I was going to use Beijing Rendezvous, but that’s the name of a local Chinese restaurant – and, frankly, the closest I’ll get to China itself in the immediate future. But here’s the beginning of the end, of Trips and Tales. That was the remit, the mainline Moscow to Beijing route. So heading out of the Trans-Mongolian section of the route, here we are, heading to some kind of conclusion – on the page at least.
OK, almost. There is a renowned and infamous ritual to go through: the changing of the bogies, before much Chinese territory is covered. It’s all down to the wider Russian/Mongolian train gauge, that comes to an abrupt end just inside Chinese territory at the Gobi desert town of Erlian.
The solution to this potential derailment is to literally remove the passenger carriages and place them each onto a new set of wheels. The process takes roughly 90 minutes – although a traveler I spoke to stated two hours. Maybe that was on a go-slow, or perhaps it seemed like two hours: stuck inside the carriage and suspended mid-air.
Yes, you can elect to stay inside the carriage if you so desire, or wait off-train whilst the process is carried out in special sheds away from the main station area. In either case your movements will be limited (in more sense than one: the toilets are locked down too) from arrival until customs-clearing is complete. Carriages are decoupled from each other, and from their parent bogies (wheel assemblies). Each carriage is then raised on four massive “corner” jacks, the old wheels rolled out en masse and the new ones rolled in. The couplings are aligned and the carriages lowered and secured. It’s roughly the same principle as changing a wheel but on a huge scale.
Expect the reverberation of loud clankings, the crashing of bogies and the sudden, unnerving rocking of your person if you choose to remain on board throughout. For most of us it’ll be a relatively rare experience whether watching it or being part of it; with only 30 or so track-breaks requiring a bogie-change in existence globally.
And then you are off. Edging out of the last remnants of the Gobi and into territory north of Beijing, expect the scenery to be varied, with distant mountains, lush valleys, ugly industry and modern urbanisation.
Beijing itself is the capital of The People’s Republic of China, with a population breaking the 20,000,000 mark and comprising of either native city dwellers or migrants that come and go over a period of months. Some figures even push 22,000,000. It depends on who you ask and by what criteria they judge.
An equally astounding number is the 3000 years that Beijing has existed for in one form or other as one of the great ancient capitals of China. There are currently either four or seven – again, depending upon who you ask.. Whatever the number, Bejing’s place ranks it amongst one the most important cultural, artistic, historical and financial centres within the country.
At first glance there does seem to be a mercurial element present within the nature of the city. It is represented by the shifting population figures, the blending of ancient and modern, and even in a history of 20 or so names changed over time. These were drawn from the shifting territories, administrations or conventions over which it presided and of which “Beijing” is only the most recent.
More next time.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 113) Arrival Beijing #2
[Photo by Grey World]