A train journey across half the planet
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It was a sunny June day. I left my house at 6am and walked to Bounds Green station, slightly unable to believe that I wouldn't be back until almost September. I rumbled under London on my 33-stop journey to Heathrow Airport, and from there I flew to Zürich.
I had four hours to kill in Zürich before my flight to Beijing, and I got a train from the airport into the city. I wandered randomly down what looked like a main street, until I found a coffee shop. With half-remembered German from years ago I bought myself an espresso, and then a caramel iced coffee. I didn't have time to do much more than that, so after a quick wander down to the river I headed back to the airport for my next flight.
For reasons that were never clear to me, I was upgraded to business class for the Beijing flight. I thought this would be awesome and imagined being fed fondue and chocolates by beautiful Swiss stewardesses all the way to China, but in the end it wasn't so great. I didn't have a lot of legroom, the stewardesses treated me as if they knew I hadn't paid for the place I was in, and there weren't even personal TV screens. But as the sun set over Europe, we flew over Poland, Belarus and Russia, reaching Moscow in the late evening. I looked down on the city and could see the Moskva River snaking through it. I was looking forward to coming back this way, eight kilometres below my present level.
I slept, hoping to wake up in time to see Mongolia in the morning. But it was cloudy across north-east Asia and Mongolia was hidden from view. When we landed in Beijing the skies were leaden and the humidity was astonishing. I was met at the airport by Yong, another student of Xiaowei's who I'd met in Australia a few months previously, and we got a taxi to PKU. As rain began to fall, I felt very excited to be in China.
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My base in Beijing was a very comfortable apartment on Chengfu Lu, a few minutes walk from the university. Having sorted out various administrative things on Friday, I then had the weekend to started getting acquainted with this massive city. I spent Saturday walking around the vast and beautiful campus of the university, and a few of the nearby parts of the surrounding area of Zhongguancun. It is about five miles from the city centre, but as China's technology hub it is far from being a distant suburb.
by Sunday I was recovered enough from jetlag to head for the centre. I walked down Zhongguancun Beilu, found a taxi rank and tried out some Mandarin. "Tiananmen Guangchang", I said, but my tones were clearly way off and in the end I had to point at my guide book. We set off through Beijing, and the scale of the city that I was seeing for the first time took my breath away. Eight lanes of traffic sliced through forest of giant buildings, and construction was everywhere. China's economic boom was evident.
After half an hour we arrived at Tiananmen Square. The air was thick with mist, and with the temperatures in the high twenties the atmosphere was quite oppressive. From one side of the square I couldn't see the other, which really brought home the point that it's the largest city square in the world. I walked around, taking in the atmosphere.
One vital point of reference here is Mao's mausoleum, but today I was too late to go in. Instead, I walked north, through the Forbidden City, ending up at Jingshan Park. Jingshan is an artificial hill, built to the north of the Forbidden City for feng shui reasons. It's an excellent place for views over the city, and even in the mist Beijing looked awesome.
The world cup final was on this evening, and I thought that Sanlitun, Beijing's main entertainment district, would probably be a good place to go. It didn't look like it would be too far to walk, on my map, but I was totally underestimating the scale of the city. About an hour and a half later I reached Sanlitun, and found a bar with a big TV screen to watch the game. A large number of German ex-pats were around to see if their team could beat Brazil, and as Germans do, many of them had arrived very early and marked out the territory which they wanted to occupy later. A fight almost broke out shortly before kick-off when someone strayed onto someone else's turf, but once the game started, all eyes were on the screen.
Germany were despatched 2-0, to the disappointment of most people in the bar. I'd been an entirely neutral observer so I was quite happy. And I was very happy when I got into a taxi, said "Beijing Daxue Dong Men" and got taken straight away to the East Gate of the University. Perhaps I would be able to make progress with Mandarin after all.
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On Monday I started work at the university. In London I lived 45 minutes away from college, but here I was just five minutes away, which was awesome. The only problem was that Zhongguancun Beilu lay between my flat and the university. Only in the very small hours was this vast highway anything less than pounding with traffic, and so every morning and evening I had a real life game of Frogger to get across. Some mornings there was a policeman to coordinate the flow of people and cars, and I always breathed a sigh of relief if he was there.
During my first week, the mist which rendered the city grey and threatening gradually lifted and the sun appeared. This instantly sent temperatures rocketing into the thirties. I spent my lunch breaks wandering the campus, slowly getting to know my way around. One evening I walked over to the West Gate of the university, outside which there were apparently a lot of bars. When I got over there, all I could see was a vast expanse of brownfield land. The area had been demolished, to make way for new buildings. The pace of change in Beijing was so frenetic that three or four places mentioned in my recently published guide book had disappeared in this way.
At the end of week one, I made a quick trip into town to buy a very important thing: my ticket to Moscow. I wasn't sure if this would even be possible, as I wanted to travel in the middle of August and had heard that tickets could be sold out months in advance. But I was in luck, and got hold of a ticket for the very reasonable price of 1602 Yuan - about £125.
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By the weekend, the mist had disappeared, and temperatures were into the high thirties. Early on Saturday morning I left my flat to head for the Great Wall at Simatai. I went to Dongzhimen bus station, where I spent some time trying to work out which bus I could get. It was kind of obvious that I would be heading for the wall, and one hopeful tout told me it would be 100Y to get there. His dishonesty was impressive - there were no direct buses to Simatai, and the bus to the nearest town at Miyun was only 6Y. I got the bus to Miyun, and from there got a taxi to the wall at Simatai. I had fun haggling over a price by pointing at numbers in my Mandarin phrase book, and once the deal was settled we headed off.
It was nice to be out of the city, and the countryside around Miyun was impressively rugged. After an hour or so, I caught my first sight of the wall, snaking along the top of a serrated mountain ridge, and soon after, we arrived at the base. I set off eagerly to walk up the wall.
Simatai is an incredibly steep section of wall, and in fearsome heat I set off slowly. For the first twenty minutes or so I was tailed by an incredibly persistent old woman trying to sell me postcards, but after a bit of acclimatisation to the conditions I was able to put on a burst of pace and shake her off. I walked a couple of miles along the wall, to a high point with amazing views over the surroundings. The wall snaked off into the green hazy distance, and I was impressed at the thought that it went all the way from here out into the Gobi Desert.
At the highest watchtower that I reached, there was a man with a cool box selling coke. I wouldn't normally have wanted to buy something so foreign while walking up the national symbol of China, but in the baking heat I decided to relax my principles. The coke was so cold it had ice in it, and it tasted spectacular. My principles would never be the same again. I headed down, met my taxi driver at the bottom and headed for Miyun, Dongzhimen and home again.
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In my second week in China, the department was organising a three day trip to Qinhuangdao, 200 miles from Beijing on the coast of the Yellow Sea. It was partly a mini-conference and partly just a holiday, and as well as most of the department from PKU there were also some people from Shanghai Astrophysical Observatory. We left Beijing at 7am on the Monday morning, and had a pleasant four hour journey through fields and mountains to the sea.
We arrived at about midday, and the first priority was lunch. The emphasis was on sea food and I had all sorts of things I hadn't tried before, like jelly fish. After lunch I went to the beach to play football with the other students, having an extraordinarily strenuous game in 40°C heat. After twenty minutes of getting burnt from all directions - sun above, sand cooking our feet below - we decided today wasn't the day for football, and just relaxed on the beach instead.
On the Tuesday we had three hours of talks in the morning. Most of them were given in Chinese, so I didn't take a whole lot away from them. I gave a talk but spoke much too quickly and so many of my audience probably didn't take a whole lot away from mine either. After that fair exchange, the work part of the trip was over, and we headed back to the beach for more games of football in the stunning heat. Later in the evening I went for a walk with a few of the students to a nearby night market, and then we sat on the beach and relaxed under the stars until late. It was my 24th birthday.
The next day we went on an excursion to Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea. It was staggeringly full of tourists, so that it was quite difficult to move around, so I found the end of the wall more impressive in concept than reality. I hoped one day I'd visit the other end at Jiayuguan, over a thousand miles inland from here.
On the way back to Beijing, I was dozing in the bus when I became aware that we'd developed a vibration. A regular, rapid thudding had started, and it was gradually getting worse. After half an hour or so it was becoming intolerable, and then suddenly, the tyre right below where I was sitting exploded. We careered along the motorway and slid to a halt. Luckily all the passengers were intact, and the only damage was to the bus. The head of the department made some calls, and we waited on the hard shoulder. About an hour later, a minibus arrived, and ferried us to a nearby service station. We got some dinner there, and then about an hour after that, another bus arrived to take us back to Beijing. We got back safely at midnight, seven hours after we'd left the coast.
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After a couple of days back at work it was the weekend again, and time for me to set out exploring once more. My first target was the Summer Palace, one of China's most impressive imperial treasures. It's only a couple of miles from the university, but I thought I would get a cab as the temperatures were nearing 40°C, and I thought I might die of dehydration if I walked. But in the end, there was only one cab by the East Gate of the university, and he wouldn't take me. With my Mandarin still not even reaching appallingly basic, I couldn't even begin to understand why. I decided to brave the heat and walk it.
I didn't actually look around the Palace itself: I didn't fancy being indoors on such a hot day. So I just spent a few hours walking around Kunming Lake, and over the famous 17-arch bridge to a small island. I frequently passed stalls selling ice cream, and I frequently gave them business. I spent quite a while sat on the island, enjoying being in the middle of a tranquil lake, surrounded by the Western Hills.
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It had been unbelievably hot ever since the fog had lifted, a few days after I arrived in China. I'd never experienced anything like it before, but living in an air-conditioned apartment and working in an air-conditioned office made acclimatisation easier. Today it was even hotter still, breaking 40°C. I decided to seek higher altitudes, and thought maybe it would be cooler at the top of the CCTV Tower.
It's an unfortunate acronym: it stands for China Central Television, but a tower overlooking the entire city being called the CCTV Tower certainly has a bit of a Big Brother air to it. I got a taxi down the road from the University to Gongzhufen metro station, near the tower, and walked the short distance there with the assistance of a couple of litres of cold water that I'd brought with me. The heat was more bearable than I thought it would be, but I drank stunning quantities of water without even trying.
At the tower, I had to leave my bag in the cloakroom at the bottom. This was unfortunate because I was carrying a lot of camera gear. I went into über-tourist mode, draping a camera and two lenses around my neck, and filling my pockets with film. I left my now-empty bag in the cloakroom, and headed up to the observation deck, 238m above the city.
What hit me first was the wind. There was plenty of it up there, and it was hot. It was like standing in a hairdryer, and I felt like all the moisture was being sucked out of me. I'd never felt anything like it before. The next thing that struck me was the view, which was incredible. The tower is in the western part of the city, and looking east I could see nothing but city. A forest of skyscrapers stretched away into the distance, with the flatness of the terrain only interrupted by Jingshan Park a few kilometres away. I was staggered at the number of highrise buildings - London has very few. Beijing probably has more in every central city block than London has in total. Looking west it was a different story. The buildings were getting lower and the Western Hills rose beyond the city limits.
I spent a few hours up the tower, waiting for sunset. When it came it was spectacular, with the lights of this vast, energetic, changing city shining from everywhere, while Venus set into the blazing twilight skies over the Western Hills. I didn't really want to leave, but I'd run out of water and I couldn't afford more than one coke in the rotating restaurant. Eventually I had to come down, and in the slightly cooler evening I walked back up to Chengfu Lu.
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The Old Summer Palace was only a short walk from the university, but it was still hard to find. There was an extreme lack of English signage to it, and I hadn't yet learned more than about 15 chinese characters, so it took me a while to find the entrance and work out where to buy a ticket.
Once I was in, I found it quite a strange place. It was very quiet and tranquil, but with a slightly spooky atmosphere because all the lakes were completely choked with reeds and looked slightly threatening. Inside, there were more English signs than there had been outside, but unfortunately most of these were only to remind me that my forebears had been a bunch of cultural vandals of the highest order. Together with the French, in 1860, the British had destroyed this place, and frequently there were signs marking the spot of some former building which had been one of humanity's most glorious achievements, only to be torn down by the British and the French.
The palace grounds were vast and maze-like, and I got totally lost. I was still somewhere in the grounds when night began to fall. I was probably only a few metres from the exit, but in the end I had to retrace my steps over the entire route I'd followed to find my way out. I emerged into the city again just as it was getting properly dark.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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I don't think I'd been tipping when I ate in the restaurant car. In China, there was no tipping. The first time I tried leaving some change on the table, the waiter came after me with it, thinking I'd left it by mistake. Russia was completely the opposite, and tipping lavishly is vital, especially when there is only one place to eat and you have to go there every day. But I had got used to not tipping, and I kept forgetting. By the final morning they had clearly got fed up of me. I was going to have a final breakfast with a bunch of people I'd been hanging around with, but the woman in the restaurant car wouldn't serve me. Everyone else got their food, but my order was met with a look of extreme disapproval and a sharp "nyet". Then we tried to play cards as we watched western Russia pass by, but the woman came over and shouted at us until we left.
Being hungry just added to the slightly melancholy air of my final morning. I actually didn't really want to arrive in Moscow, and I would have been quite happy to sit on the train for another six days. The kilometre posts were now in triple figures, so we'd travelled more than seven thousand kilometres, and I watched them slowly count down. It seemed odd to feel so close to the end, when were still a few hundred miles away yet.
We got to Moscow's pointy-roofed Yaroslavsky Station fifteen minutes early, after a journey of 132 hours. Just before I'd left Beijing I'd e-mailed a hostel to book a bed and a lift from the station, but they hadn't replied so I wasn't sure if I would be homeless or not, but there was a man outside the station with a battered car and a sign saying 'Roger', so off I went to the Hostel Sherstone.
I headed straight out into Moscow. I got lost on the way to Vladykino metro station, which was a good distance away through grim-looking estates full of box-like apartment buildings, and then got lost at the other end as well. Borovitskaya metro looked quite close to Red Square on the map, but I walked for quite some distance before I suddenly found it. I'll never forget the sight of St. Basil's Cathedral appearing in front of me, more preposterous and impressive in real life than it ever looked in all the photos I'd ever seen of it.
That night, back at the Sherstone, after I'd gone to bed and was laying in the dark, I had the sound of the train in my ears, and I felt like I was still rocking about as we clattered along the longest railway in the world.
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I spent my first day in Moscow just wandering randomly. I bumped into a girl who had been on the train, and we had lunch together. She joined me on the random wander, and we walked down from Arbatskaya where we'd eaten to the Moskva River, along past the grotesque statue of Peter the Great, which is one of the tallest statues in the world, and then to Red Square. All roads led back to here in the end. Among the downsides of this iconic place were frequent police checks which clearly targeted foreigners, and large numbers of people trying to sell stamps and banknotes from Soviet times at vastly inflated prices. But the upsides were the spectacular sight of St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin, Lenin's mausoleum, and the feeling of being at the very heart of Russia.
On my second day I met some more people who had been on the train, and we went into St. Basil's. Like the Tardis, it was far bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside, and its twisting corridors were full of pre-renaissance art. We also went to the Kremlin, which was very impressive, but I'd made a major tactical error with my camera: bags had to be left at one of the gates, and I'd left my camera in my bag, so I didn't get any photos of the views over the river, the churches on Sobornaya Ploshchad, and the giant Tsar Kolokol bell, which cracked before it ever rang a note.
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I changed hostels after a couple of days in Moscow, because some people I'd met on the train were staying in the Hostel Asia, and it sounded much nicer than the Sherstone. So I headed over there early one morning with all my colossal backpacks, only to find that the lifts weren't working. The Hostel Asia is on the 15th floor. It was a very hot day. I did not feel happy when I reached the top.
After recovering over breakfast, I headed to Red Square once again, and went to visit Lenin. My glimpse of Mao had been a very brief one, but Lenin turned out to be much more civilised. The queue was quite long and it didn't move very fast, but once I made it inside, there was no great pressure to move on. He was more subtly lit than Mao, and looked much less orange. In fact, he looked remarkably good for someone who had died 76 years beforehand. Some might say he looked suspiciously good.
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If the VDNKh was a country, it would be as big as Monaco and the Vatican City put together. This huge area in the north of Moscow is the site of what used to be the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, and is now a massive marketplace, where everything you can get in Moscow is on sale. I went there with Andrew and Paul who had been on the train.
At the entrance to the VDNKh is a monument to the Soviet exploration of space. By all sensible measures, the USSR dominated the early space race, being the first to put a satellite into orbit, a person into orbit, and probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars. In later years their dominance was eroded, and the Russian space programme suffered a crushing blow in 1996 when a Mars-bound probe, on which scientists had worked unpaid for years since the fall of the USSR, exploded in the Earth's atmosphere. Now they mainly do rent-a-space-station activities, taking obscene amounts of money from a select band of obscenely wealthy people to put them on the International Space Station for a week.
They achieved so much but fell so far, and for that reason I found the soaring monument quite poignant. The rest of the VDNKh was also pretty poignant, with giant pavilions formerly the site of exhibitions from all the Soviet republics now filled with market traders. Along broad avenues between the pavilions, fountains played under the hot sun, and triumphal arches towered over it all.
The whole time I was in Moscow I felt an atmosphere of fading grandeur. The city had been the capital of a superpower. The power had faded but the relics were left behind. Nowhere was this feeling stronger than at the VDNKh, where the former celebration of the achievements of communism was now overrun with pure capitalism. As the sun began to set, I head back to the Hostel Asia.
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On my last day in Moscow, I invested 3 roubles and 50 kopeks - about seven pence - in a trip on the metro. It's famously grand, and I'd already travelled on it a lot, but today my mission was to take photographs. I travelled around the brown line, which has the most lavishly decorated stations. Each one felt like a museum, with Socialist Realist murals covering the walls, chandeliers to light the corridors and a well-kept feel. In all the tearing down of statues that accompanied the fall of communism, it seemed like some kind of oversight that all these stations were left with all their communist regalia.
Besides being impressively decorated, the metro was also much more frequent and seemed to be more reliable than the London underground. I never had to wait more than two minutes for a train, even late at night, and never had a breakdown. My favourite station was Kievskaya, which had the most impressive murals and grandest atmosphere.
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I'd only meant to spend a couple of days in Moscow at first, but it had held on to me for six days and I really wanted to stay longer. But I was still almost two thousand miles from home and I had to be back at work in just over a week, so I bought a ticket for a train to Warsaw, via Belarus, and reluctantly left Russia.
Compared to the epic crossing of the vastness of Siberia, I thought the journey might seem quite quick, and it did. We left Moscow at 3pm, and it seemed like about five minutes later that we reached Smolensk. The Russian border was somewhere soon after Smolensk, but we didn't stop. It seemed that Belarus and Russia were only nominally separate countries.
One thing this journey lacked was food. All throughout Siberia there had been home-made food being sold on station platforms, and it was delicious. In western Russia no-one was selling, except for a woman with a box of ice creams on Vyazma station, three hours out of Moscow. One ice cream is not an adequate dinner, and I would have eaten something more filling in the restaurant car, except this train didn't have a restaurant car. The only other food available was a free croissant in the sleeping cabin.
We entered Belarus at sunset. I was sad not to be seeing any of this enigmatic country, but I only had a transit visa so I couldn't stop off. I woke up in the middle of the night when we stopped at Minsk station, and got off the train to stretch my legs. I was feeling quite adventurous, being in what is always described as Europe's last communist dictatorship, and a country with isolationist tendencies of almost North Korean proportions, but this feeling was shattered when I noticed a McDonalds in the station building.
I slept again until the border with Poland, which we reached at dawn. We stopped first at Brest, where everyone piled off the train into duty free and stocked up on booze. Vodka and toblerone were the only things on sale in the station shop. By now I was starving beyond belief, but didn't fancy toblerone for breakfast, so I stayed hungry until we finally rolled into Warszawa Centralna station at 9.45 in the morning.
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I didn't really do much in Warsaw. I'd walked miles and miles every day in Moscow, but I couldn't muster up the same enthusiasm here. The city was like a small village in comparison to Moscow, and once I'd walked around the old town, I felt like I'd seen it all. So I just relaxed, sitting in the Saski gardens reading, and having the odd ice cream on Nowy Swiat when I felt like walking there.
One thing that was great about Poland was that I was totally literate again. The 20 or so characters I'd managed to learn in China hadn't generally been of much use, and most of the time the written language left me completely baffled. In Russia, I could read cyrillic script, albeit slowly. But here I was back in the world of latin script. Not that this meant I understood a word of Polish, but at least I understood the letters. All the c's, z's and y's were like old friends.
My major sightseeing expedition was to the Palace of Culture and Science. This building, in the classic Stalinist style, is the tallest in Poland and dominates the skyline. I liked it because it was pretty much identical to Moscow's set of seven skyscrapers which were built after the war at Stalin's behest. And I also liked it because it had a viewing platform. I went up for an evening view of the city.
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I got a train to Berlin. The six hour journey went by in a flash, and I barely had time to notice the countryside. What I did see as we crossed into Germany was the Oder River looking scarily swollen and fast flowing. I had heard that there was severe flooding in countries to the south of me.
I liked Berlin straight away. It had the same atmosphere of a place heavy with recent history that Moscow had had. I grew up hearing about the Berlin Wall all the time on the news, and remembered watching the fall on TV when I was 11 years old. The first place I went to in Berlin was the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the wall. After the fall, various international artists painted murals all along the stretch. What seemed most amazing was how thin the wall was. I always imagined it would be several feet thick, but a couple of inches of concrete was all that had physically separated East and West Germany.
Some of the works of art on the wall were very famous, like the picture of a Trabant bursting through, and of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev kissing. They had all recently been restored, but already there was a lot of inane graffiti on a lot of them. There seem to be a lot of Argentinians, in particular, who wish to record the fact that they have been somewhere.
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The Reichstag, burned down in 1933 and used as a pretext for Nazi repression, had been restored in the 1990s, and three years before I arrived it had become the parliament of Germany at the same time as Berlin had become the capital again.
In many cities throughout the world, if you want something glassy and modern to be built, you call in Norman Foster, and Berlin had done just that when they needed a new cupola for the Reichstag. The dome he designed was spectacular, and soon became a major attraction for tourists in Berlin. It was a blazing hot summer day when I decided to go and have a look at it, and I queued for about an hour to get in.
I hadn't used Euros before this trip, and I was still getting used to their value. Under the glass of the dome it was incredibly hot, and there was a stand selling ice creams and cold drinks. I bought an ice cream and an orange juice for six euros, and I actually thought for a few minutes that this was a reasonable price.
The last thing I did in Berlin was go up the Alexanderplatz TV Tower. It is almost identical to the CCTV tower in Beijing, but 35 metres shorter. I had a snack in the rotating restaurant, watched Berlin go by far below, and felt like I was almost home. I had a ticket for the night train to Paris, and so in the morning I would be just two hundred miles from London, and five thousand miles from Beijing.
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I got to Paris at 9am. I got a metro to République, remembered from my trip two years earlier which exit to take, and walked along Boulevard Jules Ferry to the youth hostel I'd stayed in before. The atmosphere of cosy familiarity was abruptly shattered when they turned out to be full. There was an accommodation office next door, but it wasn't open yet, so I bought some food from a nearby shop and sat by the Canal Saint-Martin having breakfast. When they opened, they found me a space in a hostel nearby.
Sometimes when I go back to a place I've been before, I find myself going to exactly the same places, somehow unable to find new things to do. And so it was here. I walked to the Île de la Cité, saw Notre Dame, then walked to Montmartre. Two years ago when I was here it had been grey, rainy and empty. Now it was a hot day and very busy. In the narrow streets below the hill, some small children were ineptly busking. They had accordions, which they obviously had no idea how to play, and they squeezed and pressed buttons randomly. I was disgusted at how stupid they must think tourists would be, if they thought they'd make money this way, and then even more disgusted when I saw someone giving them some change.
As I looked over Paris, my heart wasn't in the travelling any more. Paris was too familiar and too close to home, and I felt like I shouldn't have stopped. I'd been here just two years earlier, so it seemed silly to interrupt my journey virtually on my doorstep to see places I already knew. In slight frustration, I planned an early start the next day to get back home.
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I'd travelled from China to Paris without a hitch, and I imagined that Paris to London would be the easiest part of the journey. Sadly I was mistaken. I headed to Gare du Nord at about midday and found that there was a train to Calais leaving in a few minutes. So I bought a ticket and headed to the platform. But the train was a Eurostar train, and you have to check in twenty minutes before departure. They had sold me the ticket too late to make the cut, and so I missed my first train back home.
I went back to the ticket desk and explained the situation. Luckily they could change my ticket without charge, but unluckily they said there was not another train to Calais until 5pm. I really didn't want to spend another four hours in Paris and felt annoyed that I wasn't already half way to Calais. As I walked away with my second ticket, I found a timetable which said there was a train at 3pm to Calais, so I queued again and asked. It turned out that all the standard class seats were full on the 3pm train, but as I was a student I could get a first class seat for only one euro more. Fantastic, I thought - I'll travel back in comfort. I gladly exchanged my second ticket and a euro for my third ticket, and felt happy again to be nearly home.
With an hour to kill, I went to a cafe on the station and got some lunch and a coffee. I couldn't wait to get back home now. At quarter to three I picked up my bags, started walking towards the platform, reached into my pocket to get my ticket, and found that it wasn't there.
Shocked, I hurried back to the cafe, thinking I might have left it on the table. But it wasn't there. I looked around and saw no sign of it. I walked back and forth between the cafe and where I realised I'd lost it. It was nowhere to be seen. I couldn't believe it - had it been stolen? Had I just lost it? To this day I've got no idea what happened to it. Now I was furious, and once I'd given it up for lost I rushed to the ticket offices. But the queues were far too long for me to have a hope of reaching the front before the train left. I went to some automatic ticket machines, but for some reason none of them would accept my bank card. 3pm came, and I could only watch in despair as a train with an empty first class seat on it rolled out of the station.
Dejectedly I joined the queue for the ticket offices, and bought my fourth Paris-Calais ticket of the day, for the 5pm train I'd wanted to avoid. If all had gone to plan I'd have been on the train from Dover to London by 5pm. In the end, I reached Calais with only minutes to spare before the last ferry of the day.
As we crossed the channel I looked at the lights of France receding, and the lights of England approaching. The last time I'd seen the sea was at Qinhuangdao almost two months previously, and now I was on the other side of the Eurasian landmass. Night was falling as we pulled out of Calais, and we got to Dover in darkness. I hurried off the ferry to the train station, and got the last train to Charing Cross. I finally got back home at 1am, staggered at what a farce the last step had been, happy to be home, and slightly unable to believe that I'd just travelled a third of the way around the world by train.