WHEN VIETNAM AIRLINES FLIGHT VN782 carried us north across our sunburnt country we had already had an emotional morning. First there was the excitement of leaving behind our house, our family, our jobs, our life as we’d known it, then we had to endure a nerve-racking thirty minutes at the check-in counter as a very thorough attendant checked through the visa regulations and entry requirements for all the countries which we intended to visit over the next six months, our dodgy Russian visa was giving us trouble already. Several supervisors were consulted before we were finally given a reluctant okay to board our Saigon bound flight.
Eight hours later, Ho Chi Minh Airport provided a brief distraction, from the used toilet paper baskets in the lavatory to the eccentric security inspection – all had to remove their shoes for x-ray and Dave had to drink from our water bottle to prove it’s authenticity. We then took off into the sunset for the three hour hop north and were fed delicious Vietnamese food, though our chicken and pomelo salad was mysteriously replaced with prawns and banana flower, “ohh, bird flu! Don’t worry!”
Then we fell out of the darkness into the shock and tangle of Hong Kong, the airport ran like clockwork and within twenty minutes we were sitting in a shiny red double-decker bus being whisked into the metropolis, the neon glitz of Nathan Road swallowing us whole. Finally, at 10 o’clock local time, twenty hours after leaving Home that morning, we were ‘hitting some Hong Kong mattress’ in the Chung King Mansion, laughing at the sight of Jacky Chan on our television set. So ended the first day of our eighteen month journey…
I WOKE AFTER MY BEST nights sleep in three weeks in a bed-sized room on the fifteenth floor just off lift shaft ‘A’ called Park Guest House, HK$140 was a bargain! Out on the street 17 degrees felt cool after Sydney’s sweltering 40 degree days, we buttoned up and gravitated down to the pier to gaze across at the marvel of the city across the ‘fragrant harbour’. We were overawed by the surroundings that we suddenly found ourselves in. Wandering around Kowloon we felt very excited to be where we were. We found some breakfast, watched tai chi practitioners in the park, and obeyed the signs forbidding us from getting too close to our avian friends – the media’s enjoyment of the bird flu outbreak was still in overdrive.
We made a visit to the CTS office to apply for our Chinese visas, found an Indian dhaba in the bowels of Chung King Mansion dispensing paratha and dahl for lunch, then headed for the Star Ferry which took us to Central for the ferry to Lantau, another 45 minute ride across the harbour.
Mui Wo on Lantau Island was welcoming, we had a bit of a look around then took the roller coaster bus ride up to Ngong Ping, where we found Po Lin Monastery and the S.G Davis Hostel. The friendly caretaker, ‘Bruce’, showed us around the hostel which was experiencing the mid-week lull, and we showed ourselves around the monastery complex.
The 270 steps up to the thirty metre high bronze Buddha had the hoards of day-trippers gasping for breath, all the better to inhale the plumes of sandalwood smoke issuing from the giant incense sticks in the court of the main temple. Amongst the myriad of sight-seers we met two men from PNG, Leo and his brother the pilot, and Arwen from Bucketty!
Set in the hills at an altitude of 500 metes, Ngong Ping was cooler than Kowloon, but quite tolerable, even at 6 o’clock the next morning when we rose before dawn to scale Lantau Peak. It was a stiff 45 minute climb to watch the sunrise from the precipitous summit, and fortunately we weren’t looking for solitude because we shared the experience with a large group of locals who squealed and hooted with delight each time the clouds parted to reveal glimpses of the view one thousand metres below. We left the cheering crowd behind to continue along the Lantau Trail, a spectacular walk up and down the rugged spine of the island. First we descended to the Tung Chung Road at 400 metres, then climbed to Sunset Peak at 850 metres before dropping back to sea level at Mui Wo, some seventeen kilometres, and seven hours from our starting point.
The following day we clocked up another 25 kilometres doing a different stage of the Lantau Trail. We hiked southwest to do a giant loop of the Fan Lau Peninsula, down through the forest to Shek Pik, then along the scenic coastal path passing old abandoned villages, mangroves and remote beaches to Tai O. We collapsed, exhausted into our regular noodle shop haunt in Ngong Ping for dinner and a bowl of dou hua before spending a third restful night at the youth hostel.
The next day we decided to take it easy. After breakfast we had a more atmospheric look around the monastery, then left our forested garden retreat for Mui Wo. At the ferry pier we organised a room to rent then somehow found our way to it before heading off for an afternoon exploration of Cheung Chau Island. We ate a tasty lunch of congee, bao zi and egg tarts, then boarded the ferry for a twenty minute crossing through the ever-present sea mist. Cheung Chau was a precious gem, wooden junks moored in the harbour, a tangle of alleyways in the village, a pirate cave at the southern tip, and best of all – no roads or cars.
Back in Mui Wo we finished off the day very pleasantly at the Yee Hen Seafood Restaurant, the waters of Silvermine Bay lapped gently next to our table as the sun set and we dined on delicious salt and pepper squid – it was totally magic…
The next morning we were unable to resist one last amble in the Lantau countryside and so climbed over the hills north of Silvermine Bay to the Trappist monastery for a quiet moment in the chapel before heading back to the mayhem of Kowloon.
Ah Ping found us rushing across Nathan Road to Chung King after collecting our Chinese visas, and we allowed her to steer us in the direction of the room she had to rent in the Mansion. For HK$100 we had it all – two windows, bathroom and television in ‘B’ block on the thirteenth floor. Staying in the Chung King Mansion was a bit like being slapped in the face, in the miniscule lifts one came face to face with baggy-eyed Chinese, Indian curry wallahs, Filipina prostitutes or gigantic Africans wearing flowing kaftans. In the maze of shops could be found anything one might need, from an electronic Al-Muhaffiz to succulent gulab jamun! But our room was a sanctuary, Ah Ping’s husband Mr Cao also made us feel at home, he had a firm handshake and a reassuring sticker on his shirt from a recent visit to the hospital proclaiming that he had “no fever”. They came like fairies while we were out, opening our windows, straightening the bed and leaving a fresh thermos of kai shui every day.
For the weekend we joined the ranks of the camera-toting tourists and picnicking Filipino housemaids, by tram and by foot we explored downtown from Central to Wan Chai to Causeway Bay, enjoying the pedestrian flooded streetscape of Queens Road, and finding hidden gems like the Luk Fung temple off Wun Sha Street. We did some shopping, strolled in Victoria and Hong Kong parks, and of course, took in the foggy view from The Peak. The hunt for affordable meals was not as difficult as we remembered from our visit ten years earlier, we didn’t once have to resort to the lure of the cheap McDonald’s hamburger, instead we were fed by the likes of Kaka Lok on Austin Road, Kashmir Ali in the Mansion (“I like Australia, my wife lives in Melbourne!”), and the Wheat Grass Juice Bar in Wan Chai which did a rice lunch box or char siu just across the laneway.
On Monday morning, a week after our arrival in Hong Kong, we were the only punters on the 7:10am Guangzhou bound bus as it departed Tsim Sha Tsui cross-boundary bus terminal. We collected more passengers in Mong Kok then sped off through the Territories leaving the tinsel town behind us. At the Chinese border we had our temperatures taken by a man wearing a white lab coat, then were stamped into the People’s Republic by a cheerful official.
Formalities complete, our bus whisked us off through the highways and flyovers of Shenzhen, a megalopolis which ten years before I remembered was little more than a small construction site! After an hour and a half we were in Guangzhou, dumped quite far from where we had anticipated. But we recovered well, still trying to find our Mandarin tongues and ears we asked directions, squeezed into the relevant city bus, then walked with a seething mass of people to the long distance bus station. If Chung King Mansion was like a slap in the face this was akin to being hit in the head with a cricket bat. I thought to myself that maybe things hadn’t changed that much as I squatted with my Chinese sisters in the communal toilet facility, then we jostled our way onto a Zhaoqing bus as the ticket-checking xiao jie screamed inelegantly at misbehaving passengers. We continued motoring our way across Guangdong until we reached our destination, Zhaoqing, a provincial town of four million people.
WE FORKED OUT 120 Yuan for a very nice room in the Duanzhou Dajiudian, then set off to explore. It hadn’t taken long to reach this place, but we were obviously well off the tourist trail for our first day in China. We were suddenly a novelty and now we had to become accustomed to standing out in the crowd like focal points. But we felt welcome, people smiled in surprise as we strolled around the city, checking out the Song dynasty city walls, old houses, and the Chongxi Pagoda which we climbed to the top of for a great view of the Xi River.
A little restaurant opposite the bus station satisfied all our eating needs, in the evening we attracted extra patronage by dining al fresco on doufu ju rou tang, and a saucy dish of roasted then stir-fried green and red chillies with pork. By sheer luck we discovered the word for congee at breakfast the next morning by ordering randomly from the menu offered to us. Some steamed xiao bao completed the meal, then we were off to find our 8am bus to Wuzhou.
Our route continued west through Guangdong along the scenic Xi River valley passing villages of quintessentially Chinese mud brick and tile houses and rural life.
By the time we got to Wuzhou it was raining, we asked directions with more confidence and even managed to maintain a reasonable conversation with a fellow passenger during the twenty minute city bus ride to the Hexi bus station on the other side of the city. There we boarded a bus to take us deeper into Guangxi province. A Hong Kong kungfu movie played on the DVD in case we tired of the rural splendour outside the window, and it was almost loud enough to drown out the dreadful hoiking noises coming from the rear of the bus.
AFTER THREE HOURS AND SEVERAL packs of cheap cigarettes we were in Guiping, boldly asking directions to the Guiping Fandian. The further we travelled now, the more typically Chinese everything became, this hotel was a rambling affair and offered us an excellent shuang ren fang for just 50 kuai, and there she was, the fu yuen, proffering kai shui and holding our room key hostage, but with a smile, and she didn’t barge into our room without knocking even once – things had changed.
After two days in the country we were beginning to appreciate the enormous changes since our visit in 1993. It was almost as if another cultural revolution had taken place – traditions were being revived, surly faces were replaced by smiles and friendliness, and Mao suits were way less prevalent!
We spent the rest of the drizzly afternoon snuggled in our room, only venturing out at dinner time for some deliciously crusty clay pot rice with mystery meat of the day.
In the morning the rain had stopped and we could see Xi Shan rising behind the town. We rugged up and set off up the mountain into the clouds passing scenic spots like Immortal Gorge, Rainbow Bridge, Path Leading to Heaven, Sword Testing Rock, Dragon Pond, and the thousand year old Longhua Temple. We lunched in the nunnery on a su cai masterpiece, fake snails made of wheat gluten in black bean sauce, and noodle soup with mushrooms and doufu skin, whilst sipping on the justifiably famous Xi Shan tea which we’d seen growing on the pine clad slopes.
In the late afternoon we strolled in the Renmin Square, declining numerous offers to have our faces read and watching a spirited game of Chinese croquet. For dinner we returned for more clay pot rice which we learned was called sha guo fan as the lively xiao jie touted in the street about the good food attracting international clientele!
The following day we were on the move again. A breakfast of congee, zhao with liver and intestine was perhaps more fortifying than necessary, but it put us in good stead for a long day. During the four hour bus journey to Liuzhou we allowed ourselves to be distracted by a Hong Kong action/thriller as we passed the grim reality of life around Guigang, but the following cheesy Chinese love story had us gazing back out the window at the karst formations to the north, and a sign on the freeway which pointed out the Tropic of Cancer as we crossed it.
In Liuzhou we hesitated, unable to decide whether to stay for the night, but it was only 1 o’clock and we were feeling strong so we boarded the next bus to Guilin, two hours and another two hundred kilometres northward along the freeway. ‘The Most Beatiful Place Under Heaven’ did look quite nice, the mist shrouded crags had been attracting tourists for thousands of years, and the bus hostess xiao jie even told us so. Every bus had one of these attendants, invariably dressed in a tacky lollypop coloured two piece suit, and this young xiao jie repeated all of her announcements in English! But we weren’t tempted to linger in Guilin, within ten minutes of our arrival we were on a minibus to Longsheng, another two hours away to the northwest. Now we were tracing our steps from ten years before, the mountain road had been upgraded somewhat, but at one point we waited with a sense of bizarre deja vu as a fairly horrendous traffic accident was cleared from the road – just as we had been held up for hours at the same point for the same reason previously…
LONGSHENG WAS A PLACE WHICH we hadn’t paused in last time, and on this trip we were only using it as a jumping off point, but it was almost dark by the time we arrived and we were content to spend the night at the twenty kuai Ruyi Lushe next to the bus station. Dinner was a tasty doufu dish with red chillies and greens prepared before our eyes by a clever chef who charged us only 7 Yuan including rice and soup.
We slept well that night despite the piercing streetlights, rock hard pillow, thundering trucks, blasting horns and blaring televisions, then the next morning we made the short hop to Pingan after a bowl of the standard noodle soup seasoned with pickled vegetables, dried chillies and fresh coriander. The thirty kilometre minibus ride took an hour, then we took another hour to hike the last six kilometres up to the village.
PINGAN WAS SET AMID THE terraced fields known as the Dragon’s Backbone, and retained it’s unique charm despite the summer tourist circus. Fortunately for us it was winter and we found a great place to stay. A Zhuang woman named Qin Liu led us along the stone pathways to her house at the top of the village. Inside it smelled of wood and smoke, and our room opened onto the blackened living area which featured a fire hearth with lengths of dried meat and an entire pigs head hanging above it. For dinner we were invited to eat a communal meal around the hearth which consisted of some of the said meat, scrubbed and boiled, and a tasty dish of fresh bamboo shoots with greens. It was a truly priceless meal, especially with grandma filling our bowls and plying us with her homemade rice spirit. I thought grandma had a pretty good life, her day began at 7am when she cooked sweet potatoes, then she shuffled up to a nearby scenic vantage point where she spent most of the day with her friends selling her potatoes as snacks to passing tourists. She cackled with toothless hilarity that first night when she came home to find us, two of her customers, living in her house!
We stayed for a couple of days and explored far and wide along the Dragon’s Backbone. At one thousand metres the air was crisp and good for hiking. In one long day we followed the path through Zhongliu to Dazai passing magnificent ancient rice terraces, splendid mountain scenery, pristine villages, and entrepreneurial Yao tribeswomen who seemed to spring up everywhere, one unrelenting lady followed us for about six kilometres! From Dazai we took a bus back down through the beautifully lush gorge at the base of the terraces to Huangluo, where we ate a very late lunch in the kitchen of a Yao household before climbing back up the stone path to Pingan.
When we left our family it was the crack of dawn, grandma held my hand warmly and cackled out her best wishes in the local dialect which we recognised as being strangely similar to Thai. Roosters crowed as we slipped silently down the paths of Pingan, and then on down the mountain to Huangluo. We didn’t have to wait long for a passing minibus, one of grandmas yams tided us over for the trip back to Longsheng, then it was a change of bus and back onto our ten year old steps to Sanjiang. The DVD entertained us with China’s answer to Ricky Martin and the Boyz Noize for the two and a half hour ride to a place we remembered well but barely recognised beneath ten years of urban sprawl. We spotted the hotel that we had stayed at on a whirlwind tour between bus stations on an auto-rickshaw, then ate an excellent bowl of two kuai noodles before our next transport took us out of town and into virgin territory once again.
The road between Sanjiang and Diping was being painstakingly reconstructed and we spent a bone crunching three hours bouncing around in the back seat, this was our jarring welcome to Guizhou province. In Diping the road reverted to it’s old self and for the last half hour of our journey to Long-e we bumped through beautiful countryside of neat little Dong villages following a stream with waterwheels irrigating fields of white and yellow flowers.
In Long-e our minibus terminated and we waited expectantly for two hours for onward transport, the Hong Nan Lushe looming menacingly behind the weekly market stalls should the need arise. Dusk began to fall and we were about to give up hope when our saviour arrived in the form of a Liping bus with a clutch that sounded like a donkey’s ‘ee-aw’. Gratefully we climbed aboard and chugged off into the twilight enjoying some spectacular scenery as we ascended to a high pass before dropping down to our final destination, Zhaoxing. It was twelve hours since we left Pingan that morning.
IN THE DARK WE FOUND our way to the Wen Hua Zhan Zhaodaisuo, negotiated a price for our room, ate, bathed and slept…
We woke to find ourselves in a time-warped village. Zhaoxing had a population of almost four thousand people, most of whom were ethnic minority Dong who dressed traditionally in indigo dyed clothing and lived in picturesque wooden houses. In and around the cobbled streets we found old covered bridges, drumtowers and squares fronting decorated stages. The streets were busy with people going about their business, buying and selling everything from produce from the fields and indigo fabric, to fresh pork, beef and dog meat summarily executed and butchered on the spot. Horse carts wheeled down the main street carrying loads of straw, old men smoked from fancy bamboo pipes, and children played, rugged up in thick quilted jackets.
The weather was dry but extremely cold, and we were still shivering even after a brisk ten kilometre walk up to the pass and back down through the equally charming villages of Tang-an and Sha-ge. Whenever invited we huddled around charcoal braziers practising our conversation skills, and in the evening we ordered from our chosen restaurant across the road a warming dish of dog meat. Chef marched straight over to the butcher who dutifully carved off a nice piece of mongrel, then she returned and cooked it in a tasty piquant sauce, serving it to us with a bowl of doufu qing cai tang. The meat was dark, strong and a bit tough, but the meal was delicious.
In the morning we were out before the noisy mantou vendor to catch the 7am bus to Liping as recommended to us by our amiable host Wei Hai. We filled our stomachs with spicy pork buns for just 3 Mao each, and sat back to enjoy the one hundred kilometre journey through the mountains of eastern Guizhou.
The dirt road was in as poor a condition as our bus, but we made it to the large town of Liping in just under four hours. There we changed to a superior coach and with a spare hour we lunched on a delicious new discovery, tang yuan, balls of very sticky rice flour filled with pork, which could easily choke the unwary diner! We then thought that we had an easy afternoon ahead of us, we sped along in comfort up and down river valleys, sucking sweet longyan and keeping one eye on the Hong Kong gangster film. Three hours wore into four, a Chinese kick boxing movie wore on, we ate the last of our sesame chilli sugar coated peanuts…
A Hong Kong detective drama had long finished, and we had been looking hopefully out the window for a city for around three hours when we finally rolled in to Kaili bus station, more than eight hours after leaving Liping!
IT WAS 9 O’CLOCK AT NIGHT and we had been on the road for fourteen hours. Not bothering with dinner we found the nearby Shi You Jiudian, switched on the electric blankets(!!) and went to bed.
We woke to find that Kaili was a nice city. On our way back to the bus station we grabbed some dou jiang and baozi filled with spicy pickled vegetables. It seemed that the further northwest we moved, the spicier the food became, dried red chillies were featuring more and more heavily in every dish.
We got a brief look at the city as our air-conditioned coach cruised out to the Kai-xin freeway, then sped us across to Guiyang in just two hours. The 150 kilometre stretch of freeway was obviously the governments pride and joy, every few hundred metres was stationed a sweeper with a straw broom to keep it looking immaculate! We even saw someone lovingly mopping a guard rail!!
Once deposited in the city we headed for the Mingzhu Fangdian, and after haggling a reasonable room rate of 80 Yuan, we dumped our bag and headed off to explore.
GUIYANG WAS THE MUCH MALIGNED capital of Guizhou province, every person that we’d mentioned it to had shaken their head in dismay. But we thought it was a pretty good place. We wandered down Zunyi Lu past the waving statue of Chairman Mao, down through the lively market along Yangming Lu, paused for an appetiser of wheat noodles with beef in an old riverfront noodle shop, then were off for some snack-tracking and exercise.
We ate our way along Zhonghua Nan Lu to Yuanshu Lu, fueling on pineapple, grilled sweet potato, candied melon, strawberries and roasted potatoes dipped in chilli flakes. We burned that off in the Qingling Gongyuan, climbing up to the three hundred year old Hongfu Temple and scaling a couple of nearby peaks for a sensational view of the 3.5 million strong city sprawling like a sea around the surrounding hills. And we even saw two treepies and a woodpecker in the forests of the park. We then retraced our steps eating some of the things we’d already checked out but didn’t have room for before – tasty kebabs which we wrapped in little pancakes with a vast selection of vegetable condiments, delicious egg tarts, walnuts, apples, mandarins and carefully fried douhua filled with a spicy sauce.
The next morning we were out early with the exercising populace, first dunking youtiao and slurping doujiang at a busy roadside stall, then walking to the Hebin Gongyuan to watch the city prepare for the day. Down by the river under the plum blossoms, people practised tai chi, played energetic games of badminton, and took their caged huamei to sing together in the trees. Walking back to the Mingzhu Hotel we were excited to get a fleeting glimpse of our shadows for the first time in almost two weeks. We quickly packed and checked out, ready to tackle our next destination – Anshun, another 150 kilometres to the west.
A COACH TOOK US THERE in one and a half hours, so we arrived in time to consider continuing further, but we decided to check out Anshan. So we skipped off munching on a stick of artfully carved pineapple, to look for a place to stay. Unfortunately Anshan turned out to be one of those dreaded places where foreigners were only permitted to stay in expensive binguan. Within the hour we were regretting our decision to stay, and ended up in the very rundown Minzu Jiudian after some hard bargaining reduced the price to 80 Yuan. Our room was a shadow of it’s former self.
We spent the afternoon mooching around town, taking a peek in the 600 year old Donglin Temple and the interesting wet markets, and trying some new snacks. There was fried potato seasoned with various shoots, greens and spicy sauces, and a rice cake which was flavoured with green tea and oozed a thick sweet filling. For dinner we ate a feast in a little restaurant at the market near the northern end of Tashan Donglu, our table featured a pot belly stove and we sat soaking up the warmth as dish after dish appeared on our table.
We left our crumbling hotel the next morning without seeing another soul except the bored fu yuan, and made our way back to the bus station. Along the way it was delicious steamed baozi for breakfast, then we had to do battle with a hard-faced xiao jie at the bus ticket window before boarding the 8:30am bus to Shuicheng.
It was another spectacular trip, the karst peaks around Anshan turned into dramatic limestone mountains dotted with villages of stone houses and terraced fields of green and gold. An American kungfu movie didn’t distract anybody, there was even a loud complaint, “wo ting bu dong!!”, but all enjoyed Jackie Chan’s ‘Police Story’, and the credits rolled to an appreciating audience as we rolled into the grubby town of Shuicheng.
There was just enough time for a bowl of pai gu mian before an onward bus took us further west to Weining. The road climbed and climbed to over 3000 metres, the high plains were hilly then, and we saw only hardy shepherds with their flocks until the plain widened to accommodate Caohai Lake at 2200 metres – our reason for going to such a remote corner of Guizhou province.
OUR WITS AND AN ABILITY to read hanzi found us a small lushe in the street opposite the bus station. We were welcomed warmly, and after our hostess had us settled we set off to get our bearings on Weining.
First we walked to the lake and had no trouble finding a boatman to pole us out over the shallow grassy waters where thousands of wintering birds flocked against a stunning backdrop. We were in awe, hardly able to believe that we could be in such a place. Out on the lake it was freezing cold and silent except for the birds – it was totally surreal…
Back in town we struggled with the mumbled Weining accent, but everyone wanted to chat and we got loads of conversation practice. In the mosque the imam was wrapped to see us. He proudly showed us around the unusual Chinese version of an Arab place of worship, and with true Muslim hospitality invited us into his home for tea, a snack and a chat. While we were there four devotees turned up for the afternoon Friday prayer.
After that nice experience we sought out a Muslim restaurant for our dinner and enjoyed a great meal of doufu qing cai tang and dried beef stir-fried with shallots and snow peas, with the company of the restaurateur, Ma Ben Che at our heated table. He was a font of information, and his accent was easier to understand, and so it was over that meal that we made a plan for the days ahead.
Back at our hotel there was a boisterous crowd around the pot belly stove, and we snuggled while confirming Ma Ben Che’s information and making small talk as best we could with a mix of accents from Xian to Shanghai!
The next day the weather deteriorated. A heavy mist which passed as drizzle lasted all day, making our return visit to the lake a rather cold and muddy experience. We emerged from the marshy foreshores with ten centimetre high platforms on the bottom of our shoes. By the time we returned to town the weekly market was in full swing. Unphased by the dismal conditions, tribal women dressed in colourful aprons and huge black turbans traded live chickens while horse carts trafficked the streets.
We survived the rest of the day by sitting around the pot belly stove socialising, and tasting the xiao chi offered to us. Zhao mian was a pasty sweet gruel of wheat, and tian jiu was a sweet fermented concoction which we drank hot from rice bowls.
In the morning our experimental cup of water had frozen almost solid in the bathroom, confirming our suspicion that our room was freezing, but we were snug with our electric blankets and soft pillows, ready to face what we thought could be a challenging day.
Kong Fan Zhong saw us off, he watched us eat our breakfast jiaozi, then waved goodbye as our microvan crowded with eleven passengers squelched off down the road. The windows were too caked with mud to see where we were going, but we bounced along for a few kilometres until we reached the train station, a spanking new building plonked in the middle of nowhere like a scene from a science fiction horror film.
We bought our tickets for a mere five kuai, the K8618 arrived on time, and we boarded in a reasonably orderly fashion, skidding on the icy platform. The landscape that the train took us through was barren farmland. Stone houses sat isolated in ploughed fields, and thickets of newly planted pine were encrusted with icicles. We were befriended by Abdul Rahman, a teacher from Xinjiang, who quickly engaged half the carriage in our interesting conversation. As a repressed Muslim he didn’t like the Chinese government and was not afraid to say so.
We crossed into Yunnan province just before reaching Zhaotong where the train terminated and we shuffled off to find out about our onward passage. The 5604 to Chongqing was the next train going our way, and we had five hours to wait for it’s departure.
A long lunch of sha guo fen in a cardboard lean-to with a neon sign out the front took up most of the time. Then we littered the station with sunflower seed husks whilst observing the finer points of train boarding etiquette. The time passed and we finally took our turn at 4:30pm, then our train whistled it’s way northward out of Zhaotong and spectacularly down the mountains through a series of long tunnels. As we descended the valleys greened, the temperature in the carriage increased to 11 degrees, and an eating frenzy continued around us. The carriage attendant even turned up right on cue shouting “hua fan, chi fan!”, so we could join in with a rice package of our own.
After five hours we arrived in Yibin right on time. That was our stop, so we bade farewell to all and made our exit, coming within a centimetre of the surging mass of boarding passengers being held back at the carriage door by a brave man in a big hat wielding an even bigger baton.
We weren’t sure what our next move was to be, but I happened to ask just the right passerby about accommodation options and we were led a short distance to a very basic zhao daisuo. For 30 kuai we got a room with whistling freight trains running past our bed, and access to a squalid toilet on the ground floor. But we were tired, and we slept enjoying the extra degrees of lowland warmth.
The next morning we couldn’t get out of there quick enough, we asked directions and walked just fifty metres to where a bus bound for Chengdu waited. Now we were in Sichuan province and our quick breakfast of spicy wonton soup just about blew our heads off. An excellent early morning wake up. Then we were bundled onto the bus and spent the next hour and a half doing a grand tour of Yibin before hitting the freeway. Once we got going it took five hours to reach Chengdu. We passed the time spitting sunflower seed husks while trying to work out what were the different crops that we passed.
WHEN WE REACHED THE CITY we were dumped unexpectedly at a bus station which didn’t feature on our map, but we beat off the microvan touts, asked for advice, and put ourselves on city bus number 57. By the time we had to decide where to get off the bus was crammed, and at every stop the driver yelled menacingly at the unyielding passengers to move to the rear. We squeezed out past businessmen in tailored suits, housewives, and cherub faced Tibetan monks to land in the middle of a throbbing metropolis of twelve million people. There was nothing the same with this place and the Chengdu that we’d visited ten years earlier.
We ended up staying in the Tibetan quarter at Holly’s Hostel, and as soon as we’d put our bag down we automatically set out our priorities. First to the noodle shop around the corner where the niu rou mian was thick and hearty, then to wash ourselves – after four days the sensation of hot water was bliss. Now we could relax and enjoy ourselves.
We went for a stroll and made a plan for the next day which began with us hiring some bicycles.
After eating a breakfast of doujiang and fried baozi which left our tongues tingling, we peddled off on our Chinese Phoenix’s into the Chengdu traffic. Flowing with a river of bicycles it took one and a half hours to navigate across the city, then we left the worst of the snarls behind us and cruised for another hour asking directions here and there to Baoguang Si, a huge temple complex where we spent several hours looking around the halls and courtyards, watching fervent devotees burning candles and incense for Guanyin’s birthday. Best was the Arhat Hall, a maze lined with five hundred life-sized statues of Buddha’s disciples. Throngs of people crammed the hall counting the saints or seeking out their favourites. Also good was the lunch we had in the vegetarian canting. Hot and sour eggplant and ‘pork’ made from wheat gluten.
After our initiation, the ride back was less frightening, though Dave was knocked from his Pheonix by a dreaded white minivan just a few hundred metres from the finishing post!
That night we rewarded our forty kilometre effort with a visit to Pockmarked Grandma Chen’s Beancurd Shop on Qinghua Jie. The mapo doufu was almost as good as we remembered, and a saucy dish of wintermelon with dried prawns set it off nicely. Our mouths tingled with satisfaction, and an impressive bruise began stretching across the back of Dave’s hand.
Our next excursion took us out of the city. We packed our bag, backed up for another breakfast of tongue-tingling baozi, then jumped on bus number 82 to reach the Chadianzi bus station. There we hopped on a bus to Dujiangyan, a town about 45 minutes westward, and then onto another bus for a thirty minute trip to Qingcheng Hou Shan. From there we walked, we paused in the village of Tai-an where we found a riverfront shanzhuang to stay in, then continued up into the mountains.
We completed a twenty kilometre circuit walk which was taxing but worthwhile. Beginning at the Wulong Gorge, the trail worked it’s way up, often precipitously, to Youyi village where we stopped to refuel with noodles before the final push to the top of the mountain. At the summit we found the Baiyun Temple perched on the side of a cliff and accessed by scrambling up bamboo stairs and pathways inside a cave carved with scores of Buddha images. In the temple were more of the blue-haired Buddhas and multi-armed, multi-headed icons that we’d been seeing in all the Buddhist temples.
The route down followed another gorge with a crystal clear stream. We were even poled down a water-filled chasm at one point, and added some great birds to our visual kitty like water redstarts, river chats, a white crowned forktail, and an entire flock of blue magpies. Swinging above was a cable car, and sedan chair bearers shimmied up and down the trail for those unwilling to exert themselves.
Back in Tai-an we slept well after our six hour hike. The room was a bit damp, but electric blankets saved the day, and before we left in the morning we managed a stroll up to the Crystal Cave for a great view of the mountain.
We conducted the return trip to Chengdu with military precision, winding up at our preferred noodle shop in time for a late lunch.
Spending a couple more days mooching around Chengdu, we prepared for our next foray into the wilds of northern Sichuan. We managed to utilise the city’s bus network to transport ourselves far and wide. We spoke to Taoist monks who looked like extras out of ancient kungfu films with their top knots and round hats, at the Green Ram Temple, and gazed up at a marble Chairman Mao ironically saluting the capitalist masses on Renmin Lu. We browsed in the antique market on Qinghua Jie, and chatted with a student of English from Jiangsu in the Wenhua Gongyuan. But nicest was the morning spent sipping jasmine tea in the Wenshu Temple tea garden, birds twittered, bamboo chairs creaked, conversation hummed and attendants roamed with copper kettles endlessly refilling teapots.
For our last meal in the city of culinary legend we returned to Pockmarked Grandma Chen’s for another famous Sichuan speciality, guoba rou pian, crispy rice with a sauce of sweet lychee and pork poured with a sizzling flourish over the top. Back at the hostel we made arrangements for Holly’s boys to take us to the Chadianzi bus station the next morning because it was doubtful that the city bus could get us there in time for the last bus to Songpan.
Come 6am we crept out of our room without disturbing our Hong Kong and Israeli room mates to find Holly’s boys predictably disorganised, but they did get us to the bus Keystone-style in time for a 7am departure. We took our place in the back seat next to a Taoist monk and began the journey watching one of those kungfu films set in ancient times, confirming that he really did look like an extra from it! We made our way up narrow valleys, stopping for lunch near Maoxian where we could see snow drifts on the mountain above. Further north the valleys deepened, and the road climbed steadily to Songpan at 2800 metres.
OUR BAG REEKED OF DIESEL when we extracted it from under the bus, and we wandered into the Shun Jiang Guesthouse leaving a foul vapour trail. Our room was comfortable with electric blankets and a nice view of the snow dusted mountains surrounding the valley.
Once settled we set off with Anna, our Parisian neighbour, to organise a horse trekking expedition. Within a few hours we were all set for a next day departure. For 320 kuai each we would spend four days exploring the valleys to the east of Songpan on horseback…
When we woke the next morning the sky was clear and blue for the first time in a month. At 9:30am our horses had assembled in the street outside, and our party was ready to go. Our preparations had been made for us, so all that we’d had to to was buy some fruit provisions and decide which precious few items to put into my small day pack, then it was roped onto the back of my chestnut gelding named Maho, and together we clopped off through the streets of Songpan – six horses, us, Anna, and three horsemen.
We got to know our mounts as we climbed out of the Songpan valley and over a pass into the next. Now we learned horse commands in Chinese – “daaa quuu” seemed to work for recalcitrance, “brrrr chh” was for anyone caught snacking, and “ugh ugh qu” were general sounds of encouragement. The trail was hard going for the horses, they each carried a load, ice crunched under their hooves, and it was steep and slippery with mud. If they guessed our inexperience they were kind enough not to take advantage, and we just sat giving a gentle kick or a pull on the reins now and then.
We continued for five hours, making our way across to a third valley, dismounting to walk down the steep sections, and passing herds of yaks. All around were snow capped mountains and patches of unmelted snow, and it became more forested as we progressed.
Our camp for the night was in a small clearing, carrying with us only the bare essentials, the horsemen made tent poles and pegs from whatever they could find, even our chopsticks were fashioned from twigs. They were nice guys and we got to know them better over the course of the afternoon and evening campfire. As the sun dipped and the temperature plummeted we wrapped up in long Tibetan coats and chatted until 10pm, nobody particularly keen to leave the warmth of the fire for our beds of pine branches and quilts, with a saddle for a pillow…
In the morning when I opened my eyes I could feel the cold on my eyeballs. The ground was frozen, but the sky was blue, and as we stepped out of our tent a team of yaks and their herders passed through our campsite to set the mood. Then Dave’s horse let me know who was in charge by delivering me a solid side kick which sent me to the ground with painful indignity.
A breakfast of youtiao and potato soup took hours to prepare, but served well as comfort food, and it was almost 11 o’clock by the time we set off. As I had already experienced, the horses were more frisky this day. They knew that they didn’t have to go far and the pace was easy. The fourth valley we entered was stunningly beautiful, tiny Tibetan villages dotted here and there, pine forests to the north, and the Ice Mountain soaring above like a white pyramid.
After just two hours of riding we made camp at the far end of the valley, and once we’d gotten the home fires burning we set off on foot to exercise and explore. Nearby was a waterfall half frozen in a ravine, and a brand new gompa which we circled three times spinning the prayer wheels before taking a look inside with a couple of prostrating devotees.
Back at our camp our numbers had swelled. We were joined by an Israeli couple, Dee and Yaya with their two horsemen, and Ron and Honey from Hong Kong and Chengdu respectively with their two horsemen. With our resources combined, dinner and the bonfire was a very social affair, stars twinkled above multilingual conversations and singalongs, and the atmosphere was very convivial.
The next morning everyone eagerly prepared for another great day. We ate our breakfast with the horses while it was decided who would come on the expedition to Ice Mountain. Honey was definitely out, her pretty face crumpled in despair at our living conditions, and tears flowed as she and her horseman discreetly departed for Songpan. Two other men stayed to look after the camp, so it was a party of ten that set off on our third morning.
The horses had a stiff two hour climb ahead of them, but they were unladen and the horsemen rode without saddles, so they weren’t too troubled. We climbed up from our camp at 3800 metres first through pine forest then, as we got higher, up slopes of shale and slate. The trail was hair-raisingly narrow and steep, but after three days I now felt relaxed and able to completely trust Maho. Only once we had to dismount while the horses skated clumsily across a large ice patch.
Our destination was at 4500 metres, and there the horses and the men left us, issuing strict instructions about our return by foot. They were gone in seconds, running back down the slopes after the excited animals. Then we were alone – us, Anna, Dee, Yaya and Ron. After the obligatory photo shoot we straggled off toward the glacial moraine looking like tiny ants as we separated. I walked until I was standing beneath the gleaming peak which soared above at 5400 metres. The silence roared and I could not only feel my heart beating in my chest, but with those high altitude exertions, I could hear it beating in my ears!
It took over two hours for us to return from where we had been left, and it was beautiful to enjoy at our own pace. Best was the thick pine forest which dripped with exotic lichens, and across the valley we could see a three hundred metre waterfall frozen solid like a gigantic crystal. We also had a close encounter with some Chinese wildlife which had somehow escaped the dinner plate, a large badger-like creature with a pointed nose and a long fluffy tail sauntered unafraid across the track in between us!
When we arrived back at the camp the men had been baking bread, so we had a meal called lunch at about 4pm, then they made dinner and presented that at 5pm. The mood around the campfire that night was pretty mellow after an energetic day, Dave and I were amongst the reluctant last to have our heads hit the saddle!
The morning rituals were being performed more quickly the next day. The horses were already being fed when we arose, and we were eating stir-fried cauliflower and cabbage by 8am. Ron was able to dig into his bottomless bag of snacks to supplement our breakfast with a choice of Oreo’s or two different flavours of dried yak meat. This was to be our longest day in the saddle, and the horses knew that they were homeward bound. It was also deemed that after four days we were experienced enough to allow them to trot of even gallop as they wished – and they wished!
The seven hour ride took only five and a half, and we returned via a different route which had less steep sections along wider, flatter valleys. The horses seemed to enjoy the wind in their manes as they jostled for the prized first position, and we all just hung on and enjoyed the ride, providing a no doubt humorous spectacle to the villagers we passed by.
Arriving back in Songpan at 2:30pm the town was a hive of activity. and riding through the main street as part of a group of twelve on horseback was quite exciting in a wild west kind of way. We were enthusiastically met at Shun Jiang Guesthouse, and I said a fond farewell to my horseman Dami and the placid Maho. In a moment of forgiveness I even gave Dave’s horse a pat on the nose, though the bruise on my leg still pained, and would trouble me for years to come…
We recovered our bag from the depths of the fu yuans room, and if it still smelled of diesel we couldn’t notice it over our own overwhelming smells which we brought back with us from the wilderness. Our shoes had to go outside the window, our clothing smelled of horse, and our bodies were taken straight to the bathhouse across the street for some long awaited soap and hot water. The dirt washed off in waves and I soaked until my skin pruned. After a stroll around Songpan we found that we now knew lots of people, and we spent another pleasant evening in the small eatery called Puzhou Changuan with our friends Liji and Zhongfang who cooked us a fantastic dinner. Pork and shredded choko with fresh red chillies and hua jiao, and a tomato and egg soup tasted amazing after camp food! Their conversation and patience with our Chinese was inexhaustible. Zhongfeng’s sister and her husband, the pharmacist from across the road, joined the conversation in between customers and we even met their dog who eventually got past my funny accent well enough to shake hands! I didn’t sleep well that night, maybe the bed was too warm and soft, so getting up early for the 7am bus to Jiuzhaigou National Park was no problem.
It was only a two hour trip to the north, first to the snow crusted Gong Ga Ling Pass at 3500 metres, then down through lush alpine scenery to the park entrance at 1900 metres. The hotel complexes and tour buses which we passed along the way didn’t auger well for an escape to nature, and when we stepped off the bus the ticket office looked like mission control. We learned that it could process 10,000 visitors per day! It was rather user-unfriendly but we eventually shuffled through, a little dazed by the theme park atmosphere, and set off up a road undergoing major reconstruction works, very disappointed that the walking trail was closed for a reason beyond our comprehension.
After three hours of hiking in the dust and diesel of an endless stream of buses and trucks I was finding it difficult to appreciate the pretty blue mineral lakes we passed. The new road was a painful blight on a beautiful place.
WHEN WE REACHED SHUZHENG VILLAGE, at 2300 metres, we found a place to stay in a Tibetan house brightly painted with traditional murals, inhabited by a nice family headed by two brothers. The eldest was 78 and spent most of his time spinning his hand-held prayer wheel or chanting mantras from scriptures which he kept in the living room. The 63 year old younger brother spent his time spinning the two large prayer wheels on the verandah, it was also his dharma to burn pine needles in the small stupa. So the place had a great atmosphere, especially for us on the second night eating with the brothers next to the fireplace, our mouths tingling with pins and needles after a particularly fiery dish of bai cai laced with hua jiao, ginger and chilli. Unfortunately that memorable meal was the only real food that we found to eat, the rest of the time we had to exist on packaged biscuits, instant noodles and some dried yak meat that we had in our bag.
To see some more of the park we walked further along the beaten track daring to venture past the forbidding signs and blockades across the walking trails to try and find some pleasure in our surroundings. We hiked over thirty kilometres to the Arrow Bamboo Lake and Panda Pool, past azure lakes as clear as crystal and waterfalls flowing over formations of calcium deposits. The hundreds of tourists we saw moved in a large pack mindlessly following flags and loud-hailers, and dressing in Tibetan costumes for obligatory polaroid snaps.
I would have to admit that I was feeling that our trip to Jiuzhaigou had been unworthwhile until the morning we left. We woke to find that it was snowing and suddenly everything became magical. The tiled rooves of the village were dusted white, and we walked spellbound down the street with snow falling on us for the first time in our lives! We walked along the road further than we had intended, past the Tiger Pool to the Rhinoceros Lake, ecstatic at the sight of the brilliant blue water surrounded like jewels by pine trees sprinkled with winter white.
When we began to return to the village, the second amazing thing happened to us that morning. We fatefully chose to return via the forbidden walking trail, and were totally freaked out to watch a section of the road on the other side of the stream which we had walked along ten minutes earlier disappear under an avalanche of rock which could have buried us alive!
We went back to collect our bags looking as white as the snow that still drifted down around us. The twelve kilometre hike back down to the ticket office was then a pleasure, the road was now closed due to the rock slide, so the traffic was much reduced, there was no dust, and the snowy scenes were precious.
Back at mission control only a skilfully prepared bowl of mian tiao broke the monotony of a four hour wait for a bus to take us back to Songpan. It hadn’t snowed in Jiuzhai village, but 2000 metres in altitude was clearly marked with a line of snow in the trees on the hills above.
It took twice as long for the return journey. That lush alpine scenery was heavily covered in snow and we looked dreamily out the window of the bus while the passengers around us snored loudly.
SAFELY BACK IN SONGPAN WE took a room for the third time at the Shun Jiang Guesthouse then headed straight for the bathhouse. The cursory Tibetan mountain wash was somewhat too perfunctory for the long term. Once clean we headed for the Puzhou Changuan to see what Zhongfeng would cook for us. Her mapo doufu was excellent, and we had with it chao qing cai with dried chillies, a soup called ti hua tang (pigs trotter and broadbean), and the ubiquitous Sichuan pickled vegetables. Liji plied us with rice until we could hardly move, then we sadly waved goodbye knowing that we would never see each other again.
At 9pm rain put an end to the games being played on the billiard tables in the street below our window, all vacated to the karaoke bar next door and we were crooned to sleep by their not-so-dulcet tones.
In the morning at 6:30am the sky was clear and the air freezing when we jumped on the bus bound for Zoige, also known as the very hard to pronounce Ruoergai. Seventeen kilometres north of Songpan we made the all-important left hand turn onto a dirt road and the journey promised to be interesting. The first thing we passed was a large herd of woolly yaks all covered in frost, and across the aisle an old Tibetan woman continually spun a prayer wheel and threw coloured confetti out the window at strategic intervals. She also threw three offerings of anything she consumed all around her, much to the consternation of the passengers behind who were periodically showered with cake and Sprite.
Before long we were driving through fresh snow and the flakes sparkled like diamonds when the sun reached into the valleys. We rattled our way up to the Tibetan plateau and the scene was stupendously bleak, crossing barren expanses surrounded by hills where everything was white except for the thousands of grazing yaks like black dots in the vastness.
Zoige materialised in the middle of absolutely nowhere, a new town custom-built, but full of the most amazing looking people. Almost everyone wore a traditional Tibetan coat accessorised with sashes, jewellery and hats like some fancy-dress event. All had red, calloused cheeks and big smiles. We roamed around for a couple of hours waiting for a bus connection attracting giggles, greetings and conversations wherever we went.
The 2:30pm bus to Langmusi left at 4pm, and by that time most of the snow had melted so we bumped our way across the grasslands, dry and brown, on a very poor gravel road. We passed no settlements, only the tents of hardy nomads, more yaks and long-haired goats. There were marmot-like rodents, pipits, and numerous lammergeiers, all on the hunt for a meal.
We finally climbed up away from the grasslands and over a pass which revealed to us a magnificent view and caused much excitement amongst our fellow passengers. The driver honked the horn loudly and a few of the men screamed out the windows while throwing prayer confetti into the wind.
On our way down we spent an hour negotiating a muddy stretch of road jammed with bogged trucks, and then just when we thought we must be getting close, the driver decided that it was all too much and abandoned us! Everybody alighted to argue about it, and eventually the reluctant conductor climbed behind the wheel to complete the journey along what was by this time an abysmal stretch of road. We finally completed the 80 kilometre trip in just over six hours, and trudged off in the snow to find somewhere to stay…
IN THE MORNING WE WOKE up in the Langmusi Binguan. Everything outside our window was white and cold, but we were eager to explore and very hungry. Xiao Ping in the noodle shop across the street served us a huge breakfast of jaozi and baozi, then we crunched off through the frozen mud and snow to have a look around.
We scaled the hill behind the Namo Temple for a bird’s eye view of the village and surrounding landscape and it was fantastically beautiful, the high altitude climb literally taking our breath away. Down below we walked around the massive gompa with some pilgrims who were doing one hundred laps, counting each one off on an abacus of stones. There was the sound of horns and conches blowing, and chanting came from within. When the monks emerged they looked incredible in flowing maroon robes and pleated capes with big shoulders and enormous yellow hats.
At the other end of the village we wandered up the Namo Canyon for some solitude in nature. We passed the source of the White Dragon River and continued for a few kilometres watched by soaring Himalayan griffins, lammergeier, and a flock of blue-eared pheasants foraging in the juniper scrub. By the time we ambled back to the village we were hungry again and Xiao Ping made us a delicious bowl of mian pian yang rou for lunch before a relaxing afternoon in the solarium of the hotel learning about the geography of Langmusi from Kaoson and Kunchok, a couple of Tibetans who had snuck into India to study in Dharamsala. Langmusi sat at 3200 metres, and only half of the village was in Sichuan, we were already in Gansu province when we went to sleep in the Langmusi Binguan.
At 7am the following morning we were standing in the dark on the corner outside the hotel with a small huddle of people wanting to go to Hezuo. The headlights of a bus appeared right on cue, and our little group shuffled across the frozen mud to take our places for the six hour ride north. We travelled along a series of wide valleys, passing many Tibetan villages of flat rooved houses with south-facing solariums, and covered about 180 kilometres again without seeing a single tree.
We changed buses in Hezou and began a five kilometre long battle of wills with the conductor about whether we would pay ten Yuan for ‘insurance’, we won and he retreated defeated to the front of the bus and went to sleep.
BY 2:30PM WE WERE IN XIAHE, a pilgrim village attached to the holy Labrang Lamasery. We found our way to Tara Guesthouse and took a cosy Tibetan room complete with sleeping platform and central heating.
Initially Xiahe looked warmer than where we had come from (there was little ice to be seen), but as soon as the sun began to sink so did the mercury. An icy wind whipped up from the north and snow was falling before dark. Our laundry which we’d laughingly left to dry on the rooftop clothesline was frozen solid!
We were snug in our room, but it was still snowing in the morning, all the better for earning merit on the pilgrims path which circled the monastery. With the taste of fermented yak butter still in our mouths from our breakfast of tsampa and dooma, we joined the line of pilgrims making their way around the the three kilometre route energetically spinning over a thousand large wooden prayer wheels, trying to keep up with the cracking pace. Next to the wheels, out in the snow, the truly meritorious painstakingly prostrated themselves after each three steps, their knees protected by sheepskin aprons, hands by wooden blocks, and spots of dust visible on their foreheads.
After completing our circumambulation we took a look inside some of the temples, and joined a group of Buddhists from Yunnan on a tour led by a shivering monk. We stood deep inside dark halls gazing up at blue-haired images of the Buddha, revering pictures of lamas, being blessed with scented holy water, and admiring yak butter sculptures which filled the air with their pungent odour. There was much excitement as white scarves were carefully placed over the fingers of a large Buddha statue with a long bamboo pole, and gasps of awe at the sight of a special seat reserved for the Dalai Lama. Outside the pilgrims continued to circumambulate, and a group of twenty or so fuschia-robed monks numbingly sat in the snow for a day-long vigil of chanting. The holy atmosphere also contained the overwhelming stench of the pilgrims excrement which they shamelessly deposited wherever the urge took them. Perfect little dollops of dabian sat anywhere the unsuspecting might step, especially around signs in Tibetan script doubtlessly stating ‘don’t shit here’!
In the village next to the lamasery the stores sold religious paraphernalia and warm clothing, and interspersed were little restaurants. It was too cold for street food, so all of our meals were taken behind closed doors. Best was the Muslim noodle shop where our noodles were made to order by a deft hand in the kitchen who pulled, stretched and slapped the dough into shape – wide and flat for the saucy mian dishes, and plump and round for the tang mian with beef. A few doors along we had an interesting and delicious dinner of chao qing cai with dried chilles and a dan hua tang with various fungi and mosses, as everyone watched an episode of ‘Da Li Shui Shou’ (Popeye).
After two days we’d had enough of the cold and headed to the bus station to depart for somewhere hopefully less climatically extreme. At the Jiangnan Xiao Chi we ate tasty baozi for breakfast, then went into battle again over insurance with a sour-faced xiao jie at the ticket window. We were no match for her, but at least we got a certificate and were pleased to know that our lives were worth 80,000 kuai!
But we weren’t away yet. Just as our bus was about to pull out of town the driver had to settle an old score with a gentleman from the Hezuo bus. The crowd-drawing fight resulted in the highway department detaining our conductor who had to later chase us down in a taxi! We passively smoked our way to Linxia, three hours to the north along the road to Lanzhou.
We left behind the snow-dusted peaks and there was promise in the sight of green shoots in the recently sown fields. The houses began to look Chinese again with arching tiled rooves, murals of misty mountains, and carved wooden lintels.
ONCE IN LINXIA WE HAD to decide on our next move, and after a brief discussion of our options at the bus ticket window, we decided to stay in Linxia overnight for an early morning bus to Luomen. We wandered off following the xiao jie’s directions to find the Shuiquan Binguan. There our first class room for 50 Yuan had a picture window, a cavernous bathroom with hot water, and comfy beds.
Linxia was quite a big city, as we found when we set off to fill in the afternoon. We walked for a few kilometres along the main drag, noting that the population was largely Hui Muslim and that foreigners were a rarity. We spied a pagoda on Bei Shan and made our way to the top of the hill for a great view of the city with it’s numerous green onion domes and the sound of the afternoon call to prayer drifting up to us. We were happy to be able to do some snack-tracking on the way back, spicy fried potatoes on sticks were back on the menu, and we found some real suan nai in little glass bottles – delicious yoghurt so fermented that it almost fizzed.
As dawn broke the next morning we were motoring through the countryside east of Linxia. We had only just beaten the muezzin out of bed and the Friday morning call to prayer wailed loudly as we got ourselves ready to leave. In the part of southern Gansu which we were now travelling through life looked hard. The villages were attractive with their rammed earth houses, but out in the fields people were yolked together pulling ploughs, and the numerous towns were bleak looking places. We crossed several chains of hills, the mountains were barren and eroded, but still not without a kind of beauty.
The trip took a little longer than expected. We were told that we were in for a five hour journey, but it actually took nine and a half hours. It was 300 kilometres, and we only stopped once to repair a flat tyre – no dawdling. The driving team were of questionable intelligence, but the conductor was a nice guy who looked after us, he even found us a zhao dai suo in Luomen before waving goodbye.
LUOMEN WAS A SMALL NONDESCRIPT town, and the arrival of two foreigners was quite a curiosity. We were crowd stoppers, and people stared slack-jawed barely able to utter the words “wai guo ren!!!”. It was also difficult to find a substantial meal, and we ended up slurping noodles for our evening repast. But they were excellent hand made noodles and the company was good fun. Dave began with a nip of rice spirit and by the time we left we’d made plenty of new friends who wouldn’t hear of letting us pay for our meal.
In the morning we had some sight-seeing to do, and we were satisfied to be able to breakfast on cai baozi which were so plump with green vegetable that we had to attain a new level of chopstick skill to swipe them through the chilli sauce and get them into our mouths with any grace – at least the other diners were also having trouble! Between us we managed to eat nine pieces as well as two bowls of barley soup, so we were well set for the day.
Next we hired an auto-rickshaw and were on our way within seconds, we didn’t even need to negotiate the price after our friends had clued us in, and the lady driver didn’t ask for one Mao more. The che-zi whined it’s way out of town up a valley, then a narrow canyon of cliffs weathered into smooth rounded shapes. At the end of the dry weather track we dismissed our driver as we looked up in awe at a thirty metre tall Wei dynasty carving of the Sakyamuni Buddha.
We explored for a couple of hours, there was a Taoist temple at Shuilian Dong, and more ancient frescoes at Qianfo Dong, and by the time we’d finished admiring the 1700 year old Lashao Si carving the ticket seller was desperately concerned that our vehicle had driven off without us. But we enjoyed our twelve kilometre walk back to Luomen, it only took a couple of hours and the villagers obvious delight in us made it extra rewarding.
Back at the zhao dai suo we decided that it was still early enough to make a break for Tianshui, so we threw our things together with the help of three year old Wang Yi Ying and went to the roundabout to wait for an appropriate bus. Dave broke away from our crowd of thirty or so interested onlookers to buy some pork baozi for lunch, and scoffed seven of them as our bus bounced off down the road, giving him a proud tally of twelve baozi in one day!
The ride between Luomen and Tianshui was nothing short of spectacular. We passed numerous temples cut high into the cliffs to the east of town, then we climbed up to a ridge which gave panoramic views of terraced mountains cultivated with spring greenery disappearing into the far distance.
AFTER JUST NINETY KILOMETRES AND two and a half hours we had arrived in the city of Tianshui. With scant information we quickly devised a plan for our next move, and found a bus ticket office with a particularly helpful attendant. She spoke cleary, sold us a bus ticket to Xian for the next morning, and pointed us in the direction of some hotels in our price range. Hong Tai Lushe was basic but clean, and only 24 kuai.
After a quick stroll around our neighbourhood it was time for dinner, and we opted to brave a Sichuan hotpot. We were not disappointed, our cauldron bubbled with dried red chillies, coriander seeds, hua jiao, and chilli oil. Into that went our skewers of goodies from the mundane wintermelon and doufu skin to the more exotic fresh wood fungus and congealed pigs blood, then it was dunked into an even fierier roasted chilli sauce before eye-watering consumption. The entire meal, including fat, wobbly mung bean noodles cost only seven kuai.
Sinuses cleared, we finished off with some doujiang and walnut cookies on the way home, and drifted off to sleep to the sounds coming from the martial arts school upstairs.
It was already light when we stepped out onto the street in the morning at 6:30. We found a bowl of spicy beef noodles for breakfast in the Xiao Chi Jie, then waited patiently while our bus messed around before an eventual 9am departure.
The snazzy purple ‘Longyun Express’ took us 380 kilometres due east down the same narrow valley as the train line. We wended our way through tunnels and criss-crossed the tracks. We watched a Hong Kong kungfu spoof with plenty of funny spitting gags as we left Gansu behind and entered Shanxi province just before the city of Baoji.
From there it was plain sailing on the Xibao Freeway, we were happy to note that the trees now had leaves and the fields were verdant as we whipped along enduring an American B-grade flick artfully dubbed into Chinese. Nobody complained when the DVD was abruptly switched off in the middle of the monster-eating climax.
IN XIAN WE DROVE THROUGH miles of snarling city, but were relieved to be deposited near the train station as promised, and simply crossed the road to the Shang De Binguan for comfortable lodging. After a tasty late lunch of jidan cai he (flatbread stuffed with greens and egg) which we’d spied from our second floor vantage point, we set off to find downtown which was fabulously crowded with Sunday afternoon leisure-seekers, and thermally comfortable – the only ‘snow’ was falling from the willow blossoms.
We immediately liked the city and looked forward to spending time exploring the nooks and crannies. Stumbling into the wet market on Dongda Jie we saw for sale dining exotica like turtles, enormous frogs, snakes, obscure crustaceans and snails. In the Muslim quarter we pottered in the curio market and bought a big bag of Hui minority candies.
For a day trip, bus number 306 took us 45 minutes out of town for our obligatory visit to Bing Ma Yong – the terracotta army. The 2000 year old, larger than life Qin warriors were indeed impressive, but the real life armies outside were running the gauntlet of souvenir sellers, queuing up at the entry gates, and entering a scrum around the old well-digger who discovered the site. He spent the day impassively autographing books, looking suitably rich and famous.
Much better was the day’s entertainment that we made for ourselves just wandering around the park beneath the Ming dynasty city walls. At the northeastern corner we sat with a small but appreciating audience enjoying an informal jam session involving a lute, clapping stick, and a male and female opera vocalist. The atmosphere was great and we were warmly included in their group once they discovered that we could speak with them. Further along old men had lovingly bicycled their caged birds to the park, and they hung them in the trees where they sang to their hearts content. Down near Dong Wu Lu gate we supplemented our breakfast with a tasty new discovery, luzhi doufu nar, silken tofu with a thick sauce of mushroom and pressed doufu slivers, a dash of sesame oil and, of course, a little la jiao.
There was plenty of tai chi happening, with swords, fans and red kerchiefs; calligraphy artists painted on the pathways, people played badminton, and there was even a handsome couple giving Latin dance instruction. We sat and watched, attracting a crowd who were thrilled to have us share our newly processed holiday snaps with them! They showed much more interest in them than we knew anybody else ever would, so we made the most of the spotlight! Eventually the Latin dancers came over to see what all the fuss was about, they were 62 year old Tian Ji Chuan and his 56 year old wife Li Qiao Ling, neither of them looked or moved like they were a day over 40. We hit it off and they kindly invited us back to their place, a nice litte apartment just outside the south gate of the imposing city walls. Ji Chuan got out the family albums, while Qiao Ling whipped up a storm in the kitchen, and after much chopping and sizzling we lunched together on a banquet of dishes from stir-fried greens with dried prawns and peanuts fried with whole la jiao, to mapo doufu and shredded potato stir fried with dried chillies. It was delicious and we were deeply moved by their spontaneous generosity. After lunch we added some commemorative photos to our respective collections, I was dressed in one of Qiao Ling’s dancing outfits, complete with hairpiece and fan, then Ji Chuan helped us to strike the pose! Before we knew it the afternoon was over and we were saying goodbye, our lives much richer from having met…
We walked back via the south gate and stumbled into a street full of calligraphy suppliers, everyone was genuinely friendly and I was inspired to buy some souvenirs. I had my name engraved on a chop for 25 Yuan, and bought some paper cuts of little red dragons. A university student from Shanxi chatted with us as we walked back to the drumtower, the first person to attempt to speak English with us that day.
Back in our red light neighbourhood we prepared for our next day departure. We shopped around for food supplies as pretty girls sat in the doorways of ‘barbershops’ provocatively sucking lollipops, then finished the day with a bubbling clay-pot full of rice noodles and various vegetable matter that even our experienced palates were unfamiliar with. In our room we stayed up late watching a Hong Kong action movie starring Chow Yun Fat whilst getting to know our room-mates better – Manuel from Portugal, and Sam, a Korean/Canadian.
First thing in the morning we found a bus to Hua Shan, and after a thirty minute crawl through the bus station we hit the open road, travelling 120 kilometres east to the village at the foot of the mountain.
The people of Hua Shan didn’t endear themselves to us, those few that we interacted with were aggressive and money-grubbing. So we ditched our bag and began our mountain climb as quickly as we could – by 11 o’clock we were on the trail.
WE ASCENDED BY THE ANCIENT WAY, the first couple of hours were easy-going, then once we reached the Hairy Woman Cave (!!) the trail began to climb in earnest culminating in several flights of rock hewn stairs as steep and difficult to climb as ladders.
From the North Peak upward the views were magnificent, craggy granite peaks shot up from breathtaking drop-offs, and elegant pines manicured by the winds pointed their branches like fingers to the distant mountains. We made our way along the Green Dragon Ridge with the extra tourist traffic dragged up by the cable car, we teetered up the narrow stairways passing screaming day-trippers and hardy old men carrying 80 kilogram loads balanced on a stick.
Further up we went past the Wuyun Ridge and the Hongsheng Terrace to Zhenyue Gong, a Taoist temple tucked into a cavity between the highest peaks of the mountain. There we negotiated a reasonable price for a couple of places in a dormitory with nine beds crammed side by side in a freezing basement. Fortunately we were the only takers that night.
In the morning we were up before the sun to watch it rise from the East Peak, at 2100 metres and with an icy wind roaring from the west it was literally freezing cold. The spit from yesterdays tourists was frozen in grotesque globs on the rock. We walked around the cliff edge with it’s thousand metre drop-off to ‘The Sparrow Hawk Turning Over’, a picturesque outcrop which a group of students were daring to climb to. We began to follow, but the way was too perilous and the harness tied to a rope they were using didn’t instil much confidence.
Having thought we’d seen it all, we continued on to the South Peak, taking a detour to the Chang Kong Cliff Path. Dug into the side of the cliff was a cavern with a Taoist shrine inside, and the carved path to reach it continued on to a ladder going down to some wooden planks balanced on steel pegs hammered into the cliff face. Beneath the planks was a vertical drop of one thousand metres! I watched astonished as roughly a quarter of the people that we saw there actually ventured along the path, one daredevil from Shanghai explained that Chinese people like to do these things because of the history of the site, and besides, “there’s a chain to hold on to!”
Our descent from Hua Shan was leisurely and very pleasant. We made our way back down through the Goldlock Pass and the precipitous Green Dragon Ridge just as the first wave of chair-lifters were making their labour-intensive way up. We climbed the North Peak for a fantastic view of the entire massif, then dropped over the edge onto the Huangfu Path to make ourselves a circuitous route.
This way down was even steeper than the way we came up, and in one particular section we had to cling onto chains while finding our footholds carved into the vertical precipice, but it was good fun and the scenery was great. From North Peak it took about three hours to walk back to Hua Shan village, the final seven kilometres meandering down a valley along a relatively untrafficked road, surprising the well-heeled mini-bussing their way up to the cable car station.
In Hua Shan village we retrieved our bag and found a hotel to satisfy our immediate needs of a shower and real food. The water was hot, the mapo doufu was deliciously spicy, and we were happy. The only problem was that the populace seemed to be united against us.
In the morning we met more scumbags than we could poke a stick at. We had to argue over the price of our breakfast xiao bao, told the doujiang vendor to shove it, were lied to by the ‘turtles’ at the bus station, were ripped off by a unscrupulous taxi driver who left us by the side of the freeway, we wished great misfortune on an unsavoury bus conductor, were ripped off again by a rickshaw driver, and finally ended up just over the border on the other side of the Yellow River in Shaanxi province on a bus to Ruichang. Whew!! Our initial feelings about the people of Hua Shan were an accurate perception, and we were glad to leave the place behind.
RUICHANG WASN’T ACTUALLY THAT far away, and even with all the messing around we were there by 10:30, and in no mood to be aggravated further by anyone at the Baiyun Binguan, even if the gent behind the reception desk was for some reason in full police uniform. But thankfully we were back in friendly territory and we settled on a fourth floor ‘commonly romm’ for 50 Yuan, before asking directions to the Yongle Gong and setting off with a stick of pineapple and some su baozi for a two kilometre stroll to our objective.
For the first time it really felt like spring, the air was warm and everything was green and full of life. We found the temple in a beautiful garden of hedges, pine and magenta blossom trees full of azure-winged magpies. The grounds teemed with school children who hadn’t expected an exhibit of wai guo ren on their excursion, so we tried to keep a low profile and only got mobbed once…
We hadn’t understood the significance of the site until we began to look around. The Taoist murals painted inside the 800 year old ‘Hall of the Three Pristine Ones’ were priceless works of art, and in two other halls the murals depicted the life and immortality of Lu Dong Bing, the founder of the ‘Complete Perfection’ sect of Taoism. His house and tomb were also in the gardens and once the school kids had cleared out it shined as a special place.
Back in town that night the decision about what to have for dinner was made easily. Right across the road from our hotel in the main street was a restaurant with some interesting animal illustrations painted on the signboard, and a quick check in our dictionary confirmed that as well as dog, they served donkey meat. We’d never knowingly tried donkey meat before. “You lu rou ma?” we asked (“do you have any donkey meat?”), “You, qing zuo”, of course, sit down. The little place was packed and no wonder – for just 12 kuai we got a hotpot crammed full of goodies like chillies, glass noodles, doufu skin, fresh tofu, potato, wintermelon, crispy meatballs, slices of roasted donkey, and a sprig of coriander. It was presented with bread and lettuce for us to dunk in the soup, and a spicy peanut sauce for dipping. The whole meal was just delicious and the other diners slurped and belched in agreement.
We had only to walk a few steps from our hotel in the morning to find a bus going our way. We had a great breakfast of rou jia mo (five spice braised pork in fresh pocket bread), and by 8am had left the small town of Ruichang behind.
Whizzing along the Yunfeng Expressway we watched Jacky Chan in ‘Mister Nice Guy’, with the English soundtrack dubbed into Mandarin then re-translated into English and Chinese sub-titles for our viewing pleasure. From Yuncheng we headed north on the Dayun Expressway and a couple more kungfu movies entertained everybody while outside the window Shaanxi flashed by. The landscape was the same crumbling eroded hills and mountains, and the people were wheat farmers who lived as troglodytes beneath their fields in excavated caves.
At 1pm the bus abruptly stopped and we were ejected next to an off-ramp on the side of the freeway, then our jaunty yellow bus disappeared quickly into the distance as we began striding down the Pingyao exit lane. We hadn’t gone far when a chap from Taiyuan offered us a ride, ‘how nice’ we thought. He dropped us outside the west gate of the old city, and with the motor purring on his new Jeep Cherokee, begged us for 5 Yuan!
OUTSIDE THE WEST GATE A small but passionate group of hotel touts stuck to us like glue as we wandered into the town, we shook them off by stopping for a much needed bowl of noodles then had a look around in peace. The ‘Ri Sheng Ming Hostelery’ suited us, our room was in the courtyard of one of the typical Ming dynasty houses, and our hosts Li Ping Jiang and Zhao Ya Ping were very welcoming and friendly.
Pingyao was quite an amazing place, outside the city walls was modern China, but inside was a preserved 500 year old city bustling with the life of the weekend tourist trade and Qing Ming Jie festival. The local people were busy preparing decorations for the tombs of their ancestors and we even saw a large and elaborate funeral procession with noisy musicians, enormously gaudy wreaths and a giant old sedan chair borne by a dozen bearers carrying a woman’s coffin.
We rambled all around Pingyao, from Nan Da Jie, out to the four gates, up and down the side streets, walking beneath the rammed earth walls, and climbing the city building for a view over the tiled rooves crammed side by side. Flanking the cobbled streets were ornate shop fronts selling curios and expensive snacks, and at strategic intervals were rickshaw pullers in period dress selling two kuai photo opportunities, the one outside our hotel had many props and was a real crowd pleaser. The whole place looked like a film set, but it still breathed with the day to day life of the residents, some of whom spent time chatting with us as we admired the streetscapes.
We returned to the cosy little noodle shop for another lunch and with our fat wheat noodles we got a spicy salad of blackbean sprouts, boiled peanuts and shredded gourd.
Another tasty meal was had at breakfast when we tried chong hua lau bing, a savoury pancake served with barley and lau chen cu, a vinegar/soy sauce.
After our unusual method of arrival in Pingyao, we took a conventional departure. We walked down to the train station to catch the 1332 from Guangzhou to Taiyuan. Despite having left it’s point of origin thousands of kilometres to the south days before, it arrived only five minutes late for our 7:46am departure.
We couldn’t bring ourselves to join the barbarian scrum to board, so we had to stand for the two hour journey. But we found a good spot in a doorway so when we reached Taiyuan we were amongst the first to pop out like corks from a bottle.
Taiyuan was the provincial capital, a city of three million, but we didn’t see much of it. There were busses right outside the train station going to Wutai Shan, so all we had to do was wait for one to fill up with passengers, and we were on our way again. We had front row seats and the ride was a bit more thrilling than it needed to be. We hurtled recklessly along the highways and byways all neatly lined with the tall slender trees that the magpies liked to nest in. Every man around us chain-smoked to relieve the anxiety caused by our drivers overtaking techniques, so by the end of the four and a half hour journey we were dying to get off that bus. During the final twenty kilometres we had climbed up to an icy altitude of 1800 metres and had been robbed of 90 Yuan each for an ‘entry ticket’, so Wang from the Foguo Binguan didn’t find us at our amiable best. But we settled on a room and by the time we’d had a nice bowl of noodles made by a lovely couple who lived by the canal we were feeling much better. The noodles were su, vegetarian made with doufu, green capsicum and tomato sauce, and the other diners were friendly Buddhist monks, one of whom impressed everybody with his appetite to eat huge quantities of noodles with an eye-popping amount of la jiao. He was from Shaolin and gave us a quick kungfu gesture in case we were in doubt.
THE VILLAGE OF TAIHUAI, WHERE we stayed, was crammed full of Buddhist temples and monks from all over China distinguished by their different monastic robes. It made a good base for some leisurely explorations of the alpine valley.
The first morning we woke to find that it was snowing, a climatic condition we hadn’t anticipated. We dressed accordingly, then made a pit stop at our little family eatery, a poster of The Chairman looking on approvingly as we consumed our peasant fare, before a morning of mooching in the monasteries as snow fell around us, lending everything it’s magical touch. It made an auspicious beginning to our Wutai Shan visit, and we ended up staying for a couple more days. Although we were still shaking off an exotic strain of ganmao, we managed a bit of hiking up into the surrounding hills to enjoy the temple studded scenery.
The peak at the southern end of the village provided a vantage point to plan other jaunts, and the following day under a cloudless blue sky we hiked up the valley next to Shuxiang Ci. The valley was peaceful and remote, the temple was extraordinary. In the darkness of the main hall Buddha rode on a mythical lion and was surrounded by hundreds of wooden arhat floating on coloured wooden clouds like celestial beings.
In the time that it took us to climb Dailuo Peak we watched a devout young monk do it twice, prostrating himself at each third step. We didn’t know how many times he intended to repeat his pious statement but his clothing was already dirty and worn, and his forehead was abraded by the stone steps.
But the place I liked the most was the little forested graveyard with it’s yellow pagoda, it’s outlook and it’s solitude were everything it’s residents would have expected.
On our last evening when we called into our home away from home for our noodles the tiny house was full of activity. Some friends from Liaoning were visiting with their baby and yet another tricky accent. We ate our meal with a couple of local monks who had everyone laughing along at their good humour, one had been on pilgrimage to Borobodur and was keen to practice his Indonesian even though he couldn’t get his Chinese tongue around the words. And he’d never heard of anything funnier than an Australian electrician who could speak Chinese – imagine a Chinese electrician able to speak English!! We also had a giggle at the expense of our hotelier, the sour-faced Wang, and rolled off home still chuckling and crunching on a couple more of the red toffee coated fruits that we’d watched the old couple make together that morning.
Our exit from Wutai Shan was made on a pink Datong bound bus which struggled indignantly up the other side of the valley to the high pass near Yedou Peak. The view from the top was awesome, there was still a little snow left on the peaks and the mountains were layered into shades of blue in the distance.
As we descended to the plains we taught our jovial bus conductor some English phrases and this provided great comedy relief, when we stopped to pick up a scruffy peasant on the side of the road the conductor flung open the door and greeted him with, “What-ah is you-rah name-oo?”… The four and a half hour journey was thoroughly enjoyable, the scenery was good and we passed by Mu-ta, supposedly one of the world’s oldest wooden structures, standing proudly across the fields.
ONCE IN DATONG WE CLIMBED off the bus and took some deep breaths of the relatively fresh city air. We found ourselves near the train station that was as good a place as any to base ourselves, so we had a look around and found suitable lodging at the Yunlei Luguan. Our room stunk of smoke and even the television screen was stained with nicotine, we continued to be astounded by how heavily the men of Shaanxi smoked.
For a look around Datong we hopped on city bus number 4 which took us downtown for a stroll around the Dadong Jie district, and some people-watching in the Red Flag Square. The city of two and a half million sat close to the Inner Mongolian border and had a frontier feel about it, somehow like we were on the edge of somewhere.
For dinner we had our first proper meal with rice for days. We found a simple restaurant opposite the train station and bravely ordered at random from the menu. The fried silken tofu was delicious, served in a tasty sauce with pork and green chillies, but the service left something to be desired. A picture of Mao Ze Dong watched over a boisterous card game, I could only illicit half a curled lip from the disinterested waitress, and the hard-faced lauban had to be shaken from a deep slumber for us to pay our bill.
We decided to stay an extra day in Datong to visit the Yungang Shi-ku. Over our breakfast baozi we asked the best way to get there, then hopped on a city bus to take us across town to Xinkaili, then another bus took us half an hour to the west past unsightly coal mines belching filth into the fragile environment.
Unfortunately I was feeling quite seedy by the time we arrived and could only enjoy the artistic splendour of the Cloud Ridge Caves through waves of nausea. The boddhisatvas, apsaras and Buddhas danced before my eyes until my body gave up, but a sleep in the sun under the watchful eye of the fifteen metre tall Wencheng Buddha carved into the sandstone circa 460AD made me feel much better.
Due to our proximity to the train station and the relatively convenient arrival point we decided to ride the ‘iron rooster’ to Beijing the next morning. We left Shaanxi behind and shot across Hebei province on the K716 tekuai. The usual eating frenzy surrounded us, but peetered out after five hours when the train was due to arrive, then it was an hour more of tut-tutting and foodless fidgeting until we arrived at Beijing Xi Huochezhan.
The station was the size of a small town, but we found our way to the bus stand and Dave used his Chinese eyes to put us on the correct city bus for a thirty minute ride to our chosen district – Cheng Qu.
IT WAS EXCITING TO FINALLY arrive in the Northern Capital, riding along Xichangan Jie past Tiananmen Square was enough to stir goose bumps, and the city thronged with Saturday afternoon activity.
A little bit of hunting turned up the Saga International Youth Hostel, where we began by sharing a big breezy dormitory with three other couples, all of us arriving from different directions. This was to be our home for the next couple of weeks and our room was a melting pot of nationalities from Norway to Japan, Germany, the US, Ireland and France, most only staying for a night except our British comrades Juliet and Steve, whose lives we shared for ten days, from the lows of their rejection at the Russian embassy to the highs of Steve’s hapless adventure to Inner Mongolia.
Out on the street our neighbourhood was a quiet residential area of neat hutongs and leafy poplars snowing down their blossom fluff. The weather was finally perfect, the nights mild and the days between 26 and 30 degrees, warm enough to enjoy a cool Tsing Tao beer.
We had also found the place where we were at peace with our Mandarin language skills, the whirring Beijing accent was music to our ears. We did find their posh-sounding pronunciation of the “er” sound a bit funny, but we puffed with pride whenever our speech was complimented as ‘hao ting‘.
On the food front we soon established some regular providores. ‘Chengdu Xiao Chi’ was the breakfast stop with all of our favourites available, xiaobao, jiaozi, zhou, doufu nar and doujiang. The ceramic bottles of yoghurt could be had everywhere across the city, as could tasty bowls of jidan mian in crowded noodle shops tucked into the hutongs. In a laneway on the other side of Chaoyangmen Nan Xiao Jie was our evening stand-by, a simple restaurant with a tiny hutch window to the kitchen through which appeared smiling faces, flashes of flame and delicious dishes like gong bao jiding (chicken with peanuts), qing chau sheng cai (stir-fried lettuce) and hui guo la rou (smokey bacon with blackbeans and spring onion). In a little Muslim place in the side street opposite, we ate lamb kebabs, slices of spicy flatbread and a salad of cucumber, green chillies, coriander and onion. Beneath a prayer scroll on the wall the scarved waitress busily sold bottles of beer, and it was also strange to even order such a meal in Chinese, let alone to eat it with chopsticks!
At the Donghuamen night market we shuffled along the production line with the snacking masses, past vendors trilling like birds to draw attention to their exotic fare. We started with a tasty vegetable-filled pancake then bypassed the silkworms and skewered goats testicles for chou doufu and snake kebabs, before finishing with some divine fried ice-cream, two scoops of strawberry bing qi lin on a slice of bread all coated in beaten egg white and deep fried…
Most of our first week in Beijing was spent preparing for the next stage of our journey. We booked train tickets, and so scoured the town for information that Dave had just about memorised every city bus route. Our business at the Mongolian embassy was executed without fuss, the only credentials we needed were monetary, and we had the cash so they had the visa – ready in just three days. And the funniest thing happened to us on our way from the consulate enclave, a guy that we’d met named Ding Chen Hui happened to drive by and recognised us from when we were on Hua Shan together! He was so excited to see us that the strands of his long goatee quivered with delight as we chatted about where we had been since – it really is a small world…
We also made use of the bus map in Dave’s brain for some more pleasurable pursuits. The Summer Palace on the northern outskirts of the city made a relaxing change of pace. Bus number 808 was so crammed that my hair was dishevelled in the crush during the hour long ride, but we spent a whole day strolling around Kunming Lake, admiring the sights like the ‘Temple of Extensive Moisture’, ‘Bridge of Pastoral Poems, ‘Garden of Clear Ripples’, and the ‘Tower of Cloud Retaining Eaves’.
Even more relaxing was a day at Tiantan Gongyuan. The park was filled with ancient cypress and juniper trees, and the 500 year old Temple of Heaven was a most exquisite piece of architecture, quintessentially Chinese and yet like nothing else we had seen, with it’s conical roof and sacrificial altars. I sat with a group of architecture students from Nanyang and suffered marginally less critiquing than they as we drew our impressions.
Our first Great Wall experience was a suitably epic day trip from Beijing. It began straightforwardly with bus number 24 taking us to Dongzhimen station, then bus number 980 whisking us fifty kilometres north to Miyun. We were there by 8am. That was the easy part. Then we came up against the Miyun transport mafia, namely an arse of a taxi driver who tried to thwart our every attempt to continue on our way by any means other than his bongo van. Two hours were wasted, but we did finally end up on a microvan to Gubeikou. The rest of the day was great, we completed the sixty kilometre journey to Jinshanling Chang Cheng, payed a troll 30 kuai and, like true Barbarians, breached The Wall from the Mongol side. We hiked east along the crenellated battlements for a very leisurely four hours, enjoying world famous scenery every step of the way to Simatai, where The Wall ran impressively up the sharp spine of more hills disappearing into the distance. If it wasn’t for the trolls and irritating souvenir sellers it would have brought tears to my eyes. By the time we returned to the city we had been gone for thirteen hours, for four hours of pleasure, a poor ratio but still an enjoyable day.
Visiting Mao Ze Dong in his mausoleum was something else we couldn’t consider missing out on. We joined the end of a queue which we estimated to be 5000 people strong, and shuffled along for an hour with a crowd so overawed and full of respect that they forgot to push, shove, spit and fart… okay, they did still fart, but very reverently. As for The Chairman, he didn’t look so good. His preserved remains were recognisable, but shrivelled as one might expect after almost thirty years on a slab.
Right in the centre of the city, a stroll to the top of the hill in Jingshan Gongyuan afforded a great view over the Forbidden City and Beijing stretching away in every direction, an irresistible photo opportunity for an army of frenzied tourists whose keystone antics were unwittingly hilarious. In the surrounding park was an amazing bonsai garden, beautiful tulip beds and peony bushes which the local tourists couldn’t resist climbing into despite incurring the wrath of whistle-blowing gardeners.
Afterwards we dined in a small restaurant called Zhang Ye Gong just outside the walls of the Forbidden City on suan miao rou si (garlic shoots and shredded pork) and suan la tang (hot and sour soup) while those at the next table drank an alcohol made from fermented ants. It was offered to us but we opted to round out our meal with almond jelly in the night market instead…
OUR LONG SERVICE EARNED US a small reward at the Saga Hostel, and after our free night we packed our bags for a change of scenery. We started the day with a tasty rou jia mo at Dongzhimen bus station before hopping on the 916 to Huairou, forty kilometres to the north. There we were expecting the worst, but the taxi drivers were mild-mannered, and within twenty minutes we were on the local bus to Huanghua Cheng, surprised and delighted to be riding through beautiful rural countryside little more than an hour away from downtown Beijing.
We were even more surprised to find that our destination, Huanghua Cheng, was a tiny village full of friendly and hospitable people. The nice xiao jie on the bus gave us the word to jump off at Zhang Yu Hai’s place, and he and his wife, Rui Cui Lan welcomed us warmly to their charming little guesthouse where our twenty kuai room had an eye-popping view of The Great Wall. This was the Chang Cheng experience we were looking for…
A quick stroll to get our bearings saw us magnetically drawn to The Wall, and turned into one of the best six hour hikes we’d ever made! In the village to the south we bought some provisions and were pointed in the direction of the Zhuangdao Ko, a pass protected by The Wall and reached by an ancient pathway from the old garrison. Above the archway at the pass The Wall stretched upwards in both directions and we began climbing to the west, scrambling up the Ming era ramparts, wildly romantic, time worn and unrestored. On the third watchtower we ate a picnic lunch feeling ecstatic to be where we were, totally alone in one of the most inspiring settings in the world, with only the sound of bees and the wind in the pine trees.
We clambered along for miles, every step revealing panoramas which we couldn’t resist continuing to, until eventually we were looking down from some particularly well preserved crenellations at a reservoir and an almost sheer descent to it. We doubled back along what we suspected to be Qin (200BC) rubble to a sentry post stuck out in the Barbarian never-never, and followed a continuation of the ancient pathway back to the pass. The atmosphere drove my imagination, and I wanted to remember the serendipitous pleasure of that day forever.
That night we slept well, though the glow of Beijing was clearly visible to the south, we might have been a million miles from anywhere. The only sounds of hooting owls and croaking frogs were eventually swallowed by a gusty wind which cleared the sky for beautiful views the following day.
Yu Hai pointed us in the right direction for a thorny scramble up to the forth watchtower on the hill above the guesthouse. The couple watched our progress from the chestnut garden, and soon we were high above on a stretch of wall being insensitively renovated. We headed east toward the ‘Camel’s Back which Breaks the Wind’, pausing only to fend off a drunken troll selling fraudulent ‘tickets’. At our refusal to cough up he unexpectedly lunged at us with a piece of wood and Dave was forced to disarm him – an unpleasant experience, especially when, as we continued on through his battle platform I spotted the axe he was using to chop wood! I spent the rest of the morning in a state of paranoid terror that a debauched Han defender of the Great Wall might come after us with an ancient weapon – how’s that for atmospheric realism! We continued our hike down the gully below the ‘Gaping Jaw’, then went back to the Zhuangdao Ko via the villages to the north and hiked up the eastern ramparts for spectacular views of The Wall stretching away to the distant horizons.
Our guesthouse was a nice place to come back to at the end of each day. We were plied with tea and chestnuts and almonds from the garden, while Cui Lan listened attentively to us relating our daily adventures with the help of a phrasebook for those hard-to-explain details. We would also sit in tranquility by the babbling stream under shady poplars watching the pies and kingfishers. In the evenings their son Da Wei cooked dinner for all of us. His speciality was ye cai, leaf shoots from a tree in the garden blanched and simply mixed with MSG and a huge quantity of raw garlic to produce a delicious salad, he also did a very good tu dou si (shredded potato fried with dried red chillies and sliced banana peppers), and while we were always given rice, they preferred mantou and thick pancakes, or even shui jiao filled with spring onion greens as a staple. In the silence of the dining room we couldn’t match their typically Chinese noises of culinary approval, and so they kept asking us through mouthfuls of gourmet pleasure if we were enjoying our meal!
In the mornings we were woken by the rooster and woodpeckers at work in the walnut trees, it was all so pleasant that before we knew it two days had become three, and we were off again to explore yet another section of The Wall.
The most visually impressive stretch snaked up the mountain toward the east beyond the ‘Gaping Jaw’, and we climbed enthusiastically for two hours almost all the way to the summit, where we were foiled by a vertical stairway which had crumbled away to dust. We sat for long time enjoying solitude in the spectacular setting before beginning the comparatively difficult descent. It took three leisurely hours to climb down, skidding and clinging to the crenellations for balance, still in lip-trembling awe at our amazing surroundings.
We would have liked to stay for a few more days, but the weekend loomed and we knew that our paradise would be ruined by the fire-cracker wielding, karaoke-singing party crowd from Beijing. It might have been interesting to watch, but we wanted to remember Huanghua Cheng as we found it, so on Saturday morning we packed our things and said a fond farewell to our charming hosts who waited with us for the 7am bus to Huairou. Even ‘Heizi’, the dog, saw us off as we headed, somewhat reluctantly back to Beijing.
BY 9AM WE WERE WHEELING into Dongzhimen, then we took the subway to Qianmen, where we popped up out of the ground right in the middle of the razzamatazz. The Dazhalan neighbourhood was lively and colourful. As we made our way along looking for a place to stay we were implored to buy T-shirts, teapots and anything else that we might not look even vaguely interested in.
As foreigners we weren’t welcome to stay in most places, but Tong Li Chuan Luguan accepted us, and for 80 Yuan we got a matchbox sized room with a bathroom barely big enough to squat in. The only other foreign guests were a group of Nepali’s on ‘business’, so whenever we stepped in the door our greeting ranged from “hui lai le!” to “namaste”. Although we had to share our windowless cubicle with ‘Tickles’, the shithouse rat, at least we had privacy, and the staff were a happy bunch of girls always pleased to see us come home.
It was, however, a dodgy neighbourhood. One night we returned home to find our hotel cordoned off with police wagons surrounding it. There had been a murder next door, but our girls only concern was that the jingcha might notice our illegal presence in the hotel!
We wanted to see a different side of Beijing and this was it. Even the weather had changed, the cold front which had moved down from Siberia had cooled things down considerably, and there was the odd rainy day to make us appreciate the dry ones.
This leg of our Beijing sojourn was for winding down and shopping, so we were on the prowl for all kinds of dongxi. From the premier shopping street of Wang Fujing to the chaotic Hongqiao market we employed our best bargaining techniques to come up with some treasures and some essentials. Dave found gadget heaven at Zhong Guan Cun, bus number 4 took us to a district in the northern suburbs where electronic gizmos were going off in a technological frenzy. He flew into the wallet-emptying web and came out smiling with a newfangled toy – for 2900 Yuan we were the proud owners of a tiny digital camera with a spare battery and memory card thrown in. He spent the next two days poring tirelessly over the instruction booklet which was, of course, entirely in Chinese.
On the weekend, Panjiayuan Market was alive with curio sellers vending acres of wares. We browsed for hours, as much for entertainment as business. Shopping complete we marched ourselves off to the post office to lighten our load of non-essentials, then spent the last few days kicking back.
To escape the mayhem of Dazhalan we spent a relaxing afternoon in Beihai Park strolling through the gardens and rockeries, checking out the artistic elements of the imperial buildings. We found beautiful etchings, intricate paintings by Wang Duguan, and met some inspired artists in the flesh. In a small pavilion near the Heavenly King Hall a lady sat snipping away at folk-style papercuts, her mini collages were unique and she was happy to show off an album full of her personal works. On the island beneath the White Pagoda a sociable calligrapher painted on the ground with a giant brush dipped in water, he not only formed perfect Chinese characters with a flourish but had an elaborately written conversation with us in English, painted Dave’s profile to the delight of the small crowd, and even let me have a go with his brush. For a spiritual diversion some Tibetans came along to our lakeside rest spot for a religious interlude. They chanted “om mane padme om” and fingered red prayer beads as they released hundreds of small fish into the lake. Then to complete the day, just as we were preparing to make an exit via the south gate, came the moment we’d been waiting three months for. In pursuit of the perfect holiday snap one unlucky punter fell spectacularly into the lake with a crowd-pulling splash!
On our way home we managed to find the cosy little Zhong Yegong restaurant again for another atmospheric meal. The staff, and even one of the regular customers recognised us from the previous week, and again as we enjoyed our meal, this time egg fuyung and twice-cooked pork, the party at the next table imbibed plenty of alcoholic beverage. There was no escaping a round of ganbei and after a double nip of 53% ‘two pot head’ Dave was anybody’s.
Another important facet of our last week in China was to savour as many of Beijing’s gastronomic delights as possible. The moment we stepped outside our door the dining possibilities unfolded in the labyrinthine alleyways. Once we’d established our favoured breakfast venue all we had to do was decide what to have each day, the jiaozi or the baozi ?,the zhou or the doufu nar ?, or youtiao and doujiang ?
In the lively wet market we could pick up all our daily basics like crunchy apples, strawberries for just 2 kuai per jin, and hot freshly baked sunflower and peanut cookies.
Lunch usually just presented itself, wherever we happened to be we always sniffed out a noodle shop for mian of all descriptions, from spicy dan dan mian with bok choy and peanuts, and chau mian with chunks of green cabbage, to omelette and tomato noodle soup, and li qian mian (jagged noodles shaved off a block of dough).
But the biggest decision each day was what to eat for dinner. A meander to the south took us to a popular little restaurant with a big vat of xiang pai guo (braised pork spine) bubbling out the front. It was particularly good served with their suan la bai cai or rousi xiao qiezi (fried eggplant with green capsicum). An equally brief meander to the north saw us in a more spacious Muslim establishment which attracted custom by billowing aromatic smoke from barbecueing spicy lamb kebabs on the roadside. Inside were endless choices of accompaniments, qin cai fuding (celery and tofu skin salad), suan la tudou si (shredded potato salad), and a delicious version of ‘old tiger salad’ (coriander, green chilli and spring onion). Even the not-so-halal Beijing speciality of yu xiang rou si (fish flavoured shredded pork with capsicum and carrot) was served with delicious perfection!
Another speciality which we couldn’t leave without tasting was beijing kao ya, it was justifiably famous and we devoured every skerrick from the crispy skin to the bone soup. We also tried xiao niu, featherless hatchlings threaded onto a skewer then barbecued and sprinkled with chilli powder, tasty if one didn’t think about it for too long. But we passed up the restaurant called ‘Gourou Wang’ (Dog Meat King), it was their choice of promotional signage which put us off – a larger than life picture of a harnessed guide dog.
As May Day rolled around life became more complicated. The police had a crackdown on unlicensed hotels harbouring foreigners and we were evicted from our cubby-hole lest our presence be discovered. But the girls helped us find another lodging, just two doors down (ironically closer to the murder site!) the superior Longxiao Fandian cost 20 Yuan more. Our room had a window with a close-up view of a brick wall, and ‘Tickles’ extended family spent the early morning in training for some 2008 track events, but it was a nice building with a large courtyard.
The national holidays drew floods of people into Beijing, and in Tiananmen we found a day’s entertainment just sitting in the square watching and being watched by the holidaying masses. We pressed the flesh, hugged babies, and at one stage a queue formed around us as people excitedly waited their turn to be photographed with us! We talked with people from all walks of life, from the rag-picker who had staked out the nearby garbage bin, to families holidaying from neighbouring provinces. All were as interested in us as we were in them, one fellow from Jilin remarked after some close scrutiny that we didn’t look at fat as we did on television!
Over the next couple of days Beijing’s transient population swelled to bursting point, and before we knew it we were filling in our last day in China. We went to the Dongdan Gongyuan to watch early morning tai chi under the pine trees for a peaceful start to the day before mooching with the masses in Wang Fujin and shopping for train provisions whenever we spotted anything transportable.
For dinner we wandered around to Zhong Yegong eatery by the Forbidden City walls and ordered a feast of gong bao jiding, suan la cucumber, and mu-er rou (wood fungus with pork and egg) – it was all suitably delicious. On the way back we passed by Tiananmen Square and found a photo frenzy going on in the adjacent underpass, soldiers were mustering before entering the square and camera flash lit up impressively precise military rows of green. We fired off a couple of shots ourselves before the attention suddenly turned to us, and obliging we smiled, arms flung around total strangers, a chance encounter recorded as dozens of shots reeled off. The soldiers moved on and our own photo shoot continued out in the square, one enterprising professional photographer even began spruiking photos with the foreigners! We wrapped it up at that point…
It was a beautiful evening, Tiananmen Square was packed and a multitude of colourful and imaginative kites looked great against a clear blue sky in the late afternoon light. We strolled home slowly, savouring the moment and saying our goodbyes to some of the people that we’d gotten to know, like the nice young couple whose shop we visited every day for yoghurt, and the girls at Tong Li Chuan. We even bumped into one of our Nepali friends on his way to the airport! I sucked on a winterberry ice cream as we squeezed through the crowded alleyways back to our hotel, and in the morning we continued with our goodbyes at our favourite breakfast shop on our way to the bus stop at Qianmen.
Even at 6:30am Tiananmen Square was crowded as our bus number 59 wheeled past on it’s way to Beijing Zhan. At the train station we shuffled like the masses with our plastic bags full of food carefully calculated to last for the duration of the journey. In the ‘Soft Seat Waiting Lounge’ we met some ladies from Sydney en route to Moscow, 78 year old Elizabeth was their inspiring force and while we waited for our boarding call she provided a volley of global anecdotes to fill the time.
At precisely 7:40am train number 23 rolled out of Beijing Zhan on a different line to the one we had come into Beijing on just over three weeks earlier. Soon we were in the countryside, and after Nankou headed into the hills. We excitedly dived from window to window checking out the scenery as we passed some sections of the Great Wall groaning under the weight of peak season tourists. After that the landscape flattened again and we settled into the compartment which was to be our nest for the next thirty hours. We chatted with our two companions and began picking off our snacks, almond juice washed down sunflower cookies as we got to know Liu Bao Kui, a Beijing resident on his way to Mongolia for business.
We joined back onto the main Datong line and were happy to be reminded of how fantastic the Chinese countryside was, we knocked off some prickly cucumbers and sweet cherry tomatoes as we marvelled at how much the barrenness had greened in just a few short weeks. Old vestiges of The Wall which had been difficult to distinguish now stood out in a more verdant environment.
Departing Datong we munched on tasty five-spiced peanuts, and before long we could see more old fragments of tamped earth Wall meandering across the hillsides, eventually coming down to meet the tracks, and we passed through to find ourselves in the province of Inner Mongolia.
Now we were heading northwest through rolling steppe which disappeared to the horizon under a big sky. Gradually it turned into the Gobi Desert and there was little sign of human habitation, for hundreds of kilometres there were no trees and few settlements, only the odd truck cruising along invisible roads in the near distance. For over four hundred kilometres we stopped at just one station.
As the sun set we four huddled disinterestedly around our respective bowls of fang bian mian sharing the condiments we’d each brought along in an effort to liven it up.
At 8:30pm our train pulled into Erlian, our point of departure from China. Customs, SARS inspection, and immigration officials came on board and we were stamped out of China as our language skills were ultimately tested by the curious officers. Then we had a couple of hours at liberty while the train was shunted off to have the bogies changed for the wider Mongolian tracks. We waited on the platform while our companions shot off excitedly out of the station…
We met and chatted with some more Sydney-siders and Elizabeth’s friend Pat, all standing together under a full moon in this strange place in the middle of two countries.
Bao Kui returned loaded to the armpits with boxes from his shopping sortie, the train returned, and we re-boarded for another passport inspection and customs check. Then we tooted out of Erlian, it was after midnight by now and we were too tired to feel nostalgic, our beds beckoned but sleep wasn’t permitted just yet…
The train crept across no-mans-land to Zamyn-Uud, then the customs and immigration formalities began all over again. By the time ‘D.Mungunchimeg’ had finished her checking and stamping it was 2am and though we still weren’t going anywhere, we could finally settle down for the night.
I SLEPT LIKE A LOG UNTIL the first sign of daylight drew us irresistibly out of bed for a look outside the window. The scene was beyond superlatives. We now rode through sand desert, the sun was a pink and apricot fireball near the horizon, and in the first few moments as I stood there a herd of hairy bactrian camels ran in the foreground – it was tear-jerkingly beautiful. Mesmerized, we watched the scene unfold, we saw gazelle, cows, horses, and small ger camps as the rising sun changed the colours of the sand.
It was 6:10am when we eventually pulled into Saynshand station. Out of all the passengers, the two of us were still the only sign of life on the train as we jumped down onto the platform for a better look at the tiny settlement. The air was bitingly cold and wolf-like dogs roamed between the quaint brick and wood houses against a spectacularly bleak backdrop.
We remained glued to the window as the carriage stirred to life and the Gobi turned from sand to gibber desert. By 7:30 we allowed ourselves the minor distraction of a canned ba bao zhou breakfast, and the undulating landscape began to green as we travelled further northward. The next few hours we passed wildlife spotting with Robyn and Jeff, our Australian neighbours from the next compartment – there were hoopoes and eagles, a lesser kestrel, numerous demoiselle cranes and marmots galore.
Four hours and 220 kilometres after Saynshand, we arrived in Choyr and stepped foot on Mongolian soil for the second time. There were a few vendors on the platform selling local foodstuffs, but we hadn’t yet managed to obtain any local currency, so the fermented mares milk went begging and we climbed back on board to polish off the last of our sunflower seeds and some dried sour plums whilst chatting with Ma xiansheng, our other companion who lived in Beijing but was born in Ulaan Baatar. He warned us that in Mongolia they ate only meat, but waxed about the cleanliness of Moscow – he walked around all day and didn’t need his shoes polished!
Even though we were in Mongolia it felt as if our train had us cocooned in China still. The hours flashed by as we sped closer to Ulaan Baatar knowing that soon everything familiar to us would change. We wound through the hills south of the capital celebrating this transition with an impromptu party with our two travelling companions. Our last conversation in Mandarin was over a few beers, a very tasty Chinese sausage and our last remaining snacks.
Outside the window the magnificent landscape offered trees with the rolling hills and then the bizarre looking suburbs of Ulaan Baatar. Gers sat in fenced yards along with little houses just like the ones children draw, and Soviet-style concrete block housing interspersed. At around 2:30pm we finally pulled into Ulaan Baatar station and climbed off train number 23, over 1500 kilomteres from where we had boarded it.
THE CITY WAS REALLY LAID back, even the hotel touts at the train station were so reserved that we had to approach them to learn about our accommodation options! We met a softly spoken woman named Orna, but declined her offer of a ride and instead found our way on foot to her guesthouse along the scruffy-looking rundown streets of the capital. The faces of the people were still oriental, some wore traditional dress, a disproportionate number were drunk, and it was odd to hear a language sounding vaguely like Russian coming from their mouths. Nobody spoke Chinese…
Despite having seen snow and ice on the ground as we arrived, the temperature wasn’t as cold as expected, we were lucky to arrive on the first pleasant day after a week of freezing conditions. Orna’s place was in the city centre next to the Russian embassy in a typical communist-style structure. We found the correct apartment and were met at the door by Bolod, Orna’s husband who welcomed us warmly. For 9000 Togrog we got an enormous room with three metre high ceilings and a balcony with French doors overlooking the cultural theatre. There was 24 hour hot water, central heating, a kitchen, and the only other guests were a Finnish couple, Jeni and Valteri – so it was a pretty comfortable deal.
Once cleaned and settled we set off for another stroll. We exchanged our now defunct Renminbi for Togrog, attractively decorated with a likeness of Ghengis Khan, then went in search of food, still unsure about what time it was. We began by looking for some Cyrillic connotation which might suggest food – “кафе” looked promising so we entered through the standard vestibuled entryway which formed an air-lock against the cold. We were presented with a menu written in Cyrillic which we painstakingly de-cyphered with our alphabet reckoner, then ordered hopefully and ended up with a bland but adequate meal of mutton and potato soup with fried bread. It was cheap at just 1800 Togrog and satisfied the requirement of proper food after two days on the snack train.
A cartoon figure of a man wearing a chef’s hat attracted us to a breakfast venue the next morning, but the food was equally dismal. We opted for Mongolian dumplings called buuz which were large and greasy versions of Chinese jiaozi. We struggled to eat them with forks and washed down the fat with churned butter tea.
So now we were ready for the day. We went to the international booking office and bought our train tickets to Ulan Ude, we found a bookshop and swapped our redundant China guide for a Russian phrasebook, and found another “кафе” for a lunch of khuushuur (minced mutton in a stodgy deep-fried pastry). Then we spent the afternoon sitting in Sukhbaatar Square watching the passers-by and studying the essentials from our useful new book. For example, ‘khuem grushy oklachivaet’ (he shakes pears off the tree by hitting the tree with his dick) was bound to come in handy sooner or later.
Down near Seoul Gudanj we found a supermarket and bought a Russian toothbrush, Vietnamese toothpaste, Polish strawberry jam, Mongolian bread and Chinese yoghurt. For dinner that night we returned to the anonymous place where we’d eaten lunch and ordered ‘люля кебаб’, two gigantic mutton rissoles with rice, some vegetable matter and a squirt of tomato sauce.
The next morning we washed down our jam and bread with some delicious local milk before another day of mooching around town. We wandered up to Gandantegchinlen Khiid to watch the morning activity. People came in their finest clothes, colourful Tibetan-style coats, and hats of the beret, cowboy, and too-small-to-fit-on-the-head variety. All paraded around the prayer wheels and rang the bells on the incense burner before brief forays into the darkness of the sanctum. While we sat in the sun in front of the temple of Maidari, I also bought a small piece of Mongolian artwork from a roving salesman named Tikshweir.
At lunch we mopped up the congealing fat from our mutton dumplings with some dried out steamed buns, and for dinner, after a random point at a menu, it was mutton pie with coleslaw from the restaurant on Enkh Taivny Orgon Choloo. On the way home we bought some airag (fermented mares milk) and Bolod was very keen to have us share it with him. He sculled down his portion with glee and was then well lubricated for a chat. After the first tentative sip we were somewhat less enthusiastic than he, there were milky lumps floating in it and in the bottom of the cup was some grey matter. But he assured us that it was good for our health, so we drank and enjoyed his enjoyment.
Our last morning in Ulaan Baatar we spent in the Natural History Museum where we saw every Mongolian creature from from an impressively large 70 million year old Tarbosaurus skeleton and woolly mammoth tusks to a flea preserved in formaldehyde. At lunchtime we ate what we hoped would be our last ever mutton buuz and did some provision shopping for our train journey, bananas from The Philippines, noodles from Korea, and Vaffli wafers form Russia.
That evening dinner in a restaurant on Baga Toiruu was quite good, Mongolian goulash (mutton of course) eaten with a fork, but at least they gave us a fork each on this occasion – economy of cutlery was widespread among the restaurants of Ulaan Baatar.
Back at Bolod’s place we said our goodbyes then hiked back to the train station for a little exercise before another long haul journey. We weren’t too troubled about leaving Ulaan Baatar, the place had made us feel inexplicably uneasy, even before a shoe repairman threatened us with a box cutter.
On the slightly desolate-looking platform the ‘Angara’ pulled in, and although it was a Mongolian train, our seats were in one of two Russian carriages and so when we boarded we came face to face with a provodnitsa for the first time. But she was okay, very tolerant of the Mongolian smugglers, and even smiling on occasion.
The carriage was practically full of foreigners. We were pleased to see Elizabeth, Pat, Maureen and Jenny arrive in a whirlwind, and their laughter filled the air as we rolled out of Ulaan Baatar station right on time at 8:45pm. We were fortunate enough to share our coupe with two Mongolians, a woman named Tungalag, and a man named Enkh Bayar, both going to Irkutsk. Enkh Bayar spoke English as well as Russian and our conversations covered everything from our families to our zodiacs!
When dusk fell we had left the city behind and the last of the scenes that we saw before sleep were of the treeless hills to the north.
We woke in the morning to find ourselves 400 kilometres away at the border post of Sukhbaatar, just our two carriages sitting forelornly at the station. For five hours we waited, the local traders amongst us spent the time energetically looking for hiding spots for their contraband. We were each temporarily given slippers, several bags of pyjamas, and a large amount of fresh fruit was stashed under our seat. Immigration officials boarded and stamped us out of Mongolia after careful examination of our faces. By the time customs were finished with us another two hours had passed then they found a small locomotive and we moved off, following a river through the beautiful open country of no-mans-land for several kilometres before arriving at the Naushki outpost inside Russian territory.
IT FELT STRANGE TO BE surrounded by Caucasian faces as the officials boarded – the transition was sudden and dramatic. We stood aside while an athletic blonde made a thorough examination of our coupe, even climbing into the light fittings in her search. Then our passports were taken away.
We moved on again to Naushki station and while we waited there lunched on a picnic of bread with Chinese tomatoes, Slovenian vegetable pate and Moroccan sardines. After an hour more of waiting our passports were returned to us and we were officially in Russia. Now the traders sprung back into action.
The customs officers were still collecting our declaration forms whilst all around us smugglers were blatantly re-assembling their booty for a swift exit. Out on the platform people milled around a man selling shashlyk and vodka with any mixer one cared to name, as our carriages were shunted back and forth to eventually join a longer train. It was just before 4pm when we left, which meant the border crossing had taken eleven hours altogether…
We travelled further northward through Buryatia along broad grassy valleys, then followed the shore of Gosinoye Ozero. Still mostly frozen, the lake looked spectacular to us who had never seen such a sight. We passed small villages of wooden houses set by the lake, and brown hills rose from the opposite shore providing a wonderful Siberian backdrop.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a social blur, the shared experience of entering Russia bonded us together and everyone on the carriage mingled and chatted as if at a party. We tended to the unwell, took photos of each other , and exchanged global addresses.
DARKNESS WAS FALLING AS WE approached Ulan Ude station. It was 10pm, a rock was thrown at the train smashing our window, and fireworks exploded as part of the Victory Day celebrations. We had completed our Trans-Mongolian journey – this was our stop.
We made our way to the carriage door saying our goodbyes, then adopted what we hoped looked like a purposeful stride as we nervously headed into the city. A lack of street signs made navigation difficult and we took a wrong turn at the gigantic sculpture of Lenin’s head, but we recovered, asked directions, recognised the hotel sign, and made it to our target – we were learning to read out of desperate necessity.
Inside the foyer of the Hotel Barguzin was a stuffed brown bear, but it didn’t look nearly as formidable as the woman behind the reception desk. Fortunately we had bought US$20 worth of Russian currency in Ulaan Baatar so we were able to find the 550 Roubles that she demanded of us. That left us with just 20 Roubles in our pocket! By the time we’d showered it was close to midnight and we fell into our soft beds with big European pillows some 700 kilometres from our last immobile beds.
We woke in the morning knowing that the day would be full of challenges, at least the sun shone to lift our spirits. Our first problem was hunger, even if we had the money to buy it, we couldn’t find a crumb to eat in the cold and empty streets of Ulan Ude. Our next problem was cash. We had dollars, but nowhere to exchange them, the banks and exchange bureaus were closed for a public holiday. But we found an ATM, and near the train station was an odd little market where inside sat free-standing kiosks enclosing vendors and scant produce. If we approached to make a purchase a tiny window would shoot open through which any transaction was made before swiftly being slammed shut again. We bought bread and fruit then moved on to the train station.
Despite the hard-faced woman at the booth marked ‘information’, we found the place to buy tickets and organised our onward journey for the following day. Next it was back to Hotel Barguzin to see about getting our visa’s registered. The day staff were very nice and we eventually overcame the language barrier to iron out some of our major difficulties.
That out of the way, we thought we’d do some sight-seeing. It was by that time 11am and it took us three hours to find the relevant bus stand, we had actually given up when we chanced to stumble across it down near the Hodigitria Cathedral. So we were pleased to climb onto a minibus number 130 which only needed us to fill it before it was on it’s way, taking us northwards out of town.
Now we were happy, rubbing shoulders with our Russian comrades, listening to Russian music, feeling as though we were a part of where we were. We drove for about thirty minutes to a village called Ivolga, and from there walked seven kilometres across a magnificent landscape to Ivolginsk Datsan. We were thrilled to be in such a place in Siberia and inhaled deeply.
The datsan was visible in the distance and we walked past marshland dotted with villages of small log houses with brightly painted shutters. The datsan was a very unusual place, we walked around the compound clockwise, spinning the prayer wheels and checking out some of the temples. There were three sacred bodhi trees barely surviving in a purpose built green house, the main temple was filled with an eclectic collection of iconography, and vendors sold Chinese religious trinkets.
Back in town our next challenge was dinner. The streets were busier in the early evening and we promenaded along Ulitsa Lenina with the locals. We were clearly the only foreigners in town, though few people gave us more than a passing glance, our faces looked the same as the Russians, it was the ethnic Buryats who looked different, and it was interesting to note that they didn’t seem to mix with each other.
Unfortunately eating out was not a part of anyone’s social agenda, the city was literally devoid of eating places. There were plenty of beer gardens but the only place we could find to provide any kind of meal was a cafeteria selling hamburgers. We ate in despair.
The next morning we took a brisk walk around town to warm up before our train ride. The old merchants quarter down near the Uda River was full of rustic wooden houses with ornate wooden trim and flower pots planted with herbs between the double glazing of the windows. It was a nice way to soak up the atmosphere of Ulan Ude just before we left for the train station.
On the platform it was cold when the ‘Lysia’ number 263 pulled in en route from Chita to Moscow. A pretty little provodnitsa hopped off carriage 14 and kindly allocated us the seats we were hoping for. It was a relatively short journey of 460 kilometres to Irkutsk so we travelled ‘platzkartny’ class for a different experience.
Now we were on the Trans-Siberian line and we moved westward following the River Selenga through pine woods with wildflowers and picturesque villages. I was still reeling with culture shock and excitement as we sped along just marvelling at how stoic the people around us seemed when Irina, in the seat behind mine tentatively sparked up a conversation with us in German. She was from Omsk, her friend Luba was from Kamchatka and we communicated through our inadequate phrasebook – ‘kakoy shyot?’ (what’s the score?) ‘ya baleyu za spartak’ (I support Spartak)… Irina arranged for the provodnitsa to bring us tea and we cruised along sipping our first taste of Russian hospitality.
After two hours we caught our first glimpse of Lake Baikal through the birch trees and with eyes like saucers we took in the view. It was still frozen and vast like the ocean, the ice looked like foaming surf and in some places it had melted away to reveal clear blue water. We stopped in Mysovaya and Irina scurried from the train to return with freshly smoked fish from the lake. As we rolled away from the station she put a handsome specimen down on our table and as she gestured to it and the scene outside the window, said simply “Baikal”. It was one of those special moments that we travel for – and it was the first time in a week that we’d used the word ‘delicious’.
For 200 kilometres the track ran next to the lake, while out the opposite window the snow covered peaks of the Khamar Daban mountains rose majestically. We crossed clear streams flowing into the lake and saw fishermen out on it’s frozen surface. There was blue ice, ice bergs, sheets of frozen green algae, ice crystals, and huge gulls.
By the time we reached Slyudyanka more people had shyly joined in our conversation, Irina presented us with some more dried, salted fish, and then all our faces were pressed to the window as we curled around the end of the lake and climbed up to the cliffs, giving us a sensational overview in blue and white – the lake, the ice, the mountains, the snow, the sky, the clouds…
On the final stretch to Irkutsk we made our way through alpine valleys following streams through thick woodland dotted with villages of little barn-shaped houses, and by 6:30pm we had arrived.
IRKUTSK STATION WAS LARGE AND busy by Russian standards, it chewed us up and spat us out without surrendering even the tiniest morsel of information to us. Tamara, whom we had also met on the train, had told us that bus number 16 would take us near to a budget hotel, so we confidently climbed onto a minibus and within minutes were walking along the streets of Irkutsk.
We found Hotel Arena in the circus complex, but finding the reception down a warren of corridors was more difficult, and negotiating a cheapish room from the two painted babushkas in the office was like pulling teeth. By the time we were established in our 520 Rouble room I barely had the strength to eat my dried fish.
In the morning we had to be out by 7:30am. Could we please leave our bag there while we ran our errands? “NYET!!” In the lobby of the Hotel Intourist we found an information counter and found that, no, in fact our visa’s weren’t registered – ‘Sputnik Travel’ could help us. We went to Ulitsa Chkalova and found the relevant office. Neither of the two women behind the desk could speak English or Chinese, and their prospective customers, us and two Chinese men, couldn’t speak Russian. We fared better than the others, blundering through to achieve some service which cost 350 Roubles – hopefully the service that we needed. The Chinese men only got an unexpected conversation with us, but at least it made us all feel better to be able to voice our frustrations about the bureaucracy to someone!
Our visa registration wouldn’t be ready until 5 o’clock, so we had to spend another night in Irkutsk. We returned to Hotel Arena ready to beg, but luckily the night staff had been replaced by the pleasant and helpful Mira, who checked us into the room next to the one that we’d been forced to vacate a few hours earlier!
Now we could relax, have a wander around town and think about where we might plan to go next. Just about all of our intended excursions around Lake Baikal were out of the question because of the iced up harbours…
The central market was an extraordinary place filled with every kind of Russian foodstuff. We bought salad, fruit and had a lunch of borek (fried bread filled with onion and a few specks of meat). The town was pleasant to walk around, the Tsarist architecture and the well-dressed people gave the city style. We sat here and there admiring the streetscapes and adopting stoic Russian expressions to try and blend in.
We packed up our stuff the next morning and walked to the bus station where we studied the writing on the few busses and found one labelled ‘Листванка’ – Listvyanka. As we shivered waiting for it’s departure we found some people to talk to, a group of volunteers working on a project to create a hiking trail around Lake Baikal, 2200 kilometres long!
The bus took us 70 kilometres along the Angara River undulating through heavy forest and marshland with rough villages here and there.
AT LISTVYANKA THE LAKE TOOK over the landscape and became an overwhelming focal point. It was not frozen on this southwestern shore, though icebergs floated just off the pebbly beach, and the wind which chilled the air was … Siberian.
From the boat landing where the bus set us down we walked back to Ulitsa Chapaeva to begin our search for a place to stay. As we’d already guessed from the icebergs, it was off-season to say the least, and after walking for almost a kilometre the best offer we’d had was from a deep-throated Saint-Bernard, so we were grateful when the chap from number 70 called us into his place and offered us a little cottage for rent in his garden. Like all the other houses in the village it was very basic, but warm and spacious, with a view of Lake Baikal from every window. We decided to stay for a couple of nights.
We rugged up and went for some great walks along the shores, that first afternoon we explored around the tiny port, bought some delicious smoked fish for just 20 Roubles, then walked to the Limnological Institute and climbed the hill behind it for a bird’s eye view of the Angara River and Port Baikal.
The next day we headed north past the nature reserve and followed a precipitously narrow track about halfway to Bolshie Koty. We clung to cliff faces, scrambled over landslides, scaled headlands and skipped along rocky and remote beaches, all the time awestruck by the clear waters, bobbing icebergs, and the Khamar Daban mountain range soaring up from the distant opposite shore. To finish off an excellent day we took home a dinner of fresh rye bread, coleslaw, fern salad and potato salad from Sveta in the cafe. And more of the irresistible smoked omul which the babushkas at the boat landing spent all day cooking and selling from wooden boxes.
Our kind landlady, Ludmila, took a break from her farm chores to contribute to our meal a dish full of delicious poached eggs fresh from the chicken coup.
When we woke on the second morning and looked out the window we found it was raining. We snuggled in our cottage for as long as possible before before leaving it’s dry warmth for the boat landing. Ludmila made a lovely farewell speech of which we understood two words – da svidanya – but her words rang with warmth and invitation to return someday.
We caught the 11am bus back to Irkutsk and were surprised to be able to spend the ride catching up with Elizabeth and Maureen, who happened to have been staying near the Limnological Institute. It rained for the entire journey, then miraculously stopped just as we reached the city! A positive omen?
WE WALKED FOR A BLOCK then, sharp as a tack, Dave spotted tram number 1, which he’d also seen at the train station, so we hopped on and to the train station we went. This time we managed to find the ‘международные кассы’ and we ate pirozhki stuffed with mashed potato while we waited for the office to re-open. When it did, the lovely Yulia welcomed us in with a smile and sold us two ‘platzkart’ tickets on the ‘Baikal’ for 1600 Roubles each.
Next we jumped on minibus number 16 and ventured back to Hotel Arena. We tentatively peeked into the office and found to our horror that it was the painted Svetlana at the desk. We smiled a lot and managed to get room number 6 again, but 9am was her best offer on check-out time.
We spent the afternoon in the markets on the prowl for ideas about what to take with us for sustenance on our upcoming three day long train journey. First we queued patiently to buy Russian-style doner kebabs with sour cream and coleslaw for 30 Roubles, while a busker balanced on a tiny see-saw, beating a drum with his foot and playing a guitar. Nobody took any notice except an envious beggar and a woman wearing her hair in a bouffant which looked like a beefeaters hat.
Moving on, we bought apples and pine nuts from around the central market, and in the supermarket on Ulitsa Oktyabrskoy Revolyutsii recommended to us by Elizabeth, we bought arakhisovoyi (hazelnut and peanut fudge), coffee-flavoured Russian shokolat, and tasty fresh malako (milk).
We had a good nights sleep and made ourselves as clean as possible before our departure the next morning. For a little exercise we walked to the train station and found a man who spoke perfect English languishing in the left luggage room, then wandered back to town to while away the day.
Snack-tracking and squirrelling didn’t turn up many gems, but we did manage to get a few smiles – the Azerbaijani tomato vendors, the pretty young apple sellers, the lady who sweetened and frothed fresh milk, the Buryat woman who sold fresh salads and gave us a bonus beetroot and cabbage slaw as well as a smile, and the toilet paper we bought was emblazoned with the word ‘smile’!
BACK AT THE TRAIN STATION we were on Moscow time as soon as we entered the building, tickets were printed with Moscow time and the clocks displayed Moscow time. We reclaimed our bag and waited for our 11:35am departure, which was actually 4:35pm Irkutsk time…
The statistics of this journey were extraordinary. It would take us 69 hours to cover the five thousand kilometres to Vladimir, across five time zones and halfway across the largest country on earth.
It rained as we pulled out of Irkutsk, and the lovely provodnitsa came along and made up my bed as we left the suburbs and satellite villages behind. After our dinner of bread baked with cottage cheese and the salads, we spent hours gazing out the window – like the mist-shrouded taiga forest, the evening stretched on for hundreds of kilometres, and when I finally climbed into my bunk somewhere past Zima at almost 10pm the sun was still in the sky.
We woke in the morning rolling through the forests west of Ilansky and were pleased to see that the birch trees had begun to sprout leaves. We put our clock back an hour and prepared for a day of watching the world go by…
Once breakfasted Dave set himself a project and spent some time creating sentences from our meagre phrasebook then, clearing his throat, went off to try out his best Russian on the provodnitsa. He wanted to change bunks, she offered him shampoo. He returned dejected and scowled at the phrasebook.
But when we reached Krasnoyarsk she pointed to the coveted bunks and gave us a wink, and we moved quickly before she changed her mind. Now we were set. The remainder of the morning passed quickly, serendipitously our new companion spoke English and the conversation was interesting. Slava was on his way back to Saint Petersburg after visiting his aunt in Irkutsk. He told us about the difficulties of life today in Russia compared to Soviet times, corrected mistakes in our phrasebook, and laughed that the Russian words that we had learnt were the most important ones – priatnava appetita!. Slava was a 63 year old radio chemist with a shock of grey hair over his forehead, he had worked and travelled all over the old USSR from the north pole to Moldova and was happy to share his anecdotes with us.
Siberian wilderness sprinkled with villages was the never-ending scene outside, but the climate at least changed dramatically. In the morning we had been seeing small streams still frozen solid, and by mid-afternoon we were seeing women working in their vegetable plots wearing bikinis!
In Mariinsk we stopped long enough for Dave to venture from the train to see what the local babushkas were selling and he returned with some of the fruits of their labour. We dined on fresh bread, potatoes, dumplings and juicy pickled gherkins as rollicking Russian folk tunes were piped through the sound system. We put our clock back another hour and spent the evening sipping a Russian beer.
In Novosibirsk I stood on the platform barely able to believe the temperature extreme of 30 degrees, it was sweltering in our carriage – but we weren’t complaining. As we left the city we crossed the River Ob which looked fantastic bathed in the colours of sunset and shrouded in tendrils of smoke.
We slept very well that night and didn’t even hear the commotion in the next compartment when a heavily pregnant woman went into labour. She had to wait two hours for the train to reach Omsk before she and her husband could get off the train, minus their copious luggage which continued on it’s way with us!
I climbed out of my superior bunk in Nazyaevskaya and after a breakfast of bread with winterberry jam and Ecuadorian bananas, we put our clock back an hour and looked for waterbirds in the marshland outside the window. Then a nap lasted until Tyumen where we lunched on potatoes with dill and a sad little katlety before a pleasant but eventless afternoon of chatting and snoozing.
In Yekaterinburg we stalked the platform for our evening repast, smoked chicken legs, bread and salad, while the new mother’s relatives came aboard to collect her abandoned belongings – it was a boy!
Shortly afterwards we were in the Ural Mountains, really just hills but very pretty, and we passed a large white obelisk marking the boundary between Asia and Europe. The evening was then spent perfecting my Russian pronunciation of ‘ya ne panimayu’ and we put our clock back two hours before we went to bed just after Kangur, our third night on the train.
We woke early somewhere past Kotelnich, our bodies still adjusting to Moscow time, and the carriage was now filled with sleeping people who had boarded through the night in Perm. Sunrise lasted for hours, while outside the beauty of the previous evening continued with verdant countryside and woods dotted with tidy villages.
We crossed the Volga River just before Nizhny Novgorod and from there it was just four hours to Vladimir. The scenery as we approached our destination was beautiful – meadows of green grass, picturesque churches and cottages clumped together on hillsides with gardens of trees with white flowers.
The ‘Baikal’ arrived in Vladimir right on time. It was 1:20pm and we both felt sadness saying goodbye to Slava who had made such good company on this journey. And as we emotionally walked down the platform after farewelling the provodnitsa we were spotted by Elizabeth and Maureen who were enjoying an ale in the dining car!!!
VLADIMIR WAS MERELY A JUMPING off point for us. We made our way out of the station and fortunately spotted the bus stand right opposite. After a quick scour of the bus signboards we found ‘суэдаль’, and the driver pointed us in the direction of the ticket office. We got the last two seats on the 2pm bus to Suzdal and enjoyed the 45 minute ride through rolling pastures to the beautiful village whose church towers we could see from the distance.
We walked the few kilometres from the bus stop into town, a little despondent that the climate had chilled again, but happy to be in such a nice-looking place.
Katarina at the reception desk of Hotel Rizopolozhenskaya inside the Monastery of the Deposition offered us a room for 570 Roubles after some tough negotiation, then we scrubbed off three days worth of funk and headed out to the trading arcades for some nourishment. The Russian-style grocery stores kept their goods firmly out of the reach of customers, luckily we were quite good at pointing.
We took our prizes back to the hotel and spent a peaceful evening in.
In the morning Katarina was absent from her post and we had to re-negotiate the room rate from scratch with her replacement. That arduous task out of the way, we were free to enjoy Suzdal and walked all day from the Monastery of Saint Euthymius to the old kremlin. The River Kamenka flowed idyllically past green pastures with yellow wildflowers, wooden houses with picket fences, and the onion domes of orthodox churches sparkled silver and gold making the village look surreal like something from a fairytale.
At the itinerant market we bought oranges and dates, and the trading arcades provided pastries to go with our picnic lunch, and herring pickled with cassia, cloves and ginger to accompany dinner.
The next day we retraced our steps in the early morning drizzle to Vladimir train station, and made it in time for the 7:25am express service to Moscow. Even platzkart was plush on this service, one third of our carriage was taken up by a fully stocked and well patronised bar! The time passed quickly as we made the transition from country to city in two and a half hours.
IT WAS STILL RAINING WHEN we reached Moscow’s Kursk Station, and we had been unable to prepare ourselves mentally for the shock of arriving in such a place. Within half an hour we stood dumbly looking at each other thinking ‘what are we doing here?!!’.
First we left our bag at the ‘left luggage’ counter in the train station, then we plunged down into the city’s metro system and it felt like we were entering some Orwellian science fiction novel. We studied the map, bought tickets, and stepped onto an escalator which dived hellishly into the bowels of the earth, falling alarmingly steeply and quickly to a great depth. The people going upwards flashed past us like robots, so grim with the reality of life that their faces wore no expression.
Some stations had several names and we had great trouble figuring out how to utilise such an unfriendly system, but eventually we were shooting through the warren of tunnels finding our way to achieve our inane goal for the day – to have our visa’s registered.
The first place recommended to us didn’t exist, so we tried a second and there paid US$20 each for a rubber stamp which took two minutes to issue to validate that we were in Moscow. By the time we achieved this, four hours had passed, it was still raining and we realised that the tiny scale on our scrap of a Moscow city map rendered it practically useless. We were continually popping up like marmots out of the metro trying to find some direction.
We needed some positive motivation very badly, and so then we walked to Red Square. The rain had stopped by then, and as we entered the square via the Resurrection Gate all of the misery of the day was forgotten. The sight of Saint Basil’s Cathedral repaired our morale instantly, it’s swirling turrets of colour laughed in the face of Moscow like a shining light and I couldn’t tear my eyes from it.
Thus renewed we returned to the metro with more enthusiasm. Back to Kursk Station we went to collect our bag, then to find the grey line to take us to Moscow’s northern fringe to meet our ‘Hospitality Club’ friends Gleb and Irina. We arrived at Bibirevo station in time to do some shopping before we met, and despite the odds, found each other in the confusion of the subway.
After introducing himself, Gleb asked “is this your first time in Russia?”, “yes” we answered, “so…” he gestured around, “why…?”
He had a great dry sense of humour and was ready with a proverb for most situations. “In Russia when we mean to say that something will NEVER happen, we say ‘when someone smiles on the trolley bus…!'” and “tea is not vodka you know, you can’t drink it all the time…”
By inviting us to stay with them for a few days Gleb and Irina offered us a unique opportunity to learn about the Russian way of life. Into their tiny apartment we were welcomed with warmth, and made to feel comfortable and at home. Our new friends were not native to Moscow but Rostov, a city one thousand kilometres to the south, and so many of their sentences began with “In Rostov…” that we began yearning to go there ourselves! Irina had actually just returned from a visit and so we even ate that night pork steaks…from Rostov.
Our second day in Moscow ran more smoothly. We ‘metro’d’ our way to Leningrad station to organise our onward passage, and not only did we complete the transaction in our faltering Russian, but we got a smile and even a laugh out of the cashier! Business out of the way, we headed off to Red Square where we waited over an hour to pay a visit inside the vaulted mausoleum of Lenin, a very sombre and deeply respectful experience. The interior was dark, with steps to negotiate and soldiers standing rigidly. The man himself looked very dignified in death, and as we left we watched a procession as if on pilgrimage marching toward the tomb bearing a plaque with his image, flags with the hammer and sickle, and one of their party dressed as Fidel Castro.
We then strolled with a fortifying cup of kvas through Alexandrovsky Park, along the Moscow River past the Kremlin, and around the streets past the Balshoy Theatre as far as Tsvetnoy Bulvar. There we sat in the park outside the circus and watched a scene from a movie being filmed, people laughing and playing, it was a bit surreal.
We found our way back to Gleb and Irina’s place and spent another pleasant evening chatting over many different foods, dried fish from Rostov, mashed potato, salad, vodka, tea, fresh cranberries and strawberries.
On Sunday we spent the day as perhaps a typical Moscovite might, most of the morning passed lazing in the apartment, then we all went to the local flea market to peruse the unwanted articles of other Moscovites, from the alarmingly personal (many offered their Y-fronts!) to the highly collectable (a World War II flying helmet for only 5 Roubles). Then after a lunch of pilmyeni with sour cream and pepper which Gleb cooked for us, we went for a stroll in the park and enjoyed the forest trails with the regulars, riding bicycles, walking dogs, making picnics.
Our evening was even lazier. Irina and I slept while Dave and Gleb had a party – they drank beer, ate dried fish, drank beer, ate garlic, drank gin, ate roast chicken, drank gin and drank tea.
In the morning we had to wake Gleb at 9am to whisper our heartfelt goodbyes as Irina slept on, then we were out the door and back to the travel grind. The first thing that happened to us was that some bastard on the bus whom we tried to pay 10 Roubles to because we thought he was the conductor, fined us 100 Roubles for not having a ticket, a realistic way to set a ubiquitous Russian scowl on our faces for a day in town.
The day continued in much the same vein, though we did enjoy a stroll, albeit in the rain, through the beautiful riverside park of Kolomenskoye. And the GUM department store was an agreeable place to shelter for the afternoon. In the evening we made our way to Leningrad station with plenty of time to spare for people-watching. There were southerners from the Caucasus who were relentlessly singled out by the militsia, gypsies, conscripts on their way to hell, and ordinary Russians with truck loads of luggage.
The number 56 to Saint Petersburg left at 8:10pm and we promptly made up our beds and slept until we arrived at 6 o’clock the next morning.
IT WAS 5 DEGREES CELSIUS AS we ate our rudimentary breakfast in the station, then made our way to Navskaya on the metro to find a room. The Petrovskogo student hostel got us out of trouble with a 600 Rouble double and a registration stamp, then we intended to spend the day gathering information, but only succeeded in chasing our tails.
We saw a lot of Nevsky Prospekt, and the city was indeed beautiful and elegant, the cathedrals glimmered, the Hermitage impressed, and we spent some time in the Museum of Zoology marvelling at the curiosities, best of which was a 45,000 year old woolly mammoth extracted whole from the Siberian permafrost.
Our next day was more productive. We finally managed to make contact with our ‘Global Freeloader’ host Zainab and arranged to meet and stay with her lovely daughter Ola, who lived alone in a relatively large apartment in the northern suburb of Ozerky. Saint Petersburg suddenly became much more interesting for us, and we now had a better environment for clearing our heads to think about how and where to spend the coming months.
The chill of the ‘green winter’ had taken us by surprise, and new visa regulations were also in force in Europe, but to gain information about how this may affect an Australian national was impossible, so for us “everything [really was] something trembling on the brink of something else”(Vladimir Nabokov).
On our second night at Ola’s place we and her other house guest, Elizabeth, a seventeen year old exchange student from Germany, were invited to spend the evening at her family’s house. Her brother Nik and sister Sveta were typical young students, her father Peit was a hydrologist who had worked at Chernobyl, and her mother, like Ola, had converted to Islam two years previously. It was a very interesting household, interesting enough to have been filmed and interviewed for a television documentary the day before!
We left just after midnight after many hours of exchanging tales about warm and exotic destinations. The metro, by that time, had closed so we walked home in the cold twilight of a white night. At home we ate ice cream as Ola explained this strange Russian obsession with a freezing foodstuff in a freezing climate – “it warms us up!”.
We ended up staying with Ola for four days and spent the time plotting, planning and walking far and wide through city streets lined with three hundred year old grandeur. Ola had a busy nocturnal lifestyle so our own sleeping regime tried to adapt and we began to understand the culture of ‘sleeping late’ in those frigid northerly climes.
On our last day in Saint Petersburg it was ‘Carnival’ and we went into the city to join the party. There was a wonderful atmosphere, the weather was like an average dismal winters day in Sydney, which was cause for great joy, and all was vibrant and colourful. Nevsky Prospekt was closed to traffic and for two hours a fabulous parade entertained the crowds. We saw marching bands, dancers in period dress and folk costumes, clowns, gigantes, brown bears and transvestites. There was music and dancing in the streets, and the people looked as happy as Russians could, many wore silly hats – and everyone ate ice cream…
The next morning after not enough sleep, we bade farewell to Ola vowing to meet again someday, somewhere. We rode the metro across the city to Baltikskaya station for the 9am Eurolines bus to Tallinn. It was a nice day as we left Saint Petersburg and motored through the flat rural woodlands to the southwest, but a black cloud hung over the Russian border post at Ivangorod, and it was pouring with rain as we rolled into the checkpoint at noon. We presented a young official with our passports containing the numerous registrations stamps that we had painstakingly collected over the previous three weeks. He barely glanced at them. And we exhaled a breath of relief to be free of this bureaucratic thorn in our side.