From Ulan Baatar, Mongolia we took an overnight train across the border into Russia.
It’s hard to believe that we’re leaving Asia, and that we’re just past the halfway point of our journey! We have been so curious to see when we’d notice the ‘shift’ and feel like we were in Europe… would we notice it immediately once we’d crossed the border into Russia? Could it be that different that quickly?
Prior to this trip, I’d only been on international train journeys around Europe, where you either don’t need to go through customs and immigration checks, or where (like the Eurostar from London to Paris), they do the immigration at the departure station, so the ride itself is uninterrupted. It’s very different taking international trains in Asia!
So you might be wondering – why are we celebrating “New Years” in February?
Mongolians have a ceremonial lunar calendar, which is similar to the Chinese lunar calendar. For daily life they use the same calendar as the rest of the world, but the lunar calendar is used throughout the year to identify holidays and also auspicious/lucky days for important events (if you want to buy a house, or get married, or start a new business – you check the calendar first for an auspicious day).
Lunar New Year is the first day of the first month of the new Lunar year. Typically this falls around the 2nd New Moon after the Winter Solstice.
Prior to Christianity in Europe, the West would’ve followed a similar schedule, celebrating the Winter and Summer solstice, and doing a big celebration for the coming of Spring (which the church combined into Easter celebrations – hence bunnies and eggs symbolizing fertility.) I like the idea that “New Year” coincides with the coming of Spring, which always feels like a fresh start, doesn’t it? Makes much more sense than having a fresh start in the middle of winter, right?! Maybe we’d have better luck with our New Years resolutions of starting new healthy habits if they started with longer days and warmer weather … rather than trying to motivate to go to the gym at 6AM in the dead of winter in the dark!! But I digress…
We were SO looking forward to our five days in Beijing. Not only to explore the city and visit The Forbidden City and The Great Wall … but to soak up the luxury of The Grand Hyatt hotel to restore us before the next rough leg of our trip.
Just before we moved to Hong Kong, Zak spent the better part of a year living in a Hyatt for a work project. So he had a LOT of Hyatt points, some of which he redeemed for five nights in the Grand Hyatt in Beijing.
Aside from the cushy room, complimentary happy hours in the Club Lounge and great breakfast spread, the hotel also had one of the best Peking Duck restaurants in the city – so we had to indulge.
Who wants to drink hot Coca-Cola with grated ginger?
We do! We do! At least, we do when it’s -26C (-15F) and we’re at the Harbin Ice Festival.
You might remember the nervous laughs and “oooh Harbin is cold!!!” reactions we got Every Single Time we mentioned to a Chinese person that we’re going to Harbin. I was starting to think we were a little crazy for even going there.
From lovely, ancient Pingyao, we had to do quite a long train trek to Harbin. 6 hours to Beijing, spend the night (in a very nice Marriott by the train station, thanks to frequent flier points), and then an 8.5 hour train journey the next day to Harbin.
In total, we were in Harbin for just over 24 hours. With 16 hours to and from Beijing (not counting the time in the station waiting for our train!) Was it worth that LONG train journey, just to freeze at an Ice and Snow Festival? You be the judge…
Bright sunshine. Daytime highs just below freezing. Beautiful, ancient walled city, with many small lantern-hung alleyways and old buildings to explore. Feeling tired after a morning of exploring. Want a nice cup of tea and a sit down. But every restaurant we see looks exactly the same: same picture menu, same food on offer, same wooden benches for seating. Oh Pingyao, isn’t there anywhere cozy to sit and watch the world go by???
Pingyao is China’s best-preserved ancient walled city. The town was established in 827 BC (!), and the current city walls were built in 1370. The city is gorgeous. Especially in the middle of winter when there are few tourists (and absolutely no Westerners – 99% of tourists are mainland Chinese.)
But our two days here have me perplexed. I wish I had a Chinese friend to ask. Don’t the Chinese people like ‘cozy’ places in cold weather? Where do they hang out when they’re too tired to walk around? Why aren’t there any cafes or tea houses? Why does every restaurant in town have the exact same menu with the same pictures?! Why do all the restaurants have uncomfortable wooden benches for seating?! And where does everyone go in the evenings? (We see some other tourists during the day, but in the evenings it’s just empty! Just the two of us, wandering the streets, looking for a warm, toasty bar for a drink and then dinner…)
Aside from these perplexing questions – Pingyao is amazing. I read online that it gets quite touristy in the summer months, but in February it’s deserted, and like really stepping back in time.
Packing for 10 weeks of travel across China, Mongolia and Siberia was a challenge. Oh how easy it would’ve been to pack for 10 weeks in Southeast Asia: bikini, flip flops, sarong, sun hat… but no. In this case we needed heavy winter gear. Boots, wool socks, long underwear, insulated everything, huge parka jacket, hats, mittens … all items which take up a lot of space in a suitcase.
Then there are some other tricky considerations:
We’re traveling for 10 weeks!
Alternating cities with more isolated locations. (So we’ll want a solid amount of health supplies and comfort items, in case we can’t get them on the road.)
We’re traveling long distances by train, which means endless hours of looking out train windows – so we need entertainment: e-readers, music, blogging gear (like a small laptop), phones, cameras … and then all the chargers that go with them.
Luggage limitations: Traveling by train, you’ve got to be able to carry your own bags up and down stairs. And there isn’t much luggage storage space in the cabins.
So we’ve got lots of things we’d like to bring, plus really heavy clothing and outwear, and a small bag… it was a recipe for lots of packing, and repacking, removing items each time.
In the end, we had to make our best guess about what would be most essential and useful on our trip, and leave the rest behind.
When we were planning our 30-days in China, the one place I absolutely did not want to miss was seeing The Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. And we’re finally here!
Xi’an (pronounced “she-ahn”) is a city in north-central China, and a former capitol of the ancient Chinese empire. It’s also the first “tourist” destination we’ve visited on this trip. Until now, we’ve been off the standard tourist trail, and have often been the only Westerners around. That will start to change as we hit the more populated areas of China, and especially the big tourist attractions.
We took an 8-hour train ride from Jiayuguan to Xi’an in “first class” seats, which really was just a smaller cabin with larger seats, not particularly luxurious. But 8 hours seems short compared to our previous train journeys!
We took a 1-day tour of Jiayuguan (Gee-Uh-You-Gwon), the town at the westernmost end of The Great Wall. It was also our coldest day in China yet. We thought it’d be fun to compare our perspectives on the sites today, so here we go with a little He Said / She Said…
We wake up for our only full day in Jiayuguan and its COLD. There is snow on the ground and light snowfall in the air. After a quick breakfast we meet our guide and driver in the lobby, then head off to the Fort. It was a strategic fort placed in a narrow (15 Km wide) corridor between two mountain ranges. From either side of the fort, portions of The Great Wall stretched out to the mountains, forcing anyone coming from the West (and The Silk Road) to come through the Fort. I love forts, they contain so much thought and planning, its not every building where you have to incorporate the fact that people outside the building may try to knock it down to get at the people inside.
It was great to be able to walk the battlements and through the entry maze traps. Parts of this fort are original, and while I believe the guide said it was early Ming Dynasty, I have to admit I was looking at sight lines, and imagining attack or defence plans rather than listening most of the time.
This was our first experience with real cold and snow on this trip. I definitely didn’t dress appropriately. And it was slippery walking around. Got some amazing pictures of the lake and the Fort in the snowy early morning sun. Then my iPhone (which I was using as a camera) died from the cold. My toes got cold. It was interesting walking around the top and seeing The Great Wall on either side of the Fort. My favourite part was going inside to the museum where we saw 1,500 year old horse sculptures that a farmer found beneath his field. Those were really impressive. Made me think of what the Terracotta Army might be like when we eventually see it in Xi’an.
Zak, Rachel and I are in the middle of a crowd of jostling nomads from Eastern Tibet. Smooshed in on all sides, slowly shuffling forward. Babies strapped to backs with strips of cloth. Women with yak-fur lined jackets, long black hair braided with colourful strings and headdresses of turquoise, coral, yak bone. Men mumbling mantras, with thermoses of liquid yak butter to top-up the butter lamps in the temples.
We’ve climbed the 250+ steps up to Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, and now we’re trying to visit the inner temples. Our guide attempts to lead us forward, but none of us can move except in a slow shuffle.
Even when we’re inside the Palace, there are still more stairways to navigate. Steep stairways that look over a hundred years old … not that you can see the steps, you just follow the person in front of you, slowly climbing up or down the steps. We stand a good 6” or more taller than everyone else (Zak much more!) so while climbing up we also have to watch our heads on the low ceilings and doorways.
The guide tells us that in the summer, there are more tourists. But we’re visiting in winter, and we’re the only Westerners. The Tibetans surrounding us are pilgrims from Eastern Tibet. Most of these people are nomads, spending the summers with their animals (yaks, goats), but in the winter they make religious pilgrimages to the major Tibetan Buddhist sites. There are hundreds of them. And three of us.