The Beginning of the Trans-Mongolian Express

Tim was like a kid in a candy store this morning. He was so excited. I was lagging a little, but his mood was infectious. We needed to be at the train station by 10.20am so we had a lazy start and headed to the train station via the metro. 
Our epic train journey consists of 7,621kms and 3 countries over 9 train trips. Our first from Beijing to Ulaan Bator was a massive 27 hours. The funny thing is we are traveling the same distance we did in the bullet train with less stops on this one and the bullet train took 6 hours.
As it was 26 hours we decided to splurge on a deluxe cabin so it was just the two of us on our own. We didn’t know what to expect but we secretly had high hopes of a romantic little old school elegant oasis. We were not dissapointed. Lacquered wood all over with a tiny table and chair opposite a bunk with a brown, gold and red bed spread with frills. Agatha Christie eat your heart out! 
It didn’t take long for the train to leave behind the city and we were soon winding our way through green topped mountains. The scenery was beautiful and it was a glorious blue sky day. The best we have had since arriving. In our carriage of 8 we had another Australian couple, two English men and the rest Chinese. We sat back with our tea and cards and watched the scenery fly by.
Dinner was served in the dining cart (how cool is that) and consisted of delicious chicken and cabbage. We also cracked our first bottle of Chinese red and although we have had better it was thoroughly enjoyable. I think the location may have had something to do with that. 
We were going to be stopping at the border at about 10pm to get our exit stamps and also to change the bogies because China and Mongolia run on different gauges (train tracks). The exit stamp was easy. They came on board and took our passports and then gave them back awhile later with the stamp. The changing of the bogies (wheels) was a different story. We knew you could either stay on or get off but at some stage they take the train away and you can’t get back on until they come back. Tim and Jonty decided to go get some cold beers at the store and of course while they were away they moved the train to change the gauges. So for about an hour and a half they were stuck in the station and missed it all. 
They took the train into a big hanger and uncoupled the carriages. They lined us up against hydraulic jacks and proceeded to lift the carriage up about 2 meters to run out the old wheels and then from the other side wheeled in the new ones. It was fascinating! We then were lowered coupled back up and drove back to the station. Where Tim and Jonty were waiting.
We then drove another half an hour into Mongolia and got our entry stamps. By this stage it was about 2.30am and we were struggling to keep our eyes open. Very much looking forward to waking up tomorrow in the Gobi desert. S

Patiently awaiting our call up.

Chomping at the bit to get on.

The hallway. Carpet runner and everything.

The cabin!

The dining cart. Fake rose in a vase and all.

Our train being lifted by the jacks to change the bogies.

Another train came in as we did so we got to see the procedure first hand. 

Forbidden City

Well according to the guidebooks and “things to do” the Forbidden City was number one. Today was the day and to top it off there was a gale blowing so the smog had been blown away and we could see some blue sky and the air felt much fresher!!
First stop today, Tiananmen Square. The only thing I knew about the square was a demonstration, a man stood in front of a tank and a massacre. It is also the largest square in the world.
When we arrived so did a million other people and we were all funnelled through security which took a while and then we were allowed into the square. It wasn’t a completely open square as we were expecting as it had a huge building in the middle which divided it into two. Couple this with the security cordons and we couldn’t quite walk around freely. But then I guess that’s not what the square is famous for.
We worked out that the building in the middle of the square was where Chairman Mao was lying in his open casket. We weren’t allowed to take any bags or cameras in to see him so after we got those stored away we joined the procession to queue up and see the body.
It was a long queue and we were funnelled through more security into the building where we split and without anyone stopping we all passed by his body lying in an open casket under a Chinese flag, flanked on either side by guards and enclosed in a glass room. It was one of the most bizarre and surreal things I have ever done.
To the north of the square was the Forbidden City and like everyone else we decided to go there next. On our way we are asked to stop and have our photo taken about half a dozen times…nice to enjoy this minor celebrity status.
The Forbidden City certainly looks forbidden from the outside with huge terracotta walls keeping the peasant folk out. The entrance gates looked like temples and the whole place was huge, about 1000m long by 500m wide. Inside were temples, huge halls, residencies, gardens, an opera house and more things than I am sure we didn’t get the chance to see.
One of the highlights for us was a hall full of magnificent old clocks. They weren’t your standard sit on the wall clocks they were masterful works of art. There were moving parts and most were gold or gold plated at least and represented flower pots or men working or just about anything else you could think of.
It was a bit of a shame that we saved the Forbidden City for last as we have to admit we weren’t massively impressed. It is huge and the buildings were massive and impressive but on the whole they were buildings which we had seen many times before in nicer settings with fewer people. Also the area seemed like one big paved area. Maybe this is due to the massively high numbers of people visiting everyday but it did detract from the beauty of the place. It wasn’t that the place was disappointing but it wasn’t as impressive as we thought it was going to be.
We went from there north again towards the hutongs which are the alleyways which used to dominate Beijing before the redevelopment. They are an absolute rabbit warren and full of houses and shops and restaurants and I am sure a thousand other weird and wonderful things the further you go in. It was great walking around looking at all the different little shops. To be fair we are actually staying in the hutongs just a little further away from the touristy areas and it has been great buying our fruit and water from the little shops near our hostel. Walking along and seeing the hustle and bustle of everyday life has been great too. The most surprising thing about the hutongs is how quiet they are considering how close they are to the centre and how many people live there.
There was only one way to finish off our time in Beijing and that was to grab some Peking duck and as our colds had passed it tasted even better this time. T

At Tiananmen Square just outside the Forbidden City entrance.

Always time to pose for a photo!

The intricate detail in the ceilings was beautiful 

One of the first main squares and halls in the city.

The mural of the nine dragons.

We found it difficult to capture the detail and the beauty in the buildings but they were quite wonderful.

Wandering through the hutongs.  We didn’t always take the right turns but it was fun walking around them.

Walkways come sitting rooms are the norm.

This was just one of the many bars dotted around the place.  It’s a nice idea leaving all the bottles outside, not sure how many other countries they would survive intact in.

There are plenty of public toilets dotted all around the hutongs.  All seem pretty clean too!

Beijing Day 2

It was a dreary wet day when we woke up so our plans of hitting the Temple of Heaven Park in the morning were scrapped. After a very slow start we headed out near the train station to pick up our Trans Mongolian rail tickets and ticked off a few admin things and before we knew it we were back in the dumpling restaurant for lunch. The weather was clearing so after a lazy lunch we headed over to The Temple of Heaven Park. The park was originally used for rituals and sacrifices by the Emperor and also his accommodation for three days prior to the ceremonies for cleansing.  

We entered via the east gate and proceeded down a wast walkway lined with pines and cypresses. It had stopped raining but it was still not the greatest of weather. Along the way we encountered some locals playing keepie uppies with a kind of shuttle cock. They waved us over and soon we were both in the game. Tim also tried his hand at bat ball but with a shuttle cock and soon had a bat in each of his hands. 

After working up quite a sweat we headed further into the park looking at rose gardens, pagodas and temples. By the time we had finished it was getting late so we headed back home.

For dinner we walked back down our trusty restaurant street and came to a place with a line out front. We took a number and sat down to wait. The numbers were all in Chinese but luckily the lady told us when it was our time and were ushered to our table. All of the tables were eating giant bowls of little lobster like creatures so after some pointing to other tables we had ordered ours. 

You get plastic gloves for the lobsters and after a bit of a fumble we had the ultimate lobster de shelling technique. What we did not realize was that the sauce was full of amazingly hot chillies! Our mouths and lips were soon covered with a delicious burn but interestingly our throats were not. The lobsters were delicious and so were the accompanying dishes. The locals know where to get the good food alright. S

Still a bit dark and gloomy but as you can see it didn’t stop the crowds.

Action shot! Such a fun game and yes we purchased a shuttle for future games.

Playing cards under the walkways was the thing to do. I am in love with their coloured wooden archways.

Another day another awesome pagoda. This one the support pillars were holding up the roof without any nails.

The Emperors residencies during th cleansing period.

The Great Wall

Early start today and as usual we had decided to forgo the tour options and try and go and see the great wall ourselves. Well the tour was going to cost us 600Yuan and we reckoned we could do it for 80Yuan and plus it’s far more exciting this way. Anyway we had a list of busses to get and we are getting a lot better at matching up symbols, plus with a little help from some helpful bus conductors we arrived at the start of our hike in about 2hrs. Not bad at all. Easy even.
As we got closer we managed to catch our first glimpses of the Great Wall. Wow what an absolutely impressive sight. There it was winding its way across the tops of the mountains and up and down their sides for miles in each direction. We were getting pretty excited and although the weather wasn’t that great (a mixture of cloud, mist and definitely smog) we were ready to set off on our hike.
After walking up through a village and then scrambling up a path we eventually got to an access point onto the wall and obviously were left with two options, turn right or left. Both involved massively steep climbs upwards. We decided on turning right and started trudging up. It was so ridiculously steep that we were glad it wasn’t raining as we wouldn’t have made it. The only saviours were that there were hardly any people around (we wouldn’t have seen a dozen on the whole hike) and that every time we stopped to catch our breath we were able to enjoy wondrous views of the wall stretching out over some beautifully green countryside.
Getting to the top gave us views of both sides of the mountain and it was fantastic to be able to stop and enjoy the moment without anyone else around. We had certainly got lucky with our choice of destination.
It’s difficult to imagine such a huge wall being built in 200BC and I know that parts have been restored but it is still very impressive as to how much remains today. It’s so high and impregnable with towers dotted all along it, some of them on top of fairly high mountains. Plus like we have mentioned before it’s so steep to climb up and down. All in all a truly magnificent sight and since neither of us were sure what to expect when we went out there we were both gobsmacked with how huge and impressive it was.
When we descended back off the wall we arrived at the edge of a small village where within two seconds the bus we needed shot by. Unfortunately it didn’t stop as we weren’t right at the bus stop, but we soon found out where we needed to be and started waiting. After about 45 mins of waiting we were getting a little frustrated but out of nowhere a car pulled over and a couple asked where we were trying to get to. Their English was slightly better than our Mandarin and we were offered a lift all the way back to Beijing, what a stroke of luck! It was a bit strange sat in the car unable to communicate but at the the end of the day we got back to Beijing and were extremely grateful. What a lovely thing for them to have done!
We were starving by the time we got back so stuffed ourselves on dumplings before heading off to the “fake” market. This was brilliant as it was a department store consisting of 6 floors of shops all divided into sections, jeans, outdoors clothes, silks, suits, handbags, trinkets etc etc. It was exactly what we were looking for as we are about to travel into some pretty chilly places and need to stock up on some more winter clothes.
The bartering and selling procedure was incredible and in the end we will only know how well we have done when we see how well the stuff lasts! The quality seems very good and we managed to pick up most of the stuff for about 10% of what they originally asked for but this included many “walk out of the shop” manoeuvres, some of which resulted in us being called back but some where we had obviously gone too low and were allowed to leave. The whole place was crazy and hopefully the stuff we bought will keep us warm on our way to London.
We finished the epic day with a beer and some hot and sour soup while people watching on the busy restaurant street near where we are staying. T

Climbing up the Great Wall.

It was truly amazing to see the wall stretching out over the mountains.

It’s a long way down!

Trying to show how steep it is.

Some of the flower displays around Beijing.  All in individual pots.

It took us a while to work out what this was for as the bike didn’t seem to be worth the two chains and padlocks, but the parking space obviously is.

The day in Beijing was the worst we have had in regards to pollution.  This is as bad as it looks.  It was a pretty gloomy experience and apparently between 2008 and 2014 Beijing only had 25 clear days!!  I have read reports and seen some evidence that there is change afoot, but this was really horrific and something really has to be done.

On a lighter note this is one of the ways they cut costs so you can buy top brand jeans cheaper!


We caught the bullet train from Xian to Beijing, so in 6 hours we travelled well over 1000km, and that is including stops. Incredible. Unfortunately we had both woken up with a head cold so on arrival we rested and went out for an early dinner near us. 
The next day neither of us had received our miracle cure overnight so after a slow start we decided to take it easy. We needed some jackets for our impending trip into Europe so caught the metro to a Chineese outdoor store. It had all the labels but at extortionate prices so we didn’t purchase a thing. We thought it would be cheaper than home but was actually more expensive. Oh well we might have to go down the imitation route.
On the way home we stopped off at our first Confucius Temple. This religion is effectively the following of the man Confucius’ teachings. He is touted as China’s biggest intellectual of all time. I am sure everyone has heard of the saying “Confucius says…….” From what I could gather from the not too informative museum in the temple was that he was a man who believed that everyone was entitled to education regardless of birth and that government positions should be filled by the best/smartest/honorable person rather than by birth rite. He was the first person in China to open a private school and it was open to anyone who wanted to learn. He spent his day traveling China imparting his wisdom and teaching the rulers to rule by virtue.
His teachings eventually became a religion. There isn’t any praying in the traditional sense of the word but offerings are made. It is interesting that the main religions in China are based around a person and their teachings who became god like figures but are not God. I have done a little digging and Buddhists believe the world was not created but rather always was and it recreates itself all the time. Kind of like a big circle. It’s all very interesting to think they are more imparting the thought of making you a better person and taking responsibility for your actions rather than asking God to forgive your sins. Makes far more sense to me.
A short walk across the road was the Buddhist Lama Temple. It is a Tibetan Buddhist temple and the only differences my uninformed eyes could make out were that there were prayer wheels round the temples and the monks were all men but that could have been a coincidence? 
We were fortunate enough to see another ceremony taking place in one of the temples where the monks were all sitting and chanting out of their prayer books. I must admit, that although this temple’s buildings were probably far superior to the temples we have seen in the mountains, the spirituality and beautifulness wasn’t as pronounced for me. Solely due to the fact that there were limited gardens and trees around. In the final temple there was a 18m tall Buddha carved out of a single piece of sandalwood which was very impressive. We were both knackered after this so we headed home. 
But we did manage to venture out again to wet our tastebuds on some famous Beijing Peking duck. There is a famous area south of us that serves the traditional style but we didn’t want to venture too far so we asked our hostel if they could recommend a place near us. They directed us to a restaurant about 500m down the way. The duck was mouthwatering. Crispy on the outside and so soft on the inside. Served with slices of cucumber and scallions and wafer thin pancakes with a delicious plum sauce. All for under half the price of the famous area. We waddled home and fell in to a well contented stupor. S

The man himself – Confucius

The ceilings in the buildings were absolutely beautiful. The woodwork and artistry all so good.

This is a bixi, which is a mythological tortoise like dragon. But to us he is the turtle dragon. 

A very old knarly cypress. We loved this tree. If you quickly glanced at it, it looked like people were imerging from the trunk.

The entrance to the Lama temple.

One of the prayer wheels.

The monks in prayer. For some reason we didn’t find out, every so often they would throw a pinch of rice over the front of their tables.

The temple that housed the giant sandlewood Buddha. Again the woodwork and painting so intricate and beautiful.

The duck.

Eating Our Way Around Xi’an

We awoke a bit knackered today after our overnight train and huge day yesterday but set out for a walk around Xi’an starting at the Big Goose Pagoda. On the way Sarah spotted a hairdresser and popped in for a “quick” haircut which ended with the hairdresser (with attendant at full attention by his side holding various products) talking to Sarah as if she had any idea about what he was saying while he carefully arranged each hair into its correct position.
We then had a look at the Big Goose Pagoda which was on a lean similar to the Tower of Pisa. There was an entry fee to get into the park though and we saw that there was a fair amount of scaffolding around the base of the Pagoda so we decided to give it a miss.
We decided to revisit the Muslim Quarter for lunch as we had some unfinished business to attend to. Namely a Chinese hamburger (for which we had to queue for 30 mins), a succulent kebab, begnan curd noodles with chili and an ice cream. All of which were absolutely delicious!! 
There were some markets selling trinkets around the food and we had a look and a bit of a barter to keep our practice up but didn’t buy much other than overpaying massively for a “Beats” portable speaker 50 yuan!! Still it seemed to work so will do for the rest of the trip.
There was a Mosque in the area and as we had never been to one we thought we would go and have a look. In contrast to the hustle and bustle of the surrounding markets the Mosque was within some walled gardens and was very peaceful and beautiful. It was lovely walking around the gardens and seeing the Mosque.
We had one last “tick” item to do and that was a walk on the ancient walls of the city of Xi’an. They have been fully restored so you can walk all the way around but we went for a late afternoon stroll along a small part of it. It was actually quite peaceful and very nice and relaxing walking along looking at the city.
It sounds ridiculous but we then went back for more food this time some local dumplings in a fantastic spicy broth, some wild vegetables (spinach like) and some chicken in a local sauce (feet and eggs included). Again just absolutely delicious! Lucky we are doing so much walking around!! T

There is a fair lean on that Pagoda!  Just below the roof of the building in front there was scaffolding…maybe it’s finally about to topple!

This guy meticulously made every Chinese hamburger and they were worth the 30 min wait.

I don’t think this guy got voted number one for hygiene but his kebabs were tasty.

Potatoes boiled then fried with spices…perfect.

You will have to ask Sarah what these tasted like…they looked fantastic though.

A couple of shots in the gardens of the Mosque.  Really a peaceful place to walk around.

The view from the south gate up to the Bell Tower.

The walk along the city walls in Xi’an.

Terracotta Warriors 

We caught our first overnight sleeper train from Chengdu to Xian today which was very exciting but also a little nervous for us considering how much train travel we are going to be doing and what if the cabins were horrible? We decided to pay the extra money for soft sleeper which means you are in a room with two others. Instead of the hard sleepers where you are in a room with 4 others with no door. We arrived at our cabin and were sharing with Helen and Geoff a couple who moved to Melbourne 10 years ago from Xian. So that was a massive win for us because we got to pick their brains on everything to eat and do in Xian.

The train was actually really comfortable and once you got used to the idea of being in such close proximity with two complete strangers it was really fun. We arrived in Xian at 6am and quickly dropped our bags off at the hostel and decided to go see the Terracotta Warriors straight up.  

I didn’t know what to expect with the Warriors as I was wary they were going to be one of those touristy things you just did to say you had seen them. When we first walked into pit 1 which is the largest pit and got our first glance I was a little underwhelmed. But then you really start looking at the individual statues, their lifelike detail and tiny differences and it really dawns on you how phenomenal they really are. Also the fact that they were created over 2000 years ago adds to the amazement. The site was only discovered by some peasants in 1974 as they were drilling for a well and as the Warriors were in an underground chamber, they have weathered the time rather well.

The sheer size of the army at 8000 and the number of man hours it must have taken are mind blowing. Why did Emperor Qin Shi Haung go to all the trouble of constructing his army? Archeologists believe it is because he thought his rule would continue in death. I think he may have been just a little crazy.

Pit 1 has around 6000 of the Warriors in total but only 2000 are on display. This also includes horses pulling chariots. The horses were phenomenal and you get to see a close up of one in pit 2. You also get to see a few of the warriors up close as well.

We pretty quickly went though pit 3 which is believed to be the army headquarters with a number of high ranking officers present and pit 2 as they are not as impressive as pit 1 and a lot has not been excavated or they have been damaged and are yet to be restored. 

We then hit the museum which houses 2 horse drawn chariots made of bronze. These were found in a chamber just outside Emperor Qin Shi Hang’s tomb. They were made in half life size and were really beautiful. Again the artistry and lifelike qualities were impressive. I was a little disappointed to discover that you cannot view his tomb. They have started to excavate it but haven’t got very far. Apparently levels of Mercury are though the roof which gives credit to the legend that his tomb was surrounded by a river of flowing Mercury.

It was around noon when we got back to the city as we went for some lunch along a recommended food street and found a place that served home made spinach noodles. They were sooo good and we got to see one of the chefs making the noodles which were more like pasta really.

We relaxed for a few hours and then ventured out for dinner in the Muslim quarter. Very near the drum tower this section of Xian is filled with streets lined with food stalls. The hustle and bustle was amazing! So much to see and eat! A few of the highlights were the kababs which were so fresh the meat was being carved off the carcass of lamb in the street to be threaded onto wooden sticks and cooked over coals. Freshly squeezed pomigrante juice and bean curd marinated in chilli to name a few. There were also sweet stalls manned by men with mallets who would pound the nougat filled with nuts into a sheet and then cut into sections right in front of you. Everywhere you looked there was something to see! We actually went into one of the restaurants to try a few of the local dishes of mutton soup and dumplings. The soup was delicious and although we have had better dumplings it was still good to eat them again. S

If you look closely you can see the subtle differences.

The grand overview of pit 1. The empty space behind the horses is where the wooden chariots long disintegrated.

The detail even down to the clasps in their armour is amazing.

In some of the pits the passage of time took its toll.

The bronze statues in the museum. The detail in the horses faces make them seem so lifelike. The bridle etc are all made out of silver and gold.

The Muslim Quarter. Just a little busy!

The kababs being made. A little off putting for me.

I must admit this looked better than it tasted. It’s a sort of rice cake dipped in a fragrant sauce. It’s actually rather bland and surprisingly just tastes of rice.

The bell tower at night.