The moment we leave Ulaanbaatar behind us, we meet China. The Chinese train – our “home” for the next 30 hours or so – probably has not been cleaned since it left Beijing to Moscow and back. We’re too tired and satisfied from our last week’s adventure through Gobi that we just hit the bench and let it go. People start to complain, but the Chinese conductor does not understand what the problem is (or does not want to understand?). Eventually he cleans it a bit with a cleaning cloth. The exact same one used for the toilet! Argh. Welcome to China.
When dust settles in we pass the Mongolian border and not much later we see a huge gate with Chinese characters, followed by the most modern train station we’ve seen on our trip. The border crossing is quite sophisticated and in big contrast with the Russian and Mongolian crossings. The system even talks to you in Dutch to explain how to put your hands to take your fingerprints. And we’re in the middle of the desert! Welcome to China.
With hours of delay we arrive in Beijing and this means the end of the Trans-Mongolian railway. How cool is that. A dream came true. The Trans-Mongolian is something we wanted to do in 2008, but due to the Olympics at the time the visa situation was unstable and so we made other plans. Now we’re standing in Beijing after all. By train! +11.500km overland from Wijk aan Zee.
For both of us this is the first time in China. After a few weeks in China, we conclude that China is like… well… China is like China. We’ve been to quite some places across the world, including Asia, but China is a place where you still can experience those “oh wow… ok… if that’s the way it goes around here, then that’s the way it goes” travel-moments for the first time. Of course, the clichés are true. The burping, slurping, farting and spitting happens as expected, but not all the time, so easy to deal with. Line skipping does happen all the time but we’re tall enough to handle that 😉 and leading to funny situations, where people are surprised when they line skipped us, but not our arms.
There are however things completely new to us. Maybe not the most attractive thing to blog about, but toilets are one of those things. Of course, you have those places with toilets over open sewers which are extremely dirty, like in many other places in the world. These makes you a master in not touching anything in no time, for sure. But China takes it a step further and really puts you out of your comfort zone by having open spaces where you squat down next to each other… Yes indeed, no walls… (or squat and hope no one else is entering…) and I’m not talking country side, this is as well in down town Beijing. The capital!
We also almost ran into a scam. Two ladies approached us in perfect English and asked a few questions and not much later invited us to drink tea together to have fun and practice English. We were too tired after a full day of walking and it felt a bit strange. We did not get the point why they wanted to have tea with us, strangers. We couldn’t let it go. What did they want? Some research told us we escaped a so-called tea scam. They bring you to a tea house and after a nice tea and a chat they charge you an enormous bill of hundreds of euros. A good experience underlining to always listen to your gut feeling.
More fun we have with the Chinese who love to take pictures of us. As if we are a touristic sight. It’s a weird experience. People can really stare at you, they take sneaky pictures, or not sneaky at all, many say ‘hello, hello’ as if we have many Chinese friends and if not shy they jump next to you and take a picture. This happens about every day, in small towns, in big towns and in the capital. They are mostly amazed by our length, which one girl underlined by giving us the doubtful name of ‘chop sticks’. Hmm… It may sound annoying, but they do it with a big smile so in most cases we just make fun with it. It’s crazy though.
There are many of these little things happening and to be astonished about in China, but China is also intriguing. This starts with a couple of bucket list things. For us this was climbing the Great Wall (great indeed and beautiful!), strolling through the Forbidden City (together with thousands of others), standing on the famous and huge Tiananmen Square, eating Peking Duck in Beijing (delicious) and visiting the Terracotta Army (fascinating that this is 2.200 years old). The combination of the history and the impressive sights are amazing.
Also, the China country facts are fascinating. China has more than 100 metropoles, where a million plus people live. We’ve came across cities we’ve never heard of and with nothing notable, until wiki told us it has a population of 12 million. Maybe we just find it fascinating as The Netherlands has zero metropoles and China has cities with a population which easily exceed the 17 million Dutchies on earth. Hard to imagine.
We love Beijing and in particular hanging around in the Hutongs (the authentic districts surrounded by walls with small little streets). If we would not have made other plans, we would have stayed longer. The atmosphere is great, and we felt for some reason really comfortable. Maybe it was because we saw expats hanging around and also met a few of them. Listening to their stories how they ended up in Beijing, how their Beijing life is, how they enjoy Beijing, made us think again to experience the expat life.
Who knows one day we will. For now, we’re in the middle of a greater dream: our trip around the world! Which will bring us next to the other end of China, to Gansu and Tibet!