The last part of our train journey would take us from Mongolia to Beijing and then our final destination Shanghai. We spend a couple of day in both cities, fascinated by the millions of people, unique Chinese culture and the booming economy. We were back in China two years later and found that much had already changed, let alone ten years later after years of growth and massive construction works. So we never regretted including our decision to include China in our train journey.
" China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese. "
Charles de Gaulle
This remark by Charles De Gaulle may be very cliche, it is also very true and what struck us most during our first visit of China, especially after staying in Shanghai. Standing on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, with the Mao Mausoleum, Great Hall of the People, Forbidden Palace and the images of the student protests in 1989 also made a deep impression on us.
Ulan Bator to Beijing
After an interesting stay in Mongolia it was time to move on to the next destination of our train journey, Beijing, passing through the Gobi desert and Inner Mongolia. We now had a Chinese rail carriage after Russian and Mongolian carriages on previous legs of our journey. The Chinese use a different rail track gauge from Mongolia but we did not have to change trains. The train carriages are lifted by cranes and then the bogeys are changed from Mongolian to Chinese gauge at the border town Erlian. This al takes place at night in a big hangar while the passengers remain in the train, a fantastic experience. The next morning we woke up in green hilly landscape and actually drove through a gap in the Great wall, another magnificent view.
Our arrival at the Beijing Railway Station was a striking introduction to China, the sized of the station and amount of people are incomparable to Mongolia and even Russia. We had booked a hotel on walking distance from Tiananmen Square so that we could explore the city on foot. There was a small area with Hutongs, narrow alleys with old houses around courtyards, between our hotel and Tiananmen Square. These typical Chinese neighbourhoods are vastly making place for new construction works and are now in danger of disappearing altogether. We spend the first day wandering through the Hutong area, eating delicious Chinese food and buying souvenirs.
We spend our second day in Beijing doing an excursion visiting the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. The Ming Dynasty Tombs are located 42 km from Beijing, where 14 Ming Dynasty Emperors are buried. The most impressive feature of the this complex is the 7 km Spirit Way, lined with statues that leads to the Ming Tombs. The Great Wall can be visited on multiple locations near Beijing, we saw the famous monument near Mutianyu 79 km from Beijing. We went the wall by climbing the steep stairs in very hot and humid conditions. The view of the wall following the contours of the green hills makes the excursion well worth the time. We descended by Bobsled rather than walking back with the stairs that we walked up.
We spend our third and last day in Beijing on and around the famous Tiananmen (Heavenly Peace) Square, the heart of Communist China. We started with the Forbidden Palace, a huge complex facing the Square, visited by millions of tourists every year. The famous portrait of Mao Zedong hangs on the Gate of heavenly peace, the entrance to the palace, overlooking the Square.
We spend three hours in the Forbidden Palace, the political centre of the Chinese emperors, now it was time to visit the Great Hall of the People, the political centre of Communist China. We took a tour through, seeing many conference rooms were famous meetings and other historic events took place. The pinnacle of the Great Hall is the Main auditorium where the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is held every five years.
We did not have time enough left to visit the National Museum and the Mao Mausoleum also located on Tiananmen Square, however, we would visit both two years later when we were back in Beijing. We spend our last evening going out for food and drinks, this is no problem in China, since eating and drinking is the favourite pastime of the Chinese.
Beijing - Shanghai
The last leg of our train journey took us from Beijing to Shanghai, the business largest city in the world with a population of 23 million and the business centre of China. De high speed train doing this in less than five hours only exists since 2011, so we had to take a normal night train. We did have a very modern train, with six bed sleeping compartments, very new and clean but a bid claustrophobic. We had some great conversations with the businessmen and other Chinese travelers giving us great insight in the people of modern China. The journey took around nine hours and we arrived in Shanghai early in the morning.
St. Petersburg, where we started our 7000 km train journey seemed far away when we walked on Nanjing Road, one of the world’s busiest shopping streets, in Shanghai three weeks after our departure. Shanghai is a “Hong Kong on steroids style” metropolis that can rifle New York with its skyline and economic significance.
Shanghai was one of the Chinese cities open to foreigners in the 19th century. Western banks and trading companies established branches in Shanghai and it became a flourishing commercial centre. The Head offices of these companies were located on the Bund, a street on the waterfront build in colonial style. The promenade on the waterfront gives great views on the Bund, the busy shipping traffic on the Huangpu River, the skyline of Pudong, and the locals relaxing after work.
The Bund Sightseeing tunnel takes tourist to Pudong in cabins, enjoying sound and video effects in the tunnel. The business district Pudong has some of the largest sky scrapers in the world and is undergoing constant development. Tourist can go the top floor of multiple buildings to get a panorama view in Shanghai.
We were able to find some Hutongs in the centre but fear that they are now gone or turned in fake tourist areas. Comtourist friends F&T visited Shanghai eight years later in 2009 and much of had changed since our visit. We included some of their photos on the photo page, the skyline of Pudong looks very different only five years later, image what it will look like in another five years.
China is a shopping paradise, with something on offer for everybody. In 2002 it was still easy to find fake fashion items with the brand name misspelled like Hike, Adadas or Kuma, a great souvenir to bring home, nowadays you can only buy fake that looks like the real thing, boring. Another great buy is a Mao Suit, we bought one during our visit in 2004 before going to North Korea. Souvenirs with Mao or members of the Communist party can be bought everywhere, so we came home with a nice collection.