We got up early and joined the numerous people from our hostel who were leaving for Beijing. At the station we were pleased to find we had quite a jolly Chinese guard on our train, but not one that made strange noises. We shared a compartment with Harriet, a very friendly English girl who has travelled the trans-Siberian railway directly from Moscow, after making a few stops by train in Europe. She has recently finished her PhD in neuroscience, and this is her last big holiday before her viva oral defence and starting work in London. The carriage is almost entirely English speakers – it seems like everyone has booked their trip through Real Russia. Amongst the other passengers, there were four Irish girls on a 7 week trip and a retired English man, John, who is off on a holiday without his wife for a couple of months. He will end up in Australia, before heading home at the beginning of December. He said his wife doesn’t like holidays where there is no fluffy dressing gown at the end of the day! He was a great character, really talkative and we had some good conversations. During the daylight hours, we passed through much of the scenery familiar to us from our Mongolian expedition, including a few vistas of Bactrian camels in the desert. It was a perfect way to leave a country that has so far been the highlight of our trip.
As night closed in, we reached the border crossings. This was nowhere near as much of a drag as I had expected, after the Russia/Mongolia crossing. The Mongolian part was swift, they didn’t seem so bothered now we were leaving the country and the Chinese side was very efficient. We didn’t have quite as many forms to fill in – there was no form this time quizzing us about symptoms of Ebola virus infection. We had got paranoid about our antelope antler kite handle being an illegal animal part, and had removed it and left it on a platform at the last Mongolian station; I think we needn’t have bothered though! As trains head into China, the bogeys need to be changed as the gauge of the tracks is different. So around 11pm-12am, we stopped in a workshop area and the carriages were removed one by one (with us inside) and hoisted up whilst they changed the wheels underneath so we could continue our journey. It was interesting to watch, and seemed to bring out the hidden railway geek in a lot of passengers.
The next morning, we awoke to our first views of the Chinese countryside. At first there were quite a few similarities to Mongolia – it was quite arid as I think we were still in the Gobi desert region. We had been given free breakfast and lunch tickets for the restaurant car the night before and it was fun sitting at the little tables with the tablecloths and fake red chrysanthemums watching the scenery. Lunch was a hard-boiled egg and toast – white bread and very sweet. But free! We saw areas of land cut into little terraces for growing crops, craggy granite peaks with tunnels for the trains to pass through and rivers at the base – it was starting to look like the China we had seen in traditional paintings. A Chinese man in a carriage a little way down from ours was stood at the window, beaming. I asked him if he was pleased to be back in his country, and he said emphatically that he was very happy! It is not very often you come across a stranger expressing their joy as patently as this man was; it was lovely to see! He said, ‘welcome in China!’ and smiled and smiled. Just before twelve, we pulled into Beijing. We were extremely excited to find out what lay in store for us.