Trans-Mongolian Train Time…Or Not


130am- Finish packing for our train journey and set the alarm for 530am.

530am- The alarm drags us out of our stupor.  That was 4 hours already!  The Great Wall hike from yesterday exhausted us.

545am- Jump on the subway and promptly take the wrong connection.  Takes a stop to get us righted.

6am- Get to Beijing Railway Station and it is a circus (like everywhere in this city).

610am- Reach the front of the line to get into the station and “talk” to 4 different people who all understand English to varying degrees.  We are told to go to a ticket office inside the station.

630-645am- Wait in line inside the station.  Upon reaching the front the rep waves us off.  “No English,” he shouts.  Someone takes pity on us and leads us to another area with “English Speaking Line” which is #16.

650-7am- After reaching the front of line #16 the attendant tells Nug, “You go to line #1.”

700-725am- Line #1 sends us to Line #33.  We are skeptical so on the way we ask no less than 20 people if they speak English.  The ones that do offer us conflicting info on where we “must” go.

730am- A girl who might be 12 and speaks the best English yet tells us Line#33 is the E-ticket line.  Things are looking up!  We booked our tickets online through Real Russia.

735am- On the way to line #33 Nug spies E-ticket machines.  She takes out our passports and waits in line.  The machines only take Chinese IDs.

750am- We are at the front of Line #33.  The teller takes our passports and looks back blankly.  We speak no Mandarin and he speaks no English.  He kicks us out of line.  Someone tells us we need an E-ticket number.  What is that?!?!  We are frantic and desperate.

Where do we go?!?


8am- Our train leaves the station…without us.

830am- After wandering for 30 minutes with bags that feel like they are full of lead we finally find a hotel that will let us use their wifi.  Wifi access is terrible in Beijing.

845am- Nug finds a cheery email from Real Russia saying we need to pick up paper tickets at a location other than the train station…sent at 1130pm last night.  The included map to find the Chinese agents office is laughable.

845-945am-  Walk around on our own and ask a minimum of 40 people how to get to the ticket office based on the map we have pulled up on our computer.  Half the people shrug and the rest invariably send us in assorted directions.  Eventually, looking like we went for a swim we walk into the office.

955am- We finally catch a break…kind of.  We are told that our $700 tickets are worthless after 10am.  We can change the date before that for $80.  Sign us up!  The next train is in 3 days.  Do we want to wait in the office for the tickets or come back?  We wait.

1130am- We walk back into the hostel where we started at 530am this morning…defeated.  We book for 3 more nights.  We must look pitiful because they upgrade us from the dump we stayed in before to a much larger and nicer room…for the same price.  We fall on our faces and immediately pass out.

The Wall

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Once we had spent several days visiting the local Beijing tourist sites we worked with our hostel to set up a hike of the Great Wall.  They originally kept trying to push a bus tour because “It includes jade and silk shopping!  Plus it visits Great Wall section that over 130 million people have visited!”  We were eventually able to get the point across that this sounded like a horrible idea and found info on a small group hike.  The next morning we were off at 7am and joined our group of 3 others for the day.  We were headed to Shixiguan where we would hike 8km to Badaling.  As we walked past a sign that read “No Admittance” I asked our Chinese guide “Jerry” if he did this hike often. “Haha…No I think that would be quite terrible.  It’s very steep,” he stated.  The section we scrambled across was overgrown with  vines, shrubs and wildflowers.  It was left in its original condition and large sections were in disrepair.  The wall snaked through the surrounding mountains and the views were sublime.  To visit one of the most famous attractions in a congested city and be the only ones was a remarkable experience.

Hey Nug

The hike







Several days later we gave the wall a 2nd shot at the Mutianyu section.  This time our bus had 11 other people and we spent an hour and a half navigating the city to collect everyone.  This section was completely refurbished and had several hundred tourists along a fairly condensed portion of the wall.  The views were beautiful once again but the hawkers and tour buses certainly detracted from the surroundings.  Not wanting to walk the steps down we took a slide from the top which weaved through the mountainside forest.  At the bottom we were surrounded by touts each pushing some POS that we neither wanted nor needed.  It certainly made us appreciate our original, less commercial Great Wall excursion.




Chinese Charades


As we travel through Asia I can’t help but be reminded of and grateful for the many camping trips to Ginnie Springs that I’ve taken with family and friends.  Squatting in the woods and the countless games of charades have proven to be a beneficial training course, in particular for our time in Beijing.  As we ventured out each day to explore something new we undoubtedly found ourselves caught up in a huge and endless game of charades.  Ordering off a menu, asking for the check, requesting chopsticks, getting directions, purchasing soap at the convenient store, negotiating prices, asking for a to go box – all of these simple tasks were accompanied by many smiles, laughter and tons of hand gestures sometimes resulting in what we were hoping for but often times not.

Ghost Street

I love picture menus!







On one of our nights in Beijing we were enjoying a dinner of kung pao chicken, shrimp egg rolls and soup on Ghost Street.  I decided to go out on a limb and request some dipping sauce for the egg rolls.  Ross got the waiter’s attention for me and when he arrived I did my best attempt at forming a little bowl with my fingers and pointing at the egg rolls then back at the side dish.  While motioning I repeated slowly “sauce?”, “sweet and sour?”  He seemed to pick up on something I’d said and excitedly walked away while letting me know to wait one minute by signaling back with his pointer finger.  A minute later he brought back a small dish of sugar.  He looked so proud and triumphantly asked, “Yes, is okay?”  Ross and I maintained poker faces and assured him this was what we wanted.  He walked away with a huge grin.  We gave it a shot while laughing and discussing how stupid he must have thought we were for wanting sugar for our egg rolls.

Great Wall at Mutianyu


Why climb the Great Wall when you can ride a chairlift up and a toboggan down?  Here is a video from lazy way at the Mutianyu section.



China: Know Before You Go


There is no doubt that China has a culture much different than that of the United States.  Intense mental preparation is required and we were ill prepared to handle some of it.  The lack of personal space, Disney World-esque lines (at all times and everywhere), rude local tourists, guttural hacking and loogie spitting by both sexes (in restaurants, on store floors, subways…everywhere really) are nothing compared to the main thing that every traveler to China needs to be aware of before going.  I cannot even say “prepare for” because that is a physical impossibility.  We were cognizant of it before arriving and were still dumbfounded when we witnessed it firsthand.  In China the majority of little children wear shorts or pants that are crotchless.  Nug and I started to call them “splitties”.  The strange thing about this garment is that the toddler is open to the world with no diaper or anything protecting their junk AT ALL!  Now I do envy the associated freedom but it seems quite odd to let your kiddo run around a filthy city with no safeguard.  Any time they sit, walk, or are held by their parents they are just flashing the whole world.  We saw splitties in subways, public parks, restaurants, riding on daddy’s shoulders…everywhere.

Is it weird that we took a pic?














And this leads to the disturbing reason that roughly 25% of the world’s population wears splitties when they are a litter nipper… in order to take a dump or pee wherever and whenever it is convenient, right there in front of everyone.  The number of times that a crowd ahead of us would part and we would encounter a chitlin dropping a steaming deuce on a public sidewalk, garden, or even once in a restaurant was downright frightening.

Bombs away!

The parents resemble dog owners who let their kid do their business and watch on.  Most studious parents pick up the mess but some uncouth guardians leave the land mine and slink off.  This can lead to an awkward situation for the passerby who fails to notice the booby trap.  Stepping in dog poo is bad enough but fresh, smeared baby poo on your foot is downright repugnant.  Normally one would expect to be able to stroll along a sidewalk and not encounter human feces but in China a walker does this at their own peril.

“Chinese Land Mine”

The first time we witnessed a baby letting loose a steamy pile in the walkway we gawked at the incident in disbelief.  The mother finally hid her baby from our judging eyes and then glared at us…as if we were the indecent ones!!  Like I said, China has a different culture than us.

We’re in China! Now What?


After the ease of…well everything in Hong Kong we assumed Beijing would be the same.  This turned out to be a rookie mistake.  At the airport there were no city maps, hotel reservation desks or wifi availability.  We had not booked a room ahead but had an idea of the area of town we wanted to stay.  We jumped on the Airport Express Train into town.

As we stepped onto the streets from the underground we were engulfed in throngs of people and decrepit sepia colored smog.  We wandered around and tried to book a room at several places but they were all full.  We stopped at McDonald’s to try to use the wifi but it would not work.  We asked or I should say attempted to ask several people where we could find a room.  We could not for the life of us locate a city map.

We attempted to flag down a taxi but soon learned that cabbies discriminate against foreigners with big back packs.  At least 100 zoomed by.  Finally someone was dropped off where we stood.  I jogged over to the driver’s side and he rolled up his window in my face.  I tried to open the back door and he locked the door before I could.  Then he peeled out and barely missed my toes.  WTF!!  We were soaked in sweat and desperate.  Several hours had gone by.

We soon learned that Chinese hotels allow people to make reservations and charge nothing if they don’t show up to take the room.  As it was a Friday most places were reserved for the weekend.  To make it worse (for us) they would not release the rooms of the no shows until 8pm and it was only 4pm.  We were on the verge of lying under a bridge with the bums and sucking our thumbs.

People began to take an interest in us and tried to offer help over the next hour or so.  Most had a story of how they were helped while overseas.  We had been walking for 3 hours at this point.  A kid who we learned is working on a PhD at Northwestern took us under his wing.  He found a place with availability but when we walked in they shook their heads.  He informed us that they could only accept Chinese tourists.  Dammit!  He led us through several back alleys and to several more full hotels but finally one had a computer that we could use.  We booked a place at Hai Inn.  He had to go so we again tried to get a cab.  15 minutes went by as we frantically tried to flag one down.  Someone else came over to help us.  It was an older woman who spoke no English.  We tried our best to communicate and she took the slip of paper with our hotel name (written in Chinese thank God).  A teenage girl was getting in a cab but the woman ran over and forcefully pulled her out while waving us over.  She lectured the cab driver and patted me on the head as I got in and with a huge smile said, “Buh-bye!” We checked into our room 5 hours after landing in China and fell right to sleep.