Our Diary News from Beijing

Sitting at the end of the runway in KL feeling very smug... We'd been upgraded and were surrounded by empty seats - sleep shouldn't be a problem... One engine gave a cough and died! This was followed by an undignified tow back to the terminal - so much for our smugness! But good call, AirAsia; they had another plane standing by, so 3 hours later we were off again.

Arrival at 5am in Beijing was a doddle. The Immigration desk even had a keyboard where you could score the service from very bad to perfect. Ours was perfect. It's amusing to conjecture if all Immigration desks had this service: the US could offer "obnoxious" to "smiley"; or the UK - "gruff" to "welcoming". Shattered, we hopped in a taxi -then hopped back out again as he demanded ¥600 (£60 ) to take us to our hotel. After complaining to the police standing by, they helped us get a metered cab at ¥100 - this was more acceptable. Our opinion that taxi drivers are rogues, the world over, has not been changed.

We slept most of the day in a pleasant hotel close to many of Beijing's sites. A couple of hours' evening stroll in the local park, a simple meal and a beer. Christine found that the local wine was drinkable so all was well with the world.

After a goods night's rest we sampled the local dumplings for breakfast and, fortified, we headed to Tiananmen Square - along with about 100,000 Chinese. We'll have to get used to these throngs. So in a nutshell, the Square is big. The Forbidden Palace is huge with impressive architecture, and the Chinese population are all there. Tip - we didn't find the audio guide really useful, despite the Lonely Planet advice, and there are plenty of information boards up in both Chinese and English. Ask for Seniors Discount if you qualify (half price over 60). Go early. Be patient. Take water - and/or brandy in case you get overwhelmed.

Look out world - China has arrived.

China is a very old civilisation and tends to do it "their" way. Many years ago, just after China emerged from Mao's regime Keith was told by a long standing expat from Beijing that "The Chinese do not think they are the superior race... They know they are." This does not lead to arrogance but leads to a feeling of confidence. Certainly China is a very confident nation.

If Beijing is anything to go by we were impressed - very impressed. The ancient has been blended with the modern. Everything worked. Streets were clean and maintained. New infrastructure was going up - not higgledy piggledy like Malaysia but in an ordered and planned manner.

The people are friendly and helpful and love to laugh. Even though there was a huge language barrier we had some great moments. We noticed that Caucasians (Europeans) are still a rarity - we were often approached to have our photos taken with visiting families. They were so surprised that we couldn't understand Mandarin - in their minds, "everyone speaks Mandarin". So they just kept talking to us anyway - gestures helped and we/they were often understood.

Beijing is a very green city with avenues of trees and lovely manicured parks and flower beds. Most had some sort of sculpture or square where the locals would congregate to play checkers, or cards, dance and exercise. It was lovely to see northern hemisphere plants and flowers again.

We never had a bad meal anywhere. Be it fresh dumplings from a street vendor to Peking Duck at a quality restaurant - all was fresh, flavoursome and not expensive, although some of the dishes may be a bit odd to our western tastes If you are a serious foodie a visit to Beijing is a must.

After visiting the ancient sites (all well-restored and maintained) we explored some modern architecture; the Olympic stadium was amazing as was the Centre for Performing Arts which housed a concert hall, opera house and theatre - all in one spectacular building. At the time, atmospheric pollution was not as bad as we feared; maybe we were just lucky.

A trip to Beijing would not be complete without a trip to the Great Wall. An early (6am) start - there was a bit of a mix up with others being a bit late, but we joined a 20-man bus for the two hour trip to Mutianyu. Once out of the city, the countryside is lush farmland - fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, pig farms, forestry and some rivers, lakes and reservoirs with people fishing. The roads were very good and clean. This section of the Great Wall has been restored and the 2.25km stretch has about 23 watch towers. We took the cable car up to Tower 14 and walk towards Tower 23 (end of the line). The last section was VERY steep - Keith made it all the way and was presented with a medal from an enterprising sales lady! We went back down the cable car to a restaurant for a delicious lunch. We were seated at a table with a Chinese family - who were amazed at our prowess with chopsticks!

Time to move on - we had a train to catch... The Trans-Siberian Express.

We took a taxi to the train station and presented our tickets to the waiting security guard. It was all a bit confusing; hundreds of people were milling around, we joined the throng, not knowing where to go, all the sign posts and destination boards were in Chinese. By chance we saw one of them flash briefly in English "Moscow Platform 11" and an arrow; around the corner was another vast hall with long wooden benches and signs in English. After a little wait we were allowed onto the platform - the long olive green and gold train awaited. We found our carriage and were shown our compartment by the smartly dressed usher - our new adventure was beginning.

Our first leg was the 28 hour journey to Ulaanbataar, Mongolia. We had chosen "soft sleeper" class - two sets of bunks opposite each other. Not comfortable but adequate. For this short leg we shared the compartment with a Dutch couple a few years younger than us. The majority of passengers were travellers like us - and there was a party-like atmosphere on the whole trip. Everyone had a story to tell and conversations sprung up everywhere; in the passageways, compartments or in the Chinese dining car. The trip through China was past well-tended agricultural land punctuated with the odd town or small community. Building work was everywhere - often on a huge scale. As night approached we crossed the Gobi desert - barren and apparently lifeless. Around midnight we reached the border with Mongolia. Here we had our passports taken and stamped by the Chinese. Whilst this was going on the train was taken to the workshop to have its "wheels changed" - we were able to stay on board and observe this procedure. There is about 3½" difference between the Russian and Chinese gauges. For the technical-minded the carriages were marshalled into two lines of six and then each carriage separated. Two pairs of hydraulic jacks lifted the body of each carriage free. The old bogies were rolled out and the new ones fitted. The carriage is then lowered onto the new bogies with a satisfying "clunk" and the train is reassembled - complete with four new engines and a Mongolian restaurant car.

Our change of nationalities appeared to go unnoticed by the Mongolian Immigration!

Daylight brought us onto the Mongolian steppes; vast open country with camels, horses, sheep and cattle grazing. What few towns we passed showed signs of their Russian communist influences - stark and utilitarian concrete cubes; nothing to write about here!

By mid-afternoon we arrived in Ulaanbaatar.