Ni hao, Beijing!

I woke up at the Datong station. I’d slept about seven hours, but decided that I wasn’t going to miss crossing this part of China. I was in a new country, and be darned if I’m not going to witness this!

Datong station

I could’ve slept longer — it was pretty dull until we got close to the mountains near Beijing. These are natural barriers over which a somewhat fairly redundant Great Wall was erected. As of yet, Chinese engineers haven’t made a massive tunnel to speed trains through to the capital. To get there, you need a second engine for the operation. The grade runs to about 4% in a few places, but that’s not the whole reason. The train actually has to reverse direction like a switchback to make it down the mountain. I’m not entirely sure why. The second engine then becomes the lead all the way to Beijing.

Finding our hotel usually ends up being a bit of a misadventure. Except in Moscow (where it was hard to miss) and Ulaan Baatar (where we were picked up), we’ve always had some difficulty finding where we were staying. Sometimes signs aren’t visible or the map isn’t clear. In this case, a whole new language, an unclear map, and no signs pretty much conspired to lead us to a nearby Novotel where the French concierge was kind enough to give us specific directions.

One of the massive roads near our hotel

The area is nice — we’re even near a rather large mall. We partook of an early dinner of noodles (and beer), which ran about Y80, or about CDN$14. I think it was a bit pricey, but Amy contends it was suitable. Having some time, we scooted over to Tiananmen Square to check it out in the setting sun.

Amy thoroughly enjoying her first meal in China

We hadn’t even gotten out of the subway when we bumped into the two folks we talked with at length during our 10 hour crossing of the Russia – Mongolia border (the girl and I recognized each other in passing; she has a distinctive nose ring). Apparently, we were on the same train, but hadn’t crossed paths this time. (Instead, we ran into two guys from University of Western Ontario’s Ivy Business School, who’d been teaching for three months in Irkutsk.)

Until now, we’ve been afforded the luxury of being the foreign tourist to completely ignore. Not here. My Canadian shirt (there’s a maple leaf emblazoned on my left shoulder) attracts a lot of attention. Within moments of trying to take a picture of one of the massive gates (huge buildings, not at all like the one in your chain like fence), a young Chinese couple came up and asked if I was Canadian. He was an English teacher, and wanted to talk to someone who spoke English, I guess. They were wonderful people, even giving us directions to an excellent dumpling restaurant that Amy and I will likely track down tomorrow. (They also told us to avoid the Peking Duck restaurant on our map; it’s well-known, but a poor value.)

Flag lowering at Tiananmen Square

Later, as we tried to watch the daily flag lowering, a young girl asked Amy and I to pose for a photo with her and a friend. Why do I suddenly feel like Brad Pitt?? About 30 minutes after that, as Amy and I tried to walk back to the subway, another couple asked if we were Europeans (we corrected them) and got into a conversation on how to get to Europe from China by train, and information about the buildings at Tiananmen Square.

We’re here. We’re tired, but we’re here. Now we just need to figure out what to do next.

Crossing the Mongolia – China border by train

Attention Lonely Planet! You might want to update your information for the next run of your Trans Siberian Railway book, ‘cuz a few things have changed.

According to Lonely Planet, the crossing from Mongolia to China takes about seven hours, during which time you can get off, change money, eat at the restaurant, and so on. However, they seem to be only covering the case that you’re crossing the border during the day. If you take train #24 from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing, things are a little different…

So you’ve survived the journey across the Gobi desert. It’s desolate. It’s not exactly the most interesting thing to see. Even three days of birch trees was better. You arrive at Zamin Uud, the border city in Mongolia. You’re about two hours late due to various delays along the line getting there. (Unlike Russia, Mongolia has only a single track through most of its area, and exceedingly few sidings with which to stagger train movements.) Due to late arrival, the exit process runs a bit quicker than the book suggests.

Although there is still the mandatory banging around of cars as the train is arranged for shuttling to Erlian, the Chinese border city. By the time you finally cross the invisible line, it’s dark. You can’t even see it. Arriving in Erlian, things happen pretty quickly, again. You’re still a bit behind schedule, but the shortened process in Mongolia has made up for a large portion of that time. The immigration officers come in, do their thing (one form in triplicate, two others are one-offs), and you’re tickety-boo.


One problem remains (here’s where the train stuff comes in): the train you’re on can’t run in China. Russia, for some odd reason, has a wider track gauge than pretty much everyone else (not counting narrow-gauge railways, that is) — including China. However, someone planned for this, and the process to adapt the train is fairly simple, if esoteric.

Instead of letting everyone off the train (which is what is supposed to happen — note to Lonely Planet), the entire train is backed up to a large building about a half kilometre from the station house. The building is itself about 400 metres long and at least 10 metres high (there’s a large overhead crane in there, though it wasn’t in use). The cars are divided and set next to tough-looking yellow devices firmly implanted in the thick concrete floor, four per car, one at each corner (about a metre in, actually).

Jacks used to lift cars to change bogies

The car bodies are then jacked up off of the bogies that connect them to the track. (If you’re not sure what a bogie is, look at a rail car — the bogie is the part with the wheels and the bracket that holds them in place.) The wide bogies are then pushed out in favour of narrower ones. The car bodies are then lowered back down, and you’re good to go. The process took about an hour and a half, all told, for the 10 or so cars that had to go through the process.

According to Lonely Planet, you’re supposed to be allowed to get off and watch. We had to setting to view through dirty windows. Only when the train was reformed and brought back to the station were people finally let off — 100 yard dashers don’t run that fast.

Without question the coolest thing, albeit weirdest thing, I’ve seen done to trains yet.

Adventures in Mongolia

We’re back in Ulaan Baatar after a few days out in the Mongolian wilderness. It’s a brief return — we hit the #24 train to Beijing at 8:00 tomorrow morning. (It’s about 21:30 right now, as I’m writing this.)

Without question, Mongolia has been the highlight of this adventure. Unless something really spectacular comes up that somehow manages to sway us (which I doubt will happen), then Mongolia will be the thing on the trip. Also without question, we would heartily recommend coming to Mongolia (and soon, before the rest of the world discovers how cool this country is) and signing up with Nomadic Journeys. They take far too good care of you.

Our campsite was about 300 km west of Ulaan Baatar — a trip that takes six hours. Most of the roads in Mongolia were built back in the 1950s by the Russians and Chinese … and haven’t really received any major attention since then. Needless to say, if you’re not driving something well-built, you don’t be driving it too long — the roads will turn them to pulp. We drove in a small Russian-built jeep without seatbelts. Our driver, Lasaa (assuming I’m spelling his name correctly) is an expert driver, and avoided the majority of the disasters of the road. That meant driving all over the road, including the shoulders.

The scenery as you drive in Mongolia

It’s an interesting commentary when the dirt roads that sometimes parallel the highway are better than the highway.

When we arrived at our camp (which appeared rather suddenly), we found three gers, tents used by the Mongolian nomadic people. They’re wood-framed, built in a circle with a sloped conical roof. The entire frame is covered with felt and canvas. They’re ridiculously comfy, even in the heat we experienced. Amy and I were the only tourists there — we’re the first of the season at that location. There were two nomadic families across the valley.

Our ger camp

Just to prove I was there

The all-important toilet; which, thankfully, did not stink

The first day there was a laid-back one: hiking up the adjacent mountain (Amy to half-way; I couldn’t resist the surge to the top). Meals were in the middle ger. The second day took us on a hike north through the valley, passing a family of domesticated camels, and through a mountain pass to a small buddhist temple on the other side (Lasa met us there to drive us back). The temple has but a single nun (not even a monk, so far as we could tell) and a museum curator, who showed us around. There’s ruins there from a previous building destroyed when the Soviets ran amok through Mongolia in an attempt to stamp out all religion.

To give you an idea of how unspoiled this place is, when we wandered around the ruins, we found fragments of buddha statues and artwork still in the dirt. That’s how few tourists have been here. (Even though there is a “card shop”.)

After lunch, we visited a small lake featuring kites, ducks (that sounded like frogs), and horses. Beautiful scenery, too. Then it was a visit over to one of the nomadic families to see how they live. Truth be known, they live pretty well. The gers are so comfortable, most nomadic families choose to live in them instead of permanent shelters. It’s also necessary as many families have to move (up to four times a year) to keep their herds of animals fed and watered. We petted baby sheep and goats. One tried to milk me by banging it head repeatedly into my groin. I mean, honestly, do I look like a goat?? After dinner, Amy and I dragged Ganaa (our guide/translator) up the side of a sand dune to watch a sunset. We were treated to a rather strange spectacle when we returned as the nomadic family tried to get their herd into a small corral for milking time.

Down by the bay (but no watermelons grow)

Amy got a little horny (bad joke, but can you blame me??)

Inside a nomadic ger

Sunset on top of a sand dune

Our driver, Lasa, with a baby goat

Not nearly as noisy as you think it should have been

Our third day marked a trip to Kharakorum and Erdene Zuu, the former being the ancient capital of Mongolia, and the latter being the monastery that still operates there. Three hours on bumpy roads. Beatiful buildings, though. Amazing part of it was that we were among the first tourists there that day — most of those in attendance were there for the ceremony marking the first 15 days of summer, which was the monks chanting the entire day. The fact we could walk around the museum temples unimpeded by a single tourist was … very zen.

The temples of Erdene Zuu

The weather on the morning of our fourth day was unbelievable. The wind that had started the night before had given rise to rain, blowing sand (you couldn’t see the dunes — a mere kilometre away — for the clouds erupting from them), and eventually snow as we rolled to Hustai National Park, 95 km from Ulaan Baatar.

Crappy weather on the road

Hustai is a preserve that hosts the only wild population of tahki — the Mongolian wild horse. It was reintroduced here in the early 1990s, and has grown to over 200 horses in 14 small herds. (That, and an insane number of marmots.) It was freezing as we got our glances at a distance, but they were neat to see. We stayed in Ger #7 at the Hustai Tourist “Resort”. (About 20 gers, a couple of permanent buildings, and a “restaurant” serving food so lacking in flavour, I’d describe it as a gastronomic vacuum.)

The ger camp at Hustai National Park in Mongolia

I woke up about 3:00 this morning in a big shivering ball. Our fire had gone out and the temperatures had plunged. Needless to say, I’m a little tired as a result. Even once I was more bundled up (and I was beginning to think that long underwear wasn’t a good idea to bring!), my brain ran crazy with ways of trying to rekindle our dead fire. Note to self: always bring matches in the future when going to places that need fires.

We returned to UB today and made a beeline for the Gobi Factory Store. Gobi is the major manufacturer of cashmere goods, at least in Mongolia. I knew of them before coming, but hadn’t really thought that this was the place. It really was a factory store, too — the store was attached to the Gobi factory. Prices were decent, although the place was mobbed by some very unruly and rude French tourists.

The real prize, however, was not the completed fabrics. It was cashmere yarn, which Gobi does not sell in their stores. And Amy could not leave Mongolia without it. To get it, Ganaa went through the most amazing display of digging that I’ve ever seen. It took 90 minutes, including walking deep into the Gobi factory to find the yarn storage room to select the spools, but we walked away with 2.3 kilos of it. Amy’s happy, to say the least. But I’ll leave that portion of the story to her. It’s a doozy.

Cashmere yarn at the Gobi Factory in Ulaan Baatar

After that, we visited the Bogd Khaan’s Summer Palace in the south part of the city. It’s nice, but poorly maintained. Some of the treasures inside are wonderful, but it wasn’t worth the 5500T it cost for me to take pictures (even though that’s only about US$5). After Erdene Zuu, it was hard to look at the Summer Palace and think it was wonderful.

The gates of the Bogd Khan's Summer Palace

And so we leave Mongolia for China. Our plans have changed a bit, there. We’re hitting only Beijing, Xi’an, and Guangzhou (only because it’s right next to Hong Kong, and after the train from Xi’an, we won’t be up to crossing the border right away). Then it’s into the Hong Kong area, first with Macau, then HK proper. Why the cutting back? Too much running in and out of places has made us weary, and after hearing a few too many horror stories, we’re not sure that we’re even going to like China that much. But we shall see…

Into the steppe

So, bright eyed and bushy tailed, we set out for the Mongolian countryside on May 21st.

Our vehicle of choice was this Russian-made Jeep-like 4wd…

Jeep in the country

Thankfully, it had a padded ceiling. Little did I know when I took this picture, we would need it!

The ceiling of the jeep

In Mongolia, most of the roads are unpaved. Even the paved roads are desperate for renovations. Possibly in a newer car (with better shocks), this wouldn’t be a big deal. As it was, on the older stretches of roads, I braced myself for every bump.

A whole lot of nothing

After 6 hours of driving, we ended up near Hogno Khan mountain, at this lovely little secluded Ger camp.

The camp at Hogno Khan

We only had 3 Gers – one for Geoff and I, one for meals, and one for the employees of the camp. Cool. Talk about getting away from everything!

Look! It\'s a Ger!

A ger is a round tent-like structure that can be assembled in as little as 30 minutes. First, they put down the floor. Next, a lattice-work is assembled to create the side walls. Then, they put in the centre support poles and the roof poles. Finally, it’s wrapped in a durable cotton and insulated with water-resistant felt.

The inside poles can be very ornately decorated.

Don\'t lean on a support pole!

It’s also typical to leave the top open, both as a vent for the wood stove as well as to let in air during the summer. Some newer gers apparantly have glass or plastic skylight “windows”.

Animals in Mongolia

While Some People got to go to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, some of us got to see whole herds of cashmere goats and woolly sheep in their natural environment, without fences.


Did you know these little guys are noisy? And very cute.

The middle of nowhere

I even saw some Camels. Thankfully, I was beyond spitting distance.

Camels? They have Camels?

Ulaan Baatar – first impressions

We arrived in Ulaan Baatar at 7:30am or so, exhausted from being woken at 5:30 by the provodnista. Consequently, Gaana (our guide from Nomadic Journeys) dropped us off at our very centrally located hotel, the Bishrelt Plaza Hotel, for a bit of a nap.

Later in the afternoon when we felt more human, we met up for a quick tour of the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar.

Like most of the soviet influenced cities we have visited, Ulaan Baatar has a main, large, flat, square.

Sukhbaatar Square

At one end is the mausoleum of Sukhbaatar. Unlike other soviet influenced cities we have visited (ahem… Moscow)… his body is not on display to the general public.

We also had a chance to visit the center of Mongolian Buddhism, Gandan monastery and temple.

Me at Gandan Khiid

Gaana explained that Mongolian buddhism is more influenced by the Tibetan traditions than the south-east asian Buddhist traditions. So, as you can see in that photo, the architecture is reminiscent of the Potala palace in Tibet. Not that I’ve been there yet, but I have seen pictures!

I don’t have a photo, but one of the highlights of the afternoon was having the head Lama from the monastery walk RIGHT BY US on the sidewalk. Thankfully, I do have some video. This man is the leader of Mongolian Buddhism. Cool.

I’m glad we had a chance to visit the temples in Ulan Ude. Since Buryatia is very similar culturally to Mongolia, I expected more similarities between the temples in both places. Not so! Perhaps it’s the age of both complexes, but the Gandan buildings were more brightly painted inside and out. Additionally, while the Ulan Ude temple had quilts on the ceiling, Gandan was painted in a more traditional style.

A little scoot around Ulaan Baatar

We arrived early this morning. We were up by 5:00, but only arrived an hour later or so. After a sort-of-nap (couldn’t sleep), we were picked up by our guide (again; she’d also taken us to the hotel from the station) and shown around the city.

First up was Sukhbaatar Square — a large open area in front of the Mongolian Parliment. It’s sort of like Red Square, but is named after a man who is credited with being the hero of Mongolia, who led the armies who finally pushed China out of “outer Mongolia” and declared an independant Mongolia. He died mysteriously (insert obligatory conspiracy theory here) and is buried at the north end of the square in a mausoleum. Unlike Lenin and Mao, however, you can’t get in to see him.

Sukhbaatar Square

Then it was over to the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the largest in Mongolia and also the main one. It’s relatively old, though a lot of it (like most of the monasteries in Mongolia) were ransacked by the Soviets under the guise of socialism. There’s an 80-metre statue in the largest building in the complex to replace the one the Soviets stole and melted down into bullets.

Gandantegchinlen Monastery

Then it was off for a cultural presentation of song, dance, and music, including Mongolian throat singing. (I swear I sound like that some mornings!)

Tomorrow, we’re off for the back country for some “camping” (ger camps, though we’re not sure what to expect). Needless to say, we won’t be posting for a few days — I doubt there’s internet way out there.

Crossing the Russia – Mongolia border by train

We knew this was going to be rough. We knew this was going to be long. It wasn’t as bad as we thought it might be, but it was still long.

We took Train 364 (formerly 264) from Ulan Ude to Ulaan Baatar. (The train itself runs Irkutsk to UB.) As we would find out, the whole train doesn’t go to Mongolia — only the cars that contain passengers going to Mongolia. We found this out when we got to the Naushki station, on the Russian/Mongilian border.

The Russians started shunting our car around. I think this was mostly to kill time. Why else would they continually back up, go forward, back up, go forward, and so forth for about an hour? Incidentally, Russian cars (as Amy and I decided) are not built for the harsh conditions of operation in Russia. They’re built to withstand the abuse from the engineers. I thought they were going to shake the whole car apart!

We finally ended up, alone, completely separate from the rest of the train:

All alone, sitting out in the open

As we would also decide later, this was because our car was the only one going to Mongolia. The other cars were part of the train that terminated at Naushki, and would return to Irkutsk with new passengers.

And so began our wait. And wait we did. It would be a few hours before we saw anyone official-like board our train. At first, it was just someone to check our passports and make sure they were in order. That was a quick check. It was easily two more hours past that before the real officials came out. (When they did, soliders closed down the platform — you couldn’t go out there until you were supposed to be out there.) While we waited, we amused ourselves by watching a pile driver:

How do these things work, anyway?

Yes, we were that bored.

With the final forms filled out (the exit customs form) and our passports, stamped, we resumed our waiting.

Six hours after we got there, we finally left, a single car towed by a lonely diesel locomotive out to Sukhbaatar, 21 kilometres inside the Mongolian border.

The station at Sukhbaatar

To wait some more.

After a couple of hours, the Mongolians started to let us in. This involved three forms (entry/exit form, health form, and customs form). After the health form was signed, we got scammed into US$10 health insurance. I’ve heard this is bogus, but we were too tired to care at that point. In between the official stamping of passports, we received a barrage of people who wanted to exchange our rubles for togrogs — which we’d already done in Naushki. They kept at is, the same people asking many times, despite us saying (more and more loudly every time) that we have none!

Finally, passports stamped (using their hands as the table for stamping, despite one being in the cabin), we finally left Sukhbaatar for Ulaan Baatar.

Total crossing time: 10 hours. Ish.

Luckily, mostly done during the day. The other way, I gather it’s mostly at night. Ugh!

More Russian train stuff

Okay, quick update…

So CWR doesn’t exist coast-to-coast. After we left Ekaterinburg, we went to jointed rail. CWR exists in patches along the line, but the most of it is the ol’ clickety-clack variety.

Lots more freight trains, too.

Russian engines are huge, but have the wimpiest horns you ever heard! Sounds like those little steam whistles on old-fashioned popcorn makers.

Hello Mongolia!

This is going to be a short entry, although don’t worry, I have plenty to talk about in the future. I’m just kind of having an “off” night and only have another 12 minutes on this computer.

We made it to Mongolia safe and sound with very little… and I mean VERY little excitement. We’re talking 9 hours sitting at the border. At least it was daytime and sunny out, but not too hot. Overall, I can’t complain.

Tomorrow we head out into the countryside for 4 nights in ger camps before coming back to Ulaan Baatur for one night before hitting the train to Beijing. I think our time here is going to feel much too short!

I promise a better post next time. I’m safe, relatively happy, and miss you.