Here's a bit of a catch up...
We arrived in Nanning quite close to the Vietnamese border, and got straight on the bus to Guilin, a 'smallish' city about 400km north of the border. Full buses were leaving every 15 odd mins, and buying tickets was remarkably easy given our Chinese is so limited.
Our first and only full day in Guilin was spent just out of town (a short bus trip complete with chickens) walking the amazing Lee river, surrounded by limestone peaks, reminiscent of Halong Bay. We walked around 24km but didn't notice the distance at all, you can see from our photos why.
We were impressed by the Chinese food we ate, and the price was consistently, deliciously cheap. We ate from a number of street vendors, never quite sure what was inside but rarely disappointed. We found a couple of english menus, and if not a number of restaurants had an array of live animals out the front to confirm what was being served.
During our stay in Guilin we encountered the first of what would be many locals stopping us in the street and asking for photographs. We never quite figured out why but think maybe because we are not only really white but also really really tall. At one stage we even had a line of people waiting patiently for their turn, what stars.
From Guilin we caught an overnight train, this one internal so much less eventful than the last, to Beijing. Aware of the city's enormity we were prepared for a challenging few days, but instead found getting around remarkably easy. Maybe this is post Olympic Beijing, but the public transport was efficient, city maps were readily available and all the sites were very tourist friendly. Subways were so cheap and clean, and a large number of signs had latin letters below the Chinese characters which was so great, trying to decipher the stick figure man with one leg, octagon with a cross, stick house with two roofs etc was not a very accurate method for finding our way around.
We spent a couple of days wandering around Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City (which is no less than colossal), the traditional (restored) old quarters called Hutongs, the Temple of Heaven, and sampling as many local delicacies as our stomachs could handle. One day was spent catching a local bus out to the Great Wall at a spot called Badalang, which has been recently restored for Olympic traffic and was very tourist friendly, though still quite a hike up and down. We experienced our first cold (in retrospect we experienced a minor chill), but this didn't deter the locals from their daily communal activities out in public parks like playing mahjong, Tai Chi, Ping Pong, couples dancing, dancing with fans, singing classes...
Mark's Beijing experience was marked by two momentous occasions, discovering an all you can eat, gourmet vegetarian buffet for $14, and returning for a second buffet two days later, but this time prepared with an empty stomach and eating 5 heaped platefuls. This place was packed with locals both times, and had really good quality food, even Peking 'duck', and all kinds of sushi (Chinese sushi is the best I've had, admittedly having never been to Japan).
Beijing had more people in one place than I have ever seen, every day, including a large number of expats, particularly American. There were lots of really great bars and restaurants, mostly at a very reasonable price (when buying in Australian dollars). Mark commented that of all the places we have been, Beijing is one that he would consider living in.
Back on an overnight train and we were on our to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Mark was once again scrutinised as we crossed the border, people find it hard to believe that his passport is actually his (the beard which had started to grow sideways as well as down may have been a factor). We both had trouble getting out of, not into, Russia, confusing but we can't speak Russian so really can't ask questions.
We arrived in Mongolia in the middle of the day to about minus 20 degrees, which much to my dismay was only going to get colder. There wasn't a huge amount of snow in the city as it is quite dry and a constant stream of people and traffic compacted it, so instead the ground was covered in a layer of killer ice. My day one was marked by a very dramatic slip in the ice, both feet high in the air and flat on my back. Luckily I was dressed like a penguin (fearing death by cold) in my new huge thick jacket and no less than 5 layers underneath so the only thing dented was my pride. The locals walked over me, I guess its a relatively common occurrence.
We went on an overnight trip into the countryside to stay in a traditional Mongolia ger and see some of Mongolia apart from the city. The one and a half hour drive out there was the most terrifying drive yet, a combination of questionable road rules, huge amounts of traffic and ice everywhere. We arrived to a huge, vast, white landscape which looked lovely from inside the car, but felt like it was minus a million when we were outside. Upon arrival we were allocated our ger, which we were sharing with a couple of Irish guys, which was extremely well heated by a log fire. We had an organised trail ride for a couple of hours which was so great when we weren't focusing all our energy on staying alive in the cold. We went passed fields of hairy cows, hairy dogs, hairy wild horses, and even a couple of yaks.
We spent our next couple of days wandering around Ulan Bator, which has much more to offer than we had expected, lots of museums and great restaurants, and life was so cheap that we ate out at least 2 meals a day. It was a great city where people were generally pretty friendly, and we enjoyed making friends in our hostel (as everyone spent so much time inside). I could only spend a limited amount of time outside so there was lots of dashing between activities and stopping for defrost breaks when moving from one point to the next. In retrospect a huge pair of thick soled fur lined boots would have been a worthwhile investment, next time.
The very helpful hostel staff helped book our next train from Ulan Bator to Irkutsk in Siberia, arranging for us to have our own cabin which was a luxury in quite a packed train. The train was filled with Mongolian traders, maybe because goods in Mongolia are so much cheaper than in Russia, whatever the reason all kinds of merchandise was being shuffled around the train, hidden in secret trap doors underneath the cabin carpet and sold at each platform. Sometimes the train stops for 20mins or half an hour at stations, and at these longer stops the salesman jumped of to a crowd of waiting Siberians and hawked off their stuff.
We passed the vast Lake Baikal, which was completely frozen over, planning to come back hiking in summer sometime, before arriving in icy Irkutsk. I was very pleased to find that almost every Russian woman we passed was wearing a huge fur coat and hat, and the men fur hats with black pants, jacket and shoes, whoever said stereotypes were a waste of time?
We had spent some time learning the Cyrillic alphabet on the train, Mark more successfully than myself, and were certainly challenged trying to read our way around. We only spent one full day in Irkutsk which isn't a huge tourist attraction in winter, but enjoyed seeing the first of many impressive Russian Orthodox churches, and eating Russian pastries. We had expected that once we left Mongolia we wouldn't stand out as tourists quite as much, but we would hardly have walked in the door to a cafe and an english menu would on the table. As far as I was concerned we all looked the same minus fur, but apparently not so.
From Irkutsk we had a 77 hour trans-siberian train ride to Moscow, this was what we had come for. We were sharing a cabin with Elena, a young policewoman who we communicated with through our Russian phrase book as we had no common language. Our 'conversations' were oddly formal and as you can imagine disjointed: 'what do you like to do in your spare time?', but we couldn't understand the answer so had to hand over the phrase book for her to point at a list of options. We had 2 carriage attendants who did shifts, one a middle aged grumpy man who changed into a tight fitting (he wasn't a small man) sailor outfit to do his daily vacuum, a part of the day I looked forward to more than 2 min noodle time. Our other cabin attendant was unassuming compared to her counterpart, and warmed to us during the trip (a couple of chocolates can go a long way). We were treated very favourably during her shifts, the best was access to a special electricity outlet for watching movies on the computer.
On our first night some particularly friendly soldiers on the train invited us to join in their evening festivities, which once again perpetuated every Russian stereotype we had expected. After quite a few beers they brought out vodka, and meat (to stop hangovers, we can vouch that it is ineffective), water glasses, not shot glasses, were filled, toasts were made in Russian, we all drink, and then start again. Somehow we had given them the impression that we didn't have much money, I think by a combination of being impressed by things that they had and not being able to communicate properly, but we ended up leaving with an armful of gifts that were bestowed upon us between shots. Despite thoroughly enjoying our evening we declined to join them again the next night, fearing death or liver failure.
During our stay we were informed that the life expectancy for Russian men is late 50s, and life expectancy for the whole population is declining due largely to alcoholism and drug abuse. A sad state of affairs, but very evident during our short stay.
The scenery was vast and white for most of the trip, lots of trees in Siberia and a few mountain ranges as we got further west. We enjoyed jumping out at the platforms for a bit of a stretch and an occasional babushka lady selling steaming food out of her little sled or basket. Much to Mark's delight most of what they sold consisted entirely of or was filled with potato. We played lots of cards and read a few books, overall thoroughly enjoying the trip, and calculating it was actually cheaper than flying!
It was a bit of a shock getting out of the cabin which had become our peaceful little home for the past four days, straight onto the Moscow metro which is even more hectic than Beijing. Trains come every 30 sec on most lines and and all seem to be chocked full. We arrived at peak hour to very full trains and as I first tried to get in the doors closed on my pack and I got stuck. I was completely helpless as the train started to move and I was strapped into my pack! Luckily some kind sole ripped open the doors and helped my in, fully.
We stayed at a hostel a couple of blocks from Red Square, organising to have our visas registered so our being in the country was finally official and legal, a painful piece of Russian bureaucracy. On our first day in Moscow we visited the Kremlin and Basil's cathedral, both equally impressive, and wandered around a famous enormous designer mall which was completely empty except for a few tourists taking photos. Apparently Moscow/Russia has been hit particularly hard by the financial crisis.
To be continued...