Dead on time (0747) the great train pulled out of Beijing Railway Station, the movement at first barely perceptible, then gradually gathering momentum. (I'm sorry, I haven't the heart of carry on with this. For the second time recently, 2 hours of writing has disappeared and I've had to start all over again. Well, here goes....). We were bound for Moscow and almost the entire width of Asia stretched out before us. My world for the next 5 and a half days was my own private compartment AND my own private shower room - such luxuary!!! And the shower actually worked - only a dribble of tepid water,admittedly but it was wonderful! The (shared) toilet was clean and dry and stayed that way for the whole journey, which was a first as well! So, I sat back and watched China slip by. I was sad to be leaving; after all the ups and downs I had grown fond of the place. Beijing, in particular, had become familiar and it was sad to think that I might never see it again.
The previous evening, as a farewell to Beijing, I went to an acrobatics performance at a theatre about 10 minutes walk from my hotel. It was quite simply dazzling - a cliche, I know, but true. They folded themselves in half backwards while balancing on one hand on a stick fixed to a table and then proceeded to do the splits and other unbelievable things whiolst rotating on the stick. And that was only one act! What they did on 2 upright poles beggered belief!! The performance lasted an hour and a half and was utterly mesmerising. Sadly the theatre couldn't have been more than an eighth full and the applause was hardly audible.
In no time we were at the great mountain chain that protects the north of China and looking for remanents of the Great Wall. Inner Mongolia was flat and grassy with, here and there a deserted village, an isolated house and a herd of sheep. A trifling 5 hours was spent at the Chinese/Mongolian border where, once again, the boogies were changed with much clattering, shunting, banging and grinding of metal, then at 1.30am we were away. Breakfast in bed the next morning as the Gobi Desert rolled past the window, greener than when I was there last - the colour palette ranging from browns and pale yellows to the greens of scattered low-growing bushes and plants. All apparently as lifeless as ever. The clump of rocks that one hopes will turn out to be living creatures, turns out to be a clump of rocks! And so it continued all day. There were occasional small groups of houses and tents and small groups of cows and sheep and the odd camel. The land was hilly and the grass meagre. As we approached the Russian border large areas of the mountainside were covered with silver birches, their leaves turning golden yellow in the sun. The statutory 5 hours was again spent crossing the Russian border, in spite of the fact that the train was very empty. By 2 am again we were on our way. (To be cont.)
I had had slight misgivings about the return journey - the possibility of it being unbearably long and tedious. In the event, it was the perfect ending. The countryside was transformed and where there had been just black and white, there was now colour - blue lakes and rivers, golden leaved birches, splashes of red, light green poplars, dark green firs, brightly painted shutters and roofs on the houses. At 9 am on Friday we reached the shores of Lake Baikel and for 3 or 4 hours ran along teh edge of this huge, fresh-water inland sea. The return journey was worth doing for this sight alone! The weather was perfect - blue skies and a gentle autumn sun.
After leaving the Lake, at Irkutsk, the train emptied even more and I was the only one left in my coach, so no-one to talk to! Prior to Irkutsk there had been a very nice Australisn couple and a rather droll American. So things were very quiet. There were no vendors on the platforms and no lady going through the train with her trolley. Food was in short supply. There was only what could be obtained, very expensively, in the restaurant or, no less expensively, from little kiosks at the stations. It also became steadily colder and on Saturday morning there was frost on the ground. The pictures in the window were of dark, gloomy forests and quaint dark-wooden houses, their steeply inverted V and half hexagonal shaped roofs camouflaged amongst the trees. Effectively we were travelling through a corridor of trees and distant vistas were rare, the view being impeded by thick forests of 'sticks' - very tall, very thin and very straight trees with branches and leaves confined to the tops, like a chimney sweeps' brush. Of the Urals I saw neither sight nor sound. Either we crossed them while we were asleep or, somehow, I failed to spot them!
We reached Moscow at 2.30 pm yesterday and how strange it was to, once again, look the same as everyone else! I didn't realise how much I had missed not standing out from the crowd, not having small children stare and not being an oddity. I feel as though I've returned from an alien planet!! Language is still a massive problem as fewer people here appear to speak English than in China and after the tiny and slight Chinese, the Russians are giants! Moscow, although considerably warmer than last time, is still pretty grim, not that I have actually ventured far from the prescincts of the railway station, so this view may be somewhat prejudiced. But it does lack a certain lightness of touch - everything - citizens, buildings -seems solid and heavy.
The Midnight Express to St Petersburg was lovely - a very smart train, a really comfortable bed and a very nice restaurant, should one want breakfast but I ended as I began, by sharing with 3 non-English speaking (also non snoring!!!) Russian guys. It's a warm, sunny day in SPB and the city is even more stunning in the sunshine! Pavement cafes have sprouted up everywhere since last I was here and the beautiful pastel buildings, adorned with heroic statues and Wedgewood-like decorations, are like so many jewel boxes, the most sumptious being the Hermitage, and what jewels they contain!! It's a real treat to be back!
So, the last leg looms. I'm on the 5pm flight to London and arrive half an hour later! Thank you for keeping me company and for your encouragement when things were bleak. I look forward to seeing all of you again, particularly as homelessness, for me, is now a thing of the past! With love, thanks and until we meet again in person, bye, bye!
As I'm safely out of China, a postscript on Tibet. There is a promenent army presence - 5 Chinese soldiers, 3 with rifles at the ready, keep up a 24 hour patrol of the main square, with other soldiers on roof tops overlooking the square. Chinese soldiers are also posted at all major road junctions and surveillance is everywhere. The Chinese are hated by the Tibetans and are seen as oppressors. Improvements instigated by the Chinese (roads, infrastructure, etc) are unwanted and resented and they are very bitter about the legacy of the Cultural Revolution.
Sorry, don't know how this got moved down here. It should be 4 paragraphs up (after the Urals)! By Sunday, the Siberian forests had mostly gone and instead we had large, flat featureless plains and occasional villages with the remains of what were previously co-operatives, now gone to wrack and ruin.