Jess and Mike get used to sleeper cars and traditional food at the Chinese border, find out why an overnight bus in China really is a home away from home, and have a warning concerning ceramic holes in the floor.[Not a valid template]
We had originally planned to ride the Trans-Siberian train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing but unfortunately arrived in Mongolia in the middle of a very busy tourist season. So instead we opted for the much more exciting alternative.
We didn’t really know what to expect when we booked the overnight ‘sleeper’ train. Perhaps it would be a cargo train and we would be sharing with cattle and chickens, or maybe it would be a series of forward facing benches like on British Rail.
However, we were pleasantly surprised when our tickets directed us to an empty four-bed private cabin. Obviously we hoped we would get lucky and have the entire cabin to ourselves, but as soon as we had put away our bags, we were joined by a nice Spanish couple who were also traveling to Beijing. We spent the hours between boarding and sunset sharing stories and laughing about our mad experiences in Mongolia over a bottle or two. The beds were as comfy as could be expected, and a massive bargain for the price of our $20 tickets. Australia should definitely take a page out of Mongolia’s book here, and provide a similar service up the coast. Fantastic value.
After a good night’s sleep we woke up at 7am just 30 minutes outside the border town of Zamiin-Uud. We departed and headed into the parking lot, and were instantly pounced on by a variety of taxi drivers who want to ensure our safe passage across the Chinese boarder. For reasons unknown to anyone, the Mongolian-Chinese boarder cannot be crossed on foot and thus has to be done by car. Before long, and with the help of our frantic boarder taxi driver (I guess the quicker he can get us across the quicker he can pick up his next fare going the other way), we were in the Chinese town of Erenhot.
The difference between China and Mongolia was amazing: Zamiin-Uud was a dusty grey place with some tough broken roads; Erenhot had neat pavements with lush green grass verges, and beautifully tarmacked roads. It was like another world, and we had only gone 2km.
Once in Erenhot we were dropped off at the bus stop where we met up with some other ‘Ralliers’. However, with the next step of this trip being an overnight bus that departed at 3pm, we opted to kill some time with what would soon become a staple of our diet: dumplings. Beef dumplings. Pork dumplings. Chicken dumplings. Veggie dumplings. All in fantastic steamed puffy dough mouthful pieces. Perfect street food.
Not knowing what to expect from a Chinese overnight bus, we were impressed again to see that the ‘seats’ were in fact horizontal bunk beds. Ergonomic, clean plastic frames and white sheets on each bed, this was going to be better than some hostels. Each bed faced the front of the bus, and fortunately the pair of us were able to get a bed parallel to one another.
One thing we did notice about China is that even in the nicest places the toilet basin has been replaced by the ceramic hole in the floor. We had a lot of time to practice our squatting skills during the Mongol Rally, but usually these were in the woods with nobody around for miles. Now we have to contend with Chinese bus stop holes, dirty piss-covered slippy ceramic floors with a small hole to aim for, which is not easy when you’ve had limited sleep.
So when we stopped for a 30-minute dinner break at 7pm and discovered these shrines to the strong stomachs of the Chinese, we decided to look elsewhere. We ran down the road in search of a bar or restaurant that might offer us something slightly less nauseating. Fortunately we found some kind giggling girls opening up a strip club for a night of entertaining the locals. In exchange for a Tibetan drink and a picture with us, they let us use their amenities. I’m still not sure why Chinese people like taking pictures with the white sleepy-eyed tourists but they weren’t the last to do this.
Back on the bus – feeling relieved – lights were turned off at 9pm, so we let the gentle hum of the road drift us off to sleep. Waking up in Beijing we would have to battle our way through one of the biggest cities in the world, and find ourselves a hostel.
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