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The Painful Road to Beijing

sunny 26 °C

And so begins our two day adventure to Beijing. After our German meal on Saturday night (pork and fried potato for me, pork, red cabbage and potato dumplings for Lloyd), we both have squidgy bellies through the night. Happily, Sunday is a blog-updating and rest day before we get on the train at 8pm, for Lloyd has an unpleasant night and spends most of the day in bed. It was a good thing too that our hotel (since we moved from Gana’s Ger), the Corporate Hotel, allowed us a late check out: 5pm! We’d recommend the Corporate Hotel as a good base for travelers, despite its name. Recently opened, the hotel still has a few kinks to work out (billing is slow, the ‘breakfast’ wasn’t too appealing), but it was by far the best option we saw in UB (and we checked out several after our Gana’s Guest House fiasco). The only thing we could really fault is the rock-hard beds, but as I told Lloyd, I’ll take that over filth and flies any day of the week. Our time in UB was far more enjoyable with a clean and comfortable base, and it was worth blowing the budget for.

Since arriving in UB, we noticed that half the clocks reflected Beijing time, and the rest were an hour ahead. While a bit confusing, and we were never able to figure out why, we decided to get to the train station for our shared sleeper car to Erlian (just across the Chinese-Mongolian border) at 1845 Beijing time in case the train operated on the other time zone! It did not, and we had some time to sit in the station and wait for our 20:05 train to China. As usual, the train departed on (local) time precisely at . . . 20.25, and smoked it’s diesel way into the Mongolian desert. The ride began with some strangeness, as a Frenchman and his daughter wanted to change cars to be with their travel companions in a different cabin, but ended up asking us to change (reasons as yet unknown). A state of confusion and dismay ensued, and ended with only the father changing cabins, and the young multi-lingual xenophobic daughter (that is to say she was upset by the idea of sharing a cabin with a Mongol and a Chinese, and could say so in French, English and Mongolian!) of the companion couple joining our cabin. The situation reinforced our observations on many of the French with whom we have interacted: they are always faithful and positive role-models of fraternite, egalite and liberte . . . NON!

In any event, our trans-siberian railway experience was put to good use, as we were able to catch a few decent hours sleep. We were appreciative of the dinner sack that was provided (as we stowed the biscuits away as provisions for our bus trip) but decided to avoid the “mystery meat” packet that included what looked to be: a) tongue slices; b) chunk of yellow lard; and c) chunk of white lard.


We were woken by the carriage attendants around 6am, ostensibly to prepare the paperwork for our border crossings, but really so they could spend the next three hours torturing us with smelly cloths and mops which they would use liberally in our cabin, apparently oblivious to the fact that the passengers were still there. When we finally reached the Mongolian border, we were subjected to a stream of immigration officials collecting paperwork. We watched nervously as our passports walked off the train, waiting almost two hours to retrieve them. As the train finally rolled out of Mongolia, we were treated to a line of Mongolian border guards saluting the train as we passed. We thought it was a nice touch.


Just a few miles down the track, the Chinese border was marked not by any sign, but by the sudden proliferation of Chinese flags blazing a red trail. We were excited to have made it to China, but not as excited as the busloads of Chinese waving enthusiastically at us on the train, taking photos with their mobile phones as we passed. I can only surmise that these were Chinese ‘tourists’ visiting the border area for the first time.

No doubt a sign of effective preparations for the Beijng Olympics, our entry into China was one of the fastest and most efficient. We were in line for maybe ten minutes (being filmed by the military with some pretty serious looking cameras), and spent less than a minute each with immigration. Passports stamped, we found ourselves outside the train station where we were quickly retrieved by the non-English speaking agent who was the liaison with our sleeping bus tickets. It was about 11am, and the bus was schedule to leave at 3pm. That said, the only customers for the bus had just got off the train with us, so it was likely the bus would leave earlier (i.e. when every seat was sold). We were left to fry in the mid-day sun while the other non-Chinese passengers completed immigration and made their onward transportation selections. We could have left sooner in a small minivan that likely made it to Beijing faster than us. At $26, it was cheaper than the $30 or so we had paid. But the nightmare journey of Ulan Ude to UB was still quite fresh in our memories, and when the giant, air-conditioned ‘sleeping bus’ appeared, we thought we had found the mecca of long distance bus travel.




The ‘sleeping bus’ accommodates about 40 passengers (and 2 drivers). Think of a really good long distance coach. Imagine it with three rows of beds: one up each side of the bus, and one in the middle. Each row has fourteen bunks (seven in each of two layers), that face feet first to the direction of travel. The top half of each bed is basically more like a very reclined seat, so it’s at an angle of thirty degrees or so, and the bunk isn’t quite long enough to stretch out in (as Lloyd would say: perfect for your average 4 foot person . . . ). But relatively comfortable nonetheless. We boarded the bus, took one look at the stained mattresses and remade our beds with our silk liners (you just gotta LOVE those things…..), and settled in for the 14 hour journey ahead. At about 1.30pm, we were finally on our way.
Or so we thought. At about 1.35pm, we stopped abruptly and were all kicked off the bus. Of course! We had to get the coach WASHED before we could leave. So, we stood around for half an hour while four Chinese ladies scrubbed the exterior, and buffed it to an impressive shine. We were to travel to Beijing in China’s cleanest bus. At least on the outside, that is. Despite the fact that we had to remove our shoes to board the thing, that bus couldn’t be called clean by anyone’s definition. Not even a Mongolian nomad’s.

Just as the Chinese ladies finished up, a second ‘sleeping bus’ pulled up next to the first and a few hand gestures later, we understood that we needed to change buses. Clearly our original bus was now deemed too clean for the group of foreign tourists too stupid to book their train tickets to Beijing in advance. So, the mad dash for bunks was on again! Lloyd and I secured two top bunks (me in the middle and Lloyd by the window) and – finally – we did leave Erlian on our way to Beijing a little after 2.30pm on Monday.

Of note, the highway out of Erlian was dotted with giant, metal dinosaurs that seemed to prompt an arrival into Jurassic Park. Kind of weird.


We stopped at about 7pm for dinner. Lloyd and I were still recovering from our stomach upsets, but there’s no way we’d have had much of an appetite after visiting the restroom facilities. While the dining was indoors, the bathroom was ‘al fresco’ with ladies’ and gentlemen’s areas split by maybe ten metres. Each ‘bathroom’ was a square brick structure (that’s right – a brick s**house!), built to maybe three feet high, and with a door opening (but no door). Inside the brick frame was a pit about 3 wide by 6 feet long, with wooden planks seemingly randomly placed across the width. Beneath the planks lay several feet of human waste: some of it disposable, some of it not (tissue paper, feminine hygiene products etc). The smell was unbearable, even walking up to it. I stood in line and – when it was my turn – got as far as the ‘door’ where one look was more than I could deal with.

After Lloyd had experienced the men’s area, he kindly walked me out to a neighbouring field to take care of a little liquid business, only to find that I was clearly not the first one to have this bright idea. Human waste was strewn all over the field, and we had to literally tip toe through it all. The smell was unbearable, and the wind was particularly unkind to us as were downwind from the ‘real’ bathrooms.

I decided that China was going to be rough and, try as I may, it took me several hours to get the image of that rural ‘convenience’ out of my mind. With the train from Mongolia behind, and the open road ahead to Beijing, we settled in for a long overnight haul on the bus. Compared to the UB bus, this was heaven, and we both snoozed on and off through the afternoon.


Posted by jacquiedro 11:06 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world

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