April 8th Beijing-Erlian
Up at 6am. These early starts will start to get to me before too long. I am a notoriously late sleeper. My mother surely considered homicide in my youth trying to get me up for school.
The reason for the early rise is that we aren’t completely sure about getting a bus ticket from Beijing to a town called Erlian, on the Chinese/Mongolian boarder. Online sources have said various things. Some have said they have had to wait in Beijing for days for a ticket, other have strolled up to the tickets desk with minutes to spare and got one. We’ve decided to get there as early as possible to try and score tickets. Peace of mind and all that.
From our dungeon it is only a 15 minute walk to The Forbidden Kingdom, where our bus stops. We are around 300 poxy metres from the stop when we see the bus coming from behind us. We leg it and just get to it in time. For anyone reading who would like some tips, the bus is number 2 and many people will tell you to get off at Muxiwun station but this is not correct. You actually have to go one more stop Hua Hutong. Here is where the long distance bus station is. When you stop, you walk 50-100 metres in the direction the bus will go and the station is on your right. A big, glass covered building. We arrived at 8 and asked the lady at the ticket box:
“Erlian. Today. Okay?”
(Lots of Chinese)
I won’t put you through the whole back and forth but this went on for a while. At the end of it she figured out where we wanted to go. To her credit I think our pronunciation of the town was less than stellar. Once she got the gist she directed us to the information desk.
The young girl there didn’t speak a word of English but was helpful nonetheless. She used her little translator on her phone and we were getting somewhere. Through the broken translation she told us to wait till 8:30.
At 8:30 on the dot we went to the ticket desk, got our tickets and praised the heavens. This was one of the many tickets we were a little anxious about getting and having it done pleased us no end.
Out of the station and full of beans, we got some street food called ‘jiem bing’. When the wife visited Beijing with her friend years ago she lived off these. It’s essentially a pancake filled with egg, spring onions and coriander with a thick soya bean sauce called ching jang spread all over. From what I gathered it’s very popular for a quick breakfast in China and very nice it was too.
With 7 hours to go before the bus to the boarder departed, we caught the bus back to town to visit the Forbidden Kingdom. After the usual security shenanigans we finally got ourselves inside the place.
In Seoul, where I live, one of the most famous parts of the city is an area called Gwanghwamoon. This area has a great deal of historical significance to the country and most importantly houses the palace of the former Kings of Korea. The Palace-called Gyeingbokgung or Gyeing bok Palace-I have visited many times and is an impressive place. It is well restored and very interesting. It is also a huge place with multiple gardens, alleyways, lakes and moats. It is a very impressive piece of land and I urge anyone visiting Korea to go.
Now, please believe me when I say that as impressive the scale of Gyeongbok Palace is, its spatial relation to the Forbidden Kingdom is that of a mansion to its potting shed. The Fordbidden Palace, also known as The Palace Museum is out of this world massive. Built over 16 years in the early fifteenth century, it was the home of 24 Chinese emperors. One of my favourite facts about the place is that at one time, 9000 eunuchs lived there. What they did exactly and where the leftovers were done with I thought about often while plodding around the place, looking into cracks and whatnot.
You could spend many days walking through alleyways and over bridges. We were there for a couple of hours and barely scratched the surface. We literally had to fight our way up to get a peek at the past emperors’ throne. I saw one guy knocked to the floor in the rumble. All in a day’s work it seemed. We were the only ones who seemed to find it a little rude.
We walked from one side to the other, considered walking back but couldn’t take it so we decided to get back to the hostel through the back entrance and pack up for our bus.
After we picked up our bags and went back to Tiananmen Square for a last look around (and queueing 25 minutes for the privilege) we got the bus back to the station. We lunched in a small place just by the station and Youngja did her best Chicken impression to try and explain what she wanted. To say it was spotless would be like calling a dog a polar bear, but it was tasty enough and the staff were friendly.
We got a few snack for the 14 hour trip and waited at the departure gate. Once there we tried to put our bags in the hold but were aggressively scolded by a couple of Mongolians. They were intimidating chaps and we did as we were told.
Another Mongolian guy told us that this is often the case, as many people come to Beijing to buy their multifarious items and the hold gets pack to the rafters.
“Don’t give them any money.”
“It wasn’t on my ‘to do’ list.”
“Why would I give them money?”
“They will ask for packing your bag. It’s all about money. Don’t trust them.”
The man was called Toogii and he was in Beijing with his wife to buy materials for his business. He has a factory which produces traditional Mongolian musical instruments and he explained that the materials which could be bought in Beijing, as opposed to Ulaanbaatar, were cheaper and of much better quality.
“Where are you going?” He asked.
“We’re on our way to Ulaanbaatar.”
“If you want I can drive you. I have a car in Zamyn-udd.”
This was a very helpful suggestion. Taking a car from Zamyn-udd-on the Mongolian boarder-to Ulaanbaatar takes 6 hours. Whereas taking the train takes at least 12 and we would have to stick around in the border town for hours waiting for the train to go.
“That’s really kind of you. Thank you very much.”
I thought this was the best way of saying “I’m not sure whether to trust you with all my belongings quite yet, but let’s see how we feel later.”
The driver gave us our beds. This was the first time I would stay on an overnight bus with a bed and was quite looking forward to it. And then, as if on cue, disappointment eclipsed the jolliness of my disposition. Every single bed on the bus was identical, apart from two at the back which were shorter, narrower and distinctly less appealing, and would you believe it? I got one of them.
“This is ridiculous! We were the first ones at the bus station this morning.” Said YJ.
“I know, but what to do?”
“Go and ask for another bed.”
I did just that and the amount of thought and consideration he gave to my request was (as I can assume from him laughing at me) less than serious.
Bless her soul, Youngja offered to swap with me on account of my extra inches but I refused and climbed on top of my 1 inch mattress for the day.
Once we set off we started chatting with another Mongolian, a chap with large hands and a wonky eye. He gave us the same advice as Toogii.
“Don’t trust the people at the border city. They will steal from you.”
With this to look forward to we waved goodbye to Beijing and camped down for the day.
About halfway through our trip through cities and towns, but mostly dull scenery, we stopped at a restaurant for dinner. When I say restaurant you might envisage a marble tiled structure with linen tablecloths and waiters with above average English hovering around like wasps in summer waiting to assist you with your choice of nutriment. Well, young fool, brush those rash considerations aside and step into reality. It was a filthy place. It looked like it hadn’t seen a mop since it opened. But at this point anything was a nice change to my bed. It sold noodles and other hot items which they labelled as food which we didn’t much like the look of. As we had bought some noodles with us we got stuck into them.
“I’m nervous.” She confessed.
“I think I might need the toilet.”
I understood. China is not a country where you want to be caught short. The toilets are notorious and in a halfway house on the way to the boarder the dear wife was thinking the worst.
“Maybe they’ll be clean.” I offered.
“Are you being sarcastic?”
As she ventured forth I was reminded of the film ‘Dead Man Walking’ with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. In particular the part at the end when he snuffs it. Youngja wore the same face.
“You have to see the toilets.” She said, her face like a biblical painting, before sitting back down, grabbing the table to steady herself.
“Like you thought?”
Unfortunately, the bladder was a bit full so I made the long journey to the jacks. I knew I was in for a shock when I saw our driver, outside the toilet, pissing against the wall. It was basically like any other public toilet except lacking any doors or toilet seats. Plus it was the filthiest place I have ever seen in my life, and I’ve been to five day music festivals. I held my breath, got the stuff out of me and ran out. As I was leaving I saw a man poo. I realised this was a first for me. No need to add that to the bucket list!
Next time I’ll piss against the wall.