UlaanBaatur to Beijing, 1500 miles, 1 train. Bogeys, smog and scorpions.

27 Jun

This final section of my Bere Alston to Beijing journey found me yet again on my own in a coupé. This must be some sort of record – of the 6500 odd miles covered, I must have spent at least 5000 without company. I’m starting to wonder what the agency who booked my tickets must have said about me. “Special dietary requirements : must eat alone”? I mean, this train was rammed full of people: 3, 4 even 5 to a compartment, and there was I, lording it up in glorious solitude, lounging in my pants upon whichever bunk I chose…

This time however, my situation was an advantage rather than a hindrance when it came to socialising because, having friends now, I could invite people round to mine. Hey, why not pop over to my place in carriage 7? I’d say. It’s very roomy.

So I had visitors and we played cards and drank beer and it was very jolly. Again the border crossings took an age, but this time it was slightly more interesting because a) we were drunk and b) we got to watch people “changing the bogeys”. Whenever you enter or leave the territory of the former USSR by train, your entire carriage has to be lifted clear of its wheels, or “bogeys”, so that new ones can be attached. This is because Russian railway tracks are about about an inch wider than everyone else’s. The whole process takes a couple of hours, inside a giant shed and employs a good 30 people for each train.

So, with new wheels (and inexplicably, a new Chinese restaurant car) attached, we rumbled into The People’s Republic of China. The Gobi Desert continued to stretch on for a little while, but before long it was replaced by stunning mountains and rivers and soon we were in the sprawling outskirts of Beijing. I know I’ve already used the word “rad” to honour Moscow in a previous post, but Beijing is, if anything, radder. The food, the prices, the heat, the chaos, the funny signs, I love it all. And Beijingers are sweet, welcoming and disarmingly honest, as shall now be seen.

As you may have gathered, I have a great talent for losing my possessions. This time, somewhere between my hostel and the metro station, my wallet slipped from the extremely shallow and unsuitable pocket of my tasteless pink Bermuda shorts. I retraced my steps but it was nowhere to be seen. I had, of course, just stuffed it with about 100 quid’s worth of Chinese Yuan from the cashpoint, plus there was my bank card, driving license and hostel key – all in all, a nice little haul. I’m quite good at saying goodbye to possessions and not getting too upset about it. After all, if I let it sadden me every time I lost something, well, I’d probably be profoundly depressed by now. So I bade a little farewell to yet another wad of cash and stuff, and went along my way. But barely had I set foot on the metro, than my phone rang. This was partly strange because I didn’t know mobiles worked on the underground, but mostly because I’d only just put a new Chinese SIM card in it, and I hadn’t even noted down the number, let alone given it to anyone.

“Hello?” I stammered.

Hello, My name is Lu PeiWei but you could call me Sam. I have you pick-pocket wallet”

“You pick-pocketed me?!” For a moment I thought I was getting a call from a thief who’d had a pang of conscience.

No! I have you wallet. I think you were pick-pocket”

Ah! Well I was pretty sure it just fell out of my stupid pocket, but in any case, Sam had it and evidently wanted to return it. It transpired that his friend had found it on the street and going through it, had discovered the packaging for my new SIM, which had my new number on it. He then went to Sam, knowing he spoke English, and got him to call me. That’s what I mean about honesty. 1000 Yuan is a serious amount, a good week’s wage for most Chinese people. Sam point blank refused even to take any money from me as a reward, and later that day, when I sent him a text saying thank you again, this was his response, word for word:

“You are our friend and guest, Henry. We Chinese are always pleased if friend and guests come to see us. Have a good tour!”

It warmed my heart.

There are only two downsides to Beijing as far as I can see, and one of these I’m sure I would eventually get used to. This is the fact that rather than wearing nappies, kids run around with trousers that have the seat cut out of them, and do their business literally anywhere. It’s very odd, and although it would be obviously inappropriate to take a photo of a real child’s bottom, I did come across this statue outside a subway station that clearly illustrates the phenomenon:

But this is evidently just one of those cultural differences that take a while to get one’s head around. The thing I might not be able to deal with, long term, is the smog. A few times a week, particularly in the summer, a thick haze descends over the city, so that by the end of the day whole buildings loom up suddenly out of the foggy soup, having been completely invisible until they’re almost on top of you. On our second day we hired bikes and cycled up to the Summer Palace. As Katie Melua so aptly highlighted in her song “9 Million Bicycles…” (which was mockingly going round my head for the whole day)Beijing is perfect for cycling – completely flat, on a grid system for easy navigation, with wide cycle lanes everywhere – but by the end of the afternoon, one of our party had developed a hacking smoker’s cough, another was unaccountably crying, and I was laughing like Sid James (although that may have just been a coincidence).

So the smog is a bit of a drag, but the rest is pure goodness. On our third evening we went down to a place called The Night Market, that specialises in freaky food. As the heavens opened in a spectacular thunderstorm, I chowed down on skewers of scorpion, snake and monkey. I declined the offer of cat, cockroach and millipede though, as appetising a combination as they might have proven. (I don’t know whether I drew this line on some confused moral grounds -I guess I know a cat or two, but cockroaches? – or whether I’d just had enough weird shit for one night.) Walking home later on with warm rain streaming down my face, lightning forking above my head and scorpions wriggling in my belly, do you know what thought was going through my mind, Dear Reader? Not “Wow, this is a unique experience that’ll I’ll remember for the rest of my life”, or “Gosh, isn’t life profound?”. No, all I could think was “Ha ha, weird food – this is going in the blog.” It seems I am now a slave to this cyber-journal, and that I can no longer have meaningful subjective experiences without first working out how I’ll recount them here. Nice one.

I’m sorry that this week’s only photograph is of a sculpted child’s bottom – I forgot to bring my camera for the food expedition, although a friend did take some film footage, so maybe I’ll stick that up when I get a chance. In any case, next week is song week! So brace yourselves and your ear holes for the second instalment from my as-yet-nameless (any suggestions welcome) album.

Kindest Regards,

Hen x


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