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Published: October 17th 2007
It's been a little while, as we've been busy.....
I think we left you in Ulaan Baatar where we were staying in an apartment some way from the centre of town. The following morning as we were getting ready to go out what appeared to be disaster struck. An awkward twist in the small room & my back seized up. While not as bad as it has been, I (Sarah) still could not stand up straight and walk without a limp. After some debate and testing of it, we decided that, at the very least, I needed to be near the city so that I could get back to somewhere easily - we'd already had difficulty getting taxis, and our previous hotel had several restaurants in the building. We tried to explain this to the girl in the flat. To cut a long story short this ended up with someone from the agency who booked the apartment coming to take us to the hotel we had just booked, and very kindly refunding our money which we had not expected. Did manage to get out during the day and had a brief visit to the museum of Mongolian History which was
very interesting as I knew nothing about it. It seemed that if I moved around then things were not too bad. Usually it's after a night's sleep that things take a turn for the worse....
To my amazement, although it was certainly not right, I was mobile the next morning - good job as we had an early start for our train to Beijing - the longest of the trip so far. From UB the countryside changed as population dwindled with just the occasional ger camp and a few animals. Vegetation decreased as we travelled south and into the Gobi desert which seemed bleak and empty. However, the couple we were sharing the compartment with had spent 8 days there and seen lots of different scenery they said.
These two were Swiss (again) but very different from the stereotypically super efficient couple we had shared with previously. These two had so much stuff that the whole trip was an endless cycle of moving luggage around while they tried to find things and ploughing through mountains of food.
Crossing the border was less painful than the last one and rather interesting due to bogie changing - this is
because the gauge changes between Mongolia and Russia. The carriages are taken to sheds where they are detached from their wheels, lifted up and the wheels replaced by those of the right gauge, all while you're still in it.
We woke the next morning to much more populated areas with agriculture and small industries. The scenery became more dramatic as we passed through numerous tunnels through the mountains with glimpses of the Great Wall before arriving into Beijing.
And so, the end of the Trans Mongolian. The trip from Moscow to Beijing is around 7,700km and there's around another 500 between Moscow and St Petersburg so it's been a long one and not finished yet.....
For those of you that don't know, Beijing is where we first met, almost 5 years ago. And strangely that evening we had dinner with two other couples who also first met in Beijing. Michael is an old friend of mine who I used to ski with. He has been in Beijing for over 4 years after meeting Linda, his wife, when he went to visit another friend who had met and married a Chinese girl. These were the other couple.
Michael and Linda really looked after us and enabled us to get a small insight into a country that is very difficult to fathom, particularly without the language. The second night we had dinner at a Mao Revival restaurant, some distance from the city centre. The show consisted of Red Guards etc dancing and singing songs in praise of Mao and the great China while waving flags and fans. Linda and Tammy both learnt these songs as children and it seems the show is a bit like a 1970s show for us. The audience (all Chinese) were getting very excited and joining in, waving flags - the noise was deafening.
Michael took us out to a temple in the mountains the following day - it was lovely to escape the madness of Beijing and we were the only westerners. Michael translated a few of the things people around us were saying including, 'Look how tall that guy is' and endless comments about foreigners. They were usually surprised when he could speak back to them!
We had decided not to stay too long in Beijing as we had seen most of the big sights last time but it was
sad (and slightly nerve racking) to say goodbye to Michael and Linda and set off on our own. Our destination being Taishan, in Shandong Province, 7 hours south of Beijing. The station looked manic when we arrived but in fact flowed quite smoothly. We had booked a sleeper, even though it was a daytime train, as we knew that seats would be packed with people standing and I was still needing to lie down every so often with my back. We seemed to cause quite a stir on the train and soon a train attendant from the other end of the train appeared offering her help in reasonable English. She kept telling me how beautiful my hair was and was amazed when she realised that my eyes were blue. She told me to ask for her if we needed anything while on the train. Another man who spoke a small amount of English also asked if he could talk to me though he seemed to struggle to understand my accent - it seems that in many countries they understand Americans more easily than English.
We were visiting Taishan because of its sacred mountain which is peppered with temples and
inscriptions. It is around 1,500 metres high and has 6,600 steps to the top. Legend has it that if you climb the mountain you will live to 100. By the time we reached the top I felt about 90 so not far to go! It was a beautiful if gruelling climb and again we caused some interest. Many people just stared, some said hello and then giggled and some shouted 'welcome to China'. Luckily it was out of season so not too many people (it can be very crowded) but reasonably good weather though the smog blocked out all views of the city below. We wimped out and took the cable car part way back down (I was just pleased that my back had survived) but this gave spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Then it was a bus which didn't take us where we expected but we managed to find another bus and get back to the hotel eventually.
On getting back down we called in at the place where we had arranged to get our next train tickets to be told that they hadn't arrived. This is typical of the situations which arise here as it was
not clear if this meant that they could not get the train tickets we wanted or that they had just not been delivered to them yet. They told us to come back the following morning so we just had to cross our fingers and hope. However, the gods of Taishan were smiling on us and we collected 2 train tickets this morning (for bottom bunks which, when there are 3 up each side are a real bonus!) so later tonight we set off for Shanghai.
Buying train tickets in China is not a simple matter, unless you're at the station where the train starts. At all other stations they can't sell you sleeper tickets, they'll only sell you a seat and then you have to take a chance that you can upgrade on the train (if you can find an attendant that speaks english). By several strokes of luck we'd found a hotel that could get sleeper tickets (for a small fee).
P.S. COME ON ENGLAND!
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