A Travellerspoint blog

November 2005

Trans-Mongolian rail report

Travel from Paris to Hong Kong via rail

sunny 10 °C
View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

I just completed a two week trip from Paris, France to Hong Kong via rail, most of the way covered on the trans-Siberian and trans-Mongolian railways. I completed the journey in 16 days, stopping in Brussels (1 day, 1 night), Moscow (2 days, 1 night), Irkutsk (1 day), Ulaan Baatar (1 day), Beijing (3 days, 2 nights) and Hong Kong (1 day, 1 night).

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The Train Ride

In general, the train was a slow way to travel. I thought that it would be a decent way to see the country side, but I ended up feeling very disconnected from the scenery passing me by. Because of the timing of my tickets, we ended up passing a number of things that I wanted to see in the middle of the night (Volga river, Lake Baikal, Euro-Asia border, much of the Gobi desert). Even during the day, things pass by so quickly that you often only get a glimpse of them.

I would much prefer (in the future) to drive if I am going to do a large overland trip. In that way, you can stop and examine things and have the iternary in your control, rather than under the control of the train schedule. I would take trains, but probably just overnight (8 - 10 hours), and not count on them providing a great way to see things.

The trains were comfortable enough. It is a little weird sleeping in a cabin with three people you don't know, and the constant noise and motion could be a sleep issue to some people.

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Having a food car on the trains were in no means guaranteed. Even then, the food was on the expensive side. At all stops in Russia there were people selling food on the platforms, which was good and inexpensive. Most of it was meat in pastry or dried fish, so vegetarians may have some issues. At other stations, there was usually a shop or restaurant in the station. Hot water is always available, so self-catering is a good idea. Lots of people eating lots of "just add water" noodles.

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I ran into few English speakers on the trains, really only on the trip from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar and from Beijing to Hong Kong. Otherwise it was all locals. People are very friendly, though, and share their food (which is nice if all you have is noodles). Conversation was limited, but hand signals, mime and drawing pictures provide a minimal ability to communicate.

The Scenery

The train ride from Moscow into the Urals is alright if you like Pine and Birch forests intrupted by industrial wastelands. As you climb into the Urals (very low lying at the point the train goes through), we started to get snow and more forests and less industry. We did cross the Volga river, which was neat to see.

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After leaving the Urals, you enter Siberian plains. It's a lot of forests, open grass plains and boggy, swampy areas. I didn't see much in the way of wild-life, as I imagine they are in the forests and keeping a low profile. Approaching Irkutsk the land starts to get hillier heading up towards Lake Baikal. Baikal is a long, thin but very deep lake, holding one-fifth of the world's fresh water.

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Heading down through Mongolia you get more grass plains. Wild horses can be seen, as well as herds of cows and sheeps. The occasional ger is sited.

After Ulaan Baatar, you start to enter the Gobi desert. It's a rocky, sandy desert with tufts of dry grass. Horses, cows and sheep are still scene, but the occasional camel is added into the mix. The desert continues into China.

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After Jining, the desert ends and you get into Chinese agriculture and mountains. Getting towards Beijing, lots of good views of the Great Wall can be found in between long, dark stretchs through tunnels.

After Beijing and towards Hong Kong, lots of agriculture is seen. Hong Kong is very mountainous, and so you get more tunnels and mountain views.

Cities

I didn't get to see much of the cities, but here are my quick impressions.

Brussels, Belgium - nice city, and interesting mix of old buildings and new office towers, but it fits together nicely. Beer is really cheap as compared to Paris, and so much good beer is made in Belgium, which is a plus.

I stayed that the Hotel Sabina, which was nicely located, but the rooms were drab, small and prision like. I paid $US 56 for the night.

Moscow, Russia - very interesting city. Red Square is very cool. I couldn't figure out how to get into the Kremlin, there was a line but it never moved. I was amazed at how many high-end shops there were in Moscow - they seem to have taken to the shopping aspects of captialism very well.

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I stayed at the Tourist Hotel near the botanical gardens metro stop. Around $US 70 a night. It was a nice enough hotel, but far from the city centre. There were a large number of buildings on the property and I couldn't figure out what they were all for. There was a store where I stocked up on supplies before getting on the train.

Irkutsk, Russia - like a wild west frontier town. The weather was beautiful - sunny and around 10 degrees. Very un-Siberian I thought, for late October. Irkutsk is a good base for lots of activities around Lake Baikal (rafting, boating, fishing). Food is inexpensive. There is somewhat of an irony in walking down Marx street and seeing all the high end clothing stores.

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Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia - a very interesting mix of gers, wood shacks and drab soviet style buildings. Nice main square, and the large Gandantegchinlen Khid monastery and the winter palace of the Mongol Khans are worth a look, though not the fee to take pictures. Lots of mutton available to eat. Many people use Ulaan Baatar as a setting off place for trips into the Gobi desert.

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Whatever you do, don't give your passport to the police. It's a shake down, which I unfortunately feel victim too. Three police officers accused me of being drunk (which I was, but I don't think that's a crime) and started harrassing me. They searched me and took everything off me. I had been warned that the police do this, and it's really an extortion attempt. I was pretty sure I was going to have to pay to get out of it.

But then one of the dudes dropped my camera and it popped apart into 3 pieces. That seemed to destroy all their resolve, and they ended up giving me back everything without getting a cent out of me. I think they were worried that I might want to go to the station and report my camera being broken.

Either way, the good news is that my camera just popped out a couple different modular parts, and that I was able to snap it back together and it still works fine.

Beijing, China - Tons of construction cranes dot the skyline of Beijing as they prepare for the 2008 Olympics. The hutong (all the little alleys that hold the small houses) is quickly disappearing as Beijing builds high rise apartments and office buildings and street wide enough for cars.

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I stayed at the Bamboo Garden Hotel near the Golou metro stop. Amazing place! It was around $US 70 a night. It's a first rate establishment, built around a courtyard that once housed the Empress' eunuchs. There are quiet pools to sit by for reflection, a restaurant, tea room and bar, and (most importantly) hot water in the showers! The room is fantastic, including free HBO and a James Bond-like control panel to control and lights that folds up into the night stand to disguise itself as a drawer when not being used.

Ordering in restaurants can be a bit of pain, so if you speak no Chinese, look for places with pictures on the menus, or eat from stalls where you can see the food. I had no problems eating from the stalls, and it was very inexpensive.

Also, be wary of students practicing English with you. I meet a couple of students who wanted to practice English with me. They showed me around for a couple of hours, and then we went to see a tea ceremony. The bill came and it was for $330, which the students didn't have. I paid, and then we went out to dinner. I didn't even realize it was a scam until I read about it a few days later. They worked 5 hours for the money! Also, I was approached twice by English speakers who were "art students" and wanted to show me their work.

Hong Kong, China - well, at least kind of China. Mountains and ocean, with gleaming high rise towers in between. I loved this city. I hiked up to Victoria Peak and watched the sun go down and the sky-scrapper lights start to come on. Really cool.

2005 11 05..Skyline.JPG

I stayed at the Marriott Rennaisance Harbour View Hotel using my Marriott Rewards points. It's very nice, but hardly budget.

It's right by the Wan Chai metro stop, which also has a lot of bars, restaurants and "strip clubs." I didn't go in, but apparently the strip clubs are very shady, and I have heard of people being drugged in them. The bars seemed fine.

Border Crossings

I had no issues with border crossings. Half the borders I crossed had no border control (France-Belgium, Belgium-Germany, Belarus-Russia). The rest were pretty painless in that you just waited on the train for someone to come around.

For any forms required to be filled out, most forms either have English on them, or you can get an English form, so if they hand you a form without English, ask for the English form.

The crossing from Russia to Mongolia is very long, though, taking upwards of 8 or 9 hours, so don't plan much for that day.

Language

In Russia, learn the sounds that the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet make. Metro stops, train stations and street names are not printed using the English alphabet, but maps tend to put things in English letters, so to translate between the two you need to know that tuhhelb is prounounced tunnel, and stuff like that. Plus, a lot of the words that travellers would need to know are pronounced the same or very similar. Tourist, restaurant, bar, cafe, toilet, and bank are just some of the words that are very similar, so if you can read a little Cyrillic, you can figure out that Pectopah = Restoran.

Mongolian uses the Cyrillic alphabet too, but the words are somewhat different. Many things in Mongolia are also printed in English. Few people speak it, but pointing and smiling can get you pretty far.

China was very hard to communicate outside of Beijing. In Beijing, there was a lot of English around, or at least words in English.

Ticket Costs (as printed on tickets)

For Paris - Brussels, you can buy the tickets on the Thalys TGV site. Standard prices is 71 Euros, but discounts can be found if travel is flexible, or departure point. I saw one deal that was 15 Euros from Charles De Gaulle airport to Brussels.

I bought the Brussels - Moscow tickets on line from Die Bahn for 229.5 Euros.

For the Moscow - Hong Kong portion, I purchased on line with a company called Sokol Tours. I found them to be the cheapest after spending 6 hours or so looking. They charged me about $US 1000 for the tickets. However, the ticket prices were printed on the tickets, and thus if you wanted to try and buy the tickets yourself you might get a much better deal. However, trying to deal with ticket agents without language skills could be a problem. Some people who purchased tickets were charged extra fees in addition to the ones listed on the tickets.

Paris - Brussels = 71 Euros or $US 83.54 for seat.
Brussels - Moscow = 229.5 Euros or $US 270.05 for shared cabin sleeper with 3 people
Moscow - Irkutsk = 3780.1 Rubles or $US 131.00 for shared cabin sleeper with 4 people
Irkutsk - U.B. = 1617.8 Rubles or $US 56.07 for shared cabin sleeper with 4 people
U.B. - Jining = 40580 Mongolian or $US 34.22 for shared cabin sleeper with 4 people
Jining - Beijing = 83 RMB or $US 10.26 for open dorm style sleeper (lower bunk)
Beijing - Hong Kong = 646 RMB or $US 79.87 for open dorm style sleeper (middle bunk)

Posted by GregW 09:01 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train_travel Comments (13)

Completed My Round the World Loop

Landing back in Toronto, Canada

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I have arrived home after transiting through Vancouver. Sadly, it turns out that I can't become rich by taking winning sports scores from Hong Kong and trying to bet on those games in Vancouver. Something about time zones and not really going into the past, actually.

Anyway, this closes out my first circumnavigation of the globe:

  • Flight from Toronto to Paris on October 10th
  • Train ride across Europe and Asia
  • Flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver, and then from Vancouver to Toronto on November 6th

Yay me. I'm like Magallean or Captain Cook. Well, maybe not just like them...

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Dude, I look sad here. Compare against how I looked in Hong Kong:

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Apparently not being on vacation depresses me...

Posted by GregW 18:25 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Regaining my lost day

Hong Kong to Toronto via Vancouver on Air Canada


View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

I lost a day. It happened so slowly that I was barely even aware of it. Half of it disappeared during the flight from Toronto to Paris while I was asleep. The other half disappeared slowly, an hour here, an hour there as I made my way across Europe and Asia.

It's alright though, because I get the day back today. In flying from Hong Kong to Vancouver (on my way to Toronto), I cross the international date line, and all those lost hours due to crossing time zones come flooding back in one fell swoop. And I will end up landing in Vancouver 4 hours ahead of when I left Hong Kong.

I have stuffed my pockets with winning sports scores, horse races and lottery numbers. When I get to the past, I am going to be RICH!

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It's me...

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...and my time machine

Posted by GregW 18:23 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

In the City of Blinding Lights

Hong Kong

sunny 28 °C
View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an international businessman. I wasn't sure what sort of business I wanted to be in, but the thought of a bunch of international travel appealed to me. I imagined it to be a lot of first class flights and posh hotels, finely pressed suits, cell phone calls and limo rides. When I imagined this life, 3 cities always stood out as international business type cities: New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. These were cities that I imagined as gleaming with glass and steel towers and where the things that mattered happened.

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Arriving in Hong Kong was like living those teenage fantasies. I arrived at the Marriott Renaissance Harbour View on Hong Kong Island, and was whisked up to the 41st floor for VIP check-in. The views are incredible, looking out over the convention centre and across the harbour to Kowloon. I head to my room on the special, card-access only club floor and soon after room service arrives with a bowl of fruit, cheese and crackers and the beverage of my choice, compliments of the management.

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Not everything is like my teenage fantasies, though. I am wearing the same t-shirt and jeans that I slept in on the train, not a finely pressed suit. Instead of pulling up after a 1st class flight and limo ride, I took the metro and my feet after arriving into the train station on a 2nd class ticket on a slow train. The briefcase and cell phone of my fantasies have been replaced by a backpack and a camera case.

Hong Kong meets all my fantasies, though. It is made up of amazing mountain and harbour views, with nothing but glass and steel mammoth towers in-between. I feel alive, and everything seems possible.

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It's hard, in some ways, to reconcile this giddy little kid in me that loves fancy hotels, special service and skyscrapers with the guy two days ago that didn't see the Great Wall because he didn't want to splash out on a tourist bus. I have been very perplexed by some of my behaviours on this trip, to be sure. I was unhappy with what I thought I should be happy with, unconcerned about being scammed and giddy about seeing things that should be commonplace to me.

This whole vacation has taught me a lot, actually. Firstly, I never want to do a long distance train trip again. I think 8 hours on an overnight train is okay, if you have a couple days on either side to see the area you are coming from and going to. But doing a "cruise" on a train across a wide expanse of land, never again.

You are disconnected with the land you are passing over. It's strange to say, because you are obviously a lot more connected than you would be if you flew. When coming back from Tanzania earlier in the year, I passed over the Sahara desert. I remember looking out from the plane window and thinking, "cool, Sahara," and then going back to watching some crappy Adam Sandler movie. You are mostly unaware of what you are passing when you fly. I thought that train travel would be a great way to connect you with the country you are passing.

Instead I found that it passes by without your control. We passed a bunch of things that I wanted to see in the middle of the night, when I was asleep and couldn't see out the window anyway. We passed things in that I wanted to see more of, but could only watch it disappear in the train window. Often, I wished I was driving, because then I could stop the car and get out and look around. But I don't control where the train goes, or how fast it goes, and thus can only watch helplessly as the scenery passes me by.

I also have to figure out what it is that I am trying to get out my vacations. I know that I want more than just a relaxing couple of weeks. I want adventure. But I am not sure what that means. And I need to figure out why I get so hung up on doing things the "non-tourist" way, and feel that there is some shame in paying for a tour. It's not about the money, it's something deeper than that. I don't know what though.

I learnt that it's fun to wander around a city without a map. Wandering without knowledge or purpose gives a great experience that not everyone will get. Maps do come in handy, however, when trying to make it back to your hotel, so I am not going to throw out all my guide books and maps altogether.

I learned that you should never give your passport to the police in Ulaan Baator. And if you do give your passport to the police, try to make sure the police officer with the butter fingers in holding your camera.

And most importantly, I learnt that a hot shower and a sunny day can turn around the most foul of travel experiences.

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Posted by GregW 17:20 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)

See China It's Right There In Front of You

Beijing, China

sunny 20 °C
View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

It's amazing what a hot shower and a change of underwear can do for one's attitude.

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The Bamboo Garden Hotel is a great deal for around $US 70 a night. It's a first rate establishment, built around a courtyard that once housed the Empress' eunuchs. There are quiet pools to sit by for reflection, a restaurant, tea room and bar, and (most importantly) hot water in the showers! The room is fantastic, including free HBO and a James Bond-like control panel to control and lights that folds up into the night stand to disguise itself as a drawer when not being used.

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The first day I went to see the Imperial Palace (otherwise known as the Forbidden City to you and me). It's an amazing place. Entry is 40 RMB (around $US 5). I spent 2 1/2 hours wandering through the grounds at a quick pace, barely glancing at any of the displays and still didn't get to see everything. A focused person with a map of the grounds and an interest in reading everything could take days to see the whole thing. And even then, there's probably stuff that you would miss.

I entered one busy courtyard and looked around. On my way out, I noticed a small, dark alley that no one was going down. I wandered down the alley and came out into an amazing courtyard with fantastic views of the nearby rooftop. Other than the Imperial Palace worker, I had the place to myself. Marvelous.

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Leaving the Forbidden City I met two Chinese students who were studying English, Shadow and Coco. They asked if they could talk with me to practice their English. I agreed. Shadow and Coco studied just outside of Beijing, and had a day off as their teachers were having a conference. Coco had never seen the Forbidden City, so they had come into the city to see it.

We went to Tinanmen square, all the while chatting in English about my life and their lives. Shadow suggested checking out old Beijing. We walked through a pharmacy with some really expensive ginseng and checked out the really old buildings.

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Coco suggested going to see a tea ceremony, as the tea festival was now on. We went to a tea house that had been in operation for over 200 years. The tea ceremony was performed by a young lady. She poured us different kinds of teas, and explained where they came from and their uses. When she spoke, she almost was singing. As harsh and unwelcoming as the Chinese had sounded last night in the Jining train station, it sounded melodic coming from this cute, button nosed girl as she poured us more tea.

However, no amount of melody could hide the disharmony of getting the 2461 RMB bill (around $330). Coco, Shadow and I were all shocked at the price. I ended up picking up the tab, as I remember what $110 a person would have done to my budget when I was student, and that was back in North America. Imagine the dent in a Chinese student's budget.

Shadow and Coco, by way of thanks, took me out to a restaurant for Beijing duck (also known in North America as Peking Duck), and then we walked more around old Beijing and the Hutong.

The Hutong is what all the narrow and alleys that criss-cross Beijing are called. The streets are narrow, the houses so small that people share washrooms. No cars give the place a peaceful quiet in the otherwise busy Beijing, though. Coco said that the Hutong was disappearing, though. In the two years she had been in Beijing, much of it had been bulldozed and replaced with wide streets and high rises in preparation for the Olympics. I asked her what she thought of the new Beijing that was developing, and she said she didn't like it. It was too noisy.

After spending the whole afternoon together, I parted ways with Coco and Shadow and headed back to my hotel.

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  • * *

Now, here's the thing about that whole story. I wrote it as I was feeling it at the time. What I didn't know, and learnt later, is that it's all a scam. "English students" ask to practice their English, and end up taking you to tea ceremonies or high priced restaurants. It's quite common in Beijing, actually. I had a few doubts when the bill originally came, but after spending another 2 hours with Coco and Shadow, I figured they were on the level. After all, would con-men take their mark out for dinner? The answer, apparently, is yes, they would.

The amazing things about it, though, is that I am not at all mad about it. It was such a pleasant afternoon and it was nice to have some local guides to the city. The scam was so expertly run that I didn't know it was even happening. Really, I was pretty stupid for not asking about the price of the tea ceremony before taking part. And what's $300 to me? Prior to that day in Beijing, I had spent less than $200 in Moscow, Irkutsk and Ulaan Baator. It was a cheap trip up to that point.

So, I am warned for the future, beware of English students and tea ceremonies. Life lesson, I suppose. But no point in getting upset about what is the past.

  • * *

The next day I had planned to go to the Great Wall. But I didn't want to go on one of the tour buses to the wall. Instead, I wanted to go to an untouristed part of the wall and do some hiking. My guidebook recommended a place, and it was easy to get to, just a couple of local buses and I would be there.

The problem was, once I arrived at the bus station, I couldn't figure out what bus to take. The station was chaos and there were no signs in English. I wander around for about 30 minutes, but can't make heads nor tails of the situation. Finally, I give up.

Now, at this point I could have taken a tour bus to the wall, or even hired a minitaxi to take me. But I didn't. I was so disgusted at myself for not being able to take the local buses that I lost all interest in going to the wall at all. And so, I ended up missing my opportunity to see the Great Wall.

I don't know why I act this way. I am on vacation, and yet I end up pushing myself to be less "touristy" and get off the beaten track. And because of that, I miss out on a fantastic experience like the Great Wall. Why do I feel the need to make every vacation more and more of an endeavor?

  • * *

After getting out of my funk, I had a good day in Beijing. I wandered around the town, and noted for sure what Coco had meant the day before when she said that they were tearing down the Hutong. High rises were going up everywhere. I saw lots of large lots surrounded by boards announcing new luxury condos and office tours. In one, I could still see people living in the Hutong alleys that were slated for a quick destruction.

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The Hutong is basically slums, so I can't complain about them being torn down. People deserve nicer places to live. But I do have to wonder about where the Hutong residences are being displaced to. In place of the Hutong it all seemed to be luxury condo buildings. I doubted they could afford to move from the Hutong into those buildings.

2005 11 03 C Hutong.JPG

Anyway, I am glad I got the opportunity to see it all before it disappears.

  • * *

That night, I was wandering back to my hotel after dinner, and came across a large square in the Hutong by my hotel. In the darkened square, women were line dancing to Chinese pop music.

That's the amazing thing about the Chinese. They are completely open. They wander around singing in public and line dance or do tai chi in the park. The spit in public and pick their noses. They use open public toilets without embarrassment. And they stare at what they are interested in. It's not rude, it's just open.

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All the staring at me in Jining wasn't malicious in any way, it's just that they were interested in what a white dude was doing sitting in a train station in rural China. I noticed that the Chinese stare at all sorts of stuff - people getting tickets, couples arguing, people haggling over goods. In Canada, were interested in all these things, but we hide our interest and instead take furtive glances and strain to overhear. In China, they just walk up and see what is going on.

Any discomfort with this is my problem, not theirs. I am, after all, the foreigner in Beijing. I'm the stranger, but the land is only strange to me. To the Chinese, it's life.

Posted by GregW 17:03 Archived in China Tagged travel_dangers Comments (0)

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