Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Amazing beijing

Tuesday 12–Saturday 16 August 2014

(If anyone named or depicted here visually or textually wants their name or image removed just let me know!)

Beijing surprised us. It was like we were so distracted by the longer Russian, Mongolian and European portions of our travels that we were only thinking of Beijing as the place where we boarded the train, the place our travels began (the ‘Orient’, if you will), rather than a destination in its own right. And because we had no particular plans or expectations for Beijing I think we were especially impressed by it. It’s a place we would love to visit again. It was certainly the least ‘Western’ destination we’d ever been to at that point (until Mongolia).


Scams and steals 


It didn’t take long for us ignorant, monolingual, sleep-deprived, travel-weary Westerners to fall prey to the wiles of a more cunning local. After disembarking the plane in the wee hours of the morning we headed straight for the taxi rank, where a Chinese guy immediately started trying to get our attention. We thought it seemed dodgy because he was targeting the only Westerners in the queue, so we just tried to ignore him, but it became more and more difficult. We looked to the queue supervisor for guidance, but she just waved a hand in an uninterpretable gesture, so we decided to go with him against our better judgement. 

We ended up paying about double the usual rate for the trip to the hotel, which was still only about what it would’ve cost in Australia. But the cab ride itself was an experience. The driver wove crazily in and out of lanes and outside them entirely at 120 kilometres an hour, talking on the phone and everything. 

The ride wasn't safe, but the price was high!


But he got us there, which was all we cared about at that point (around 3am Australian eastern standard time, after having left the house at 6:40). Our strategy was to have two nights of luxury and recuperation in the Beijing Hilton before (presumably) roughing it in the Vodkatrain hostel and on the train for three weeks, so when they offered us a pretty good upgrade deal at check-in we took it.




We were pleasantly surprised by how swanky our room was for the price we were paying, and it was awesome to sleep in a supremely comfortable Hilton bed again (although I’m now aware of the horrors inflicted on ducks and geese to provide the down for those quilts and pillows). 

We showered and finally retired around 4am, and slept in as late as we could without missing the free breakfast included in our upgrade. We were pretty lousy travellers that day – we just spent it eating and lazing and watching the news (and reeling from the suicide of one of our childhood icons, Robin Williams) and trying to work out why Facebook and Google/Gmail/Blogger/Youtube wouldn’t work, but we reasoned that we’d paid for the comparative luxury, so we should take advantage of it while we could. Plus the hotel seemed to be pretty remote from any attractions. We ate our free breakfasts and free hors d’oeuvres for dinner and made use of the hotel’s facilities to book and plan more of our trip. 

The view from our hotel room. In the distance you could just make out the ‘ring’ CCTV Headquarters building. 


Tourism fails

The next day we took a much more reasonably priced taxi to our Vodkatrain accommodation, the Huguosi Hotel, in the rain. The lobby was full of birds in cages, which I never thought of as cruel before, but now I think it kind of is. They had fish in pots and crickets in boxes, too, and a weird old man walking around talking in a high-pitched voice to all the birds. They gave us two rooms despite our protests, but we just stayed in Til’s and ended up giving mine to another couple in the Vodkatrain group later. 


We ventured back out to find some food, including some supplies for the train. In one direction was a street full of instrument shops – dozens of them, but each featuring only a single kind of instrument – but we were able to find a convenience store or two. The only veggie noodles we could find were these bizarre ‘sour hot flavour’ ones, which we were dubious about, but we thought we’d give them a go. Among our other finds was a packet of individually wrapped, weird-tasting dried apricots. Unfortunately when we got back to the hotel we realised we’d bought lime-flavoured water (which I thenceforth referred to neologistically and somewhat nonsensically as ‘limenade’) rather than plain, so we couldn’t eat them. Instead we gorged on our snacks and then succumbed to a bout of uncontrollable napping on our surprisingly comfortable rock-hard slab of a bed for the rest of the afternoon, when we’d planned to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. 

Til with our sour hot noodles and limenade. 

Individually wrapped apricots. 

But we later learned that touristing that afternoon would’ve taken longer than we had time for anyway, since we had to meet our Beijing ‘honcho’ (guide) and the rest of our Vodkatrain group at 5. 

Vodkatrain meetings and culinary misadventures 
We all met and started talking in the hotel lobby, and then our honcho Lily introduced herself and led us to a little Western-style café. At this point the group comprised Emma and Anika, two nurses and coworkers from Queensland; Chris, a web developer, and Isabell, another nurse, a couple from Melbourne; Nathan and Daniel, two building maintenance technicians and coworkers from Mackay living in London; George, a lawyer from London; and Heli, yet another nurse from Helsinki – turned out all the girls on the trip were nurses except Tilly, and nurses are good to travel with because they have lots of ridiculous, hilarious, disgusting stories and drugs to help you when you’re sick. I’ve realised now, after a few of these stories, that nurses live in the real world, while the rest of us inhabit fantasylands where everything is clean and nice and bodies don’t do anything gross. 

We all tried ordering drinks but the guy behind the counter was very inconsistent in what was available off the menu. Half the things he just said ‘no’ to, and the other half he said yes to one person and no to the next. 

Lily hammered out what felt like a couple hours worth of information like a boss and then left us to our own devices. The Vodkatrain philosophy is that you have access to expert local advice and guidance, but that you fill your own time and make your own choices about your activities, which I appreciate. In practice, though, most of the time everyone ends up doing whatever the guide recommends, all at the same time. 

After the meeting Anika, Emma, Heli, George, Til and I all set off to grab some dinner and get to know one another. Little did we know we were in for the biggest preprandial ordering fiasco ever. Til, Heli and I were eating veg(etari)an, which was trouble enough, but the poor waiter was ill-equipped to deal with the severe nut and seed allergies of Emma and Heli as well. But after much hand-waving and gesturing and pointing and consultation and coming and going and the intervention of kind bilingual strangers, Til, Heli and I got some delicious veggie food. Emma wasn’t so lucky and ended up with a pretty serious reaction to what was probably trace amounts of sesame oil left in the pan from other dishes! 

I expected to have more trouble in China with veggie food, but I was pleasantly surprised once again. With the help of this little sign we got Lily to write for us, I could always find something veggie-friendly and delicious, even if my options were of course more limited than the omnivores’: 


After dinner Til, George, Heli and I met up with Chris and Isabell, who were stuck in their clothes from the plane since their baggage had gone walkabout and wouldn’t arrive until the next night. We went for a walk to a canal lined with (karaoke) bars, many of which we later learned were in fact brothels. George had some pretty amazing stories to tell about his experiences travelling over the past six months, from being held hostage to a road accident in Vietnam to being an extra in a Bollywood film to being the guest of honour at a stranger’s birthday party, but I’ll leave those to him to tell. He has his own travel blog here.


Becoming men at the great wall 


The next day, after a disappointing ‘buffet breakfast’ of jam on toast,* we met in the lobby once again to take a minibus to the Great Wall of China! Lily told us that they have a saying in China that you aren’t a man until you’ve been to the Great Wall, so we were all excited and anxious about the several gender reassignments which were about to occur. Our group was also augmented by the late arrival from Japan of three Melburnians – Matt, Ajay and Max, all students.

*Luckily the bakery on the nearby street corner did awesome nut and seed-encrusted wholemeal breadrolls that were delicious on their own, which I ate every day after that. 

The Wall lies around eighty kilometres north of Beijing, so it was interesting to see a little of the Chinese countryside from the bus on the way. Everything seemed very much ‘under construction’ – mounds of sand sprawling over the street, half-painted buildings, rolls of plastic sheeting, bare cement next to grass, exposed cables and wiring sprouting from every surface – which I suppose is to be expected from a booming second-world country. 

The Wall itself was, of course, awe-inspiring. I’ve written before about how there are some elements of our cultural knowledge that are ingrained in us from such an early point in our lives that we are deprived of the opportunity of ever really truly experiencing them. I think the example I used was a giraffe – they are such bizarre, incredible creatures, but we’ve seen pictures of them in our storybooks since infancy, so it’s hard to ever fully appreciate them. 

The Wall was something like that. I’ve always known there was a massive wall in China, but it wasn’t until I actually went there that I could apprehend how monumental an achievement it is, especially after having ascended the seven hundred–odd stairs that lead to its base. No wonder it kept the Mongols (or the rabbits) out: you’d have to be crazy to climb the mountain and the Wall. 

 So … many … stairs. 

Inspirational graffiti.

At one of our (shamefully frequent) rest breaks on the walk up the stairs we encountered a Chinese father and his two daughters, who tried to speak to us jovially in Mandarin. We saw them again once we were on the wall and they asked to take a picture of us! It turned out this would be an extremely common occurrence, but it was rare for anyone to actually ask permission first. Everywhere we went, whether blatantly or surreptitiously, people would photograph us, as if we were some sort of spectacle. To be honest I kind of missed the notoriety once we left the country, even if it was a bit creepy – the Mongolians couldn’t give a crap if you were white. I found it a bit weird that in a place as significant as Beijing the locals would still find the appearance of Caucasians remarkable enough to warrant a photograph. Surely they must see white people all the time. Or perhaps the ones taking the photos were tourists themselves – Chinese visitors from more remote locations where foreigners are seldom seen except in films and on TV. Either way, I wonder what they do with the photos once they’ve taken them. ‘Honey, you’ll never believe what happened to me today. Look, I saw a white person!’

We decided to take a photo of them as well because, in Til’s words, it seemed like the polite thing to do. 

Walking up the stairs one part of the Vodkatrain group blazed ahead of us while another fell behind and later doubled back to take the cable car, so once we got onto the Wall we were all alone. We weren’t sure what tower we were at or which direction we should take, but we passed maybe ten watchtowers before turning back to take a Jamberoo-style toboggan to the bottom. It was fun, but it would’ve been better if we hadn’t been stuck behind some more timorous tobogganers. (See the video at the end of this post for some footage.)





#GreatWallSelfie 








Astonishing acrobatics 

After the Great Wall we had lunch and I devoured an entire plate of tasty tofu, plus the remains of Til’s stir-fried potato slivers. Then we headed back to the hotel for a brief interlude before going back out to catch a breathtaking acrobatic show. It comprised about eight different subsections (a number considered lucky by the Chinese), each more incredible than the last. First some women in elaborate dresses took the stage to perform a traditional Chinese dance. They were followed by a troupe of tumbling men throwing one another around and vaulting through hoops. A single man and woman then performed some pretty amazing feats, the woman standing at one stage en pointe atop the man’s head. Next some younger men in straw-man suits came out and did some comical tricks with their hats, before a clown did some antics in the foreground while a large wheel-like apparatus was erected behind him. In the next act two men stood on opposite ends of the contraption, running inside and on top of the wheels, at one point blindfolded. At some point in the show a woman also did some pretty cool tricks with a series of umbrellas. The penultimate performance involved women doing tricks on bicycles, culminating in twelve of them riding a single bike, which was to be matched in the final show by eight motorbike riders doing the globe of death at once (again, see the video at the end of this post). It was all pretty phenomenal.

No photography was allowed, so I had to be covert, and this is the only one that turned out … 


Hotpot and latte

After that Max, Matt, Ajay, Emma, Anika, Chris, Isabell and I went out for dinner at a hotpot restaurant, which was fun. Ajay and Chris kindly kept one half of our pot meat-free for Til and I. They give you two types of boiling sauces in which to cook an assortment of your own food (veggies and tofu for us), and it was absolutely delicious, even if I was disconcerted by the presence of a massive turtle in a tank by the entrance. Poor guy. 


On our way back to the hotel from dinner we ran into George talking to another Vodkatrain group of four – Ashley and Rachel from Melbourne and Antony and Nathaniel from the UK. We decided we would all buy some cheap drinks and then head over to the street from the previous night and drink by the river. 

It couldn’t have worked out better, because when we got there we found a group of plush chairs stacked up under plastic, which we promptly arranged in a circle for our own drinking party. There were a few D&Ms about colonialism, consumerism and vegetarianism underway when the owners of the chairs showed up to kick us off, in spite of George’s attempts at sweet-talking. 

Clockwise from the left foreground: Anika, Emma, Matt, Daniel, Nathan, Zac, Antony, Til, George, Rachel, Ashley and Max givin’ me evils. 

Nathaniel, Rachel, Ashley, Max, Anika, Emma, Matt and Ajay. 

Ajay, Daniel, Nathan, Zac, and George. 

After that, most of the group was ready to call it a night, but not so for the other Vodkatrain group, George, Ajay, Til and I. Last time I was in Europe I think I definitely would’ve been ready for bed, but I think Til and I have really been trained by our jobs to stay up without sleep for long periods if need be (we call it being bid-fit). 

Rachel had a recommendation for a club (Lantern Bar) from a friend who’d been in Beijing not too long ago, so we jumped into two taxis and headed to Sanlitun. When we got there, there was no sign of the club or the others. We wandered for a while in search, not without some public urination, asking people where we could find this mysterious Lantern Bar. At one point we started following this guy who said he knew where it was, but he turned out to be a Nigerian drug dealer who led us into an alley like a will-o’-the-wisp and left us alone when we told him we weren’t interested in anything. Next we approached a group of three locals eating at a stall on the street. After about fifteen minutes of chatting and a little bit of flirting from George and Ajay, another passing local took a look at our scrap of paper and told our primary interlocutor that the bar had been closed for a year! She suggested we try a gay club instead, since that would be the only place you could dance on a Thursday night, an idea George and Ajay seemed all too keen on. We tried but failed to get the three of them to join us. Maybe it was because G&A stole a chicken wing off one of their plates. 

George and Ajay harassing the locals. 

We set off in the direction of the gay bar our new friend had suggested, but stopped at a German beer house for a few drinks there instead. Then I don’t know whether we forgot the club we were originally looking for was shut down or whether we were just suspicious about the information we’d received, but we set off in search again, asking for yet more directions. We followed those for a while but they took us nowhere, so we latched onto another group of young locals, one of which purported to know where the club was. It soon became apparent that she didn’t, though, but it didn’t matter because our wanderings had delivered us to a club George had been telling us about the night before where he’d had the time of his life, the unusually titled Club Latte. 

Benefitting once again from China’s strange Anglophilia, we didn’t pay any covercharge, and when we got into the club the manager approached me to offer us free tables every night. We knew we wouldn’t be coming back, though, so we declined. George bought us a round of vodka and Redbulls, and we danced the night away. 






Around three-thirty, Til and I started thinking we should get going if we wanted to be up for our morning rendezvous to tour the Forbidden City. We headed out and left George and Ajay behind, only to see them charging out the door after us as we were getting into a taxi. It seemed Ajay had been dancing with the girlfriend of some Chinese mobster, or some such, and after that they were understandably in a hurry to get out of there. 


Watergate 

As in most of Asia, Westerners can’t really drink straight from the tap in China, so when we got back to our street and everything was closed we thought we might be in trouble. Luckily I spotted a watercooler behind the tourist information desk in the hotel lobby that we all proceeded to take a drink from. Slightly more inebriated than us at this point, Ajay and George were stuffing around and we were more than ready for bed, so we took the elevator upstairs and hit the hay. 

In the morning only Lily and Max were waiting for us in the lobby out of everyone who’d said they’d take the Forbidden City tour. I wasn’t surprised not to see George and Ajay, but we were surprised to hear from Lily that they’d stolen the entire tank of water out of the cooler and taken it to their room! (Or were we?) Apparently the whole thing had been caught on CCTV and one of the hotel managers was not happy! But if you’ve gotta drink, you’ve gotta drink, I guess. 


Frenetic forbidden city

With no one else showing up for the tour, Lily decided she would stay behind to see to the George and Ajay situation, and Max wanted to wait for Matt and Ajay, so we were on our own, which was fine by me. When I studied the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre of 1989 in Year Eleven Modern History I was really personally moved, so I was happy to see it just with Tilly. 

In fact back at the Hilton I started reading the hotel’s copy of the seminal Chinese text Laozi including the introduction, which made mention of all the great men who’d gone abroad and brought back great ideas to China, including Deng Xiaoping, the man largely accountable for the military crackdown on hundreds of thousands of student protestors on June 4, 1989. I felt compelled to make a little note in the book as an act of microinterventionist contestation for any Chinese guests who might pick it up in future and who may be ignorant of the protests, suppressed as they are in communist China. 

We took a sequence of crowded trains into the city, but we were not prepared for the sheer number of Chinese people flocking to the Square and the Forbidden City that day – they outnumbered any foreign visitors by perhaps more than twenty to one. 

Consequently, seeing the attractions was largely a matter of queuing. First you had to pass through a security check in what was more like a slow-moving river of people than a queue (we were even under a bridge), except it was blazing hot, and everyone was staring at us and taking pictures, so maybe like a slow-moving river of lava or something, I dunno. 


Then you had to line up to buy tickets to go to the top of the Tiananmen Gate, before lining up to store your bags while you’re in the gate. Then after that you line up for tickets into the city itself, after which you queue for an audioguide. And if you want any food or drinks inside, you guessed it – you’d better line up, son. I think the whole thing could do with a bit of rationalisation – maybe a single lineup or two for security, bag check, and all desired tickets and audioguides – but I guess they have to find some way to employ all billion of the Chinese people … Maybe that’s why they like their apricots individually wrapped, too …

All this queuing was worth it, because I did want to see the Forbidden City and get the view over Tiananmen Square, but I also wasn’t thrilled with the Forbidden City. I’m glad we did it but it was just so hot and hectic and crowded that it was a bit of an ordeal, and the audioguide was less detailed than could be desired. Whenever there was an opportunity to look into this room or that through a window it was so dark inside and there were so many people clamouring to get a view and to take a photo that there was no chance of getting a look in, which obviously sucked. I just kept imagining how great it would be if there was hardly anyone there and you could absorb the stately serenity and imagine the emperors walking around and so on and so forth. It was cool, though. Interesting to contrast the completely different medieval architecture of the east and west against one another. 

Tiananmen Gate (The Gate of Heavenly Peace)

The view over Tiananmen Square and the Monument to Eternal Peace. 


This was the day I reverted to my old travel habit of fuelling myself with the refreshment of iced tea. There was no Lipton peach flavour to be seen, though, so I had to settle for the familiar face of Avril Lavigne. What is it, 2004 in China? It was so sweet it tasted like melted ice block. Also I’m pretty sure I drank like eight bottles of water that day and didn’t go to the toilet till like six at night. Sweated it all out! 

The handy all-in-one map and audioguide. The voice started by itself whenever you entered a new area and flashing lights showed your location. 

Missed them both facing the same way by like a second! 


We saw this on the map as the ‘Hall of Literary Brilliance’ and thought we had to give it a visit. The sign on the building itself proclaimed it the ‘Hall of Literary Glory’, but unfortunately it the exhibit within was about pottery rather than any nominalised literary superlatives. 



These same two lions with the cub and the ball kept appearing all over Beijing, and when I asked Lily about it she said the cub marked the female while the ball marked the male. Until then I thought the female one was just crushing the cub, but I guess that’s why they call them ‘tiger mums’. 

After exiting the Forbidden City we went into Jingshan Park across the road, as recommended by Lily, to climb up to a viewing platform and Buddhist temple with a view over all of Beijing:



A near–travel disaster 

That was our last night in Beijing, so we needed to pick up some supplies for our train trip to Ulaanbaatar. Lily had pointed out a massive shopping centre from the bus on the way back from the Great Wall the day before and told us which Metro station to alight at to get there, so we made our way there. When we got off, the shopping centre was nowhere to be seen, and we wandered around for a while and looked at a few maps in confusion. Finally we showed a local our little map and asked where the street was (we had only the English translation and the street signs were all in Chinese characters). He pointed us in the right direction and after some time we came to two big shopping centre buildings. We went into the further of the two with the intention of grabbing some lunch, since it was getting late in the afternoon, followed by some groceries, but when we got inside all we saw was jewellery stores. We went down to the basement where Lily had said the supermarket was, but it was the same thing – jewellery stores! Up two floors – jewellery stores! It was an entire half-finished complex of jewellery stores, maybe around seven floors. Jewellery store after jewellery store. There were signs that directed you to food, but they led nowhere. It was maddening, especially because my feet were killing me by this stage and we were both starving. 

We reasoned that maybe we’d gone into the wrong building and headed back to the other one, but when we got to the other building, what did we find but MORE JEWELLERY STORES!? TWO shopping centres, seven floors high, filled entirely with jewellery stores!? What a country. 

Til looking dejected as we reach yet another floor of jewellery stores. 

We guessed correctly at this point that the shopping centre we were looking for must actually be further along the road than these two jewellery-soaked hellholes, which again was pretty annoying because we STILL hadn't eaten and my feet were STILL dying, but it could’ve been worse. We heard later that another bunch of guys from our group had done the exact same thing except they’d turned back to get clarification from Lily afterwards rather than pressing on, so they pretty much had to do the same trip twice. 

When we finally got there we just went to the first food outlet we saw (that wasn’t KFC), which happened to be a Pizza Hut, where I caused a minor international incident by requesting a vegetarian pizza without cheese. Our waitress didn’t seem to comprehend my request (or perhaps she just didn’t want to), so she called in someone else to confer with, and they whispered behind their hands until they decided to call in a higher authority who spoke a little more English. I pointed once again at the vegetarian pizza, and then at the decorative stack of cheeses which ornamented the background of the menu and said, ‘but no cheese’, with accompanying gestures, and she responded with a broken, ‘Yes I know … You can have, but … will be bad.’ I confirmed that I didn’t mind and they were finally happy to comply. 

The supermarket, Wu Mart, was also pretty hard to find. Overall the whole day was a powerful reminder of what travelling is usually like when you don’t know the city, can’t speak the language and don’t have a guide – we’d so far been cosseted by the knowledgeable, bilingual, guiding hands of Lily and it was a stark contrast being on our own! 

Wu Mart was also pretty confronting for my relatively newly resensitised vegan eyes – mounds of animal flesh (chicken wings and pigs’ feet) filled half a floor, tanks were cramped full of dead, dying and soon-to-die fish and turtles: 


It was also pretty big – two floors – and we had to keep going back and forth between them because we changed our minds about a purchase or forgot something on the other floor, so with the delay in getting there and the shop itself we took longer than planned. The rest of the group was going out for dinner that night to a Peking duck restaurant and the night markets, where you can have a scorpion skewered on a stick and boiled alive in oil right in front of you, so I obviously wasn’t too enthused to join them, but I thought it would be nice to eat a meal with everyone on our last night in Beijing. I was under the impression we’d told Lily not to wait for us, but if we turned up at the meeting time we’d come, but now it looked like we wouldn’t make it, so Til tried to message her just to make sure they wouldn’t wait around for us. Despite our identification of ourselves in the text message, she just wrote back ‘Who is this?’, and we wondered if maybe Til had written down the wrong number. After all that it looked like we might make it back to the hotel in time after all, so we didn’t bother replying. 

But then we took the wrong exit from the station, which added fifteen minutes or so to the journey, and when we got to the hotel about twenty-five minutes after the arranged meeting time everyone was still sitting there waiting for us! We felt so guilty. It turned out Tilly had messaged the right number, but Lily’s phone didn’t register the English characters and only showed two funny little symbols. 


The kids’ table 

At least it meant we were able to join everyone, though. We all crammed in to a crowded little bus and made our way over to this restaurant and the night markets. While the others dined on starfish and snake and other grisly things, Til and I went to the foreign bookstore so she could pick up a book for the train – Solzhenitsyn. 

 Emma on the squishy bus. 

Appetising. 

When we got back there wasn’t enough room for us on the group table, so we ended up sitting at a little table off to the side, which kind of defeated the purpose of going, but it turned out okay because we got to have a good chat with Emma and Lily, who also couldn’t fit; we were away from the duck carcasses; and we had these incredibly delicious, fresh, crisp salads, which hit the spot after a couple of days’ worth of heavy Chinese food. 

Afterwards we all wandered up to the Wenfujing mall and through a bazaar before heading back to the hotel on the train. 


To the border 

The next morning we got our usual bakery breakfast and set off for the train station with our massive backpacks on our backs and smaller ones on the front like teenage mutant ninja turtles. 

Lily saw us onto the train and said a brief but touching goodbye before I could even get a photo of us together. We were on our own! 

On the platform I tried to buy a Coke to mix with our bottle of communist-themed vodka, but the vendor was all out, so he tore off down the platform to the next cart at blistering speed to retrieve me some. We took a few snaps with the train, and before we knew it, it was pulling out of the station. 

The vendor on his way back. 

Photobomb. 

Our berths. 

We all went on an expedition through the seemingly endless train carriages in one direction until a shirtless man at one extremity told us to turn back in the other direction. I went from opening all the doors to scrambling to close them all behind everyone as we made our way to the complete opposite end of the train in the restaurant car. 

Back of the line. 

Back in our own compartments, Anika, Emma, Chris, Til and I muddled through a game of cards, Presidents and Assholes, piecing together the rules as we went. After the first game, the loser has to swap their two best cards with the two worst cards of the winner in a way that mimics the way generational wealth and poverty work in society, which led to a lot of jokes about inventing ‘Capitalism: The Card Game’. 

In search of a fellow Finn, Heli began pouncing on every stranger who passed through the carriage to ask them their name and nationality. We met some pretty cool people this way as well as some pretty strange ones: two older Aussie blokes, one who’d been in two failed marriages and now just had a ‘part time wife’, a Kiwi whose favourite thing about China was its trains, a cool young Dutch couple and an amazing Tahitian who was travelling the world for a year solo. Heli even started keeping a list, and was overjoyed when she finally found a compatriot with whom she could speak in her native tongue for the first time in a week. 


Finns united! 

Til and I also heard tell of an older couple from Wollongong in the restaurant car and set out to talk to them – one born and bred in Dapto and the other from Warilla. What are the chances? Pretty high, I guess, given the numbers of Aussies who seem to be abroad all the time. 

We also finally tried our sour hot noodles, and they were unsurprisingly hideous, and we went to lengths to avoid them for the rest of the trip. 


No exaggeration. 

Similarly awful were our attendants, who hated us so much (probably because we were so loud) that they wouldn’t unlock the toilets all day and wouldn’t turn on the air conditioners despite it being roasting in our carriage exclusively. 

Other highlights of the train trip included drinking the restaurant car dry of cheap Chinese beer, singing a rowdy happy birthday to Zac, the final addition to our group (a machinist and fitter from Wagga Wagga living in London and a friend of Daniel and Nathan’s), the incredible Chinese scenery and sunset, and the random incursion into our carriage of an extremely drunk attendant from another carriage, who proceeded to hike her skirt up and dance provocatively with all the boys in our group. 






The crazy Mongol. 


We hit the Chinese border around 10pm and were all keen to get off. The border crossings on the trans-Mongolian and -Siberian railways are notorious ordeals involving passport checks on both sides, hours-long wheel changes, customs checks and forms, and closed toilets and lack of air-conditioning. So we knew our attendants really did hate us after we told them in no uncertain terms that we wanted to get off and instead they locked us in while we saw Rachel and Ashley from the other Vodkatrain group receding into the distance. I ended up having to resort to pissing in a bottle and chucking it in the bin! Very undignified.

Most of us spent about an hour laughing and joking in the hallway while we watched them change the wheels, before we began to drop off to bed for a long night of sleep interrupted by insistent customs officials. 

China had been awesome, from the nonsensical English phrases on people’s tee shirts and advertisements to the currency conversion rates (I had no idea it was so in our favour) to the squat toilets and, most of all, the fantastic group of people we met and would be travelling with for the next two weeks. Bring on Mongolia and Russia! 

Bro, you are not American-standard. 

ICYMI (From our Hilton room). 

Awkward translations … (From our Huguosi room) 

A psychotic-looking child. 

A store in the shopping centre. 

A packet of the weird cucumber-flavoured chips we bought. Refreshing! 

An ad for watches on the plane. Discretion is always what I’m after in a watch.

And finally, here's a little video I put together from the scraps of footage I shot in China. Enjoy!

video