I choo choo choose the Trans Siberian…

Remember that episode of Sex in the City where Curly Blondy and Sassy Older Chick decide to catch a train somewhere because it’s going to be old school glamorous, but really it’s full of smelly men on their bucks nights who want to watch sport and drink beer? The Trans Siberian (or the Trans Mongolian really, which is the route we’re on) is a little bit like that. It’s one of the most awesome things I’ve ever done. It’s also 29 hours of staring out a window, and eating in dining cart which scarily resembles an over produced prop from a Communist film made in the 70’s.

We’re currently on hour 24. We’ve read books, taken a million photos of landscapes, we’ve talked to other passengers, we’ve sat staring out windows. Happily, contentedly, don’t get me wrong. There’s something about the world whipping past your window that becomes quite mesmerizing. But this IS hour 24…

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This isn’t my first trip on a train in China, and let me tell you, we’re in the lap of luxury here. I’ve done hard beds, and 4 bed and 6 bed rooms on a train. Second and Third class living! Ee and I decided this was a bit of a “once in a lifetime” so cracked open the piggy bank for our own luxury 2 bed, Soviet furnished, Deluxe room. It’s great. It’s like the Brocade Fairy came and vomited on everything in sight. We have our own window onto the passing world, a carriage to ourselves filled with curious and polite guards, and our very own western toilet. Total decadence compared to my past trips, let me tell you!

It’s an odd journey though. There’s no one to tell you what you’re looking at, where you are or what to expect. We’ve sat here idling over how far we might be from the border, whether we’re stopping at a main town or a satellite village, and whether we’re allowed to get out of the train. But there’s no one to ask so we keep on musing, as do all the other just as perplexed travelers with us (most of whom are also Whitey’s. On this trip we’ve found innumerable Germans, a couple of Aussies and even a guy from our own hometown, Melbourne, who’s on his way to volunteer to make Mare’s Nest in Mongolia. Keen!)

When we finally got to the border, well that’s where the fun starts. First of all they take your passport. It’s gone – for hours! This stressed me more than it did Ee. It’s funny how when you’re traveling, that passport is your lifeline.

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So we’re stopped at Erlian, the last Chinese town before the border. Passports taken. No understanding of what’s happening. When we get the BIGGEST bump, like someone with anger management issues and a train of their own has come and charged into us. Then 30 seconds later, another one. This goes on for ages. Doors are sliding and slamming shut, guards are chattering away like nothing’s unusual, we’re holding on for dear life, knowing that eventually another bump will come…

Finally the bumping ends, we’re in a train yard, and we realize that all the carriages have now been separated and are being hydraulically lifted about 2 meters off the ground. Seriously! We’re still in the carriage with all our baggage, and suddenly we’re being elevated… After 13 hours of forward momentum it’s an odd feeling for the body to be going up.

Anyway, because you’re smarter than me, you’ll probably have worked out what was going on… They had to change the wheels. When all the carriages are lifted up, a hoard of Chinese men literally push the steel wheels from under the carriages out, and push new ones in. Very efficient in a “this took an hour and a half” way…

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More bumping, more near-whiplashing and guards being oblivious to the bone jangling jolts, and we were done!

Eventually the passports come back, and then we sit. And wait. And sit. And wait. No idea what was going on, but the border crossing (or pre border crossing as it were) took about 3.5 hours.

By this stage it was midnight and we were both a bit exhausted from all that sitting and watching the countryside that we’d been doing for the entire day, so when we finally started moving again our beds were made and Mongolian borders be damned! And by “be damned” I mean Ee and I did the Mongolian side of the border crossing with bleary, half awake eyes, in our pyjamas, sitting upright in our bunk beds. Couldn’t tell you how long it took, I only remember being tapped on my foot to wake up by some poor Mongolian uniformed lady guard obviously trying very hard to compare rumpled and sleepy real life me, to passport picture me.

I opened my eyes a few times to see more lady guards looking at our stuff, shining torches under the bed and generally taking up the standing room in our little abode, but frankly I didn’t really give a fig at that stage. I just waved and closed my eyes again.

Next thing you know, it’s daylight and we’re awake and in Mongolia. Woot!

So the biggest differences between Mongolia and China so far? China landscape was mostly mountainous, green, ranging, with brick villages every couple of hundred km’s with about 50 tiny houses making up the homestead. Mongolia is more stubbly. Bristly grasslands, soft hills dotted with small communities seemingly made up of 2 or 3 hall sized buildings painted in what were once bright colours, but now faded and tired, and a few small Buildings around it. But mostly it’s grassland and blue skies.

The other big difference is on the train. While we were sleeping the Soviet styled dining cart was replaced with Mongolia Bling (or as Ee has dubbed it, Mongolamania). I once heard that Baz Luhrmann came up with the idea of The Great Gatsby (a book which Ee coincidentally read on this train trip) whilst traveling on the Transiberian. After seeing this dining car, I not only can believe it, I understand it. It’s deco decadence carved into woodly goodness. Carpet dining seat coverings, deer heads on the windows, gorgeous flowers carved into the screens, Mongolian gun slings and hats hanging from the walls. Truly an experience…

So here we are. A few hours out of Ulaanbaatar. Camera’s and adventurous spirits at the ready. Our first Mongolian language lesson under our belts, courtesy of the happy and smiley (and feel-y up-y of Ee) waiter. Let’s get this party started…

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It’s a great wall…

Well… It is!

It takes 3 hours to get there by bus. And you look at it from a distance… and it’s just a wall. Then you’re actually standing on it (after being soft and paying the cable car cost to be home delivered to the top of the mountain – we’re obviously not roughing it like the hard core travelers who insisted on walking up…) and it’s a bit breathtaking.

You’re walking around on broken tiles and worn paths that people have been walking over for thousands of years. You imagine the Chinese and Mongolians taunting each other in bygone swear words with the wall between them like a mum separating two arguing siblings. But they have guns. And horses… And actually that’ll a really bad analogy.

But you’re there. And it’s mindblowly cool and yet oh-so-simple.

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I’ve been to the wall before. Nothing is like that first rush of knowing you’re standing on the ghostly bones of history. This time I’m on a different section – much older, not as well maintained. Slightly treacherous for someone wearing sand shoes rather than hiking boots.

After 3 hours of trekking (and about 20 minutes of on-and-off whinging about getting a heat rash on my arms – everyone give Ee a quiet round of applause for putting up with my vanities…) we were BUGGERED. But happy. Filled to the rim with walking and breathing in the spirits of time gone past.

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Last day in China before we train it out of this truck stop. Not a bad way to spend it – yelling greetings into the wind from the top of a wall, perched somewhere near the peak of the wold…

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Massage in a (hutong) bottle…

Just so you know, I was goiong to call this post Sex and Old Ladies but while that’s a literal description of our experience, it’s still a but misleading. I went with the far less sexy, but also correct “Massage in a Hutong”…

So on our second day in Beijing we decided a post flight massage was required, and we went searching for sore muscle relief. After some stumbling (and sometimes shuffling due to the overwhelming number of slow walkers who choose Beijing as their tourist destination. Yes, I know I’m impatient!) we got through some of the more touristy hutong streets and spot a sign down an alley.

Walking into this place wasn’t like walking into a shop. There was a doorway leading down a gaveled, open aired corridor. Some doors led off it, no doubt to local abodes. We turned a few corners, stumbled over the uneven concrete and gravel pathway, heralded by the always present hanging blankets and children’s drying clothes. Seriously, these people must air their blankets daily. Which is odd when you think about the amount of pollution outside they’re airing them in.

Anyway, eventually one of the corners turns into a courtyard like cul de sac, and we find our massage parlor. And by parlor I mean a slightly intimidating dark doorway leading into a tiled small room with another small room (no doors) leading off with two beds. A fast, broken English exchange and Ee and Fee have their massages sorted and we’re heading into the room.

First off, this massage was brilliant. BRILLIANT I tell you! Who would have thought a Chinese massage in China would be so good. The best technique, no questions about whether the pressure was ok – it was great and she wasn’t negotiating anyway! Possibly one of the best I’ve ever had – and from the tiniest Chinese girl with Zoe Deschanel bangs you’ve ever seen. Honestly, if you want a massage in Beijing, I have a recommendation for you!

As I said, we were deep in the Hutongs. And it was probably the closest I’ve got to truly living like the locals do. Everyone is open. Everything is shared. Nothing is private.

For the first 15 minutes of my massage it was apparent someone in a nearby home was having sex (and by home I mean a 2 room house leading off the courtyard – of which there may have been about 10). I’m a bit of a child on the inside, so I stifled a giggle. But otherwise, the entire thing seemed to go by entirely unnoticed by everyone else.

Eventually the noise of sex was drowned out by the three little old ladies, all toothlessly smiley, who took to to their stools with great gusto in the courtyard, to comment on all around them – including me when I came to sit outside for 15 minutes when waiting for Ee to finish up her massage.

The sex continued like percussion in the background to the choir of these adorably gossipy neighborhood elders. And eventually they were gossiping and laughing so much I didn’t even notice when the sex stopped.

That was my lightbulb moment for what it must be like living here as a local. Completely open, completely shared. No privacy. No social niceties to hide behind. It’s there for everyone to see.

Our massage happened with open doors – everyone living in the hutong would’ve seen us. The sex was part of their day to day lives. There were a number of middle aged men and women, a few smaller children and these little old biddies who were all ambling inside of each others homes, sharing meals, yelling and smiling at each other. The bathrooms in the hoods often have no doors and the partition on the cubicles is only ribcage high. They don’t even do their Wake Up Wee in privacy!

All it took was sex and a few little old ladies for me to get a sense of just how exposed I’d feel living like this. Imagine, no secrets… no hiding… Everything out there, freak flag waving and all!

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Tacky is as tacky does…

I swear, if you have even a wishbone of tacky-cool-craving inside you, Beijng is the place to be. From the scenic to the souvenir, there is something for anyone who finds mirth in a well placed tongue-in-cheek…

As Exhibit A, I give you Pickled Mao. Seriously. These people taxidermied their “Father”. If those aren’t some Oedipus/Elektra (not sure which, my psychoanalysis was never awesome) issues right there, then knock me down with a feather and dress me in cute faux nylon touristy communist pyjamas, easily available at your local hawker for 250RMB.

The entire exerience is a treasure trove of tacky. From making you line up to drop off your handbag at the Left Luggage across the road from Tianamen Square (which, by the way, has a shorter line and more customer service than Mao’s Musical – aka his final recasting place – yet the line here takes MUCH longer…) and the scary barking lady who obviously has tyrant issues, through to the recycled flowers being sold to patriotic Chinese saps who willingly buy white carnations which are obviously being collected at the end of every day and sold to the next days’ bus load of knee-bending country Chinese. It’s beautiful Tack-o-Rama. And I loved it.

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You line up to go into the memorial. You line up to go through the security. You line up outside the mausoleum. You line up in the waiting hall, being watch Ed over by a 4 meter high stone Mao, who surprisingly has been given a sofa chair to sit on immemorial – not a tough guy stool or wicker chair. Soft…

Finally – although I shouldn’t complain because there’s no other city in the world that could move thousands of people through a building with such speed and precision like the Chinese do, in Melbourne I’d still be at the baggage check – we make it to Mao’s Final Resting Place. A hush falls, the Chinese Daytrippers get teary, and Ee and I marvel at the grotesqueness that is Stuffed and Pickled Mao. Actually in all truth, we’d read earlier in the day that his ear fell off during the taxidermy process, so we were both pretty much ogling his ear for the majority f the minute and a half we were allowed to shuffle past him in all his neon lit, shrine bedecked glory.

I loved the whole oddness of the experience I bought a souvenir to commemorate The Day I Saw a Dead Guy In a Glass Box. I truly recommend it as an experience!

Moving on..

Exhibit B of tackiness, by the way, is one of my favourite souvenirs EVER. It’s me. On a mug. The photo of me was taken in front of a public toilet in a dingy noisy lane way somewhere near the local tourist attraction that is a replica of an old Chinese street, but filled with Gap, Starbucks and Zara, rather than anything remotely resembling Chinese retail. The photo was then cropped and I got to choose my photo edited location. I chose the Forbidden City – which is literally 5 minutes walk from where I’m standing. So rather than go get my photo taken in front of the real thing, I can instead come to a back alley, line up outside a urinal, pose for a mugshot Amanda Bynes style, then wait the 5 minutes it takes to heat press onto a mug. And voila. Proof that I am willing to pay 20RMB for the best souvenir ever, but not proof that I did anything cultural in Beijing.

As a side note, the other fun part of the souvenir cup was carrying it through crowds for the next 10 minutes. When it’s handed to you the lady makes hissing, blowy sounds to indicate the mug is still hot. OBVIOUSLY I have to check for myself, and yes, indeed, it’s like sticking your hand inside a pot belly stove after it’s been burning for 5 hours and gripping onto a log for a good few seconds. Ouch. So how did I negotiate myself with a burning mug held in front of me through one of the most crowded and chaotic cities in the world, you ask? With much fun, and memorably…

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Here we are, now entertain us…

We made it. The Fee and Ee Versus Asia Tour (Mark II if you count the few days we caught up in Beijing last year).

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And what did we do on our very first day? We walked. And walked. And walked. It was like a day-long Les Mills Step class….we accidentally found and climbed every peak and tall temple in the neighbourhood, and they were some big ‘uns.

Beijing is a little different to last time I was here – way more pollution for one thing. There also seems to be more Tourist Whitey’s this time around, but that may have something to do with the hood we’re staying in. Having said that, this city is still wall to wall wonderfully enthusiastic country living Chinese folk, happy to be in their nations capital and soaking up the history through the smoggy haze.

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I’m staying in a different part of town this time. Our hutong is in an odd pocket filled with endless bars for tourists, but side by side with a huge number of locals going about their business and living their day to day lives. Great place to feel like you’re experiencing Chinese life, but at the same time there’s tasty margarita’s and live music nearby for a holidaying lass with sore feet.

The people here still yell when they’re happy, and look at us warily in the street until we smile, then they’ll laugh back. There are still persistent hagglers roaming the streets, but that’s easier to deal with this time around.

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It’s still My Beijing, despite how fearful I was of coming back. Single chairs lurk on unsuspecting corners with no apparent reason for being there. Everything is still held together by string. Men are able to sleep in the oddest of places without any self consciousness. The public transport system still kicks MYKI in the butt.

There’s still more to see than the eyes can drink in.

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