From Siberia to Tibet: China as a Tourist

So how is traveling around the less visited parts of China when you’re a tall, blond, distinctly non-Chinese-speaking alien?

Language

I have to state up front that my experience of China is likely pretty different from that of the average foreign visitor, since I’m reasonably fluent in Japanese and that gives a huge leg up for parsing Chinese: I can’t read larger chunks of text because the grammar is too different, but I can generally manage maps, simple websites and signage.  However, my spoken Chinese is terrible and my comprehension isn’t much better.

Nevertheless, I was positively surprised by the amount of English signage present.  Sometimes there was clearly a government edict at work — for example, every single shop in the villages near the Mutianyu Great Wall has English signs, just in case a tourist has a sudden urgent to acquire construction supplies or wholesale quantities of fertilizer — and equally often it was clearly run through an online translation tool, occasionally with hilarious results.  A large part of the “English” signage was actually just pinyin phonetics, so those Chinese who struggle with hanzi can still spell out SHE HUI ZHU YI and connect the red billboard with a hammer and sickle to socialism — but as a useful side effect, this meant that most trains, subways, buses etc were signposted in friendly Roman letters.

By comparison, English speakers were definitely on thinner ground.  We ran into a few in odd places, like a young Didi (Chinese Uber) driver in Xining, but when it came time to request a late checkout at one of Xining’s top hotels, the bellboy spoke more English than the three ladies behind the counter combined, and I still had to trot out my pidgin Mandarin.  Border crossings and security checkpoints were also invariably quick & wordless affairs, since staff vocabulary didn’t seem to extend much beyond “passport” and “ticket”.

Would we ever really have been in trouble without knowing Chinese?  No, but any scraps you can pick up beforehand will certainly helped.

Civility

China — and I’m referring specifically to the People’s Republic here — gets a pretty bad rep for being tourist-hostile, and if you read the Stay safe section on Wikivoyage it’s easy to come away expecting that your children will be kidnapped and/or run over while you’re choking on toxic air and sold overpriced tea by attractive but starving art students.

Now it’s fair to say that if it’s personal space you’re after, most of China is the wrong place to be: in a city like Beijing, with twice the population of New York, you’re going to get a lot of crowds and the occasional sharp elbow.  Interestingly, most of these belonged to the elderly, who were either taking their Confucian mores of mandatory respect for the aged seriously, or had honed their queue-cutting skills fighting for scraps of cabbage during the Great Leap Forward.  Overall, though, most queues were kinda-sorta respected (heavy security presence must help), people mostly waited for others to get off the subway before barging on themselves, and even train stations felt more like busy airports than the crush of desperate humanity that is an Indian train station’s waiting room or ticket office.  And while there are a few places like Beijing’s Silk Alley (now just a shopping mall) and that drinks shop atop the Mutianyu Great Wall that will happily fleece foreigners for every last yuan they’ve got, if you pick your own places, you’ll pay what the locals do: we never paid more than printed on the menu or otherwise agreed.

We did run into a couple of power-tripping bureaucrats, most memorably an attendant on our Beijing-Xi’an trian, who completely flipped out over my dad’s effrontery in using the bottom bunk in our 4-bunk cabin when his ticket said top bunk — never mind that we had purchased all four seats.  A friendly English-speaking lady from a nearby cabin was roped in to help translate, and after much foot-stomping and gnashing of teeth the attendant admitted defeat when we pointed out that this was a non-stop train, so it was physically impossible for anybody else to board en route and claim that bunk.

Toilets in China are also worth a mention, since the country has a reputation for unutterably grim facilities.  We found a few at some of the less visited Tibetan monasteries, but as a rule they were generally modern, tolerably clean and generally a cut above Russia or Mongolia.   You will, however, need to learn to squat and carry your own toilet paper, since Western-style thrones are few and far between and TP is a national treasure only grudgingly doled out once authorities have scrutinized your schnozzle.

One final component of the China experience is security, surveillance and bureaucracy, but that’s a topic large enough to deserve its own blog post.  (Coming soon.)

Internet

Speaking of security and surveillance, one of the more annoying parts of travel in China is the Great Firewall, which keeps getting higher and tighter: virtually all name-brand Western services (Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Maps, Wikipedia, Reddit, Instagram etc) are now inaccessible.  I had prepared by setting up ExpressVPN in advance, and it worked fine when on wifi, but when roaming on my Australian SIM, the connection was censored and throttled to be hopelessly slow, making using the VPN nearly impossible.

In the end I bought a China Unicom prepaid SIM, which was several orders of magnitude faster and well worth the investment, but Western services remained glitchy.  For example, on Google Maps, local data is not just spotty and out of date, but places were often hundreds of meters in the wrong direction, and even if you could use WhatsApp, nobody you meet could.  So the only way to go is to dip your toe into the local ecosystem.

  • WeChat/QQ (微信 Weixin) is the local juggernaut and the de facto choice of messaging.  It also has the very popular WeChat Pay (微信支付 Weixin Zhifu) payment system, which has recently started accepting non-Chinese credit cards, but registration is complicated and apparently the rules vary continually.  When I signed up, I needed a Chinese number and a local trusted user to verify me, but no Chinese ID or bank account; others report being required to provide one or both of these though.  It’s also important to download the mainland China version of the app directly off weixin.qq.com, not the overseas version from App Store/Play Store.
  • Baidu Maps (百度地图 Baidu Ditu) is the local equivalent of Google Maps.  In addition to being Chinese-only, the UI is pretty busy and takes some getting used to, but place search and directions for driving, public transport and walking are all pretty good.  (Weird quirk: travel times for bus were systematically inflated by 30-60 min.)
  • Ctrip (携程旅行 Xiéchéng Lǚxíng) is your best source for long-distance travel information, including detailed train schedules.
  • Mobike (摩拜 Móbài) is great for booking some of the ride share bikes littering the streets of China’s larger cities.  Rides start from Y1 a pop and the same app & credit works fine in Australia too.

Transport

It’s difficult to overstate just how much investment China has put into planes, trains and roads over the past decades, or how much pent up demand this has unlocked.  For example, we took the CRH bullet train from Xi’an to Xining, fully expecting this recently opened line from a 2nd-tier city to a 3rd-tier city to be a white elephant, but no — the train was packed to the last seat. Xi’an has sprouted 3 lines and 91 km of metro in the past 7 years, all of it packed, and Beijing is still catching up after opening 22 lines covering 608 km.  Train stations like Beijing West are not enormous (just) because the government likes massive buildings, but because they have to be: the 34-platform, 60-million-pax-per-year Xi’an North is by some measures the largest in Asia, with a central concourse that puts most stadiums to shame, and it was still difficult to find a seat.  Even Lhasa airport was bursting at the seams.  The only empty Chinese transport hub during the entire trip was the shiny new international wing of Chongqing Jiangbei Airport, but I suspect we were there just at the wrong time during the afternoon lull, since CKG too has seen 1,000% (yes, three zeroes) international passenger growth since 2009.

Food

In short, the food in China was amazing, if often a bit hit and miss since we were traveling without much local advice and mostly choosing places by convenience.  The learning curve for “real” Chinese food can be steep though, so here’s a trek up the scale.

Crowd-pleasers abounded in Beijing: the justly famous Peking Duck (Xiheyaju
羲和雅居 was among the best meals of the trip) and the less famous but no less tasty zhajiangmian (炸醬麵) aka Chinese spaghetti bolognese.  Roubing (肉餅) meat pies are also widely available, although the precise origin of the meat may be a mystery at times.

Mildly more adventurous or surprising were the many Muslim eateries of Xining, serving up a constellation of noodles.  Even with basic knowledge of hanzi and Google Translate, you never quite knew what you’d get, but rarely were we disappointed.  One Chinese innovation that will take the West by storm sooner or later is the conveyor-belt hotpot: take a personal mini pot, select a broth and dipping sauces, then pick what you like from the parade going past you and pay for what you ate.  Magic!  And if you put too much chilli in your sauce, cool down with some yogurt (酸奶 suānnǎi), which is sold everywhere on the streets.  And if all else fails, head to a hotel breakfast buffet and eat an cute animal-shaped steamed bun.

At the more challenging end of the spectrum were Yunnanese cuisine, which appears to consist mostly of mushrooms and unusual veggies; the enormous gelatinous niangpi (酿皮) noodles of Qinghai served with bread-like steamed gluten dipped in chilli, the Chinese trucker favorite of “big plate chicken” (大盘鸡 dàpánjī), basically a stew of chicken, potato and lots of chilli, and the Chongqing classic xiǎomiàn (小面), the deceptively named “small noodles” that pack a big numbing-hot mala punch.

And oh, if you’re reading this and thinking “that’s nothing, once in Shenzhen I ate…”, go chew on this previous blog entry for a while.

<<< Lhasa and Tibet | Hong Kong and Macau >>>

 

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From Siberia to Tibet: Lhasa and Tibet

The final long-distance train of our journey was also the nicest.  Few of China’s trains are branded, but the Tangzhu Ancient Route (唐竺古道号) from Xining to Shigatse via Lhasa had been bestowed its label only a few months before our trip and the entire train was decked out with pretty, purple-tinged Tibetesque frippery, down to the vase of plastic violet roles on our table.

We left Xining in the evening and slept through the slow climb up the plateau, crossing the 5,072m Tanggula Pass — the highest stretch of train track in the world — conveniently after breakfast.  The combo of acclimatization, a precautionary course of Diamox (acetazolamide) and the oxygen being piped into all the cabins worked a treat, and none of us felt more than the faint echo of a headache.

Arrival into Lhasa, at “only” 3,656m, was somewhat anticlimactic. The station is located on the newly built, heavily Chinese-flavored west side of Lhasa.   Our Tibet permits were scrutinized for the fourth time on this ride (rest assured, sneaking into Tibet is not a thing any more), our mandatory guide was waiting our mandatory van, and we drove through what felt very much like just another Chinese city, full of construction sites, shiny glass-fronted buildings, and the odd concrete building or bridge tarted up with some Tibetan detail, already fading and peeling off after a few years.

And then we arrived in the old city around Barkhor and stepped back in time a thousand years.   The penetrating funk of yak butter wafted around the narrow, twisty streets (we would soon come to realize that this was the smell of Tibet, in much the same way that boiled mutton is the smell of Mongolia), shops sold dried cheese, fresh yak meat and temple offerings, our hotel the House of Shambhala was decorated with near-Indian amounts of color and statuary, pilgrims prostrated themselves as they circumambulated the temple of Jokhang…   this, emphatically, was not China.

It is difficult to write about Tibet as an outsider.  For the Tibetan exiles who supply Free Tibet bumper stickers to soccer moms in Berkeley and the predominant Western view of the country, the Chinese presence is nothing short of a violent occupation intent on reducing their country into a theme park, and it’s hard to disagree with this.  But from the Chinese point of view, the army liberated Tibetans from an oppressive absolute theocracy, where a tiny elite of lamas ruled teeming masses of miserably poor serfs, and brought in modernity and economic development — and it’s hard to disagree with this either, particularly after having visited the Tibetan exile capital of Dharamsala and witnessed the lethal roads and Indian squalor of the settlement.  The excesses of the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese government straight up razed everything that didn’t fit the program, have long since been dialed back and at a casual glance, it even looks like China is actively supporting Tibetan culture now.  Every single road and shop sign had Tibetan script above the Chinese, albeit often in an illegibly small font, and vast amounts of money have clearly been pumped into tidying up the once-decaying old city.

All that said, it was still clear that this is a land that the Chinese government keeps in an iron grip.  Security checkpoints and CCTV cameras dotted entrances not just to train stations and museums, but to Barkhor and the city itself, and it wasn’t enough to show your bags, you had to scan your ID as well.  Many guards and low-level police were Tibetan, but the heavily armed riot squads stomping around the Old City were all Han Chinese.  Lighters were banned and fire extinguishers prominently placed in any spot where a self-immolation might lead to bad publicity. The few Tibetans we had a chance to talk to spoke in stage whispers if offering politically incorrect opinions (“The Chinese are like rats!  They’re everywhere!”).  Political propaganda, a subdued presence on the streets of Beijing but more visible in Xining, was pumped to a fever pitch here, with fervent invocations of Prosperous Strength (富强 fùqiáng) and Harmony (和谐 héxié) .  Even posters of Xi Jinping, which nearly disappeared from the rest of the country during our visit, could be found in abundance.  And in the center of town, roped off in the middle of a heavily guarded square, stands the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, raising a permanent middle finger towards the Potala Palace opposite.  Subtle it was not, and you can only wonder if even Party apparatchiks genuinely believe this kind of thing will convince any Tibetans of the errors of the Dalai Lama’s splittist ways.

The Potala Palace is still standing though, its simultaneously graceful yet fearsome hilltop bulk dominating the city like few ancient structures still can.  In its own way, it was much like Beijing’s Forbidden City, only now with supplicants climbing up endless flights of stairs to experience the spiritual wisdom and earthly power of Tibet’s former god-kings.  Today they’re long gone and the supplicants have been replaced by tour buses of Chinese tourists, with tours of the interior limited to a choreographed controlled 60-minute dash and interior photography strictly forbidden.

The heart of Lhasa for Tibetans is the comparatively modest temple of Jokhang — although “modest” doesn’t seem quite the right word for a structure largely plated in gold — and Barkhor Street looping around it.  Serious pilgrims traverse the circuit by prostrating themselves on the ground, sliding forward, standing up, saying a prayer and repeating this over and over again.   Equally serious beggars have also realized that they can make a nice bundle of cash doing this, particularly if they force a few grubby five-year-olds into doing the same and collecting money from passers-by; probably the saddest sight on this trip.  Both are far outnumbered by Chinese tourists and the vast majority of the Barkhor’s shops now sell tourist tat and yak yogurt cakes.

On our final day we paid a visit to Sera Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, unremarkable except for the spectacle of monks debating in the open air with resounding claps whenever a question had been posed, and the rather more spectacular Ganden Monastery, perched atop a mountain at 4,300m, a good half a kilometer higher than Lhasa itself.  We were now up in clouds that had squatted low over Lhasa, so everything was blanketed in a chilly mist, with the ground covered in mud and occasional squalls of rain.  It’s like this in midsummer, just how cold does it get here in the winter?  Yet we were the only tourists around, and our guide explained why: “The Chinese come to Tibet for the nature.  The culture does not interest them.”

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Suddenly it clicked into place.  To Westerners, Tibet is all chanting lamas, tantric bliss and deep spiritual teachings, but to the Chinese, it’s like Alaska or Switzerland: a place of clean air, sweeping views and climactic extremes, where you can experience the power of raw nature and get away from the concrete warrens of Shanghai or Xi’an.  This explained the photoshopped blue skies of every single Chinese ad for Tibetan products and why our in-train publicity magazine was full of nothing but nature shots and extreme sports, in precisely the same way that Alaskan cruises “into authentic wilderness” relegate the native inhabitants to a optional excursion on a stopover.

And in the same way that it’s exceedingly unlikely that the United States will one day decide to hand over the keys to native Alaskans and decamp south of the 49th parallel, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Chinese will ever decide to head to lower altitudes and leave the plateau to the Tibetans.  They now form the majority of the population in both Lhasa and Tibet as a whole, they control the levers of power, and those levers are set to “open the floodgates”.  So while you can certainly dispute who ought to control Tibet, the reality is and will be that the Chinese do, and the best the Tibetans can hope for is accommodation and respect — and even that seems like wishful thinking.

On a stodgier note, I should mention the food in Tibet, which is uniformly terrible, at least when visiting as a tourist.  Much like Mongolia, actual Tibetan cuisine is circumscribed by the extreme, vegetable-free climate, meaning that momo dumplings, yak meat (basically gamey beef) and barley are the staples, washed down with copious quantities of the justly infamous butter tea.  Mongolians drink a variant of this too, but they’re generally content to stick to milk and a pinch of salt, whereas Tibetans blend in vast amounts of yak butter — and this isn’t an inoffensive pale block from your neighborhood supermarket, but the cultured, cheesy, funky stuff sold on the streets.  The only way I found to make it palatable was to mix it into tsampa, the roasted barley flour that was once a staple of Tibetan travellers, making salty but edible porridge.

Since the average Westerner can take only so much of this, tour guides helpfully take them to a dwindling set of largely empty Westerner-friendly restaurants, serving yak-ified attempts at Western food (yak steaks with french fries, yak burgers with maraschino cherries on top) and denatured Nepalese food (bland yak curries and samosas) that persists as a sort of vestigial, withering appendix of the pre-2008 glory days when hippies could easily cross over from Kathmandu to Lhasa.  The Chinese have their own restaurants too, the tourists heading to places serving yak-ified Chinese food (hotpots, noodles, etc) and the residents inhaling chillies and breathing fire in the many Sichuanese places.

On our last day, we grabbed our packed breakfast of toast (and that’s only toast, without even jam or yak butter), zipped out of Lhasa down a motorway that punched its way through several mountain ranges, checked in at the packed Lhasa Gonggar airport (which, inevitably, is being expanded) and flew out to Hong Kong via Chongqing.

<<< Beijing, Xi’an and Xining | China as a Tourist >>>

 

From Siberia to Tibet: Beijing, Xi’an and Xining

Around 10 PM at night, we trundled across the Mongolia-China border into the dusty town of Erenhot (二连 Erlian).  One of the few pleasures of international train travel is that the border crossings and their inspectors come to you, but China wasn’t having any of it: we all had to disembark with our luggage and go queue up for passport and customs.

And then we waited until 2 AM while our bogies were changed from Russian wide gauge to Chinese standard gauge.  Officially, the sparkly new International Waiting Room had all sorts of amusements including tax-free shopping, a bar and a certified 5-star bathroom; in reality, it lacked all of those as well as air-con, toilet paper and enough seats.  After various conflicting answers and general confusion, I was granted a magic plastic token that let me go outside and check out the jumbled shops and pharmacies, and most importantly, acquire some bananas and the first of many bottles of Yanjing Beer to come.

By the time we woke up next morning, the scenery had changed to rolling green hills, occasional clusters of buildings and factories, and steadily thickening haze.  Viaducts for the Zhangjiakou high-speed rail line, being built for the 2020 Winter Olympics, were often visible and made our clunky train feel rather obsolete.  After arrival at Beijing Station, which seemed to contain more people than all of Mongolia, our host whisked us away for a traditional Chinese welcoming ceremony: foreigner registration at the local Public Security Bureau (公安部 Gong’anbu) cop shop, painstakingly pecked in one finger at a time.  Now we were in China!

Beijing 北京

This was my first visit to the Chinese capital, and I wasn’t expecting much: all you ever see on TV are the inhumanly scaled plazas and buildings around Tian’anmen, designed to make citizens feel like the worthless ants they are compared to the might of emperors old and new.  The shopping district around Wangfujing, all department stores and shopping malls stuffed with name-brand shops, plus the slick modern offices and hotels around Chaoyang, including the dystopian China Central TV aka Big Pants Building (大裤衩 dà kùchǎ), could also have been straight out of Tokyo or Seoul.

But the hutongs around Shizhacai, while now tarted up for tourists and beer-brewing hipsters, remained surprisingly peaceful and lived-in, and the canals and alleyways around Qianhai Lake with weeping willows and pedal boats were green, vibrant and colorful, at least in midsummer.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu (慕田峪), about 1.5 hours north of central Beijing, was a worthwhile excursion, both surprisingly lush and surprisingly smoggy.  Those stairs were a real workout, particularly in the sticky heat of midsummer, and I was glad to take both the ski lift up and the rather ridiculous but still amusing toboggan ride down.  Pro tip: there’s a solitary little snack shop at the top, which will instantly open a frosty bottle of Yanjing for you if you so much as mention the word pijiu (beer) — and attempt to charge you 85 RMB (US$13) for it.  At the bottom of the hill, the same beer will cost you 20, and even that’s pricy by Chinese standards.

Beijing’s other mandatory attraction is the justly reknowned Forbidden City , once the home of the Emperor and now the showcase of China’s Communist mandarins.  There was a queue of several hours to see the pickled corpse of Mao, so when a torrential downpour hit we abandoned that idea and proceeded to the palaces.  The complex is enormous, and despite notional visitor limits (book your tickets online!), it was packed to the gills with local tourists, all armed with pointy umbrellas.   The Outer Court, through which you enter, consists of a series of identical-looking but empty gates and plazas, so there isn’t even much to see.  Mostly to get away from it all, we paid a little extra to visit the Treasure Gallery to the east, and this turned out to be the best move all day: the crowds were thinner and the scale was more reasonable, as this is where the Emperor and his household actually lived.

Xi’an 西安

We ended up in Xi’an through a lucky mishap: the sleeper train we wanted to take from Beijing to Xining was full, and when pondering alternatives, I realized we could take a sleeper to Xi’an, spend a day there, and take an evening bullet train to Xining.  Win!

The thing to do in Xi’an is to visit the Terracotta Warriors, which guard the tomb of Shi Huangdi, the founder of the Qin dynasty and the kind of megalomaniac who makes Mao look modest and reasonable.  In 230 BCE, he unified China for the first time, declared himself emperor, standardized all the things (writing, currency, measures, axles etc) across the vast country, burned all old books and executed those who didn’t comply fast enough, built a necropolis nearly 100 km² in size (the vast majority of which remains unexcavated) and had basically everybody who built it executed.  Unsurprisingly, it’s quite a sight, and enough Chinese agree that it’s now the country’s second-most popular attraction, second only to the Forbidden City.  Don’t expect to have too many moments of peaceful contemplation.

Much further down that list is the Great Mosque of Xi’an, buried in the mazelike depths of the Muslim Quarter (回民街 Huiminjie), and probably the least mosque-like mosque I’ve ever seen.  If somebody swapped the signs, it would substitute quite nicely for, say, a Confucian temple or the Emperor’s former summer residence: for example, the pagoda above is actually a minaret.

Visitors and locals alike do come to the Muslim Quarter in droves, but to satisfy more earthly desires for food and shopping.  Lamb kebabs (烤肉串 kaorou), Chinese hamburgers (肉夹馍 roujiamo), osmanthus cakes topped with dates (桂花糕 guihuagao), crispy meat pies (肉餅 roubing)…  both our quick visit, and this incredible blog post, only scratched the surface.

Xining 西宁

While Beijing and Xi’an are firmly on the beaten track, it’s safe to say Xining is not.  It may be the capital of Qinghai Province, but by Chinese standards its 2.3 million people barely qualify as a city, at least when compared to Xi’an’s 12m or Beijing’s 21m.  What’s more, while it’s been around for over 2,000 years and was a major staging post on the Silk Road, a massive earthquake in 1927 plus Japanese bombing in 1941 means you’d be hard put to find a historical attraction worthy of the name in the city.  The sole reason we were here was that, at an altitude of 2,600m, this gave us a chance to acclimatize a bit, and the only other city in these parts, the industrial center of Golmud, is by all accounts even more dull.

Given these low expectations, Xining was mostly a pleasant surprise, undoubtedly provincial but largely prosperous and with new infrastructure ranging from bridges and highways to trains sprouting everywhere, virtually all of it built since 2010.  Our Taiwanese cracker conglomerate hotel was golden bling to the max, the shopping malls of Xidajie (西大街) were bustling with real department stores and fake Apple Stores, Mojia St (莫家街) was wall to wall with restaurants.  Only slightly off the beaten track did you remember you weren’t in Beijing anymore, with meat hanging on open-air hooks at the street markets of Shuijing Alley (水井巷) and the green signs and ornate skullcaps of Hui Muslims dominating the local culinary scene even more thoroughly than they did in Xi’an.

Xining’s one major draw is Kumbum Monastery, or Ta’ersi Temple (塔尔寺) to the Chinese, some 40 km outside the city.   One of the largest Tibetan monasteries outside Lhasa, this was the childhood home of the Dalai Lama (you can even find a solitary photo if you look very carefully) and, while much reduced from its pre-Cultural Revolution glory, is still an active temple.  I expected to find some Tibetan pilgrims here and did, but I did not expect tour buses full of Chinese pilgrims, herded about by tour guides and stuffing notes ranging from 0.1 to 100 yuan into every nook and cranny of every statue and altar.  Clearly China’s economic boom has also brought with it a surging market for spiritual fulfillment.

Much more sedate, in fact positively comatose, was the official state-sanctioned Tibetan Culture & Medicine Museum in a faux-Tibetan concrete monolith on the northern outskirts of town.  This showcased Tibetan culture as the Chinese government would like it: colorful, safely encased in static glass displays, no actual Tibetans in sight, and with an overpriced gift shop on the way out.

In the evening, we clambered aboard train Z6811 and started our slow climb to Tibet.

Anorak bonus album: Metros in Beijing, Xi’an and Xining

<<< Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert | Lhasa and Tibet >>>

From Siberia to Tibet: Life on a Train

 

Many writers wax lyrical about the romance of long-distance train travel, but on this trip I sampled four them — Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, Beijing to Xi’an, and Xining to Lhasa — and the sad truth is that the passenger trains in these parts are strictly utilitarian workhorses, inferior to airplanes on virtually every measure of speed or comfort.   Here’s the lowdown on life in a 4-berth sleeper (kupé in Russia, 软卧 ruǎnwò in China).

Eat

When you’re on a train for 24 hours or more, you’ve got to eat something, and this leaves you with three options.

The first and most obvious option is restaurant cars, and the Mongolian ones with their intricate wood carvings and embroidered tablecloths even look quite attractive.  Alas, the food they serve ranges from bland but edible, like our Chinese breakfast set composed mostly of sausage, celery and chilli, to bland and near-inedible, such as the incredibly gristly beef served on the Mongolian train — I was picking bits out of my teeth for the next two days.  Perhaps we should have taken the hint from the plastic bags of frozen beef sitting in the corridor, tenderizing in the midsummer heat of the Gobi Desert.

Alternatively, you can try to buy food on station platforms, but this presents a number of practical problems.  First, stops are few and far between and rarely aligned with mealtimes.  Second, stops are short and on arrival you neither have any idea what the options are nor where to find them.  Third, if you do find something food-like, it’s often unclear how many days those mince-meat khuushuurs sitting on a table have been fermenting under the Mongolian sun.  We did manage to swing some pretty decent piroshki pastries in Ulan-Ude, plus rye bread and boiled eggs in Mongolia, but it really is the luck of the draw and you can’t count on finding more than packaged snacks this way.

Finally, you can bring your own food, but with no refrigeration or heating available (aside from hot water), you’ll be hard pressed to expand your culinary horizons beyond packaged bread, instant noodles and the giant Russian rye croutons called grenki.  (Best flavor: garlic with garlic dip.  You’re welcome.)  A useful compromise is to buy a meal at your departure station: you’re not going to find much more than fast food, but even KFC is likely tastier, cheaper and healthier than the alternatives.

All that said, you can generally rely on the restaurant cars to supply lukewarm beer at only mildly extortionate prices, which brings me to…

Drink

Russian and Mongolian trains forbid drinking alcoholic beverages on board; fortunately, this being Russia and Mongolia, beer is not considered alcohol.  (Seriously.)  Needless to say, this rule is widely ignored by all and sundry, although it’s generally wise to close your compartment door if you have one and avoid tippling at times when conductors are on the prowl.

The one free drink provided in abundant quantities is boiling hot water, supplied by a coal or wood fired boiler at the end of each carriage.  If you’re lucky, there may even be a thermos bottle in your cabin, which you can use to stock your own supply.  Bring along some teabags, instant coffee or cocoa, and you can stay caffeinated.  A pedantic nit: most travelers call these samovars, but in Russian they’re actually “titans” (титан).

Non-hot water, on the other hand, is in distinctly short supply, as the water from the bathroom taps is not drinkable.  Bring along more than you think you will need, particularly if it’s hot or high outside.  As for taking a shower or a bath, forget about it.

Poop

Yes, this section has no pictures.  (You’re welcome.)

The upside to strictly functional trains is that their toilets are also unencumbered with pneumatic vacuums and mysterious blue liquids.  Instead, when you press the lever, the bottom opens up and the contents are deposited straight onto the tracks, followed by a slightly apologetic trickle of water.  While this does an admirable job of preventing the toilet from clogging, it does also mean that the doors are locked while the train is stationary, including during those multi-hour border crossings.

On Chinese trains, you will also encounter squat toilets, although there are usually a few thrones to be found as well.  The upside to these is that, no matter how filthy the rest of the room, only your feet need make contact; the downside is that whatever your feet make contact with is likely to be unpleasant.  This is why everybody on board brings flip-flops to wear.   And whether your train is Russian, Mongolian or Chinese, you’ll want to bring toilet paper and soap as well.

Sleep

Fed, hydrated and voided, it’s time to sleep.  The uninitiated are often tempted by the idea of a hotel on wheels: just slumber away peacefully on board and you’ll arrive at your destination not just refreshed, but having saved on a night’s hotel bill!  Reality is more complicated.

Even when not manufactured in the DDR, the berths are generally uncomfortable, even in the misnamed Russian “luxe” or Chinese “soft sleeper”.  The sheets are nailed to plyboard (we ended up buying an inflatable camping mattress because my dad’s back was wrecked by the four nights of the Moscow-Irkutsk stretch), the blankets are covered in stains of indeterminate origin and getting onto the top bunks requires acrobatics.  If the window is closed, it’ll be stuffy and hot inside; if it’s open, every rattle, clank and blast of the horn is amplified and your toes will freeze.   While the Trans-Siberian and most railways in China are continuously welded and thus smooth, the Trans-Mongolian is not, meaning your bedtime lullaby will be a constant clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

In addition, border crossings are both interminable and inevitably timed to happen in the middle of night.  It was past midnight when we finally entered Mongolia after two hours of inspections, and while our arrival into China was at 9 PM, we all had to get off the train and wait for 5 hours, until 2 AM, while they swapped the bogies from Russian to Chinese gauge.

Unsurprisingly, you’re likely to wake up groggy and grumpy.  If you’re at your destination already, you’ll be decanted onto the streets and condemned to wander until your hotel opens; if not, you’ll probably catch up by napping in your bunk during the day, throwing your sleep cycle even more out of whack.

So why do it?

Well, that was quite the litany of whinging, why would anybody voluntarily subject themselves to this then?

It’s an opportunity to idle.  There is way more time than there are things to do, so you can read a book, play cards, study the finer points of Russian grammar on Duolingo, or just take a nap — and all the earlier kvetching aside, your train bunk is still more spacious and comfy than even a business class seat on an airplane.

Traveling by train, you get a sense of distance.  I flew Beijing to Irkutsk in 2.5 hours, and saw basically nothing even from the window seat.  Traveling the same route by train took 54 hours, and while I still can’t say I really know what it felt like to cross the Gobi by camel, now at least I have some reference point for the sheer scale of the feat.

But above all, you see a slice of real life.  It’s not always pretty (any train traveler in India will have a hard time unseeing the spectacle of the track sides being used as a public lavatory), but simply put, without taking the train you wouldn’t see ramshackle Siberian dachas, rusting factories around Ulan-Ude, yurt cities around Ulan Bator, ghastly commieblocks around a Mongolian military base in the Gobi desert, Chinese factories spewing grey smoke into the skies of Inner Mongolia, the green hills of Shaanxi, the shaggy yaks wandering around the plateaus of Tibet, the massive scale of construction around Lhasa and more.  This trip wouldn’t have been the same at all without it, and I have zero regrets.

On to Mongolia!

<<< Irkutsk & Lake Baikal | Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert >>>

From Siberia to Tibet: Preamble & Paperwork

For the past 15 years, my father has been talking about traveling “from Hesa [Helsinki] to Lhasa” by train.  This year, we finally did it, and it was enough of an adventure that I’m resurrecting my long-dormant travel blog to tell the tale.  Expect plenty of pictures and less text.

Table of Contents

Paperwork

Pulling off a trip like this requires quite a bit of preparation, since each of Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet require their own visas or permits, which needs to be applied for in advance…  but not too far in advance, since they have expiry dates!   Most resources about the Trans-Siberian advise people to go via a travel agency to get these, but (excepting Tibet) it’s entirely feasible to do this on your own, so here are some notes for posterity.

Some personal notes, although the details will vary based on your citizenship and where you apply: this is all for an Australian applying in Australia. Also, despite minor differences in the requirements on paper, standard Australian passport photos were fine for all three.

Russia

img_20180517_090142This is the most complicated by a long shot, so get this one first. I applied in person at the Russian consulate in Sydney, using the detailed step-by-step guide here, which was extremely helpful.  The guide, that is; the consulate, on the other hand, felt like a live-action version of Papers Please.   Apply for your visa appointment well in advance, since it may take a few weeks to find a free slot!

On arrival, I was first treated to the sight of an extremely angry businessman chastising a security guard in an ill-fitting green polyester suit on the other side of a locked gate: “You’ve been incredibly rude! I’ll report you to your manager!”  The guard didn’t even roll his eyes, just asked me for my appointment and let me in when I claimed to have one.

At reception, though, another unfortunate soul had made a reservation but had neglected to bring his chit.  Nyet, try again in a few weeks.  The high-tech QR scanner didn’t much like mine either, but it grudgingly accepted the 16-digit code when punched in manually.

The waiting room was plastered with signs strictly forbidding the use of mobile phones, which are rounded ignored by everybody including myself.  When my number came up, I headed to counter 4, whose previous victim was undergoing an interrogation:

– You are attending a conference?
– Yes.
– You cannot use a business visa, you must apply for [inaudible] visa.
– But but…
– Here is form.  Next!

I got to the window.  My friendly greeting was unanswered.  I piled my papers and passport on the counter and careful examination ensued.  Everything was going swimmingly, until…

– Your visa invitation is 1 to 5 July, but your visa application 1 to 8 July.
– Yes, I am traveling out by overnight Trans-Siberian train.
– Why are you going to Irkutsk?
– To see Lake Baikal.
– Hmm.

This was clearly highly suspicious, but the bureaucrat showed grandmotherly kindness and accepted my unworthy application.   Learn from my mistake, use the same dates on your letter of invitation (I used ivisa.ru) and the visa application, and feel free to add plenty of buffer — you’re never asked for an actual hotel reservation.

So now it was time to pay up at counter 6, but the old Chinese lady there was in trouble too.  Neither of her credit cards was accepted, EFTPOS didn’t work either, and rejected receipts were piling up.  The gentleman behind me had prepared the exact amount in cash, which was also unacceptable.  Eventually my turn came and, wonder of wonders, my card worked!  The printer spat out a receipt, Svetlana sliced it in three with a ruler and gave me the smallest piece.

– Come back May 17. No appointment, collect at reception. Next!

I returned as requested, arriving at the consulate when they opened at 9 AM sharp, along with a bunch of other people.  We filed inside, but the “Visa Pick-Up” counter was resolutely closed.  Eventually Feodor arrived, but when somebody had the effrontery to approach the counter, he silently pointed at a small sign saying that Visa Pick-Up is available from 9:30 AM.  So we waited for half an hour under the steely glare of Comrade Putin, and then I finally got my grubby mitts on my shiny new visa.  Victory!

Cost A$135, processing time two weeks plus wait for appointment.

China

img_20180517_095124By comparison, getting the Chinese visa at the fully-outsourced Visa Center in Sydney was a miracle of socialist efficiency with Chinese characteristics.  Appointments are required, but are usually available next day and apparently you could get one on the spot too.  I arrived two minutes before my appointment at 10:00, and my number was called at 10:01.

You will need to fill out your tediously long application online and print it; it’s not an online application!  You will also likely be asked for proof of how you will enter and depart China, so bring along train/flight tickets or reservations.  I also had an itinerary from a tour agency in China, which is not strictly necessary, but it was sufficient to cover all other documentation needs.

Cost A$109.50, processing time four business days.

One catch if you’re also planning to visit Tibet: China won’t grant visas to people who want to go to Tibet unless they already have Tibet Travel Permits (TTP), but you can’t apply for a TTP unless you already have a visa.  The only way around the Catch-22 is to make up an innocuous itinerary that involves panda-watching in Chengdu or something for visa purposes, and then apply for the TTP afterwards.

Mongolia

img_20180524_172646There is no Mongolian consulate in Sydney, so I applied via post at the Mongolian Embassy in Canberra. The documentation and travellers’ reports are not clear on whether you need to include train tickets for a tourist visa, but I called them up and was told that a “tourist agency itinerary” was enough. I sent along my ticket reservation receipts (not an actual ticket) and that was good enough. Also, Russia & China take credit cards but Mongolia insists on a bank cheque, so order that at least a week in advance.  It’s also highly advisable to register your mail both ways, meaning you need to prepare a self-addressed envelope and get the post office to register it before you send off your application.

Cost A$230 (!), processing time 4 days.

Note that transit visas are cheaper (A$150) but have tighter documentation requirements (“Detailed travel program provided by the Tour agency”), so I played it safe.  In retrospect, though, Mongolians don’t seem to be the same kind of sticklers for paperwork as the Russians and the Chinese, so this would probably have been fine.

Tibet

dsc_6014Unless you’re a PRC citizen (including HK/Macau), the only way to visit Tibet is to join an organized tour.  This is expensive, particularly if you do what we did and opt for a custom/private tour, but it’s a pretty routine process and the tour agency handles all the paperwork.  That said, there is a certain element of nail-biting involved, since the permit can only be applied for 20 days before arrival, takes around 8 days to grant, and can be denied for no reason if there’s anything happening in Tibet that China would prefer the rest of the world didn’t hear about…

Before 2008, there were occasional stories of people hitching into Tibet and sneaking around without permits.  As of 2018, I feel confident in saying that you won’t get very far these days: your permit is checked constantly, on average 2-3 times a day, and in places including train stations, airports, road checkpoints, hotels and major tourist attractions like the Potala Palace.

Elapsed time

I started my paperwork on April 21st and received my final visa on May 31st, so around 40 days end to end.  (The Tibet permit can only be applied for 20 days before entry into Tibet, but this is handled by the travel agency anyway.)

If I had been in a hurry, I could have shaved a week off this by booking my Russian visa appt earlier, another week by paying for express processing for Russia & China (not available for Mongolia), and a few days by paying for express mail to/from the Mongolian Embassy.

The journey begins here: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal >>>