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Taking the Trans Manchurian Express to Beijing

More Adventure travel tales in China:
Great Wall of China
Terracotta Warriors
Dali Yunnan
Yangtze River trip
Other Asian Tales:
Angkor Wat temples
Lake Baikal, Siberia
Sapa Valley, Vietnam
Kuching, Malaysia
Luang Prabang, Laos
Tana Toraja, Indonesia

Lake Baikal seen from the train
From Irkutsk there are two ways to reach China, or more specifically, Beijing. The popular one for tourists is via Mongolia, the so-called Trans Mongolian Express. But there is an alternative that goes around Mongolia. It passes the Manchurian planes of the Chinese provinces Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang to reach Beijing. This Trans Manchurian Express is the obvious choice for Chinese and others that do not plan to visit Mongolia.

Still on the platform in Irkutsk, it feels like China. With numerous Chinese we are waiting in the cold for our carriage to be connected to the train. They are rattling and spitting as only the Chinese can. And although all tickets on the train are reserved ones, everybody starts pushing as soon as the doors open to get in. It is a sample of what can be expected in China.

In the train we share a cabin with a Russian woman and a Chinese man. The rest of the carriage is full of Chinese, talking in the aisle. When we join them to find out about the stops en route, we get to be the topic of conversation. We have to explain where we’re from and everybody tries to remember their Secondary school English to talk to us.

The first part of the journey leads us through breathtaking landscapes. Through the mountains and along Lake Baikal we take numerous pictures. When the train moves away from the lake, we reach the first stop. Curious for what will be sold we head outside, but it’s mainly fish and cooked potatoes, so we return to the warm train.

In the evening everybody eats their noodle soup and recently bought fish and potatoes. We have to join them, if only to counter the enormous slurping and burping of the Chinese. Our cabin mate is very friendly, but in addition to the noise, he also smells terrible. And when he turns to sleep early, he snores like no other. After a heavy night with a lot of shaking and snoring, we wake up in a completely different landscape. The mountains have trades places with bare planes, a little boring.

In the afternoon we reach the Russian side of the border. According to the schedule, we will make a stop here for 5 hours. This is required for the train to change chassis, since the Chinese railways have different gauges. But apparently, part of this time is reserved for formalities. And after filling in some Russian form, we have to leave the train. So we spend five hours in the cold hall of the train station, with nothing to do and not allowed to get out.

At the Chinese side of the border we spend another three hours with formalities. A lot of Chinese uniforms enter the cabin, and all want to see our passports, probably just out of curiosity. Finally, the real customs officer enters the data in a laptop and every uniform leaves the train. It takes a lot of time before the train start moving again, but at least we can stay in the train. We do get outside, however, to grab a bite. The Chinese food is heaven compared with the Russian train-food. And when we get back, we have the cabin to ourselves.

Oil fields on the Manchurian plains of ChinaThe next day, the northern China landscape passes our window. Flat planes that are normally grazed or worked on, but appear a bit arid in winter. Once in while we pass a village or city, and we see some round buildings or tents. We think it might be Mongolian yurts, but they are probably just for storage.

The Chinese cities do not appear appealing from the train. In the centers, there are modern skyscrapers, but on the outskirts there are ugly gray apartment buildings and poor ghettos. We pass the largest oilfields in China, but apparently that brought little fortune for the local population here.

Most of the Chinese leave the train in Harbin. Since the landscape isn’t very interesting either, we decide to take this opportunity to catch some sleep before we arrive in Beijing in the early morning.

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