Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 3 Irkutsk and the Trans-Siberian

Part 3 Irkutsk and the Trans-Siberian

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The train got into Irkutsk early in the morning. Emptying out the fake brand goods mules that spoke animatedly into their mobiles as they schlepped their bundles of fake Diesel jeans along the platform. It was around -30 and I walked out of the station rather bleary-eyed and confused, taking the first offer of a taxi that presented himself. Unfortunately that happened to be a rather ratfaced and dodgy looking gentleman that led me to an unmarked black car. I settled into my backseat and as the buildings got more and more eastern bloc hellholish, I became resigned to the fact that I was about to get robbed and that Irkutsk was almost as much of a shitheap as Ulan Bator. Happily, however, Irkutsk is very much a city split in two by the Angara River with the older more salubrious areas in the south of the city. The taxi driver also kindly dropped me at my hotel, the Baikal Business Centre Hotel without murdering me.

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I took a shower, and got another cab (as the hotel was a fair way south of the centre) to Karla Marksa the main shopping/eating drag and proceeded to have a very nice walk around the ‘Paris of Siberia’.

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Irkutsk really was a nice place. Russians love a nice walk too, and they were all over the place enjoying the clear blue sky and crisp fresh air.

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After walking around for a few hours, I had some dinner and then a few pints in a decent Irish pub near the bus station. I noticed there something that I’d notice again and again and that’s that Russians love a good handshake. Everyone that walked in the pub shook everyone else’s hand, and they’d repeat the process upon leaving.

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The train was leaving early evening the next day. Sadly, the train to Irkutsk had passed alongside Lake Baikal during the night, so I had planned to take a bus there before leaving on my second day. But at this point all I wanted to do was get on the train again. I was enjoying the journey itself so much.

Also, outside the train, travelling on my own, I felt that everything was rather chaotic and just waiting to end in disaster as all of my connections were so closely timed. While on the the train, there was order to my universe. Timetables, scheduled stops, conductors, and the knowledge that you were heading in the desired direction. I had essentially become institutionalised, much like that sad old man in The Shawshank Redemption that kills himself because everything moves too fast now that he’s out of prison. So while I was drinking in the hotel bar the evening before, I decided to just get drunk, wake up late and head straight to the station.

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Though neglecting to visit Lake Baikal might sound a tremendous waste to most people, I suppose it does to me still, I’d like to stress that I really enjoy people watching. Observing the dynamics of people in very new places. Noticing the kinds of behaviour and how people interact. The hotel in Irkutsk was essentially very much a business hotel though the bar was filled with a handful of people that seemed to be familiar with the place. Sitting there, getting nicely toasted and watching these people just go about their regular lives was likely as fascinating to me as seeing the largest freshwater lake (by volume) in the world. Though it’s naturally much less of a photogenic activity.

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Solyanka is delicious

In Russia, the tickets can be picked up directly from the stations with a printed copy of payment confirmation. I picked up the ticket and almost shit myself as I read that my 1st class Rossja ticket had left at 1.15pm as opposed to 6.15pm as I’d been led to believe in the copies of the itinerary that had become as much a part of me as my wallet and passport. I ran around the station to find someone that spoke English, to no avail. I was convinced that everything had indeed been fucked. However, I finally found someone willing to at least try and communicate with me who informed me that in Russia, all the trains ran on Moscow times so my train was to leave in a couple of hours. Calm now, I headed out into the blizzard outside to buy provisions for the 75 hour trip to Moscow.

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There were a few people travelling the same route as me. The couple from the previous leg, some Australian retirees, Michael and Vicky who were doing everything on a planned tour type basis including dog-sleighing in Siberia, a German girl that was riding the train all the way to Moscow without getting off before taking a connection or two to Munich, and a French girl that was cheaping it to Moscow in 3rd class and being molested by one of the train guards for her trouble. He would unlock her empty compartment and stroke her hair while saying he loved her at night. She took to tying the door closed from the inside with some string.

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I booked the Rossja no.1 train in 1st class for the longest leg of the train journey and found myself sharing with Alex. He was a Russian from somewhere south of Vladivostock who smoked a lot and spoke around three words of English, ‘Yes’, ‘No,’ and ‘Sorry’. We would initially try to make polite conversation such as:

Me: It’s cold (pointing out the window)
Alex: No……warm
Me: Cold (pointing out the window more animatedly)
Alex: Yes

But he seemed a nice sort and after a while we became like an old married couple, content in each others’ company without having to talk with each other. I think he was a plain clothes security guard as he just seemed to be travelling on the train all the way to Moscow with very little luggage. He also seemed to be on excellent terms with the conductors and the restaurant staff.

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I gave Alex some of my beer. He liked that.

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The food in the restaurant car was better than the Mongolian fare but still overpriced and the staff seemed to systematically overcharge by adding charges to the bill for items such as chips that were described as part of the meal in the menu. I ignored it the first time, but on the second occasion raised it with them to immediate apologies by the restaurant manager who looked like Putin’s younger and far less successful brother. The restaurant staff seemed to try and get ever so friendly with some of the Russian diners and would tart themselves up after the kitchen closed. I found this rolling community rather fascinating.

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I woke up to find everything was white. The snow in places was waste deep out the window.

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This communist mural was outside the station in Krasnoyarsk where the train stopped for twenty minutes allowing me enough time to snap a picture of it. Trying to find some more beer to drink on the next stretch, I walked into the station building from the back entrance. Inside, a very officious and stern looking female railway worker started shouting at me in Russian. I made my apologies and started to turn around, but she didn’t seem happy with that and continued shouting in Russian. Envisioning  the train rolling away with all my luggage still in my compartment, I…ran away and back onto the train. Again, the outside world had seemed to want to scupper my plans via its inherent chaos.

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The three days and nights on the Rossja to Moscow passed understandably uneventfully. Longer stops in some of the larger cities such as Yekaterinburg and Perm served as opportunities to stretch legs and buy food at the little kiosks on the stations.

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In 1st class there were TVs in each compartment playing DVDs that you could give to the guard. For the first 2 days there was a kind of Muscovite Men Behaving Badly series played on a loop. For the last day and a half there was a low budget Russian Band of Brothers about a resistance force fighting the Nazis in a forest not too dissimilar to what was passing by outside. Finally, continuing the Second World War theme, we had a pirated copy of what looked to be a fairly recent film depicting Nazi war atrocities in a besieged city. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in one day.

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Part 4 Moscow to St Petersburg

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Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 1 Beijing and Trans-Manchurian

I’d wanted to make a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express for many years. Im really not sure why. I have only a passing interest in Russian culture and as will be seen, there weren’t any specific destinations that I wanted to reach by the route. I can only surmise that it was the journey itself that appealed. Perhaps after the previous 5 years of the frantic balancing of work and study, while still enjoying the social life afforded by one of the biggest party cities in the world; the long days and nights consisting of an almost meditative lack of activity aboard the train held a particular attraction.

However, it’s more likely that it was the factors relating to me as a person that motivated me primarily tied with my life situation at that point.

I’ll disclose early on that I think I would have never been able to plan this journey, nor perhaps even made it, had it not been for the excellent content provided by The Man in Seat Sixty-One website. Mark Smith, the site’s creator, sums it up perfectly here:

“the site aims to INSPIRE people to do something more rewarding with their lives and their travel opportunities than going to an airport, getting on a soulless globalised airliner and missing all the world has to offer.  There’s more to travel than the destination.  It used to be called a  j o u r n e y …”

So, yes, I suppose it was the journey itself and not the destinations that attracted me. I needed to get home to the UK for a specific purpose on a particular date, I had a set amount of time, and I had sufficient funds to pay for the venture. The key phrase there, however, is ‘get home’. The Trans-Siberian alone wouldn’t get me home. Therefore, I considered how I could make the trip back to the UK by train in its entirety. And then I thought why not travel the entire distance by train. That would be a greater challenge again.

Unfortunately, when planning the logistics of the journey, I decided that I didn’t have sufficient time to go overland from Thailand itself. I also thought that that journey, taking in a lot of Thailand and Cambodia by road, followed by the Vietnamese railway north to China would be something that could be done another time.

As a result, I chose to fly the first portion of the journey to Beijing and use that as a starting point.

The journey would go as follows:

A couple of days in Beijing followed by the Trans-Manchurian to Ulan Bator

A little over a day in Ulan Bator and then the Trans-Mongolian to Irkutsk, Siberia

A day and a bit in Irkutsk before taking the Trans-Siberian to Moscow

A few drunken hours in Moscow and then an overnight to St Petersburg 

A day or two in St Petersburg (was it only a single night I stayed there?)

St Petersburg to Helsinki and a ferry to Stockholm 

Stockholm to Copenhagen to Cologne to Brussels to London

Some people have questioned the whistle-stop tour nature of the journey, but as I said, this is about the journey and not the destinations. It would have been great to have spent more time in these places but I had a date I had to get back to the UK by, my degree graduation ceremony which I had promised my mother I would have so she could get me in a gown and hat (I successfully resisted the hat in the end) picture to slap on her wall.

Also on reflection, I think that the tight scheduling that was the product of so much incessant planning had laid out a challenge for me. The challenge was to make the connections. To not fuck it all up, somehow. The stopovers at the connection points gave me a little breathing room for any delays, of which, ultimately there were few to none (the rail companies of the UK take note).

And ultimately, this trip allowed me to see as much of the world’s terrain as I could in around two and a half weeks while I was young, free, and had enough disposable income to do so.

Part 1 Beijing and the Trans-Manchurian

First up was a flight to Beijing. As I said, I would have liked to have done the whole route through Vietnam and China, but time constraints culminating in the graduation ceremony I’d promised my dear old mum I’d attend meant it was impossible. So, after a week of work, an away trip to the cement capital of Thailand Saraburi to watch my local team Thai Port, followed by Wales’s victory over England in the rugby and some post-match celebratory tequilas, I set out to Suvarnabhumi international airport having had about 5 hours sleep in the previous two nights.
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I arrived in Beijing late afternoon on the 18th of March. I took the airport link train to connect with the Beijing underground.

The underground is clean, fairly big, but easy to follow, and very cheap. I think a journey anywhere in the city was 2 Yuan (20p). There were maps in English on the way out of many stations, and roads and streets were clearly signed too which meant I traversed the underground and the streets to my accommodation, the Jade Hotel pretty easily even if the hotel was down a rather small side street.
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A statue of Marilyn Monroe with what seemed to be Margaret Thatcher’s face.

My hotel, the Jade Hotel, was a mid-range business hotel close to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

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I got to the hotel after dark and just had some dinner and a few Tsing Taos and went to bed.

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Plenty of people were out cycling to work in the morning.

Considering I really only had one day to have a good look around Beijing, I decided to make my way to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City first.

I got to Tiananmen Square early and the throngs of tour groups fresh from the Chinese countryside were already everywhere in their tour group caps, mugging for pictures and chatting loudly.

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Tiananmen Square is huge.

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Lovely communism

Some of the handpicked ‘handsome’ soldiers barracked just outside the Forbidden City stood stone still here and there in the very cold temperatures.

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Generally what I do when I’m sightseeing is go somewhere and walk around rather blindly. Just trying to absorb a place’s atmosphere and aesthetics. I’ll read any notices that look of interest, but unless those notices rather frame what I’m seeing as some form of narrative such as those museums that tell stories chronologically as you walk from room to room and exhibit to exhibit, I lose interest. So, initially when I was approached by a tour guide, I resisted, but for some reason, perhaps due to his lack of pushiness and his very good English, on this occasion I relented. I’m glad I did.

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My tour guide’s chosen name was Paul, I think. Sadly, I can’t find my notes as I type this section. Nevertheless, this is his picture above, and if you ever go there and he’s available, I recommend taking him up on his offer.

Paul took me around the Forbidden City grounds and gave me a lot of interesting information about the old Manchurian emperors, the more recent history of the City, some gossip about the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood and how the political royalty of Bo Xilay and his wife Gu Kailai were never likely to see the inside of a jail cell. Writing this now and reading up on that case, interestingly both husband and wife did go to jail. Bo Xilay was ultimately imprisoned for life in relation to corruption charges stemming from the Heywood murder (The Wang Lijun Incident) and his wife was imprisoned for the murder itself though, ‘After the media published footage of the trial, claims that the woman shown in court was not in fact Gu, but a body double, quickly became popular on Chinese Internet fora, and Chinese authorities attempted to censor them.[22] Experts did not agree: theFinancial Times cited “security experts familiar with facial recognition software” that the person who stood trial was not Gu, whereas a facial recognition expert contacted by Slate was of the opinion that the woman most likely was Gu. The practice of rich people paying others to stand trial and receive punishment in their place, called ding zui, is relatively widespread in China. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gu_Kailai

Of course, everything else Paul told me could have been absolute nonsense. It rather pleases me to imagine that there are people out there living out comedy sketches where they make outrageous claims about historical places and events all day and get paid by naive tourists for the pleasure. However, I’m going to take what he said at face value and not worry too much about researching every element if it. That’s not very good practice I suppose, but these blogs will be long enough as it is.

The visitors to the Forbidden City clambered over each other to touch auspicious items, and shoved and wrestled each other to get a view of the furniture inside the rooms that all seemed dedicated to particular functions.

This large gold cauldron was supposedly particularly auspicious and had once been covered with gold but it had been scraped away by colonial powers like the British who’d occupied the city.

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The significance of the figures that adorned the roofs of the buildings was that the more of them there were, the more important that particular building was. This one, for instance featured quite a few so was likely the location of where the emperor would have a bath and consider matters of great national significance, possibly while throwing darts at the help.

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This stair sculpture was apparently made out of one single piece of stone. Marvellous. The opulence of the place was not so much the value of what you could see but the work that apparently went into its creation, the painstaking detail.

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Everything had a particular cultural significance. Stuff wasn’t just there to look pretty. These Qing era Guardian Lions were manifestations of Yin and Yang. The female Yin has under its paw a lion cub and under Yang’s  there is a small globe.

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Here’s one of the aforementioned shove-fests where the rural Chinese tourist groups, often distinguishable by their strange hats, jostled for a view of the dark and rather underwhelming interiors of building after building. I generally just glided by, speaking to Paul about the people that once lived there as opposed to focusing too much on where they kept their pants.

The members of the dynasty that had once inhabited the city and ruled over the country had patently fallen on….harder times since the hedonistic collaborator of the Last Emperor film fled the country. His nephew apparently now does calligraphy in the grounds and you can meet him and buy his art. According to a quick Google search, however, this particular royal is apparently as deft at changing his face as he is with aesthetically pleasing Mandarin lettering. A reasonably pleasant tourist trap and they weren’t too pushy again. The old man didn’t like having his picture taken, I can’t imagine why…

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I left Paul at the opposite end of the grounds to which we had entered. He gave me some quick advice regarding avoiding the rickshaw drivers who would rob me and being wary of pretty Chinese women that would approach me to practice their English over a coffee or a beer…which would cost me a few hundred dollars. Walking down Wangfujing shopping street later, I was pounced upon by a very pretty lady. “Hi!” she said. I smiled and walked past her without a word. She did look rather confused. Maybe she was one of these scammers that Paul had mentioned. Maybe she was genuine and wanted a chat or to try and get me to set up a direct debit for Greenpeace donations. Maybe she simply wanted the time. I’ll never know.

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Opposite the back entrance/exit to the Forbidden City is Jingshan Park which connects to Beihai Park. Walking through the former and up the hill affords you a view of the Forbidden City below. All over the parks, there are locals dancing, exercising, running around with those long ribbons swishing around behind them. It’s absolutely marvellous.

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Walking down the hill towards Beihai Park I could hear singing and came across a large group of people in a clearing singing heartily. The songs, utterly alien to my ears sounded…patriotic perhaps. Likely songs about the sweet pleasure derived from hard work.

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Leaving the throng belting out songs about scrubbing potatoes and the weeding Politburo gardens, I found the large lake in which Beihai Park was an island.

The Swan-headed pedalloes sat in a long dejected line, unused. It was no surprise though, it was freezing. It was around -5 to -10. Fairly warm compared with what would come later on the journey, but certainly not weather you’d venture into a lake on a craft of questionable seaworthiness.

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It’s around now that it started snowing. The snow was full of….smog. Overall, the smog hadn’t seemed to bad. Certainly not as horrible as reports had suggested, but one might imagine that it gets worse as the weather heats up.

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The visitors to the park didn’t seem to mind that there was dirt falling from the sky, however. I came across a large group of gaudily clad dancers getting down a little way past the water.

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Buying tickets in advance for the train journeys as opposed to the cheaper but obviously more risky option of buying them at the stations in country means that in China and Mongolia both, I needed to pick them up from agents. The agent in Beijing was somewhere in the vicinity of Beijing Train Station where I’d be getting my connecting train to Ulan Bator.

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While there, I saw a woman getting arrested. No idea why. Naturally, she was unhappy about it but she really did let everyone know about it. She didn’t seem afraid, just really bloody angry. This was a trend that I noticed though in many situations. The Chinese would shout at each other a lot. And those being shouted at oftentimes didn’t seem to notice or care. In the UK, if someone is shouting at you, you’ll engage with them. Likewise in Thailand where it’s very very rare. In Beijing, on the other hand, there would be government workers screaming at their inscrutable colleagues, tour group members yelling at oblivious looking friends. It was my first reminder, and something that would occur to me more and more, that, quite simply, there are people in the world that are the product of vastly different cultures going back hundreds of years. We, and I include myself in this, are constantly guilty of this cultural relativism of judging other people’s actions by virtue of the norms of our own societies, but when you’ve really seen a lot of the world, it’s simply not fair or rather judicious to do so. Different strokes for different folks as the philosopher Gary Coleman probably never said.

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I headed to Wangfujing and its snack street for a late lunch.

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The turkey kebabs were very nice. I can’t say I’ve ever been partial to squid on sticks and dry sugary snacks, however, so I didn’t really partake of anything else. It was wonderfully busy and colourful though.

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Lovely socialist market economics.

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I decided to head to an area where Beijingers and ex-pats go to eat and drink to see what the vibe was like and whether Beijing was a place I could ever live. I headed to Nanluogu Xian which is a slightly larger than average hutong a twenty minute walk from Beixinqiao underground station. It’s an 800 year old hutong which was home to Beijing’s glitterati before that word existed. There are loads of cafes and restaurants and shops selling things no one wants, so it’s patently awfully trendy.

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Dog

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It was a nice area. Very quiet but there were a few nice bars, some of which doubled as bookshops and art shops. It’s certainly a place I’d go back to and recommend other people checking out.

I headed back to the hotel and had a very nice dinner over the road with some meatball sour and sweet and sour chicken.

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I woke up and there was snow everywhere. I fell on my arse on the way to the subway.

But the good people of the People’s Republic of China are tireless

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I liked Beijing. It wasn’t that crowded, the smog was not bad while I was there though nor was it exceptional that it wasn’t that noticeable according to an American businessman who helped me with directions. It’s an organised place with good public transport and a lot there to be discovered in all the areas I didn’t get around to visiting. There are countless hutongs that criss-cross the city to be explored some day. I’ll be back for that, and the Great Wall and the Summer Palace, and Ghost Street and all those lovely opium dens and dog restaurants that perhaps only exist in our imaginations nowadays.

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So, I got to Beijing Station in good time for the 29 hour overnight Trans-Manchurian train to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator.

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I had chosen to take 2nd Class for this section of the journey. I thought that I could live with three Chinese rubber salesman laughing at me over their instant noodles or three backpackers talking incessantly about the spiritiuality of the Orient for a day and night, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself alone in my compartment. Free to throw my underwear everywhere and lounge decadently in the nude. In fact I could have ran up and down the carriage in my birthday suit as everyone else on the train were either slumming it in 3rd class or lording it in 1st.

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I resisted the urge to do so though and watched the scenery while taking my first opportunity to snap some pictures through dirty and, on this occasion, wet windows.

The coating of snow made the more central areas of Beijing very beautiful. However, it didn’t hide the ugliness of the more industrialised areas.

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In many areas, looking out the window, I was often reminded of the South Wales valleys where I grew up before the stains of the coal industry were mopped up to be replaced by…err…grass…or bigger roads so that people could drive through those areas more quickly.

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Oh, this is me. Hi.

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Almost immediately after you’ve left the city limits of Beijing, the train goes through a number of tunnels. Each time it exits, you’re faced with another stunning landscape of mountains, rivers, lakes. I found myself bounding from one side of the carriage to the other to not miss anything. In terms of natural beauty, probably the second most impressive part of my entire trip and certainly a highpoint.

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Toilet

1st Class carriage. It was warmer, there and it was more flammable, but it was older and arguably on that basis less comfortable.

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Coal was used to warm the compartments.

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The landscapes got…browner and flatter as the train travelled north. Here and there, you could see old bits of a big wall. I have wondered whether it formed a part of the Great Wall that’s a little less…impressive.

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The trains’ carriages aren’t uniformally the same. They’re often a hotch-potch of different carriages from different lines and of different ages.

The Chinese restaurant car was probably the best of the three I experienced in China, Mongolia, and Russia in terms of food, prices, furnishings, and the likelihood of being ripped off.

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This was a beer dedicated to the American heroes of the Second World War. One of my favourite parts of train journeys is drinking beer and reading. Don’t get me wrong, I take a moment every now and then to gaze out the window, but beer and an appropriate book for wherever you are, is fantastic. At this point in the journey I was reading Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux which details his travels through China for a year in the 80s a few years after the Cultural Revolution.

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After the dramatic landscapes just outside the capital, the scenery became very changeable. Snowcapped mountains changed into rural backwaters of ancient looking single-floored redbrick semis with cracked walls and broken tiles surrounded by crumbling fort walls, before the train entered Gobi-like expanses of desert replete with ethnic Mongolian goat herders and on to towns that seemed to have been entirely deserted or given up to being landfills for huge industrial urban eyesores that loomed out of the wastelands such as Datong, the Newcastle of the East. Travelling through some of the towns, you’d get glimpses of social interactions that would leave you wondering what the fuck was happening there. For instance, shortly before arriving in Jindang a large group of men clad in what appeared to be the de rigeur garb of the entirety of this part of northern China regardless of ethnicity, black leather jackets and jeans, seemed to be surrounding and manhandling another man that from the brief look I got looked terrified. That’s one of the great things about train travel. You see so much. However, the drawback is you often then see so little.
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I quickly made the place feel like home. You ca see three of the hero beers there. That was a continuing theme. Beers from the different areas I visited, drunk while watching the scenery glide by.

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Then we arrived in Earlian, Inner Mongolia.

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Erlian is the end of the Trans-Manchurian route and where the Trans-Mongolian begins. The Mongolian and Russian lines run on different gauges so in Erlian, the train compartments have to be given new under-carriages which is done in a big warehouse where the carriages are lifted individually with passengers in them before the Chinese and Mongolian undercarriages are exchanged. It was all very interesting.

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I went to sleep shortly after we rumbled out of Earlian Station.

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I woke up in the Gobi desert.

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And there were some new carriages including a new Mongolian dining car.

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I think the weapons on the wall for when customers took umbrage with either the food, the prices, or the fact that the manager’s idea of giving prices in alternative currencies constituted her picking arbitrary figures out of the air that pleased her.

A plate of meat Mongolian style.

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A plate of meat Mongolian style = A plate of meat

Some coal.
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Probably more edible than most Mongolian food.

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The landscape essentially looked like this…everywhere. We got to the very gruff passport control. All very Cold War. All very grim. I snapped a picture of the building at the checkpoint and was instructed to delete it immediately by a Mongolian soldier. I’d taken two though. Gareth 1 Angry Mongolian Border Guard 0 .This rather unwelcoming beginning was very much a foreshadowing of what awaited me later in Mongolia and Ulan Bator. 
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Part 2 – Ulan Bator and the Trans-Mongolian