Trans-Mongolian railway part 3/3: Beijing’s traditional and modern symbiosis

A last long train ride to the destination started from Ulaanbaatar and the last missing piece on the map will soon be crossed. If you missed first two articles you can still read part 1 and part 2. I would be lying if I say that we were not excited about this part as well. A day-and-a-half ride to the cradle of one of the oldest civilisations in the world – China. If we started with nice and clean train in Moscow, this one was way different. It was Moscow-Beijing train and has not been cleaned for some days I dare to say. We could even perform some forensic investigation of the things on our compartment floor. Things like this should only make you tougher and make you laugh. Why? Because, no matter how bad something was/is, you will eventually laugh about it. So why not laughing at the very place too?

Desert landscape on the way to China

We got our clean sheets and meal coupons for the next day from Provodnik, ignored the details we’ve just laughed about and concentrated on the train activities (guess which ones) – ginger tea drinking, knitting, reading, taking photos, board games and soon was a lunch time. We unpacked our Indian food from the day before and had the best lunch ever observing the nature from our oriental styled compartment. The landscape changed from steppe to a rocky desert without visible end. Every now and then, you could notice a tiny white spot or two in the distance – lonely gers. I have to admit that at that point I missed a bit birches and pines of the Siberian taiga.

Restaurant on Ulaanbaatar – Beijing train

Luckily, we decided to have our instant dinner a bit earlier than usual. Why luckily? Because we reached the border crossing in the evening. Unlike in the previous years where you could stay on board the whole time, nowadays everyone had to leave the train at the border crossing during the bogie change. Due to the different train gauge, which I mentioned in the first part of this journey, the train goes into the service station at the border crossing where the bogies are changed and adapted for the Chinese railway gauge. The whole procedure lasts about four hours. Funny thing was how it was communicated to us to leave the train. English is not spoken so well by the Chinese Provodnik/Provodnica so they found a creative way of informing the passengers about important things – printed papers with explanations in English. It works quite well, especially when the translation is “Take all your belongings and leave the train” 🙂

It sounded extreme compared to reality where you leave the train and get to the station building for your visa check, security check and plenty of free time in a very bright and clean waiting room provided with clean toilet facilities and even a warm water boiler. In the end, you could have your dinner here while waiting. As planned, after 3-4 hours we got back on board and went to sleep. It is a curious thing when you finish your day in one country, during the night you cross the border and you wake up in a whole new place in the morning. Green and hilly landscape observed the train passing under the morning sunshine. Every now and then, a tower of the Great Wall could be seen.

At 14:35 local time we finally made it to Beijing Central Station. Almost 8000km and two continents. Even now it seems unreal to me when I look at the map.

Let me introduce you with this amazing place, unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Street decorations

Country name: People’s Republic of China
Capital city: Beijing
Population: 1.404 billion
Official language: Standard Chinese
Official script: Simplified Chinese
Currency: Yuan (CNY)

When to go?

May: Pleasant 10-20 degrees after the winter freeze. Usually dry and clear weather but it can get windy.
June – September:
Hot and humid weather due to the rainy season.
October – November: Fresh and clear weather with fewer tourists.
December – February: Dry and very cold weather with quiet streets.

We’ve spent four days in Beijing middle of September. It was warm and humid but without rain. I guess that June-August are much tougher to handle. The best months are April, May and October. If possible, try to avoid national holidays because tourist sites can be overcrowded.

Fun Facts:

  • In its 3000 years long history, Beijing had numerous names. Some of them were restored couple of times, the others reflected the emperor names, geographical position or even the emperors title. Here are some of them: Jicheng (Ji City), Yanjing, Guanguyang, Youzhou, Nanjing (Southern capital), Zhongdu (Central Capital), Khanbaliq – Dadu (Great Capital), Beiping (Northern Peace), Jingshi (Capital). Current name Beijing (Northern Capital) originates from the Ming Dynasty period at the beginning of the 15th century. The name has been restored in 1949 at the founding of People’s Republic of China.
  • Beijing (both city and municipality) is home to 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites: Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian, Great Wall of China, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Ming Tombs and Grand Canal.
  • In 2022 Beijing will become the first city to host both summer and winter Olympics. Summer Olympics in Beijing took place in 2008.
  • When ordering food in restaurants, don’t expect the portion for yourself. Food is served in a family style and it is supposed to be shared with family and/or friends. You should never leave the chopsticks upright in your rice bowl as it was used as an offering to the dead. You should not make gestures with chopsticks in your hand.
  • The Great Wall is the longest man made structure in the world, with a total length (including all the sections, not just the one from the Ming dynasty) of approximately 21196.18 km. The popular myth that the Wall could be seen from the space is not true. A very high-tech lens is required to be able to see it from the Moon.

Where to stay?

The city offers a variety of possibilities through hotels and hostels. We stayed in a hostel north-east from the Forbidden city (40 min. away on foot). It was the cutest place in one of the old streets called hutong. I can warmly recommend it.

Detail from the Summer Palace

So let’s see how you can spend 4-5 days in Beijing. You can also make your stay shorter depending on your vacation days and/or preferences. I will try to put it chronologically what I personally found the most interesting.

Beijing is the biggest city I’ve visited so far with its 21.5 million inhabitants. After spending so much time in the nature in the past days, busy city rush was quite intimidating. And how many people and vehicles of all kinds! We took a metro from the central station to our hostel, discovering the communication difficulties when talking in English but we made it somehow.

Hostel was located in one of the old hutong, an old Beijing type of street, that now became a bit more touristic. Small stores with candies of any kinds and flavours, souvenir shops, fast food and ice cream shops everywhere. Petra and Nico were amused with a small café in that street where we planed to go for a coffee later. After missing it once, we finally found our hostel and realised that café they talked about actually belongs to the hostel. It is needless to say how Petra and Nico were excited about it. Us too when we saw cozy little place full of dry and fresh flowers and plants so that from outside seemed more like a flower shop than like a café. We had a beer at the terrace and enjoyed the pleasant weather and rumour coming from the street below. It felt really good after a long trip.

Candy shop in hutong

Soon afterwards, we headed towards the city center for a dinner with a friend and an evening walk. Before we continue with city highlights, you should keep one thing in mind. Beijing is a huge city. When I say huge, it means that the map is scaled differently than what we are used to. Here’s an example, if something seems “just two blocks away” it is probably a 40-minute-walk instead of 10-20 minutes we are used to. We learned it the harder way but, on the other hand, we really enjoyed the walks through hutongs. You can also explore the city by bike, which is the fastest way if you don’t want to use metro.

Let’s begin.

Wangfujing Snack Street

This is one of the oldest streets in Beijing and it is located in Dongcheng district. It attracts many tourists looking for a snack during the day and it becomes a really busy night market in the evening. If you are looking for a bit different snacks and something more exotic, you can for sure find it here. Market offers many insect-based snacks such as scorpions, larvae, little ducks, big pieces of pig (probably), crab legs etc. It is more common-practice in the southern regions of China than in the north to eat insects but in this street you can get the feeling how it looks like. I wanted to give it a try, with my eyes closed, but I couldn’t when I saw that some animals are pierced alive and placed on sticks before getting fried, like scorpions. It felt just wrong in many ways and I didn’t have the heart to do it. On the other hand, the atmosphere in the street, the liveliness of the people and occasional musical and theatre performances made it a special experience overall.

Insect-based snacks
Woman selling fried sea food
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Theatre play in the night market
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Wangfujing night market

Hutong

In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by the traditional courtyard residences. Therefore, word hutong is used for such kind of neighbourhoods too. It happened often that two hutongs were united over the years by the same street, as the city expanded. This kind of district organisation and building style was first established during the Yuan dynasty (13th and 14th century) and then expanded under Ming and Qing dynasties. They were very common in Beijing and northern China. Many of hutongs were demolished to make way for the new streets and residential buildings. On the other hand, many of them got the status of the protected area to save this tradition from oblivion. There are still some of them in the city and you can have a walk and get lost a bit in this peaceful areas where slow living is thriving in the middle of the city jungle. Many houses share a common bathroom even nowadays, you will be able to see people doing their daily activities such as feeding the chicken, washing the hair on the street, etc. Time stands still in those areas and it’s beautiful how they blend into the modern surrounding.

Woman sitting in front of a small bar
Man feeding his chicken in hutong

Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is an UNESCO protected heritage since 1998. It was a summer residence of Qing dynasty. Qianlong Emperor built the palace to celebrate his mother’s birthday in 1749. Building of the whole complex with gardens and lakes lasted 15 years and the palace was completed in 1754. It is still considered a masterpiece of Chinese landscape and garden design where natural hilly landscape and lakes are combined with man-built constructions such as pavilions, palaces, temples, bridges and halls. Beware, it is huge. It encloses different passages, trade streets in all colours, marble boat-like buildings, a long promenade around the lake and a big buddhist temple that is at the highest point above the lake.

Eastern Palace gate
Boats on Palace’s lake
Marble boat
Tower of Buddhist Incense
Panoramic view from the Tower of Buddhist Incense
A view from the Tower of Buddhist Incense

What impressed me the most was a three-level theatre in the Garden of Virtue and Harmony, whisch is equipped with all sorts of mechanisms for the special effects: underground well for the water scenes, mechanisms making people appear or disappear from the scene, making Gods appear from the sky and many more. When the Summer Palace was undergoing renovation in 1891 following destruction during the 1860 war, the site of Yichuntang was chosen as the place to build a new larger theatre. More than two hundred different opera performances were put on here for empress Cixi, during the period from the completion of the theatre until her death.

Theatre at Garden of Virtue and Harmony
A boy at Garden of Virtue and Harmony

Summer palace also hosts the longest wooden corridor in the world. The Long Corridor runs for 728m and is built entirely of wood and divided by crossbeams into 273 sections. The Long Corridor’s crossbeams, as well as the ceiling and side pillars, have over 10,000 paintings of famous Chinese landscapes, episodes from folk tales, flowers and birds.

Long corridor
Walking path by the Long corridor
Suzhou Street
Details from Suzhou Street
Peaceful corners, Summer Palace

This place definitely requires a several-day-visit because you feel exhausted after four hours in there and still feeling that you haven’t seen enough.

Great Wall of China

This was the most exciting excursion in Beijing and it should not be surprising when it includes one of the 7 World Wonders – The Great Wall of China. You can easily book a one-day or two-day tours on different Wall sections around Beijing, either online or directly at your hotel/hostel. We booked a one-day tour to Jinshanling section directly in our hostel, which included transport to the Great Wall and back by bus as well as English-speaking guide.

Jinshanling Great Wall

There are many wall sections near Beijing: Badaling, Juyongguan, Huanghuacheng, Jiankou, Mutianyu, Gubeikou, Jinshanling, Simatai, Huangyaguan. You can read more about each one of them here.

Once again, check the national holidays calendar before going because it can get very crowded, especially in the Badaling section, which is the most popular one among Chinese tourists.

The tour guide came to pick us up at the hostel and we started an hour and a half ride towards Jinshanling, the starting point of our hike on the Great Wall. The tour included 7 km hike from Jinshanling to the Main Observation Tower. Jinshanling is 150 km away from Beijing and, therefore, less tourists go to the Great Wall there. In Jinshanling the Wall is partially renovated and partially left authentic. After the Main Tower there is a small prolongation that can also be made on foot including four additional towers. That last part is completely authentic.

Great Wall of China, Jinshanling
Authentic part, Jinshanling Great Wall

The weather was perfect and number of tourists acceptable. Maybe twenty people in total. Firstly, we had to do a steep uphill part to approach the wall. The Wall was invisible almost till the starting point because of the high bushes and trees full of the strangest birds that covered the view. Passing by a huge frog that welcomed us, we stepped on the Wall.

JInshanling Great Wall

It was incredible. You hear stories and you watch the documentaries about how it was built and how huge it is but all of that is nothing compared with the moment when you first put your foot on it and look around. It was comparable to the amazement when I stepped out of the Siq and saw Treasury in Petra, Jordan. It was similar but with the landscape around. Endless green hills and endless small towers seen on each one of the hills. The Walls’s snake-shaped form was all over the horizon. Just like a dragon resting on the mountain tops. Summer Palace already made me feel small but this took that feeling to another level. It just leaves one speechless. What human hands can build when united. Alone, we are just drops. Together, we form an ocean with all its powers.

Plants conquering the Wall

We started walking, still hardly believing where we were. Tower after tower, the hike was quite sporty. Each tower is differently designed and decorated. The steepest climb was up to the Flower Tower. Our guide warned us about that one. It was an almost 90 degree steep climb with stairs. One girl had a slight panic attack walking up because of the height phobia. Her mother was comforting her to keep on. The view from the top was exquisite. It is always like that. After the hardest climbs you enjoy the best views. We reached the Main Observation Tower before the time scheduled for going back so we continued further to the authentic part of the Wall. It was completely abandoned, ruined by time at some points and eaten by plants. A thought came into my mind on how many centuries had the thing under my feet and what kind of miracles it witnessed during that time. It kept millions of secrets, both of the nature around it and of the human kind.

People resting by the Observation Tower

Forbidden city

Forbidden City is the former Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty (the years 1420 to 1912), it now houses the Palace Museum. The Forbidden City served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years. Constructed from 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 72 hectares. The palace exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture. The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. Since 1925, the Forbidden City has been under the charge of the Palace Museum, whose extensive collection of artwork and artefacts were built upon the imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties. (Source: Wikipedia)

Soldiers marching through the Forbidden city
Forbidden city
Just one section of the Forbidden city’s great Palace museum
Emperor’s path, Forbidden city
Sculptures in Forbidden city’s gardens
Wall ornaments in Forbidden city

Just the information about the size tells enough how impressive this monument is. Impossible to be visited in one day, we concentrated on the central path and rooms considering education, peace and prosperity. We just had a glimpse on emperor’s daily life. Unfortunately, the artefacts were described in Chinese and we couldn’t understand much but the calming atmosphere of the place took us under its spell. It has been built according to all Feng Shui principles to fulfill all the needs of the emperor and bring him wealth, wisdom and prosperity. Therefrom, an artificial hill was built next to Forbidden City, hosting today a the Jingshan park that offers the best view of the city. That way, all of the Feng Shui principles were accomplished. That was our next station.

Flower pots in Jingshan park

Jingshan park hill has been built out of the soil that was dug out when building the water channels around the Forbidden City. Hilltop gives a magnificent overview. In fact, the best when it’s not foggy, or smoggy. With 180 ppm that day, the end of the Forbidden City was invisible. Mist of smog covered its end.

Panoramic view of Forbidden city from Jingshan park

When you see such obvious signs of pollution, it makes you even more sad about it. We should be the change we expect from the world. We should start from ourselves. Although we are just drops in the ocean, in a sufficient number, we form an ocean itself.

Local cuisine

Chinese cuisine was always fascinating to me, especially its variety of flavours and their combinations. Trying it out in different restaurants in Beijing opened a whole new world to me. One interesting thing that I love in China is food ordering in the restaurant. Not the process itself, it works like in any restaurant in Europe but the concept. Everyone orders couple of small dishes that come served in small bowls or plates in the middle of the table out from where, everyone can take a bit and try. It works perfectly and it helps you in case you ordered something that really doesn’t taste as you imagined because other people can help finish it and you still have a second choice. Traditionally, a head of the family (usually the father) orders for the family and then they share.

You should definitely try Peking duck, a traditional dish originating (as the name indicates) from Beijing. If you need a restaurant recommendation, just write me because we had an unique experience with the duck dish. Here is the input from my diary.

Peking duck dish

Waitress first brought us the thin pancake-like bread, side dish vegetables and soya sauce with peanut cream, well-mixed and presented as a black and yellow spiral. The gong sound announced the chef’s arrival and dinner preparation. The young chef came with prepared duck and started cutting it in front of us with surgical precision and placing the portions on duck-shaped plates. It was kind of hypnotic the whole process. We couldn’t take our eyes off of him. We thanked him when he was done and paid our respect by enjoying our meal. It was better than I imagined. Crispy crust and soft meat, combined with thin bread and soya sauce…a spectacle. That was not a dinner, that was a feast. As we learned there, typically one eats the duck skin dipped in sugar. Chinese love these salty-sweet combinations. I gave it a try and it fit perfectly together. I again dedicated a whole paragraph to the food. Maybe I am becoming a bit of hedonist with the years passing by.

Vegetarian tofu-based dish
Vegetarian meal masterpieces at the buddhist restaurant

In Beijing, we went to a buddhist restaurant with the biggest vegetarian menu I’ve ever seen so far. I couldn’t even imagine what kind of meals and combinations were possible. The food both looked and tasted amazing. It is important to notice how the food has been ordered and served. Alessandro’s friend just typed on the phone what we want and five minutes later waiter started bringing the dishes. It all works on a click of the button or QR code scan. It seemed like some futuristic movie.

Luckily, menus have always pictures of the meals so you don’t need much of the translation (unless you are vegetarian or vegan and need to check the ingredients). However, if you feel more adventurous, like we did on our last day, you could try out the small local hot pot restaurants. Beware, staff probably won’t speak English and you will have to order with gestures and pointing fingers. It was the first time we went to such a restaurant and we had no clue what we ordered. It was one of those hot-pot places where you choose a sauce and, based on the things you decide to cook in, you pay additionally. We only knew we took the rice because we managed to translate that one with google. Sauces for the hot-pot were completely unknown and we took some soya seeds, broccoli and pastries to cook in the sauce. It was an interesting experience. Sauces came in a divided pot: one part for the vegetable sauce, soup like; second part for the really spicy sauce, covered with pepper. The table had a small induction stove in the middle so that the sauces could warm up or boil. You take than the sticks with meat or vegetables and cook them in the sauces directly. You can also add a variety of dips too.

Hot pot try out

I could go on here about Beijing but couple of highlights should be enough. City has quite a lot to offer and of something for everyone’s taste. Check out the event calendars and national holidays and enjoy your time in this beautiful city.

Survival guide for the Transmongolian trip

Here are some tips and tricks for the whole trip in general:

  • Travel with a backpack (I can’t say this enough times), because it’s much more convenient to carry around and doesn’t occupy so much space. Compartments in the train are quite small and not foreseen for the big luggages.
  • Less is more. Pack as less clothes as you can because of two reasons. The first is less weight to carry on your back (and there are laundries in hotels/hostel). The second is that you can buy something new if you really need it and have it as a trip memory in the end.
  • Bring some basic medication with you such as painkillers, regular medicines like asthma pump etc.
  • Prepare your documents on time. Especially visas if needed. Check the requirements for your country of residence and contact the consulate/embassy directly or do it via agency. I can provide information for getting them in Germany if someone needs help.
  • Dress in layers and pack clothes accordingly. While in Beijing can be 25-30 degrees, in Russia and Mongolia temperatures can vary and it can be quite cold. Comfy clothes for the train and some synthetic fast drying clothes for the hiking.
  • Pack good walking shoes or lightweight hiking shoes. You will spend quite some time on foot and good shoes can make a huge difference.
  • Phrasebook, mini-dictionary or translate app. This can be quite helpful in China. We used Lonely Planet travel guide in combination with google translate.
  • Inform your bank about your travel to avoid restrictions on your credit card.
  • Organise a travel health insurance.
  • Bring small bowls and cutlery pack for eating the instant food and some instant food if you want.
  • Cable with multiple plugs. It is quite useful if your compartment doesn’t contain a power plug and you have to charge from the corridor. Having multiple plugs, you will not occupy that one plug and be hated from the other passengers for doing so 🙂
  • Wet wipes to disinfect your cutlery and yourself during the long train ride.
  • Compact board games, a book, knitting set or anything else you would like to do in your free time on board.
  • Earplugs and eye mask for napping on trains and/or in noisy hotels.
  • Sense of humour and patience.
  • There is no whatsapp, facebook or google maps in China. Paper map of the city is a great solution as well as wechat app. You can ask your friends and family to install it for the time to stay in touch or you can download some of the apps that support VPN and use all the apps without restrictions.

I should also say that it is possible to start from China and go all the way to Moscow. You can also start from St. Petersburg, it’s up to you. However, considering how different are the places, I would suggest you the route from Moscow towards Beijing. Leave the Great Wall for the sweet end 🙂

You are ready now to start your adventure. I would be thrilled to have convinced someone to do this trip. Enjoy the ride and let me hear about it!

Beijing Central Station, (from left) me, Petra, Nico, Alessandro

Author: Milica Ljumovic

Electrical engineer. Undercover bookworm. Animal lover. Passionate traveller. Hobby photographer.

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