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A dash through the country – Beijing
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Fri 28 Jun ’13 – day 48  At Erlian station there was no ATM or cafe, but just one shop that sold everything – duty free, fruit, drinks of all sorts, instant meals, childrens toys etc and did as far as I was concerned the most important thing – money changing.

There was a long queue of people buying bits and pieces, so I went to the toilet but then gave them a miss as they were only squats and not particularly clean at that.

I changed all my remaining Mongolian currency into Yuan, so am now happy that I have some local currency.

Walked back to the front of the train but was not allowed to board and the conductor pointed down the train; they had attached two additional carriages at the front for the Erlian to Beijing passengers, so there were now 4 carriages each numbered either 1 or 2, very confusing.  This was not the poshest of trains and as the toilet windows would not open the loos got a bit smelly.

There was lots of banging by the carriage at the front of the train as they tried to properly attach the coupling device – crowds of railway workers giving advice and even I could see that most of it was wrong.  They eventually got it sorted and the engine was connected.

There was a huge marshalling yard here and the freight trains that had come over the border were broken down, the wagons were shuntted around before trains were reassembled before being taken on to their final destination.  This was going on while we waited to depart even though it was nearly one in the morning.

We departed right on time at 00:57 hours and I had been waiting for ½ hour for the toilet to reopen and when it does, nothing, so I am pleased that I have managed to flush the rubbish out of my system.

And so to bed, the others were well in the land of slumber with the lady coughing loudly.  Shirt off, sort out sheet, closed door and laid down.

I must have dropped off straight away and obviously slept very well as the next thing I knew it was 06:30 hours.  So shirt on and then off to the toilet for a strip wash and shave in cold water; felt good especially with clean teeth.

Back in the compartment the others were getting up as they were getting off at 07:59 hours in Datong.

Having travelled through Inner Mongolia during the night, my first sight of China was a pleasant one with green fields and trees, so very different from the Gobi.

 

 

 

 

There were lots of freight trains on the move especially those carrying coal to the numerous power stations along the way; these were massive installations that make the Didcot No 1 near where I live look like a toy.

The further we travelled into the country the worse the smog got, with a low haze covering the countryside and the tops of the high rise blocks of flats lost in the yellow murk.

 

Chris and David plus Nes should be back home by now and safely tucked up in bed.

At Datong the German party left the train and were met by the local travel rep who spoke their language fluently; I now had the compartment all to myself until Beijing.

 

Once we had set off again the Conductor and his assistant came around to collect all the bedding and strip off the berth covers.  I went to the loo and it was still a horrible colour, but at least it was solid.

Outside of the cities all the land was under cultivation.

We started to descend to Beijing through some narrow gorges, the scenery was fantastic but spoilt by the smog which hung low in the valley’s and gave everything a yellow tint as well as seriously obstructing the view.

 

 

 

 

When the train had come out of the mountains and on to the Great China Plain the smog increased and in every place that we passed through high-rise buildings were being constructed to cope with the ever increasing population.

We passed what looked like an entire armoured reconnaissance regiment complete with APC’s and light guns loaded onto a very long freight train.  All the soldiers were standing around on the platform smoking and they were probably glad to off able to get off and stretch their legs.

Had packed everything away and am now looking forward to a shower and change of clothes.

As we approached Beijing which seemed to stretch for miles, rail tracks started to converge and I saw my first Chinese high-speed train and then many more in quick succession.  We went through, but did not stop at, the brand new Beijing East station which looked as if it just caters for high-speed trains.

The smog went from bad to worse and the Marriott Hotel where I would be staying for the night was less than 300 meters from the railway and almost shrouded in the yellow gloom.

We arrived in Beijing Main Railway station at 14:04 hours, on time as always and the passengers shuffled towards the carriage door carrying their rucksacks and / or pushing suitcases of various sizes.  So I was now 7622km from Moscow by rail and have travelled 8355km since Minsk.  I would have to work out the distances I travelled in Europe once I got home.

On the platform I was looking around for my transfer when a voice asked whether I was David Smith, it was a lad in a black Essen Motor Show 2008 T Shirt who had spotted a gent holding a sign with my name on.  I said “Thanks” and pointed to the man, the sign and then myself.  He came over and shook my hand before taking the suitcase and day sac and then set off at the rush.  I was trying to take some photos while at the same time keeping an eye on where he was going.  It was just a mass of people, all pushing and shoving as they made their way towards the exit; down some steps and through the tunnel, turn left and then up an incline and a few steps to get to the exit.

Staff were collecting what appears to be platform tickets, but did not seem to be bothered with passengers, especially foreigners.

Once out on the station concourse I was hit by the heat and humidity and of course the smog which hung over the city like a low yellow cloud.

There were hundreds, if not thousands of people everywhere, sitting, sleeping, moving purposely or aimlessly and I was jostled and shoved but still keep walking as the transfer headed towards the road.  As the hotel was not far from the station it should not take long to walk there.  However we turned off the road, through a narrow doorway and down four flights of dimly lit stairs; at one point I felt a hand around my back pocket so whirled around, but it was only someone reaching for their hat which they had dropped.  This was an underground car park and when we reached the car I realised that I had felt less safe in the last 10 to 15 minutes that I had on the whole trip so far.  I was sweating buckets and The Transfer, who was as blind as a bat without his glasses, handed me a paper towel and a small bottle of water plus the ticket for my journey on the Vostok to Ulan-Ude tomorrow night.  I dried off and drank the water.

It took ages to get out as only one car was allowed on the ramp at any one time and money was collected by hand so people were always reaching for the correct change.  We eventually exited the car park and emerged in to the bright sun light, turned right and immediately right again as we entered the hotel complex; it would have been much quicker to have walked the whole way, but I was here now.

The Bell Boy took my luggage and I walked into the foyer which was huge and air-conditioned.  The receptionist (male) was confused that I had two separate bookings, but for consecutive nights and didn’t quite know how to proceed.  The senior receptionist (a lady) came over and quickly sorted it out while, I think, telling him that he was a plonker.  He kept going on about a ‘Message’, but couldn’t explain what it was; not good language skills, but still much better than my Chinese.  I was offered a non-smoking room with two king-size beds, why not.  The hotel had four separate guest towers and so after being given my room number and having identified my bags at the Concierge desk, it was up in the lift to the 15th floor (no 13th or 14th floors).  You needed to put room key in the slot before you could select your floor, so good security.

I had a corner room, it was very large and with a bathroom that was probably more than half the size of some of the gers that I had stayed in.  There was also a glass wall between the bath and bedrooms, but with a blind.  The mirror in the bathroom was heated so that it didn’t steam up – posh.

I unpacked everything and sorted it all out, then had a shower and put on clean clothes.  I felt much better, but was still drinking lots of cold water to flush my system.

Having found the Business Centre I went on-line and there were lots of e-mails, so I answered then in turn.  Yuriy had arranged the last of the transfers, so I paid for the lot by debit card; this took some time to process but it got there in the end.  The link kept dropping out so I had to log on again each time, a real pain.

My suitcase has been found, great news and because they can’t courier it to Ulan-Ude, it is being brought down from UB to Beijing tonight, even better; I sent a reply to Ms Kim saying that I would wait for her in the foyer.  Also told Tour Mongolia that I had received the message about my bag.

I sent an e-mail to my sister about my troubles and advised Anne at John Allan Travel what had happened since my last contact.

Got an e-mail from David saying that the other three had also got the trots when they reached Seoul; Nes had collapsed at the check-in and been taken to hospital.  Chris had slept all the way home, but David had spent most of the flight in the toilet and said that he didn’t know how he managed to drive all the way back home from Heathrow.  I replied telling him that I had also got the bug and requested that he gave me an update on Nes when and if he got it.

I sent an e-mail to Ankhaa about our troubles and that David thought that it was the fish at the farewell lunch on Wednesday that was the problem as this was our last communal meal.

The lady running the Business Centre was very helpful and told me that I could use them to get a DHL shipment (cost + 15%), this was great news as it would save me the hassle of having to traipse around the city to find their office.  She also told me about the ‘Message’; it was from Ms Kim, so I told her that I had already sent an e-mail in reply.  I put all the inter-net charges against my room and then went downstairs to tell the Concierge that Ms Kim would be arriving this evening, they also told me about the ‘Message’.

I bought some postcards from the gift shop in the foyer and purchased stamps from the Concierge, then sat at the bar and had a couple of (expensive) beers while perusing the Grey Line tour brochure.  Having selected a tour, it was not until I had paid for it that I realised that I had booked a personal tour, but as it was the only one that fitted into my time schedule I wasn’t worried about the cost.

Back in my room I sorted out the stuff to go to the laundry and put the clean clothes away; the items washed in UB were still in their bags, so I left them like that.

After watching the news on BBC World I had a snooze before getting up and going down to the foyer to wait for Ms Kim.  I had to wait much longer than expected, but she finally arrived and was full of apologies about the delay, but she had my suitcase.  I proved that it was mine by showing her one of the photo-copies of my passport that was inside the case.  She was happy, I was very happy, but my goodness her breath stank.

Up to my room and emptied the suitcase, nothing is missing, so I started to do a partial sort out, but then decided that it was time for bed.

A good end to the day.

 

Sat 29 Jun ’13 – day 49  After what was a very good night’s sleep in the huge and very soft bed, I was wide awake at 05:40 hours, so up ablutions and did my admin.  As I was keeping a record of what I had I spent since I left home, I updated the spreadsheet with all the info since I had left UB for the tour.  It was then a case of sorting out all paperwork and once I had all the documentation that I needed to reach Hiroshima, the duplicates went into the bin.

All the ATM chits and credit card receipts were put into the Cox & Kings folder ready to be sent home.  I sorted through everything and if it was not needed in the days ahead it was either binned or put in the small case that I had bought in UB so that it was ready to be sent home.  The bins quickly filled up.

I easily filled the small case and it was heavy so will be expensive to send, but at least I will have managed to send home all the ‘stuff’ I didn’t need.

Having dressed I went down to the Business Centre where there was a different lady on duty today and I requested the DHL courier and was given the paperwork to complete.  However she was unable to calculate the cost as she couldn’t weigh the bag, so called down to the Concierge and they came and took it away.

While they were sorting that out I went on-line with further updates; told Yuriy that I now had the original hard copies, so could I use them?  I also told my sister and Anne the news about my suitcase.

I had to pay cash for the DHL service, expensive, but I was not bothered as it would ensure that the ‘stuff’ got home safely.

Decided to have breakfast, but as this was not included I had to charge it.  What was on the servery was amazing, everything from steak and eggs, to a bowl of fruit or what looked like a full-blown Chinese meal.  I passed on the pork sausages because the skins were white as they had been boiled.  I had a large bowl of fresh fruit, then bacon with fried rice and stir fry beef, followed by rolls and strawberry jam and washed down with coffee and two glasses of orange juice.  It was lovely and it filled my tum that had started to rumble having been involuntary emptied in the early hours of Thursday morning; it had been well over 48 hours on nothing but fluids.

However the large breakfast made me feel sleepy and I made the mistake of lying down.  Out like a light only to be woke 40  minutes later when the phone rang and the lady on the tours desk asked whether I was ready; having already packed my day sac, it was a quick trip to the loo and then straight down.

A nice lady by the name of Lily was there to meet me and she spoke pretty good but accented English.  We got into a large car and were driven down the main road that led to Tiananmen Square, it had 5 or 6 lanes in each direction but thankfully there was not too many vehicles about as it was the weekend.

There had been a storm during the night and the rain had washed some of the smog out of the air, but it was still not good.

We were driven down the side of the Square, turned right and parked by the side of The Great Hall of the People; this houses a 10000 seat auditorium where the National People’s Congress is held.  Having retrieved my day sac we walked back to the Square and had to cross a busy road, but there were three different types of police on duty plus the Army (and all unarmed) and they were ensuring that everyone remained safe.

There were crowds of people milling around and Lily explained that in certain parts of the country the school summer break had already started, so people were here on a family holiday.  She also said that many residents of Beijing had probably only ever come here once; so a bit like people in the UK who hardly ever explore their local area.

We had to pass through a check point in order to get into the Square and all of the locals were given the once over and this included having their bags x-rayed.  But as Lily was a fully accredited local travel guide and had the badge to prove it, I was taken down the foreigners channel and shown straight through.

Mao’s Tomb was open, but as there was a very long queue to enter I didn’t bother, so maybe next time.  I didn’t bother to see Lenin in Moscow, so why should I make an exception for Mao?

This must be the picture taking capital of the world as they were lots of photographers trying to take and then sell you your picture.

In front of Mao’s tomb was the Monument to the People’s Heroes and in front and to each side of this were two large electronic advertising hoarding; I thought that it was rather a strange to have such objects here.

The Chinese flag on top of the flagpole was not as large as I would have expected and at sun-rise and sun-set a troop of PLA soldiers perform the raising or lowering ceremony.  The flagpole was guarded by soldiers who stand to attention for three hours at a stretch.

Across the Square there were soldiers in short-sleeved shirts standing to attention and they would suddenly march a few paces and then come back to attention – neither real rhyme nor reason for their actions.

The picture I took looking back across the Square to Mao’s Tomb showed how bad the smog was.

Lily took my picture when I had my back to the Forbidden City, but in landscape not portrait; never mind

I was glad that I had got my suitcase back as I was able to charge the camera batteries as they were very low after the trip around Mongolia.

We walked down through the underpass to get to the Gate of Heavenly Peace which had the huge portrait of Mao facing south and so looking towards his tomb.

 

 

At all the entrances to the main attractions were information boards in both Chinese and English and this indicated where you were so you couldn’t get lost.

The throng of people moved slowly through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, then it was through the Duān Gate and under the balcony from where the Emperor’s proclamations were read to the people.  Everyone kept ploughing straight on, but Lily took me to one side and explained about the different buildings; this was the beauty of having a personal guide and much better than the portable loudspeakers that some of the tour guides were using.

Before reaching the entrance to the Forbidden City Lily had to get our tickets, but there were very long queues.  However as an authorised guide she just went to the window selling tickets for tour parties.  Normally a guide plus lots, but in this case just the guide plus one, so very quick and easy.

Each gate had more than one entrance, but only the Emperor was allowed to go through the centre one.

There were security and ticket checks at the Meridian Gate which was a massive and imposing structure as befitted the main entrance to the Emperors Palace; it looks even more impressive from the other side.  Having passed through these we entered a huge square and walked across one of the five bridges than spanned the Golden River; this served as a source of water in case of fire as the majority of buildings in the Forbidden City were constructed of wood.  The centre of the bridges had an intricately carved pathway as this was the one that the Emperor used.

Through yet another gate, this one was named the Gate of Supreme Harmony and it is guarded by two large bronze lions which symbolise imperial power.  The lion on the east side is male and its right front paw is placed on a globe denoting that imperial power extended world-wide, while the lioness on the west side had its left front paw on a lion cub and this denotes a thriving and prosperous imperial family.

We were now actually in the heart of the Forbidden City with the whole structure being symmetrical about the north south axis – ying and yang and it is truly enormous; 8000+ rooms, some of which the Emperor rarely left and only the very highest of officials ever entered.

It was in the square in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony that some of the most visual and impressive scenes from the film ‘The Last Emperor’ were shot.  The Hall was the highest building the Forbidden City and not even trees were allowed to overshadow it.  The decoration was superb, but given the level of pollution how long this would last before restoration was needed was anyone’s guess.

The centre pathway was yet again intricately carved as it was up this that the Emperor would have been carried.

On the top terrace were gilded bronze vats which were used to store water in case of fire and where people had rubbed them for luck the vessel was bright and shiny.

Audience chambers proliferated and in each one there was just a single raised throne on which the Emperor sat as he always had to be higher than his subjects.

Lily led me to a side courtyard, so quiet away from the hordes of locals, and here the nephew of the last Emperor did calligraphy which was very ornate.  He was not into today as it was the weekend and the man who showed me around was definitely trying to get me to but something.

 

Having gone passed the Hall of Middle Harmony with yet another carved ramp, it was on to the Hall of through the Heavenly Purity Gate with its guardian lions and on to the Palace of Heavenly Purity.

 


 

 

Beyond here was the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union and adjacent to this were the quarters for the Emperor’s concubines; he could have as many as he wanted, or as in some cases none at all.  What an existence, confined in what was a small (ish) site, told what to do and when, then the chance of being executed in you upset the Boss!!

 

Passing through yet again gate we reached the final courtyardwhich had trees and plants in it and was the recreational area for the Emperor, his wives, children and concubines.  The symmetrical precision of the Forbidden City did not apply here as there were quiet corners and some fascinating carvings and ornaments.

We exited through the North Gate and across the bridge over the moat to the main road; on the other side of this was Jingshan Park where the Emperor could ride if he so wished, but was now a public park.  The earth from the moat was used to build the small hill which helped to shelter the Forbidden City from the cold north wind.

When we reached the road it was absolutely jammed with cars, buses, taxis for hire and trike taxis – strange devices with an electric motor and quite often with a perspex shelter.

Lily had phoned the driver to come and pick us up as soon as we had left the Forbidden City, but because of the traffic chaos this took some time.

The Chinese like the rest of the world were addicted to gadgets and seemed to spend hours with a phone at their ear or busy texting.  IPads and IPhones proliferated and more pictures were being taken on these that on normal cameras.

Lily’s phone was constantly ringing and at one point she said that her son would like to talk to me; he spoke better English than his mum and told me that he was doing his homework.  I asked her what her son did during the school holidays – extra English school, very expensive I was told.  A six week break, with four weeks spent studying, but that is the way that they get on.  It was no wonder that I had no difficulty in booking this tour even though the brochure said that 24 hours notice was needed – people need the money so that they and their children can succeed.

When the car arrived we got in and then were driven through a hütöng district, old dwellings, mainly single storey and probably the last remnants of the old city; a walking tour was recommended and will be something that I will do on my next visit.

The next stop was the Silk Factory, so somewhere to separate the tourist from their cash.  It was very interesting watching the silk thread being spun from single cocoons, where as the silk from double cocoons was stretched and made into bedding.

Having wondered what to presents to buy the very helpful staff at John Allan Travel this was ideal, a tie and four scarves and all pure silk.  Cheap compared with the UK.

I was then driven back to the hotel, thanked then tipped Lily and the driver; it was well worth the effort of doing a tour even though the smog had persisted.

Up to the Business Centre when the lady saw me she gave a screech and rushed out.  It transpired that the DHL man had just left and she was hurrying to catch him, but no luck so the bag will now go tomorrow.  I had to pay nearly another Y400, so a very expensive bag of stuff with the cost of shipping almost as much as the value of the contents.

The DHL man had obviously gone through the contents as I was told that the highlighters were a no-go item so I gave them to the lady.

I went back on-line and Yuriy said that the hard copy tickets are still good to go and that he had managed to cancel the second lot of reservations, so I got my money back with just a £30 cancellation fee to pay – good news.

David said that Nes got home 24 hours late, but was still feeling rotten; I know how she felt.

I thanked the lady and sign the inter-net charges against my room; it’s an expensive way to go on-line, but very convenient.

Back in my room and I stripped off as the heat and humidity had not decreased, then laid down and tried to have a snooze, but no go.  It was then a case of wasting time until check out.  Having showered and done the final packing; as all the laundry had been returned, I just had a single pair of pants and a pair of socks to go in the dirty laundry bag at the bottom of the ruck sack.

I checked out and paid the bill for all the extras by credit card and it was probably as much as the room cost for two nights, but who cares.

In the few hours that I had spent in a western standard 4* hotel I had finally got rid of the rubbish in my system and so was feeling much better and good to go.

The Transfer was waiting and we had to go around the block to get back to the station. He had an argument with a man about access to the drop off point, but we were allowed in after a shouting match.  When I got out of the car I was amazed at the sight in front of the station as the heaving mass of humanity was even greater than when I arrived.  People sleeping next to their luggage, water and food vendors and just generally crowds of people going into and out of the station.

The Transfer set off at a very brisk pace (again) with the suitcase and my day sac, while I carry the (light) ruck sack.  He had to show my ticket before he was allowed to buy a platform ticket; so how did he get on to the platform when I arrived?

We then had to join the queue to go through a check where your passport and ticket are examined before you are even allowed on to the concourse.  Being polite gets you nowhere as it was everyone for themselves, so pushing and shoving was the order of the day.

I showed my documentation to check in man but was waved straight through as he wasn’t interested in foreigners.

Then into another queue, this time for security, so more pushing and shoving; just as we were getting towards the barrier another lane was opened and the Transfer was off like a shot, so I followed him.  All the bags went through the scanner, but there appeared to be no one checking unless it was done remotely.

In the departure hall it was easy to work out from the indicator board where I needed to be as the train number and departure time are shown.  At this point the Transfer became a pain as he had to take off his glasses and hold the ticket right in front of his eyes to be able to read it.  And although it’s in Chinese he obviously doesn’t know how to work it out.  He kept jabbering away in Chinese as if he was trying to make himself know what to do next.  So I decided to send him on his way, so shook his hand, gave him his tip and then waved him away.  He seemed reluctant to leave, so I kept on waving him away and he eventually left.

Anyone with a little common sense and who has done their research via the fantastic website Man in Seat 61, would know that the indicator board shows the train number and departure time, with the first number being the floor to go to and when the second number comes up that is the appropriate waiting room.  Simple really.

I bought myself a bottle of coke, warm, but was then given one from the cooler – great and it went down very quickly.  There are a line of taps labelled drinking water, but as all advice is to only drink bottled water, I am glad that my two water bottles are full and that I gave two more bottles in my day sac.

I didn’t bother going to the waiting room, but just waited for the platform to be indicated and went straight there.  Exactly half an hour before departure the gate opened and although there was a large set of portable scales, the check-in staff didn’t seem to be interested in enforcing the 35kg baggage allowance per person.  I handed my ticket over o the man who checked it and then passed it on to the lady who also checked it before stamping each page and then handing it back.

One of my main observations about travelling in Belarus, Russia, Mongolia and China is that they were not good places to be disabled as there were no lifts or escalators, just steep flights of stairs.  I can also understand why crowds of people came to see off or greet passengers as this was to help them with their luggage.

Someone ahead of me had dropped a plastic bag on the steps down to the platform and the remains of their duty free booze was everywhere.

Finding the carriage was easy as the departure board showed the carriage location, 1 at the front and 18 at the rear – sensible.

I went to carriage 3 and as it was so dark the Provodnista was using a torch to check people’s tickets.  I was shown to a berth in a different compartment and carriage from that detailed on my ticket but didn’t argue with “She who must be obeyed”.  The carriage was similar to the one that I had travelled in 17 days ago between Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar and I was also the only native English speaker on the train and the only non-Russian European.

Having stowed my luggage and got changed, I made my bed as soon as I got the sheets and then put my books, map and paperwork on the table.  There was still no one else in the compartment, so does this mean that I will be on my own?

After less than 33 hours in Beijing I was leaving on the Vostok, train K19, as the weekly departure was yet another one of the critical points on my journey.  I plan to spend more time in Beijing on another trip, but would hope that there would be significant decrease in the smog levels when I return.

We departed on time and as I had already made my bed, I closed and locked the door

At the end of week seven of my trip I soon dropped off to sleep.