Enter the Forbidden City

My calf muscles are killing me. I don’t know how many stairs Noah, Justin, and I climbed yesterday, but I swear my calves have never received such a workout in their existences. And now they’re taking their revenge on me. Even small stairs hurt … a lot. They’re rocks attached to the backs of my legs. They don’t flex, they pulse. Forget the Stairmaster, folks! If you want a great workout, spend the money on a trip to China, then visit three different sections and walk as much of it as you can. Your legs will be cut out of stone in days.

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Hiking the Great Wall of China

Amy’s feet self-destructed yesterday. And as you’ve already read, the state of her feet prevented her from coming to the Wall today. So why did I go without her? We’d already made plans with Noah and Justin, and this was their last suitable day for the trip. Amy effectively told me to get lost and have fun without her. I didn’t particularly like this arrangement, but I couldn’t argue with her logic, either. It was entirely possible if I didn’t go today, neither one of us might get to go.

Noah and Justin were in the lobby waiting for us. After explaining that Amy would not be joining us for the hike, we sat down to the task of deciding where were going. There are several sections of the Wall in close proximity to Beijing, and the key is to find the “right” one. The reason for the quotes is because some parts of the Wall are in their untouched state — effectively, falling apart. But they’re authentic. Other parts of the wall, such as Badaling, might as well have a pair of mouse ears slapped on ’em with “It’s a Small, Small World” playing for all the authenticity there might be.

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Searching for the Tianjin Antique Market

Lonely Planet recommends going to Tianjin, especially to see the antique market there. It is said that a lot of the materials there were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, and are now being sold to the dealers, who in turn sell it at the market. Theoretically, neat stuff, right?

This brought Amy and I to hop on the first Beijing – Tianjen express train this morning. A jaunty 90-minute trip on a fairly zippy (and comfy) train that deposited us at a rather chaotic train station. We walked from there roughly south-west (“roughly” because the street grid is slightly skewed, and got us turned around more than once) when we stumbled across a rather large and bustling pedestrian mall.

As Amy so aptly put it, this distracted us a while.

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Hello, underwear!

Today was errand day. Today, we decided to get our train tickets sorted out, and make plans for an excursion to the Great Wall. Inadvertantly, some things happened along the way…

First off, we hopped the subway down to Qianmen station (which is Tiananmen Square, but we weren’t headed there) to search through the hutong neighbourhoods. After a little dive in, we were diverted due to biological reasons (namely self-preservation having not to use the toilets in the back alleys). Out back on the main street, the decision was made to skip ahead to the Grand Hyatt Hotel for two reasons: exchange traveller’s cheques and see if they can handle tour bookings a little more easily.

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Crossing the Mongolia – China border by train

Attention Lonely Planet! You might want to update your information for the next run of your Trans Siberian Railway book, ‘cuz a few things have changed.

According to Lonely Planet, the crossing from Mongolia to China takes about seven hours, during which time you can get off, change money, eat at the restaurant, and so on. However, they seem to be only covering the case that you’re crossing the border during the day. If you take train #24 from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing, things are a little different…

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Adventures in Mongolia

We’re back in Ulaan Baatar after a few days out in the Mongolian wilderness. It’s a brief return — we hit the #24 train to Beijing at 8:00 tomorrow morning. (It’s about 21:30 right now, as I’m writing this.)

Without question, Mongolia has been the highlight of this adventure. Unless something really spectacular comes up that somehow manages to sway us (which I doubt will happen), then Mongolia will be the thing on the trip. Also without question, we would heartily recommend coming to Mongolia (and soon, before the rest of the world discovers how cool this country is) and signing up with Nomadic Journeys. They take far too good care of you.

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A little scoot around Ulaan Baatar

We arrived early this morning. We were up by 5:00, but only arrived an hour later or so. After a sort-of-nap (couldn’t sleep), we were picked up by our guide (again; she’d also taken us to the hotel from the station) and shown around the city.

First up was Sukhbaatar Square — a large open area in front of the Mongolian Parliment. It’s sort of like Red Square, but is named after a man who is credited with being the hero of Mongolia, who led the armies who finally pushed China out of “outer Mongolia” and declared an independant Mongolia. He died mysteriously (insert obligatory conspiracy theory here) and is buried at the north end of the square in a mausoleum. Unlike Lenin and Mao, however, you can’t get in to see him.

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Crossing the Russia – Mongolia border by train

We knew this was going to be rough. We knew this was going to be long. It wasn’t as bad as we thought it might be, but it was still long.

We took Train 364 (formerly 264) from Ulan Ude to Ulaan Baatar. (The train itself runs Irkutsk to UB.) As we would find out, the whole train doesn’t go to Mongolia — only the cars that contain passengers going to Mongolia. We found this out when we got to the Naushki station, on the Russian/Mongolian border.

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More Russian train stuff

Okay, quick update…So Continuously Welded Rail (CWR) doesn’t exist coast-to-coast. After we left Ekaterinburg, we went to jointed rail. CWR exists in patches along the line, but the most of it is the ol’ clickety-clack variety.

Lots more freight trains, too.

Russian engines are huge, but have the wimpiest horns you ever heard! Sounds like those little steam whistles on old-fashioned popcorn makers.