Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Trans-Mongolian Adventure - Part 1 - China

In mid-July Amy and I began our most ambitious trip yet, riding the Trans-Mongolian Railway. With a total length of 4,735 miles, the journey covers three countries, five time zones, and some of the World's most sparsely populated areas. An alternative to the longer Trans-Siberian Railway that spans 5,772 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok, the Trans-Mongolian Railway is considered more interesting because it crosses China, Mongolia, and Russia.

Our trip began in Beijing on Amy's birthday. Her celebration began with a tour of the country's most well-known landmark, the Great Wall Of China. We visited the Mutianyu section of the wall, which is considered one of the best-preserved parts of the wall. Although it was crowded, we arrived early enough to enjoy parts of the wall in relative seclusion.

In a country of one billion people, how does one effectively get people down from the Great Wall? A slide of course!

After leaving the Great Wall we visited the Ming Tombs. The Ming Tombs were built in a valley outside of Beijing, and they contain the burial sites of thirteen emperors from the Ming dynasty. These tombs were off limits to commoners during the Ming Dynasty but three tombs have been open to the public in recent years.

After leaving the tombs we visited a Jade factory and attended a tea ceremony. We capped off the birthday celebration with a fantastic meal at a renowned Beijing Peking Duck restaurant.

As we walked back to our hotel we strolled through the famous Donghuamen Night Market. Here one can find fried scorpions, starfish, and silkworm cocoons. As tempting as it all looked, we decided to pass since we'd just had such an amazing meal!

We spent the following day exploring Beijing. We visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and beautiful Beihai Park.

Before we knew it, our rail adventure had begun and we hopped a midnight train to Datong, China. We awoke in Datong to gray skies and a closed hotel. Apparently, the police visited our hotel two days before our arrival and determined the hotel was not operating legally, so they forced the operation to close. This would have been less of a problem if we had received the message the hotel sent to inform us of the closure... but... since China blocks access to Google, and all of Google's services... that email sat in an unread inbox. Our luck quickly changed and we were able to find a room directly across from the train station.

After the debacle of the morning, we met a driver and guide and headed to the famous Hanging Monastery, located outside of Datong. Built over 1,500 years ago, this temple was built into the side of a sheer cliff for protection from outsiders and the once raging river below.

We departed the Hanging Monastery and began heading towards the Yungang Grottoes. The grottoes are series of hand carved caves that contain sculptures of Buddha and other religious icons. The 252 grottos range from unrecognizable impressions carved into the hillside, to some of the finest and most incredibly detailed sculptures that can be found on the planet.

Our day finished with dinner at a 500-year-old restaurant, Feng Lin Ge.

Next up... Mongolia!

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