In May of this year I spent 21 days crossing the trans-siberian railway from Beijing to St.Petersburg with a friend made in college, Amanda. The whole thing started during a Skype call with Amanda some time last year. At the time she was planning on moving back home to Canada. Amanda lives in Australia and has been there 4 years.. about the same amount of time I’ve been here in Taiwan. She told me the last thing she really wanted to do before she went home was the trans-siberian. After expressing my interest (ie “Let’s do it”) it was about 3 more phone calls and 8 months later for us to be headed on our way.
We would meet up in Beijing after 2 years apart to start our journey. After 4 years in Asia and having been to many Asian cities, and using many forms of public transportation, I was feeling a bit cocky. Especially since I’ve been starting to feel a bit competent in Chinese. I decided to skip using a taxi since the Beijing metro system reached out to the airport. This was a disaster. Having never been to China I had no idea how inconvenient the metro system would be. I was lugging a suitcase as big as I am and probably as heavy through connections with tons of stairs and no escalators…. and then of course I got lost.
It’s not entirely my fault. I had a map of my hotel and had asked the information booth at the airport and she had told me with a lot of confidence where the hotel was and where I should get off the metro. This is a common problem in traveling through Asia. People don’t like to look dumb or “lose face”. Saying “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” is like saying to someone that you don’t know anything about anything…or that you’re a failure as a human being… so people will tell you with gusto directions to anywhere even if it gets you horribly lost.
My other two favorite experiences at the airport were the security and dumb westerners. While I was waiting in line to go through security there was a handful of bubble gum popping bleached blonds with American accents. One of them thought she had found an “Engrish” gem beneath the security booth. She pointed to the sign and said “Please queue….QUEUE???? OH MY GOD WHAT’S QUEUE???” her jaw dropped down to her chest, she nudged her friend and they both started laughing hysterically (and my palm hit my forehead). This is what I was terrified of spending days on the train with. My prayers began “please please don’t let me get stuck with dumb westerners on the train… please please”.
I know it’s impossible but I still romanticize of having travel experiences that feel authentic. I want to go to places where few other foreigners have trodden. I don’t want to be followed around by other white faces with cameras dangling around their necks and fanny packs on their rears. It’s not meant to sound snobby and it’s totally selfish but it’s just a dream that I know this day and age is almost entirely unrealistic. Coming into this trip I knew we would bump into other westerners and I was sure at points it would be a relief. I just didn’t want to be stuck with them the whole way. I wanted to enjoy this trip with a good friend and interact with as many locals as possible along the way.
Coming out of the Beijing airport I had to pass additional screening to get onto the Beijing airport express line which feeds into the metro. They put my purse through an x-ray machine and when I started to lift my suitcase they said “no no” (or “不用 不用”). I found it interesting that they thought I could possibly have something dangerous in my purse but that I wouldn’t go through all the trouble of putting it in my suitcase????
Anyway my quick and easy ride into the city didn’t end up being so quick and easy. I managed to drag my suitcase through all the necessary places to get to the stop I was supposed to get to but then once I got there my hotel was nowhere to be found. I ended up quickly making friends with two young, and incredibly sweet Chinese girls who were on a mission to get me to my hotel. I couldn’t help but feel a little suspicious for awhile. They were going through so much trouble to help me and I couldn’t figure out why they would (Taipei has turned me into such a city girl) but they were just genuinely good people. It definitely left me with an extremely good impression of young mainlanders. We walked and walked and tried to find the hotel, eventually one of the girls called the hotel and found out it was much further away than we had imagined. So the next adventure was trying to flag down a taxi.
Taxis are apparently a secret money market waiting to be discovered in Beijing. I can’t walk 5 steps without a taxi honking at me in Taipei but in Beijing we tried on a main road for a good 30 minutes (with many others trying to catch their own cab) with absolutely no luck. And it wasn’t even raining! We finally caught a bus and the girls saw me safe and sound to the hotel and right into the arms of Amanda.
It was weird how quickly it felt like I’d never been apart from Amanda. She’s just one of those friends in a million. In a way I imagined myself being hyper and wound up about it for days but we pretty quickly settled into our regular old selves and it was nice. As soon as I turned the light off to go to sleep we both went “oooooooooooooooooo” (ghost noise) at the exact same time. I knew from that moment that everything was going to be alright.
Overall I wasn’t looking forward to going to Beijing but it was incredibly depressing to have to spend 200$CAD for a visa only to go to Beijing, get lost, eat, go to sleep and wake up crazy early the next morning to catch a train leaving Beijing. I didn’t even get to see the wall! Our walk to find a food place that was still open was pretty much my only exposure to the (closed) attractions of Beijing.
The video shows pretty much everything else that followed from us leaving Beijing to getting to Ulaanbaatar. As I said I wasn’t too excited to spend our long train rides surrounded by other foreigners so when we got to the train station and the waiting area was filled with other westerners I was a bit bummed… and then when we stepped into our cabin and two big guys followed us in I felt a bit defeated but thankfully my first impressions were way off. Eoin and Conar, two Irish boys, were one of the highlights of the trip. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say we pretty much laughed for 30 hours (we did need to sleep)… and in the end they ended up being the only westerners who we shared a train ride with at all. There is a good 30 minutes or so of videos of them NOT included in this movie. I’m sure when I finally compile them together in a condensed form I will be able to make the boys famous on youtube.
More stills of the first four days on flickr: