Originally from Argentina, Mariano Baione left 12 years of life in the corporate sales world to dedicate himself to photography and communication. He defines himself as a “Documentary Ethnologist”: a kind of witness of our history, working with the knowledge and tools this kind of photography requires, using different techniques, and challenging creativity. In the relentless search for new stories to be told and inspiring projects, he uses photography as a means of expression. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Mariano on a massive journey by train from London to Tokyo; this part of the journey sees him in Mongolia and China.
We (another traveler Krisztina and I) woke up at 10 in the morning. Sometimes 10AM could be late, but if you have to walk the whole day trying to see as much as possible, then you realize it’s necessary to start later in order to see the night attractions.
Last night we discovered that our heating system was not enough for the entire night. We were sleeping in a “Ger”: a kind of Mongolian tent. Inside this tent there is a kind of stove you have to feed with wood and carbon every two hours. Last time was about 3AM and the cold was our alarm to wake up that day.
We got some breakfast and immediately we ran to the bus stop to catch the only daily bus going to Ulan Baator. After travelling a couple of hours with local people dressed with typical Mongolian clothes in combination with cowboy hats, we arrived to the capital city.
Immediately we left our bags in the guest house, and we went directly to find a place for lunch (I don’t know if the Mongolian food is really good or I spent too much time in Russia). Next point: the train station to get the tickets to Beijing, the last part of the Trans-Siberian railway. The nightmare began; they sell only the free places when the train crosses the Russian border and notifies the office in Ulan Bator, and everybody is waiting for that information.
We entered to the room but it was very quiet until that moment the lady behind the desk said something impossible to understand and then people were literally fighting to buy tickets. I was with an English man trying to understand the situation and fighting of course. When we finally got the tickets we received the great news: the only way to pay the tickets was with local money, and of course we had dollars, euros, and not enough local money.
I ran to the street looking for a currency exchange shop, after 1 hour I found it, and we bought the last tickets. The rest of the day was about sightseeing and recovering our energy after the ticket-buying rush.
At 6:30, we took a taxi to the rail station – it was possible to walk but not safe at that time – we arrived and quickly we found our carriage, our last Russian train, lucky us. It will be 33 hours, not because it’s a long distance but they have to change the boogies on the border of China where the width of the rails change. Unfortunately it takes about 8 hours and it’s not possible to get off the train to see it or even to take a walk.
These trains have 3 different categories, 1st with two beds in a private carriage, 2nd with four beds also in a private carriage (our option) and finally 3rd where there is like 100 people in an open carriage. We tried 3rd class in the middle of Russia but the smell and noise is something to consider in a 33 hour trip.
However we were just two people, traveling in a carriage with two other people. One of two things could happen: your companions are good and respectful people, or not – and this case was the “not” option. They were eating raw meat with a terrible smell, but of course those are different customs we expect to find in this journey. But trust me I can’t explain this situation with the right words without using bad language. This was the first time we received lunch vouchers, and of course we visited the restaurant carriage, an amazing experience to me.
The trip was long but the compensation was great, Beijing is at the end!
Leaving the train in the lower deck of the main station, we walked a long distance until we found the exit to the street. We found many strange things along the way, probably because we were in China (an unknown place for us): symbols everywhere, military people, and everybody running in different directions.
We found an amazing place outside the station, and that was just the first thing we saw in China; very colorful, nice weather, many people in the street and incredibly quiet.
Our next challenge was to find the hostel; the map was not really clear about directions except for “take the metro to the main square.” Which line? Where is the station? Which one is the main square? Despite our questions that day, the amazing welcome was something that blinded us for hours.
I decided to walk to the left – I don’t know why, probably instinct – and I was right; after 5 blocks the big “M” was telling us about the location of the metro station. Krisztina told me I would find a place to exchange money very quick, probably her instinct too, and of course she did it.
We had the money, the metro station and the only missing thing was the destination, but that was really easy when we passed the check point after paying the tickets. (In China there are police or military controls before you enter the metro station, and X-Rays like in the airports).
Lucky us we got off the metro at the right station and went directly to right exit; the rest was just walking a couple of blocks without any directions. We left the bags at the hostel, went to Starbucks for breakfast (yes there are Starbucks in China), and with a really big smile we walked the whole day around the hostel area.
We found many different attractions and excursions to do in the hostel, and really cheap. In fact, everything in China seems to be cheap for tourists: food, hostels, domestic travel, clothes, and electronics.
We decided to visit the Great Wall. It will be a full day outside, so we got breakfast and the rest is up to the guide and what he will offer us. The Great Wall is located everywhere, enroute to our destination we crossed it like three times. The traffic is terrible in Beijing, so thankfully not every Chinese person has a car.
We reached the wall after 3 hours of traffic jams, and we climbed to the first tower. Our guide was very clear “first the great wall is not something you can see from the moon, it’s just a myth and we confirmed that with the first Chinese astronaut”. We were totally surprised; it was like in childhood when you discover Superman isn’t real.
The guide explained the history about the wall and the meaning of the wall at the beginning, how many people died and how many generations were involved in the construction of it. The next was just walk through the wall – something totally different to what we expected, because the wall has different sections and we went to the non-tourist part, it’s less crowded but it’s full of ups and downs. There are even parts destroyed and it’s an extreme adventure to cross it.
We spent another 3 hours walking over 6 different towers and coming back. We were really starving and the lunch at 4PM was the best in the world. Also it was our first experience at a spinning Chinese table where you share all the dishes with other people. Unfortunately I don’t remember the ride back to the hostel because I was in a deep sleep like the others in the van.
We left the hostel in the morning looking forward for the Starbucks but we had the amazing surprise of a Chinese lady in the middle of the street. She invited us to drink tea in her shop; later we discovered the real intention was to sell, but it doesn’t matter because we had an incredible ritual of tea.
I drank more tea on this trip than in my entire life, but this one was different, very special. She offered us to take a seat at a great table; she sat at the center and was setting all the small things in place, one by one. Finally we had a table full of porcelain, herbs and many other things I can’t describe.
We tried 3 different kind of teas, dried tomatoes, almonds, cookies, and again things I can’t describe. Everything was delicious, everything small and full of details, flawless. This was an incredible experience, but this is something really complicated for travelers; I wanted to buy the entire store but our bags are a fixed size and only small things can be added. I bought a small box with 5 tea samples and a couple of different snacks; we ate those in the next train connection.
We left the store to go to The Forbidden City; at first I thought “city” was part of the name for the place, but later I realized the monument is an entire city. In the past this place was the palace of the emperor and a forbidden place for visitors; it’s incredible to understand how this big place was the house of only one person.
We walked for hours trying to see everything and we reached the end thinking we did, but when we climbed to the summer palace we discovered a lot of places we didn’t see. Imagine this place covers 720,000 square meters, 960 meters from north to south and 750 meters from east to west.
Our last day in Beijing was about to check the markets, there are many different markets, fruits and vegetables, silk, electronics and much more. We went to the silk market in the morning, was quite okay but if you are not going to buy fabrics then it becomes a boring place, always crowded of course.
We left the place to see the fruit and vegetables market, again crowded but much more interesting, we saw things with incredible shapes, this is a non-tourist place and unfortunately we were not able to speak Chinese in order to figure it out what our eyes were watching, however was a great experience, the neighbourhood surrounded in that area it’s also an amazing place, I enjoyed too much as photographer but was not good for Krisztina, and this wasn’t the worst experience of the day for her.
Later walking on one commercial street, and just by chance, we found a special market, only open at night, that was the bugs market. It’s about 4 blocks, but at the beginning there are just souvenir shops and probably that was the reason we entered, later a couple of food shops appeared, if it’s possible to say food, because the Chinese food we know it’s totally different to this one, of course they offer pasta, noodles, and many similar things but the most popular here are the insects. They sell something like a stick with your choice, you can find: scorpions, spiders, and many others unknown to me. We saw they sell ducks but baby ones, frogs and sea horses, these are cooked in general but others like the little scorpions are alive. We didn’t try of course, it was disgusting for us and even more for Krisztina but we saw other people eating.
We left Beijing in the morning forHong Kong, but trains fromBeijingtoHong Kongare not available every day. The night before I discovered in a blog that an option could be take the train directly to Guangzhou and then connect with another train to our final destination, and we did.
This was our last long distance train in our journey but this time the train was different to the others. The layout was the same, but more luxurious, TVs, and cleaner and faster than the Russian trains.
We arrived to Guangzhou after 20 hours and bought tickets to Hong Kong. It was hours before we discovered Kuwn Tong means Hong Kong and we bought the tickets! We took the train; after 1 hour and a border crossing (Hong Kong is separate from China) we arrived to an amazing city. People here seem to be Chinese but for sure they are different; they have another language, another currency, and a different look. Also they speak better English and it’s easy to walk the street and read the signs.
Here – opposite to the rest of China – things are more expensive, but for some reason it’s a shopping paradise.
This week-in-the-life was especially interesting to me right now, since I’m about to do the Trans-Siberian myself, as part of the Ultimate Train Challenge!
Mariano has another big trip planned to South Asia for September and October. He’ll cover Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The project will be about local portraits and social customs in that area. You can check out Mariano’s photography at MarioBaione.com, and read his entire train journey at 23Trains.