Trans-Manchurian Express to Beijing

Boarding the Trans-Manchurian Express in Ulaanbaatar, we immediately noticed a marked improvement from the elderly Mongolian rolling stock in which we had trundled across Siberia. This time, we had been allocated a proper first class carriage with two beds, an armchair, and even a semi-private toilet shared with the next compartment. The friendly conductress kept popping in with hot water, tea and coffee (these latter came in sachets described as “3 in 1”, which apparently means that they consist of 50% sugar, 50% powdered milk, and a hint of tea or coffee).

We dozed off the excesses of our final night in Ulaanbaatar as the train climbed up onto the steppe. Waking up hungry, we made our way to the restaurant car. In contrast with the pleasantly homey but food-free Russian restaurant car which had accompanied the train across Siberia, this Mongolian car was quite plain. In place of the two elderly Russian ladies providing plates of potatoes and pickles, were uniformed waiters and chefs, and an extraordinarily expensive menu denominated in US dollars. We ordered one lunch and one breakfast between us, and it came to an astonishing $40, and that was with many of the key ingredients missing. When we first sat down, we explained that we couldn’t eat wheat, and the waiter leapt to the conclusion that we were vegetarians and no amount of argument could get him to change his mind, so we picked at our salad and watched in salivating horror as everybody else tucked into their bacon and chops. Still, at least we got to eat a lot of eggs.

The steppe ambled past our window under an enormous sky. A few mines, occasional herds of horses and camels, men with big sticks herding goats, sparse handfuls of yurts, and the odd truck.

The endless steppe, viewed from the Trans-Manchurian Express
The endless steppe

We whiled away the time reading the train’s magazine, which is hilarious. One long and rambling folk tale seems to have been randomly generated by an online translating engine. It goes on for pages and is completely impenetrable, but peculiarly beguiling as we try to fathom what the original text might have said.

And then there’s the section on Mongolian cuisine, which goes on to list six pages of two-line recipes for cooking heart. It starts with “heart with carrot”, before moving on to “heart with carrot and turnip”, and then “heart with carrot and turnip and potato”…

At seven in the evening we stopped at the Chinese border, and everything got complicated. Most trains in Eurasia use a standard track width, which allows the interchangeable rolling stock to be mixed and matched along international train routes. However, Russia and Mongolia use a narrower track to everybody else, so it is not possible for the Trans-Siberian to proceed across the border onto Chinese rails. The rather exciting solution to this problem is to jack up the entire train with everybody aboard, remove the Russian bogies, and replace them with standard ones.

Our train was shunted into a large shed and lined up with a series of hydraulic jacks. As the train lifted, men ran around underneath hitting things with hammers until the bogies came free. We understand that in earlier times it was not permitted to watch the process, but on this occasion we were all glued in fascination to the grimy and mud-smeared windows. Once the Russian bogies had come free, they were pushed away, and a new set of Chinese bogies came rushing in, pulled by an underground cable.

Jacking up the Trans-Manchurian Express
Jacking up the train to release the old bogie
Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike
Positioning the new bogie under the fitting spike

The whole process took a couple of hours, followed by another hour of banging and shunting as they put the train back together. Immigration was a formality, merely involving glancing at passports and checking the toilets for stowaways, and so we drifted off into a comfortable sleep.

Since the restaurant car changes at every border, we were interested to compare the new Chinese restaurant with the Russian and Mongolian ones, particularly as our last meal had been almost protein-free and we were starving. However, when we arrived for breakfast soon after opening, it was packed and we were told to come back at 10am for lunch. There were no platform vendors at the stations, so we quietly hugged our grumbling stomachs and chewed on our last remaining pieces of dry biltong before rushing to the restaurant car precisely on time.

The car was empty, and we gorged on two lunches each, crispy chicken and diced breast and peppers and rice and salad and eggs… we were so happy to eat. The price was only 80 yuan (about 8 pounds) including beer. Bronwyn offered to pay the bill using our Mongolian currency which we had forgotten to change at the border, and the price was 80,000 which was somewhat suspiciously exactly the amount that Bronwyn was holding in her hand, and which incidentally was about 80 pounds! We turned down the kind offer and paid in yuan.

Our somewhat unreliable guide book had insisted that we get up early if we were not to miss the best of the scenery, but it wasn’t until we had finished lunch that the landscape started to change. The train was running alongside the Guanting Reservoir, a large lake in a deep gorge that seemed to have been lined by white marble terraces, in part to prevent the valley from crumbling into the fields of sweetcorn and sunflowers below.

Stone terraces along the Yongding River, viewed from the Trans-Manchurian Express
Stone terraces along the Yongding River
I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera's GPS wasn't working
I think that this was the Huyu National Scenic area, but the camera’s GPS wasn’t working at the time

The gorge was scattered with major engineering works, dams and power stations and bridges, all against a backdrop of spectacular mountain peaks, especially as we chugged up through the Badaling and Huyu national parks.

Finally after some eight days rolling across Siberia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway, we arrived at our final destination in Beijing.

Beijing railway station in the smog, terminus of the Trans-Manchurian Express
Beijing railway station in the smog

Together with fellow travellers Gar and Tony, we stumbled blinking into the smog-laden sunshine, to find that the queue for taxis stretched clear across the square. The line of overheated and overladen shoppers and tourists snaked obliviously around a tented area of plastic tables, presided over by a smiling man with a portable freezer full of ice and beer. We looked at each other. It seemed rude not to.


“Taxi? Meter taxi? Let me take your bag….”
Running the gauntlet of freelance taxi drivers emerging from ever-so-dodgy cars outside Pudong Airport, we fought our way through to the official taxi rank, presided over by a smartly uniformed man with an anti-SARS facemask and a clipboard. He was able to translate our hotel address for the first driver in the queue of identical VW Santanas, and we climbed aboard. The driver, sitting in his perspex protective bubble, crunched into gear and launched into the video game that is Shanghai traffic.

Cars and buses swerved in and out, punctuated by sudden pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, and randomly strewn warning signs. We had no idea where we were going or what to expect, so we simply sat and watched the world race by until we emerged from the city and crossed the Huangpu River into the business district. There, on the waterfront overlooking the Bund, looking like it had just landed from space, was the Oriental Riverside Hotel.

We’d had a long flight that morning, so Bronwyn had a rest while I wandered out for a stroll along the river. I certainly wasn’t going to get too lonely, because every couple of hundred yards I was stopped by Chinese tourists, apparently visiting the big city from the country, who liked nothing better than to take photographs of their wives and girlfriends with the strange pony-tailed giant who had appeared in their midst. Indeed, westerners were extremely scarce on this side of town, so it was even more surprising that I suddenly happened on a Bavarian bar by the waterside, serving pretzels, bauernfr├╝hstuck, and locally brewed Paulaner beer, including my favourite Dunklerwei├čer. On a later visit, we found ourselves serenaded in English by what seemed to be a Korean Mariachi band.

It was an excellent opportunity to stop and watch the boats plying the river. Like much else in Shanghai, it was a shock of contrasts, oil tankers and container ships rumbling their way past a backdrop of the Bund and the office buildings of the city centre, sounding their horns as they manoeuvred their way to or from the enormous dockyards downstream.

The Yangtze River

Fascinated by the maritime component of this great city, we booked aboard a tourist ferry which would take us up the river, through the dockyards, and out as far as the confluence of the Huangpu and the Yangtze. Discovering that there was no food available on the ferry, we grabbed a bite to eat in a dockworkers cafe hidden under the pylons of the dock (we just pointed randomly at the menu and got served a very nice meal with a bottle of Tsing Tao beer), and then climbed aboard.

The towers and skyscrapers of the city soon faded into the heat haze, as we entered one of the busiest sea docks in the world. Everywhere there were container ships and tankers being built from new, or refurbished from the deckline up, tiny figures hanging like spiders over the sides as they worked away at the rust with handheld power tools. And everywhere, darting between the huge hulks and running backward and forward between the docks, little liveaboard boats, each as far as we could see permanently occupied by a family, as indicated by the pots of food plants and the washing hanging out to dry.

Plying the centre-line of the river, we passed perhaps a dozen little dredger boats. They seemed to be very busy sucking up the bottom mud and raking something out of it, but whether it was edible shellfish or something else, we were never able to discover.

Finally, the ferry reached what appeared to be the open sea, but which was in fact the famous Yangtze, Changjiang or Yellow River, just getting wide and lazy after its long journey all the way across the country en route to the East China Sea.

Interesting Food

Back in town, we searched in vain for a Chinese restaurant. Every eatery boasted its French-trained chef and its European menu, and in the end, surrounded by thousands of years of Chinese culinary expertise, we had to settle on French cuisine and New Zealand wine. However, they weren’t going to get away with this every night, so we hunted down a five-star Chinese restaurant which, conveniently enough, was located in our hotel, inside the huge glass sphere that you see on every Shanghai postcard.

It still wasn’t easy, though. As we approached the door, we were firmly rebuffed by staff in beautiful silk dresses, “No no sir, here Chinese food, restaurant is downstair.”

Nevertheless, we battled our way in, to be confronted by an enormous circular room with stunning views over the Bund, acres of plushly set tables, and not a single other diner.

The menu was fascinating. Every dish that I’d always wanted to try, but had been afraid to in fear of being passed off with a substitute. The prices were suitably exorbitant, so it looked like this was going to be the real deal. As the waiting staff peered over each others’ shoulders in amazement, I ordered Birds Nest Soup, and Sea Cucumber in Abalone Sauce.

I was not disappointed. The soup, which should be made from the spit-glued nests of cave swallows harvested by men hanging from hazardous bamboo ladders, had precisely the texture you would expect from boiled saliva. Similarly, the braised sea cucumber came whole and ungarnished, and looked and tasted exactly like the boiled slug that it was. The abalone sauce was excellent. Signing off the equivalent price of a room in this five star hotel, I declared myself satisfied.

The Tourist Tunnel

In the morning, after picking over a sadly westernised breakfast and trying to shake off our jetlag, we headed for the city centre. Apart from the road bridge, there are two ways of crossing the river; the metro, which is fast and efficient and costs 2 Yuan for as far as you want to go, and the Tourist Tunnel, which is much slower, costs 40 Yuan just to get you under the river, and is… weird.

After buying our Tourist Tunnel tickets from the smiling attendant, we made our way down an escalator onto an underground station platform adorned with quite lifelike virtual fish tanks. After a few moments, a fully automated carriage arrived out of the tunnel, and we were escorted with a flourish into the glass cabin, perhaps the size of a large van. The car started to move, accompanied by electronic music from hidden speakers. Suddenly, a male voice intoned something like “volcanic rocks” in English, and all hell broke loose outside. Strobe lights flashed up and down the tunnel, glowing images appeared on the walls, and the train moved through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of neon colour, each accompanied by a geological phrase and loud music. A few moments later, we emerged on the other side, amused but very definitely baffled.

The Bund, Jade Buddha, Fangbang Road

Shanghai is a city in transition, with rickshaws mixing it with cars in front of the tin shack sweatshops in the shadow of huge international skyscrapers. This can be a little frustrating when you are a tourist, as we found that sites of interest on the map were as often as not represented on the ground with a small sign saying “Former site of…” or “Here once stood….” Mind you, you cannot fail to be impressed by the people who thought it necessary to erect a plaque dedicated to “The former site of the former provisional government of Korea.”

The famous Bund, on the northern side of the Huangpu River and directly opposite our hotel, bears a strong resemblance to the Thames Embankment, if you could imagine London sweltering in sultry heat and packed with postcard vendors and street photographers. Shanghai Old Street, situated on Fangbang Road, is particularly interesting. In its 825 metres, the architectural style of the buildings ranges through time from the Ming and Qing dynasties at one end, to the western-influenced Chinese Republic at the other. You cant help noticing the wealthy glory of the former, and the somewhat seedy squalor of the latter.

One thing that we were keen to see, and that we were pretty sure was still standing, was the Temple of the Jade Buddha. It was quite a walk through the bustling streets, assaulted on every side by the blare of horns and the tinkle of bicycle bells, directed this way and that by grey-uniformed traffic assistants who constantly harangued pedestrians, car drivers and rickshaw riders alike in an attempt to get them to observe the traffic signals.

The shops selling carved jade and silk clothing, which characterised Fangbang Road, gave way to tiny sheds devoted to the sale of buttons or strips of ribbon, until finally we stood outside the monastery that was our destination.

There was a small fee to get in, and then another fee to see the buddha, and yet more money-making ventures in the form of stalls selling small carvings and jewellery, but apart from all that it was quite a relaxing place.

It had quite a number of shrines, each with its impressively carved stone or wood androgynous buddha. The centre-pieces, the eponymous Jade Buddha and the jade Reclining Buddha, were well worth the visit all by themselves, but if you want to see them, you’ll have to go yourself because photography is forbidden. In some ways, this is a pity, because I would have loved to get a picture of the monk in attendance to the Jade Buddha, concentratedly texting on a mobile phone, pooh-bear slippers peeking from beneath his saffron robe.


All too soon it was time to leave Shanghai, so we paid our enormous hotel restaurant bill and caught the cheap and incredibly high-tech underground metro just as far as the train station, because we couldn’t resist catching the fastest train in the world. It really is an amazing piece of technology. Our original taxi ride from the airport was 45 minutes; the 420km/h maglev did roughly the same journey in 6 minutes, running alongside the motorway and passing the hurrying cars as if they were standing still.

Once at the airport, Shanghai had one more surprise for us. While we were queuing to pay the 90 Yuan departure tax, an official gave us a certificate to confirm that our body temperatures were below 37 centigrade. A little investigation revealed a man with an infra red camera who was reading off peoples core temperatures from a distance. “You don’t have SARS. You are free to go.”