UB to Beijing
06.09.2013 - 08.09.2013
By the time we boarded the Ulaanbaatar-Beijing service we were old hands at this train malarkey. One novelty however was the nighttime border crossing; the Chinese rail tracks have a narrower gauge than in Russia and Mongolia. Instead of making us change trains they raise up all the carriages on enormous jacks and exchange the entire wheel set (or 'bogey') for a new one whilst the passengers are still on board. It was mesmerising viewing.
We woke up to see China out the window- all identikit apartment blocks and sweeping mountains. After a final morning of time wasting on the train and phenomenal views from the dining car as we went through 60 tunnels, we arrived in a Beijing that was much cleaner and more Western than I had imagined.
Immediately the price of food plummeted - garlic broccoli and sweet and sour pork were the highlights of our first meal. Our first taste of Chinese culture was a traditional acrobatics show whose surprising finale was a motorcycle globe of death; the riders kept on coming until there were seven of them looping round the sphere.
On Saturday an early start was worth it for both the steam bun breakfast and a trip to the Great Wall - climbing the 750 steps to reach it was sweaty but gratifying, the views were astonishing and you really can't envisage the scale of the place until you're up there.
Our last night as a group had to be marked somehow and what more fitting way than karaoke. The venue was beyond bling (currently trying to track down a pic of the golden unicorn in the lobby...) and three hours raced by in a blur of Queen, Bon Jovi and Daft Punk.
On Sunday we visited an incredibly smoggy Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City, which were crammed with Chinese tourists making their pilgrimages from all over the country. The ancient city sprawls over several huge courtyards, with palaces to the east and west and a room to celebrate every festival going.
Then it was time to say good bye. 3 weeks ago we downed vodka shots in St Petersburg as strangers. Now we've spent untold hours in tiny train compartments, sauna'd au naturel and made fools of ourselves singing 80s classics. I had been sceptical about organised tours but I couldn't have asked for a better group to experience this incredible trip with.
But the end of one tour is the beginning of the next for me; time to explore China with a new group, who have an awful lot to live up to.