Back to Beijing, Onto the Train

The most interesting 100 or so people on the ship got off in Kobe to spend a few more days or a week or a month touring Japan. During the planning phase of this trip, we learned costs a thousand bucks at least to fly to China from Kobe, so we stayed with the other 900 folks back to the port. We took another 800-yuan taxi ride to Beijing, this time with a third passenger, a former resident of Key West who moved to Phuket and set up a horse rescue organization.

Harmony Hotel in Beijing was delightfully close to the train station, but was otherwise fairly stupid. It’s the first hotel we’ve seen in China without Internet in the rooms, despite what their web presence promises, and their business center charged $10/hour or so. (I found an Internet emporium around the corner which charged $1.50 for their “VIP rooms”.) And while friendly to train travelers, it’s not so friendly that you can have the included breakfast there if your train happens to leave at 7:45 — breakfast doesn’t start until 7. Maybe we can knock it down a notch or two on Trip Advisor.

First Class on the Trans-Siberian Railway is quite something. That was what China Train Tickets had been able to get for us. You get a cabin which sleeps two people, with wood-grained plastic walls. There’s a shower/sink room between each pair of cabins, and a chair opposite the berths. It is possible we’re booked thus all the way, except for the Tuva connections. Lunch and dinner were included in China, but were like prison food and for the same economic reason, a budget too low to afford even frozen Denny’s portion-controlled portions, (as were used on the Costa Classica), but labor which is virtually free and available to stir fry the cheapest ingredients available — a plate of cabbage, a couple meatballs in bouillon and cornstarch, and potatoes. It’s mostly an opportunity to sell drinks. Once the train arrives at the Chinese border, it goes into this shed where all the cars are separated, each car is lifted up about two feet so gradually you can’t even tell it’s happening, and the Chinese-gauge wheels are whisked away and the Mongolian/Russian-gauge wheels are whisked into place, and the cars are lowered back onto them. This process takes about three hours (including the leaving-China customs formalities).

Then there’s another ninety minutes spent entering Mongolia. These days, all border crossings include filling out a form where you say which symptoms of swine flu you have, and they take your temperature in some quick noninvasive way. I appear to have picked up a minor cold near the end of the cruise (I really should have used the hand sanitizers every time) and get very nervous each time. Of course, I don’t say I have a runny nose, sore throat and cough, because I fear being whisked away from our tight schedule into some quarantine motel for a week or so, where I might actually be exposed to the real thing. And my temperature, while slightly high, apparently hasn’t been so high to upset the algorithm behind the instant read thermometer. I’m feeling much better now, in the coughing-up-stuff phase. Hopefully entering Russia tomorrow night will be just as easy.

At some point in China, all the mountains disappeared, and the countryside got pretty flat and treeless. It continued all the way through Mongolia to Ulaan Bataar (the new way they spell Ulan Bator). First it was Gobi-desert dry, and then there was short grass everywhere. Short because the entire country is covered with herds of goats and sheep and cows and yaks which graze every acre. I have no idea where the trees went. Maybe it was some historic deforestation like Easter Island. The Chinese dining car had disappeared and been replaced by a festively-decorated Mongolian car that sold me an $8 American breakfast.