The End of the Line

Thursday, March 13, 2014
Beijing, Beijing, China
The last leg of the Trans Siberian, we were up at 6am, the train starts at Ulaanbaatar so it was in the station waiting for us at 6.45, nice and warm as the attendants had the boiler stoked up. Because it is so cold each coach has it's own coal fired central heating system so the attendants can warm it up long before the engine is attached (which we presume heats the train normally). For this leg of the journey we were on a Chinese train, both Russian and Chinese trains are used between Moscow and Beijing, it is pot luck which you get. Although a bit old it was more luxurious than the previous ones, bunk beds, a separate seat, more knee room a wardrobe, a power sockets and....... half a shower! You share the shower with the compartment next door, once inside you can lock the other compartment out although the attendants kindly rearranged the allocated compartments as the train is not full so we all get exclusive use of our shower.
The scenery changed from the forests of Siberia to the bleak but very atmospheric Gobi Desert . It is mostly covered in brown scrub which presumably goes green in summer. From the train you see the occasional herd of antelope, cattle, horses and about every half hour a small settlement based around a mine.

It took all day to reach the border crossing then five hours to get across and change the wheels, we have returned to the civilised world whose rails are 4ft 81/2 inches apart rather than the 5ft in Russia so the carriages were lifted off the bogies and a new set fitted. This time we were opposite another carriage being changed so managed to get some better pictures for those of you who like the sight of a good bogie a few are attached, uploading pictures seems difficult so for the train spotters amongst you I will make them a separate entry.

Once in China we also gained a dinning car which actually served food!

From the train we also got our first glimpse of the Great Wall of China, with a solar electricity farm in the foreground, two extremes of technology, I don't suppose the solar farm will be still there in 25 years time, let alone 2500!

The guide to the railway mentioned some good scenery about an hour before Beijing, that was something of an understatement. For about 30 miles the train wound it's way down a very narrow valley with very high peaks either side, with lots of tunnels, bridges and precipitous edges, by far the most spectacular that we saw on the whole railway . A good end to the journey.

So what is the Trans Siberian like?
Firstly, apart from one train a which was 20 minutes late when we got on ( but caught up so arrived on time) every train was bang on time, something of an achievement.

Travelling by train from Shrewsbury to Beijing is a bit of fun. Real Russia, the company we used to arrange tickets and visa's, were excellent so there are no barriers to making the journey. A German couple we met several times were doing the same journey (but with different stops) with a 9 month old baby so clearly it is not too difficult, certainly not as challenging as our adventures in Africa.
We thought we would be bored on the train but in practice this is not the case, yes we read a great deal, wrote a boring blog, our sleep patterns were disrupted a bit but it was all good fun. The biggest kick is knowing that whenever we see a map of Asia in the future we will think "I have crossed the whole way on land" . We also got to see a few interesting places on route, have I mentioned any interesting facts about Lake Baikal? Well did you know that it's volume is 23,000 cubic Km!

It would be a mistake to do the whole journey end to end without spending a few days off the train on route, obviously it breaks the journey but it is also good to get a feeling for the places and people you see passing by the window of the train. That having been said, it was definitely a one off, there is no point in repeating it unless we did it in the Caterham instead (Gill has already vetoed that idea).

Thoughts on Russia and Mongolia
Obviously as we have only spent a few days in each country it is unfair to draw any strong views however as we sat in a very nice restaurant on our last night in Mongolia (the best on the trip so far and only £40 including a nice Californian bottle of wine, three courses, pleasant atmosphere) we went through our thoughts on each. The sights in Moscow were, as expected, good but we did not have any surprises; nothing that made us go Wow. People who spoke English were very helpful but most in the city looked a bit sullen and not at all cheerful.
We intend to go back, probably to St Petersburg, but we would not rush back to Moscow.

Mongolia was a different story, we had a tour company provide us with a guide and driver but we would not do that again and are saying as much to the UK agents, we exchanged notes with the German couple mentioned above. They just used a guide / taxi when they needed them, not all the time, which seemed to work well. The traffic in Ulaanbaatar is so bad it is quicker to walk, the city is not very large (at least the bits you want to visit) so getting about on foot is easy.
The city has a real character, it is chaotic, noisy but clean (apart from the smog) and seemed safe. We felt sorry for people of our age and older who were brought up under the Communist regime as they seemed to be left behind, bewildered, by the 20/30 year olds who speak English, wear western clothes and seem to be doing well in an economy that is growing quickly. It is not all roses, in the early 90's there was a famine when a very cold winter killed lots of livestock, two of the three million population live outside the city so farming is very important to the economy however we were told there is plenty of work and little corruption which is encouraging outsiders to invest in Mongolian companies.
The countryside is spectacular.

In a couple of years time we will come back for a proper holiday, perhaps combine it with a trip to a neighbouring country.

We were warned by several people about pick pockets and petty theft, we take what we hope are sensible precautions, but we did not see any evidence of problems nor felt unsafe even walking back to the hotel at night. The hotel provided a room safe, you had to lie on the floor to operate it, when I broke it the very helpful chambermaid came with a key to sort it out and we both laid on the floor whilst she gave me instructions! Once I had learnt how to use it we put all our valuables in for safe keeping. I then discovered it was not fixed to anything so effectively you have put all the things worth stealing in a handy carry out bag, still it saves the burglar ransacking your room looking for things to steal.

I don't think we have ever stayed in a large hotel where all the staff were so helpful, from the concierge, who unloaded our car, the receptionist who booked restaurants for us, the waiters at breakfast or the chambermaid who sorted out the safe, it was an object lesson in how to run a hotel. No it was not the most expensive hotel in town, there are several flash ones and ours is not one of them but it was another reason to like Mongolia.

So now we are in Beijing in a very nice hotel recommended by friends Barbara and Bernard who are China "old hands". Tomorrow we are going on a walking tour around the Islamic area of Beijing, stand by for more interesting facts in the next exciting instalment of Gill & John Go East.
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