A traveler we met at the hotel in Beijing asked us, “Why the Trans-Siberian?” It took us aback. After all this planning, it seemed an achievement just to execute. We were stunned. Hmm. A good question. So we dug deep into our memory tool chest. Surely there must be a reason that had crossed our minds decades ago. I found myself one, after some digging. “Oh”, I finally blurted. “I like trains” …”and I am going cross country on Amtrak”. It was pretty weak, until I later remembered that I worked for Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway System for three years during the time it was under construction. I became somewhat a railway nut during that time. Working in the monastic order can make you do strange things, like want to be like the big boys. So my railway brothers talked shop about British Railway and the London Tube like it was the state of the art. BART wasn’t exactly either, but at least it was new at the time. The British Civil Engineer who hired me told me, “we’re all guests here”, referring to the ex-pats in Hong Kong. My director, a Midlands engineer who had never been abroad before going to Scotland, found himself in Hong Kong with his wife and three kids. they could live like royalty in the Mid-Levels, send their kids to public schools in the UK, and take annual trips back home on the QE2. He reminded me that “we’re all basically “Wrailwray” men here, as a gesture of camaraderie. But despite the fogies, I did enjoy transportation planning. A recent UC Berkeley grad at MTR taught me about trip headways, modalities, and methods of predicting number of passengers. I even started to learn about all the railways in the world, both heavy gauge and light rail, and their special features. I still remember that rubber tires like the ones used in the Montreal system were quieter but prone to fires, whereas the squeaky steel wheels were more reliable. BART was never discussed because it was too new to evaluate, and there certainly was a bias toward British colonial interests. So, such is my explanation about taking the Trans-Siberian. It’s another reason for my hopeless love and fascination for wandering the world. Trains are soothing, and help you to think and reflect on life. It helps you to stop the world and get off the internet. PS. Another explanation is due: the Chinese system shut down my ability to post using Google and my WordPress hosting site. Apologies to those of you who were disappointed and could not view the images. I was unable to see the images on my end, so that was very frustrating for me. But I will repost them as soon as I get chance. Thursday, July 30, 7:30am
The first day ended at the border between China and Mongolia, and not Ulan Bator. It’s still another eight hours from now (6am local time) to the Mongolian capital. The customs and border patrol took only a short expected amount of time with passport inspections, but a disruptive night from 10pm to 1am was caused by the need for each train car to be retrofitted with wider gauge wheels to fit the Mongolian track system! During the stop, each car was disengaged, Chinese wheels removed, and Mongolian wheels installed. While this might sound unbelievable and hideous, it happened. The car attendant explained to Gee Kin that the tracks are 2 inches wider in Mongolia.The three hour stop allowed just enough time for 30 workers to descend on each car systematically, pound the hell out of each connection between wheel and car, move each car to the Mongolian track, and reconnect everything (about 15 cars) again!
The landscape has changed to a wide plain with beautiful, seductive lighting at this time of the early morning. As I was about to take a few shots, I saw a herd of camels! It reminded me of the Silk Road trip last year. I wondered whether these noble animals originated here or were transported from some central Asian steppe or further beyond. A good Wiki question if only I had internet.
Now about the “I” word. If you ever get this post before Moscow, it will be another miracle. (the first one was the train reconfiguration). We had heard rumors that there was internet on the train…but that was the Russian train. We are on a Chinese train. Not that there should be that big a difference, but to be honest, we chose the Chinese-run train Beijing-Moscow for chauvinistic reasons and for nominally better (or possibly worse) food. So much for that thought.
But before I talk food, let’s get to the heart of the matter. What were we thinking??? A Sunday ride through Silicon Siberia? I had forgotten how I had the shakes checking into my guest house in Dresden last year. It took a rocket scientist (oh, OK, a lab scientist) to set me up with a modem connection that he figured out was cheaper to buy at the local Fry’s for 25E than to pay 100E deposit for one through the housing agent. After that momentary fear of being off the grid, my mind lapsed. No internet, no bloggie.
So if I emerge from this trip after five days of going dark, I will be a new woman. Damn the torpedos and the internet. We are one.
The free first night’s dinner (whoo-whoo!) consisted of one bowl of rice, cauliflower, and 2 huge Chicken meatballs. The best part was sitting with 2 other travelers, German brothers from Hamburg and Frankfurt. The physicist had just been to San Francisco and the other was a marketing director for big-name brands, so we had plenty to talk about. They had interesting views of the Greek crisis and how Germany was going to deal with it.
Looking back at yesterday’s posting, I felt saddened by my draining optimism. Everything on first blush always looks good, right? A few slight technicalities… the toilets are closed during station stops, so you have to plan your peeing strategy. I knew this from the first time we traveled cross-country Beijing to Hong Kong with the kids a generation ago. Still the same. The outlet is just outside our compartment over a fold-out bench, so it would be very handy to babysit the devices as they are being charged. Oops, the outlet doesn’t work. But let’s not get cynical. We had a decent meal gratis, and there’s still hope abound for getting upgraded. Stay tuned.
Thursday, July 30, 2015, 6:40am
We are four hours into the first day’s adventure and I just saw the first yurt of the trip! At the same time, the Beijing smog has finally disappeared. It was indeed very ominous during the entire stay in the city, and the sky only just became decipherable as we know it. The initial mountains and abundant tunnels outside Beijing lasted for about an hour, until lush terraced fields and valleys of corn and wheat took over. The first yurt led to a wide valley and truncated concrete piers were telltale signs of a high-speed rail line underway.
The valley also reflected sparse yurt-shaped graves and modern human settlements attached to farmland. Cows, horses, goats and sheep begin to appear in small herds and power lines string the landscape as far as the eye can see. Huge stretches of flat farmland are indicative of future scenery.
Despite our four-berth compartment not being air conditioned, there are only two of us so far. From Beijing to Ulan Bator, it looks like we will be alone. Our near-disaster plan to book through Travelchinaguide left us without tickets five days before the trip, with everything booked on both ends! While there are a number of ways to book the Trans-Siberian, we chose to use the Chinese service. This may not have been the wisest, but we did. As Gee Kin discovered that the pinch point was between Beijing and Ulan Bator, we are hoping that we can upgrade from a four- to a two-compartment with a shared toilet. So far the train itself has been very comfortable and with all the amenities necessary—a Western toilet in each train car, an electrical outlet, lights, hot water, and bedding. We were given complimentary tickets for a lunch and dinner each, but haven’t ventured outside the compartment yet.
As the sun sets, we will check out dinner service and the big “I” word…whether internet service is available or not. Farewell for now.
JULY 29, 2015, 16:37.
Since I will be traveling today, I am posting a map of the Trans-Siberian Express Route for you. I am not sure how reliable Internet access will be on the train, but I certainly will try to stay in touch and keep everyone informed about my saga across the huge, vast Eurasian continent. It is nearly twice the length of the US! You might find the map informative. Trace the route, from Beijing to Moscow via Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Ulan Ude is the first Russian border town we will hit in a couple of days from here.
Today was visiting Day with Gee Kin’s former professor in Hydraulic Engineering at Tsinghua University. We spent a leisurely day with him and his wife, who is also a professor in Water Resource Engineering. Gee Kin spent a year at Miyun Dam outside of Beijing in 1976 with his professor and other students. They were repairing the massive dam that was damaged by the Tangshan earthquake and that supports Beijing’s population.
The Tsinghua campus is now a bustle of activity and has the energy and flow of Stanford. Google-type buses were everywhere, and students, researchers, post-docs all sped by with focused purpose.
We had an elaborate lunch of Peking Duck, pickled web’s feet, chestnuts and Shanghai cabbage, whole steamed fish, braised pork belly, dry-fried bamboo shoots and green beans, and numerous fruits and sweet desserts.
Since this is the day before our train trip begins, we are taking it easy in this huge metropolis. We trained ourselves to use the new Metro Subway and took several lines each way to become fully versed in one of the largest systems in the world. It was built in only in less than 10 years and is indicative of China’s focus on their infrastructure systems. This is a huge achievement for the country.
More importantly, we observed how kind people were to one another. Passengers were always courteous and apt to get up for elderly people or women with young children. There was no need to provoke a response. It made me proud to be among the Chinese people (the ethnic pride thing in me kicks in!) and I was surprised at these small acts of human kindness within such a massive population. I wondered how often that happened on SF Muni or BART.
We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying our neighborhood, where there are many traditional and creative shops to bend the mind (and the pocketbook!). This area has always hosted clever shops, and this new version is only an extension of the past.
It remains to be seen how well we will be able to communicate once we are on the train tomorrow. You may not hear from me for five days or the entire time I am on the train, although the Internet is purportedly available.
If you are interested in seeing more photos of the Courtyard hotel, please go to their website at http://www.Courtyard7.com. They can also be found in Tripadvisor and Booking.com, where I do a lot of my searches for accommodations. I don’t normally talk about hotels, but this one is truly one of a kind. I encourage you to look at the photos of the hotel.
As mentioned earlier, we are staying at a Courtyard-style residence. This small boutique hotel is over 300 years old and is well preserved and showcases the best of Chinese Architecture. The rooms are decorated with traditional Chinese fretwork and furniture. The public spaces also reflect traditional Chinese art and design.
Private rooms surround the courtyard. It is well used and shared by guests, who can recover there from the stifling heat and frenzied activity in the surrounding neighborhood. Dongcheng, or East Wall, has become the hot new area after a portion of the courtyard style residences has been saved. Despite much controversy in the recent past, this area was renovated and repurposed to retain its history and old-city atmosphere.
It’s been a fun place to explore and peek into existing courtyard homes. Shopkeepers have been very creative (see yesterday’s post). They sell one-of-a-kind handmade and locally produced clothing, accessories, and of course, food. (This is China, after all!!) Services such as spa treatments can also be found in this area. Both foreign and local tourists alike are fascinated by the clash of modern and ancient Chinese culture.
We are staying in the Northern Hutong District (Gulouyuan) of Beijing in one of the hotels preserving the traditional courtyard style residences.
A few pictures are being posted here:
1. and 2: Shop facades with spun sugar pinwheels and one-of a kind fans;
3. A contemporary noodle shop where we had our casual dinner, with “graffiti” Chinese style–neatly written post-it notes on a laundry line, notes in English and Chinese on the gyp bd.
4. Two tea cups, high-rise fashion to hold more tea, and the cutesy happy faces.
5. A beautiful retro-1930’s era entryway.
Join me on my first official “Around the World in 80 Days” (last year’s was technically only 68)! My upcoming travel includes the following:
1. The Trans-Siberian Express starting in Beijing, going westward to Moscow via Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinaburg and Kirov; we will spend time in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
2. Stops in German-speaking countries including Switzerland and Austria (and of course Germany!). Traveling alone, I plan to hit various musical events including the International Salzburger Festival, where I plan to see Jonas Kaufmann, one of my three favorite popera singers. I will also see Cecilia Bartoli in Gstaad, Switzerland, with friend Helena. A two-week course in Schwabisch Hall at the Goethe Institute will be the anchor for this travel and help me improve my German.
3. After flying back to the States via New York in the Fall, I look forward to seeing my favorite female opera star Anna Netrebko at the NY Metopera. After that, I’ll tour the Fall Foliage in Upstate NY with fellow traveler Karen.
4. The finale will be a cross-country trip via Amtrak via Philadelphia, Chicago, Santa Fe, and LA.
Those of you who have been following my blog over the past year recognize the focus on cultural events, art and architecture, history, and music. Please let me know if you have friends who may be interested in following my wanderings. I’ll send them invitations to join the fun. It helps me to track who’s reading, but I’d also like to get a sense of what interests them. Keep the comments coming–I appreciate hearing from you. It does get lonely at times so your messages are always welcome.
There will be plenty of twists and turns along the way, so don’t be surprised if there are deviations or last minute changes. We only confirmed our Chinese train through Russia two days ago, so it has already been a bit of a cliff hanger! The trip officially starts tomorrow, so get ready to blast off!
The header I posted today is from the signature panel at the Afrosayib Museum in Samarkand. This is among the many beautiful artifacts that were left out of postings last year. The museum is built around this incredible discovery!
You can see three of my three favorite opera singers (Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann, and Thomas Hampson live in Munich on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMlRGQ2hdOk. This is why I go to Germany!