So we've boarded our last train of this trip, bound for Beijing, and everybody seems a bit melancholy. Perhaps it's just leaving Mongolia, as I think the whole group has really enjoyed the experience, but it might also be that we can see the end of the trip looming and I'm not sure any of us relishes the idea that we'll soon be heading off in our own directions.
It's hard to overstate how well we've all gotten on over the last few weeks. There's not been a single raised voice or falling out, which is pretty amazing given we're fifteen people from massively varied backgrounds, thrown together in what might have been an arduous journey across some culturally complex countries via such an unusual mode of transport. So it is sad to think we won't be taking on the next stage of our trip with these new friends, and I can't help but think that our travels would have been all the richer for being together.
Anyhow, before I start e-blubbing and lose all of those valuable Man Points I've accrued, the journey out of UB has been pretty incredible. The rolling, patchy green of the hinterlands surrounding the Mongolian capital have given way to the vast expanses of sand that make up the northern edge of the Gobi Desert. Stops have become less frequent and less populated, save for a few brave souls who scuttle out of their hiding places as the train pulls up, eager to sell rapidly warming Cokes, bread that's continually baking in the sun and *sigh* instant noodles.
There is one interesting stop, in a little city (!!) called Choir, which is home to a statue commemorating Mongolia's first and only cosmonaut, Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa (try saying that three times fast!). As an aside, and to give you a little more insight into Choir, try looking it up on Wikipedia (or follow this link for the lazy - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choir,_Mongolia) and look at the picture of 'Downtown Choir'...
Anyways, leaving the manic rush of Choir behind, we make our way towards the Mongolian/Chinese border (which Marnie was convinced was full of Chinese snipers) and another massive wait as we go through customs and immigration. This bureaucratic delay is alleviated slightly as our carriage is detached from the rest, moved into a massive train shed and then raised around ten feet in the air. The bogies are then manually changed, so that the train is ready for the Chinese track gauge, and although I've done a terrible job of describing it, the whole event was pretty interesting and at least took our minds off the fact that we wouldn't have access to a toilet for the next three hours.
Following a thorough examination of our papers (which stopped just short of a cavity search - the Chinese take their jobs very seriously...), we were allowed into China. We stopped briefly on the Chinese side to resupply, as the food had gotten considerably more exciting - including self-heating beef curry ready meals and vacuum packed chicken's feet - and then got ready for bed and our imminent arrival into Beijing the next day.
In the morning, as I stared bleary-eyed out of the train window, I was amazed to find that somebody (perhaps Derren Brown) had replaced the sandy dunes and nomadic encampments of the previous day with plunging gorges and mountainside forests - the change really was incredible. Strangely, and perhaps in a fit of psycho-geomancy, the landscape had decided to remould itself into what I'd expected the Chinese countryside to look like, and it was stunning. This train journey has been full of beautiful scenery, but the UB - Beijing stretch topped the lot.
As we drew nearer to the Chinese capital, I quickly became aware of just how big Beijing is. A city the size of Belgium (but one that proved infinitely more interesting), it took an hour and a half to reach Beijing's central railway station from the beginning of the outlying suburbs. The city's infamous smog is already apparent, and when combined with the heat and humidity of north Asia, it creates a thick haze which smothers us as we leave the train for the final time as a group. *Sniff*
A short walk from the station and we reach the Harmony Hotel, quite a plush place (compared to our other accommodation) and, after a quick shower break, Laziz takes us on the Beijing Metro (which costs 20p per ride - you should be ashamed London) to Tiananmen Square to get our first glimpse of Mao and the Forbidden City (or the Forbidden Planet as Kate keeps calling it - no doubt my geekery is rubbing off on her).
It's an impressive place, as you'd expect, packed with Chinese tourists eager to take our photo, apparently because one of China's largest annual holidays is about to kick off. This means that hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese travel to the capital and explains why Sarah-Beth (or Shotgun as I call her), our resident 5'11" blonde, is receiving so much attention. Many of these visitors have never seen Westerners, and might never again, so pictures of us white devils (and Shaffie) are highly prized. It culminates in our group photo being hijacked by about fifteen Asian paps, although my suggestion that we say we're the cast of Hollyoaks on tour falls on deaf ears.
A brief wander through the nearby hutongs (the classic Chinese market streets), which are stunning by dusk, and we head off for dinner in the restaurant district, Beijingxiao (pronounced Beijing-chow, rather fittingly).
As the night is drawing in, pretty lanterns are strung across the pavements and residents pack the street, eating sunflower seeds in enormous numbers whilst waiting for their dinner. We make our way to an unassuming restaurant which opens up into an amazing double story pavilion ripped straight from the Crazy 88 scene in Kill Bill Pt 1. Laziz ordered a frankly overwhelming amount of food including Beijing specialities such as spicy peanut chicken, beef with spring onions and, of course, Peking Duck. It's a fine end to the evening and we all head back to the hotel for some proper rest, Harmony style. All in all Beijing seems very cool.