August 31st, 2010
Trans-Mongolian Express

We’re on the train to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. The landscape coasting past the window is one of rolling hills and green plains split by water erosion. We’re riding first class, in a private cabin for two, which cost us about $350 AUD each. This seems to be the choice of most Westerners, who comprise half the passengers on the train. We could have shared a four-person berth for a bit less, but not much, and we were happy to pay the extra money to have our own space – particularly when there’s a good chance the other two people would be chain-smoking Chinese.

We left Beijing at the ungodly hour of 7.30. After more than two weeks of lazing about in the McKay Manor, going to bed as late as we pleased and sleeping in till noon, this was difficult. It’s also hard to settle down on a rubbish bed with lumpy pillows on a rattling train after having my own soft, wonderful double bed for two weeks.

I didn’t write much in Beijing because we didn’t do much; the joy of having a home again overpowered all else. Besides which, Beijing is a smoggy and unappealing urban sprawl. We did go visit the Great Wall; here’s a picture of it snaking off along the hills into the grey pallour.

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Really, any place where you can stare directly at the sun is a pretty grim place to live.

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To be fair, it’s not like that every day, but even one out of five is too many. Parts of China really do resemble how most Westeners imagine it: an industrial hellscape not dissimilar to the climax of every Terminator movie.

Western China, on the other hand, is quite beautiful. It had its bleak parts around Kunming and Chengdu – that special Chinese communist kind of bleakness, with grim apartment blocks and peeling paint and grey skies and everything swathed in concrete – but for the most part it was blue skies, stunning mountains and the splendour of nature in every direction. Whatever can be done to spoil China’s natural beauty is well underway, but it’s a huge country, and it will be a long time before the Chinese can, to their satisfaction, pave concrete over every inch of land they control. You might argue that the current construction boom is all part of the China experience, and that’s all well and good, but it’s not an experience I’m particularly interested in having.

Nonetheless, the western parts of Yunnan and Sichuan remain relatively untouched pockets of beauty, and overall I enjoyed China far more than Vietnam. (Many accuse the Chinese of rudness and incivility, but in general I found them to be no more or less rude than Westerners, and far more tolerable than their southern cousins in Vietnam.) Dali is absolutely one of the highlights of the trip, an old little town surrounded by lovely mountains, and I also enjoyed Shangri-La quite a bit. Our multi-day bus voyage through Sichuan had Chris at the end of his tether, and by the time we reached Kangding I was also over it, but there were good moments in there (especially Litang) and I’m glad we did it.

I don’t regret glossing over Beijing. We did take a gander at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but took only a few cursory photos before beating a retreat from the gargantuan crowd of Chinese tourists. Temples and palaces are always the same thing anyway.

Here’s the framed portrait at the front, where the Chinese flock from all over to venerate a mass-murderer.

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You can sample all kinds of culinary delights in the nearby alleyways. HELLO FRIEND! YOU WANT STARFISH?

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We also visited a BMW motorcycle showroom, where I had to remind Chris that making love to a machine is an affront to God.

Dream Bike

He’s pretty keen on a Beamer for our prospective trip across the Americas; or some kind of endurance adventure bike, at least. This or KTM. I was in agreeance until I found out that their price tag of “ten thousand” referred to ten thousand pounds or euros, not ten thousand dollars. I can’t imagine myself ever shelling out that much money for a motorcycle.

Dream Bike Adventure GS

Don’t get me wrong, I would absolutely love to own a bike like this. But that is a huuuuge amount of money. I may get one second-hand, but even then, it’s occurred to me that there’s no reason we have to be on expensive adventure bikes. People have done the Pan-American on much less. Ted Simon went around the entire world on… well, I can’t remember what it was, but I’m pretty sure it was a piece of shit. I certainly don’t want to repeat my Vietnamese Minsk experience, but I’m sure there’s a healthy middle ground.

That pretty much sums up Beijing, aside from a tedious story about the rigmarole of applying for a Mongolian visa. (They made us go pay for it at their bank, rather than giving them cash like every other consulate in the entire world). Anyway. China is a big country, and therefore difficult to evaluate – it has its good parts and its bad parts. But my overall impression was positive (by my standards for Asia, anyway) and I wouldn’t be averse to visiting China again.

The biggest killer is just the distances: in rural Western China (which is the part you want to see) there aren’t a lot of train lines, and you have to be prepared for a lot of gruelling bus rides. The public toilets will also make you doubt the existence of a loving God. And, while travel is not exactly difficult, it’s certainly much harder than in South-East Asia – once you’re off the beaten track, even simple things like buying train tickets can be a headache. China is not an easy country to travel through, but if you’re prepared for a bit of hardship, it has its rewards.

And now Mongolia, which I expect will be similar to China but even more amplified: greater hardship, greater rewards. For the first time since Vietnam we will have our own transport, which has become something we greatly value. Also, for the first time since Cambodia I won’t have to use a proxy to get around an asshole government that censors the Internet – not that this will matter much, since we’re going to be camping out in the middle of nowhere for the next few weeks. Call me a pessimist, but I doubt we’ll come across much electricity out on the plains, let alone wifi signals. I’ll try to upload this in UB, but after that it’s radio silence. (Mind you, if you haven’t heard from us come October, somebody please call the Australian embassy). I do plan to keep a written journal, which I’ll transcribe and upload when I can – should have a lot of time on the Trans-Siberian, if there’s electricity.

We’re both excited for Mongolia – excited to be riding horses, excited to be out in the wilderness, excited to regain a bit of freedom. I have a lot of thoughts about backpacking (and it is Lonely Planet-style backpacking we dislike, not travel itself), but I’m going to wait until we reach the end of the road in London to write those up. For now, you may all continue to call us whingers and complainers, from the luxurious comfort of your Western homes, because I dare to discuss places honestly.

Oh, I forgot to mention: you can toboggan down from the Great Wall.

The Great Wall Of China (7)

Radical!

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