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POST SOVIET ULAN UDE – ‘GATEWAY TO EASTERN RUSSIA”

Ulan Ude is the “Gateway to Eastern Russia”,  it is a “city with a Mongolian soul” or “the Buddhist capital of Russia”. These are some of the terms used to describe the Russian city of Ulan Ude. Our first stop in Russia on the Trans- Siberian railway.

Ulan-Ude is the capital of the province Buryatia in east-central Russia. It lies in a deep valley where two rivers Uda and Selenga convene. When one arrives in the city in the deep of the night after spending 27 hours on the Trans-Siberian train. I wondered straight away why this city was here. Where all cities in Russia going to be like this, or was this just a one-off? To say I was unimpressed with Ulan Ude after a two week 4wd adventure in Mongolia is an understatement. I knew that there must be something more to the story.

A Russian overlanding dream

Ulan Ude was established as a wintering camp of Udinskoye in 1666.  Due to its favorable geographical position, it grew rapidly and became a large trade center that connected Russia with China and Mongolia on the ancient tea caravan route. From 1690 onwards, it was the administrative center of the Transbaikal region. From 1735, the settlement was called Udinsk after the river Uda running thru the town; it was renamed Ulan-Ude in 1934.

The construction of the Trans-Siberian railways is closely tied to the development of the city, Ulan Ude. The railroad was built between 1891 and 1916. The first stone was laid by Nicholas II on 31 May 1891 in Vladivostok. It took until 1900 to reach Ulan Ude, from there the construction of the Trans Mongolian branch started in 1949, ended in Beijing in 1956. Ulan Ude role in the Trans-Siberian story is one a major rail junction, which led to the establishment of large locomotive and carriage repair works in town. 

It was a Russian closed city until the end of the USSR in 1991. Soviet closed cities comprised relatively small communities with sensitive military, industrial, or scientific facilities. Even Soviet citizens were not allowed access to these places without proper authorization. Foreigners were not allowed at all.

TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY S1E18 – MONGOLIA TO ULAN UDE,RUSSIA S1E18 | TRAVELLERS NEST OVERLAND

Most interesting facts about Ulan Ude:

  • It is Siberia second largest city
  • Population of 424,000
  • Average temperature in winter is minus 18 to 25
  • We are now 15,130 km from Hong Kong
  • It is 3,680 km from Vladistock or 6,000 km to Mosco

To minimize our personal risk, while travelling in Russia as I have family in USA. We stayed in Accor hotels wherever possible, where it was not possible I researched via overlanding websites about good hostels where a lot of over landers had been. The Hostel Druzhba Nairamdal was one of those hostels. We were greeted  at 4am with open arms.  Our room was not available on arrival, so another room was found. The owner spoke good English. In the morning after 4 hours sleep, she came with us to the ATM and supermarket to help me find gluten free food. I could not have asked for a better introduction to Russia. My research had paid off.

It was now time to explore the town by 2 pm it was finally around zero, and warm enough for us to venture out of our room.

Lenin statue, Ulan Ude, Russia

We walked into the town center, where we found the highly unusual statue of the head of Vladimir Lenin in the central square: the largest in the world. Built in 1970 for the centennial of Lenin’s birth, it towers over the main plaza at 7.7 meters and weighs 42 tons. We found the center of the town to be uninvited…what was more interesting was what was happening down at the river.

Wooden Siberian merchant houses

There are old merchants’ mansions richly decorated with wood and stone carving in the historical center of Ulan-Ude, along the river banks which are exceptional examples of Russian classicism. The townhouses represent some of the finest examples of wooden architecture in the country.

What we found the most interesting in Ulan Ude was what was happening down the Uda river. The river was almost frozen by mid-November. You could see what a magnificent river it must be by the sheets of ice piled on top of each other. Some places were half frozen,  in other places, it was frozen…yet the Russian were ice fishing on it further up the river. A sight to be seen

Ice fishing on the Uda river, Russia

We finished the day be meeting up for dinner with some overlanders from the Dutch overlanding group, Karin-Marijke and Coen of Landcruising Adventures. We talked overlanding stories all night. We even had a visit in the restaurant by the Russian police, but they left us alone that night. We were not asked for our immigration papers and passports.

Next day we were back on the train again, direction Moscow to our next stop in Russia.. that is a story for another day.

Waiting at Ulan Ude for train 001M direction Moscow

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ANCIENT CITY OF GENGHIS KHAN- KARAKORUM

Imagine walking into the ruins of a historical center in the upper Orkhon River of north-central Mongolia in the beginning of winter. It was once the ancient city of the famous Mongolian warrior-ruler, Genghis Khan, one of the most famous conquerors of history, who consolidated tribes into a unified Mongolia and then extended into Asia and Europe..

It was an unbelievable experience standing in an old town in remote Mongolia in the snow. It was perfect upon imagination as the only thing I could hear was the snow falling in the late afternoon.

MONGOLIA TRAVEL VIDEOS

See Our YouTube Traveller’s NEST Overland channel for our travel videos on this magnificent country:

  • OVERLANDING MONGOLIA S1E12: 4WD DRIVING ADVENTURE IN WINTER EXPLORING MONASTERY

Karakorum is the ancient capital of Great Mongol Empire. It is situated in a beautiful valley to protect it from the winds from Siberia. From the moment we got out of the car, and the Monastery was opened for us, I knew the Erdene Zuu Monastery was going to be special. It is an incredible feeling to walk thru the beautiful western gate to know you are entering a city built by the son of Genghis Khan.

Settlement began around AD 1218–20, when Genghis Khan established a town of yurts at Karakorum to rally his troops during his campaigns against the Khwarezm Empire. The name Karakorum literally translates as ‘black-twenty’ or “black gravel,” but studies by linguists suggest that ‘khorin’ could be a diversion of the word ‘khurem’ which means “castle” in Mongolian.

The  actual foundation of a city is said to have occurred in 1220. Prior to  1235, Karakorum seems to have been little more than a yurt town; only then, after the defeat of the Jin empire, did Genghis’ successor  his son, Ögedei,  erect walls around the place and build a fixed palace.

Karakorum was once, one of the most important cities of the Silk Road. It was the ancient capital of the Mongolia empire from 1235 to 1260.

By the reign of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, the capital of Mongolia was moved to Xanadu on the south-eastern edge of the Mongolian plateau. Kublai Khan had taken control of most of modern-day China (becoming the first non-Han emperor) and established the Yuan dynasty.

This left the ancient city was largely abandoned by 1267. Became a provincial backwater, subsequently declining in status to an administrative center and sparsely populated. The city would eventually fall to troops of the Ming Dynasty in 1380, who razed Karakorum to the ground after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in AD 1368. It would never rebuilt.

In 1585, the Buddhist monastery Erdene Zuu was founded in this location. The Erdene Zuu Monastery is considered one of the most important Buddhist temples and monasteries in Mongolia.  The Khan ordered the construction of the monastery after his meeting with the 3rd Dalai Lama and the declaration of Tibetan Buddhism as the religion of Mongolia.

Erdene Zuu Monastery is probably the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia under Soviet rule.

Under Stalin directions  in 1939 all monasteries and church were to be destroyed in Mongolia. All, but three temples in the monastery were destroyed. The stupas of walls were saved as well.  In addition, 100s of monks were either killed or sent to Siberian gulags in Russia. The monastery was shut down in 1939, and reopened in 1965, but not a place of worship. The items were buried in nearby mountains, or stored in local homes at great risk to the residents to be preserved for future generations.

Temples

The monastery is enclosed in an immense walled compound. Spaced evenly along each wall, about every 15m, are 108 stupas.  108 is a sacred number to Buddhists. The three temples in the compound – Zuu of Buddha, Zuun Zuu and Baruun Zuu – which were not destroyed in the 1930s, are dedicated to the three stages of Buddha’s life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The military are responsible for destroying the monastery, but these three temples are spared due to their historical significance.

After the fall of Communism in Mongolia in 1990, the monastery was turned over to the lamas and Erdene Zuu again became a place of worship. It is a very sad part of Mongolian history.

Today Erdene Zuu remains an active Buddhist monastery as well as a museum that is open to tourists.

GPS coordination of the monastery are 47°20’16″N 102°84’31″E

COST :Free to wander the ground, but ticket needed for the museum. It costs 5000T or USD2 to take photos inside the temples.

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LAND OF EXTREMES – MONGOLIA

Mongolia should be the adventure capital of the world, so beautiful rugged and remote. The winters of Mongolia are legendary, but don’t let it stop you. It is the most amazing time to visit this beautiful country. The steppe grassland will be covered in snow and ice. It is the most incredible landscape together with Siberia, Russia you will ever see in your life. It is such a unique place, somewhere where you have time to think and reenergizes your soul in the snow covered landscape.

Interested already, follow us on this adventure of Mongolia.  

MONGOLIA ITINERARY MAP

Map of our six day trip thru Central Mongolia

MONGOLIA TRAVEL VIDEOS

See Our YouTube Traveller’s NEST Overland channel for our travel videos on this magnificent country:

  • OVERLANDING MONGOLIA S1E12: 4WD DRIVING ADVENTURE IN WINTER EXPLORING MONASTERY
  • OVERLANDING MONGOLIA S1E13: WINTER EXPEDITION ORKHON VALLEY & HORSERIDING
  • OVERLANDING MONGOLIA S1E14:WINTER 4X4 EXPEDITION ORKHON VALLEY MONGOLIA
  • OVERLANDING MONGOLIA S1E15: END OF 4X4 WINTER EXPEDITION MONGOLIA TRAVEL

 WHY GO TO MONGOLIA?

Mongolia is an rugged adventure destination where travellers can experience nomadic culture and vast, untouched landscapes. It is this wilderness about Mongolia, that is so unique and appealing. Not to be found anywhere in the world, expect the remote outback deserts of Australia and in Siberia, Russia.

Mongolia was an amazing county for several reasons:
1.0 Great 4wd driving, even in winter,
2.0 Remoteness,
3.0 Beauty like nowhere else in the world, and
4.0 Friendly people and great hospitality.

Mongolia has some of the best 4wd driving to offer in Asia. It is a big bucket list item for most overlanders and 4×4 enthausiats. It has been on our list for years. After overlanding around Australia for 22 months, we decided to go back overland from Hong Kong back to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. We had to stop in Mongolia to experience this magnificent country.

The remoteness in Mongolia was amazing. At times, it was overwhelming the quietness, but at other times when taking sunset photos it was very welcome. Populating density in Mongolia is 2 person per km. The country is 1.566 million square km with a population of 3.225 million people. In comparison, Australia is 3.26 persons per km and New Zealand is higher 18 persons per km. Some areas of Mongolia are so remote one can drive a full day and see almost no signs of human habitation. It’s this true wilderness experience, that is so captivating.

WHEN TO GO TO MONGOLIA

Summer

The best time of the year to go to Mongolia is in summer from June to August, which is in the NZ and Australian winter season. Most overlanders are gone by end of August as it starts to get cold by then.

It is 20 to 25 degrees during the day in summer in the mountains. In the Southern Gobi Desert, the temperature is noticeably higher. Indeed, in this region, shade is hard to find, the thermometer reaching average temperatures of 40 degrees.

Even in summer, be prepared for all kinds of weather as it can change quickly, especially in the mountains.

Autumn

We went in late Autumn, late October and November. The temperatures start to cool and it starts to snow.

We arrived in early November at -5 C, by the end of November it was already -10 C during the day. During the night it was already -15 C to -20 C.

Winter

The winters in Mongolia are legendary for their length and severity. In fact, Ulaanbaatar holds the distinction of being the coldest capital city in the world, with temperatures routinely dropping to minus 30 to minus 40 degrees in January and February.

The winter season is an exceptionally beautiful time to see the Mongolia landscape, especially the steppe, or endless expanses of grasslands covered in frost and snow.

It is important to note that the capital of Mongolia is the coldest in the world, with a yearly average of 0.4 C so remember to pack accordingly, with this in mind it is best to avoid the winter months as the average temperature of minus 24.5 C  is not for the faint of heart.

HOW TO GET TO MONGOLIA

We have decided to not fly to Mongolia, but travel overland by train.

TRANS MONGOLIAN RAILWAY

The train runs once a week all year and twice a week in summer.  This train is operated by the Mongolian Railways one year and Chinese Railways the next year, switching over each year at the end of May when the days of operation also change. 

We had taken Train 33 from Beijing, China direction Moscow, Russia on Tuesday in winter at 7.35 am from Beijing South Railway station. 38 hours later  or 1,400km we arrived in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, the following day on Wednesday at 14.35 pm.

In summer the train goes twice weekly from Beijing South Railway station in Beijing on Saturday at 7.35am,

See my two blogs on the Trans Mongolia railway:

https://travellersnestoverland.com/2021/02/10/epic-trans-mongolian-train-033/

https://travellersnestoverland.com/2021/02/17/ancient-tea-caravan-route-of-mongolia/

https://travellersnestoverland.com/2021/02/24/ulaanbataar-mongolia-meaning-red-hero-city/

FLIGHTS

Flights to/from Ulaanbaatar can be pricey, as there is a limited number of carriers. The main carriers are MIAT, Air China, Korean Air, Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot. Apart from to major cities like Beijing, Seoul and Moscow.

TRAVEL INSURANCE

In our years of overlanding and travel around the world, we have used Cover-More in NZ, Allianz  in Sydney and World Nomads in London.

If you are going for a holiday trip,  Cover-More and Allianz are more the sufficient as you intend to return to your home country. For long terms travelers, like us, that might not return to their home countries for years, a more detailed plan is needed. We choose World Nomads including kidnapping insurance.

We carry PLBs each on us at all times and send our location GPS coordinations in remote places every night to 3 friends and our website, which our direct family and a few good friends can access. We don’t want every one knowing where we are, just for personal safety reason. One has to understand that border crosssings can be dangerous, and we can be  a target as NZL European travellers.  We never made our location known that day, it is always the next day after we have left.

We felt very safe in Mongolia, as we had a driver and guide with us at all times. In China and Russia was another story for another day..

VISA APPLICATIONS

How to apply for your Mongolian visa. See my blog:

https://travellersnestoverland.com/2020/09/12/how-to-select-the-starting-point-for-trans-siberian-train-in-winter/

TOUR  OPERATOR IN MONGOLIA

Some say the best way to look for a tour is to do it when you are in Ulaanbaatar. The tour you booked from abroad is almost always more expensive then when you book it in Ulaanbaatar.

We decided to travel with SUNPATH MONGOLIA as it came recommend by some friends in Australia.

They are extremely reliable and professional. The guide was well-informed and speak excellent English while all the vehicles and gears they provided were reliable and sufficient to make our lives quite comfortable. Included in the price was unlimited drinking water, 3 meals per day, transportation, unlimited snacks and sleeping bags provided.

I need to be gluten free plus a few other dietary requirements. It was all perfectly catered for every night.

We were greeted by the staff of our tour company Sunpath Mongolia on the platform at the Railway station on arrival and driven to the guest house of Sunpath Mongolia. After showers, the owner of the tour company, Doljmaa Songorov and her sales manager came to meet us to discuss the final details of the trip.

We did the 6 days spectacular central Mongolia tour at USD1,154 for 2 persons. It might seem a lot of money, but you don’t spend another cents while you are with them expect for your snacks.

In other words, highly recommended. We would travel with them again in Mongolia.

Doljamma email is info@sunpath-mongolia.com or her website at https://tourinmongolia.com/tour/6-day-spectacular-central-mongolia-tour/

WHAT TO PACK FOR MONGOLIA

As Mongolia is the land of extremes, the weather can change fairly quickly in the mountains. For the trip, we did the Central Mongolia, I would suggest layers, even in summer.

Those who don’t mind braving the cold will find amazing opportunities for winter adventure here, including one of the most unique travel experiences imaginable. One thing we have learnt after all our travels to Mongolia, Russia and the Arctic circle. All that is stopping one from enjoying this amazing frozen landscape is good artic gear.

It took me a good few month of research to find the right clothing in New Zealand, in Australia I had real difficulties finding good gear. We waited until we returned to NZ to get our gear. Plus, we replace gear along the way as we went, in fact my gloves were bought in the tube in Moscow for NZD$4.50. My NZ merino gloves were finished by then after 2 months of minus 20. It is sometimes best to buy the gear in the country concerned. Asia and Russia are very affordable to buy winter gear and the quality is good.

We packed for our 24 months journey thru Asia, Russia, Europe and Balkans for winter conditions:

  • Ski jacket each with woollen gloves, hats, scarves
  • Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GORE-TEX hiking boots
  • 2x Macpac Merino 220 Long sleeve top and pants
  • 1x Kathmandu Merino T- shirts and 2x KMART cotton singlets
  • 2x Kathmandu Zip Off Hiking Pants
  • 2x Kathmandu Fleece 200 jackets
  • 5x Woollen socks from Macpac

ONE WEEK ITINERARY IN MONGOLIA

DAY ONE – KARAKORUM

After a night’s rest in Ulaanbaatar, stocked up on supplies and more warm clothing we set off with our driver and guide/translator direction Karakorum. 4 hours later we drove into Karakorum as the first snow for the season was fallen.

Karakorum is the ancient capital of Great Mongol Empire. It is situated in a beautiful valley to protect it from the winds from Siberia, Russia. From the moment we got out of the car, and the monastery was opened for us, I knew the Erdene Zuu Monastery was going to be special. It is an incredible feeling to walk thru the beautiful western gate as the snow is falling to know you are entering a city built by the son of Genghis Khan.

The iconic wall of Kharkorin was built after the death of Genghis Khan to protect his city from invaders.

The Erdene Zuu Monastery founded in 1585 is considered one of the most important Buddhist temples and monasteries in Mongolia.  

Erdene Zuu Monastery is probably the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia under Soviet rule.

Under Stalin directions  in 1939 all monasteries and churches were to be destroyed in Mongolia. All, but three temples in the monastery were destroyed. The stupas of walls were saved as well.  In addition, 100s of monks were either killed or sent to Siberian gulags in Russia. The monastery was shut down in 1939, and reopened in 1990.

The pray wheels at the Erdene Zuu monastery

The second night we stayed in our first Ger camp, Munkhsuuri Guest house Ger Camp, just outside the old capital of Mongolia Karakorum. The local Mongolian family welcomed us with tea and biscuits into their home. A truly wonderful experience to see how the local people live.

DAY TWO – ORKHON VALLEY

After a night’s rest at Munkhsuuri Guest house Ger Camp we set off to explore the town and get supplies for our next family, who live very remote in the Orkhon valley. The markets in  Kharkorin were not quite open yet as we arrived, but the butcher was open already at 7am.

View of town of Kharkorin from the surrounding hills.

After a visit to the local markets, we set off for a day of 4wd driving thru the Orkhon valley. As we entered the Orkhon valley at Uurtiin Tokhoi Cliff we had a beautiful view over the valley.

Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape is unique due to its volcanic rocks  and sprawls along the banks of the Orkhon River in Central Mongolia, some 320 km west from the capital Ulaanbaatar or in 4-5 hours from Karakorum by 4×4. Orkhon River itself is the longest river in Mongolia with length of 1,124 kilometers. It originates in Khangai Mountain Range and merges to Selenge River, eventually reaching Lake Baikal, in Russia.

Notice the direction on the side of the road in remote Mongolia. Good thing our driver knew where he was going.

DAY THREE – ORKHON VALLEY

We spent two days in the valley with the nomadic family. We shared meals with the family, watched TV, went horse riding with them and even watched the stars in minus 16. With one of the most beautiful night skies above your head, it would be a shame not to explore it. A truly amazing experience.

It was an opportunity to see how the nomadic herders of Mongolia live in their winter homes. The family will transfer before the onset of winter from their summer grazing areas. The family keep four Gers, one for the family, two for tourists and one as a garage. Everything freezes in Mongolia over the winter months, our family had to get the blow torch to unfreeze the brakes of his motorbike to pick up the horses for Mark horse-riding in the morning.

The Orkhon valley played an important role in the history of Mongolia. Once the home of the great Khans and the epicenter of power that fueled the onslaught of the Mongol Horde across Asia and Europe. Genghis once rode thru this valley on this way to some of his great battle fields.

Today, this rich history is honoured by its inscription of UNESCO World Heritage List. It was inscribed by UNESCO in the World Heritage List as representing the evolution of nomadic pastoral traditions spanning more than two millennia.

The Orkhon waterfall, also called Ulaan Tsutgalan, is one of the best sights in central Mongolia.

Approximately 20,000 years ago, the waterfall was formed due to earthquake and merged from volcanic eruptions. However, the water doesn’t run all year and will only start to flow after the first good summer rain. Best time to see it is late July and August. By December it is totally frozen. It is however the water source for the local nomadic family, who stay behind over winter in the valley. They store the water in big drums, and break off the ice, put it on the fire to melt the ice.

The winter season is an exceptionally beautiful time to see the Mongolia landscape, especially the steppe, the endless expanses of grasslands covered in frost and snow.

DAY FOUR – DEER STONES & KHUSTAIN NURUU NATIONAL PARK

We started the morning by 4×4 driving out of the valley. After several frozen river crossings we made it to the Deer Stones. Deer stones are unique monuments dating to the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age that are found mostly in Mongolia and in some Central Asian countries.

The Bronze Age funeral practice, sacrificial ritual and ideology and animal style art, which were spread among ancient nomads, are all together represented through deer stones.

Next was a few hours’ drive towards the sand dunes of the Mini Gobi Desert at Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes, a semi-desert type beautiful landscape with big sand dunes, where we went camel riding at minus 5 plus wind factor of minus 10…Elsen Tasarkhai is a part of the Mongol Els sand dunes, that continues 80 km long 5 km wide. It is located 280 km west of Ulaanbaatar and 80 km east of Karakorum – the ancient Mongolian capital.

Next we drove over 4×4 tracks towards Khustain Nuruu National Park, where we were met by another nomadic family. It was Mark birthday, our lovely guide and driver prepared a typical Mongolian BBQ meal for us and shared it with the family.

Sunset over the steppe grasslands near Khustain Nuruu National Park

DAY FIVE – TERELJI NATIONAL PARK

After an early sunrise to take these beautiful photos, we drove direction Khustain Nuruu National Park

Next was a long drive back to the concrete jungle of Ulaanbaatar, but we kept on going towards Terelj National Park with its rising peaks and ochre-hued ridges. The iconic turtle rock, if you like rock climbing this is the spot in Mongolia.

We drove to Aryabal monastery & Meditation center. The temple is located on the hillside of a mountain covered with larches and granite rock. To reach the temple, you will have to pass a small wooden bridge on which a sign tells:” The bridge that leads beyond wisdom”.

DAY SIX – CHINGGIS KHAAN STATUE COMPLEX

The panoramic views of the valley of Genghis Khan statute near Ulaanbaatar. Our final stop was the Chinggis Khaan Statute complex is situated 54 km from Ulaanbaatar City, with the view of beautiful natural scenery on the bank of the Tuul River. It is believed the rule of Mongolia was born in this valley.

The monument dedicated to the Mongolian leader was completed in 2008 at a cost of USD 4.1 million. There is a museum on the ground floor covering Mongolian history and the life of Chinggis Khaan. Visitors walk to the head of the horse through its chest and neck, where they have a panoramic view. The main statue area will be surrounded by 200 Gers designed and arranged like the pattern of the horse brand marks that were used by the 13th century Mongol tribes.

What a way to end our 4×4 expedition trip to Mongolia. We left Mongolia the following day on the 1.30pm Trans Mongolian train direction Russia.

We have the intention of returning to this beautiful country again one day, but next time with our own 4×4 truck from Australia.

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ULAANBATAAR, MONGOLIA MEANING “RED HERO CITY”

Rugged Mongolia is an adventure destination where travelers can experience nomadic culture and vast, untouched landscapes. It is this wilderness about Mongolia, that is so unique. Not to be found anywhere in the world, expect the remote outback deserts of Australia and in Siberia, Russia

Mongolia had been on my bucket list for a long time. I had a colleague, who went to Mongolia for 4 weeks and came back to NZ with good reviews. It would have to wait for another 18 years, before we could visit this magnificent country. Europe and the Middle East have always been a priority over Asia, as we have family and friends living there.. but now it was the right time to go to Mongolia.

Rugged Mongolia

From the moment we woke up after the late night border crossing at Zamyn-Üüd/Erenhot in the morning and saw the snow and camels.. I knew in my heart this was going to be a very special place, and a country we would want to come back to explore more with our vehicle.

We had taken Train 33 from Beijing, China direction Moscow, Russia on mid-week at 7.35 am from Beijing South Railway station. 31 hours later we arrived in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, the following day at 14.35 pm.

First, we were greeted by the staff of our tour company SunPath Mongolia on the platform. I had looked up at the Novotel in Beijing, China the route from the railway station to the hotel. Something I would end up doing daily, because we had no international roaming on. International Roaming with an Australian mobile number is like AUD15 per day, so expensive for two retired nomads. I would take a screenshot of the Google maps on how to get from point A to point B. It should have taken us 15 mins by car, but ended up taken the driver 40 mins. The reason is the rapid development of Ulaanbaatar as a city, I will explain that in this article and how Mongolia came into existence, as it has such an impact on our story of Mongolia.

So welcome to Mongolia, one of the most beautiful countries we had ever been to. We have had the privilege of travelling to 68 countries once now in the world. It is one of our favorites and I have a feeling we will be returning to Mongolia more than once in our lives. It is a place so special, that it gets under your skin and can’t wait to return… but first more on the development of Mongolia, because we would hear more about the Mongols as we went west into Europe.

First view of the capital of Mongolia

Facts and figures about Mongolia:

  • Mongolia is the world’s 18th-largest country.
  • Three million people live in Mongolia. An estimated 25 to 40 per cent of them live as nomadic herders.
  • Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated nations in the world, with only 4.3 people per square mile.
  • Mongolia is known as the “Land of Blue Sky” because it has 260 days of sun a year.
  • There are 13 times more horses than humans in the country, and sheep outnumber humans 35 to 1.
  • Mongolian nomadic families get taxed on the number of horses they own.
WHO FOUNDED MONGOLIA?

Mongolia wasn’t founded by one person, but has a long and complex history. The pastoral nomads of what would become Mongolia were the first to domesticate the horse. As a result, pastoral nomads had a mastery of the horse not shared by sedentary peoples. It was easy for them to dominate the scattered agricultural societies in the area.

All Mongolian people recognise their kinship to one another, expressed through shared history and language. Traditionally, however, the Mongolian people have been divided into clans based on blood relationship. While war between clans was common, at other times nomads formed giant confederations which could threaten the most powerful ancient states.

The Mongols appear as fearsome figures throughout Chinese history. Successive groups threatened Chinese supremacy first through raids and then the formation of powerful empires on the border. In response to these incursions, the famous Great Wall of China was built. See our Blog “The wall of Walls”

The most famous Mongol incursions, however, were led by Genghis Khan in the 12th century. Genghis Khan’s military campaigns spread across Asia, creating an empire that at its height was the largest contiguous empire in world history, spanning from the Danube River in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east.

We would hear about the spreading of the Mongolian Empire by Genghis Khan as far West as Krakow in Poland. I asked the guide one day, why is this part of the city wall missing. He replied: “the Mongols had tried to conquer the city in the 13th century and they partly destroyed the city walls”. The Mongols even conquer Hungary and current day Croatia.

HOW DID MONGOLS FALL?

Following Mongolian tradition, Genghis Khan divided the empire between his four favourite sons on his death, while a general assembly of Mongol nobles voted his middle son Ögödei ‘great khan’. During this period, expansion continued: the Mongols conquered Russia and staged raids on Poland and even Germany. They also further expanded into Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

The division of the empire led to fueds after Ögödei’s death, however as Genghis Khan’s children and grandchildren fought to be the ‘Great Khan’. While all his descendants continued to expand Mongol territory, the Empire became so vast that there was little cultural consistency. The descendants of Genghis Khan began to identify with the cultures they conquered, such as Kublai Khan his grandson was the first non-Chinese person to conquer all of China. Mongolia was no longer the heart of the Mongolian Empire.

While the Mongols would eventually be expelled from China, Genghis Khan’s descendants would shape world history. Most famous is the ruler Timur (Tamerlane), who tried to regain Mongol power, staging invasions from India to Russia. Tamerlane’s descendants ruled Central Asia for centuries, and his descendent Babur would conquer Delhi, beginning the powerful Mughal Empire of India (note the similarities between Mongol and Mughal). In Iran, the descendants of Mongol rulers in the Middle East – known as the Il-Khans – ruled for centuries, creating a culture that fused Mongol, Chinese, Iranian and Turkish elements, particularly in the famed Chinese-style miniatures of the 13th and 14th centuries; while in Russia the last khanate was defeated as late as 1783.

WHEN DID MONGOLIA BECOME INDEPENDENT?

While the descendants of Genghis Khan continued to shape the world, the actual land of Mongolia was divided between rival tribes again. During this time there was a revival of Buddhism in the region.

Finally, China conquered large parts of southern Mongolia. While northern Mongolia was also conquered by China a hundred years later, significant cultural gaps emerged, as southern Mongolia was more closely integrated with China. Today, southern Mongolia is the Chinese autonomous province of Inner Mongolia.

Mongolian Steppe

By the late 19th century, European colonisation meant that China, though still technically independent, was essentially a shell of its former power. In 1913, Mongolia (along with Tibet) declared independence from China. However, Russia and China refused to accept Mongolian independence, and a treaty was signed in 1915 in which Mongolia was obliged to accept autonomy under Chinese rule.

Following the Russian Revolution, however, Mongolian nationalists formed an alliance with the Bolsheviks. After a brief period of Tsarist rule under the notoriously brutal ‘Mad Baron’ Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, Mongolia was declared an independent constitutional monarchy. Soon afterwards, the Soviet Union brought Mongolia under their sphere of influence. While nominally independent, the Communist ‘People’s Republic of Mongolia’ remained in the Soviet sphere of influence until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mongolian Gers

One thing you might know about Mongolia is that it is the least densely populated country in the world. The reason why is complex, but it owes a lot to the extreme continental climate weather. Mongolia has very little arable land or land suitable for growing crops. Three-fourths of the land consists of grassy steppe, which support immense herds of grazing livestock. The rest is divided between forests and barren deserts, with a tiny portion used for agriculture.

The prehistoric people who lived in what is now Mongolia adapted to this environment. While some agriculture was present, the dominant culture of Mongolia was pastoral nomadism. The nomads of Central Asia were the first to domesticate the horse, which they used to herd livestock from steppe to steppe in search of green pastures. In the ancient world, nomads from Mongolia roamed from what is now Romania and Bulgaria in the west to today’s Manchuria (north-eastern China). Yet, unlike agriculture, nomadism could only support small populations, meaning that Mongolia never developed the population densities of nearby China.

Wedding at Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Even today, an estimated 25 to 40 per cent of people still live as nomadic herders. Much of the sedentary population is urbanized, with the capital Ulaanbaatar comprising around 45% of the nation’s population with a population of 1.3 million.

HOW WAS ULANBATAAR ESTABLISHED AS ITS CAPTIAL

The long nomadic traditions of the Mongolian people are reflected in the founding of its capital, which traces its origins back to the establishment of a yurt Buddhist monastery in an area near the old imperial capital of Karakorum around 1639.

The monastery moved from place to place over the years, though as the population began to grow it came to move less frequently until settling in its present-day location around 1778. Despite enduring a long history of Chinese occupation under the Qing dynasty, the nomadic Mongolian region did enjoy a level of autonomy that allowed them to retain their culture and traditions over the years.

Following the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta, the region even experienced a level of prosperity as a trade thoroughfare between China and the Russian Empire, facilitating the flow of goods such as furs, cloth and tea.

Chinese occupation persisted until Mongolia declared independence in 1911 following the collapse of the Qing Empire, though this independence was short lived, with occupation changing hands multiple times in the post-independence period between Chinese, Tsarist and Soviet forces.

The name of the capital Ulaanbaatar, meaning ‘Red Hero’ was chosen in 1924 over the popular alternative ‘Baatar Khot, or ‘Hero City’, marking a period of history influenced heavily by the Soviet Union, which came to succeed the Qing for most of the 20th century, establishing a Mongolian satellite state that remained until 1991.

MODERN ULAANBAATAR

Today Ulaanbaatar city bears the marks of both its history and vital present, with its functionalist 1960’s Soviet style architecture being the most visible reminder of its recent past. Links to its past can be seen in the main square, Sukhbaatar Square.

As the city grew up into its present day City, from being a Nomadic tribal area to a modern city. One has to remember that the Trans Mongolia railway only arrived in 1950. I don’t think, that any urban planning was done in those days. The city was meant to be for 0.5m people, not the population currently of 1.3m to 1.5m. The city simply does not cope. The roads are overflowing with Nissan Hybrid cars and people, hence the reason why it took us 40 mins to go 4.5 kms. I think this is a reflection of its history. It feels like Mongolia was an afterthought by the Chinese and Russians.. a satellite country

Outskirts of Ulaanbaatar heading west

The winters in Mongolia are legendary for their length and severity. In fact, Ulaanbaatar holds the distinction of being the coldest capital city in the world, with temperatures routinely dropping from – 30 C to – 40 C in January and February.

 It is important to note that the capital of Mongolia is the coldest in the world, with a yearly average 0.4 C so remember to pack accordingly, with this in mind it is best to avoid the winter months as the average temperature of -24.5 C  is not for the faint of heart.

Yaks in the snow

We arrived in early November at -5 C, by the end of November it was already -10 C during the day. During the night it was already -15 C to -20 C.

Mongolia is not a country for the faint-hearted. One should have done some previous travel to Asia and under developed country, otherwise I feel that the culture shock and the cold.. will put you off for life, but it should not be that way. It is an incredible country, that has so much to offer.

Made with Love and Passion for the Open Road,

Ro and Mark

Traveller’s Nest Overland, Auckland, New Zealand

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ANCIENT TEA CARAVAN ROUTE OF MONGOLIA

THE HISTORY OF TRANS MONGOLIAN RAILWAY

It is unbelievable to think that the Trans–Mongolian Railway follows an ancient tea camel route from China to Russia and connects Beijing, China with Ulan-Ude, on Trans–Siberian railway in Russia.

Map of the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian Railway Routes

The ancient Tea  Road, which dates back to the 17th century, was a network of ancient trade routes that came into being after the Silk Road. Starting from Southern China in the Wuyi Mountains, it passed thru Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and extended to Mongolia and Russia, stretching about 13,000 km and boosting the development of more than 200 cities along the way.

The Tea Road was a trade route that was officially recognized by a treaty between Russia and the Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1689. The Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689 was the first treaty between Russia and China under the Qing dynasty. It opened markets for Russian goods in China and gave Russians access to Chinese supplies and luxuries. For centuries, it was the preferred method of packaging tea for transport in the form of compressed cakes or bricks – this allowed greater value to be packed into a smaller volume. Bricks of tea became a major component of the tea trade up to Russia through Mongolia. Most teas were transported by mule or mule-carts from either the port of Beijing to Zhangjiakou, where it was re-packed and loaded onto camel caravans for the ride up and over the pass to the high plateau of the Gobi at Choir, Mongolia and onwards to Ulaanbaatar, then to Darkhan, Mongolia crossing at Kyakhta and onwards to Ulan Ude in Siberia, Russia. The Tea Road also transported goods like silk and porcelain.

First views of Mongolia at 8.30am, Bactrian camels descendants of the ancient tea route
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE TRANS MONGOLIAN RAILWAY

Railway development came late to Mongolia partly due the ancient tea routes and history in the region.

Due to the geographical conditions, lack of direct access to the sea and vastness of the territory, the rail transport plays an extremely important role in Mongolia.

Rail transport in Mongolia is an important means of travel in the landlocked country of Mongolia, which has relatively few paved roads. Mongolia is 1.5m sq. km in size, in comparison to NZ at 268k sq. km. Mongolia has 50,000 km of road, but only 4,800 km are paved roads, whereas NZ has 83,000 km of paved roads. The length of road per person in New Zealand is one of the highest in the world.

Mongolia train at Choir, Mongolia. The Trans Mongolia stopped in town on Wednesday at 10.30am in winter

The first railway of Mongolia was built in 1938 and was operated for 43 km length, from the “Nalaikh” coal mines to the capital of Ulaanbaatar.

During World War II, Japanese forces occupied Manchuria in northern China. The Soviet Union saw this as a threat and despite a non-aggression pact signed between Russia and Japan in 1941, built up a strong military presence in eastern Mongolia, then effectively a satellite country of the Soviet Union. There were three bases at Sanbeis, Matad and Tamsagbulag. The bases were constructed in secret and much of their history was unknown until recently. Only in 2015 did a team of Japanese archaeologists confirm that the three bases were served by a railway. The Russian gauge railway diverged from the Manchurian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway at Borzya and crossed into Mongolia to serve the bases. Its total length was around 400km, and it appears to have been completed in 1943. A section of the line as far as Choibasan was retained after the War, and appears to be still active today. From 1988 to 1993 there was a branch north from Choibasan serving a uranium mine at Mardai.

Coal being loaded on to the trains in Choir, Mongolia

The most important railway line in Mongolia, the mainline connecting Russian and China, passing through the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, did not arrive until later. Construction of the Trans-Mongolian line began in 1947, reaching Ulaanbaatar from the north in 1950 and the Chinese border in 1955. It was built to Russian gauge, necessitating a change of gauge at the border with China.

SUCCESS WAS SHORT-LIVED

 In 1955 the rail first crossed the vast expanse of the Gobi Desert, forging a direct link between Moscow and Beijing, a real and symbolic show of solidarity from Red Square to Tiananmen Square. This success was short-lived though.

Despite this initial openness, disagreements between Mao and his Soviet counterparts grew before coming to a head in 1969, with China suspending the Trans-Mongolian following a series of skirmishes between the two powers along the Ussuri River.

Mongolia Gers near Airag, Mongolia

The Trans Mongolia railway link would remain closed during the remainder of the Cold War, and reopen in the 1980s. 

WHY THE DIFFERENT RAILWAY GAUGES AT THE BORDERS

This history of division is evident to this day between the Chinese and Russian railways, with different gauges forcing a switch at the Mongolian Chinese border.

Changing of the bogies at the border of China and Mongolia

China uses the standard gauge of 1,435 mm, while Mongolia used the Russian gauge of  1,520 mm. For this reason through  train carriages between the two countries must have their bogies changed at the border of Zamyn-Üüd/Erenhot or China and Mongolia.

Each carriage has to be lifted in turn to have its bogies changed and the whole operation, combined with passport and customs control, can take several hours. Freight wagons likewise have their bogies exchanged at this break-of-gauge.

THE SINO SOVIET SPLIT

Despite enduring a long history of Chinese occupation under the Qing dynasty, the nomadic Mongolian region did enjoy a level of autonomy that allowed them to retain their culture and traditions over the years. Following the Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689  and the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta, Mongolia even experienced a level of prosperity as a trade thoroughfare between China and the Russian Empire, facilitating the flow of goods such as furs, cloth and tea. Chinese occupation persisted until Mongolia declared independence in 1911 following the collapse of the Qing Empire.

Arrival into Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at 2.35pm, 38 hours after leaving Beijing South Railway Station

It is amazing to think we travelled over such an ancient tea route from Beijing to Ulan Ude in Russia. We will be forever grateful for this wonderful experience.

Overall, a great train trip and one day, once the borders are open again we look forward to driving from Australia via Asia back to Mongolia to explore this magnificent country. It is an Overlanding paradise.

Made with Love and Passion for the Road,

Travellers NEST Overland team,

Ro and Mark

See the next YouTube video “TRAVEL SERIES S1E16: EPIC TRANS MONGOLIAN TRAIN FROM BEIJING TO MONGOLIA” on this journey.

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EPIC TRANS- MONGOLIAN TRAIN 033

The ultimate railway journeys for lovers of epic train journeys are Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian train trips. It is a trip like no other.

TRAIN BETWEEN CIVILIZATIONS

Measuring 2,080 kilometers, and situated between the borders of Russia’s far east and China’s North, the Trans-Mongolian railway is journey steeped in the history of great powers.

Final view of Great Wall of China

Its construction and operation being marked by the interplay between an industrializing, expansionist Soviet Union, and the newly emerging People’s Republic of China.

Mongolia is caught between the Sino-Soviet bloc’s core parties, the development of the Trans-Mongolian Railway served as a litmus test of the relations between the two great powers along their borderlands.

Trans Mongolian Express on the Khonkhor spiral loop approaching Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

OUR JOURNEY SO FAR

We so far had done 14 500km from Brisbane, Australia to Auckland, New Zealand via Hong Kong HKSAR to Beijing, China.

We spent time the number of days in the following locations:

HK 4 days,

HK to Beijing 1 day,

Beijing 6 days

Total of 11 days, so far.

Beijing is a great city to visit, we loved the Forbidden Place, Imperial Gardens and Great Wall of China.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China

After a week in Beijing, we boarded the Trans Mongolian train of 30 hours from Beijing, China to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

TIMETABLE

In winter the train 033, only goes weekly on Wednesday. In summer twice a week.

This train goes from a different train station from where one arrives in Beijing.

The train leaves from Beijing South for 7.27am departure. Don’t come to early, because the station does not open until 6.30am. It is hard to find the platform in the station. NO ONE speaks English in Beijing. We still had to get used to this idea, after 22 months of overlanding in Australia where everyone understands  you..but in China NO ONE speaks English. All the signs are in Chinese, so come prepared.

The tickets will get delivered to your hotel a number of days before departure. Tickets only get confirmed on the day of departure.

Early morning departures from Beijing South

We had difficulty with our tickets as they were delivered to the wrong hotel in Beijing. We changed hotels before leaving NZ. After a phone call to Moscow 48 hours before departure, the Real Russia staff ensure we had our tickets on time.

2nd Class seats from Beijing to Ulanbaatar

Ticket price was EUR 620 for second class, again we were the only foreigners in second class as it was end of October by now. The ticket price includes your food on board, but be prepared for the worst meal in your life. I did not eat my food on board. We had managed to find a European supermarket in Beijing near our Novotel Hotel in Central Beijing.

Our Chinese meal onboard Train 033

The train arrives at the border Mongolian border at 10.48pm, but the undercarriage needs to be changed to suit the Mongolian and Russian rails. It takes 2.5 hours for this to happen. In the meantime, your passports are taken from you to be processed.

Timetable in Moscow and Local time

Finally at 1am the train leaves for Mongolia, after 1.5 hours you arrive at the Mongolian side…. again your passports are taken off you, until at 3am.

At 3am one has arrived in most of the most scenic countries we have ever been to called Mongolia.

Then it is time to sleep after one of the longest border crossing in my life, and we have done a few after 68 countries.

The border crossing themselves are not bad, we just did not like our passports being gone for hours on end.

Finally at 3am, one is officially in Mongolia to arrive in Ulaanbaatar at 2.35pm. Overall, a great train trip.

Next week the history of the Trans Mongolian railway. It was only opened up to visitors in early 1990s.

Made with Love and Passion for the Road,

Traveller’s NEST Overland team,

Ro and Mark

Our YouTube Travel Series Episode: S1E16 Trans Mongolian Train from Beijing to Mongolia
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THE WALL OF WALLS

Great Wall of China is titled one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Medieval World’ and it is also included in the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’. Both of the two honors indicate how the monument has influenced greatly human civilization and world history. It deserved the name ” Great Wall of China”, however it is not one wall as we always thought.. it is way more than…

My first view of the Great Wall from the Motorway, near Beijing, China

WHY VISIT THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

The Great Wall of China was a big bucket list item for us both, but why? I had wanted to run the Great Wall marathon held yearly in May for a long time. I had completed the Auckland City half marathon four times, so I was due to go up to running marathons in 2015. My Hashimotos diagnosis put a stop to all of that.. so why not travel to China to still see this magnificent wall. Life does not stop after a diagnosis of a disease, it just carries on in a different form.

We had set ourselves a goal of visiting as many as possible UNESCO world heritage sites in the world in 2016. Now in 2020, we have visited 165 sites out of 1121 sites in the world. 15% in 3.5 years of full time travel. The Great Wall of China was inscribed into UNESCO in 1987.

INTERESTING FACTS

Interesting facts about the Great Wall of China are:

1.0 Built to protect the historical Northern Borders with Mongolia;

2.0 Built by the Ming Dynasty. It is a series of fortifications of 22,000km long, however only 8,500 km is still in existence;

3.0 It took over 2,500 years to build;

4.0 It was also a border control to allow custom duty on goods transported along the Silk road;

5.0 It covers 15 regions of China, and

6.0 During the construction, soldiers and prisoners were used as labour, unfortunately 400,000 men died. All buried inside the wall.

The Great Wall of China is a group of fortifications made of stones, bricks, sand, rammed earth, and other materials along mountain ridges, plains, desserts, and gobi Desert. It is not simply a ‘wall’, but a military defense project consisting of long connective walls, watch towers, passes, troop barracks and garrison stations. It was constructed mainly for preventing invaders, making enemies harder to break the northern border of the ancient China.

It is China’s most famous landmark, and can be seen from space, as it goes thru 15 provinces at a length of 22,000 kms. It goes from Beijing thru Inner Mongolia to the border with Kyrgyzstan in the west. To put it into perspective Australia from its most eastern point to its west point is only 4,000km wide. You could walk the length of the wall six times over. If you could still walk the Wall. Some parts of it are beautifully preserved, others are charmingly dilapidated.

YEARS OF CONSTRUCTION

It took more than 2,500 years to finish the construction of the Great Wall. The wall was not built in a single time period, but combined effort of many states and dynasties in history. The Great Wall was built over 4 periods.

The first built occurred during the Qin Dynasty, 221 to 207 BC. China was unified for the first time under the Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Each town and province had its own city walls. These were all joined together under the leadership of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Hundred of thousands of workers, many politicians prisoners laboured for 10 years to built the wall of rammed earth. China was very poor, so men between the age of 16 and 60 had to help build the wall. It is said that it is largest cemetery in China, as a lot of men lost their lives.

The third stage continued between 1115 to 1234 due to the impending threat of Gheghis Khan, Great Emperor of Mongolia.

The final stage, is what one will see today, was built during Ming Dynasty from 1368 and 1644, when it was reinforced with stone and bricks.

The best known and most visited sections including Badaling, Mutianyu, Srimati and Jinshaling were built during the Ming Dynasty. The sections of the wall seen today are from the Ming Dynasty. Less than 10% of the sections are well-preserved.

The irony of it all is it never really stopped the enemy from invading Beijing. There were gaps in it, this is how Genghis Khan rode into Beijing in 1215. He killed a lot of the population of Beijing.

The wall is very steep in parts, and they also used other techniques like 2 short steps by one very large step and then 3 short steps by two very large steps.

It was also used as a road to transport goods, equipment and people thru the mountains. It was part of the protection of the safety of the Silk Road, which promoted the culture, politics and economy exchange between China and other countries as well.

WHEN TO GO

We went to Beijing end of October and it was getting cold during the day. In the morning it was in single figures, but by midday around 18 to 19 degrees. Within the week, the night temperatures dropped to freezing. So, bring good walking shoes and a thick coat for the evening and early morning plus a jersey and sweater for walking during the day. It gets cold in the shade.  When it gets cold in Beijing, there are problems with pollution and fog. We were lucky not to experience these winter conditions in Beijing.

Ancient Chinese writing on the Great Wall of China

WHAT TO BRING

The security is very high in parts of Beijing. All Chinese Nationals have ID cards on them, so take your passport as your ID card. I have lamented a copy of the front page of our passports. It was accepted by the security guards. There are a lot of places in Beijing where you need to show your passports when you buy tickets.

COSTS, VISIT TIME AND HOURS

Recommended Visiting Time: 1~4 hours

We visited Badaling section of the Great Wall in Beijing. We did it by Tour from the Novotel in Beijing. The Cable car is extra. Prices quoted are in CNY.

OPENING HOURSWINTERSUMMER
DAILY06.30-21.0006.00-20.00
COSTS – TOUR CNY 400 ppCNY 400 pp
COSTS – CABLE CARCNY 140 ppCNY 140 pp

Made with Love and Passion for the Open Road,

Traveller’s Nest Overland team,

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BALM FOR THE SOUL – LAMA TEMPLE, BEIJING, CHINA

A peaceful oasis in the heart of the city, the Lama temple is a centre of Tibetan Buddhism dating back to 1694. As you wander the streets of northeast Central Beijing you will find the biggest temple of Tibetan Buddhism nestled in between the grey  houses of the Hutong neighborhood.

The temple is known by several names: Lama temple or the Yonghe Temple. Yongle means “Palace of Peace and Harmony” in Chinese.

When we all achieve individual peace, there will be world peace

 by the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Hall of Yonghe, Lama Temple, Beijing, China

We felt this sense of calmness as we walked into this beautiful temple in Beijing on that winters day in 2018. We  had decided to visit this temple as it will be years before we ever go to Tibet and we wanted to experience some of this uniqueness in Beijing. It is the biggest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet,  in China.  

Prayer Wheel

It was built in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty and was the Imperial residence of Prince Yin Zhen till he was crowned Emperor Yong Zheng and moved to the Forbidden City in 1723. After the death of the Emperor Yong Zheng, his coffin was placed here.

Subsequently, the monastery became a residence for large numbers of Tibetan Buddhist monks from Mongolia and Tibet, and so the Yonghe Lamasery became the national center of Lama administration.

Burning incense in front of Yonghe Hall

Yonghe Gate Hall 雍和门殿

After walking down the Imperial way from the entrance, you will reach the Zhaotai Gate which is the entrance to the north yard.  It used to be the outer wall of the temple. This gate was only used by emperors.

As you wander thru the gates for Emperor,  you’ll enter the second courtyard. It is here, that you are greeted by sight of praying locals in front of a cloud of burning incense before Yonghe Gate. The Yongle Gate was  the original gate to the Lama Temple. These days its known as the Hall of the Heavenly Kings, named after the 4 monuments of Kings that decorate the inner walls of the palace.

Ancient Bell

In the second courtyard you will see the most amazing bell with these incredible lions on them. If anyone knows that the inscriptions are please leave a comment.

The Hall of Harmony and Peace (雍和宫)

The next hall is Yongyou Hall. Going back to the royalty theme, this building became the original place of residence for an Emperor before he was throned. This hall also became the very same Emperor’s resting place at the time of his death.

The Hall of the Wheel of the Law (轮殿)

The Hall of the Wheel of the Law or now known as the  Falun Hall was originally the living place for the Emperor’s wives.

Incense burners outside the Falun Hal

These days the hall has a more spiritual purpose as a site for Buddhist prayers and scripture reading. At the center you’ll find the altar along with sacrificial offerings before a large statue dedicated to Tsong Kha-pa, the founder of Lamaism. Surrounding the altar at all sides you’ll see 500 Arhats strategically placed out for lamas to perform their Buddhist rituals and read their scriptures. It is here, we listened to the Monk praying.

The Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses (万福阁)

It is in the fifth hall, the Wanfu Pavilion, the Lama temple reveals its magnificence. As you walk in you will see this awe-inspiring, 18m-tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha in its Tibetan form. It is the biggest wooden Buddha in the world. It is clothed in yellow satin and reputedly carved from a single trunk of Tibetan sandalwood from Nepal. We have seen a few big Buddha in our travels, but it is quite something to be seen.

Maitreya Buddha at the Lama Temple, Beijing, China

The statue was a gift from the seventh Dalai Lama to the Emperor Qianlong in 1750, and took three years to be transported from Lhasa to the capital.

The temple was the site of an armed revolt against the Chinese Nationalist government in 1929.

After the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, the temple was declared a national monument and closed for the following 32 years. It is said to have survived the Cultural Revolution due to the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai. Reopened to the public in 1981, it is today both a functioning temple and highly popular tourist attraction in the city. The temple is listed in the Lonely Planet in top 10 Things to do in Beijing.

We loved it, the Monks were in prayer as we arrived. Out of respect I didn’t film inside, we just watched. A very special time to be there and experience this.

Highly recommended site for history and Chinese culture lovers and architecture enthusiasts to spend a good few hours between 1 to 3 hours.

COST

Pricing CNY 50 each, about NZD$11 per person or EUR 5.50

OPENING HOURS

 HOURSTICKET HOURSSEASON
APRIL TO OCTOBER09.00-16.3009.00-16.30Summer
NOVEMBER TO MARCH09.00-16.0009.00-16.00Winter

Made with Love and Passion for the Open Road,

Traveller’s Nest Overland team,

Ro and Mark

See Our YouTube Traveller’s NEST Overland channel for the next episode on the Lama Temple: Travel Train Series S1E11 Lama Temple, Beijing China

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TEMPLE OF HEAVEN – MAGNIFICENT IMPERIAL ARCHITECTURE

The Temple of Heaven is one of the most brilliant ancient architectures in China. It is an outstanding masterpiece of classic imperial buildings of Chinese history. The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 by Emperor Yongle, then expanded by the subsequent emperors of both the Ming and Qing Dynasty, and had served as the holy place for emperors to pay homage to Heaven and to pray for a year of a rich harvest.

According to the Lonely Planet on Things to do in Beijing. It holds fifth place in the top 10 on “Things to see in Beijing”. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage listed site since 1998.

Mark at Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

We walked that beautiful winter day from the Novotel Beijing Xin Qiao to the Temple of Heaven 4km, and after paying our entrance fee at the North Heaven gate, we were inside the complex. We were in for such a treat, as we walked up the avenue of trees with their autumn leaves in bright yellow. We knew the Temple of Heaven was going to be special, due to the colours and architecture of the site. I had taken a copy of the Beijing pages of the Lonely Planet with me from New Zealand as we knew nothing about this place, but as we walked around, we got more and more drawn into this beauty and history.

As mentioned in my previous blogs on Beijing: “AN IMPRESSIVE PALACE OR PRISON – THE FORBIDDEN CITY, BEIJING, CHINA”. To understand the significance of the Temple of Heaven, you first need to understand the history of the urban planning of ancient Beijing.

Front doors to Temple of Heaven, Central Beijing, China

HISTORY OF BEIJING IN RELATION TO TEMPLE OF HEAVEN

Emperor Yongle, the third Ming Dynasty Emperor was responsible for bringing the ancient Chinese capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1424.

The Imperial City of Beijing was established Emperor Qin in 221 BC when China was united. It has had several names over the centuries from Jin City to Beiping under Emperor Yongle.  It was really under the Min Dynasty that Beijing as we now call it, become an important strategic stronghold. The Forbidden City and Ming Tombs were established in 1421 to 1424. At that time, the old Imperial city was established using a central axis. The central axis is the best-preserved core area of the old city of Beijing. The central axis of Beijing is 7.8km long starting in the south of the city from Yongding Gate, running across the Zhengyang Gate, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Jingshan Hill, and ending at the Drum Tower and Bell Tower in the North.  The central axis organises the imperial city with its imperial palaces, temples, markets, and the Tiananmen square.

The walls around the Hall of Prayers

The central axis of Beijing has its roots dated back to the planning and the design of the Dadu City in the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan Dynasty determined the location of the central axis based on the water system, today referred to as the six lakes like the lake at Jingshan Park. (see my blog “DRUMS IN ANCIENT BEIJING CHINA”) The overall layout of Beijing City remained intact throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasty.

The central axis has undergone re-organization during the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China with the renovation and expansion of Tiananmen Square in 1949 and thereby shifting the symbolic focus of the central axis from the Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square.

So, the site at the Temple of Heaven was chosen as part of the Central Axis in southeast location to the Imperial Place because this is where solar power was supreme – that’s why the Temple of Heaven was built southeast to the Forbidden City. Once we learned about these facts, it was all starting to make sense.

Nowadays, tourists like us are drawn to the Temple of Heaven for its magnificent architecture and 800-year-old Cypress trees plus its parklands as well as to understand the link to the solemn ceremonies in ancient times. It was such a breath of fresh air to walk in this beautiful parkland. We had started to feel quite overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in Beijing, after having come out of the Australian Outback a month earlier. It was wonderful to just walk and take in the sights that day.

CHANGES TO TEMPLE OF HEAVEN OVER THE CENTURIES

Originally, the site was called the Temple of Heaven and Earth, it was built from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of Emperor Yongle. The temple was enlarged and renamed Temple of Heaven during the reign of Emperor Jiajing in the 16th century.

Mark at the magnificent three -tiered roof Hall of Prayer with the Imperial walkway

The tradition had lasted more than 160 years until the Emperor Jiajing changed it. He built four sites separately as Temple of Heaven, Temple of Earth, Temple of Sun, and Temple of Moon in the 16th century. Since then, the structure had been kept by the following emperors.

ANCIENT CHINESE MYTHOLOGY

Ancient Chinese mythology believed the Heaven is circle and the Earth is square, which is fully embodied in the design of Temple Heaven. 

The Round altar-building was the only building in Beijing with a three-tiered roof. Only the Imperial family were allowed two or three-tiered roofs, also all houses in Beijing were to be grey as only the Imperial family could use colour.

If one stands at the Round Altar, one gets a good view of Beijing. The Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven were built on the highest hills in town.

As it was believed that the Emperor was the Son of Heaven, and therefore Heaven’s supreme power was bestowed upon him. The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven were the tallest points in old Beijing, so the Emperor was always at a higher level than anyone in Beijing and the Emperor would be closer to Heaven.  The road from the Palace goes straight south to the Temple of Heaven.

IMPORTANCE OF WINTER CEREMONIES

This park is so full of symbols. It is wonderful, once you start to understand what they all mean and its importance. The Emperor of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the Son of Heaven, visited the Temple of Heaven twice a year. Winter visit was most important as it was thought that this ritual decided the nation’s future. It was an annual ceremony of prayer to Heaven for a good harvest. The symbol of the Temple of Heaven is the magnificent Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. It is this structure that most people are familiar with. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the emperor would come to the Temple of Heaven every January.

Inside the Hall of Prayers

It is hard to gain perspective of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest before you walk around it. The hall looks almost the same in every direction, including its doors. This is due to the Emperor Jiajing (1507 – 1567) of the Ming Dynasty, who succeeded his brother (1491 – 1521), who did not have a son. In order, to demonstrate that his succession was by the will of heaven, Emperor Jiajing ordered architects to build the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest round, instead of square, as per the ancient philosophy that the heaven is round, and the ground is square.

THE PILLARS HAVE THEIR STORIES

The Temple of Heaven architecture is fascinating. The details in the pillars of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests are the four dragons pillars in the inner circle embody the four seasons; the 12 inner pillars represent 12 months of the year; the 12 outer pillars stand for 12 two-hour periods of the day – the two groups of 12 pillars, added up to 24, implicate the 24 solar terms, while the three groups of pillars (28 pillars altogether), represent the 28 Mansions of the Moon. Unbelievable someone could think about all these details.

Once you come out of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, there is a long corridor and next to it is the Animal Killing Pavilion was where oxen, sheep, deer and other beasts were slaughtered and prepared before being presented as divine offerings. Here you find these beautiful big copper pots. Next thing, that caught our attention was the wall around the Hall of Prayer. The roof tiles of the wall captured my interest. The colours were intense in the autumn sunlight, so blue. I had never seen just blue ceramic tiles before in my life. I must have taken 100 photos that day.

THE NUMBER NINE

Once you walk thru the gates at the Hall of Prayer, you enter the Imperial Walkway before you come to the Circular Mound Altar. It is a magnificently built altar lavishly decorated with carved dragons. The architect carved the number nine into all possible elements of the altar, from balusters to steps to the marble tiles on the three levels,  to imply the supremacy. The number nine is considered to be the supreme number in Chinese culture.

Mark at the Circular Mound Altar

The Circular Mound Altar is an outdoor platform of three levels all built out of white marble. Again, how did the architect come up with this idea to build something so beautiful? Every carved dragon looks the same, just incredible.

White marble carved dragons at the Circular Mound Altar

ECHO WALL

Next, we came to the Echo Wall, we were so excited by this wall and its magic, that we forgot to take photos or a video, as we had so much fun. The Echo wall encloses the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Its perimeter is 193 meters.

Due to its unique acoustic properties, a quiet-spoken word or two against this circular wall can be heard at the opposite point, some 65m away.

As we wander around, we came across this palace. Now I am home I realize it was the Palace of Abstinence. It lies to the northwest of the Circular Mound Altar and next to the west gate of the Park of the Temple of Heaven.

Place of Abstinence, The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

THE RESTING PLACE OF THE EMPEROR

It was a place for the emperor to abstain from food before the Worshipping Heaven Ceremony started. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the emperor would go to the Palace of Abstinence three days before the formal Heaven Worshipping Ceremony. During the three days, the emperor would live alone and eat a simple vegetarian diet without wine. Entertainment and court intrigue were avoided. The emperor would bathe several times to prepare well for the ceremony. 

SUMMARY

In 1998, the UNESCO listed the Temple of Heaven in the World Heritage Sites List with the description as “a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world’s great civilizations…” on. Haven’t you fell in love with the hall already? For us, it was heaven on earth, that day. A nice quiet spot in central ancient Beijing.

Highly recommended site for history, art and architecture lovers.

One more photos of the amazing Dragon roof tiles

COSTS, VISIT TIME AND HOURS

Recommended Visiting Time: 1~4 hours

OPENING HOURSWINTERSUMMER
DAILY06.30-21.0006.00-20.00
COSTS – ENTRANCECNY 10 ppCNY 15 pp
COSTS – THROUGHTCNY 28 ppCNY 34 pp

Entrance Ticket:   With the ticket, you to get into the park, see local people do morning exercises and have an outside look at the historical buildings in the park as well.

Through Ticket:  With this ticket, you can enter the park and go to visit the three areas in the park – Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, The Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar.

Made with Love and Passion for the Open Road,

Traveller’s Nest Overland team,

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THE MING DYNASTY CONCUBINES

The Ming Dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644. The Ming Dynasty would be known for its trade expansion to establish ties with the West. Equally the Ming Dynasty is also remembered for its drama, literature, and world-renowned white and blue porcelain.

We were told by our guide on that winter’s day in Beijing, China that:

“The most interesting thing was the burial rituals of Ming and Qing Dynasty, that Emperor was buried with his wife, the Empress, and concubines. Sometimes up to 100 concubines. They would be buried alive or required to commit suicide. The exact location of where the Emperor and Empress are buried is unknown. The two gravediggers would have to commit suicide as well as they are not allowed to leave the burial chamber.”

My husband and I have got surprisingly good at not giving any facial expressions, when we hear facts like that due to political correctness, and when one travels so much as we do. We never discuss history and facts about a country in front of locals, in certain countries that can get you into a whole bunch of trouble, especially China. So, when we came back to our hotel, Novotel in Central Beijing… the first item up for discussion was the ancient burial traditions of the Ming and Qing Dynasty. We just could not believe what we had heard, surely it must be wrong or incorrect. Now we are home again after 3.5 years away travelling. We have time to research these facts, and I must admit the guide was right that day in China.

So here are some interesting facts I have found out after hours and hours of research, as this had me of intrigued…

Silk clothing, Ming Tombs, Beijing, China

What is Concubine?

The term Concubine comes from Latin term “Concubinatus”, its institution was in ancient Rome, that regulated the cohabitation of free citizens who did not want to enter into a marriage, similar to modern-day civil unions. Concubinage has existed in all cultures in history.

Concubines are women living in quasi-matrimonial relationships; they live together with a married man, but to whom they are not formally married. Concubines had a lower social status than the man or the official wife or wives.

Concubines in Imperial China

The main function of concubinage was producing additional heirs, as well as pleasing males. Children of concubines had lower rights in account to inheritance, which was regulated by the Dishu system.

In places like China, the concubine of a king could achieve power, especially if her son also became a monarch.

Imperial concubines during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), were kept by emperors in the Forbidden City, had different ranks and were traditionally guarded by eunuchs to ensure that they could not be impregnated by anyone but the emperor. 

In Ming China, there was an official system to select concubines for the emperor called Xiunu selection process. The age of the candidates ranged mainly from 14 to 16. Virtues, behaviour, character, appearance, and body condition were the selection criteria. The Eunuchs would leave the palace to go looking for concubines for the general public. No women over the age of 14 were exempt unless she was married or with physical disabilities or deformities.

Shoes belong to the Empress, Ming Tombs, Beijing

Having one or more concubines was quite common in imperial China -that is if one could afford it. There were very few life options available for women in imperial China. A woman could become a wife, a maid, a concubine, or a prostitute.

Concubinage was in many cases the only way that a poor woman could achieve financial- and social security if she could not find a husband. And however undesirable, concubinage was still vastly safer than prostitution and with a lot less chance of attracting STD.

The situation did improve for Concubines under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  A concubine could be promoted to wife if the original wife had died and the concubine was the mother of the only surviving sons. Moreover, the prohibition against forcing a widow to remarry was extended to widowed concubines.

The selection process changed during the Qing Dynasty. Concubines were no longer selected from the general public but from the “Eight Banners” families, who were mainly Manchurian and Mongolian.

As previously discussed in my blog “AN IMPRESSIVE PALACE OR PRISON – THE FORBIDDEN CITY, BEIJING, CHINA”, the Concubines would enter the Forbidden Palace via the West or Eastern Gates of the Palace, and never be allowed to leave again. They would have to break off all contact with their friends and family. Their one job in life was to provide the Emperor with sexual pleasures and a male heir. Only on a few occasions did Concubines leave their service to the Emperor, either if they were given as a gift to another country or if they were over the age of 25. Under the rules set by Emperor Yongle, only a concubine would leave after 5 years of service.

Where does the ancient burial rituals come from?

Immolation was a gruesome custom that Emperor Yongle copied from the previous Mongolian Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).

The deceased emperor’s concubines were either killed by commit suicide with a white scarf by hanging or they were killed by the gravediggers by cutting of their throats and buried with him. Some were outright buried alive standing up. The purpose was to follow the emperor into the afterlife and service him there in all perpetuity.

How many Concubines went into the Afterlife with their Emperor?

When the first Ming Dynasty emperor Hongwu died in 1398 forty concubines were forced to commit suicide to follow their Emperor into the Netherworld. Two of them were buried with him and the Empress.

When the third Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle died in 1424. Not only are Emperor Yongle and Empress Xu were buried in Changling in line with custom in those days, but sixteen concubines were also required to commit suicide. After an honorary feast, they were made to stand on a wooden bed with ropes around their necks after which the bed was pulled away. They were all interred in the tomb.

As was still customary at the time in 1425, 10 concubines were buried in Xianling along with the fourth Ming Dynasty, Emperor Hongxi and Empress Zhang. They were among others Noble Consort Gongsu and consorts Zhenjingjing, Gongjingchong, Gongxishun, Hui’anli and Zhenhuisu. This horrific custom of immolation would survive another few years.

The practice of burying concubines and palace maids alive was stopped when the eighth Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhengtong died at the age of 36 in 1464. He gave the order to cease the practice of burying concubines. It is a custom that has been in place since the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1368.

Dragon Crown of the Emperor, Ming Tomb, Beijing

Different burial practices amongst Ming and Qing Dynasty

However, the practice continues under any of the emperors of the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1912). They adopted the custom of immolation, whereby the concubines were buried in a standing position, to be prepared to greet their Emperor on his journey to the Afterlife.

This inhuman ancient burial practice and he practice of Concubinage were finally outlawed in China in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party came to power and in Hong Kong in 1971.

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THE DARK HISTORY OF MING DYNASTY TOMBS

Off the beaten tourist path in Beijing are the Ming Dynasty Tombs.  The tombs have such a fascinating history, but also a dark part of ancient Chinese history as we were about to discover on this winter’s day on our overland travel from Hong Kong to the Netherlands.

The Ming tombs are a collection of mausoleums built by the emperors of the  Ming dynasty of China. The first Ming emperor’s tomb, Emperor Hongwu, is located near his capital Nanjing. Nanjing was the southern capital of Ancient China. It was the third Ming emperor, Emperor Yongle, who relocated the imperial capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1424.

Most of the Ming tombs are in a cluster near Beijing, and collectively known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). Since 1420, when the Emperor Yongle built his tomb here, the succeeding twelve emperors had their resting places built around Changling during the next 230 years, covering a total area of over 40 square kilometres.

Map of Beijing and The Ming Dynasty Tombs, Beijing

Ming tombs are located 42 kilometers or 26 miles northwest of Beijing’s city center in suburban Changping District of Beijing. The site, on the southern slope of Tianshou Mountain, was chosen by Emperor Yongle.

According to UNESCO World Heritage website: “The Ming and Qing imperial tombs are in topographical settings carefully chosen according to principles of Fengshui and comprise numerous buildings of traditional architectural design and decoration. The tombs and buildings are laid out according to Chinese hierarchical rules and incorporate sacred ways lined with stone monuments and sculptures designed to accommodate ongoing royal ceremonies as well as the passage of the spirits of the dead. They illustrate the great importance attached by the Ming and Qing rulers over five centuries to the building of imposing mausolea, reflecting not only the general belief in an afterlife but also an affirmation of authority.”

Presently, the Ming Tombs are one of the components of the World Heritage Site, the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It includes several other locations near Beijing and in Nanjing, Hebei, Hubei, Liaoning province. The Ming Tombs were added into UNESCO World Heritage listed sites in August 2003.

Five Offerings, Ming DynastyTombs, Beijing

The Chinese Ming Dynasty lasted for 276 years (1368 – 1644 AD) and has been described as “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history.” This dynasty became a global superpower, yet while this dynasty was praised for its stability and innovation there was a darker more gruesome underbelly.

At the time, as we were told some of the information by our guide, we thought we were hearing it wrong, but now I have time to research and understand its cultural significance.

To understand the dark part of history of these tombs you need to walk down the Changling Scared Way to the Changling Tomb. The Scared Way means the road leading to heaven. The Emperor, known as the Son of the Heaven, who came from Heaven to his country through the Sacred Way, would return to Heaven through this road.

Mark at Ling Xing Men Archway

All along the Way from south to north, you will see several sites of interest and beauty, including the Stone Tablet Archway, Great Red Gate, Tablet Pavilion, Ornamental Columns, Stone Figures, Lingxin Gate.

Walking along the Sacred Way to the end, you can see the Changling Tomb built in 1420, where lies the third Emperor of Ming Dynasty, Emperor Yongle and his Empress Xu.

The Blessing and Grace Palace, or Ling’en Palace

Approaching the Changling Tomb, you will first see the tomb’s gate called the Alhambresque gate with its three red doors, which take you into the first courtyard. The gate to the second courtyard is named Blessing and Grace Gate or Ling’en Gate.  It is impressive to see this beautiful gate. Once you go thru the gate, I saw these magnificent stone carvings.  On further research the lower part of the carved picture is a surging sea, in which mountains stand and two sea horses are leaping out; in the upper part, two vigorous dragons are flying up and down, chasing fire beads. The workmanship blew me away, so beautiful in yet such a sad place.

The beautiful stone corner stone carvings at Ming Tombs, Beijing

Once you are in the second courtyard, you will see the main building of the Changling Tomb, the Blessing and Grace Palace, or also known as Ling’en Palace. This place was used for making sacrifices to Emperor Zhu Di and Empress Xu. This palace really deserves a visit for its uniqueness. It is the only preserved tomb palace from the Ming Dynasty and the only huge palace made of camphor wood. It is the one of oldest wooden structure of ancient China. You stand this beautiful place and wander about this history. After seeing the lifeline bronze statue of Emperor Yongle sitting on his throne decorated with dragons, you feel overwhelmed by the beauty of this place, but my eyes went straight to the ceiling. I had got so used to looking at the ceilings in Asia once you walk into these beautiful ancient buildings.

Crown, Ming Tombs, Beijing

It is this palace, that all of Emperor Yongle achievements are discussed. He was responsible for bringing the ancient Chinese capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1424. He also had the Forbidden Place and these tombs built. The palace also holds beautiful items of silk, jewellery and clothing of the Dangling tomb, the third largest of the Ming Tombs. It is the tomb of the Emperor Wanli, his empress consort and the mother of the Taichang Emperor, only Ming tomb to have been excavated.  It was selected as a trial site in preparation for the excavation of Changling. Excavation completed in 1957 and a museum was established in 1959.

Hairpin, Ming Dynasty

Once you go leave the palace, you come into the final courtyard, you can see the two stone gate called Lingxing Gate. This courtyard is the most beautiful of all. It is surrounded by trees. The trees were just losing their autumn colours that day.  There is another archway and silk burning pots in this courtyard. Once you go thru the final gate you are coming into the back site of the Tomb called Treasure City. We were asked not to take photos out of respect for the deceased, but it is basically an enclosed circular castle with high walls and trees. It is here the Emperor and his wife were laid to rest, but no one has any idea where…

Lingxin Gate, Ming Tombs, Beijing

But why…

That is a story of the next time on the following blog.

OPENING HOURSWINTERSUMMER
DAILY08.30-16.3008.00-17.00
COSTSCNY 45 ppCNY 35 pp

We did with a tour operator from our Novotel hotel in Central Beijing for CNY800 for 2 pp for the day including Great Wall of China and tea ceremony.

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DRUMS IN ANCIENT BEIJING CHINA

All of a sudden, we were 14,500km away from Brisbane, Australia after leaving our beloved Overlanding truck “the Nest”, and we were in the middle of the ancient inner city of Beijing.  We had been on the road by now for six weeks. It was some days overwhelming what we were seeing and experiencing.

On the previous day, we had visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Four of the ten top bucket list items of Beijing completed on our first day in town.

I was starting to understand why our travel agent of 25 years, who is now a personal friend, told me not to travel unguided throughout China, but as we were only going to Beijing, I did not think it was going to be an issue.

On the morning of day two, we decided to go thru Tiananmen Square again. This time we decided to go around the right-hand side of the square, rather than the left-hand side of the square.. well, we got into trouble with the authorities again. The walkway had been closed off for some reason.  To this day, I still don’t know why we were not allowed to pass this section of walkway. We had a 10-minute discussion with a security guard until a lovely young Chinese national who spoke very good English came over to help out and simply explained to us, that we were not allowed on the sidewalk. We had to cross over to Tiananmen Square…..So the moral of the story is being prepared for things to be done differently in China and don’t leave the hotel without your passport, so you can show your nationality at all times.

After we passed into the square for a second time. We took another opportunity to reflect on where we were standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square. I love to watch the people taking photos of themselves like we had done on the previous day.  I could just image, what the square have been like in 1989. The square is not as looks on tv, it is quite small. It looked peaceful on the day we visited.

Tiananmen Square

JINGSHAN PARK

We finally made it around the rear of the Forbidden City to the second section of the Imperial Gardens or Jingshan Park as it is now called.

Tickets to the former Imperial Gardens now Jingshan Park, Beijing, China

Jingshan Park is the formerly private imperial park covering 23 hectares or 57 acres immediately north of the Forbidden City, where the Imperial family would walk, relax, read books. In 1928 a road was put thru the gardens to separate the gardens from the Forbidden City.  The park was then open up to the general public later that year.

Exploring the Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China

The last Emperor of China of the Qing dynasty left the Forbidden City in 1924, twelve years after the abdication. The Forbidden City served as the home of Chinese emperors and their households and was the ceremonial and political centre of the Chinese government for almost 500 years from the Ming dynasty, Yongle Emperor in 1420 to the end of the Qing dynasty, Henry Puyi Emperor in 1924. Emperor Henry Puyi abdicated when he was six years old. Empress Dowager Longyu endorsed the abdication on 12 February 1912, handing over power to Yuan Shikai’s Republican army. It was the beginning of the Chinese revolution in 1911. It was also a time of big change in Russia and Europe.

Little girl was so happy to have her photo taken on the stairs to Prospect Hill, Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China

Jingshan Park was developed from a small hill in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) into a large, comprehensive garden. Many trees were planted on the hills, and the pavilions were used as holy places to offer sacrifice to imperial ancestors in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The park became a popular summer resort for the imperial family. The park has beautiful pavilions and architecture as seen across the road at the palace.

A quiet spot, Tea pavillion, Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China

The focal point is the artificial hill Jingshan, literally “Prospect Hill”. As you stand as the summit of Prospect Hill in the park, you can see the north gate of the Forbidden City called the Gate of Divine Might.

Top of Prospect Hill, Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China

The park is also the most northern point of the south-north axis of inner ancient Beijing.  

Qianhai Lake, Beijing, China

DRUM AND BELL TOWERS

As we wander thru the beautiful gardens of the Jingshan park for a few hours we came out at Qianhai Lake and realised we were out of the park. In Beijing you just get absorbed by the crowds. 80,000 people are allowed in the Forbidden City per day, so it gives you an idea that you just go with the crowds especially on nice days like it was that day. It has been a cold night, but beautiful winter days. All of a sudden, we were in an old neighbourhood surrounded by grey terrace houses. In ancient Beijing, only the Imperial family were allowed to use colour. So any other buildings will be grey. You know you have entered one of the old Hutong neighbourhoods. We were just going to enjoy this moment. These neighbourhoods are unfortunately disappearing in Beijing.

Before we knew we saw the Drum and Bell towers.  We had a lovely encounter with a local Art teacher. He explained the history of the Drum towers to us.

One of our fondest memories of China meeting this guy and chatting to him about the history of the Drum towers

The Drum Tower of Beijing, or Gulou, is situated at the northern end of the central axis of the Inner City to the north of Di’anmen Street.

The Drum Tower has been built and rebuilt numerous times during history, and existing one date from the Qing Dynasty in 1745, but now been built in a brick masonry structure to prevent a fire.

Originally built as musical instruments in ancient China. Later they were used by the government and communities to announce the time. The Bell and Drum towers were central to official timekeeping in ancient China during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The Drum and Bell Tower could be heard for miles away as there were no tall buildings in ancient Beijing. The Forbidden City was the highest point in the city.  In other cities in China, the Bell was rung at dawn and drum was beaten at sunset to indicated the beginning and end of the day.

The Bell and Drum Towers continued to function as the official timepiece of Beijing until 1924, when Chinese Revolution led to the expulsion of Henry Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, from the Forbidden City, and the adoption of western-styled clockwork for official time-keeping.

Local family at the Drum Tower, Beijing, China

We finished the day by walking around the Old Hutong neighbourhoods near the Forbidden City back to the hotel and getting local homemade dumplings from a lady on the side of the road.

Street Food, Beijing Style, man they were good

COST:

CNY 40 FOR 2 PP or NZD$9 or EUR 4.50 (IMPERIAL GARDENS)

CNY 30 FOR 2 PP or NZD$7 or EUR 3.50 (BELL AND DRUM TOWERS)

OPENING HOURS

 HOURS
JINGSHAN PARK06.00-19.00
DRUM AND BELL TOWERS  08.30-16.30

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AN IMPRESSIVE PALACE OR PRISON – FORBIDDEN CITY

After 24 hours on the train from Hong Kong, we were finally in Beijing, China. We came to Beijing to see two bucket list items both UNESCO World Heritage listed: The Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China.

We had six days in this city to wander, explore and discover. According to the Lonely Planet Guide, the top ten things to do in Beijing are:

1.0 Great Wall of China;
2.0 Forbidden City;
3.0 Tiananmen square;
4.0 Walking around the old Hutong neighbourhoods;
5.0 Temple of Heaven;
6.0 Summer Palace;
7.0 Eating Peking Duck;
8.0 Lama Temple;
9.0 Chinese Performing Arts, and
10.0 Drum and Bell Towers

We did eight out of the top 10, plus a few extra activities in six days. We could have spent ten days in the city. There is so much to do and see. We walked everywhere to see as much as possible of the inner city.

First bucket list item was the Forbidden Place, mainly as it was close to our hotel Novotel Beijing Xin Qiao, 4-star hotel, two blocks from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

WHAT IS THE FORBIDDEN CITY?

The Forbidden City is a palace complex in central Beijing, China north of Tiananmen Square. It houses the Palace Museum, and was the former Chinese imperial palace and state residence of the Emperor of China from the Ming dynasty, since the Yongle Emperor in 1420 to the end of the Qing dynasty, 1924. The Forbidden City served as the home of Chinese emperors and their households and was the ceremonial and political centre of the Chinese government for almost 500 years. It is the largest ancient palatial structure in the world and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. It is one of five important palaces due to its impressive Chinese architecture.

WHY IS THE PALACE CALLED THE FORBIDDEN CITY?

In total, 24 Emperors occupied the Forbidden City of the Ming and Qing dynasties between 1420 to 1924. The palace complex is so huge, 14 Emperors of the Ming dynasty and 10 of the Qing dynasty lived here. It is named “Forbidden City” because the palace could only be accessed by the Emperor, his immediate family, his concubines and thousands of eunuchs (castrated male servants). Even male family members could not stay in the city, so the Empress could not be impregnated, only by the Emperor. Ordinary people of Beijing would never enter the palace in their lifetime.

Map of the Forbidden City and Palace Museum, Beijing, China

INTERESTING FACTS OF THE FORBIDDEN CITY AND PALACE MUSEUM

The size of the complex is impressive:

  • It is the largest Palace complex in the world;
  • It is the largest example of Imperial Chinese architecture in China;
  • It has 980 buildings;
  • It has 8,700 rooms;
  • It occupies an area of 780,000 sq. metres, of which 167,000 sq. metres are buildings;
  • It is over 3 km in length, and
  • The moat is 52 metres wide and 6 metres deep;
  • The walls are 7.9 metres high and has a circumference of 3,430 meters.

In other words, it is huge in size. I don’t think we have ever been to a palace so large in our lives. We are both really taken by the Imperial Palace.

TIANANMEN SQUARE

After a visit to the Tiananmen Square, which of course is known for the students’ protests of June 1989, we went under the pedestrian crossing to get to the Meridian Gate to enter the palace.

Tiananmen Square is in actual fact the largest public square in the world, designed by a Russian Architect based on the Red Square in Moscow in 1950. It houses several large Chinese museums; however, we did not have time to see them.

We took a moment to reflect on where we were standing, especially as one has to go thru security to enter the square. I could just imagine, what it would have been like in 1989.

We did have an incident in the square with one of the security guards carrying a rather large gun and my husband was taking photos of Mausoleum of Mao. It was a scary moment, to say the least. The one observation we made is the amount of CCTV cameras everywhere in town. Ones every move is monitored in Beijing.

FIRST SIGHTS OF THE PALACE

Traditionally, the Forbidden City is divided into two parts.

The Outer Court included the southern sections and was used for ceremonial purposes.

The Inner Court includes the northern sections, and was the residence of the Emperor and his family, and was used for day-to-day affairs. The Forbidden City used to be the centre of Beijing of the Inner City. To the north were the Bell Towers and Drums Towers. To the south was the Temple of Heaven.

It was believed, that the Emperor was the Son of Heaven, and therefore Heaven’s supreme power was bestowed upon him. The road from the Palace goes straight south to the Temple of Heaven. Besides, the Forbidden City was the highest point in ancient Beijing.  So, the Emperor would be closer to Heaven. The city had the tallest point in old Beijing, so he was at all times at a higher level than anyone else in the city.

There are four gates in each direction of the Forbidden City: The Meridian Gate on the south, the Gate of Divine Might on the north, East Glorious Gate on the east and West Glorious Gate on the west.

Most visitors enter the Forbidden City through Tiananmen, “Gate of Heavenly Peace”. Through the gate, across an expansive brick-paved square, you will reach the main entrance to the palace, the Meridian Gate. The main exit gate at the north side of the Forbidden City is the Gate of Divine Might.

Marble pillar with the square at the Hall of Supreme Harmony and Meridian Gate in the background

The Meridian Gate has five gateways. The central gateway is part of the Imperial Way, a stone flagged path that forms the central axis of the Forbidden City and the ancient city of Beijing itself and leads all the way from the Gate of China in the south to Jiangshan in the north.

Only the Emperor would walk or ride on the Imperial Way, except for the Empress on the occasion of her wedding, and successful students after the Imperial Examination.  The Empress would only enter the Forbidden Palace once in her life to marry the Emperor, she was never allowed to leave again. It was the same with the hundreds of Concubines, who were selected by the Emperor personally. The ladies were there to provide children to the Emperor. I will talk more about these ladies and their lives in another blog, as it is a very interesting part of history. 

Once you through the first gate called the Meridian Gate you come into a square, just take some time to reflect on where you are standing. It is an unbelievable experience to be standing in a museum, that was used for over 500 years by the Chinese Imperial family, especially as you can now walk through the central gateway that in history only reserved for the Emperor. In this square you will find toilets, a museum shop where you can buy bottle of water and souvenirs.

View of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, when one enters the Gate of Supreme Harmony

Next you goes through another set of gates called the Gate of Supreme Harmony. One comes into another large square with five marble bridges and the first hall of Supreme Harmony in full view. This hall is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City. The Emperors’ Dragon Throne resides in this hall.

Five Marble Bridges in the square at Hall of Supreme Harmony. The creek runs through the complex

The path up to the Hall is one of the most beautiful in the Forbidden Palace. At the centre of the ramps leading up to the terraces are ceremonial ramps, part of the Imperial Way, featuring elaborate and symbolic bas-relief carvings. The southern ramp, in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, is about 20 metres only, 3 metres wide, but is made from two stone slabs joined.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the ceremonial centre of imperial power and the largest surviving wooden structure in China. It is nine bays wide and five bays deep, the numbers 9 and 5 being symbolically connected to the majesty of the Emperor. Set into the ceiling at the centre of the hall is an intricate caisson decorated with a coiled dragon. Even the doors have dragons on them.

In the Ming dynasty, the Emperor held court here to discuss affairs of state. During the Qing dynasty, as Emperors held court far more frequently, and the Hall of Supreme Harmony was only used for ceremonial purposes, such as coronations and imperial weddings.

Hall of Supreme Harmony

Even the doors have all symbolism on them, at the Gate of Supreme Harmony and the Hall of Supreme Harmony.  In ancient times, the number of doornails symbolized status. Nine is the largest singular number, symbolizing supremacy. Therefore, the arrangement of the doornails on the gates of the Forbidden City is nine rows by nine rows.

Mark in front of the Doors of the Hall of Supreme Harmony

There are another two smaller halls in the centre of the Forbidden City, but not as impressive as the first one Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The Hall of Central Harmony is a smaller, square hall, used by the Emperor to prepare and rest before and during ceremonies. Behind it, the Hall of Preserving Harmony was used for rehearsing ceremonies and was also the site of the final stage of the Imperial examination.

When one goes thru the doorway on the right, one comes into the Inner Court. There are another set of three halls:

  • Palace of Heavenly Purity;
  • Hall of Union, and
  • Palace of Earthly Tranquillity

Smaller than the Outer Court halls, the three halls of the Inner Court were the official residences of the Emperor and the Empress. The Emperor, representing Yang and the Heavens, would occupy the Palace of Heavenly Purity. The Empress, representing Yin and the Earth, would occupy the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity. In between, them was the Hall of Union, where Emperor and Empress would meet.

After the last hall, one comes into the Imperial Gardens within the Walls. It is here, that I found this beautiful Golden Elephant.

Elephant in the Imperial Gardens, Inner Court, Forbidden City, Beijing

ARCHITECTURE

One also need to understand the significance of colour to really appreciate the Imperial Palace.

The colours of Emperor were Yellow, Red, Blue and Green. Yellow was the colour of the Emperor, so all roof tiles are yellow glazed tiles. Red was the colour of the Imperial family. Blue represents the sky and green represents the earth.

North facing doors, Hall of Union, Forbidden City, Beijing

The main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups of three representing Heaven. The residences of the Inner Court on the other hand are arranged in groups of six representing the Earth.

Every time one enters another courtyard look at the mosaics. This alone was worthwhile the visit. To think the tiles and decorations were made over 700 years ago, truly unbelievable.

The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statuettes led by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building – a minor building might have 3 or 5. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in the country to be permitted this in Imperial times.

We exited through the Gate of Divine Might. We watched the sunset over the moat.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO WANDER AROUND

If you want to visit Forbidden City with only limited time, you can choose to go to the Southern Gate via east or west instead of walking through Tiananmen Square.

We started on day one with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It took us five to six hours to walk through these two areas. One day does not do this magnificent palace justice. It is such an impressive complex.

Imperial Throne at Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing

WHEN TO GO

We went to Beijing end of October and it was getting cold during the day. In the morning it was in single figures, but by midday around 18 to 19 degrees. Within the week, the night temperatures dropped to freezing. So, bring good walking shoes and a thick coat for the evening and early morning plus a jersey and sweater for walking during the day. It gets cold in the shade.  When it gets cold in Beijing, there are problems with pollution and fog. We were lucky not to experience these winter conditions in Beijing.

Copper water pot for fresh water. There was no plumbing in ancient times

WHAT TO BRING

The security is very high around Tiananmen Square. You need to go thru security screening to enter the square. All Chinese Nationals have ID cards on them, so take your passport as your ID card. I have lamented a copy of the front page of our passports, so I just showed them instead. They were accepted by the security guards.

The ceiling at the centre of the Hall of Supreme Harmony is an intricate caisson decorated with a coiled dragon

TICKETS

One does not need to go on a tour to the Forbidden City, we went by ourselves. All you need is your passport to show to the ticket office. They generate the ticket electronically, just walk back to the second set of security checks, show your passport and you are in.

Only 80,000 tickets are issued each day, so get there no later than midday. Otherwise one will not have enough time to see everything.

CASH OR CREDIT CARD

Forbidden City accepts Mastercard, Visa, and Pay Union cards for ticket purchase. 

HOW TO GET CHINESE RENMINBI OUTSIDE OF CHINA

One might ask, why to put this comment in a blog. Well, it is not easy to get Chinese currency outside of China. I had tried major banks in Auckland, New Zealand with no luck to get Chinese Renminbi, CNY. I managed to get some CNY thru a currency exchange trader, but only CNY 2600, which is NZD$600 or EUR300. I did not get any funds out of an ATM in China. Next to the Novotel is the Bank of China. We exchanged our left over CNY in Beijing, as I was informed it is illegal to take CNY out of China.

COST

Summer pricing CNY 60 each, about NZD$12 per person or EUR 6.00;

Winter pricing CNY 40 each, about NZD$9 per person or EUR 4.50.

OPENING HOURS

 HOURSTICKET HOURSSEASON
APRIL TO OCTOBER08.30-17.3008.30-16.30Summer
NOVEMBER TO MARCH08.30-16.3008.30-15.30Winter

On Monday, the Forbidden Palace is closed

Sunset over the Moat, Forbidden Palace, Beijing, China

WHERE TO EAT

We finished the day by going out for dinner to a Peking duck restaurant. This meal was until 1911 only available for the Imperial family, but afterwards, the Royal chefs lost their jobs and started to open up restaurants serving this delicious meal.

I will let you make up your mind, whether it was a palace or prison for the Empress and the Concubines. As Westerners, we have the ability to think outside the square and have an opinion of things… something not is taken lightly.

We were totally overwhelmed at this time by the beauty and architecture of the palace. It is an incredible place to visit. I hope one day to return to Beijing, but next time we will go by a guide into China for personal security reason. We will be entering with our vehicle from Australia, and we are legally required to have a guide with us at all time.

Made with Love and Passion for the Open Road,

Travellers Nest Overland team,

See Our YouTube Traveller’s NEST NZ channel:

TRAVEL TRAIN SERIES CHINA S1E7: UNESCO THE FORBIDDEN CITY BEIJING | TRAVELLERS NEST OVERLAND

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GUIDE TO INTERNATIONAL TRAIN Z98: HONG KONG – BEIJING, CHINA

We really wanted to be able to travel overland as much as possible without catching a plane, but that is not possible from Australia or New Zealand.

The only overland option is to catch a cruise boat from Sydney to Hong Kong. All cruise boats leave the Pacific by end of the season in March of every year, so that was not going to work for travel in October.  

We had to fly into the starting point in SE Asia. Then we had to get to the  kick off point of the Trans-Mongolian railway in Beijing, China.

According to the internet, there are twelve ways one can travel to Beijing from Hong Kong either by plane or train. We had travelled 390,000km since February 2015. We opted for the railway, as we both love train travel.  The Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian Railway were the last sections of train journeys we need to complete to have travelled by train across the world.

China has one of the biggest and busiest rail networks in the world, and trains link almost every town and city.  Chinese trains are a safe, comfortable, punctual and cheap way to travel around China, and a Chinese train journey is an experience in itself. 

The Kowloon-Beijing train  is an intercity railway service between  Hung Hom Station (formerly Kowloon Station until 1998) in Hong Kong  and the Beijing West railway station, jointly operated by the MTR of Hong Kong and China Railway, China’s national rail service.

This blog will help you understand and plan train travel in China, plus how to arrange your train tickets as a non-resident.

The train runs to Beijing every other day. Services use the East Rail Line in Hong Kong, cross the boundary between Hong Kong HKSAR and mainland China at Lo Wu, Hong Kong and then continue along China’s railway network via the Guangshen railway and the Jingguang railway to Beijing. Total journey time is approximately 24 hours, and the train uses 25T class train carriages.

There are two trains from Hong Kong to Beijing:

  • High speed trains, or
  • Normal speed trains.

The whole journey, 2,475 km or 1,538 miles long, takes about 24 hours, much longer than the high-speed train whose travel time is 9 hours. The normal speed train as a far better experience, as you get to sit back and watch the Chinese countryside roll by.

TICKETS

Beijing-bound passengers from Hong Kong may order tickets from an online reservation system operated by the MTR Corporation. The system is limited to the one-way, Hong Kong to Beijing trips only. Ordering of tickets requires extensive registration, including a Chinese or Hong Kong credit card number, and tickets can only be delivered in the Hong Kong HKSAR, which makes it impossible for most non-HK resident customers to order.

Travellers for Beijing may purchase Northbound tickets at a dedicated counter at Hung Hom Station, whilst Southbound tickets from Beijing to Hong Kong can only be purchased in Beijing or from travel agencies.

We decided to order the tickets online via a Chinese registered travel agency and have the tickets delivered to the hotel in Hong Kong. It costs extra, but at least one knows their train tickets will be on time delivered to their hotel.  Time is of essence on the Trans Siberian railway journey.

Contact details are below.

https://www.chinahighlights.com/china-trains/

Tickets HK to Beijing HKD$841 each

TRAIN SCHEDULE

Train Z98 from Hong Kong to Beijing runs on alternate days:

EVEN NUMBERED DATESODD NUMBERED DATES
JanuaryFebruary
AprilMarch
MayJune
AugustJuly
NovemberSeptember
DecemberOctober

The following year, the even and uneven numbered months are the reverse.

TIMETABLE HONG KONG, HKSAR TO BEIJING, CHINA

HONG KONG TO BEIJINGTRAIN NUMBERTIME 
Check in opensZ9814.30 pmDay 1
Boarding timeZ9815.05 pmDay 1
Hong Kong, Hung HomZ9815.15 pmDay 1
Beijing WestZ9815.30pmDay 2

Passengers are advised to get to Hung Hom Station 45 minutes in advance of the departure time for the exit formalities. The boarding gates close 10 minutes before departure from Hung Hom station. 

LUGGAGE ALLOWANCE

Luggage allowance is 20kg per person. The bags get X-rayed in Hong Kong by railway staff. We travel very light. For 22 months in Asia, Russia and Europe we travelled with 14 kgs each. Keep your bags light, it helps with getting up and down the stairs in the railway stations.

PRICE

There are three different classes on the train, being:

1.0 Hard Sleeper equivalent to 3rd class;

2.0 Soft Sleeper equivalent to 2nd class, and

3.0 Deluxe Soft Sleeper equivalent to 1st Class

Pricing one way per person – Hong Kong, HKSAR to Beijing, China are:

HARD SOFTDELUXE
HONG KONG
TO BEIJING
HKD$587 (USD$76)HKD$934 (USD$120)HKD$1,191 (USD$155)

OUR EXPERIENCE

Our starting point was MTR station at North Point on Hong Kong Island to Hung Hom MTR station in Kowloon, HK.

We had major difficulties finding the International Railway station in the MTR station, maybe because we were so nervous about going into China unguided. We had been warned by family and our travel agency in NZ not to travel unguided, but we felt safe to do so. In a typical Kiwi fashion, we said we would be sweet plus the dutch stubbornness of having travelled extensively. One piece of advice is to take photos of all your train tickets, and visas in your passports, so if you lose your handbag one still has all their documentation on them. Under Dutch law, I am not required to take on my husband surname, so my passport is issued in my own/maiden name. I therefore always carry a copy of our marriage certificate with us. Make copies of important documentation and photos of them. Another way to keep safe is to put your embassy details in your mobile phone. I had all embassies for 50 countries preloaded into my phone.

A word of advice, when you travel unguided into China is to not talk about politics or religion. Even if a Chinese National comes up to you to talk about life in China, kindly decline the invite.

I was carrying six months of Thyroid and HRT medication with me. I had heard, that over three months will be taking off you. I had an international medical passport, all pharmacy receipts and GP letter with me. I carried all my medication with me in person, in its original boxes with my name on the box, so border officials could see it. I got it all into China and all the way to the Netherlands.

Once, one has cleared customs and exit the HK territory. The doors of the train are locked until one arrives at Beijing West station. You are in China within 20 minutes of leaving Hung Hom railway station. The train stops at the Chinese border at Shenzhen, but one is not allowed out of the train, after 20 mins the trains starts up again.

Next stop is Wuhan, China but again one is not allowed out of the train station as a foreigner, however one can get on to the platform, but you are kept under a watchful eye by the lovely Chinese railway staff.

Despite the staff not speaking English, we were really well looked after by the staff. As we were outside the tourist season, we were 2 of 8 foreigners on board. We were the only Europeans in second class.

We booked two beds in the soft sleeper, meaning 2nd class for USD$326 including booking fee, and courier charge to our IBIS hotel in Hong Kong. There are four beds in a cabin, we had the total cabin to ourselves. The toilet is down the hall, not in the cabin. The toilets on boards are just a hole in the floor directly onto the rails. It will help one to prepare for the standard of toilets one will encounter in Mongolia. Just part of travel.

The train ticket price includes your food on board; however, we were warned by other overlanders to bring our own food on board with us. I had bought coffee, breakfast cereals and toilet papers with us, plus baby wipes to clean ourselves. The food on the train was of good standard, whereas on the Beijing to Ulaanbaatar train was not.

One enters China at Beijing West Railway station. You are directed off the train by staff. Border Police are ready to help you enter into China. After eye scans and finger prints, you go thru the Passport control and you are in China. It is all very easy. Just be patience and kind to the border police as with every border crossing.

We used Travel Agency in Hong Kong of China Highlights for our train tickets from Hong Kong to Beijing.

Sharon Huang, Travel advisor
T: 86-773-2838787,
M: 86-13097735982
E: sharon@chinahighlights.com

COST: USD $326 for 2 persons for a Soft Sleeper, or 2nd class.

See Our YouTube Travellers NEST Overland channel:

TRANS MONGOLIAN TRAIN: HONG KONG TO BEIJING, CHINA TRAIN Z98 S1E6 |TRAVELLERS NEST OVERLAND

https://youtu.be/RLLHf5KxxJM

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INCREDIBLE THINGS TO DO IN HONG KONG (PART TWO)

Let’s face it, we all know that Hong Kong is notoriously expensive, to stay.

In 2019, it tied for first place with Singapore and Paris as the most expensive city in the world. … But just because the city can be expensive for residents and travellers alike, doesn’t mean you have to empty your wallet on a trip to Hong Kong. It’s easier to save money here than in most other world cities.

To research pricing on food, hotels, activities etc have a look at the website: http://www.budgetyourtrip.com. We spent over 6 nights in HK, HKD$78 per day for 2 persons on the MTR, IBIS Hotel North Point, a 3-star hotel HKD$529 per night, food including groceries for the Trans Mongolian was HKD$210 per night. We spent a total of HKD$5375 for 2 persons in Hong Kong for 6 nights or about NZD$1,050 or NZD$175 per night.

In this Blog, I will discuss some more options, how on to spend less money while in town. Hong Kong is a city, that has so much to offer. It is a city, that never sleeps like New York, so therefore has this great vibe about it.

Please do read the first blog on Hong Kong as there are heaps of other ideas on things to do for free.

For us, Hong Kong was the logical starting point in South East Asia to start our Trans Mongolian and Trans-Siberian railway journey of 10,000km to St Petersburg, Russia.

HONG KONG TRAMS

Hong Kong’s trams, or ding-dings, as they’re more commonly known, are one of the cities’ oldest modes of transportation, and the tracks pass through many city icons like the historic Western Market, the skyscrapers of Central, Victoria Park and, if you take the Happy Valley loop,  Happy Valley Cemetery and racecourse.

Hong Kong Tramways (HKT) is narrow-gauge tram system in Hong Kong. The tramway runs on Hong Kong Island between Kennedy Town and Shau Kei Wan, with a branch circulating through Happy Valley.

Hong Kong’s tram system is one of the earliest forms of public transport in the metropolis, having opened in 1904 under British rule. It has used electric trams since its inauguration, and has never used horse or steam power. It owns the world’s largest operational double-decker tram fleet

  • COST:  HKD $2.60
  • HOURS: 5:30 am to 12:30 am
  • TOTAL DISTANCE: 13 km
Trams at Hong Kong Island

SHOPPING

Hong Kong is a shopaholic’s paradise. If you’re in need of some retail therapy without emptying your piggy bank, hit up the city’s famous shopping streets including the Mong Kok Ladies’ Market for the best fake branded fashion items, Golden Computer Arcade in Sham Shui Po for deals on all sorts of electronics, Oriental 188 Shopping Centre for retro video game goodies, and Temple Street Market for some eclectic bric-a-brac.

It is just an interesting place to walk around to see all the wares for sale.

  • WHERE: Mong Kok MTR station Exit E2
  • COST: HKD $0.00
  • TIME: 12pm to 11pm.
Ladies Market, Hong Kong

BIRD MARKETS

Another great favourite is the Bird Markets

The Hong Kong Bird Market known as the Yuen Po Bird Garden is another one of those little charming corners of the city, full of local flavour and highly entertaining for bird lovers.

The Yuen Po Bird Garden is actually a small lane, the traditional Moon Gate is at the start of this pedestrian alley.

The Chinese had traditionally liked to keep birds as pets. Here you see the old men with their cages taking their birds for “walks” much like you would take your dog to the park.

  • WHERE: Prince Edward MTR
  • COST: HKD $0.00
  • TIME: day time until dark
Bird Markets, Kowloon, Hong Kong

STAR FERRY

 Star Ferry have been operating in Hong Kong since 1888. The ferry goes between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. It has been rated “Top 10 Ferry rides in the world”. It is wonderful to see all the lights on Hong Kong harbour at night.

Until the opening of the Cross Harbour Tunnel in 1972, the Star Ferry remained the main means of public transportation between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side.

  • WHERE: Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui or reverse
  • COST: Monday to Friday HKD$2.70 or NZD$0.50; Weekends and public Holidays HKD3.70 or NZD$0.75 included in MTR card
  • FREQUENCY: Every 20 minutes
  • TIME: 6.30am to 11.30pm, takes 10 minutes to cross the harbour

GARDENS IN HONG KONG

KOWLOON WALLED CITY PARK

The Kowloon Walled City Park is a historical park in Kowloon City, Kowloon, Hong Kong. The Kowloon Walled City had been a military stronghold since 15th century due to its coastal location and was a centre of vice and crime until 1987.

Under the agreement between the Hong Kong Government and the PRC, the Kowloon Walled City was demolished in the 1990s while the indigenous buildings and features were preserved for incorporation in the new park.

  • WHERE: Prince Edward MTR
  • COST: HKD $0.00
  • TIME: 6.30am to 11pm
Hong Kong Walled Gardens in Kowloon

EDWARD YOUDE AVIARY

The park is on Hong Kong island in the Central District. One will likely come across it as one hikes down the hill from Victoria Peak. This 3,000 square metre aviary is a little oasis amongst the tall buildings. A beautiful setting of greenery with lovely waterfalls, one can walk into the aviary on a wooden walkway around the treetops and be greeted by hordes of birdlife. 150 different species of birds indigenous to Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. An absolute delight for all ages, and especially bird lovers. I was in heaven in this park.

HIKE UP PEAK HILL

One can get a tram up Peak hill or Victoria Hill as it is officially known, but why not hike up. It is only 1.5-hour hike via the road. Once one gets up to the top, the views are to die for. The views are of Victoria Harbour and surrounding islands.

Victoria Harbour is the largest harbour in China and the third largest in the world, after San Francisco in the United States and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It is home to most of the ports of Hong Kong, making the city one of the world’s busiest ports. The harbour bustles day and night with all manner of watercraft – from the historic Star Ferries to cruise liners, cargo ships, and wooden fishing vessels. So, stand at the top and enjoy the beautiful views for a few minutes.

As one can see Hong Kong is a truly vibrant and beautiful city. It is a city like New York, that never sleeps. From this towering sky scrapers, to its markets, to its beautiful city park, to great hikes and its food. It is a city, that has so much to offer.

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ULTIMATE GUIDE TO INCREDIBLE THINGS TO DO IN HONG KONG

Hong Kong is a truly vibrant and beautiful city. It is a city like New York, that never sleeps. From this towering skyscrapers, to its markets, to its beautiful city parks, to great hikes and its food. It is a city, that has so much to offer.

For us, it was the logical starting point in South East Asia to start our Trans Mongolian and Trans-Siberian railway journey of 10,000km to St Petersburg, Russia.

Hong Kong is officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (“HKSAR”).

Some Interesting Facts:

  • Population:  7.5 million
  • Size: 1,104 square kilometre
  • Population destiny: Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world. It has 6,659 people per square kilometre, which ranks between 2nd and 3rd in the world for population density 
  • GDP per capita is USD$48,675 as per 2019
  • 12th wealthiest country in the world
  • Currency: HKD Dollars
  • Apps to be used: MTR (“Massive Transport System”) app; Maps.me app; Travel Spend app
  • Distance from Auckland, New Zealand: 9,500 km or 10.5 hours of flying time

HISTORY

Did one know Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British by the Qing Dynasty at the end of the First Opium War in 1842? It became a British colony.

The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War and was further extended when Britain obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898.

The whole territory was transferred to China in 1997.  As a special administrative region, Hong Kong maintains separate governing and economic systems from that of mainland China under a principle of “one country, two systems”.

We had visited HK on two other occasions on our travel to Europe in previous years.  We came back to Hong Kong as the 21-year anniversary of as handover to the Chinese was just around the corner. We wanted to experience this awesome city one more time. In high sight, I was correct with my prediction. Unrest hit the city in 2019.

NORTH POINT NEIGHBORHOOD

North Point neighbourhood was during WWII used as a Canadian prison of war camp during the Japanese invasion. After WWII, during the Chinese Civil war (1927-1949) middle and rich class people from Shanghai escaped China and settled here. It is also known as “Little Shanghai”.

ACCOMMODATION

Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, but if one plans their trip well it can be inexpensive or as expensive as one wants it to be.

We have had ACCOR hotel memberships for years. On other occasions, we had stay on Hong Kong Island as most Western hotels are located here.  For this visit, we stayed at the IBIS Hong Kong North Point.

We choose North Point this time as our neighbourhood, simply for one reason we wanted a more authentic experience and not to be surrounded by other tourists. After all, we are not tourists, we are full time travellers. We therefore have different needs from tourists.

Well, I think we achieved it on most days, we were the only Europeans on the street.

FOOD

We love Asia simply due to its food.  Hong Kong is an inexpensive city to eat in. I had used the Pricetotravel.com to research the prices of eating out.

The local markets in every neighbourhood are council run and are in a white building. We love exploring the local markets as it tells you a lot about the culture.

We happened to find the Java Road Municipal Services Building on Java Road, North Point. What a find, as we were wandering around, we were greeted by this Grandmother. She could not speak any English, so her daughter came out to talk to us. Every day, we went to see them and Grandma cooked for us. What an authentic experience. It was such amazing food. I still have such fond memories. Go and visit Tung Po Kitchen at Java Road Municipal Service Building on the third floor for Cantonese food HKD$60, about NZD$12.

Bro Bakery at North point serve chicken and egg custard pies for HKD$30, about NZD$6. The chicken pies were in a sweet pastry, something we are not used to, but the joys of travel and an experience.

A cup of coffee at the various Starbucks in town will set you back HKD$35 or NZD$6.80..it was to be my last Starbucks for at least 20,000km so I think one has an excuse..

Grandma and her daughter at Tung Po Kitchen, Java Road Municipal Building, Hong Kong

PUBLIC TRANSPORT

Public transport in Asia is another highlight for a train geek.

The Octopus Card, on the MTR (“Massive Transport System”), is available at Hong Kong International Airport at the MTR Ticket and Octopus Selling Machines at Airport Station. It costs HKD$150.

The Octopus Card is HKD$39 to purchase and one get HKD$111 value to be used on the trains. We however thought it would get us to Hong Kong Island – North Point.

We had to change trains at Central station, but our MTR cards did not work.  We only had HKD$500 bank note on us, no coins to put into the ticket machines. It was an interesting travel moment being stuck in an underground train station. Some Australian travellers, who were on their way back from Beijing, China hear us talking and came over for a chat and helped us out with their left-over funds.

https://www.octopus.com.hk/en/consumer/octopus-cards/products/sold-tourist/index.html

Download the MTR app and Google Maps in offline mode prior to leaving home. This will save one money on not getting a SIM card . Hong Kong is very easy to get around by MTR and by foot.

http://www.mtr.com.hk/en/customer/tourist/index.php

FREE THINGS TO DO IN HONG KONG

We love to walk in cities. On most months of our travels, we would walk 200km per month. Hong Kong was no different, we walked everywhere where possible.

This time we wanted to see different things from the normal tourist things (more suggestions later). We wanted to see original temples of Hong Kong. I had four listed, we made it to three in two days.

There are three original temples left on Hong Kong Island, being:

  • Wan Chai Pak Tai Temple,
  • Hung Sing Temple, and
  • Man Mo Temple.

WAN CHAI PAK TAI TEMPLE

Wan Chai Pak Tai Temple is the largest temple in Hong Kong island.

One walks thru the local wet markets of the neighbourhood of Wan Chai. The street markets have all sorts of wares for sale. We love markets at the best of times, but seeing markets in Asia is something else. Such a wonderful part of daily life in Hong Kong. The Temple is located on Lung On Street in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. 

Pak Tai Temple is a Grade 1 listed temple and heritage building. The Pak Tai Temple was built by local residents in 1862 during the Tongzhi reign of the Qing dynasty and was completed in 1863. The temple was declared a monument in 2019.

It is dedicated to God of Pak Tai, (Emperor of the dark heaven) for whom followers believe uses his spiritual powers to protect against disasters.

It is of typical 19th-century Chinese temple architecture with grey brick exterior, nice murals above the entrance, tiled decorative roofing. See the dragons upon the roof as well as the nicely carved stone dragons to the sides of the entrance as one walks into the beautiful historical temple.

The interior features a centre shrine with a three metres tall Ming Dynasty bronze cast of Pak Tai of 1603.  The temple has a number of antique bells cast dating to 1863 and is decorated with a large number of lotus lanterns.  It will leave an impression on you.

  • OPENING HOURS: 8am to 5pm daily;
  • COST: Free, and
  • MTR STATION: Wan Chai

HUNG SING TEMPLE

Hung Sing Temple, is a Grade 1 listed temple and heritage building. It is a small temple, just on Queens Road East, the main road running through the centre of Wan Chai.

It was constructed in 1889 to enshrine Hung Sing, God of the Sea. Fishermen used to worship Hung Shing at this temple, which only makes sense when you realise that the temple used to be right on the shoreline. Astonishing as it is now, when the temple was built in 1847, it was directly across from the sea so Hung Shing was right at hand to protect them from both the ocean and bad weather. Now it is landlocked by reclaimed land and tall rise buildings. Imagine what Hong Kong would have been like in late 1880s.

In the main hall the most important god is of course Hung Shing but I was more intrigued by Kam Fa, the golden flower goddess who secretly learnt martial arts from her father and became a sort of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor in the Tang dynasty.

  • OPENING HOURS: 9am to 5pm daily;
  • COST: Free, and
  • MTR STATION: Wan Chai

MAN MO TEMPLE

The most revered of the three above Temples is Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road. It is also one of the oldest Temples on Hong Kong island.

Built in 1847 during the Qing dynasty by wealthy Chinese merchants, it was, besides a place of worship, a court of arbitration for local disputes when trust was thin between the Chinese and the colonialists.

The Man Mo Temple sits quietly in the middle of towering skyscrapers, reminding passersby that the bustling financial centre used to be a fishing village. It remembers one of a bygone era. It must be my favourite Temple in Hong Kong.

The Man Mo Temple is dedicated to the god of literature (Man) and the god of martial arts (Mo), who were worshiped by students in ancient China that wished to pass their civil service exams. During ancient Chinese times, being a civil servant in the imperial government was a highly coveted position. The exam covered topics such as literature and knowledge of the classics.

The Temple is part of a complex, that spans three blocks and two alleyways to include the Kung Sor and Lit Shing Kung. Back in the day, the Kung Sor (which roughly translates to the modern-day district office) was used to settle disputes and discuss community affairs among the Chinese. The Lit Shing Kung was built for general worship of all heavenly gods.

The structure is built with a gable roof supported by ornate granite columns with traditional Chinese motifs. While the roof is adorned with woodcarvings and plaster mouldings, the interior is covered in murals and ceramic figurines. Enormous coils of incense hang from the ceiling of the temple with little red pieces of paper on them, containing the wishes of the worshipers.

From the moment one walks in, you are captivated by the smell of incense on all the wooden spirals suspended from the roof. We had visited this beautiful temple on a previous visit, it inspired us to visit just temples on this visit. A visit to this temple is highly recommended.

  • OPENING HOURS: 9am to 6pm daily;
  • COST: Free, and
  • MTR STATION: Sheung Wan 

SYMPHONY OF THE LIGHTS

A Symphony of Lights is a daily light and sound show. It is the world’s largest permanent light and sound show according to Guinness World Records.   As of 2017, there are 42 participating buildings in the show.

Hong Kong has the world’s largest number of skyscrapers, with 317 towers taller than 150 metres  and the third-largest number of high-rise buildings in the world. The lack of available space restricted development to high-density residential and commercial complexes packed closely together on buildable land.  Single-family detached homes are extremely rare and generally only found in outlying areas.

Everyone that comes to Hong Kong, even if for a few hours or a week, should do the Symphony of the Lights

  • WHERE: Best viewing spots are at Ave of Stars on Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, outside the Hong Kong Cultural centre on Kowloon;
  • TIME: 8.00pm every night for 15 minutes;
  • COST: Free, and
  • MTR STATION: East Tsim Sha Tsui.

STAR FERRY

On the way back to our hotel, we took the Star Ferry from the Symphony of Lights

 Star Ferry have been operating in Hong Kong since 1888. The ferry goes between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. It has been rated “Top 10 Ferry Rides in the World”. It is wonderful to see all the lights on Hong Kong harbour at night.

Until the opening of the Cross Harbour Tunnel in 1972, the Star Ferry remained the main means of public transportation between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side.

  • WHERE: Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui or reverse
  • COST: Monday to Friday HKD$2.70 or NZD$0.50; Weekends and public Holidays HKD3.70 or NZD$0.75 included in MTR card
  • FREQUENCY: Every 20 minutes
  • TIME: 6.30am to 11.30pm, takes 10 minutes to cross the harbour

A such nice way to finish the evening.  Our neighbours happened to be in Hong Kong at the same time on holidays, so we have a great evening catching up with them after 22 months of living in Australia.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS MUST SEE IN HONG KONG

TIAN TAN BUDDHA, NGONG PING, LANTAU ISLAND

We came back to Hong Kong just to see and experience this beautiful Buddha. The mountains were covered in fog as we got up to the top of the Buddha, it made this experience so special to see the rain clouds rolling in over the South China Sea.

The Big Buddha, or Tian Tan Buddha is on top of Ngong Ping on Lantau island.  It is the largest Bronze statue of a Buddha in the world completed in 1993.

The statue is sited near Po Lin Monastery and symbolises the harmonious relationship between man and nature, people and faith. It is a major centre of Buddhism in Hong Kong.

We have seen a number of other large Buddha statues around the world, but this was sensational.

The statue’s base is a model of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China. One of the five large Buddha statues in China, it is enthroned on a lotus on top of a three-platform altar. 

Surrounding it are six smaller bronze statues known as “The Offering of the Six Devas” that are posed offering flowers, incense, lamp, ointment, fruit, and music to the Buddha. These symbolise the Six Perfections of generosity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom, all of which are necessary for enlightenment.

The statue is 34 metres tall and weighs over 250 tonnes, and was constructed from 202 bronze pieces. Visitors have to climb 268 steps to reach the Buddha. The Buddha’s right hand is raised, representing the removal of affliction, while the left rests open on his lap in a gesture of generosity. He faces north, which is unique among the great Buddha statues, as all others face south. It is totally captivating standing on the platform looking this amazing creation.

There are also three floors beneath the statue: the halls of the Universe, of Benevolent Merit and of Remembrance. In the halls is a museum explaining how the Big Buddha was constructed. Very interesting actually, a bit like the museum at the Statute of Liberty in New York, USA.

We spent the whole day up here exploring in conjunction with Po Lin Monastery.

HOW TO GET THERE:

  • Take the Tung Chung Line to Tung Chung Station;
  • Change stations to Ngong Ping Cable Car at Tung Chung station:
  • Take the Cable car up to Ngong Ping Cable Car Ngong Ping Station
  • Walk from there for about 15 mins, if one does not stop at the shops on the way up.

TICKETS:

ONLINE OR QUEUE

I did not buy the tickets online; we just went to into the queue. If you buy the tickets online, you get to exchange your voucher and you don’t have to go into the first queue. Overall waiting time would have been 20 to 30 mins, then you wait another 20 mins to get into the cable car.

CABINS:

  • Standard cabin, or
  • Glass bottom cabin.

We opted for standard as I don’t like heights.

COST: HKD$470 for 2 persons, or NZD$92

The Cable Car view overlooking Hong Kong International Airport

PO LIN MONASTERY

Po Lin Monastery is a Buddhist monastery, located on Ngong Ping Plateau, on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. The giant Buddha statue is an extension of the monastery.

The monastery was founded in 1906 by three monks visiting from Jiangsu Province on the Chinese mainland and was initially known simply as “The Big Hut” . It was renamed to its present name in 1924.

The main temple houses three bronze statues of the Buddha – representing his past, present and future lives. The Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas is filled with all golden Buddhas. It was unbelievable to see something so exquisite.

The Great Hall at Po Lin Monastery, Hong Kong

The Monastery has a vegetarian restaurant onsite. The restaurant is located in the monastery grounds and provides a great alternative to the expensive touristy restaurants in the village. There are two options available – a set menu (with multi-course items) or a la carte order from the cafe. We went with the latter as it gave us the flexibility to pick and choose what we wanted to eat. We ate some really tasty fried vegetables, tofu, noodles, bean curd and mango pudding! All yummy.

  • TIME: 11.30pm to 4.30pm
  • COST: HKD$63 or NZD$12 for 2 persons for lunch

Nobody leaves the place without admiring the architecture of Po Lin Monastery, from the Chinese entry gates to the Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas. It is break taking. It leaves an impression on one for the rest of your life… hoping to be able to return to Hong Kong in one day.

We were going to return to Hong Kong on our way home, as we are not done with this city. However, Covid19 got in the way.

To say “We love Hong Kong is an understatement” it is a city, that has so much to offer.

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HOW TO SELECT THE STARTING POINT OF TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY

We wrote 50 bucket list items to be completed in our 50th year on this earth.

The top item to be completed was the Trans Siberian Railway. By fulfilling this section of railway, it means we would have accomplished our travel by train across the globe. Not everyone can say, that…

But…

How does one organize it from Australia, while overlanding around Australia?

Where do we start from in Asia?

We really wanted to be able to travel overland as much as possible without catching a plane, but that is not possible from Australia. The only overland option is to catch a cruise boat from Sydney to Hong Kong. All cruise boats leave the Pacific by end of the season in March of every year, so that was not going to work. We had to fly into the starting point..

Why choose Hong Kong as the starting point?

NZL passport holders don’t need a visa to visit Hong Kong for a visit of up to 90 days. It is the same for American, Canadian, European and Australian Nationals. British Nationals get a 180 day visa on arrival.

Whereas if we started from Vietnam, we needed another visa on top of the three other visas we needed… so it was a no brainer to start in HK.

The Border of Hong Kong Territory with People Republic of China

However it is less travelling time from Vietnam to Beijing, China only 12 hours in a train, whereas Hong Kong to Beijing, China is 24 hours in a train.

For this train trip, we needed the visas for China, Mongolia and Russia.

Time frame to complete visa applications

I had allowed six weeks in NZ to complete all visas. In the end, we flew on Friday night at midnight to HK and we got our Russian visas back from Wellington on the Thursday afternoon by courier. Thank God, I had allowed an extra week in Auckland, New Zealand to catch up with friends and family.

VISA Sequence

Chinese Visa

The visas need to be done in a sequence.

First, we applied for the Chinese Visa at the Chinese Consulate in Auckland.

The visa need to be done no more than 30 days prior to travel and takes 3 days to be processed.

One has to turn up really early on Monday morning to stand in the queue to even get into the Consulate. The consulate is only open from 9.30am to 12.30am. The staff only allow 100 people to enter every Monday morning.. but I forget that it was public holiday in China on the day we went, so we had to go back to the drawing board again. In the end, I ended up going home with a parking ticket at the Chinese Consulate in Greenlane, Auckland and preparing the documents for our Mongolian visas.

With our Mongolian visas now in our passports, we set off the following Monday morning the Chinese Embassy for Round number 2.

I took all paperwork for the Trans Siberian train with us. In the end, I was just asked whether I wanted two entries into China or one. We went for a single entry and exit.

Of all of the paperwork, I had prepared all the counter staff wanted was our hotel confirmations for Beijing and Hong Kong, International train ticket confirmation from HK to Beijing, China and our flight details to Hong Kong. We parted with another NZD$280 with more passport photos and were told to come back on the Wednesday morning.

Our beloved black passports were given back to us on the Wednesday with another visa in them.

Chinese Visa Application Pick up Document

Mongolian Visa

The Mongolian visa has also a lot of paperwork to be prepared for it, plus one needs a letter of invitation from someone in Mongolia.

Letter of Invitation

Our 4wd guide tour company, Sunpath Mongolia, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia gave us a letter of invitation. The letter is provided free of charge, when one books a trip with them.

The visa application and passport photos plus NZD$320 with a return courier envelope need to be send to the Mongolian Consulate in Auckland. One can’t go to the Mongolian Consulate in person, only by courier.

The visa need to be done no more than 30 days prior to travel and takes 5 days to be processed including courier delivery time.

Mongolian Letter of Invitation

Russian Visa

A lot has to happen before one can even send their passports away to the Russian Embassy in Wellington.

Travel Insurance

First item to be completed, is Travel Insurance. You need to have travel insurance policy number to be added to your visa application. Otherwise the Russian Embassy will not even process your visa. We choose World Nomads for the trip including kidnapping insurance.

Only in your home country

One has to be in their home country to apply for this visa. It even states it on the visa application. I was not looking forward to get this visa, as I had hear how difficult it was.

One needs to supply data on each country with dates, that one has been to in the last 10 years. We had been to 32 countries in the world by the time we applied for this visa…that was going to be a long list.

I was so surprised, when we got the visa application send to us, that it was not so difficult after all. I found it to be the easier one to get out of the 3 visas.. but yes, there is a lot of information to be filled out including our parents full legal names, address, DoB, and their passport numbers, but not all countries one has been to,when one applies for the visa in their home country

As a result of this visa application, I keep all of travel planning sheets in Excel

For the Russian visa,one needs another set of passport photos. Make sure, when you go to get the passport photos taken, that one mention which country the passport photos as for. Each country has its own set of rules.. just a word of warning.

Letter of Invitation and Paperwork

One needs a letter of invitation from a company in Russia. We got ours from Realrussia.co.uk free of charge as I had organized all train tickets thru them.

Next, they need one train schedule of all trains in Russia supplied by Real Russia travel company.

Last but not least, one needs a copy of all their accommodation bookings.

We used Accor hotels, where there was no Accor hotel I used Booking.com. I also cross referenced it to another overlanding hotels and hostels. A good source of information is the Horizons Unlimited Motorcycle Adventure Travellers. Some cities in Russia have only in the last 10 to 20 years open up to visitors, so not all city have the big 4 to 3 star hotels we are used to. Once the accommodation has been booked and paid, it can not be changed. This will get you into serious trouble in Russia.

All accommodation needs to be paid for in advance, don’t forget to include addresses and the phone numbers of the accommodation. If ones visa is declined, this will be the reason why. I even send this part of visa application to Moscow for the Real Russia staff to check.

Make the exit day, the day after you intend to leave Russia. The Russian Visa is only valid for 30 days.. don’t become an overstayer in this country. I even rang Moscow to discuss the dates with them in case the train was late. Be very careful with the date. It is hard enough getting thru immigration as St Petersburg airport.

The Russian Visa can only be applied for 90 days in advance, so make it your last visa application if one is going to go thru other countries.It takes 10 days to be processed. It costs NZD$510 including the bank cheque fee plus NZD$25 for courier fees.

We only just got our passports back the day before we were due to fly to Hong Kong.. by that time, I was more than ready to go.. So no the Russian visa process is not as hard as other travellers make it out to be.

Realrussia.co.uk are a travel company based in Moscow and London, who specialize in Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian railway travel.

For us Hong Kong was the ideal starting point for this adventure, as it meant one less visa, and we had visited two times prior on our way to Europe. It is a city, that you either like or hate.

We love Hong Kong. On our previous trip, we had done all the tourists things like Disneyland, etc. I also knew that it was getting close to the 21 year anniversary of hand over to the Chinese, so it was the best option to start the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian railway.

More on Hong Kong next time….

Arrival at Hong Kong International Airport, HKG

TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY BORDER CROSSINGS

Our aim was to travel overland by any means of transport from New Zealand back to the Netherlands.

I had always wanted to travel overland, so one day the seed got planted over dinner with friends in Perth, Australia in 2017 to do the Trans Siberian railway. It had been such a bucket-list item for years, but growing up in the Cold war in the Netherlands and being the daughter of a Manager for an American oil company… it was too dangerous. Now I had an NZL passport, would it be easier, plus I had many more years of life experience behind me. After my dad died, with only 21 summers left.. it was time to fulfil that bucket list item once and for all.

If you are not familiar with our story, we set off from Auckland, New Zealand in March 2017 with a custom-built overland truck waiting for us in Melbourne, Australia. Our overland trip had been delayed due to my dad death in December 2016 in Galle, Sri Lanka. I come from a well-travelled international family, I don’t even have a direct family member living in NZ. We are all over the world, which is a disadvantage during Covid times.

We toured Australia for 24 months in our overland truck. We left the truck in Brisbane, Australia in storage.. intending to be back in Australia within 6 months.. but that did not happen. We could not find a company in Australia to winterize the truck for Mongolia and Russia. We aimed to travel overland back to the Netherlands, the place where I grew back and my heritage, to celebrate the very important birthday of one of my paternal aunts.

Our Overland Truck in Australia

So we set off from Auckland International Airport in late October. Why October? Winter is my favourite time of the year. I wanted to experience Russia in the cold. It was so opposite to what we had experienced Overlanding the remote deserts of Australia, where my eyes had only seen beautiful red dust for months on end. The white and yet barren covered ice landscape is the polar opposite to the remoteness of Australia, yet so similar in many ways.

By the time we left Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on yet another train, we had done 15,130km from Hong Kong, to Beijing, to Ulaanbaatar. We got off the Trans Mongolian train to overland by vehicle thru one of the most beautiful breathtaking countries in the world, called Mongolia.

In front of the Ute in Mongolia

We have been to a third of the world countries now, but it is one of the most remote and incredible landscapes we have ever been to. Mongolia should be called the ‘Adventure capital of the world’. The Overlanding experience is second to none. The steppe grassland is covered in snow and ice with not a single tree in sight. It is the most incredible frozen landscape together with Siberia, Russia you will ever see in your life. It is such a unique place, somewhere where you have time to think and reenergizes your soul in the snow-covered landscape. To reenergize ourselves by travel is one of the most beautiful things in the world.

HONG KONG TO RUSSIA VIA MONGOLIA ITINERARY MAP

Map of our three weeks trip thru Asia and Russia

Our travel map from Hong Kong to Ulan Ude, Russia

The Trans-Siberian Railroad is the longest in the world, which was constructed from 1891 to 1916. It was constructed during the reign of the imperial rule of Russia. The Trans-Siberian Railroad is 9,560 km in length.

The enormous work done to build the railroad amidst Russia’s long and troubled history makes travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway all the more magnetic and profound.

See Our YouTube Traveller’s NEST Overland channel for our travel videos on previous border crossing and personal security:

TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY BORDER CROSSINGS S1E17 

After a week in Mongolia exploring the rugged landscape, we boarded the Trans Mongolian train 033 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The trains come overnight from Beijing, China into  Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at 2.35 pm or 14.35 hours. The train is in the station for an hour. It gives passengers on board 50 mins to get off the train and get some quick supplies around the train station, before departing Ulaanbaatar at 3.22 pm or 15.22 hours.

In winter the train 033, only goes once a week on Wednesday. In summer the train 033, goes twice a week on Sunday and Wednesday

The next stage from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is 27 hours to Ulan Ude, Russia. The border crossing happens on the Mongolian side in Sukhe-Bator (Sükhbaatar) at 9.50 pm or 21.50 hours and a few hours on the Russian side to complete the border formalities. By 11.10 pm or 23.10 hours, one is in Russia.

This time we were better prepared than the border crossing with China and Mongolia. We stayed awake all night until we had cleared customs at 23.10 hours.

Last Sunset in Mongolia

The border crossing into Russia was more involved:

  • At first, a dog comes on board to check for drugs, then 30 mins later a customs officer comes thru and asks you to open all your luggage including laptop and photography bags. Drones are allowed in the country; you just can’t fly them. Satellite phones and PLBs are not allowed in the country. One has to ask special permission to bring these into the country. We left ours in the truck in Australia.
  • Then you are asked to clear the cabin and stand in the hallway of the train. The cabin is fully checked by the customs officer. They were looking for cigarettes, alcohol and imported clothing from Mongolia. If you are doing this trip, don’t accept any luggage, boxes to take over the border, or even if someone comes up to you to take a jacket over the border. This is what the Russian customs officers are looking for, a lot of stuff is smuggled over the border on the train.
  • Next is another customs officer, who comes to check your passports. Don’t be scared by their intimidation, it is this officer who will determine whether you are allowed into Russia. Our Russian Visas were processed in Wellington, New Zealand, but if the customs officer does not like the look of you, you will be refused entry into Russia. We were asked questions. I had all the visa application papers with me, for if we were asked questions. All the Customs officer wanted to see was our Letter of Invitation and our hotel reservations. We were lucky. Our Mongolian neighbours had a hard time, the Russian went thru all their bags. We could hear pots and pans, the customs officers were with them for 45 mins. We got off lightly at 5 mins each time. Our hearts went out to them.

It was excited to be in Russia for the first time in our life, 30 years ago this never could have been possible. After months of organising, we were in the country. Just keep 2 rules in mind, don’t talk about religion or politics in China or Russia.

The next stop was Ulan Ude, Russia. We got dropped off at the beautiful train station with ice and snow on the platform at minus 15 at 2.14 am or 02.14 hours.  No one was around to greet us, the streets were all deserted at this time of the night. We had no cell phone coverage in Russia. I have printed off the direction of our hostel in Mongolia. Even then it seems like an hour to just get across the rail bridge with our bags. Your body uses up so much more energy in the cold temperature. Our bodies were still used to Australian outback temperatures. It was hard work at minus 15 in the early hours of the morning.

Class 2 train in Russia

HOW DOES ONE COME UP WITH THE IDEA TO DRIVE AND TRAVEL AROUND THE WORLD FULL TIME?

My love for travel has been there for a long time. By the time I was 21, I had spent half of my life living in Europe and half living down under in NZ, but my love for 4WD comes from the days of driving over some of greatest sand dunes in Oman. My father was a expat in the Middle East for 30 years. Many a family holidays were spent in Oman, or UAE, when GPS navigation tools we know today were not available and with no maps available. Oman had only just opened up to Westerners.

Desert , Dubai, 2009

Some of my greatest memories are my dad and I are driving in Toyota Prado 4WD down the dunes… let me restart, my dad was driving and I was most probably screaming of excitement, plus the wonderful camping trips into the desert. Such great memories..

Christmas 2009 was another one of the 4wd and camping trips..out into the desert. No excuse needed

So after my diagnosis in late 2015 of Hashimoto’s, with a few years of recovery, we went off to wander, discover and explore the world in 2018.

First bucket list item on the list was to wander Australia and explore the remote areas of the Australian desert and Western Australia, then to complete our global travel across the world by train. We needed to complete one more section: the Trans Siberian railway from Hong Kong to Beijing, Mongolia for more 4wd driving, then into Russia..

Glass House Mountains, QLD, Australia in our first 4wd

These are our stories and tips and tricks on how to travel the world full time

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