals as nothing was in writing, or if it was you needed to be able to read Russian as there were no pictures. Plus no one had said anything the previous night.
I spent an hour or so reading about the route and looking out of the window before I needed a nap. Being on this train has made us very lazy.
I was probably asleep for an hour or so before Paul said him Claire and Chris were going to the lounge. I couldn’t have jumped down from my bunk quick enough and joined them. We only had one beer each as funds were getting low and i got some soup recommend by the attendant who actually smiled when she saw us (and so she should after the amount we’ve spent!)
We got off the train at llansky for a stretch of the legs and I noticed the temperature outside had certainly dropped. I fancied some platform food but couldn’t find my translator friend so opted against it.
We re-boarded the train and the kids were playing guitar. It was all in Russian but very relaxing and we clapped after each song.
Tomorrow we should get to Irkutsk and on to lake Baikal. The longest part of the train journey is therefore over which is both a relief because we can shower but sad because it has been good fun and an interesting experience due to the conditions.
Saturday 2nd November 2013
The final nights sleep on the train was pretty terrible. I’m not sure what caused this but there had been a number of changes to the timezone and i think the school kids were staying in Moscow time and staying up late as a result. it didn’t help that after 3 days of waking up at 11am or whenever we liked we now had to be up at 7am. I also think we were all relieved that it was our final morning as cabin fever was starting to set in.
Instantly things were looking up. We loaded our bags on to a bus and were on our way to Listvyanka our home for one night on Lake Baikal. We all fell asleep on the 1 hour journey but soon we were at the chalet and after 4 days we were finally able to have a proper shower (though sadly the hot water couldn’t handle the pressure).
Next we walked in to town to get some food. Our honcho knew all our needs and the order. Feeling fresh and hunger satisfied we went on a walk along the lake and to a chair lift where we got the chance to see some spectacular views of the world’s deepest lake.
We then walked back down the hill our honcho was able to flag down a van and agreeing a price of 10 roubles each we hitch hiked back in to town by the market. Here we were able to buy some souvenirs and some Russian street food.
We walked back to the chalet and we were finally able to connect to the outside world after 4 days. It had felt rather liberating at times but I had missed not being able to share some of my feelings with those closest to me.
6 of us had arranged to have a Russian Sauna. I vaguely remembered this from an idiot abroad and I therefore knew it would be a slightly unique experience. I’d also never been in a proper sauna before (the fitness first gyms don’t count) and every time our honcho poured water on to the coals the heat became more intense.
Gary told us about the saunas in Norway and gave us advice on how to breathe correctly. He also told us about the championships in Norway where a Russian who won died as soon as he came out because he’d spent to long inside. This made us all laugh a little bit nervously – how long would be too long?
We were dripping and eventually after what felt an eternity 3 of us bailed to get a relaxing cup of tea. I sat with Claire and Fi and soon Callum and Chris joined us. We returned to the Sauna just in time to see Gary lying face down and our honcho’s friend Dennis holding a birch branch in his hand. He started flogging and brushing Gary whilst dipping the branch in hot water and waving this over Gary and spraying us in the process. It didn’t look relaxing. It looked like a weird torture. Eventually it was over and after vacating the sauna a bucket of ice cold water was thrown at Gary’s back.
Soon it was my turn and I found it a lot easier to breathe with my face in to the towel. The whole experience was also lot more relaxing than I have described above. The leaves felt like they were tickling rather than thrashing, the heated water felt like a warm shower and the cold water at the end was refreshing after being baked for so long. I went outside in the middle of Siberia and stared at the stars above. I then had another cup of tea and returned to the sauna.
After we’d finished it was time for dinner. A proper Russian meal prepared by our hosts and our honcho gave us the wonderful news breakfast wasn’t until 10am. A lie in. We all agreed that we were content and the slog of the choo choo (the word train was now banned) was a distant memory. We were however all aware within 24 hours we’d be boarding another to the Mongolian capital.
Sunday 3rd November 2013
I didn’t sleep particularly well. Perhaps I missed the swaying of the train or it may have been because I’d seen Watford had lost to Leicester but I ended up spending an hour on Wikipedia reading about the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Soviet Union. When I then got a message from a friend to say my blog wasn’t working I did become concerned I was being monitored and that perhaps I’d written something I shouldn’t!
Eventually I must have fallen asleep because soon my alarm was going off. Why is it at night it sometimes seems so hard to get to sleep and that no position is comfortable and then in the morning such a struggle to get up and it feels like any position will do?. We had breakfast and after a few last minute messages to friends and family we were walking down in to the village to get a 1 hour boat ride.
It may not have been the most spectacular in terms of wildlife as there were no seals, dolphins or as *Name Removed to Protect Identity* confirmed to me a loch ness monster but it was a very peaceful setting and not a cloud in the sky. We travelled along the coast and started to approach a bay. we wondered if we would reach the bay before our time was up and we had visions of it being a beautiful sandy beach. When we finally rounded the bay we discovered it was just another cliff.
Eventually we did turn back and we were back in Listvyanka. We went back to the market from the night before to get some food for a picnic. Our honcho then took us on a short coastal walk to an area we could sit down. I don’t think any of us expected to have a picnic in Siberia in autumn but it was still fairly warm. A family on the table next to us even appeared to be having a BBQ.
We walked back to the chalet and loaded our bags back on to the waiting bus and by just after 3pm we were all sleeping on our journey back to Irkutsk.
The train wasn’t until 22.20 so unlike previously we had plenty of time to see the town before the train. We saw a few remaining examples of the old style wooden buildings that were once common in the city before the city was destroyed by fire. Our honcho explained most of the older style buildings had been replaced during the time of the Soviet Union and that the replacements were practical but had less character.
We wondered down to the river and saw a number of statues including Tsar Alexander III responsible for commissioning the Tran Siberian Railway, Set (the first astronaut in space) and (the man who founded the town).
We also had plenty of time to get a drink from a coffee shop in an area of the town that had been rebuilt in the historic style, to get a proper meal before returning back to powdered food and to get rations for the train.
The bus picked us up and dropped us off at the station. Our honcho even got on to the train with us to make sure we had the correct cabins. There was no doubt that that our honcho had nailed it. We hadn’t known what his plans were in advance but it didn’t matter we were all part of his masterplan.
The 4 berth compartments were luxurious compared to the 6 berth open compartments we had used on the train from Moscow to Irkutsk. We had: Clean windows, a rug, a table (and table cloth which Callum later wrecked with his spilt coffee), our own bed lights, a duvet rather than a woollen blanket, a towel rack, coat pegs and a door! Even the attendant frowned slightly less and the carriage toilet contained air freshener. Luxury.
Monday 4th November 2013
The nights sleep was probably my best since being here and by the following morning I was back in the train routine. Waking up about 11.30 I had a wash, got dressed and prepared lunch. The menu had a slight variance from the last time. Whist the dried mash potato remained a key part of the diet I couldn’t find dried soup and so this had been replaced by a cheap Russian equivalent of a pot noodle. This actually turned out to be a blessing as it was (slightly) more filling. Sadly there was no more advent calendar chocolate however I was able to find the cheap cheesy crisps before leaving.
By about 1.45pm we’d arrived at the Russia/Mongolian border. First we had to vacate the train whilst the carriage was shunted around. We stood around on the station but it was cold so we went inside. Not a lot happened except a local started trying to talk to Gary about the currency of Norway.
After about 1 hour we went outside just our carriage was shunted away but the rest of the train looked ready to go. We were standing around talking when very slowly the train started to leave “uuum guys the train is leaving” I said. “Haha yeah yeah…oh Jesus it is as well” said Chris. At which point we just all started laughing at the potentially disastrous situation we were in. I think we all knew it wasn’t really our train and seeing what we knew was our carriage standing all alone at the border just made us laugh more.
After another hour of waiting around inside we decided to stand by our carriage and by about 4pm we were finally allowed back on board. Now the customs and immigration process began. First we had to hand over our passports a couple of times one of which included staring in to the eyes of the immigration official who took an instant dislike to me because I didn’t realise she was asking me to take my glasses off. We also had to hand over our immigration and registration cards. I haven’t mentioned this process yet but basically in each new city we stayed at we had to register (and pay for the privilege) to say that’s where we were. In return we were provided with a certificate which we had to carry around with us.
I think an hour or so passed during which Gary, Fi Callum and I fell asleep and soon we were being ordered to get all our luggage down whilst every corner of the compartment was checked by a scary looking soldier. As we were now fully accustomed to, the whole process wasn’t the most friendly experience. Including the stop at the station it took about 5 hours and by 6.50pm we were finally being shunted over the border to Mongolia to begin the whole process again…
Monday 4th November 2013 continued…
We were finally out of Russia. Kind of. Technically we weren’t in Mongolia either and the two attendants on our carriage were still the stern faced stereotypical Russian ladies Our honcho had warned us about in Moscow a week earlier.
Sometimes a country grows on you but for me and I think I can safely say the majority of us that wasn’t the case with Russia, though looking back at the pictures I certainly had some memorable moments. Russia appears to be a country of extremes both in terms of climate, scenery and attitudes. It is hardly a surprise that the older generation, e.g anyone that was over the age of 18 in 1991 will view tourists with a slight suspicion however in contrast the younger generation we encountered appeared more liberal, were enthusiastic to learn about other countries and were friendly. Unfortunately those born after 1991 are not yet working with the public which makes it a bit of an uncomfortable experience especially if you are alone.
The moment we had our first contact with a Mongolian I fell in love with the place. The immigration official smiled and asked us for our passports in English and we were all so dumb with shock due to the politeness we froze. She also asked if it was our first time as we handed over the passports. A soldier came to check the compartment and politely asked if she could enter (we wondered how she’d have reacted if we said no) and finally the customs official who took the scary looking forms we had completed did so with a friendly smile.
We had an early start and even though we thought the train got to the Mongolian Capital at 6.10am, the attendant appeared to take great pleasure in telling us it was actually 5.10am. As a result we made sure our bags were packed in advance and got to sleep about 10.30 with alarms set for 4.00am.
Tuesday 5th November 2013
Bang bang bang. Knock knock knock. Bang bang bang. It was 3.30am. The attendant had a bigger glare than she’d had at any previous stage as she told us we had to get up (in Russian of course but we assumed that’s what she was saying). Chris said she’d made him try to go in the toilet even though he knew Sara was there and Callum thought she was going to make him ‘disappear’ when he handed her the coffee stained table cloth. I got shouted at because Gary had left the bedding outside the compartment and she thought it was me. I shook my head and shrugged my soldiers “Nyet” and the dragon retreated to her cave/compartment.
As predicted we were ready with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately as we arrived in Ulaanbaatar the Mongolian capital and started to disembark I realised a tin of Gary’s condensed milk had leaked out of our bin and left the attendants a leaving present outside the door. There was no time to clean it and the only reaction was to run away from the train before they realised.
Our honcho was waiting for us and like our previous honcho she had it all worked out: Bank, travel to Ger camp, have breakfast, sleep, walk, lunch, afternoon activity, dinner, relax/beer and bed. Sadly the 24 bank wasn’t fully open due to it being the birthday of Ghengis Khann the day before (so we couldn’t exchange money) but the intention was there.
We fell asleep on the bus and when we awoke we were at the Ger camp. I was sharing with Gary, Paul and Chris so we finally had a wolf pack den. After Paul had fully accustomed himself with the log fire we headed down to breakfast.
Once that was over the intention had been to sleep but the beautiful slightly snow capped location had re-energised us all and so we went for a walk. Callum and Fi went one way, Gary and Paul another. Chris walked on ahead and Sara decided to drop out leaving me and Clare to support each other. Eventually Paul and Gary caught us up and Chris came back down. Finally we made it and from our view point we could see Callum and Fi on the other mountain. A bit of Rocky was played – fast becoming the tours soundtrack and then we set up my camera to get a picture of the 5 of us and ‘the two kids’ in the background.
Coming down was faster and at times it was easier to slide. As we approached the bottom it had felt to easy and all of a sudden I was lying on my back with one leg in the air and the other causing a domino affect on poor Clare. Luckily all the layers of clothing meant I survived with nothing apart from (another) bruised ego and a bruised elbow.
Returning to the Ger we did try to get some sleep but after a while I had to use ‘the facilities’. I feel I have to mention these because they were quite central to the Ger camp experience but i would also advise the following paragraph is probably not for lunchtime reading. Basically the ‘toilet’ was a hole in the ground which was nothing unusual but the smell was particularly bad, the lock didn’t work and in the day there was little light (the electric light only worked at night). I was therefore in a hurry and didn’t realise my coat pocket was unzipped. In a sudden movement to leave I caused my mobile to drop out of the pocket and turned to see it heading for the abyss below. ‘Luckily’ it landed only half way over the hole and whilst it was gently balanced I was initially scared to breathe in case that pushed it over. The hole later tried to unsuccessfully claim FI’s glasses and Chris’s trainer in other bizarre and unlucky circumstances.
Next we went to lunch where I was particularly greedy and had the Mongolian carrot salad, Mongolian soup and Mongolian dumplings. All were delicious and the portion sizes were particularly generous. Our honcho said the Mongolian attitude to food is big portions and small prices. My kind of place.
After this we were told about the activities for the afternoon one of which was to visit a nomadic family. All of us except Sara also decided to go horse riding for an hour beforehand. The horses didn’t have names because they were wild but I opted to call mine Ghengis. Our honcho also told us the human population of Mongolia was 2.8 million and the horse population was over 4 million. 80% of the country was also not inhabited.
Apparently the horses that Gary and I had were particularly good and fast so the guide led them for most of the journey. Callum’s horse appeared to have taken a fancy to mine and they had a kiss each time they were next to each other. Sadly his horse wasn’t as quick and whilst it clearly wanted to follow and keep up with mine it eventually gave up and decided to start heading home. He tried to make it turn back but it appeared the horse had made its mind up and for a few seconds it looked like Callum might disappear over the sunset alone. Luckily after coming to a stop and looking rather sad on its own the horse turned around and rejoined us.
It was amazing to have the opportunity to travel through a country renowned for its horses on horseback and the scenes were stunning. I was surprised that the national park had quite a few buildings dotted around but we later we told these mostly belonged historic nomadic tribes that had permission from the government to live within the park.
After the horse riding we visited one of the families that live in the national park. The lady provided us with Mongolian tea various types of snacks made from cheese/curd and little biscuits. I tried it all but personally I didn’t enjoy any of the curd snacks. We had brought gifts from a local store and Clare played connect 4 with the ladies grandson (letting him win of course).
We also had the opportunity to ask some questions with our honcho acting as translator. Gary asked about her thoughts on the future and the lady said she was optimistic that due to the small population money from mining the natural resources would result in more equal wealth and develop the country. Paul also asked whether she felt this would have an impact on local traditions and she agreed that the younger generation were sadly less interested in the traditional lifestyle as they moved to the cities.
By now it was getting dark and when we got back to the Ger our fire had gone out so we decided to go straight for dinner. After dinner Clare read us all one of my blogs as a bed time story and we went back to our Gers which were now warm as the fire lady had restarted the fires.
In the middle of the night the fire lady came back which made me jump and i had so many layers on I felt to hot. As a result I decided to go outside in to the snow and take some pictures of the stars and Paul who had also woken up joined me. The photos weren’t that successful but I was able to cool down and get back to sleep.
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Next morning after breakfast we got some pictures dressed up in traditional Mongolian costumes and then boarded the bus to return to Ulaanbaatar. First though we visited a giant statue of Ghengis Khan on a horse – the largest horse statue in the world. It is hard to describe just how big the statue is but the horses head was about 3 floors off the ground and the panoramic views of the snow covered mountains from the top were spectacular.
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar in the middle of a huge traffic jam. It appeared the Mongolian people were very friendly except it seemed when they were behind the wheel of a car. In order to keep congestion down the government had passed a law which meant drivers could only drive on certain days. Unfortunately for our driver he hadn’t realised it was Wednesday and therefore he shouldn’t have been driving. His licence was therefore taken by police and we remained stationary at the side of the road whilst he tried to resolve the situation. He must have done so in the end because after a while we were back in the traffic jam.
Eventually the traffic eased and our honcho took us to a war memorial which commemorated ‘various unknown soldiers from various wars’. As we approached the final set of the 400 steps Chris put Rocky on again and me him and Paul ran. Possibly because of the cold my lungs struggled and I spent most of the time at the top coughing. From the top of the memorial we could also see the Buddhist park which was still under construction though when we’d read the leaflet we’d wrongly assumed it was already complete.
Gary was due to meet the president of the Mongolian law society because the Norwegian law society had provided sponsorship and support to their Mongolian counterparts. *Name Removed to Protect Identity* had therefore at very short notice been able to facilitate a meeting. Unfortunately this meant they had to miss lunch. Me Callum and Fi went to a lovely vegetarian restaurant where we got a meal and a drink for under £3 each and met the others later.
After doing some other errands in town we visited the Sukhbaatar Square where the main government buildings were located and went back to the hotel. After finally having a shower we were back out again this time on our way to a traditional Mongolian culture show.
I found it really enjoyable to hear the traditional throat singers, to hear the traditional instruments and to see the different dancers. There was also a contortionist who was particularly amazing and her finale was holding herself up by her tongue.
After the show we met two other groups on a similar tour one of which was going to Russia. Unfortunately they probably took a dislike to us because we wished them good luck with the train attendants and we may have sounded a bit negative about our experience. Luckily after we had dinner at the hotel we saw them again and this time introduced ourselves properly. We were therefore able to provide each other with advice on what to do in Russia and Beijing respectively and how best to get around.
During our dinner we had a shot of Mongolian vodka which is meant to be nicer than Russian vodka though I wasn’t convinced and when drunk straight both tasted equally nasty. Returning to my room I reflected on the fact that stage one of my journey was almost over and by the following night I would have crossed the Chinese border. Really this is just the beginning.
Thursday 7th November 2013
As we said goodbye to our honcho and boarded our final train at around 7am I (we) knew that this stage of our journey was coming to a close. As we boarded I found out our family was being split up slightly earlier than planned and I was to be in the cabin with one of the groups we’d met the night before. I ended up spending most of my time inviting myself round to Paul, Clare, Callum and Fi’s cabin a bit like Kramer from Seinfeld. The 4th space in the 2nd cabin (Sara, Gary and Chris) was taken by a local and more shall be said about him later.
After having a nap I awoke just as we left Choir and started to cross the Gobi desert. I looked out of the window for a bit and decided to get some lunch which as before consisted of a king size super spicy Bombay Badboy pot noodle equivalent and the staple instant mash. After looking out of the window some more I realised that whilst it was amazing to be crossing the desert there wasn’t much variation to the view except the occasional herd of horses. I therefore decided to have another nap.
I awoke to hear Paul talking about going to the restaurant car, the code name for beer(s) and I couldn’t jump down from the bunk quick enough. First though we had one final chance to stretch our legs at a station as we had a long stop which we wouldn’t have again until we arrived in Beijing which was still over 20 hours away.
We must have spent a few hours in the restaurant car because the sun started to set which was pretty but I still maintain that on a good day Aberystwyth is the best. I hadn’t had much to drink because I didn’t want to be drunk for the immigration process and left to get my final dinner of mash and noodles. Soon the others returned as the restaurant car had been closed. We were at the border.
As I was getting used to one of the officials took a dislike to me, this time because I’d been sitting on my bunk which hadn’t been a problem at any previous crossing or when I’d handed my passport over to his colleague a few minutes earlier. Still I apologised and scrambled down quickly for the second time in a few hours.
There was a minor scare when I couldn’t locate my customs declaration form that I’d completed on entry to Mongolia and which I thought we’d handed over and not had returned. I decided there were worse places I could be left behind but luckily I did find it, scrunched up in my hip pouch and what I handed in must have been ok because my passport was stamped and I was allowed over the border.
Next the cabin was searched and then we were given forms to complete for entry in to China. This time I made a note to safely look after the departure form which was returned to me in case I needed it when it came to leaving. I did however start to complete the customs form only for half way through to realise I only had to do so if I had something to declare (which I didn’t).
When we reached the Chinese side of the border we were told that we had to remain on the train which was annoying for me as I had a bit of the Mongolian currency I had hoped to exchange. It did however mean I had plenty of time to get to know the guys I was sharing a cabin with.
We were also at the part of the process which seemed a bit surreal. I had learnt during the journey that whilst the ‘Transmongolian Railway’ is one route the track width used in Russia/Mongolia is different to China. Rather than swapping trains, the carriages are lifted in to the air sometimes with the passengers still on board and the wheels are swapped.
We entered the shed and stared at the workman from the window wondering exactly when the process would start and how it would do so with us on board. After a while Chris noticed the workers had shrunk and we realised it was actually in full swing. I wasn’t sure if the immigration process was over but once we had been lowered it was gone midnight so I decided to have a nap. This nap ended up being bed as we were not disturbed again except for some violent sounding noises from the engine.
Friday 9th November 2013
I awoke early by mistake but knew we would be passing the great wall at some point so gathered everything I might need for the next few hours and left the cabin. Sara was there as well and together we waited. Soon people started to join us and after a few false claims including one which appeared very wall like but turned out to be a house we saw it. Or at least we felt fairly convinced we had.
Gary who was normally very active looked a bit sorry for himself and it emerged that after everyone had gone to bed he’d started to use international language (alcohol) to communicate with the Mongolian staying in his cabin. Apparently sometime after the border crossing the two of them had left the train at a station to get fresh supplies. It sounded like a great experience and both spent most of the morning trying to sleep.
A few hours later and we were on the final approach to Beijing. Passing through a number of tunnels each time we emerged from one the scenery was different and spectacular. Unfortunately the windows were dirty and no photo could do the view justice.
As it was Fi’s birthday we had decided to see a acrobat show and once we arrived in Beijing we tried to seek help from the honcho of the group I had been sharing a cabin with. She didn’t look prepared to help advise us on how to book tickets so we went to plan b. Me and Sara would try to take a ride with Gary and his guide Peter back to our hostel where we would book the tickets. Luckily we could get all fit in which it later became apparent was a huge bit of good fortune because the metro was not only stupidly busy but the nearest station was a 30 minute walk away.
We got to the hostel and Peter booked the tickets. We agreed to all meet outside the theatre at 18.45 giving us some time to wash and sort ourselves out. To get to the theatre we took a bus and the metro and it made the rush hours of London, Moscow and St Petersburg look tame but I have to admit the signs were clear and out of them all it wins. Still I was done with trains and I made the decision there and then that i would get a taxi from the hotel when I needed to leave for the airport.
The Leeds lot were second to arrive and explained they had to get a rickshaw bike ride because the walk had been longer than expected however no one could contact the kids who had last told me they were at the wrong theatre. We went to the auditorium and showed Peter a picture of them so he could give them the tickets when they arrived. Amazingly they only missed about 5 minutes which was a introduction dance routine.
Some of the acts were stunning. The contortionist in Mongolia had been good but here were 5 where the finale was the same principle as in Mongolia but to be honest even more stunning. Other acts included a ballet dancer dancing on the shoulder and head of her male dancing companion. The finale was a ball of death where not 3 but 8 motorcyclists drove around and did various stunts. The whole show only lasted an hour but what an hour.
We tried to find somewhere to eat and shunning McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza hut we found what looked a cheap Chinese fast food style restaurant. We had no idea how the restaurant worked and we ended up just pointing at various things on the menu hoping for the best. The lady serving looked increasingly frantic and we later realised this was because they closed at 10 and it was already nearly 9.45. Still who would turn away a group of 8 hungry tourists?
Soon a pot was brought out with whatever sauce we had asked for which was put on to a hob in front of us Ah. We had to cook our own dinner. We all ordered far too much and I had dumplings, spinach and tofu which were all added to the mix. It tasted alright, the others seemed to enjoy theirs more but it didn’t help that my use of chopsticks is still pathetic which meant I could barely pick up the dumplings. It was however very cheap for the amount we got.
Leaving the restaurant we started to walk back to our hostels or luxurious hotel in the case of the Leeds lot. Finally we got to a cross roads where we said our goodbyes. Me Sara and Gary continued alone and started to realise how big a city Beijing was (if we hadn’t already been aware of this fact – though Katie Melua it is not a fact there are 9 million bicycles in the city).
We were probably temporally lost for about 10 minutes including a moment we thought we were very lost when even a taxi driver didn’t seem to know the street. I won’t go in to the details as they don’t matter but luckily when I took the map by a pure stroke of luck the first road name that caught my eye was the one we were on. Whilst we had begun to take a slight detour we weren’t far off and were back about 30 minutes later.
For all of us except Sara it was the beginning of something longer and before I go further I want to say this: Guys I don’t want to get all mushy about it but if the people I meet in New Zealand and Australia are half as decent as you I’ll still be in for a good time