From Europe to Asia with No Jet Lag Beijing, 28 september 2010

We’ve done it! Europe to Asia with no jet lag! Salzburg–Warsaw–Moscow–Beijing by train.

‘Quirky’ is how we describe the places we’ve laid our heads recently. We arrived in Warsaw late at night and travel-weary and found our way through what looked like a construction site to the twenty-second floor studio apartment Geoff had found at a bargain price on the internet. It took a few minutes for us to work out that, while the studio had a washing machine, it didn't appear to have a bed. After some poking and prodding, we convinced the sofa to become an L-shaped bed. We then considered how to arrange our bodies on it. It was surprisingly comfortable! The studio had panoramic views of Warsaw and in the light of day we walked out the front door to find ourselves right in the centre of town, opposite the grand Palace of Culture and Science.

Caption competition. Geoff in Warsaw, Chopin’s birthplace

We were in Warsaw just long enough to catch our breath and wash off the jam that had leaked through the supply of food we had accumulated for the Trans-Siberian. Then it was on to Moscow on a Russian train (our first sleepers) through Belarus. Our expensive Belarusian transit visas were examined during the night by an official dressed in a uniform of miniskirt and long boots. Such was our excitement to wake up in Russia the next morning that it was well after breakfast (from our new blue bag full of jam-free food) before either of us remembered it was Chris's birthday. What a way to celebrate!

Our entry into Moscow was a case study in the kindness of strangers. Moscow’s metro system is magnificent but it does have its fair share of stairs. The crowd carried us (and our luggage) along with them as fit young strangers wordlessly grabbed a suitcase, sprinted up two flights of stairs and ran back down to repeat the exercise. It was thus our stress levels were managed and our marriage saved.

Our next quirky accommodation was in a hotel built for the 1980 Olympics. It overlooks what could be best described as a Russian theme park gone sadly wrong, which survives as the backdrop for wedding photographs. Nearby, we discovered its antidote—a river and parkland populated by Great Tits and Nuthatches.

Our hotel overlooking the quirky theme park

Go to www.kremlin-izmailovo.com to learn more about the theme park.

Finally, after these quirky preludes, we boarded the Trans-Siberian a few minutes before midnight on 17 September and settled in to seven nights and six days of fascination. Geoff gazed out the window, mainly, and kept track of where we were in relation to the sun and the timetable written in Cyrillic posted outside our door. (Russian trains keep to Moscow time, despite the country’s many time zones.) He became the resident English-speaking schedule expert and other passengers came knocking on our door to consult him before adjusting their watches. Chris abandoned high-speed birdwatching and instead perfected the art of photography on the move, using the principle there must be some gold among the blurry dross. We can report, however, that the Eurasian Magpie is omnipresent across the two continents and Chris, despite the odds, did add one new bird to her list—the Azure-Winged Magpie, later seen at closer quarters in Beijing.

We settled into a routine akin to camping—preparing food, washing dishes in a plastic bowl and finding ingenious ways to care for personal hygiene (details on request). Natasha and Tanya, our carriage attendants, kept the carriage and toilet spotlessly clean and we came to expect the afternoon vacuuming session, the locking of the toilet door as we approached stations and the nod of the head when it was time to get back on the train. They announced they were off-duty by changing into loud floral dresses. At some stations, vendors scuttled from under the stationary carriages with fresh fruit and other local produce. As a result we needed the dining car only once, which is just as well as the menu was entirely in Russian. The chef later borrowed our phrase book overnight. Whether it was to translate his menu or to chat up pretty girls we are still not sure. The magnificent coal-fired (!) samovar at the end of our carriage was our constant friend, providing boiling water for all sorts of purposes.

Chris learns about shelling pine nuts, bought from a station vendor. There was plenty of time! Note the lovely Russian cup filled often from the samovar. It commemorated sixty years since the end of World War 2

What will stick in our memories are Siberian images of wooden houses with blue window frames and cabbage patch gardens, endless forests with the first touches of autumn colour and the train line following the remote immensity of Lake Baikal (1.6 km deep) backed by snow-covered mountains. Our gazing and photography were often interrupted by trains travelling in the opposite direction hauling oil tankers. Geoff woke one night to find snow falling and topping one long line of tankers with 'icing'.

Just a few of the thousands of houses dotted across Siberia made of wood and with roofs of corrugated cement sheets

After five days, we arrived at the Russian side of the border with China. With all the passengers disgorged into the station's waiting room while the train’s bogies where changed for Chinese tracks, the demography of the passengers became clear. There were remarkably few of us, really. A carriage of Russians, another of North Koreans bound for Pyongyang (the train spilt later to carry them on there) and about twenty from other countries scattered through other carriages. Of the twenty, we were the only Australians and also the oldest. We shared our carriage with four Austrians including a mother and her studious son bound for six months in Shanghai.

A man walks along the railway tracks bordering Lake Baikal. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the world’s deepest freshwater and oldest lake, containing 20 per cent of the world's surface fresh water

We had six hours at the sad little Russian border town, time enough to wander around a bit. Then we got back on the train, got our passports back and travelled a matter of metres into China and another world. The expanses of wilderness, whether forests or steppes, punctuated by small villages and conical haystacks were replaced by intensive agriculture (maize, then rice), the bobbing heads of oil wells, glittering skyscrapers and hundreds of apartment blocks. There was construction everywhere, including the skeleton a new high-speed railway line. The enormous appetite for Australian coal and iron was glaringly apparent.

We rolled into Beijing right on time, despite running six hours late at one stage. (Efficiency at the Chinese side of the border seemed to get over that problem.) And all of a sudden the train journey of a lifetime was over. We could rave on at length about the Trans-Siberian. If you have a chance to take this train, don't pass it by. We'd be more than happy to give you all the hints you need!

Our small hotel here in Beijing overlooks the Forbidden City. When we walked around to explore it the other day, who should we bump into but a young French couple we met on the train whom we greeted like long-lost friends.

Resit and Aniqiz, good friends of Chris's sister, Helen, and brother-in-law, Ron, have made us very welcome here. They are Uighur people from Kashgar in far western China and so our knowledge of that part of the world has risen from zero. A highlight was visiting Resit's university and spending a couple of hours with his postgraduate students discussing Australian history, religion and culture, followed by a dinner with a group of visiting teachers from Kashgar.

We thought the Forbidden City was amazing but the Summer Palace left us gob-smacked—a huge expanse of lakes, pagodas, gardens and treasures. We saw just a fraction of it and were glad to find paths up into the forest that escaped the crowds. Our amazement levels reached a peak again last night when we went to a performance of the China National Acrobatic Troupe. Just try juggling nine balls while tap-dancing down a staircase.

A school picnic in downtown Beijing. The children had a huge variety of snacks in their lunch boxes. This main street is a short walk from the quieter low-rise area our hotel is in

The scale of Beijing and the density of its traffic is a shock after the lull of the Trans-Siberian. Today we are having a quiet day of recovery. We’ve found It is important to give ourselves ‘weekends’ from all this excitement and to take time to write to you all. Tomorrow, we leave Beijing for Baotou in Inner Mongolia.

As ever, this comes with our love and gratitude for sharing our adventures by reading this far. We hope you are well and look forward to hearing from you.

Travel tip # 6: Pack bath and sink plugs. It’s amazing how many hotels and train washrooms don't have them.

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