Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hanoi to Beijing (July 19-21, 2011)

Our train from Hanoi to the Chinese border
I am now in Moscow and way behind on publishing here!
I arrived in Beijing with excitement and apprehension.  I’d enjoyed my time in Vietnam and wasn’t really keen on having to learn a new country, with its language and customs, electrical plugs and monetary system.  Furthermore, having heard complaints about China’s dominance of Asia ever since I’d arrived in Malaysia, I felt as if I was entering the beast.  We pulled into the Beijing West station on time, a little after noon.  Everyone was in a rush to get off the train, so I took my time and was unable to tell the folks in the cabin behind mine goodbye.  Nor did I get to tell the Mongolian guy goodbye, as he was rushing to catch a bus to Uaanbaatar.  I was by myself.  Leaving the train, I made my way into the platform, looking for signs to the subway.  My hotel was across the street from Beijing’s main station (from where the Trans-Mongolian Train departs).   At the Beijing West station, there were almost no signs in English or with a familiar alphabet.   Furthermore, nobody at the information or police booths spoke English and everyone seemed to be such in a hurry that I was unable to find someone to speak English.  There were many people in front of the station trying to sell maps, but they were all in Chinese.  I was getting frustrated.  I realized how a Chinese might feel in America (but I also think that in many American transportation hubs, there are more signs in Chinese than there were English signs in this Beijing train station.  This, I should point out, wasn’t my experience in the subways or at Beijing’s main station. 
I wandered around the station and then out in front of the massive station, lost.  Finally, I saw a Westerner (an American from Seattle) and asked him if he knew how I should get to the main station.  He told me that there was no subway at the West station, and pointed to a distant hotel and said the subway was around behind that building, maybe 500 meters away.  He said that once I found the subway entrance, it was easy (take Line 1 to Line 2 and get off at the Beijing Main station).   The station I was looking for was named “Military Museum.”  I never found it!  Instead, I ended up at the subway entrance beyond the Military Museum one and learned that because of a highway project, there was sheet metal hiding the subway entrances (a helpful guy at a cell phone store helped me and some Chinese find the secret passage into the subway).  Luckily, once inside the subway, it was fairly easy to navigate. For only two yuan (30 cent),I could go anywhere in Beijing.  A few minutes later, I popped up from the subway in front of the massive Beijing Main station and found myself at the Harmony Hotel.  The longest train journey of the trip (so far) had come to a successful ending.
My departure from Hanoi had been interesting.   About an hour before the train to Beijing was to leave, the “International Waiting Room” opened.  I hauled my pack into the room and sat down.  The room was furnished with large over-sized carved wooden chairs.  Anyone of the fifty or so chairs could have served as a throne.  But as nice as they looked, they were terribly uncomfortable.  Knowing I’d have plenty of time to sit over the next two days, I dropped my stuff and walked around the room.  A few women came in and a large Asian man, but they all kept to themselves.  About thirty minutes before the train was to depart, an Australian came in wearing an cap for the rock group AC/DC.  He asked if this was the train for China.  I told him I hoped so and he asked if I could watch his bags while he runs out and gets some noodles for dinner.   He got back right as an attendant was calling for us to board.  There were only three passengers (an Asian, an Australian and an American).  One of the women was one of five railroad workers on the train.  I don’t know what happened to the other women in the room.  The attendant led the three of us out of the waiting room and by a longer train that was next to the platform.  Down the tracks, long after the platform ended and the weeds began, was single coach attached to a beat up locomotive that looked to have experienced the worst of the Vietnam War.  It was the train to Dong Dang, the Vietnamese town on the Chinese border.   Graham, the Aussie, and I were sharing a compartment (designed for four people) and the Mongolian had his own compartment next to ours.   A few minutes later, right on time, the train pulled out of the station.
Trying to get a lay of the land, I walked around the car and discovered that the back door was open.  I went back and got my camera and informed Graham, but the light was fading fast and I didn’t get any good shots before one of our attendants discovered the open door and shut it.   Graham and I went back to our compartment and talked.   Thirty minutes or so later, while the train was waiting on a siding, the power unit on the car started to make an awful racket.   It was almost unbearable, but when it finally stopped, the lights went out as well as the air conditioning.  The attendants were running around, but obviously none of them were electricians or mechanics.  Unable to get the unit back running, they gave us a battery powered lamp to sit on the table.  We’d be leaving Vietnam in the dark!  Graham and I talked for a while.  A veterinarian who’d spent his career with the Australian government, he’d recently retired and was on a month long train trip that had begun in Saigon and was to take him across the old silk route to Europe where he planned to attend a heavy metal concert in Hamburg and then continue on by train to Portugal, which he figured was the longest possible train ride he could do without backtracking. 
At some point, I dozed off, only to be awaken by the train attendant who said to get ready to get off the train.  At Dong Dang, we got off with our baggage and were led into a building where our passports were examined by Vietnamese officials.  Graham and I didn’t have a problem and was soon on a waiting Chinese train (with two cars).  They took a little more time with the Mongolian man, who I later learned was in the import business, buying food from Vietnam for Mongolia, which he shipped in containers over the railroad.  The Chinese train was nice.  Not only did its lights and air conditioning unit work, there was a pot of hot water under the table between the bunks and the table is covered with cloth and upon which are cups.  The bunks were comfortable as seats (Vietnam’s sleeper cards didn’t have back rests).   After waiting for a while in our new comfortable cabin, the train moved a bit down the line and we stopped again as Chinese officials boarded and asked for our passports.   Then the custom guys came on and asked to see our baggage.  They point randomly at our bags, having us open them as they dig through the contents.  I’m a little worried when the first thing he had me to open was the compartment on my pack that contained a bag of syringes.  “I’m diabetic,” I said and the custom official asked, “Insulin?”  Yes, and I showed him the cooling pack where my insulin was stored.  He looked at the packaging on the vial of insulin I’d just purchased in Hanoi, nodded and turned his attention to Graham’s bags.  
Then the most interesting thing happened.   One of the custom officials, a young man who was in the military, came into our compartment and asked if he could sit down.  In near flawless English, he asked who we were and where we came from and what kind of work we did and where we’d traveled.   We answered him, both of us being a little vague as we were unsure if it was an official part of the entry and he was fishing for information or if he just wanted to chat.  He then started complaining that because he was in the Chinese army, he can’t freely travel and said that he hoped when he was our age and done with the military, he would still be in good shape like we were and able to travel.  I am sure he was trying to be complimentary, but I felt as if he’d just called the two of us a “couple old farts.”
The whole bordering crossing took a couple of hours and it was nearly two in the morning when we finally got back underway.  Our new Chinese attendant informed us through sign language that we had to be ready to get off the train at 6 AM when we got into Nanning.  It was going to be a short night and sure enough, a little after 6:30 AM (we got an extra half hour sleep), he woke us up and told us we’d have to leave the train for a couple hours, but we could leave our luggage.  I took my day pack and the three of us were herded into a station. 

I had been unable to exchange money at the Hanoi station before leaving, so I asked the attendant who’d taken us to the “Soft Seat Waiting Room” if there was an ATM.  She pointed across the street (one with five or six lanes of traffic in each direction) and gave me a pass and told me that I had to be back in an hour.  I found way across the street and finally found an ATM.  It wasn’t working…  I felt a little naked walking around the streets without any Chinese money.   I continued my search and was told of another ATM a little further down and sure enough, it was working and I was able to withdraw money in Chinese yuan.  On the way back to the train, I picked up some fruit and bread and another large bottle of drinking water, enough to carry me through the next thirty hours on the train.
When they led us back to the train, it had grown.  Instead of the two cars that had come up from the border, there were about twenty cars including a diner.  As soon as we boarded, a hoard of others came out running onto the platform to join the train.  China, at least in their main stations, holds everyone in waiting areas until the train is on the platform and then checks their tickets as they allow them access to the platform where the train is waiting.  During the morning, we travel through southern China, passing by farms of rice and corn that’s dotted with sugarloaf limestone hills.  Construction is ongoing.  Throughout the countryside, there is work on a high speed line that runs to the south, its tracks mostly elevated, as well as new highway projects.  In the cities, cranes dot the skyline as new apartment and office buildings reach up into the heavens.    One wonders where the country gets all it concrete and Graham informs me that China’s building boom has been a blessing to the Australian mining and steel industries.  Everything is hazy.  I’m not sure if it is the humidity (which is high) or smog, but I have a feeling it is a combination of both.
At lunch, Graham and I head down to the dining car.  The waiter brings over a special menu in which someone had written in pencil the English words over the Chinese characters.  I order pork with garlic sauce for 40 yuan ($1.30).  Graham had brought in his own beer that he’d purchased when the train stopped in Liazhou.  Another waiter, obviously the bar tender, asked if I wanted a beer.  It turns out that there is only one kind being served today, Pabst Blue Ribbon!  I didn’t know they still made the stuff (it seems that on Chinese trains, there is only one kind of beer sold and it is often a foreign brand, for on the train from Beijing to Mongolia, it was Heineken).   When we come back after lunch, we discover that our attendant had locked our compartment.  Thereafter, whenever we leave for any significant time, we tell him and he locks the door.  The attendant also keeps the bathrooms cleaner than any I’ve seen on a train.  A couple times a day, he steps into our compartment to sweep up any mess and to empty our trash.
After lunch, I watched the train move through more of the limestone hills.  Graham and I talk about trains we’ve taken as well as other topics such as music (blues and rock) as well as religion.  We stopped for a few minutes in Gullin and get off onto the platform.  When they released the hoard to board the train, everyone runs out onto the platform and toward their cars.  Graham and I back away to make room and we watch an attractive and well-dressed Chinese woman in four inch heels trip.  It must have hurt and her husband has to help hold her up as they make their way down the tracks to their waiting car, her hobbling and holding onto his shoulder. 
By Longshiter, the limestone hills that have been a part of the scenery on and off since Thailand, have disappeared and the landscape flattens.  We pass a military train, loaded with half-tracks and trucks on flat-cars as well as a large number of coaches where I assume soldiers are riding.  I take a nap and read some in The Way of the Pilgrim, a book on prayer by an anonymous Russian Orthodox author who travels around Siberia in the 19th Century.  Cyclops had given me the book when I was in Penang.  Our reservation for dinner is at 6:30 and from the dining car, we watch a fiery red sun drop behind the Jiannng River.  I have a chicken and rice dish with a plate of greens.
After dinner, I spend some time with a family in the compartment behind me.  They’d boarded in Nanning and their son and I had joked and played several times throughout the day.  The mother, who teaches Chinese to Middle School Students, speaks a little English and is excited that I can understand some of what she is saying.  She and her husband are taking their son (who is 7) along with her niece (who is 13) to Beijing to see the Great Wall.  They are living on the southeastern coast, in Fangchenggang, but she grew up in a town on the river that borders Vietnam.  She’d never been in Vietnam and this is their first trip to Beijing.  I show them a photograph of my family and they take a photo of me with them. 
The next morning, there is a knock on the door at 5 AM.  It’s the attendant saying that Graham’s stop is coming up.  He’d thought he was getting off at 7 AM, but instead gets off before dawn.  I help him get his stuff out to the platform.  He has most of the morning to kill and in the afternoon is taking a high speed line to Xian, where he’ll stay overnight and have his first shower since leaving Australian four days earlier!  It’s just been the two of us in our four person berth the whole way and I’ll have the berth by myself the rest of the way to Beijing.   Instead of going back to sleep, I read and catch up on my journal as I watch the sun rise through the haze and smog.  At 7, I head to the dining car for breakfast.  I have bowl of porridge along with some rolls, pickled peppers and a boiled egg and coffee.  Later, I finish reading The Way of a Pilgrim, and reread the package of information from Intrepid about my trans-Siberian trip.  It is that at this point I realize I had been thinking I needed to be in Beijing a day earlier than I actually needed to be there and am a little upset with myself.  I could have taken the train three days later from Hanoi and spent time in Sapa.  But I vow to make the best of it.  We pull into our station, Beijing West, right on time.
“Everything seems desirable to us from a distance.  But we all find out by experience that everyplace, though it may have its advantages, has drawbacks too.”  Anonymous, The Way of the Pilgrim, page 194.


  1. You are meeting so many lovely people, Jeff - I am so thrilled for you that you get to have this incredible journey.

  2. Sounds like a man who knows how to think on his feet and get around. Stay safe and enjoy the journey Jeff.

  3. Folks dress pretty much the same everywhere these days. Goes to show about the similarities underneath the differences.

  4. I am enjoying your comments so much, this is such a great way to see the world around, so when we go to Europe, I will follow your lead...First, we will traverse the United Sates as been a European, I needed to see the USA on the ground verses all these Airports I have been for the last 40 years....These pictures are wonderful and I hope you are going to be safe and so much for you to talk about....I have been in Honk Kong and China, and all of Europe and Canada and Mexico, but not the places you have been, this is wonderful....stay safe and God Bless! Sure miss you in cedar City !

  5. Great post. I give you credit for traveling with a health condition. I would worry about meds. Things seems to be going pretty smoothly for you; folks come forward when you need them to get where you need and what you want. I'm always amused by your careful inclusion of everything you eat. Hope all continues well. Look forward to the next installment. The Transsiberian Express especially.

  6. It's not an easy thing to to travel on a train, or drive in a country where it is hard to communicate. You are a brave and adventurous person. I LOVED this post! Most people who travel to foreign countries never get away from the tourist post. I commend you for doing it the way you did. I'm going to work my way back in time here...