Trans-Mongolian Trip ReportAuthor: GregW (More Trip Reviews by GregW)
Date of Trip: October 2005
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia -- a very interesting mix of gers, wood shacks and drab soviet style buildings. Nice main square, and the large Gandantegchinlen Khid monastery and the winter palace of the Mongol Khans are worth a look, though not the fee to take pictures. Lots of mutton available to eat. Many people use Ulaan Baatar as a setting off place for trips into the Gobi desert.
Whatever you do, don't give your passport to the police. It's a shake down, which I unfortunately feel victim too. Three police officers accused me of being drunk (which I was, but I don't think that's a crime) and started harassing me. They searched me and took everything off me. I had been warned that the police do this, and it's really an extortion attempt. I was pretty sure I was going to have to pay to get out of it.
But then one of the dudes dropped my camera and it popped apart into 3 pieces. That seemed to destroy all their resolve, and they ended up giving me back everything without getting a cent out of me. I think they were worried that I might want to go to the station and report my camera being broken.
Either way, the good news is that my camera just popped out a couple different modular parts, and that I was able to snap it back together and it still works fine.
Beijing, China -- Tons of construction cranes dot the skyline of Beijing as they prepare for the 2008 Olympics. The hutong (all the little alleys that hold the small houses) is quickly disappearing as Beijing builds high rise apartments and office buildings and street wide enough for cars.
I stayed at the Bamboo Garden Hotel near the Golou metro stop. Amazing place! It was around $US 70 a night. It's a first rate establishment, built around a courtyard that once housed the Empress' eunuchs. There are quiet pools to sit by for reflection, a restaurant, tea room and bar, and (most importantly) hot water in the showers! The room is fantastic, including free HBO and a James Bond-like control panel to control and lights that folds up into the night stand to disguise itself as a drawer when not being used.
Ordering in restaurants can be a bit of pain, so if you speak no Chinese, look for places with pictures on the menus, or eat from stalls where you can see the food. I had no problems eating from the stalls, and it was very inexpensive.
Also, be wary of students practicing English with you. I meet a couple of students who wanted to practice English with me. They showed me around for a couple of hours, and then we went to see a tea ceremony. The bill came and it was for $330, which the students didn't have. I paid, and then we went out to dinner. I didn't even realize it was a scam until I read about it a few days later. They worked 5 hours for the money! Also, I was approached twice by English speakers who were "art students" and wanted to show me their work.
Hong Kong, China -- well, at least kind of China. Mountains and ocean, with gleaming high rise towers in between. I loved this city. I hiked up to Victoria Peak and watched the sun go down and the sky-scrapper lights start to come on. Really cool.
I stayed at the Marriott Renaissance Harbour View Hotel using my Marriott Rewards points. It's very nice, but hardly budget.
It's right by the Wan Chai metro stop, which also has a lot of bars, restaurants and "strip clubs." I didn't go in, but apparently the strip clubs are very shady, and I have heard of people being drugged in them. The bars seemed fine.
I had no issues with border crossings. Half the borders I crossed had no border control (France-Belgium, Belgium-Germany, Belarus-Russia). The rest were pretty painless in that you just waited on the train for someone to come around.
For any forms required to be filled out, most forms either have English on them, or you can get an English form, so if they hand you a form without English, ask for the English form.
The crossing from Russia to Mongolia is very long, though, taking upwards of 8 or 9 hours, so don't plan much for that day.
In Russia, learn the sounds that the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet make. Metro stops, train stations and street names are not printed using the English alphabet, but maps tend to put things in English letters, so to translate between the two you need to know that tuhhelb is pronounced tunnel, and stuff like that. Plus, a lot of the words that travellers would need to know are pronounced the same or very similar. Tourist, restaurant, bar, cafe, toilet, and bank are just some of the words that are very similar, so if you can read a little Cyrillic, you can figure out that Pectopah = Restoran.
Mongolian using the Cyrillic alphabet too, but the words are somewhat different. Many things in Mongolia are also printed in English. Few people speak it, but pointing and smiling can get you pretty far.
China was very hard to communicate outside of Beijing. In Beijing, there was a lot of English around, or at least words in English.
Ticket Costs (as printed on tickets)
For Paris -- Brussels, you can buy the tickets on the Thalys TGV site. Standard prices is 71 Euros, but discounts can be found if travel is flexible, or departure point. I saw one deal that was 15 Euros from Charles De Gaulle airport to Brussels.
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