Month: April 2016

Beijing Part I

Stepping off the train and into the cavernous Beijing Railway Station was like setting foot on another planet. I had spent the last couple weeks in sparsely populated Siberia and Mongolia and the shock of people and noise was exhilarating if not a little overwhelming.

My first lesson was that Chinese railway stations keep arriving passengers completely segregated from departing passengers so, as an arriving passenger, you don’t really get to avail yourself of the station’s amenities, including getting to an ATM. The prime directive is to get arriving passengers out of the station as quickly as possible. So, up I went through the arrival tunnel and outside to thousands of Chinese people in the station’s outside square. I then spent the next half hour just marveling at the size of the station and watching the crowds of people coming and going from the station.

Remembering that I had zero Chinese Yuan to my name, I headed over to the nearest ATM which was across the street from the station. Across the street is a bit of an understatement, it was across an eight lane motorway that, thankfully, sported several pedestrian overpasses. Cash obtained, I contemplated whether to take the subway to my hotel or summon an Uber car. The prospect of negotiating the subway with my large backpack made my decision easy.

I decided to walk a couple of blocks away from the train station to somewhere quieter to make it easier for the Uber driver to find me. This was a futile exercise as, walking down the street, each intersection I passed seemed larger and busier than the last. After a couple of blocks, I found a hotel forecourt and within 10 minutes my Uber driver had arrived. (Not to turn this into an advertisement for Uber, but it really is a handy service. This is especially true in a foreign country where trying to avoid getting ripped off by taxis or explaining where you want to go can be frustrating.)

After checking in to my hotel, I wandered around the neighborhood. Wangfujing is a massive shopping street with several giant malls. Further towards my hotel were several hutongs (alleyways) that I wandered in and out of. Hutongs are old neighborhoods, usually with a small courtyard in the center and housing built around communal water, toilets, and often kitchens. They are characterized by their low stone buildings and narrow alleyways.

Beijing used to be a city comprised of thousands of hutongs but they continue to disappear as they are leveled to make way for high-rise buildings. As I walked around, the noise and bustle of the city completely disappeared in these alleyways and you feel like you are seeing a way of life that hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. There is a movement to preserve many hutongs and some are being spruced up for the tourist trade and pedicab tours are available everywhere around the main tourist sites.

That evening, I headed to Siji Minfu restaurant for Peking duck. It was a Friday evening so the wait was over an hour but well worth it. The restaurant is popular with both locals and tourists with about a third of the patrons being Westerners when I was there. I ordered half a duck and Beijing style noodles. The duck is served with thin crepe-like pancakes and a variety of condiments and sauces. When first served, the waitress assembled one of the pancakes for me like a small taco so I would understand how to assemble them myself. Everything was delicious, the crispiest duck skin I’d ever had. My first meal in China was a prelude to the extraordinary food I would encounter throughout my time here.

Beijing style noodles.

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

My 2nd evening in Beijing included a trip to the Donghuamen Night Market where I feasted on an assortment of dumplings, spring rolls, and a serving of fried baby scorpions. The scorpions were just Ok although, this being my first serving, I didn’t have much to compare them to. The night market was a mix of locals and tourists, most of the stall hawkers seemed to delight in which one of them could freak out the Westerners the most with their fare of fried starfish, tarantula, and whole baby birds.

Donghuamen night market.

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

A little later, I splurged on a meal at Din Tai Fung. This is a popular upscale chain of Taiwan-style dumpling restaurants found throughout Asia and the West Coast of the US. I wasn’t disappointed; I feasted on crab, pork, and vegetable stuffed steamed dumplings enough for two or three people.

In addition to the restaurants, food is for sale from vendors on seemingly every street corner. Some of my favorites were steamed sweet potato cakes, dumplings, duck tendon on a stick, and small apples on a stick dipped in sugar. These apples were the size of American crabapples but not nearly as sour. It seemed to be the season for them as they were everywhere.

On my third day in Beijing I went to Wangfujing snack street where I had grilled chicken and baby octopus on a stick. Both were delicious but I liked the atmosphere of the night market just a bit better. The night market only sells food where snack street also has more touristy folk art shops interspersed with the food stalls. All those cheap tchotchkes just get  in the way of the excellent food.

China Train Travel

The train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing was about 30 hours on a Chinese-owned train. I had a first class ticket and had the compartment to myself. These trains are relatively new and each first class compartment has a comfortable easy chair and a bathroom/shower. This would be the last train I took that wasn’t 100% full.

Mongolia does not have electrified tracks and most of the route in Mongoila is single track. About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, the train makes its way up through the Khangai Mountains and then into the Gobi Desert. The route is slow-going with many sweeping switchbacks.

By mid-day, the train was chugging along the sandy landscape of the Gobi Desert where the occasional horse, Bactrian camel, or dirt bike interrupted the monotonous desert view. The train made only a couple stops in southern Mongoila, in towns whose only connection to the outside world seemed to be the train. These towns were typically only small clusters of low cinder block buildings being constantly sandblasted by the desert wind.

By around 11 p.m., the train had reached the Chinese border. Customs and passport control was surprisingly quick and efficient, but, because the rail gauge in China is narrower than in Mongolia and Russia, the train trucks (wheels) have to be switched out. So the border stop actually takes about 4 hours. Why they don’t just have a Chinese train set waiting across the border to cut down on the voyage was a bit baffling.

At any rate, I thought this process was going to be more interesting than it actually was but you aren’t allowed to leave your train car to watch and it was the middle of the night so I slept through most of it.

The process works like this: The train set is broken up and each car is separately shunted into a large shed. Then the train trucks are detached from the chassis, the cars lifted up onto jacks and the Chinese gauge trucks are rolled under the cars. The cars are then lowered and attached to the new trucks, the train set is put back together and sent on its way.

It must have been a quiet and smooth performance because by the time I woke up it was mid-morning and we were just outside of Datong, China; a city of over 3 million people that I had never heard of.

The route from Datong to Beijing runs through incredibly steep, mountainous terrain. The railway goes through hundreds of tunnels and runs along the Great Wall for a brief period.

Once in China, rail travel continued to be comfortable, easy, and efficient. From Beijing to Hong Kong, I took 5 train trips, three of them were high speed. The two conventional overnight trains I took will be replaced or supplemented with high speed service in a couple of years. China boasts the world’s longest high speed rail line which currently connects Beijing and Guangzhou, a route that covers over 1,300 miles in 8 hours at a top speed of 185 miles per hour.

G87 Beijing to Xi'an.

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

I took the high speed train from Beijing to Xi’an, a distance of 725 miles, and it took 4.5 hours. That’s just short of the distance between New York City and Chicago, and it took 4.5 hours. On a train. Currently, the quickest train service from New York to Chicago takes about 20 hours.

Getting tickets for train travel wasn’t quite as easy as for Russia where I ordered and printed tickets online before I left. In China, you have to have a Chinese bank account to order tickets directly with the railroad so I used a travel agency that specializes in Chinese rail travel. They charged a small fee but I’m glad I used them as trains fill up fast and, if I had waited to get tickets once I was in China, I may have gotten delayed or stranded. Once in Beijing, I went to the closest train station to my hotel and picked up all my pre-purchased tickets at once.

In addition to building high speed rail networks, many new railway stations are being built to accomodate the newer lines. Some of these stations rival airports in size and number of people passing through them.

By zh:user:danielinblue - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22616072

Xian North Railway Station. Photo by zh:user:danielinblue – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22616072

In order to ensure security and prevent a complete gridlock of people, you are only allowed to enter a train station if you have a ticket. Checkpoints outside the main entrance of stations check your passport and ticket, then you and your bags go through a metal detector; over half of the time, I was also wanded down before entering.

Once inside, most stations have 6-10 waiting areas, you are allowed into a designated waiting area based on which train you area taking. Waiting areas usually have small shops where you can buy snacks and reading material and hot water is available for free. All tickets have a magnetic stripe in them and access to the platform is controlled by automated ticket readers. The train platform isn’t accessible to ticket holders until about 30 minutes before the train departs.

Stainless Steel Horses and Stray Dogs

One full day in Ulaanbaatar was more than enough so, on my second day, I hired a car and went out to the countryside. Before we left the city, we stopped off at the Gandan Buddhist monastery. Built throughout the 19th Century, it is one of the oldest monasteries remaining in Mongolia. During Mongolia’s Communist era, hundreds of Buddhist sites were destroyed; Gandan, however, survived and was revitalized during the 1990’s.

Mongolia’s dominant religion is Tibetan-style Buddhism, and the Gandan monastery includes several temple buildings and a very tall (some say the tallest indoor) statue of Buddha. The statue was dismantled by overzealous Communists in the 1930’s but was rebuilt in the early 2000s.

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We arrived just in time for the morning prayers that my guide told me can last all the way to Noon every day. As we stood in the vestibule, people from the neighborhood cycled in and out, grabbing on to the large, interconnected prayer flags and leaving an offering for the monks. We watched for about 30 minutes while the monks continued their near non-stop chanting and intervals of short horn and drum break that resembled, to me, like the trumpeting of elephants.

It would seem that Gandan is also benefitting from Mongolia’s improved economic situation as brand new monastery dormitories are being built in the neighborhood.

Gandan Monastery. #ulaanbaatar #mongolia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

Next stop on my day tour was to the Chinggis (Ghengis) Khaan Equestrian Statue. About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, this statue was completed in 2008 and is 130 feet tall. Made of stainless steel, you can see the statue from miles around. At the statue’s pedestal is a small museum that contains quite a few artifacts from the Bronze era, as well as a run-down of the many Khans that ruled the area. There is a small viewing platform on top of the horse’s head that affords spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.

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After the statue, we continued further east into Gorkhi Terelj National Park. First stop was a look at Turtle Rock and then on to the Aryabal Buddhist monastery. The national park was virtually empty during my mid-November visit except for the occasional nomad with his herd of goats or sheep.

The entrance to the monastery is at the foot of a hill and it is a somewhat steep walk up to the meditation temple. Along the path are about 200 signs of Buddhist sayings. The main temple is designed to look like an elephant and the steps leading to the entrance resemble an elephant’s trunk. The views from the top were spectacular, the landscape had turned brown in the drier autumn months and there were patches of snow in the surrounding mountains. The quiet was only occasionally interrupted by the barking of a distant puppy. The area around the monastery contains a couple dozen semi-feral dogs that the monks look after.

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On the way back to Ulaanbaatar, we stopped by a large cairn (or Ovoo in Mongolian). These are piles of rock and wood with prayer flags attached that are found everywhere. My guide insisted that I circle the Ovoo three times clockwise to ensure a safe journey through the rest of Mongolia and China. I must have looked silly doing this alone so this black puppy accompanied me. I almost scooped him up and took him with me.

Mongolian cairn. #ovoo #mongolia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

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