A Travellerspoint blog

Tiananmen Square and exploring Beijing’s remaining hútòngs

At large in a vast capital city

sunny 28 °C

Beijing, China

Reaching Beijing we have now travelled some 8,000 miles since leaving the UK six weeks previously. Of those only 2,000 were travelled by air. As such we had hoped to travel to Xi’an, later in the week, by train. However, given that this is unfortunately Beijing’s peak travel time and train tickets can only be booked 10 days in advance (when we were touring communications restricted western Mongolia) it is not a complete surprise that all trains to Xi’an are now sold out. Spending most of the morning confirming this and with no other options available we book flights. In some ways this brings a more complete end to our cross continent train journey. Logistics complete we are now able to explore the immense capital that lies outside.

The subway to Tainanmen Square might not be quite as exciting as we make out

The subway to Tainanmen Square might not be quite as exciting as we make out

Beautiful architecture

Beautiful architecture

In some ways Beijing is a difficult city for the tourist to visit, much the same as London. Given the scale of the city one must decided carefully where to explore and then expect to spend much time travelling between desired locations. However, whereas in London there is both the scale of the city and the sheer volume of attractions to contend with Beijing, at least for us, has relatively few. As such our day starts in Tiananmen Square, the absolute centre of the city, and until Greenwich Meantime was imposed the point that all Chinese navigational charts used as 0°.

Tian'anmen Gate

Tian'anmen Gate

As the largest public space in the world Tiananmen Square is a vast desert of paving stones and a poignant memory to China’s hapless democracy memory. At the southern end lies the Front Gate, with the square’s meridian line straddled by the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. To the north the imposing Gate of Heavenly Peace, with its vast Mao canvas leading through to the Forbidden City beyond.

Trey resumes her Red Square sit-in

Trey resumes her Red Square sit-in

Mao conceived the square to project the enormity of the Communist Party, which explains the size and scale of largely concrete buildings surrounding its perimeter – the monolithic Great Hall of the People holds a banqueting hall for 5,000 people an auditorium for 10,000 as was built in 1959 in just 10 months, by many Chinese who volunteered their service. Yet, while projecting scale it provides few photographic opportunities.

For us the square is somewhat of a disappointment. With none of the history and architectural splendor of Russia’s Red Square it is simply large with some buildings, essentially the north and south Gates that appeal. Yet to the Chinese this is a place of pilgrimage - to visit the embalmed body of the great Chairman and to pose for a picture in front of his great canvas. It would also appear that having a picture taken with a westerner is also a key visit requirement. Having taken a picture of ourselves outside the Gates of Heaven no fewer than three separate groups asked to have their pictures taken with us. Some just wanted the golden haired Trey, others wanted us both. The majority had to produce a two fingered victory sign at the appropriate moment. To the friends and family back home I suspect the two smiling yet reserved foreigners might make for a strange sight in front of the dour Mao portrait but next to clearly excited Chinese tourists.

Taking a break from being photographed by tourists

Taking a break from being photographed by tourists

A typical hútòng

A typical hútòng

Trey in the hútòngs

Trey in the hútòngs

Departing the Square we could soon dive into the Qianmen Hútòngs (narrow alleyways) that provide a more leisurely snapshot of the Chinese way of live. With many Hútòngs controversially destroyed during construction for the Olympic Games this narrow reconstructed alleyway offers a wide selection of tourist paraphernalia and Chinese food.

Brushes for sale

Brushes for sale

Fans for sale

Fans for sale

Bare-chested men appear throughout the city. Not nice!

Bare-chested men appear throughout the city. Not nice!

From there we head north to Liulichang Cultural Street, another Hútòng, that specializes in over priced (and usually fake) Chinese antiques. After discussing with Trey how everything on the street is overpriced and that purchase should be avoided we stumble upon a small gallery with artists painting new Chinese style pictures. With the refreshing style of one artist appealing we are not only able to purchase a piece from her but watch new pieces be created.

In the hútòngs

In the hútòngs

The artist with one of a few paintings purchased

The artist with one of a few paintings purchased

Narrow, busy streets require narrow transportation

Narrow, busy streets require narrow transportation

Well at least that is clear!

Well at least that is clear!

Alleys afford brief insights into daily city life

Alleys afford brief insights into daily city life

From there a return to our hotel for GM invited drinks and canapés calls. Sustained and revitalized a brief visit to Silk street allows us to browse a wide variety of Beijing souvenirs, clothes and paintings all of which require extremely hard bargaining, where typically 20% of the original asking price is acceptable. With most tourists programmed to reduce demanded prices by 50% one can only imagine how much profit can be made at these stalls by shrewd operators. Replete with a few purchases we soon return to our hotel determined to visit the vast Forbidden Palace in the morning.

Magic mushrooms

Magic mushrooms

Posted by jamesh1066 16:16 Archived in China Tagged square beijing tinanamen Comments (0)

A return to big cities, crowds and toilets

Our Trans-Manchurian journey comes to an end

sunny 30 °C

Beijing, China

Awaking for our free breakfast of eggs, toast and jam we had little to do but watch the countryside pass by and catch up on my Blog postings. Now furnished with a Chinese restaurant car both food and décor has changed. We had been told that the Chinese restaurant car would be the best on our journey. Given our experience of what, to be fair, was a free breakfast and lunch that is not wholly true. However, eating in the restaurant car did pass some time as the now green hills, valleys and more prosperous Chinese style towns and villages passed by.

Waking up to great river views

Waking up to great river views

By the end of the day we would have travelled nearly 5,000 miles, by rail, since leaving Moscow eighteen days previously having spent a total of eight nights on the train. As previously stated our journey has been one we shall remember with great fondness. The experience has shown us the vast Steppes of Siberia, the deserts of Mongolia and the mountains of northern China. Throughout our time on board we have met both tourist travelers and locals, communicating as best we can through English, broken foreign languages, miming and simple smiling. Every destination has brought both promised interests and unexpected delights. We both now fully appreciate the motivation for train travel and would like nothing more than to remain on this train for another 8 nights as a foreign land passes by for our viewing pleasure. As it is Beijing is fast approaching and so we must prepare to disembark.

A misty morning meant no view of the Great Wall. Shame.

A misty morning meant no view of the Great Wall. Shame.

Approaching Beijing we should have been able to catch sight of the Great Wall but with a light rain and mist descending this was not to be. Disappointed we were still able to enjoy the mountainous views after stopping briefly at Kanzuang to connect a banking engine due to the steep ascent.

Typical border town with satellite dishes

Typical border town with satellite dishes

Wind blowing in my eyes!

Wind blowing in my eyes!

Arriving in Beijing our closeted and somewhat ordered life on the train fell apart. A sea of humanity crowded Beijing Main Station. Outside the queue for taxis made even walking the six miles to our hotel look appealing. Replete with our bags we set forth to tackle the Beijing metro. Extensive, clean and cheap it certainly was. Quiet it was not. For the first time that I could remember subway trains arrived and left without us physically being able to board, due to the volume of passengers already onboard and pushing past our front of line positions. With no quieter trains forthcoming we crammed onto the various trains needed to reach our hotel.

With few maps of the metro a picture on our camera helped with navigation

With few maps of the metro a picture on our camera helped with navigation

Checking into our Junior Suite even the most basic of features such as hot shower, toilet paper and kettle begat excited comments. Somewhat luxurious compared to the train compartments and Ger camps we had become used to a hot shower and brief relaxation were called for.

Downtown Beijing

Downtown Beijing

Unable to resist the temptations of Beijing for long, however, we were soon back on the ever crowded Subway heading for the heart for a city that is the size of Belgium and with a population of over 17 million nearly twice as populace as that country of Tin Tin and Poirot.

Peking Duck for supper

Peking Duck for supper

Long desired Peking Duck was on the menu tonight. Perfectly served in a giant restaurant that specialized in this Beijing delicacey. By the end of our meal we would be dizzy from the number of ducks carried out of the kitchen for carving.

Frying tonight!

Frying tonight!

What a pity we had already eaten

What a pity we had already eaten

Scorpions and grasshopper. Delicious!

Scorpions and grasshopper. Delicious!

Reaching Donghuamen Night Food Market were would have been able to sample silk worm, scorpion, bug and centipede – all on easy to hold wooden sticks – if we had not already have eaten. Disappointed (!!) we continued towards the Forbidden City. Able to walk around its vast walls, darkness falling, this city within a city presented an awe inspiring sight. One we hoped to investigate further later in our visit to Beijing.

Wondering south through Zhongshan Park where the emperor used to offer his sacrifices we exited onto Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public space. Even late at night the square is packed with Chinese tourists wanting their picture taken outside the Gate of Heavenly Peace resplendent with flags and a vast portrait of Chairman Mao. Impressive for a one time library assistant.

Tired we attack the subway once again to return to our hotel and welcome sleep in a bed with a mattress. Tomorrow, we will continue our exploration of this vast city.

Posted by jamesh1066 16:54 Archived in China Tagged beijing trans-manchurian Comments (0)

Chinese train and new bogeys

Travelling south through the Gobi and into China

sunny 28 °C

Trans-Manchurian Express, China

Arriving early at Ulaanbaatar station for our 0715 train to Beijing we had taken one of the capital’s ubiquitous private car taxis. With ‘proper’ taxis in short supply most private cars can be flagged down and used as impromptu taxis for very little cost. Our older driver obviously did not like to rush, as we ‘sped’ to the station whilst other road users flashed by.

Migrating from a Russian to a Chinese train, for the first time, the layout is similar although the cleanliness is a number of standards lower. However, the pleasant Dutch couple we would be sharing our compartment with quickly addressed this negative with their antiseptic wipes. Positively, our carriage attendant spoke English and for the first time ever smiled when we boarded!

Non-stop Moscow to Beijing is easy!

Non-stop Moscow to Beijing is easy!

Passing through the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar a simple but leisurely breakfast was soon spent watching yet more grassy Steppes roll by. At one point we passed a small downhill ski resort. As is always the case out of season the stationary share lifts and green slopes looked a little sad and out of place. Trees eventually disappeared and the landscape became a 180-degree panorama of steppe, the only interruptions being grazing horses and the occasional Ger.

Trey boards the train in Mongolia for the last time

Trey boards the train in Mongolia for the last time

Unlike, the Russian trains the presumably Mongolian driver of the train had not learnt the necessary art of gentle breaking and acceleration for we rocked and jerked for much of our journey across Mongolia. Periodically, we passed or stopped at sad, remote towns. None presented an appealing stop off on our way to China.

Crossing the Gobi desert

Crossing the Gobi desert

By early afternoon we had reached the Gobi desert. Yet, with unseasonal rains this flat, arid and sparsely populated desert was also slightly green. A few sand dunes confirmed that this was the Gobi but it was not that of the romantic imagination. A beer in the Mongolian dining car allowed us the opportunity to barter for the cost of our drinks, with the Dutch couple we had been travelling with earlier reducing their bill from $25 USD to closer to $10 USD. However, with no prices on the picture based menu who knew what the ‘real’ price of drinks and food might be. With nothing making much appeal on the Mongolian menu we retired to our compartment for a simple supper and a little light reading.

By late evening we were at the border with China. Due to delays earlier in the journey we were slightly late arriving at the border; a first throughout our cross continent rail journey. We assume because of this, for no English communication was given, free breakfast and lunch vouchers for the following day, were distributed. However, as we made up time at the border this seemed more than generous and amazingly customer service orientated for the Chinese.

The vast shed could house at least 12 carriages

The vast shed could house at least 12 carriages

A curious feeling of going up in a railway carriage

A curious feeling of going up in a railway carriage

Arriving at the border station of Zamyn Üüd Mongolian immigration and customs formalities were soon processed and relatively quickly we were on our way to China. A similar process occurred at the Chinese border. One exception being the diversion of the entire train to the engine shed for a change in carriage bogeys (or wheels!). Chinese bogeys are wider than their Mongolian/Russian counterparts. This was introduced specifically to make invasion of the country harder, at a time when rail transportation was more widely utilized. So it was due to this historical quirk that we found ourselves, late at night, in a Chinese engine shed elevated some five feet in the air whilst the pins securing our Russian bogeys were removed and new Chinese bogeys brought in and secured. With ten carriages to adapt, most of which occurred simultaneously, the whole process took no more than 45 minutes. Despite the lateness of the hour our entire carriage, of mainly European tourists watched, filmed and photographed the entire process avidly, including ourselves.

Carriage is lifted and a wire rope used to pull the Russian bogeys out and the Chinese bogeys in

Carriage is lifted and a wire rope used to pull the Russian bogeys out and the Chinese bogeys in

Lifting up

Lifting up

The old bogeys were pulled out by a wire rope

The old bogeys were pulled out by a wire rope

Hopefully they fit

Hopefully they fit

An uplifting feeling

An uplifting feeling

Returning to the platform we were allowed thirty minutes to stretch our legs before we left Erlian station bound for Beijing.

Falling asleep in what was a hard but surprisingly comfortable bunk bed one can only surmise that either our driver changed, the new bogeys had some form of suspension or (as I suspect) the track was just better laid in China, for our sleep was deep and unbroken. When we awoke we would be deep inside China, fast approaching Beijing.

Posted by jamesh1066 17:00 Archived in Mongolia Tagged mongolia trans-mongolian ulaanbaatar Comments (0)

Ulaanbaatar Road Trip

Back to the capital and preparations for our journey to China

sunny 30 °C

Ulanbaatar, Mongolia

After a relatively warm night we awoke once again to the eternal blue sky. With a six hour drive back to the capital to look forward to we needed petrol. Since filling up the day before the pumps were dry and so we would need to, hopefully, fill up later in our journey.

Once outside Kharkhorin the road soon turned from dirt to tarmac. Yet, with bridges set at a different height to the road and large random potholes requiring constant vigilance this was not ‘easy’ driving for Hasha. Possibly, tired from the previous days driving we hit one pothole hard. Having sustained a puncture two days previously, just as we rolled into the Hot Springs camp, that had been ‘plugged’ in Tsetserleg we suspected that the force we hit the hole blew out the plug. However, whatever the cause for the second time on our relatively short road trip we were running on a poor quality spare tyre.

However, one thing that Mongolia does not lack are tyre repair centers. None seem to carry replacement tyres. They just repair. Stopping in Lun, once again, for lunch Hasha had our tyre repaired and was able to purchase sufficient petrol to get us back to the capital.

Returning to Ulaanbaatar the green, grassy countryside continued to roll by. Apart from nomadic Ger camps and animal herds all that punctuated the landscape were sporadic ovoo. These shamanistic collections of stones, wood or other offerings are found all over Mongolia, particularly in high places. If we passed one, without stopping, Hasha would blow his horn three times. Where we happened to stop an offering, often a stone, would be added to the ovoo and then a wish made whilst circling the stones three times, clockwise. This we had undertaken on a number of occasions and today was no exception.

Always time for a quick beer!

Always time for a quick beer!

Earlier than expected the ugly, concrete of Ulaanbaatar hove into view. With passports to collect (replete with the necessary Chinese visas) supplies required for the train and postcards to send our remaining time in the capital was productive. Early the next morning we would board the Trans-Manchurian express bound for another capital city and the final section of our train journey across Russia, Mongolia and China.

The great Chinggis. A modern statue. No mounments of the great Khan were commissioned during his lifetime

The great Chinggis. A modern statue. No mounments of the great Khan were commissioned during his lifetime

Posted by jamesh1066 17:52 Archived in Mongolia Tagged ulaanbaatar Comments (0)

Hot Springs and Monasteries

Soaking away the memories of our road trip and the ancient capital of Khorkhorin

sunny 28 °C

Kharkhorin, Mongolia

Waking surprisingly late, given the wooden quality of our thin mattresses, our first task, after so much effort to get there, was to visit the Hot Springs. With flies continuing to annoy us we enjoyed both hot showers and soaking in the two hot sulphurous rocky pools that formed the basis of the Hot Springs. Whilst in no way impressive the ability to remove the layers of dust accumulated in recent days were more than welcome.

Finally we are able to see our hot springs

Finally we are able to see our hot springs

With curds drying in the sun next to our Ger and the constant presence of flies becoming an annoyance we were soon on the road (well track) again. This time heading for the small Mongolian town of Tsetserleg. Frequently following tracks that appeared to head in the right direction we often found small tracks that allowed drivers to cross between tracks where it became often that the chosen track was not correct and luck needed a hand in making sure we reached our destination. Where the track became difficult to traverse, usually, another newer and readily passable track had been driven. With so much space detours and the like were simple to develop and certainly required no formal determination.

The 'beauty' of Tsetserleg

The 'beauty' of Tsetserleg

Reaching Tsetserleg, billed as the most beautiful aimag (province) capital, was a little disappointing. With dirt roads and small concrete houses interspersed with khashaa (a Ger found in the suburbs) the town was not particularly appealing, although compared to other towns that we had seen, we could understand with such a low level of competition how it achieved its given title. A promised British run café, offering full English breakfast was also a little disappointing, serving only Lipton tea and a poor excuse of a full English breakfast but then we were in very, very rural Mongolia.

The side streets of Tsetserleg

The side streets of Tsetserleg

Wondering around a dusty Tsetserleg

Wondering around a dusty Tsetserleg

Trey ponders whilst a second burst tyre is fixed

Trey ponders whilst a second burst tyre is fixed

With little to keep us in the town we were soon back on the road and heading back towards Kharkhorin. Shortly after leaving the town we could see a very new looking, tarmac road. Excited to be leaving the jarring dirt tracks it was some miles, thanks to a deep and continuous ditch, before we could actually drive on this road. Whilst diversions temporarily forced us off and wandering herds of animals kept us guessing the road proved a very efficient way of returning to the old capital and location of our finally Mongolian monastery – Erdene Zuu Khiid.

The walls of Erdene Zuu Khiid

The walls of Erdene Zuu Khiid

Arriving in Kharkhorin (or Karakorum as it was known) nothing remains of the 13th-century town, established as a supply base by Chinggis Khan and developed into a capital by his son Ögedai. Lasting only 40 years as a capital city before Kublai Khan moved the capital to Khanbalik (later called Beijing). Vengeful Manchurian soldiers destroyed the abandoned city in 1388, with the remains being used to construct what is now viewed by many as the most important monastery in the country, Erdene Zuu Khiid.

Main gate into Erdene Zuu Khiid

Main gate into Erdene Zuu Khiid

The temple complex of Erdene Zuu Khiid

The temple complex of Erdene Zuu Khiid

Outside the Erdene Zuu Khiid temple

Outside the Erdene Zuu Khiid temple

Founded in 1586 by Altia Khaan, Erdene Zuu Khiid (Hidden Treasures) was the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. At its peak 1,000 monks lived within its confines. Neglected and shutdown by the Stalinist purges of 1937 the monastery remained closed until 1965 when it was permitted to reopen as a museum but not a place of worship. With the collapse of communism in 1990 religious freedom was restored and the monastery became active, once again.

The main temple at Erdene Zuu Khiid

The main temple at Erdene Zuu Khiid

Chinese styled door handle

Chinese styled door handle

Buddha past and present

Buddha past and present

Terrifying masks guard the temple

Terrifying masks guard the temple

The monastery is enclosed by an immense walled compound. Spaced evenly along each wall about every 45ft are 108 stupas (a sacred Buddhist number). Three Mongolian style temples remain in the compound dedicated to the three stages of Buddha’s life; childhood, adolescence and adulthood along with a fourth temple in the Tibetan-style - Lavrin Süm. With this also being the first time our guide had visited the temple both her and Trey were eager to buy a few souvenirs and gifts for relatives. Purchasing a small amulet that represented her birth year Trey had a monk, who strangely resembled a re-incarnated Sammy Davis Jnr., to bless the necklace, increasing its power.

Prayer wheels and the Ger monastery shop

Prayer wheels and the Ger monastery shop

Trey meets Sammy Davis, reincarnated

Trey meets Sammy Davis, reincarnated

Outside the monastery a Stone Turtle remains as a marker to the boundaries of the ancient city of Karakorum.

13th century stone turtle marks the location of the original city

13th century stone turtle marks the location of the original city

Offering ovoo found in the large monastery compound

Offering ovoo found in the large monastery compound

With a Ger secured in a nearby tourist camp we arrived much earlier than the night before. Able to enjoy a little none travel time we chatted with a pair of French travelers who had spent two weeks in the Mongolian countryside. Clearly tired from their adventure they confirmed the beauty but monotony of the Mongolian countryside. Very happy that we had made this excursion but not unduly worried that we had not spent more time in the countryside we drank a few welcome, cold beers and exchanged travel stories. Our evening was completed by an impromptu Mongolian musical concert of traditional instruments and throat singing. Not quite of the same standard as a few evenings prior, however, a few drinks helped with our enjoyment before we returned to our hard Ger mattress.

Horse fiddle muscian

Horse fiddle muscian

Posted by jamesh1066 17:38 Archived in Mongolia Tagged springs hot 4wd Comments (0)

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