Beijing to Moscow by train

The 21-day tour began with a few days of sight-seeing in Beijing, and similar breaks in Ulan Baatar, Irkutsk (Lake Baikal) and Moscow, concluding with a couple of days in St Petersburg. Altogether, we would be spending six nights and about as many days on the train.

(Daily Times, 26 June 2014)

This was to be the trip of a lifetime, the one I had been dreaming of since the mid-1970s. Standing on the platform of the Yaroslavsky station in Moscow to receive or send someone off, I would chance to see the Moscow-Beijing train ready to depart on, or at the end of, its long journey.  How lucky the tourists on this train, I would tell myself. 

So paranoid were the Soviets about any contact with China or the West at the time that, being a student at the Moscow State University, I knew to keep my distance from the train and its passengers. While the ordinary Russian had a healthy respect for the US and the West, tinged with envy, he had nothing but contempt for the Chinese.

Now, about four decades later, in September last year, I was finally going to travel from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian railway, via Ulan Baatar in Mongolia and Irkutsk in Siberia. I was in a package tour, part of a small group of seven, which included my wife and good friend KP.

The 21-day tour began with a few days of sight-seeing in Beijing, and similar breaks in Ulan Baatar, Irkutsk (Lake Baikal) and Moscow, concluding with a couple of days in St Petersburg. Altogether, we would be spending six nights and about as many days on the train.

The last time I had been in Beijing was in 1991. How different it was then!  My plane had landed at a sleepy little airport and the road to the city was barely wide enough to allow two cars to pass. There were very few cars on the road anyway. But a lovely road it was, lined on either side by age-old trees providing a canopy of verdant leaves, not by towers of steel, concrete and glass as now.

Communist habits were still prevalent.  Sales girls in state-owned shops chatted amongst themselves while customers waited to be served. There were few foreign tourists and nothing to assist them to find their way around. Thus, with great difficulty and some trepidation, I had found myself in a bus heading to the Great Wall.  My fellow-passengers seemed to be all rural Chinese, so rural in fact that, judging by their looks, they probably knew a total of less than ten English words between them!

The bus stop was in a narrow street not far from the huge Tien An Mein square, on which now stood the Mao Zedong Mausoleum. Old women were hawking snacks for the road, the greater portion of which consisted of boiled eggs, all manner and sizes of eggs, such a sheer variety of eggs as I had not seen before and have not seen since.

It is said of the Chinese that they will eat anything with four legs except tables, anything that flies except airplanes, and anything in the water except ships and boats.  One could add to the list the egg of any creature as long as the shell can be cracked open. 

The bus was finally on its way, to the Great Wall, I hoped.  When it stopped, after an hour or so, I got off the bus like everyone else. Announcements were made in Chinese, which, well, was Greek to me. I could see a section of the great wall atop the hills at some distance. But something wasn’t quite right, for no was heading that way. I followed the others to a museum, which exhibited the history of Mongol oppression.

Emerging from the museum, I looked for my fellow passengers, but they were nowhere to be seen. They had vanished amongst the passengers from the other buses. To a South Asian like me, all Chinese looked the same anyway.  Having made sure that they had not returned to the bus, I nervously began to walk towards the Wall in the distance.  A few minutes later, completely unsure of myself, I anxiously looked back. 

There was no one behind me, and none in front of me.  Just the wall at some distance in front of me, like the spine of a dinosaur on the mountain ridge, the whole area all but desolate, except for the buses, tourists and museum some distance behind me.

I now quickly retraced my steps.  As I approached my bus, dozens of hands poked out the windows, all pointing in my direction. Though I could not hear them, or understand even if I heard anything, it was easy to guess. In one voice they would have been saying: “there he comes”!  Usually one who hates to be late, I made my entry into the bus with a sheepish grin, and half a wave of my right hand by way of an apology, with all eyes focused on this “uncultured foreigner”.

Finally, I was headed to the real great wall, vowing never again to lose sight of my fellow passengers, no matter what. And it’s a good thing I did. For at the next stop, after some announcement in Chinese, the bus dropped us at the entrance of a large enclosed park, which contained a large collection of stone statues from the past. I kept closely behind my fellow-passengers, who emerged at the far end. And there was the bus, waiting to pick us up from there, more than a kilometer away from where we had been dropped. I now know that we were at the Ming Tombs, about 40 km north of Beijing.

By contrast, my trip to the Great Wall this time was eventless, if less exciting.  This was a different section of the Great Wall, the Mutianyu section, 70 km northeast of Beijing.  On the previous visit, I had been to the Badaling section of the Wall, about the same distance to the northwest of the capital.  At the highest point on the Badaling stretch sat an officer of the Chinese Tourism Department with a rudimentary table, giving out certificates bearing testimony to the recipient’s having climbed the Great Wall. I certainly deserved one on this occasion.

(To be continued)

By Razi Azmi

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5 Responses to Beijing to Moscow by train

  1. AMIR says:

    this is getting very interesting.

  2. Tony says:

    Hi Razi – the stone statues you saw are known as Shi san Ling. They are very important in Chinese history and culture. Wikipedia tells it thus. “The Ming tombs are a collection of imperial mausoleums built by the Chinese Ming dynasty emperors. The first Ming emperor’s tomb is located near his capital Nanjing. However, the majority of the Ming tombs are located in a cluster near Beijing and collectively known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty (Chinese: 明十三陵; pinyin: Míng Shísān Líng) They are within the suburban Changping District of Beijing municipality 42 kilometres (26 mi) north-northwest of Beijing city center. The site, on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain (originally Huangtu Mountain), was chosen based on the principles of feng shui by the third Ming dynasty emperor Yongle (1402–1424). It was he who relocated the capital of China from Nanjing to its present location in Beijing. He is credited with envisioning the layout of Ming dynasty Beijing as well as a number of other landmarks and monuments located therein. After the construction of the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) in 1420, the Yongle Emperor selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum. The subsequent emperors placed their tombs in the same valley”. So do your homework next time.

  3. MALLIK says:

    Absorbing. Can’t wait for the ensuing part/s.

  4. Javed Agha says:

    Waiting for the rest…interesting.

  5. Fahd says:

    Captivating Indeed.

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