China, Beijing

We can say we’ve been to China, but realistically we’ve only been to Beijing, and to be honest, it didn’t impress. Arguably the most un-tourist friendly city I’ve been to. Sure we didn’t have a guide book, stay in touristy areas or visit the main tourist information (if it exists), but we expected that a city that hosted the Olympic games would have at least a handful of people that spoke English, or would at least be interested in speaking to you at all. We did go to the tourist info booth at Tianemen Square. They gave us a map…. all in Chinese. And they didn’t know where the nearest hotel was. You would think that they would be 2 pretty common questions at a tourist information. We went to the train station to buy a train ticket to Mongolia- very silly of us. Everyone knows that you go to the Beijing International Hotel to do that! So we went there to buy a ticket for Friday or Saturday, depending what time it left, but turns out they only leave Tuesday and Wednesday. So change of plans, lets catch a bus. If it wasn’t for our new found couch surfing friend Jeremy, from Singapore, who could speak Chinese, we wouldn’t have had a hope. The bus station was ages away, with no train link or any simple or sensible way of getting there.

Most places we went had squatters for toilets, and they stank! Men don’t even bother closing the door when they’re on the job. Even the house we stayed at was seriously lacking some general hygiene principles.

The roads were chaotic and dangerous to cross. It was almost as quick for our host, Jake, on his bicycle as in a taxi. We caught a little tuk tuk thingy, possibly the dodgiest one on the road, and he had no idea where to go, stopping at every corner to ask for directions. I’m sure the policeman’s response was along the lines of ‘you’re the bloody taxi driver, you should know!’ We agreed with him before we got in that the price was 4Yuan, which was surprisingly much cheaper than the 12Y metered taxi we had caught previously. When we went to pay, he was asking for 40Y, without a word of English. We jumped out, through 4 in the back and took off. The other option for getting around the city is trains and buses. If you want to catch a train, its elbows and claws to be the first on, with no waiting for other people to get off. Buses can be crowded – very crowded – and when you think it’s full, another 20 people will get on at the next stop. But somehow, amazingly, amongst this overcrowded city of people pushing and shoving, when we arrived at the airport train station, a massive open space, there was no people whatsoever!

The Great Wall of China was pretty great (although we did get ripped off on the way there when the bus driver told us to get off early and we had to pay for a ‘taxi’) but surprise, surprise, it was excessively and annoyingly touristy, even though we’d gone to the one further away from the city. Crappy merchandise sellers just wouldn’t leave you alone and a bottle of water was 5 times the price. The coke umbrellas and associated drink sellers on top of the wall were also very annoying.

It seemed that everywhere we went people were trying to rip us off. We did meet a few excessively friendly people at Tianemen Square, some tourists from Southern China, also on their way to visit the forbidden city. Straight away we both thought that something was dodgy and held our bags and wallets tightly. They tried to take us to a bar/cafe. Perhaps that was all they were after – some more customers. Besides them, the forbidden city was very beautiful.

We found all of the food to be very sweet, even if it was a main course. The bakery food was pretty good, but again all of the bread was sugared up to the max.

Basically, we spent 1 day to get to Beijing and the next 3 trying to get out of there… and another 3 to actually get to Mongolia. We left home at 2, to meet Jeremy at 3, to be at the bus station (in the middle of somewhere) by 4, to catch the bus (which you couldn’t book ahead) at 5. The bus was a sleeper bus, the first I’ve ever seen. Fantastic invention! Should be more of them. Sleeps 30. We drove 20 minutes to another station to pick up a load of Mongolians and their load of Chinese wholesale goods. Left there by 7 and 20 mins later we were looking out the window at buildings that we recognised from near home. A long day of not much. My favourite part was when waiting for Jeremy strolling along a little market by myself and trying to buy vegetarian food. Very challenging and fun.

On the bus we met a couple of dentists and Jeremy had a bit of a chat. When we arrived to Erlian, the border town to Mongolia, at 5am, they invited us to their house, gave us showers and then shouted us a traditional Mongolian breakfast at the restaurant near their work. Too nice. Definitely the nicest thing about china (for us).

They helped us find our way around town, bargained a cheaper hotel room for us, and called a mate to take us on a tour to check out the local dinosaur park. Mongolia was once a tropical dinosaur paradise and many fossils have been found around the area. There is still to this day the closest living relative to the dinosaur and it really does look like a dinosaur! Check out the picture.

We agreed a price with the driver, drove 10 minutes out of town, found out we had to pay an entry fee and decided we had been ripped off, so told him we weren’t going to pay. He waited around anyway while we had a wander around the tacky (at best) facilities in the freezing cold wind. When we got back, there was a whole lot of arguing, but we held our ground. He threatened to call the police, which we of course welcomed the idea, then it was straight in the car and we got our price. Big sook really. Just hope we didn’t get our dentist friends in trouble. At the park they had a really good exhibition showing the evolution of man. The following photo, taken at about 0 degrees with 20 degree wind chill factor, shows very clearly how man, whilst evolving into a bigger, stronger species, has lost his ability to cope with the natural elements.

There was no trains today, so we had to stay and try our luck tomorrow. We got to the station at 9am, opening time, to find that we had to cross the road to buy tickets elsewhere – again. There was a queue of people. One of those people was a girl in her early 20’s, wearing red shoes, very similar to Dasha’s new red shoes. ‘What you looking at eh?’ was her question to all 3 of us as we stared. ‘Same shoes, different person.’ And from there on we were friends. We shared a 4 berth cabin on the train, drank whiskey and played cards. She, Indra, was Mongolian and was very friendly and nice. She took us to a cafe and introduced us to Mongolian food when we crossed the border and had some time to kill. An excellent start to Mongolia…..