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Our Trans-Mongolian Train Adventure Begins!

Day 10 Overnight to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

sunny 25 °C

Our 12 day Trans-Mongolia train trip from Beijing to Moscow stopping in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk starts today.
Easy morning as the train does not depart until 11.22 am but conscious of how crowded Beijing Trains Station could be we want to get there early.
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Fortunately we are only one station away from the station so we caught the subway even though we had to lug our bags up and down a number of steps through the crowed station. We had people climbing over our bags as we heaved them up the stairs. We expect it is the Chinese culture to rush otherwise there is a risk of missing out.
We enjoyed our favourite local local breakfast of steamed buns and egg pancakes. The task of getting through security was quite easy as we had stories of hours of checking and sat in waiting room no. 3. From our previous experience to Suzhou, we positioned ourselves close to the gate armed with knowledge that when they open, the surge of people can be overwhelming.
However, we were pleasantly surprised at how gentile the experience became. The train sign for Ulaanbaatar with the correct departure time was hung on a hook at our gate - always a relief to know you're in the right spot - and we were allowed to get on the train about 30 minutes before departure.
As we stepped through the doors to the platform, it was like stepping back in time to another world. 15 carriages and neatly dressed a guard/steward waiting to greet us at every carriage.
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The carriages were beautifully presented, and the cabins were something out of the 50’s. Our private cabin with velour furnishings, a neat little table, bunk beds, fresh laundered linen and even an en suite toilet, shower and vanity unit and a nifty thermos for hot water, which was available at the end of the carriage. Jen and I just looked at each other in amazement of how opulent this was.
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Train left right on time and for the next few hours on the Chinese side we saw the horizon of apartment buildings melt away to be replaced by tunnels, valleys, cliffs, gorges, numerous windfarms, massive highways, and a magnificent sunset.
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The train had a dining car so I investigated to see what was on offer. Open the door and I was met with a thick cloud of cigarette smoke that you could carve with a knife. All the guards were smoking in there so I quickly retreated coughing and spluttering. We had bought food supplies so we started our dinner consisting of 2 minute noodles, and some small cakes and tea.
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Jen and I by now were coming down with a cold with Jen suffering the most so she was drifting in and out of sleep in her bunk. I was able to catch up on some blogging and taking photos of the trip. We arrived at the Chinese border about 9.45pm and what encountered us over the next 6 hours is just one of those travel episodes that whatever is written up in the travel agent notes before you leave does not prepare you for what we would encounter. We were warned by our neighbours back home but I will leave the rest of this story for the tomorrow's blog!

Posted by tszeitli 16:41 Archived in China Tagged train china mongolia Comments (5)

Our Feet touch the Great Wall

Day 9 Great Wall Jiankou to Mutianyu

storm 20 °C

Normal wake up at dawn with a little apprehension about the tour we got onto at the last minute. Got to admit the internet for travelling is just fantastic to able to do research on the run and book days in advance, nothing like it when I backpacked yes 30 years ago. We were going to get a taxi to get to our meeting point but the taxi drivers said just take the subway, traffic gridlock at 8.30am. So it’s off to the Beijing subway, peak hour with hundreds of other commuters, gulp! After about 10 minutes of map reading and seeing how the system works we showed the ticket lady a screen shot of the Lama Temple in Chinese, we got told platform 2 and paid $1.20 for 2 tickets. Worked out how they went and off we were and pretty happy we got through it all. Taxi would have been $9 and 1hr plus travel.
Got to the Lama Temple and thankfully the owners of the tour were there to meet us and we were off to the great wall with a group of 10 others. The tourist sections of the Great Wall are about 75km north of Beijing and I remember from the times I had been there this drive took about 3 hours due to the poor condition of the roads. Now it is a 4 lane perfectly smooth highway all the way and about 1 ½ hours later we are at this village. This trek is about going to places where the wall is still untouched and few tourists get to. We start in Jiankou and walk up to the wall, along the ridge and down to Mutianyu. Lunch was in a rural village and a very typical farmers type of lunch, simple but delicious.
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The first hour of the trek was pretty much straight up hill through the bush and the weather a lot cooler than yesterday with a prediction of rain. Finally we got to the top of the ridge and the scenery just opened up and we were below a 400 year old tower. You looked over the range and you could see the wall just follow the ridge and just meander across the range to as far as you could see. The haze also added a mystic to the atmosphere and you really did feel like time had stood still. We climbed up this tower and got a better view of the wall. It was great to be here with Jen and taking in a very special moment. You stand here all day and marvel at the sheer effort it took to build the wall running east to west across northern China.
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About the wall, firstly it is not the only man made thing that can be seen from outer space and it is not just one wall but a series of many walls that line up or go off in all directions. The wall is a series of fortifications and stretches from Dandong in the east to Lop Lake in the west. The wall measures 6259 km and was built 220 BC to 206 BC with the majority is from the Ming dynasty.
We then started to walk along the wall and just enjoyed every step knowing no one else was doing this and we were actually walking along the Great Wall in its original form. All of us commented on why build this wall in the most inaccessible terrain.
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For being 400 years old the wall is in very good condition, although nature is slowly reclaiming this magnificent structure. Some sections are very steep. We reached the highest section and started our descent which was over 20% gradient. We literally had to hold onto the wall and crawl step by step down for about 50m. Got to the bottom and unfortunately the clouds closed in and the rain started to pour. On with our raincoats and ponchos and we still had about 1 ½ hours to get back to Mutianyu.
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We continued to walk and eventually got to the tourist section where it has been totally restored and in fact has 2 cable cars to take tourists up from the town to the wall and allow people to walk along this section. One thing the rain did was get rid of all the tourists so we had one section all to ourselves. The rain also added to the mystic as the clouds rolled through the hills and valleys. The last 45minutes was all downhill and lucky Jen and I had done a lot of leg training before we left as everyone else commented on the legs were getting pretty sore at the end of the day.
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I have to correct a previous blog where I commented on the Terracotta Warriors and compared it to other great ancient historical things I had seen. I forget to mention the Great Wall as I had already been here a number of times but each time at the tourist places. The Great Wall is special and to walk along the untouched areas is something Jen and I will always treasure.

Jen’s hiking boots that have accompanied her on her travels (Machu Pichu, Grand Canyon, Alaska, Patagonia, Cradle Mountain) and now her trusty Keens have trekked the Great Wall and this time she was no longer on her own.
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Trans Mongolian and Ulaan Baatar here we come!

Posted by tszeitli 16:46 Archived in China Tagged history trekking china great_wall Comments (6)

Sunday in Beijing, the old and the new!

Day 8 Beijing

sunny 30 °C

Today is a big sightseeing day as tomorrow we go on the Great Wall trek and then its onto Ulaan Baatar. We tend to get up at dawn, say 5.30am and get ourselves organised and plan our day’s adventure. Today its Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden Palace, Olympic Stadium and the Temple of Heaven. In my 6 months living in Beijing I never had a clear sunny day. A constant haze was always covering us. Today was clear skies, I could see the sun and its hot. We walked to Tian’anmen Square and we suddenly met up with thousands of tourists. So much for trying to beat the crowd. About 99% of the tourists are local Chinese from inner China going on tour groups to visit Beijing. Yes, we had to go through token security scan but otherwise there was very little police or military soldiers and I did not get the feeling there was a strong Chinese security watching us at all times. If they were it was discrete. Jen did get a sense of apprehension about the place as this was the place where the 1987 Tian’anmenn uprising took place and I pointed out where the guy ran out in front of the tank. The place does have a dark side to it. Chairmen Mao mausoleum is at the south end and the Forbidden Palace at the north end. It is surrounded by quite majestic buildings that look like typical communist type structures. The square is massive and represents the first ring road in Beijing of which they have now 6.
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We made our way across to the Forbidden Palace and joined the mass of people entering the large doors under a picture of Chairmen Mao. Just above his picture is where you see the key government leaders stand when there is a parade in the square. Tip: Passport is required to buy a ticket, which we forgot so we used our travel business cards that Jen made up. The grumpy lady at the ticket booth was not impressed but sold us the tickets. We got the headphones that give you a personal description of the palace and GPS triggered.
The Palace was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty (1420) to the Qing dynasty (1912). It was constructed from 1406 to 1420 and the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 72 hectares. The palace is now classified as a world heritage site.
You have to marvel at the grandeur of the place, the architecture and the detail of the whole site. It is a very impressive attraction and as Jen has advised me go see “The Last Emperor” and you will see what we are talking about as the movie was filmed all there and depicted the life of Emperor Pu Yi.
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We came out the other end about 2 hours later and walked down a bit and stopped at some shops. You will see now on Jen at times is wearing a traditional communist cap! Suits her!
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Next stop is the Olympic Stadium north of the Forbidden Palace. This place is huge and you just marvel at the layout with all the stadiums. The two building that stand out are the Water Cube Aquatic Centre and the Birds Nest Main Stadium, both are an iconic piece of architecture. Jen went nuts with the Water Cube as the bubbles on the wall and the light passing through it makes for a great photo.
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The Chinese love their mascots and pop up characters and numerous ones crop up all the time. The 5 mascots for the Olympic Games were out front of the Birds Nest so we could not resist to get a photo taken. Kids!
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Next stop is the Temple of Heaven just south of Tian’anmen Square. It’s based in a large park and you have a series of temples that run south to north. We strolled through them all with the hundreds of other tourists but it was very pleasant, slow and time to just do some people watching and take in the moment of being in Beijing. The main temple is called Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
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The last part of the walk as we were coming out of the park was to stroll through the gardens with rows and rows of beautiful roses. Also Sunday in the park is for classical dancing by the Chinese. The get dressed up and put music on and then just start dancing, quite beautiful to watch. Also as we passed under a gate there were 2 small orchestras playing Chinese music with traditional Chinese music, utilising the acoustics. Is was very peaceful and we with the small crowd just stood there quietly listening to the beautiful music.
We walked back and by this time late in the afternoon Jen had suffered a small dose of heat stroke. The day was hot and we almost spent all day outside walking on concrete or marble so the day’s events took its toll.
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That was one full day but really captured a big chunk of stuff in Beijing. Tomorrow its trekking the Great Wall.

Posted by tszeitli 16:40 Archived in China Tagged history trekking china crowds Comments (1)

Revisiting Beijing

Day 7

sunny 28 °C

Time to visit some familiar sights.

Time to leave Xi An and head to Beijing. This will be interesting to see 20 years on and what has changed. All went well at the airport although we did have a few queues to go through. Jen spent most of the flight sleeping (and some snoring) where I was able to catch up on the "blog".

Travel tip: Get "Maps me" (thanks for the tip Irek) and you load the country maps down and therefore you don't need Internet and it has Chinese and English writing. Take a screen photo of your hotel location of the map and then show it to the taxi driver. He can read the map in Chinese.

Our hotel is in a great location, only 1.5 km from Tian'anmen and next to the subway. First impressions is the city has 6 ring roads and all have been fixed up, a lot less bikes, lots of electric motor bikes, less construction and less rubbish on the streets.

You still can't get away from mundane chores even while travelling so we did an afternoon of washing , emails, got our train tickets, blog and some research for the next phase. This is Jen's first time to Beijing and the Great Wall so for something different we have booked a 9km hike on the Wall so we get to see the country side as well unrestored sections of the wall.

Dinner was one of the best meals and food on the trip has been a highlight. Over the past few months our trainer (Troy Symons of Fitness Enhancement) has got us controlling our portion size of food. In China this is hard to do so, sorry Troy, the food is so good but we are doing stretching.

Big day tomorrow, Tian'anmen Square, Olympic Stadium and the Temple of Heaven.

Posted by tszeitli 06:54 Archived in China Tagged traffic food taxi airport china Comments (1)

Terracotta Warriors, Banpo Village and defying death

Day 6 - Xi'An

sunny 27 °C

We started the day with breakfast as the locals do, cabbage and meatballs from a huge cauldron, likely bubbling away for years, for $2, delicious.
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When I was in China 20 years ago I missed out on going to the Terracotta Warriors and vowed to come back so I was really looking forward to this. The 10 seater minivan firstly took us to a ceramics factory where replica warriors are being made in the traditional way with the same clay (a unique combination of clay from one spot plus rice and milk).
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We watched them making figures. It was cool to see the process, including the air drying figures before firing in the kiln in over 1000 degrees.
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The guide gave\ us great explanations about the history of making the Terracotta Warriors. This factory was special as we were able to walk into a kiln full of life size warriors to show how they were made. Jen went nuts with taking photos as the light made the warriors almost seem alive. The photos that Jen took are some of the best she has done so far on the trip.
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Lots to buy but we knew this was the first week and also I had bought a number of Chinese trinkets from back 1995 including 2 * 30cm high statues that I do treasure. Some beautiful vases were on display that would go perfectly in our home but they would not last long in our backpacks. A shame though, so much beautiful stuff.
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The original warriors were actually painted with vibrant colours but once exposed to the air the paint very quickly fades away. This is why they are not willing to excavate more but leave the remaining buried. Technology does not know how to preserve them so the exposed ones all end up being this stone and bronze colour. Hopefully technology will catch up soon.
During the drive, our guide told us about an emperor who fell in love with the widow of his 27th son and married her. Whilst many thought she was just a mistress, many believed it was true love. Unfortunately, their love of dance and merriment, enamoured of each other, distracted the Emperor from affairs of state and brought about his downfall.
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On to the Terracotta Warriors, now added as the 8th wonder of the ancient world. It is a massive complex - China doesn't do anything on a small scale. We entered the courtyard and straight away you get a feeling of the magnitude of this place. The warriors are in three massive buildings enclosing the Pits - Pit 1, 2 and 3. We got given the history of the warriors so I will try and explain some of the key points.
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Emperor Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of the Chin Dynasty back in 250 BC. He believed in the afterlife similar to the Egyptians and so created an army to be buried with him after he dies. He died in 210 BC and was buried with some 8000 warriors . The figures date back to the late third century BC and was discovered in 1974 by a local farmer digging for a well during a drought. The figures vary in height according to their roles with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses and about 1000 have been uncovered and each one is unique. Their clothing and hair style distinguishes their rank and position in the burial site. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor to unify the country but was also very brutal to the people. It is believed he became rather maniacal, taking lots of powerful "medicines" to stay healthy, but ultimately the doses killed him. His burial place is nearby which is basically a hill that has not been excavated but all records uncovered indicate he was buried in the area. Legends tell of rivers of quicksilver (mercury) as well as lethal booby traps so excavating would be dangerous. In addition, if the Chinese were to uncover the area, they would struggle to build structures to cover the area to protect it.

We entered Pit 1 and it was one of those moments that your jaw drops, you are breathless and you stand there trying to grasp the scene. The building is the 230m long and 100m wide (about the size of the MCG) and full of warriors in the pits that had been excavated and painstakingly pieced back together. There are areas where they are digging and hundreds of pieces lay scattered ready to be pieced back together. There are pits full of broken limbs, horses and heads. Most of the warriors in pit 1 are infantry, in army formation ready, to defend the generals and Emperor.
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Pit 2 is half the size of pit 1 but with less fully recovered pieces and with numerous open excavations of the broken pieces. Jen and I could not comprehend how they find the pieces and then eventually match them to rebuild each statue.
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Also in this building are the different type of warriors in glass cabinets in their full glory perfectly restored so you can get up close.
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Pit 3 is half the size again but it is the war room where the generals and senior military would plan the battles.
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According to records at the end of the Qin dynasty Xiang Yu set fire to the pit which caused the pit to collapse and many terracotta warriors and horses were destroyed. The passage of time then covered the entire area and millennia later, 5 metres of top soil enclosed the area until a farmer discovered them.
The whole site, the way the warriors are presented , information and the atmosphere was exceptional. I have been to some special historical sites, Tiotihuacan, Palenque and Chitcha Iza in Mexico, Ephasis in Turkey, Tikal in Guatemala, Pula in Croatia and now Xi An is right up there as one of the best things I have seen. If you go to China....it is a must see!

Just to wrap the day up we stopped in to Banpo Neolithic Village.
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The village was inhabited about 4500 BC to 3750 BC. The museum has the remains of 45 houses, 2 stables and about 200 graves. This village was already doing farming, making weapons, building houses. It was a matriarchal society and because there was no marriage system it was the women who were in charge and chose which man to have a child with.

The drive back was at times death defying as it was during Friday night peak hour traffic so we did some safety observations: number of near misses = 455, people riding electric bikes with no helmet = everyone, people driving and talking on the phone = 10000 and still counting, people texting while walking = 852. Good news is we saw no crashes and everyone got through it!.

After a full on day we went in search of dinner. Again, we weren't disappointed.
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After a short wait...
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...we were very happy!
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Overall a great site seeing day, full to the brim of amazing scenes.

Posted by tszeitli 15:31 Archived in China Tagged terracotta warriors emperor dynasty Comments (5)

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