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: 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 >>>

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Train 9, First Class, Riyadh-Dammam

As a bit of a train buff, I tried my best to google up some info — any info — about the services of the Saudi Railways Organization before our trip, but virtually none was forthcoming, and eventually it was Trsqr who did the (considerable) legwork of reserving tickets. He rustled up the number of Dammam‘s train station from somewhere and got an Arabic speaker to proxy, and it turned out that even the SRO website’s schedules are inaccurate. There was, however, still an evening train from Riyadh to Dammam, it just left an hour earlier, and there was availability in all three classes: Second, First and the delightfully named “Rehab”, which I’m told is always patronized by Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears on their visits to the Kingdom. Second cost SR60, First was SR75 and Rehab was SR130, so we opted for First and showed up at the train station half an hour before departure.

Like most governmental buildings in Saudi, Riyadh‘s train station is improbably huge, especially given that it caters to all of four trains a day. All passengers were subjected to a quick security check, and the guards in proper TSA style even demanded the removal of beep-inducing footwear, but at least liquids were not on the no-ride list.

SRO doesn’t assign seats, but finding two seats wasn’t a problem — although we were shooed out of the front-facing ones, these being reserved for families, and kicked back into the rear-facing bachelor section. “First Class” hardly qualifies as luxurious, but neither was there much to complain about: it was clean and the seats were reasonably comfy, with tray tables and a token amount of recline. Second Class seemed to be much the same, with slightly narrower pitch, while Rehab had big leather seats and roof-mounted TVs featuring the latest in Islamic programming, and their pax also get to use the VIP lounges at the stations. Snack carts equipped with an ever-dwindling array of plastic-packed pastries, chips and drinks rumbled through every now and then, and the cafeteria car offered more of the same.

The problem with riding trains by night is that there’s nothing to see, especially when the line passes through the vast emptiness of central Saudi. It was supposed to be a 3:45 trip, but that much time had already passed by the time we finally pulled into Hofuf, much of it alternatively sitting or crawling through the desert at a siding while we waited for the train in the opposite direction. (The entire Saudi network is single-tracked.) It was thus past 1 AM when we finally pulled in Dammam, five hours after we left.

Dammam’s terminal is an exact carbon copy of Riyadh’s, to the point that I couldn’t help wondering if this was all some colossal prank and we’d somehow missed the train turning around and returning to Riyadh… but no, there was a tang of salt in the air, and a lunatic cabbie (is there any other kind in Saudi?) careened us into the Holiday Inn Al-Khobar in no time.