Monday, 26 September 2016

Trans-Siberia, Westbound from Beijing

Those who started their research with would know that there are multiple Trans-Siberian trains leaving at different times of the week taking different routes. Had timing allowed, I would have liked to take the Trans-Mongolian train passing through Gobi desert, which my brother described as breath-taking at sunset. The twice-weekly train timetable didn’t work for me; I could only stretch a 3-week break before starting work in London, wanted to spend a couple of days in Beijing, ample time in Lake Baikan and a a few days in Poland before coming home. Trans-Manchuria leaves Beijing every Saturday at 11pm - this works! I can at least tell my brother what he (hadn’t) missed.

There are 2 classes to choose from for the Trans-Manchurian train: 1st class with 2-bed berth or 2nd class with 4-bed. The third class option of an open carriage with 3-bed bunks were gone in 2014 when all the trains were refurbished. I got chatting with a local guy that does his wrestling training in Manchuria, he said this train is rarely full as most tourists prefer the ‘posh’ Moscow-Vladivostok Rossiya Train or the Trans-Mongolian to make a stop in Ulaanbaatar. There are Chinese-only carriages for travellers getting off in China along the Harbin stretch, and there are reserved carriages for passengers within Russia in the later part of the journey. Even so, the international carriages were less than 50% occupied, meaning I got a free upgrade:)

I shared a 2-bed berth with a Chinese lady that spoke fluent German and Russian as she was teaching Chinese in Ukraine for 8 years before moving to Germany. She is scared of flying and so trains are her major mode of international transport. She used to be a regular for their train ride, and was basically everyone’s translator. Interestingly she didn’t speak any English, forcing me to practice my Mandarin. Bless she was ever so patient. Unlike the Trans-Mongolian, this is a Russian train with Russian attendants who do not speak any English, so without her there would be even more guess-work. I heard the Chinese trains may not be as clean but the atmosphere is usually friendlier where the restaurant staff may sometimes offer free food to Chinese passengers… not sure about that.

The train was luxurious. The compartments were incredibly clean. I even had a TV! Not that I ever switched it on - it’s just unnecessary noise. The toilets were located at the end of each carriage, sockets along the corridor and also free hot water. Given my last long train journey was in India, and before that Vietnam, this train was pretty damn badass.

The train left relatively promptly around 11:10pm, and I got to set up my little area and make myself comfortable. 

For the first next, I slept like a baby; asleep before midnight and woke at 10:30am. If it hadn’t been getting colder, I think I could have carried on. My brother was right, the aircon kicked in overnight and I needed to put on a light jacket. The scenery was mostly green fields and industrial towns as we passed through Chinese settlements. I passed time with a bit of writing, a bit of photo-sorting and mostly chatting with other passengers - picking up some Russian and Mandarin.

The train attendant came round with our passport and asked for 20 yuan, apparently for immigration at the borders, regardless whether you needed a visa. Actually they were just trying to charge you for completing the immigration form for you, which they have already done. I only had 18 yuan to my name… Thankfully my fellow travellers helped me out.

The first day went by so quickly, possibly because I had quite a lot of writing to get through, and also slept a lot. At 4am, I was woken up as we arrived at Manzhouli Station, the Chinese border. Chinese officials came onboard to check our passports. I overheard the attendant saying to another Chinese lady that she had to pay 50 yuan instead of 20 because she completed the immigration form incorrectly. The Chinese lady explained she couldn’t understand her in the first place and that’s why she’d had to complete the form herself… not sure how that ended. I had a feeling the Russian peeps were just trying to make a few bucks for themselves, and it would have been completely fine if one didn't pay. It's just their distressed angry looks and language that made people quite nervous.

We stayed in Manzhouli for just under 3 hours. Once we got our passports back from the Chinese officials, we were allowed to get off the train to stretch our legs and pick up food. Not that I could afford anything on the Chinese side.

Then the train moved again and arrived at the Russian border Zabaikal’sk. This is where you need to move your watch back 5 hours. The train tracks in Russia is narrower than the ones in China, and so the train had to switch their wheels at this station. Similarly the officials came onboard to check our passport and searched through carriages, then we had about 5 hours to kill, except we had to get off the train this time. The station is pretty small, but thankfully there was a cash machine so I didn’t have to walk around ruble-less. The town was a little depressing to be honest, most of the buildings were pretty run down. There was a minimart about 100m from the station, a little red building to the right hand side once you reached the main road parallel to the tracks. Things were cheap.

Timing is interesting here. The train goes by Moscow timezone but each individual town that the train runs through has their own local time. I decided to stick to Irkutsk time to help my biological clock.

The train stops for 25 minutes at Ulan-Ude. The town is the first proper town we arrived at in daylight since crossing the border, plenty of shops and cafes open for stocking up. I sneaked off to check out the church just behind the station.

I was offered all kinds of foods from the Northern province of China throughout the journey: spicy duck neck, Shan’xi biscuits, northern mooncake and even black sesame soup. The travellers were keen to buy all sorts of things from the Russian shops, and then pass them around for sharing. Half the stuff they bought they end up giving them away though, not suited for their palate I suppose. My berth companion was kind enough to buy me a Russian roast fish to try. It was delicious!

About an hour after leaving Ulan-Ude, the train began its route along the southern coast of Lake Baikal. The view was simply breath-taking; 3 hours flew by as we were mesmerised by the vast clear waters. I’m so glad I decided to make a special trip to the lake instead of just cruising pass it.

Finally arrived at Irkutsk about 10mins ahead of schedule, 6:30pm local time. After waving my wonderful train-mates goodbye, I set off to arrange my Olkhon Island transport before it gets dark.

Next Stop: Irkutsk & Olkhon Island

Monday, 19 September 2016

Beijing, China

It’s no secret that a lot of people in Hong Kong are weary of China. There is an undeniable cultural clash at every level. To an extent, I am disconnected from the conflict as I don’t experience the direct effect of Mainland Chinese in HK. That said, I have seen enough on my last trip to Xi’an - the gut-wrenching coughing and spitting; disregard for queues; invasion of personal space and the sheer volume of people was simply frightening. It’s the only nation in the world where everyone benefits from their booming economy, but still have no respect for their people. I was told Beijing was different though. The capital has came a long way and since the Olympics in 2008, it’s up there with other international cities.

It certainly seemed so on our first couple of days. The airport express train (25 yuan; 25mins) to the city was modern and smooth, subsequent transfer to their metro system was cheap and easy. I was surprised by how some parts of their metro resembled Hong Kong’s MTR, just perhaps less well-maintained. After checking in, we wandered down to Wangfujing. Yea it was busy, but it wasn't claustrophobic, mostly because it was 2pm on a Thursday afternoon.

We found the street selling local delicacies and snacks, including the deep-fried scorpions and starfish. Scam alert. Mama Chan wanted to try daoxiaomian “knife-cut noodles” at one of the stalls, and really, I should have had my guard up - but it all happened too fast - the guy spoke Mandarin at the speed of light and started piling crap onto a plate, pushed them to mum. Looking very puzzled she just took what was handed over. Too late - she had accepted the goods. Before we know it, we had 2 ugly pastries, a cold bowl of white liquid with a floating ring, some cold steamed buns and a wad of invoices that we needed to pay. Sigh. No noodles either, that was going to come later. Paid 20 yuan for the 2 pastries that were going for 3 yuan elsewhere, 38 for that soup plus fritter ring and 28 for the buns! Everything was cold. 

Assuming the white soup was soya milk, Mama Chan took one sip and her lips started quivering, eyes began to water as she looked desperately for somewhere to spit it out. It was sour as fuck, like proper gone-off milk with a sewage stench to it. The guy at the stall laughed and said that’s how they take soya milk up North. Bullshit. I know they drink sour milk but not like this. The steamed buns had meagre filling and the pastries were stale. The noodles finally came, at least it was hot. The ‘beef’ was processed meat so we only at the noodles and left everything else. Lessons learnt.

We weren’t tempted by anything else on the street. Except for Dragon-Whiskers Sweet. This used to be a my favourite treat when I was a child, sugar was pulled into hair-thin threads, which melted away on tongue to release the nutty filling of crushed nuts and coconut shreds. Not the ones here though. Just a dough of sugar mass mixed with milk powder - insult to the name really. Definitely not buying anything else here. We had some dumplings at a local shop in a hutong near our hotel and they were delicious.

Peking Duck is a must-eat in Beijing. Quanjude is arguably the best known chain in the Capital and most popular with the tourists. Mama Chan and I decided to go with a local favourite instead, Bianyifang, a brand of 600 years old. Its literal translation would be “Cheap Square”, except there is nothing cheap about the place. It was quite promising to see a full house of locals on a Thursday evening at their original branch.

We ordered half a duck, clay-pot turnip strips, their speciality pot-sticker and duck xiaolongbao equivalent. Food was quite greasy, as expected with most Chinese cuisine, and flavours were quite standard. Our duck took a while but it arrived pipping hot as chef began slicing it at our table. In my honest opinion, it’s not the best duck I have tasted. I know a few restaurants in Hong Kong that does it much better with crispier skin, thinner slices and fluffier pancakes, but at 3 times the price. So there isn’t much to complain about.

As the only man-made wonder visible from the moon, the Great Wall of China had always been on my bucket-list. I did, however, have my reservations. Haven’t we all seen those terrifying photos of the Wall packed with local tourists, all moving along a remarkably restored section of the Wall, which showcases the enormity of the Chinese population rather than the magnificence of the construction?

There are 4 main entry points to the Great Wall from Beijing: Badaling, Mutianyu, Jinshanling and Simatai. Badaling is closest to the capital, and the most popular option among local tourists. It’s cheap to get to with public transport options, that section of the wall is fully restored for easy walking and it’s probably packed with people regardless of the time of the year. Mutianyu used to be the preferred option, a bit further out with mostly restored walls and far fewer people. Sadly I heard that area has been exploited by local travel agents, bringing an increasing number of tourists there. So I decided on Jinshanling. It’s a good 2-2.5 hr drive out of Beijing; seeing there are infrequent and unreliable public transport options, I decided to go with a tour group to make it less stressful for Mama Chan.

Online travel agencies would quote US$ 89+ for the day trip, which includes hotel pick-up, transfer to the wall, entrance fee (no cable car), English-speaking guide from Jinshanling to Simatai (c.3 hrs), a Chinese lunch and hotel drop off. We went to a travel agency on Wangfujing Street and got the same deal for RMB 300 (US$45) from RMB 370 - we just didn’t get breakfast, which was a plain bun and a small bottle of water. Note most agencies only advertise the Badaling and Mutianyu routes, just ask about the Jinshanling option.

There were 16 in the group, all foreigners. We set off at 6:30am and made it to Jinshanling just before 9am. There were 2 ways to get to the Wall, a trek uphill on a paved road (35mins) or taking the cable car (RMB 40 - 15mins). Main issue was time. We had 3 hours to make it across to the meeting point. There was an additional stretch beyond the meeting point with 4 towers of wild walls, and that part alone would take an extra hour. On top of that, there were 11 towers to get through, plus another 30mins to get down from the wall to the carpark. So time was tight and Mama Chan wasn’t 100% confident especially with the steeper sections. So we forked out the extra 40 and took the cable car - it was possibly the slowest mode of transport available to mankind.

Once we were on the wall though, it was pretty impressive. As we had hoped, there were hardly any other visitors. The weather was perfect for the hike, sunny with slight overcast and a gentle breeze throughout the day. There were a couple of vendors selling water and basic supplies, but really quite far and in between.

Some sections of the climb was quite challenging, mostly because of broken bricks and the sheer gradient. However nothing unmanageable.

I did manage to make it all the way to the wild walls and back, Mama Chan sat out of that part. That section was more testing as the wall has mostly crumbled away and the towers were no longer accessible, meaning I had to meander around them, but I had the whole area to myself with not another soul in sight. That kind of solitude was quite extraordinary. Not to mention the striking views. 

Our tour included a hearty lunch at one of the guesthouses in Jinshanling. Obviously nothing gourmet, but there was plenty of food to go round especially when we had a vegan and a vegetarian among the group. I felt quite useful explaining to them the white noodles had no egg, the yellowy strips were beancurd, sugared tomatoes were safe to eat and how stinky tofu came about. I wasn’t prepared to explain how Chinese sometimes use lard in their cooking though. 

Traffic was bad as we got closer to the city centre after 4pm. We just hopped off the bus at a metro station and made our way back to the hotel ourselves. Original plan was to have hot pot dinner. That plan dissolved when Mama Chan caught sight of a local restaurant with the complicated Chinese characters of "ban ban mian”. The ones we saw everywhere in Xi’an. She was curious so we agreed to share a bowl and a meat-in-bun, aka a Chinese kebab.

Little did we know that half a bowl of noodles and half a mini kebab were going to fill us right up. She loved the noodles though, as did I. I have always enjoyed the slightly chewy textures of thicker flat-sheet noodles. And it’s hard to dislike the pork-filled grease-lined juice-loaded meat-in-bun. With a full stomach we wandered down some hutongs, found a local wet market and stocked up for my train journey.

Later in the evening we ventured to the younger area of Nanluguoxiang (South Drum Alley), where more stylish goods and trendy street-eats, like Korean fried squid and chicken, Taiwanese wings and cheese sausage, Hong Kong fish balls and egglets, line the long street. We had a bubble tea and decided to try one of the more popular stalls selling the local delicacy of pig and lamb tripes. The pungent offal scent wasn’t too offensive, topped with fermented beancurd sauce and a handful of coriander, I quite enjoyed it.

Despite the snacks here looking decidedly more appealing than Wangfujing, Mama Chan and I were keen to stick to local noodle shops. Afterall Hong Kong is still the king of street eats and there was nothing distinctively Beijing on offer here.

We left the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square to the last day of our trip. It was Saturday, and all our greatest fears of visiting China sprang to life - it was the local tourists. We started with Tiananmen, and just queueing for the security check to enter the square drained us - people holding their umbrellas casually trying to take out your eye-ball, people miraculously appeared in front of you in the queue, constantly pushing and high-ptiched screeching among the crowd. It was a nightmare. 

After making it into the vast square, we were to leave our camera and bags at the cloakroom to enter the Chairman Mao’s Memorial. I looked at the queue for the cloakroom, then at the queue for the memorial. No thanks. Interestingly, Mama Chan said the statues and plaques depicting soldiers building the country were almost identical to the ones she saw in North Korea. 

Similar story at the Forbidden City entrance. With sore legs from the previous day, people bashing their way around left right and centre, and a blazing sun, we weren’t mentally prepared to go through with the ordeal. I was told that it was a 2-hr job max, and the palace was not as impressive as the ones we saw in HK TV dramas. Mama Chan certainly wasn’t bothered about it. I guess we wanted to see it for completeness sake. So we didn’t bother.

After checking out, we went to Guije to seek out that hot pot meal we didn’t have the night before. The street was lined with all kinds of restaurants, each with a bigger and brighter sign than the last shop. We noticed the restaurants were just opening multiple branches down the street, so just randomly chose Qimen.

We had the tomato soup base, a lamb and beef platter, some veg, deep fried beancurd and minced fish. It was delicious, especially the thinly sliced lamb that rapidly cooked with a quick dip in the boiling broth. After our long lunch, we walked off some of the calories strolling along the street towards Dongzhimen, the financial hub for Beijing. It reminded me of Singapore, with the familiar names of Raffles City and Capitaland, swanky shopping malls that house franchise from both Hong Kong and Singapore.

Then it was time to send Mum to the airport. And it won’t be until December that I’ll see her again; it’s a long time, considering I have spent time with her at least once a month for the last 16 months in Singapore. For the last 20 years, since I have moved from home, this was the first year I got to spend so much time with my parents. I came to realise how much I missed being looked after - the delight of coming home to a prepared meal, holding their hands, watching rubbish TV together and just the simple enjoyment of their company. Granted they both need a bit more looking after now, but I have a super cool mum and was left to feel quite lonely after kissing her goodbye. 

I had a few hours to kill before my Trans-Siberia journey began. Did some last minute shopping to add to my already-massive backpack, then made my way to the huge Beijing Station….