Back on board the train at midnight, with two hours before we were scheduled to depart Erlian, passengers settled down to sleep.
There was a brief rallying cry of “vodka” from our favourite British Citizen, who had continued demanding his rights to have a cigarette and then, he too, finally shut up.
At 6.30am, Hanna, Nienke and I wandered along to the buffet car for free breakfast… I was so disappointed when I saw that the carriage had been changed from yesterday’s beautiful carriage.
And breakfast was…? One boiled egg, one and a half slices of bread with butter and jam with a cup of green tea.
On the way to the carriage, Nienke had wondered why there were height markings for 1.2m and 1.5m. As lunch was to be between 10.30 and 11am, making it more of a second breakfast, we decided the railway crew were looking out for Hobbits.
Going back to bed was the plan until the next mealtime.
As the sleeping compartments faced South, as all had done on my previous journeys across Russia and Mongolia, it became too hot to sleep around 9.30am so I wandered along to the buffet car where it was cool.
Two small Chinese boys came to say hello and ask me how I was.
Having quickly exhausted their English and my Chinese they smiled and waved goodbye, delighted I think at being able to have some kind of interaction. That’s how I felt, anyway.
By now, the train was passing through mountainous countryside. We passed small villages surrounded by farmland – mostly corn, but also what appeared to be olive or fruit tree groves.
It was far greener than the Gobi and the leaves on the trees hadn’t yet started changing colour.
The region the train was travelling through, according to the guidebook is the centre of China’s coal industry though I could see wind turbines at the tops of the mountains.
As we headed East I began to look for the sights of the Great Wall and walled villages.
At this point our British Citizen and Australia’s answer to Stevie Nicks appeared, looking somewhat the worse for wear and also bemoaning the change in the buffet car. The other drunk Englishman was apparently recovering in his bed: he was still with us and hadn’t been deported or taken to hospital.
They thought it was entertaining that our British Citizen had had more friends taking care of him the previous night than the unconscious Englishman.
If I were either of these parties, I’d be more selective in my choice of drinking buddies.
Shortly before second breakfast one of the small Chinese boys returned with an English language book (probably for seven year olds) about making a meal. He indicated that he wanted me to read the sentences to him. He seemed satisfied with my ability.
The last stop before Beijing was Shalingzixi which was where the ancient tea caravans crossed the Great Wall.
From here the terrain became increasingly hilly and the scenery quite dramatic as the train travelled on to the capital. There were still lots of fields planted with crops and also major developments such as a power plant and I was pleased to see many of the hills lined with solar panels.
Nienke and Hanna joined me for lunch/ second breakfast, which was very tasty, better than what I had eaten on the Russian trains and free.
Barbara arrived to sit with us for a catch up. The unconscious Englishman was still alive and had been seen heading to the toilet this morning.
Walter had checked on him throughout the night – some people really do go above and beyond for others.
One thing to be said for the unconscious Englishman… his behaviour triggered quite a lot of conversation with passengers I hadn’t previously spoken to, so he acted as an icebreaker… and the discussions weren’t gossip. People were enquiring to find out if he was ok.
He appeared shortly after lunch, looking a little sheepish.
As the train began its final approach to Beijing, we swiftly entered a much more mountainous zone than I had seen previously. This separates the capital from the northern plains.
There were around 60 tunnels to pass through and each time the train emerged from a tunnel there were stunning scenes of canyons, rivers and soaring rock towers.
The train took about 40 minutes to chug from the outskirts of Beijing to the centre.
The outskirts of the city did make me wonder why I was planning to spend a week here, while the smog rivalled that in Ulaanbaatar.
On arrival, we said our goodbyes and set off to find our accommodation.
It wasn’t as straightforward for me as I might have liked.
None of the ATMs at the station or around the underground worked. A lovely police officer had escorted me from the crowded concourse to find the nearest machine too.
The staff at the ticket counter would accept only cash. I couldn’t begin to work out how to operate the self service machines. I tried looking for a nearby cashpoint.
However, China’s national holiday was due to start on the 1st October and all of the banks near the station were closed.
There was nothing else to do but walk.
It was around five miles from the station to the hostel in one of Beijing’s hutongs.
I skirted Tiannamem Square, which I couldn’t have gone near if I had tried. It and the roads around it were closed in anticipation of the parades tomorrow.
It is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong. (That’s the second capital city arrival where I’ve got there in time for a birthday).
The roads were being washed, the pavements were being swept and the streets had been planted with flowers to celebrate the national holiday. The city looked beautiful and there was stunning architecture around every corner.
No photos, I was just trying to get to the hostel.
The centre of Beijing is vast – huge buildings, vast parks. There was the same scale of construction as in Soviet-era Russia. It’s a city making a statement.
It was only on reaching the hutongs, the old streets of the capital (that are threatened by modern development) that scale and size seemed to return to human scale.
Tomorrow will be busy and crowded throughout the city. Advice on check in was: Find a park, take a book. Relax.
Barbara, Nienke, Hanna and Walter… if you’re reading this: thank you for making the journey from Ulaanbaatar so enjoyable. It was great to meet you all. Enjoy your adventures.
And finally, for fellow trainspotters and travel geeks: a round up of the month’s transport statistics…
I’ve travelled from England through eight countries: France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Mongolia and China. Note to my nephew… I wasn’t in four of these long enough to send him a postcard.
Modes of transport have included 17 rides on the Moscow Metro, 13 trains, six cars, three buses, two trams, one horse and one kayak.
The rest of the time I have walked – how many steps, how many miles, I have no idea… but probably a few.
The most expensive element (proportionately considering distance covered and time) was the train from Manchester to London.
From Moscow to Beijing the distance is almost 5000miles. I paid £623 for my tickets along this route, costing me £0.12 per mile roughly. This has included six nights’ accommodation (in a sleeping bunk as opposed to sitting awkwardly in a seat) and three meals.
Manchester to London is approximately 200miles. I paid £88 for my ticket, costing me £0.44 per mile, again roughly.
*Featured Photo: a view from the train.