Articles tagged with "asia"
I had one final day in Taipei. I went to the Longshan Temple, the last of the many, many temples I’d seen in Taiwan. I read that there are 15,000 temples, up from 5,000 only a couple of decades ago. All the ones I saw were incredibly intricate, and very beautiful. Even the Longshan Temple, which was very touristy and crowded, had an atmosphere to it. It seemed to serve as a gathering place for Taipei’s homeless – the sad and dirty crowds of them near the temple were the first real sign of serious poverty that I’d seen in Taiwan. Inside the temple I left some offerings at some shrines and hoped that the monks would make use of them to look after some homeless people.
As I left the temple, a van drove by flying a Chinese flag and shouting something from a loudspeaker. It had confused me at first here that the international news in the China Post was about places like Honduras and Swaziland, until I realised that these are among the few countries which recognise Taiwan instead of the mainland as the “real” China. And while I was there, the big news was that the Gambia had switched allegiance, making the score 170-22 to the mainland.
Later on, I went to Ximen, and there was a big separatist demonstration going on. People were marching around a traffic intersection, crossing each side as the lights changed. I happened to be crossing at the same time and one of the demonstrators spoke to me. He first of all asked me why I was only wearing a t-shirt when it was so cold – the headline in that morning’s China Post had been about a fierce winter taking a grip of Taiwan, with temperatures “plummeting” in places to just 13°C. And then he asked me if I agreed that Taiwan should be independent. I think that self-determination is the only thing that matters, and that if the majority of the people of whatever territory want to be independent, no-one from any other territory has any valid say in the matter. But I also have a tendency to be contrary and I couldn’t help suggesting that the two nations used to be one and was it really OK for a right-wing general who’d lost a civil war to flee to an offshore island and take it over for himself? He was adamant that Taiwan had never been part of China, even if it had spent a few hundred years being ruled from China. We discussed it a bit, I said I agreed that if there was a majority in the island who wanted independence, then that was all that mattered, and with that, we shook hands and the demonstration crossed the next road.
There were buses every hour or so down the gorge, and I made my way downstream. At the first couple of stops there weren’t many people, but lower down it got busier. At Swallow Gorge it was quiet for a few minutes when I arrived, but then a bunch of tour buses arrived, and suddenly the trail along the Liwu River was swarming. A suspension bridge led to the other side, the start of the Zhuilu Old Trail which is supposed to be vertiginous and spectacular, but if you want to hike it you need a permit. Apparently you need to apply for them a week in advance, and planning things a week in advance is not really my travel style. I think the only way I’ll ever hike the Zhuilu Old Trail is if I move to Taiwan so that I can apply for a permit at my leisure.
I walked to the end of the Swallow Gorge trail and back, and apart from the bits where I had to push through crowds of tourists, it was pretty amazing. But it was starting to rain heavily. I headed back to Hualien in a downpour.
I liked Penghu before it went mainstream. With the arrival of two other tourists I felt it was no longer cool to be there. So I headed back to Taipei and got a train to Hualien. The target here was to visit Taroko Gorge, definitely a much more mainstream destination but from what I’d heard, worth braving the crowds to see.
It had been hot and sunny when I arrived but the next morning when I got a bus to Tianxiang it was cloudy and spotting with rain. The bus was full when I got on it but there were only about five people on it by the time we arrived at Tianxiang, the last stop way up in the gorge.
The tiny village was quiet and damp. Nearby there was a temple on a hillside, so I walked up to that. Tianxiang was definitely not the most beautiful part of the gorge, but it looked pretty atmospheric under the heavy skies.
I got a bus from Magong, randomly picking the town of Wai’an as my destination. I love getting buses in places like this – nothing but Chinese characters anywhere in the bus station so it made working out the timetable a bit of a challenge. Then finding the right platform was the next challenge, and finally getting on the right bus at that platform. It all makes the simple act of getting on a bus into some kind of minor triumph, and I was in a great mood as we headed out.
It took about an hour to get to Wai’an. There was supposed to be a lighthouse nearby, which sounded like it might have good ocean views, so I went looking for it. And pretty soon I could see it, but it turned out that there was an inconvenient military base in the way. The gate was open, and possibly you can just walk through if you want to go to the lighthouse, but I didn’t think just strolling into a military base in the middle of the Taiwan Strait was very wise.
So I went to see what else was in the area. I found a sign saying “Fake gun” on the way back into town, and I thought I had to follow it. Wondering what kind of Chinglish mistranslation this was, and what I might find down the path, I was surprised when I arrived at a fake gun. It was a decoy, built by the Japanese towards the end of World War II, to try to dupe US forces into bombing this corner of occupied Penghu instead of their actual anti-aircraft guns.
I spent a week in Taiwan after the conference. I went to the Penghu archipelago, out in the straits between Taiwan and China. It sounded like it was quite off the beaten track and so I decided to go and have a look.
And off the beaten track it was. At least on the first day that I was there, I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner on the islands. Later a German and an Indian turned up in Magong, the main city, and I felt like my territory was being invaded and my status as the outsider undermined. But at first I had the sights to myself. I wandered around Magong and ended up by a bay where waves were crashing against the shore as the sun set.
All week it had been the most beautiful weather, cool and fresh but clear blue skies and lots of sunshine, but at the weekend it took a turn for the worse. I’d got a cable car to Maokong, which was a pretty cool place for night views of the city, but then when I went back to the cable car station to go down, it turned out to be closed because of high winds. They were handing out large numbers of chairs to the people queueing, and we didn’t understand at all what was going on but we took chairs and joined the queue in sitting down. The winds got stronger and stronger and eventually we were all sat in a gale which blasted us with dust and debris. Occasionally the queue moved forward suddenly, but only when we got very close to the front did we work out that they were putting on replacement buses.
The next day, we went up Taipei 101. I always like going up tall buildings in cities at night, and even though this tall building was no longer the tallest one in the world I was still looking forward to going to the top. But, it’s a popular place, the queues were long, and although there was blue sky overhead when we went in, by the time we got to the top it was in cloud. We could see almost nothing.
Back down at the bottom, it was raining. I took a scenic route back to Taipei Main Station via some sculptures.
After Keelung we went out for a drink in a random bar in a random tall building in Xinyi. All astronomy conferences end up being an exercise in how to deal with sleep deprivation, as you catch up with old friends, meet new ones, explore the place you’re in and then get up in time for the start of the next day’s talks. Last night we’d been to a really cool bar but I’d hit a wall of jetlag at about 1am and actually started to fall asleep in the bar. Tonight I was a little bit less jetlagged and survived until closing time.
From Yeliu we went to Keelung. Keelung is famous for its night market, and so the streets were thronging with people out to sample the goods. We all piled in and bought as many unusual foods as we could find. I don’t eat meat so this meant that about 95% of the market had nothing for me. I do eat meat if it’s some interesting animal that I haven’t tried before, but I’ve already eaten squid, octopus, frog, and all of the other unfortunate animals I could see at Keelung.
There were not many foreigners in the market, and we attracted attention. A guy who spoke some english stopped us and asked us where we were from and why we were here. We had a chat about astronomy and Taiwan, and he and his friend told us which food stalls we should go to for the best of Taiwanese street food.
Astronomy conferences have a very standard form. Five days in length, half day on Wednesday with a tour to some nearby attraction offered in the afternoon, conference dinner on Thursday, half day on Friday with another excursion then or over the following weekend. This time the tour was to Yeliu, and from what I saw before I went, it looked like it would be pretty awesome. But actually it was mostly lame. There are some quite cool rock formations there, but it was so incredibly overrun with tourists that it was impossible to enjoy it. Paths followed a strict one way system, there were long queues to see the most famous formations, and there were wardens wandering about the place whistling at anyone who didn’t comply with the system.
Luckily, one of the features of Taiwanese tourism is that people go in great numbers to places that are recognised as being worth visiting, but something equally cool nearby that’s not in the guide books will be deserted. With a few other astronomers, I went for a walk out to a peninsula that had some high cliffs and some nice views over the East China Sea.
I got to Taiwan in darkness, having taken off from Amsterdam in darkness. This was all very confusing. In a jetlagged haze I found my way across the city to where I was staying, struggling all the way to stay awake. By the time I got to the campus of the Academia Sinica, I could hardly even talk. I thought I would sleep for at least two days.
Four hours later I was wide awake. I’d arranged to meet my friend Dave at 10am. He’d come from Canada for the conference and was just as jetlagged as I was. We were both awake stupidly early so we arranged to meet up at 9am. I headed out at 8.30 and bumped into Dave heading down Academia Road to where I was staying. We headed into the city to explore.
I liked Taipei straight away. It had a lot in common with Beijing, but where Beijing is just unfathomably massive, intimidating and confusing, Taipei was approachable and friendly and easy to get around. We had a wander round the city centre and then randomly got the metro to Guandu, where we found a temple, a huge sprawling temple that included tunnels under the hills. It was the first of many, many temples that I saw during the trip.
I went to Stanley on my last day in Hong Kong. I didn’t have any particular aim in mind, I just wanted to see a part of the island outside the city. I wandered through the market a few times, bought some souvenirs, then walked along the sea shore and watched boats passing. I liked the place; the city was just over the hill but the town was very tranquil and relaxed. The market was busy but it was nothing like as crowded as the Peak had been the night before.
After I’d seen enough of the market and the sea, I headed back to the city. I had an idea that I’d go to Lantau island and see what there was there, but it was already 4pm. Lantau is twice the size of Hong Kong island and I thought a couple of hours wouldn’t really do it justice. I’d liked Hong Kong so much more than I’d expected that I knew I’d be coming back. I decided to leave Lantau for the next time.
In the evening I took a tram up to the Peak. At the top was one of the most horrifically commercialised places in a horrifically commercialised city – a towering arcade of shops and cafes, which it took ages to climb through to get to the viewing area. And I was not the only one to make the trip up. Hundreds of eager photographers were jostling for position as the sun set and the city began to look spectacular. Politeness was not rewarded and so after a while of trying to take photos through the sea of heads and arms, I elbowed my way to the front and took in the view for a while. Eventually I was barged aside and shoved towards the back again.
Despite the crowds, the view was pretty breathtaking. The forest of skyscrapers looked incredible as it lit up. I had never had a particular sense of urgency about visiting Hong Kong and had only come here as an aside to my China trip. But now I was here, I was loving it. It was like nowhere I’d ever been before. It was compact and incredibly easy to get around but there were endless things to do and see. I only had one more day left but I thought I could fill weeks.
As I tried to leave, so did everyone else, and it took me an hour to get onto a tram back down.
Back in Hong Kong, I went for a walk around Hong Kong Island. I took the escalators from Central to the Mid-Levels, which took about twenty minutes. Then I wandered slowly back down towards the harbour. I passed the Man Mo temple and had a look in.
It was a sunny day outside, but in the temple the atmosphere was choking. Hundreds of incense coils were burning, and the air was dusty. Only a few shafts of sunlight found their way into the darkness. A few people were making offerings to the effigies of Man the god of literature and Mo the god of war. It reminded me a bit of when I visited San Simón in Guatemala.
I couldn’t stay inside for long. I took a few photos which came out blurred, came out gasping for fresh air, then went back in for another try. I got the picture I wanted, left a small offering to the local gods, and then headed on.
I got a ferry to Macau. As I boarded at the Kowloon ferry terminal, I noticed a sign saying “Dumb walkway swaying. Passengers up-and-down be careful”. Normally I think it’s a bit churlish for foreigners to mock the “Chinglish” which is quite common in these parts. After all, our languages are radically different, and it’s just nice for English-speakers to have signs approximately understandable. But this one was really a good one. The dumb walkway didn’t sway and I got onto the boat without needing to be particularly up-and-down careful.
It was a wet squally day, but I was still disappointed that there was no deck to go out and stand on as we powered across the Pearl River Delta. We docked at Macau just after midday, and it began to rain as I walked towards the centre. Soon it was wildly torrential downpour, and as I took refuge in the doorway of a megacasino I chatted to two passing Bangladeshi students visiting from Shenzhen.
Eventually the rain eased off, and I headed for the Fortaleza da Guia, a Portuguese fortress on the highest point in the city. I’d imagined that Macau would be quite similar to Hong Kong but it had an incredibly different feel to it. The number of colossal tower blocks was staggering, and most of them looked to me like they might crumble and fall at any moment.
Hong Kong was nearly a disaster. I walked through Hung Hom station, found a cashpoint and realised I didn’t have my wallet with me. I searched around for a lost property office, working out what kind of a plan I might have if the wallet was lost. I was imagining getting around by walking, and eating a slice of bread once a day, but luckily when I found the office, they radioed the train and someone found my wallet on the floor of my compartment.
I would have like Hong Kong anyway, but having seen my trip come back from the brink of disaster I was in an excellent mood as I walked out into Kowloon. I headed for Nathan Road and the Chungking Mansions, an incredible rabbit warren of restaurants, shops, currency exchanges and cheap accommodation. You can’t walk into the mansions carrying a rucksack and not get hassled by hotel owners, and I allowed myself to be persuaded into a place on the third floor. For a negligible cost I got myself a spot in a tiny airless room with two stainless steel traders from Bombay and a traveller from Melbourne.
It was cool and humid. As evening fell I walked down to the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, for my first view of the skyline of Hong Kong Island.
It took me a while to buy my ticket to Hong Kong. The easy bit was knowing I needed to ask for ‘Jiulong’, the Mandarin for Kowloon. The much harder bit was finding the ticket office. After lengthy periods in three different queues in two different buildings near Shanghai train station, I finally got my hands on a ticket.
While I’d been in Beijing, watching China’s English-language news channel, one of the stories was that the national rail network had just been upgraded and all journeys were now quicker. If I’d taken this train a week ago it would have been a 24 hour journey, but today it was down to 20 hours. I got a China exit stamp and boarded the train. We headed out of Shanghai, and for hours we passed through its vast suburbs. I didn’t see any significant area of green land before the sun set.
It had been sunny when I left Shanghai. In the morning, we were in the rice fields of southern China, under heavy skies and with rain lashing down. I watched the terraces go by and we approached Hong Kong. I went in search of breakfast, and found the restaurant car just as they were packing away what looked like a magnificent feast. Luckily there was a small shop selling snacks, and I bought some small cakes to see me through the rest of the journey.
We stopped in Guangzhou for a while, then pushed on towards Hong Kong. Soon after Shenzhen, we reached the border, which couldn’t have been clearer – the concrete of Shenzhen abruptly stopped, and the green forests of the New Territories started. The train wound through the mountains, past small villages which became larger villages and towns and eventually the suburbs of Kowloon. At 1pm, on time to the minute, we pulled into Hung Hom Station.
In the morning I was woken at 7am by a thunderstorm, and felt disorientated to find myself in a strange room. I couldn’t sleep, and no-one else was up, so I decided to just hit the road. I’d thought about heading out to the river to see if I could get a boat down to Shanghai, but with heavy rain falling I decided just to get a train. I got the metro to the train station, taking note of the signs instructing me to ‘wait in safe-line’ and ‘care the gap’.
The station was a scene of chaos, and I felt that my lack of Chinese and shattered state was going to make things tricky. But the queues were fast moving, and the English-speaking girl behind the window sold me a ticket for a train leaving for Shanghai in ten minutes. I got on, found my way to a seat, and then slept all the way to Shangai, dreaming crazy dreams.
It was 4pm when I arrived in China’s biggest city, and I hadn’t eaten all day. I got on the metro, assisted by a friendly local who I thought might be after a tip like the woman at Beijing airport had been, but he wasn’t. He asked me where I was going, showed me how to buy a ticket, and was gone before I could say ‘xie xie’. And so I headed from the train station to Henan Zhong Lu, and walked down to the Huangpu River.
Often when I revisit places I’ve been before, I somehow find it difficult to see anything new. It’s too easy just to visit the familiar. I avoided that possibility in Beijing by leaving immediately after the conference. I took a very cheap flight to Nanjing. Lauren, who I’d met on the train to Istanbul a year earlier, was spending a year in China teaching English, and so I decided to spend a couple of days in Nanjing on my way towards Hong Kong.
Nanjing was incredibly different to Beijing. It’s a city of 7 million people but still seemed quite small and manageable compared to the capital. And it is vastly more cosmopolitan, with a huge expat scene. I liked it a lot as soon as I arrived, because I managed to work out firstly how to get a bus from the airport to the city, and then more importantly, where to get off. I left myself with just a short walk down a leafy avenue to get to the university.
I spent a day exploring the city. I thought I would walk from the university to Purple Mountain, which didn’t look far on the map, but turned out to be far enough that I didn’t make it. In Beijing on my first trip there, I’d assumed that city blocks were quite small and that it would take less than half an hour to walk from one corner to the next. I’d been wrong then, and I was wrong again here. This city wasn’t designed to be walked across.
I spent the summer of 2002 working on my PhD in the astronomy department at PKU in Beijing. I had an amazing time in China and so I was very happy when an opportunity to return arose – a conference to be held in the outskirts of Beijing. So, on a Sunday evening in April I headed to Heathrow to start my journey back to China.
Disaster struck early in the journey. Although it was a Sunday there were a few thesis-writing PhD students in the office, and I got a call from one of them saying I’d left my laptop behind. It was too late for me to go back. I tried to persuade them that they could catch the Heathrow Express and get to the airport before me (I was taking the tube) and save me the embarrassment of turning up for my first ever conference talk without said talk in my possession. But they didn’t feel like racing across London on account of my forgetfulness, so I went to China without the main reason for my going.
I was tired and jetlagged when I arrived in China. I got a taxi from the airport to the conference venue in the Fragrant Hills, near where I’d climbed Incense Burner Peak with a People’s Liberation Army engineer on a fearsomely hot August day five years earlier. I managed to transfer my talk from college onto a computer here in China, and so I was able to give my presentation the next day when the conference got under way. A constant supply of green tea kept me awake when necessary during the three days of conference.
By the time we left the Aya Sofia it was sunny again. John wanted to go to a museum, but I fancied some fresh air. I wanted to go to the Prince’s Islands, in the Sea of Marmara, but it took me too long to find the right ferry terminal, and instead I randomly decided to go to Üsküdar, back in Asia and at one end of the mile-long suspension bridge which joins the continents. I walked along the shores of the Bosphorus for a while, stopping occasionally for an ice cream. The waterfront was busy, and the views over to Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet were good. After a couple of hours relaxing in this relatively laid-back part of the city, I headed back to the bustle of Sultanahmet.
It had been a long day, starting as it had at 5am in Aydın. I was tired as I boarded the train, and would have loved to go to sleep straight away. Bu as we pulled out of Denizli, my carriage filled up with boisterous young Turks. The three in my carriage were very friendly, sharing food and practising their English. This mainly consisted of the two boys pointing at the girl and saying “prostitute!”, which she responded to by pointing at one of the boys and saying “wanker!”.
Night fell over central Turkey. In the morning, I woke up feeling angry with my guide book, which claimed that buses were always better than trains in Turkey. This was nonsense – I’d slept fantastically, and as I had a morning coffee in the restaurant car, we were rumbling along by the Sea of Marmara, with curls of mist rising from the waters. This was far better than the night bus to Denizli.
We got to Istanbul at 10.15am. We were two hours late but I was in no hurry. At Haydarpaşa station, I looked at the departures board, saw that a train to Tehran was leaving soon, and thought about what a fantastic journey that would be. But I had to leave Asia behind, and I got on a ferry back across the Bosphorous, to return to Europe for the time being.
From Denizli I could see a bright patch of white on a distant hillside, and this turned out to be Pamukkale. A spring here spouts amazingly mineral-rich waters, and over thousands of years a huge terrace of limestone has built up. The Greeks built the city of Heirapolis here 2200 years ago, and it was a kind of health resort, with ill people hoping the chalky waters would cure them.
We walked up, ditching our shoes and padding barefoot across the soft white ground. Apparently until recently, there were hotels right next to the terraces, and water from the springs had been diverted to fill swimming pools. Without water flowing over them, some of the white cliffs turned brown, and a road was carved across part of the terrace. Recently, many hotels had been demolished, and water flowed over the cliffs again.
We paddled our way to the top of the terraces. Distant mountains towered over the ruins of Heirapolis. In the valley below, Denizli sprawled and gave off a distant roar of traffic. John had decided to stay a night in Denizli, but I felt like getting back to Istanbul, so after a look around Heirapolis I headed back down the terraces, got on the first dolmuş that passed by, and went back to Denizli to catch the Pamukkale Ekspresi back to Istanbul.
I got up before dawn on eclipse day, and walked down to the Temple of Apollo to watch the sun rise. I listened to ‘Mute’, by Porcupine Tree – I’d done the same seven years before on a hilltop in Cornwall, and two years after that by the Zambezi in Africa. We’d decided to watch the eclipse from the end of the breakwater, and by the time we got there shortly before midday, the moon had already begun to cross the face of the sun.
Until the sun is at least half covered, you never notice the light fading, but it gets quicker and quicker, and in the dying few seconds the eeriness is incredible. The sky faded to a deep, deep blue, Venus appeared brightly near the sun, and the sun itself shrunk to a single brilliant point, and then disappeared, leaving a hole in the sky surrounded by the glowing corona.
Probably I’m getting used to seeing eclipses. In Cornwall, I genuinely thought there had been some kind of mistake in the calculations and that it had lasted about 20 seconds instead of the claimed two minutes. The Zambian eclipse was well over four minutes long, and didn’t seem to go quite as quickly as the Cornwall one. This one was also four minutes, and I felt like I actually had time to appreciate what was going on.
The sun returned, to cheers from the crowd. Within a few minutes, it was like the eclipse had never happened. Daylight returned, spectators teemed away from the sea front, and we walked along to the beach to watch the Moon’s silhouette slowly disappear. We chilled in the returned sun for a while, before packing up and leaving Side on a night bus to Denizli.
For the eclipse, we’d decided to go to Side, almost dead on the centre line on the Mediterranean coast. So after a couple of days in Istanbul we got an overnight bus from there to Antalya, a tiring journey in part because overnight bus journeys always are uncomfortable, but also because a bunch of noisy Australians were on the bus as well. I cursed them all night, and then decided they were OK after all when we got chatting to them over breakfast in a cafe at Antalya’s huge and airy bus station. Our transient friendship lasted until they left to get a bus somewhere, while we got another bus to Manavgat, and then a third minibus to Side.
It was hot and sunny, and right outside Side’s small and dusty bus station there were some ancient ruins. The town has Greek and Roman ruins all over the place, and with a day to kill before the eclipse we wandered around and took in the vibe. We were far from the only people who had decided to come here to watch the eclipse, but the town didn’t seem too outrageously busy.
Today we crossed from Asia into Europe. The arbitrary line is marked by an obelisk which I imagine would be almost impossible to get a decent photograph, or even view of, from from the train, but everyone tries anyway. I tried, along with Martin from Sweden who I’d met in the waiting room at Beijing Station, and who’d been a regular in the evening games of Shithead. We walked down the train trying to find a window to try and spot the obelisk from, but people had been staking them out and every one was already occupied. Eventually we got to the restaurant car, and there was a door by the kitchen which was open, with just a small piece of rope to stop passers-by falling from the train. We thought this looked like a good place. But with two kilometres to go, the dragon who ran the restaurant car came and shouted at us, moving us on and looking like she wanted to kill us. By the time we found anywhere else with a view, we were already in Europe.
The dividing line between the two continents is the Ural Mountains, and we spent the day winding through them. They were very different to the endless steppes of Siberia, with rivers and hills and a generally verdant air. We reached Perm not long before sunset, leaving the Urals behind and now having only 1436 kilometres to go until Moscow.
In the night, an apocalyptic thunderstorm blew up. Lightning flashed all around, and rain lashed the carriages. The train suddenly came to a halt – a Russian-speaker who had asked a provodnik later told me it was because of a lightning strike to the overhead power lines – and we were stationary for a couple of hours. While we were stopped, the thunder was so loud and close that the carriages were shaking. Eventually the storm passed. Somehow, the train was restarted, and we pushed on towards Moscow.
With no border to cross during the third night, I got a good night’s sleep for the first time since leaving Beijing. I slept right through Krasnoyarsk and the Yenisei River, which I’d wanted to see, but I woke up in time to see us pass kilometre post 3933, marking the half way point of our journey. One thing that surprised me was how fast we were going. The only other trains journeys I’d done of anything like comparable distance were in Australia, and there the trains never felt like they really got going, rumbling along slowly and averaging about 30 miles an hour. Here in Siberia we were racing along most of the time, eating up the miles, but still needing six days to cover the whole five thousand.
All across Siberia, there were women on station platforms selling hom-made food. At Mariinsk, I’d just bought a tasty bread thing with potatoes and herbs in it, when an out of breath German guy accompanied by two angry-looking Russians rushed up to me and asked me if I could possibly lend him 200 US dollars. I couldn’t, but Andrew from Australia who I’d been talking to had lots of dollars, and by coincidence the German had a lot of Aussie dollars with him, so they came to a deal.
As the train pulled away, we found out what had happened. At a stop two hours earlier, the German had checked with the provodnik that we would be stopping for a little while, and then gone into the station building to buy some water. This involved crossing some tracks. When he came out from the building, there was a vast freight train going by on the tracks between him and us, and by the time it passed, our train had left. He’d got a taxi to the next stop, but arrived there just as our train pulled out. His first taxi driver didn’t want to drive any further, so the two of them got into a second taxi and chased us down. They caught us up at Mariinsk, but then the two taxi drivers demanded extravagant payment. With Andrew’s help, they were paid off, and the German was now laughing about the whole thing. I didn’t think I would have been.
In the afternoon we passed Novosibirsk and crossed over the Ob river. The temperature was 30°C, which seemed strange in Siberia. We had 3335 kilometres and three time zones to cross before Moscow.
I was excited to be in Russia. Getting a visa had been the most difficult thing about my trip: I’d got my Mongolian one with the greatest of ease at 10am one sunny Monday morning in June, and so I thought I’d try and get the Russian one the same day. I walked through Hyde Park to Bayswater Road, and quickly found the queue. Equally quickly I realised it was going nowhere, and I decided to come back earlier the next day. I did that, but it was beginning to look like getting a visa would be more difficult than I’d expected, because I queued for two hours, until the consulate closed, and didn’t even get into the building.
The next day was Russian Independence Day and the consulate was closed. The day after that I went into battle for the third time, arriving at the embassy at 8.15am. At 9am the doors opened and the queue moved forward, but it stopped before I got in the building. Three hours later, the queue hadn’t moved and I was still visa-less. It looked like some serious early starting would be required and so my fourth queue experience began at 6.15am, after I’d got the first tube of the day from Bounds Green into town. This time at 9am I actually got into the building, and I felt like a visa was within my grasp. But again I was denied. The queue moved interminably slowly and I got nowhere near the front. When the shutters came down at midday, a scuffle broke out at the front with someone who needed a visa urgently banging on the glass and demanding to see the consul.
I spent the weekend wondering whether to entirely rethink my plans. It seemed almost totally impossible to get hold of a Russian visa without paying wads of cash to agencies to do it for you. I’d already spent almost twelve hours in the queue and now the only option seemed to be to sleep on the pavement outside.
In the end I decided to do that. Late one warm evening early in my second week of trying to get a visa, I packed up my sleeping bag, thermos and a bag of sandwiches and headed for Kensington for my first experience of sleeping rough. I reached the gate, and to my relief I was the first person there. I bedded down outside, and thought that these were ridiculous lengths to go to. But I was in too deep and I couldn’t pull out of the battle. It was visa or death for me now.
At 2am another visa-seeker arrived, in disbelief that he was not the first in the queue. About half an hour later another person arrived, and people continued to join in ones and twos throughout the night. At 3am it began to rain heavily, and soon there was lightning and thunder. I crawled inside my sleeping bag.
By 6am it had stopped thundering, and an influx of people from the first tubes had started arriving. There were still three hours to wait until the doors would open, and my morale was slipping. I held on, though, and got into the building at 9am. If anyone had tried to push in front of me now, I would have killed them with my bare hands. I went to the window and handed over my forms, pulling twigs from my damp hair and brushing dirt off myself. Half an hour later, my forms had been processed, my passport was taken, and I was told I’d have a visa by the following day. As I staggered away, a security officer was shouting at the queue, saying that they were too noisy and that no more visas would be given out until there was total silence. I left the quietening embassy behind and went home to sleep.
Having gone through all that, I thought that Russia had better be good. And it was, here in the far east. When I got up we were in forests, but soon we reached the shores of Lake Baikal. It looked stunning under big blue skies, with misty mountains visible on the opposite shore. The waves virtually lapped at the tracks at times. We spent a few hours rolling along by the lake before reaching Irkutsk in the mid-afternoon.
In the evening I played cards in the restaurant car. Among the players this evening was a small Mongolian boy, whose parents were traders, travelling back and forth on the train, buying Russian things to sell in China and vice versa. This boy clearly had a lot of time on his hands to perfect the art of Shithead, and he won frequently.
I woke up at 5.30am, and saw a fantastic sunrise over the Gobi Desert. I couldn’t believe that I was really in Mongolia – to me, no country has a name that sounds more remote and forbidding. And the wild expanses were frighteningly empty. Nothing but grass stretched away into the distance as far as I could see. No signs of human habitation interrupted the view.
We sped across the country. Occasionally a single tent would appear in the midst of the howling wilderness, signifying that some solitary nomad was working the land. Then, in the early afternoon signs of people became more numerous, and we were approaching Ulaanbaatar. There were no buildings in the outer parts of the city – just tents. I’d never expected the capital to look like a giant campsite, but it seemed that even urban Mongolians did not wish to stray far from their nomadic roots, and were always ready to move on at a moment’s notice.
The centre of the city was a different story. Unpaved muddy streets ran between concrete monstrosity buildings, and the whole thing seemed to me to be the ugliest place I’d ever seen. I had been talking to an Australian journalist on the train, who was about to live here for a year working for an English-language newspaper, and I wondered what she was thinking as we pulled into the station. I’d have been thinking “Screw this, I’m staying on until Moscow” if I’d been her.
We moved on. Southern Mongolia had been flat and grassy; northern Mongolia was hilly and barren. The lack of population was striking, and I had a huge craving to come here and trek in the emptiness. That would have to wait for another trip though. I watched the country go by, mesmerised by it.
In the evening I went to the restaurant car. Last night it had been a Chinese Railways restaurant car; we’d ditched that at the border and picked up a Mongolian one, so I got the classic Mongolian meal of mutton. I met a few other travellers over dinner, and once darkness had fallen we played cards until we reached the Russian border at Sukhbaatar. Last night’s border crossing had been slow, but this one was even slower, despite there being no wheel changing operation. We arrived at 9.30pm, and spent a couple of hours going through the Mongolian formalities. Then we rumbled over to Naushki in Russia, and I was not surprised at all that the Russian formalities took a very long time. Part of the reason was the smuggling – a lot of people on the train were carrying a lot of goods on which they didn’t want to pay import taxes, and a lot of distribution of possessions had gone on. Maybe some people get caught; more likely, a bribe or two is paid here and there. Everyone in my carriage got through the customs checks OK, and at 5.30am we powered off into Russia.
My day started brutally early at 4am, and I finished packing with a hint of dawn in the sky. I left my flat for the last time at 5am, walked along to the East Gate and found a taxi. I was worn out by the time I got there, and regretted having bought so much stuff, which I would have to carry eight thousand miles home.
I watched the blocks of sky scrapers go by. As we drove along Chang’an, the sun was just peeking over the horizon, and the flag was being raised in Tiananmen Square. I got to the station in plenty of time and found my way to the waiting room. I got on the train at 7am, and found my way to my compartment. It seemed unbelievable to think that it would be my home for the next six days.
As we started to pull out of Beijing Station at 7.40am, I was feeling something like butterflies in my stomach with the anticipation of what this journey would be like. I watched as Beijing gradually melted away into the surrounding hills, and after a couple of hours we were in rural northern China. A few scattered parts of the Great Wall occasionally appeared on the tops of hills.
Tired from my early start, I slept a bit during the day, but mostly I was just watching the scenery go by. By 7pm, we were a few hundred miles from Beijing, and we were in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. An amazing sunset was the last thing I saw in China, and a couple of hours after nightfall we reached the border with Mongolia at Erlian.
We spent five hours at the border. First of all, all the wheels on the train had to be changed, because the tracks in Mongolia are wider than the ones in China. Then we had passport and customs checks from the Chinese, a long slow rumble over the border to Dzamyn Ude, and then more passport and customs checks from the Mongolians. The Mongolian entry forms were printed in Mongolian and English only, and so I made many Chinese friends in my carriage by filling in all their forms for them. I had offered the favour to my three room-mates, not knowing that they had about twenty friends in neighbouring compartments. My wrist was aching by the time we left Dzamyn Ude at 2.30am.
My final day in China dawned amazingly cool and fresh. I had lots to finish so I was up and about early, and my first task was to take some photos of the campus. I headed out at 6am, and spent a couple of hours walking around, enjoying Chinese park life. A couple of times I’d been across here early enough to see all the communal activities that take place in Chinese parks early in the morning. What I liked best was the ranks of people practising their taiji moves. There were also people practising plays, speaking English to each other, jogging, and all sorts of other things. It seemed like a very friendly atmosphere, and I was sad to be leaving this.
In the evening, I went out for a meal with Xiaowei, some other professors in the department, and a few of the students. We went to a place near the campus that did Peking Duck, and although I’d largely lost my sense of taste due to a head injury two years previously, I could taste enough to find it absolutely delicious. In the usual Chinese way, a constant stream of food was brought out, which twice as many people would have had difficulty finishing. Tasty dish after tasty dish arrived at the table, and I was bloated and waddling by the time we left.
I said goodbye to everyone, went for a last walk around the campus lake, and then headed back to my apartment on Chengfu Lu to pack up. I’d had a fantastic six weeks in Beijing, but now I was looking forward to a long journey home.
It was my last free day in Beijing. I got up at 5am because I wanted to go to Shidu, but again I was thwarted – the weather was horrible, with rain lashing down. I stayed at home until 10am or so, by which time the weather was nicer but it was too late to think about going to Shidu.
I decided instead to go to Xiang Shan – the Fragrant Hills. This would be my greatest triumph on the buses – I went to a nearby bus stop, and after only half an hour of staring at the map in a deep trance of pure concentration, I worked out that I could get the 332 to Yiheyuan and then the 737 to Xiang Shan.
As I got off the bus and walked towards the park entrance, a guy walking along beside me started talking to me. His name was Yanlong, and he turned out to be an engineer in the People’s LIberation Army, and he was doing one of his three-times-weekly climbs of Incense Burner Peak, the highest point in the park at 557m high. I had been thinking of getting the cable car up there, but felt now that that would involve a serious loss of face. So I said I would be happy to walk up with Yanlong, and up we went.
The heat and humidity made it a difficult climb. People coming down the trail were soaked from head to toe, and I felt like I probably would be too. Yanlong said his best time for the climb was 28 minutes. I thought we’d be lucky to get up in less than an hour. But Yanlong set a rapid pace, and we ascended at speed. Occasionally he would permit a moment’s rest to drink some water. We reached the top in 45 minutes, and I felt shattered. “You did very well!”, said Yanlong, but I’m not sure he really meant it.
It was hazy, but the views from the peak were pretty awesome. I chatted to Yanlong while looking out over the outskirts of Beijing. I was sad that I would soon be leaving: in six weeks I’d started to feel quite at home here. Just as I was getting the hang of the place, I was running out of time.
We ambled slowly down the hill again, passing more sweaty people coming up. At the bottom, I said goodbye to Yanlong. I was glad I’d met him – I might not have climbed the hill otherwise. A decent hike up a hill with a good view was a good thing to have done on my last weekend in Beijing.
When I first arrived in China it had been viciously humid, but not too hot. Then the humidity dropped and the temperature rocketed, and after a few days I decided I quite liked 40°C temperatures. Over the last couple of days the temperatures had dropped a little bit, but the humidity shot up to 90%. Today was even worse than yesterday had been at Huanghua. I was exhausted by my five minute walk to work, and after twenty minutes outside at lunchtime I was starting to look like someone had thrown a drink over me. I stayed in my air-conditioned office until late. I spent a little while looking up equations for how to convert a temperature and a humidity into what it actually feels like, and for today’s conditions the answers were between 53 and 60°C. I was massively relieved at 9pm when it began to thunder.
Visiting the Great Wall was one of the first things I’d done in China. At Simatai, the setting of the wall is spectacular, but although it’s not as touristy there as other restored parts of the wall, I fancied visiting a more remote part of the wall. I headed for Dongzhimen bus station, and got a bus to Huairou. At Huairou, there should have been a bus to Huanghua, an unrestored and little-visited part of the wall, but I had no map, no idea of where the bus stop might be, and a crowd of taxi drivers telling me there were no buses anyway. Rather than wander aimlessly I decided to go with the taxi plan, and soon afterwards arrived at a hamlet by a reservoir, from which the wall snaked away over the hills.
The weather wasn’t great. It was warm and extremely humid, and mist was draped over the hillsides. Huanghua clearly wasn’t so remote that no-one went there – a small restaurant in town had a sign saying “Mentioned in Lonely Planet! Only restaurant at Huanghua!” on it. But as I set off up the wall I was quickly out of sight of anyone, and enjoyed the solitude.
The wall was crumbling and overgrown here, and it was quite a strenuous hike up it. Soon I was sweating impressively, and after half an hour or so I looked like I’d jumped in a swimming pool. The mist made the scene quite atmospheric, and I was not unhappy that it wasn’t sunny like it had been at Simatai.
I plodded up the wall for three hours, and met two foreigners and five or six locals along the way. I walked up to Gaping Jaw, a valley into which the wall plunges down Sawtooth Slope. The slope was as steep as anything at Simatai, and I would have walked down it, but that would have committed me to probably another hour of walking before another path back to Huanghua unless I wanted to retrace my steps, and I was running out of water. So I headed away from the wall, taking a forest path which led me back to Huanghua village.
I wasn’t sure what I’d arranged with my taxi driver. Due to language difficulties, I had no idea if I’d hired him to take me back to Huairou or not, but when I got back to the village he was there waiting for me. He wasn’t much impressed with how I looked after three hours of hot, humid hiking, though, and he looked like he was going to tell me to bugger off and get the bus. But grudgingly he drove me back to Huairou, and I got a bus back to Beijing from there.
I went to Tiananmen Square again this evening. For a few days the weather had been grim but today was much sunnier and hotter. I left work at 3.45pm, and got a disastrously slow bus down the road. It took about two hours to reach the centre, and first of all I went to the Friendship Store to get more cheese. Since my first batch ran out I’d been getting serious cravings. I had no idea how much I’d missed it.
Having done my shopping I headed for the square. As night fell, it was an incredibly pleasant place to be. It was full of families, people playing football and badminton, people flying kites, rollerblading, skateboarding, and generally socialising. The atmosphere was friendly and I stayed for a while, taking a few night photos and liking the vibe a lot.
Today I tried to go to Shidu, a scenic area about 100km from Beijing, but when I went to Lianhuachi, where the long distance bus station was supposed to be, I couldn’t find it. This was an unexpected obstacle, and it seemed ridiculous, but I wandered the area for a while and there didn’t seem to be a bus station here. Bemused, I rethought my plans, and headed back to Tiananmen to finally make my acquaintance with Mao.
The skies were heavy and as I found my way to the back of the queue for the mausoleum, it began to rain. I queued for about half an hour, getting wetter and wetter, and so it was quite a disappointment to finally reach to mausoleum only to be rushed through with barely a couple of seconds allowed to glance at the orangey features of China’s ambiguous hero. There were people by the glass case whose job it was to rush us through, and before I knew it I was out the other side, in a tacky souvenir shop. I passed up the opportunity to buy Mao cards, Mao lighters, or a copy of the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.
After Mao, I got the metro to Jianguomen, and visited Beijing’s Ancient Observatory. It sits on top of a watchtower which used to be part of the city walls, and although the surrounding buildings are much taller, the views are pretty impressive. Not exactly aesthetic, but good for getting an impression of the kind of pace Beijing works at, with traffic pouring by and skyscrapers all around.
The Friendship Store was nearby. For years, entry to the store was restricted to foreigners only, excepting maybe a few elite Party members. The opening of China had long since made the concept of a foreigners-only shop redundant, but the Friendship Store still survives. It’s a very easy place to buy souvenirs – more expensive than any market, but plenty of people are willing to pay that premium for a less frenetic shopping experience. I just bought postcards, before heading down to the supermarket in the basement. For me, this was a fantastic place. As well as typical Chinese food – including an entire shark’s fin that could have been mine for just a couple of thousand pounds – it also had things that foreigners like. Cheese is not a big part of Chinese cookery and they certainly didn’t have any in the shop on the university campus, but here they had a huge selection. I suddenly realised how much I’d been missing cheese, and bought a block of edam.
I left the Friendship Store and got the metro to Junshibowuguan station. There was a bus from there to the University and I was determined to work out how to get it. It was actually more straightforward than I’d expected – the information in my guide book was for once not out of date, and it was the number 6 bus I wanted. I knew the characters for ‘Beijing Daxue’, so it was easy to check that it did indeed go to the university. I paid my 2Y fare and vowed not to get a taxi in Beijing again if I could possibly help it.
The first time I went to Tiananmen Square I was too late in the day to see Chairman Mao. Today I went back to try again, but I couldn’t find the left luggage office to drop off my bag until it was too late. Instead, I chilled in the square in the hot sunshine for a while, only encouraged to move on by the frequent attentions of ‘arts students’. Every time I went anywhere near Tiananmen Square, it would only be a matter of time before I was accosted by someone who would turn out to be a member of a group of arts students from some remote province of China, visiting the capital and with an exhibition near by. The first time, I thought this sounded quite cool and went along to where their exhibition was, saw some moderately interesting art, refused to part with wads of cash to buy any, and went on my way. I realised there was more to this than met the eye when another arts student started talking to me only half an hour later in a different part of town. Almost every time anyone started a conversation with me, they would turn out to be an ‘arts student’. Sometimes they’d give me the spiel straight away; other times we’d chat for quite a few minutes before the truth came out.
As I wandered south with no particular plan in mind, one particularly persistent arts student walked with me. He was quite a bit too old to be a student, and probably, where all the others were only partaking in the mildest of scams, he was actually trying to rip me off. I walked into the narrow streets around Dazhalan, and managed to shake him off in the crowds.
I walked randomly, buying the occasional street snack from a vendor, until I ended up on Qianmen Dajie. I walked down this main road until I got to Tiantan Park, and went to explore the Ming temples in there. Most of the park was very relaxed and pleasant, but the main sight of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was probably the most crowded place I visited in Beijing. I got caught in a flow of visitors and swept through rapidly. I escaped from the crush and headed over the Bridge of Vermillion Stairway to quieter parts.
I headed north again, and walked to Wangfujing, one of Beijing’s oldest shopping streets. There was an excellent night market here where I bought some great food, my favourite being deep-fried octopus. Once I’d filled up there, I headed home. I’d been getting taxis everywhere so far, as they were cheap and very convenient, but I decided it was time to get acquainted with the public transport system. I got the metro to Xizhimen, the closest metro stop to the university at the time, and got a taxi home from there. My next target was to work out the buses.