The road to Beijing is paved with Chinese banquets

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September 22nd 2017
Published: September 29th 2017
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Ulaanbaatar to Beijing

Another early start today. We were picked up from the hotel at 06:50 to catch the 07:30 train on the last leg of our journey, Ulaanbaatar to Beijing in China. What a difference a day makes. In the past two days we have experienced blue skies and temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius. This morning the weather had certainly taken a change for the worse. The hotel thermometer read four degrees and it was drizzling with rain outside. At this time of morning there were not many vehicles on the roads. The whistle blowing, glow stick waving traffic cops had long since finished their shifts and our carriage awaited.

Our previous two train journeys saw us slum it in a four berth second class compartment although we had bought out the other two berths. This leg of the trip saw us back in a first-class compartment and we weren’t disappointed. This seemed to be the best carriage of the Trans-Siberian experience so far. The berths were in the guise of an upper and lower bunk. A small table, under the window separated the bunks from a comfortable armchair. Our research indicated that these compartments came with an en suite that was shared with the adjacent compartment. It got better than that. Each compartment in this carriage had its own bathroom. The Ritz it wasn’t but after our previous experiences, this was definitely a step up. Behind the compartment door, we found a small wardrobe. On the floor of the wardrobe, was what we thought was a kettle but turned out to be a hot water flask. We also located not one, but TWO mains sockets beneath the table. In our last carriage we had three sockets between thirty-six passengers – and these were all out in the corridor!! However, as Newton’s third law of physics tells us: ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ And someone had definitely reacted in our toilet!! Let’s just say that evidence of the carriage’s previous occupant remained!! The Chinese MALE carriage attendants obviously don’t have cleaning in their repertoire. Our compartment (apart from the little deposit in the bathroom) wasn’t too bad. Our travelling companions who had opted to travel in standard class felt that their carriage was dirtier. Godfrey had to explain that the toilet required paper. After a few shrugs of the shoulder from the non-committal carriage attendant, Godfrey was led to a cupboard which was full of toilet rolls. Reluctantly, a roll was handed to him. The attendants during this twenty-eight hour trip weren’t totally useless. They excelled at the following: Watching TV rather loudly; snoring even louder; clearing their throat (loudly) and preparing their meals in the sink (whilst clearing their throat!!) Yes, I kid you not. Next to the water boiler at the end of the carriage there were two small sinks for the benefit of the passengers. During the evening, one of the assistants was seen chopping vegetables in to the sink and a portable element inserted in to the water to cook the vegetables!! We know they have to eat but why not a Pot Noodle like the rest of us!!

Only five minutes in to our journey and the landscape was already beginning to change in to flat farmland with distant hills. It was while Roisin was focusing her camera on this scene that she said: ‘It looks like its snow out there’. I looked across. The weather was misty and grey, looking through the rain smeared window and before I could respond, Roisin exclaimed excitedly: ‘<em
A vendor at Choir  MongoliaA vendor at Choir  MongoliaA vendor at Choir Mongolia

Not only had this vendor gone to the wrong platform, she looks more like a looter than a seller!!
style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">It is. It’s snowing!!’ Sure enough, it was! The snow continued to fall for the next hour. I recalled Alex, our guide in Mongolia, mentioning that four seasons can be experienced in Mongolia in one day!

Within a few minutes of departing from Ulaanbaatar, a uniformed official knocked and entered our compartment, the carriage attendant behind him peering over his shoulder. He pointed to my open netbook: ‘Computer. Computer’. I had no idea if this was ‘Computer’ with an exclamation mark or ‘computer’ with a question mark!

‘what, you want me to switch it off?’ I asked knowing quite well he probably didn’t understand.

He then spotted my cordless mouse. He pointed to it excitedly. ‘Computer’ he repeated whilst mimicking a writing action with his right hand.

‘What? You want to borrow this? I asked holding the mouse up in front of him

‘Shi, shi, computer’

I was going to give a light polite cough and say ‘Computer say no!!’ but it was something about the green, pristine uniform that made me comply without question and hand it over!!

On this leg of the journey there aren’t that many (seven) station calls. This train is referred to as a ‘fast’ train. The train stopped at a station called ‘Choir’ for fifteen minutes before stopping at Sain-Shand for thirty-three minutes at 14:57. The bad weather was now far behind us. The sun was shining but it was very windy. There were a number of small food kiosks on the platform so everybody used the time to buy provisions and before we knew it, it was time to re-board the Beijing express!

The time was now almost 5pm. Just when I was thinking I was unlikely to see my cordless mouse again, a uniformed body appeared in the compartment doorway. A smile beamed across the face of ’Mr Woo’, as Roisin had named him. He held out his hand and presented me with the mouse. ‘xie xie’, he said. I nodded in agreement then he was gone!

As it was our last night onboard we all agreed to have one last get together meal in the restaurant car. We arranged to meet at 7pm. Luckily, Roisin and I went down to the buffet car to check it out. It was somewhat more ornate than its Russian cousin. Like the Russian restaurant car, there were a number of tables with two seat benches either side. Unlike the Russians, the Mongolian restaurant car was decorated with wooden carvings. Two wooden carved screens either side of the restaurant car split the carriage in two for no other reason than to look nice! The tables and seats had wooden edgings and the table legs were carved to match the screens. All in all, this looked a pleasant environment to spend a few hours. However, when the Manager finally appeared, he gestured: ‘7 o’clock? too late. Big group. You come five. How many? Ten? You come five!’ We had a quick glance at the menu. English and Chinese. The menu was comprehensive showing starters, salads, meat, soups, desserts so we were looking forward to a food fest.

What occurred was not the culinary experience I had hoped for but it was definitely an experience. The restaurant car was much busier than expected. As if by magic, the metaphoric sea parted and ten seats suddenly became available. Roisin and I sat opposite Hetta and Annamie.

‘Wah you wan drink!’, we were all asked. Within minutes an assortment of beers, water and soft drinks were placed on the tables

‘A good start, if a little abrupt’, I thought to myself. Expecting the menu to be handed to us from which we can choose our meals, we were all handed a plate of salad. With a shrug of the shoulders most of us tucked in to this unexpected starter. Roisin, ever cautious, and a few others passed on this dish, having heard to lay off salads that had been prepared in tap water. I must have missed that memo!! Godfrey was the first to react. Chasing after the manager he managed to obtain a copy of the extensive menu and identify the set meal. Due to the vast numbers entering the restaurant car, the kitchen can’t (or won’t) deal with individual orders so the only thing on the menu is this set meal. The good news is that any currency would be accepted. This was heartening as some of our group still have a number of Russian roubles. The not so good news was that the exchange rate was nothing short of criminal. This meal would cost 73,000 roubles (£47). However, the menu did show the cost in US dollars as $22.88 about £18. The second course arrived. It was beef, mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. Whilst the beef was warm(ish) the rest of the dish was stone cold indicating that the dish had been pre-prepared with the beef being the only item warmed and added at the last moment before service. Our dessert was the most surprising – a chunky kit kat…but that wasn’t the surprise! The Manager came around each table holding a small open box. To catch one’s attention he held the box over the middle of the table and shook the box fiercely. I reached in and pulled out a chunky KitKat…that had been cut into three!! A third of a Chunky KitKat for dessert, complete with the severed part of the wrapper!!

I was conscious that more people were entering the restaurant car and a with a distinct lack of places, chaos was starting to ensue. Diners were now starting to pay. The manager stood at the end of our table trying to usher in these new diners by freeing up space of those who had already paid. I indicated two persons and he tapped two digits on a hand-held calculator. $60. Thinking I must have misheard Godfrey, I reluctantly paid the bill. Moments later, Godfrey was in a heated discussion with the waiter who, although it was unlikely he understood Godfrey ‘word for word’ I think he was getting the gist. Godfrey turned and told everyone that the meal was no more than $22.88 and this guy is trying to rip everyone off. With that I left my seat and joined in the fracas. Godfrey was trying to explain how much change he was due. The waiter, totally flummoxed by this manoeuvre, after a short protest, just kept on pulling notes out of his wallet until Godfrey was satisfied he’d been given the right change. I demanded my change. ‘How many?’ asked the Manager, referring to the number of diners. I showed him two fingers. He pulled out $10. The change should have been $14 but as I wasn’t expecting the manager to cave in so easily, I decided to cut my losses. Roisin and I along with the rest of our group then squeezed passed the thirty or so people queuing to enter the restaurant car. ‘That’s odd!’ I thought, as we headed back to our compartment, I hadn’t even told the restaurant manager how many people!!

We arrived at the border town of Zamyn-Uud at 18:50. The Customs and immigration process was reasonably straightforward. All the officials were polite and in fact the immigration lady spoke flawless English as it transpired she had worked at Heathrow for four years. This was one of two long stops on this journey (one hour twenty-five minutes). The other stop was at the Chinese border town (Erlian). During the four hours and ten minutes that the train was held up, all the toilets were locked and we were not allowed off the train.

For the next hour our carriage was shunted back and forth along the sidings and into the sheds. The time had come for the famous Mongolian to Chinese train wheel change!! The Russian and Mongolian track gauge differ from the Chinese gauge and for this reason the wagon bogies must be changed. Not knowing what to expect, we all screwed our faces up against the window to catch a glimpse of this, what seems in principle a complex process, in practice couldn’t have gone smoother. The Chinese workers, either sporting red or yellow hard hats (although I don’t think this had anything to do with Buddhism!!) worked efficiently as one unit. Our carriage was finally shunted in between four hydraulic lifts, one positioned at each corner of our carriage then the lift began. The sheds were eerily quiet with the silence occasionally being broken by the clang of metal on metal or by a jolt to the carriage as our carriage was finally separated from the bogie. More tinkering, the old bogie rolled away and the replacement brought in then our carriage was lowered. This was all very fascinating. It was just a pity we couldn’t alight the train to watch this change over from the outside.

The following morning passed uneventfully. As we neared our destination, the scenery got more interesting as the trained chugged its way down a valley surrounded by tree covered hills. These fade to give way to large lakes and reservoirs. As we entered the outskirts of Beijing the roads didn’t look too busy. I had expected wall to wall traffic and smog of Victoria London proportions!!

When the train came to a halt, we all stepped down from the train and with luggage in tow, followed everyone down the steps of the platform, along the subway that gradually sloped upwards to the main station lobby. Due to strict regulations, only travellers are allowed inside Beijing station therefore on exiting we were confronted with hundreds of meeters and greeters. Nevertheless, amongst all this pandemonium we still manged to locate our guide. We were led to the mini buses (luggage in one and us in the other!!) the journey to the hotel was slow going. We had been on the road for twenty minutes when I heard someone whisper from the back of the mini bus, ‘Has she actually introduced herself yet??!’ Either by coincidence or very acute hearing our guide burst in to action. She introduced herself as Ping. This afternoon we should have had a rickshaw ride around a Hutong neighbourhood then visit one of Beijing’s Beihai Park lake. Seeing how exhausted everyone looked Ping announced that after check in, we will go for lunch then the rest of the afternoon will be free time. The rickshaw ride and lake can be tagged onto Sunday’s excursion. As free time has been something of a premium we all jumped at the chance to have a few hours chilling out. Ironic really when we had spent the past 28 hours chilling out on a train!

Ping gave us a few tips whilst visiting Beijing: There is a low crime rate in Beijing but beware of pickpockets in crowded places; Traffic. When crossing the road, cars do not give way to pedestrians so take extra care. To a Chinese motorist, a pedestrian crossing is just road graffiti that everyone has learnt to ignore!!

Lunch was a Chinese banquet only a few minutes’ walk from the hotel. On the way to lunch, due to an uneven pavement, we were led into the road and had to weave in and out of parked cars, which, after one of Ping’s top tips, surely wasn’t the brightest idea! This was a chop stick only feast. Not very good for someone who tends to shovel food in to his mouth. With chopsticks only allowing you to eat food one piece at a time, I’d die of starvation before I finished the first course!! Not to be outdone by these fiendish oriental inventions, I dug deep in my pocket and, to everyone’s surprise I pulled out my trusty spork, half spoon, half fork, that had served me so well during our Trans-Siberian odyssey. That spork had certainly seen some ‘pot noodle’ action over the past week or so and now it was about to tuck in to noodles once more although these weren’t in a pot and came with sweet and sour pork and beef in black bean sauce!!

Dinner was arranged for 7pm. The location was different and we were led into a private room. The round table and twirly glass stand in the centre of the table gave us a clue as to what was on the menu…..another Chinese banquet (yum! yum!) Wasn’t he a character in the Mikado??

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