The two words ‘downtime’ and ‘bangkok’ aren’t usually uttered in the same sentence together – Bangkok is a loud, busy city with a party reputation and quite often the starting point for backpackers on their South East Asian adventure.
But for me it’s providing the downtime I need to start thinking about the next phase of my journey. The internet was so slow in the Chinese hostels I stayed at and so restrictive with their censoring and blocking of all the good stuff that I fell way behind on my website and photos – part of the reason I wanted to get out of China was because it was stopping me from doing what I love!
So when I say ‘downtime’, what I actually mean is the chance to catch up with everything. In Mongolia I enjoyed having no means of communication for a week or two but that was enough.
It’s great to be back in Thailand – a country I’ve visited twice before. When I sped to my hostel in a tuk tuk late last night I felt excited for the first time in a while, and Khaosan road made me smile from ear to ear. I’ve gone from the land of scowls to the land of smiles and I’m so happy about that!
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All my life I’ve dreamed of seeing giant pandas. I collected panda teddies as a kid, joined the World Wildlife Fund kids’ club (probably on the basis of their logo) and have been a lifelong lover of pandas and their sad eyes.
So it was with great excitement that I set off for the panda breeding centre in Chengdu, and I was not disappointed.
The first enclosure had around six pandas, all munching on bamboo, tumbling over one another and slumping exhausted on the wooden platform to digest their meal. ‘Cute’ doesn’t even begin to describe them.
In another enclosure there was a mother and child play-fighting – wrestling each other for prime position in the water pool.
There were many other pandas lazing around, one even up a tree drooling on himself as he snoozed. Pandas can only digest 20% of what they eat so when they’re not eating they’re being still to conserve energy.
There are only around 1,000 giant pandas left in the wild so the breeding centre is billed as the big hope for the future – their mission is to breed pandas and release them into the wild. The cynic in me doesn’t see this happening, but the breeding centre is a great place to go and see pandas while you still can.
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I’ve come to Chengdu to see the famous Sichuan pandas but first I hopped on the hostel’s free city tour by bike to see what the city’s all about.
The roads all have cycle lanes that are cordoned off from the rest of the road but scooter drivers also use it so it’s just as chaotic.
This square had a large statue of Mao which was guarded by police on all sides.
Our next stop was Sichuan University campus which I thought was an odd choice until I saw how grand the buildings were. The clock tower was designed by Chinese and International students which is why it looks less Chinese and more European towards the top.
The tour took us by the river where large groups of people gathered to dance together or do t’ai chi.
Three hyperactive young boys came up to me, out of breath and sweating from frantic rollerskating, and started asking questions with a big grin, such as “What is your nationality?” and “What is your name?” and then giggling when I replied and asked the questions back. They were hilarious and I had a good laugh with them.
We also caught a glimpse of a famous bridge, where in the old days children were sold as slaves so that their parents could afford more opium which was sold by the river, an area now known as bar street.
It was dark by the time we started heading back to the hostel but the roads were no more or less chaotic. We finished with a photo and thanked the guide who had been informative, inquisitive and funny – all the things a good guide should be.
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It’s a fairly simple process to get a Mongolian visa in Beijing but it helps to know what you’ll need and where to go.
[UPDATE – 25 October 2016 – a lot of the information here was out of date and it was too hard to keep up with all the changes so I have kept only basic details – sorry]
What you need for a tourist visa:
One passport photo
An address and telephone number of the place where you will be residing in Mongolia (hostel, hotel etc)
Your passport Money to pay into the bank * (costs have now been removed as I don’t know what’s accurate – sorry)
Please search online for information about the form you need to fill out – some say you can get it at the embassy now, I had to print it off beforehand in 2013.
Address and opening hours of the Mongolian Visa Office in Beijing:
2, Xui Shui Bei Jie, Jian Guo Men Way, Beijing China 100600
Nearest metro: Yonganli Station
How to get to the Mongolian Embassy Visa Office in Beijing:Take the metro to Yonganli Station and walk North up the street that has some restaurants on it (see map). After the restaurants and shops cut left then right, then left, walking past the US embassy. Take the next left, then right after the Irish Embassy.
You will see the Mongolian visa office which is a cabin on the street. It’s not obvious that it’s the Mongolian embassy but it looks like this…
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I’m on the trans-Mongolian train right now heading from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. I was both excited and nervous about this journey; excited because I love train journeys and this is one of the most famous, but nervous in case I was put in a cabin with three burly drunk Russians.
As it happens, the Saturday train leaving at 7.15am is a seasonal train and starts in Mongolia rather than Russia, so it’s mostly tourists, Chinese and Mongolians, and I’m in a cabin with a Dutch lady and two Chinese men who all seem nice and well behaved.
I’ve settled down with tea, cake and a book – life is good with these three things. There’s a free hot water dispenser in each carriage and a power socket in each cabin so I’m all set up for the next 36 hours. I went a little overboard on the snacks though and pretty much only bought chocolate, sweets and crisps.
We’ve stopped a couple of times now and it’s quite hot outside – I expected a cool breeze forgetting that we’re going south.
I like it when we go around bends so I can see the rest of the train out of the window.
The Dutch lady has cracked open a beer for us to share and I’ve eaten Pringles, snickers, jelly sweets, nutella bread and at least 8 mini cakes so the food baby is growing rapidly.
The landscape is sandy and barren now. There are wild camels and bleach blonde horses sharing the dry tufts of grass.
You’d think I’d be sick of all this time spent staring out of the window after 2 weeks of it but I love it. I can quite happily daydream for as long as it takes.
Just had to help an old lady with her pot noodle – the first in her life by the look of it. She was worried she’d emptied the sachets in the wrong order and didn’t know how much water to put in.
7.15 – 9.45pm Border Crossings
The train stopped at the Mongolian border and officials boarded to check passports, documents and to glance at our bags. Meanwhile the train was shunted back and forth multiple times. No Man’s land between Mongolia and China lasted for longer than I expected and once again, officials boarded and took our passports at the Chinese border.
9.45 – 11.30pm The Changing of the Bogeys
Russian/Mongolian train tracks are different in width to Chinese tracks so every carriage must have its wheels, or bogeys, changed. While the train is stationary the toilets are locked and the Dutch lady just told me she needs “a number 2, and when I have to go I have to go.” TMI lady, TMI. She was eventually allowed to go as soon as we left the bogey warehouse, but the toilets were locked again straight after.
11.35pm – 1am
I would have loved to go to bed around about now but we pulled into a main station straight after the wheel change and the sink/toilets are still locked. I was shouted at by the megabitch on duty when I went near the sink so I had to wait. I’m sure I could have found a toilet at the station but I had no idea how long we’d be here for, and being on my own I didn’t want to risk the train leaving without me.
8am the following day
Woke up to grey industrial China. Not a bad night’s sleep though, probably the best I’ve ever had on a sleeper train thanks to some ear plugs the Dutch lady donated to me (the best gift a traveller could ever receive). I could quite happily stay on this train for days and I’m looking forward to reading for a few hours.
We’re now cutting through a gorge with steep red rock mountains emerging from the mist.
The Dutch lady just handed me a pair of tweezers and asked me to pluck the hairs from a mole on her neck. Yuck.
Arrived in Beijing!
Tips for the trans-mongolian railway: * Bring toilet paper, ear plugs and a cup with tea bags/coffee for refreshments. * My carriage had a shower, sink and two toilets, though I hear some aren’t as nice. * If you need the toilet, just go! At major stations the toilets are shut 30 minutes before stopping and opened 30 minutes after – and stops can be over an hour long!
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Summer Palace in Beijing is a parkland area with grand palaces, halls and temples set around a huge man-made lake. It was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998 for its aesthetic and cultural value.
It was chaotic when I arrived – this week is Dragon Boat Festival, a 3 day public holiday, and all of the tourist attractions are over-run. On my walk to the palace I saw someone run out into the road and get hit by a car. She got up but it was a shock for us all.
When I actually entered the palace gardens I stumbled across a choir singing enthusiastically accompanied by musicians. Visitors seemed to be joining in too, and people were dancing and generally having a great time.
The shaded alleyways were my favourite – usually bypassed by everyone else and nice and cool too.
Hundreds of people had taken boats out onto the lake, and the lake was lined with thousands of others looking out at the view.
Up at the top of Longevity Hill was the Temple of Buddhist Virtue which looked impressive from all angles and took about 10 minutes to walk up to via stairways that provided stunning views of the lake, the surrounding areas and the rest of Beijing.
The Summer Palace is beautiful and you could spend a whole day there, stopping for a picnic in the gardens, maybe hiring a boat on the lake, but just try and avoid going on a public holiday!
It was a foggy day when I went to Beihai Park, adding a certain mysterious atmosphere to the visit. The park is to the North West of the Forbidden City and much like the Summer Palace, its central focal point is a large lake.
The park is full of interesting buildings and Chinese gardens but we reached an interesting town on the water’s edge and explored that instead.
People were swimming in the lake which looked surprisingly clean despite Beijing’s reputation. Still, with all the smog around and the sludge around the edges I wasn’t sure how healthy it was but the swimmers seemed to be enjoying themselves. One man had an interesting technique of wearing flip-flops on his hands, lying on his back and propelling himself by performing a clapping action on the surface of the water with his shoe hands. This is him just acclimatising after pushing off from the egde…
You could also hire pedalos on the lake which looked really fun, and my friend had a massage at the water’s edge. Every tom, dick or harry will offer you a massage here so if that’s your thing it’s the place to be. It’s not my thing so I carried on walking instead, taking in the typical Beijing life happening all around.
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