Nick here. I’m on the road — the Qingai-Tibet Iron Road — riding the train to Lhasa. Yup, two days ago I got up from my desk, clicked “save” on my unfinished thesis, and set off for Tibet.
(I’m without my usual sidekicks, including my lovely editor, so for those readers just hoping for cute Owen pictures, or any decent writing, then my 7 days in Tibet will not interest you in the slightest.)
Finally, our last stop: Dalian.
Last year, when we travelled the Yellow River from Qinghai down to Shandong, we gave ourselves a goal, something to really look forward-to at the end of our journey: Qingdao, a seaside town with a reputation for fresh beer and sandy beaches. As it turned out, the beer was still pretty lousy, and the beaches were a tad disgusting. But we still had a pretty good time. ; So this year, with eighty straight days of travel planned, some through rather less-developed areas of the Eurasian Landmass, we planned a similar finish – only this time it’d be better. Dalian, the famously high-end, environmentally-friendly seaside city in Liaoning Province, would be our Promised Land. Sitting on a pristine beach with an ice cream in one hand and a beer in the other, all those hours on bumpy buses and in dirty hotel rooms would just be memories to smile back on.
We’re outside of Tumen, an aptly-named town on the Tumen River, in a little slice of China squeezed between Russia and North Korea. The people here, largely of Korean ethnicity, go about their day speaking, reading, and eating Korean. Speaking to them in Mandarin, it sometimes sounds like Chinese is a second language for them, too. They’re glad to be citizens of China – a stone’s throw across the river here is North Korea, a country that really nobody on earth wants to be part of.
We arrived in Qiqiha’er, across the Xing’an mountains in Heilongjiang Province, on the overnight train from Manzhouli. Covering this distance on train and at night, we slept away across the dark Hulunbei’er Grasslands, which in daytime are supposed to be Inner Mongolia’s most impressive patch of empty space. But as our remaining travel time this summer winds down, we’ve got to cross all those miles somehow, and quickly.
After three weeks in hot buses, swerving cabs, and one airplane (well, the airplane wasn’t bad at all), it’s good to be back on tracks. And the overnight train out of Beitun, China’s northwesternmost rail terminal, provided some great scenery and a good light show out there on the northern Xinjiang plains. Next up: Manchuria.
Travelling with Owen means trying our best to be in a decent hotel room before 8 o’clock every night. To us, meeting this goal means we are good parents for the day. We have pretty low standards. But even by our own pathetic measure, during the first week we were good parents on two out of seven days. Thus, with a long train journey coming and unable to look at ourselves in a mirror, we instead looked at a map and picked a mid-way town for a 24hr layover.
The town we picked was Ji’an in central Jiangxi. We’d get off the train at 6:30PM and continue the next day on a sleeper leaving at 5PM. None of our guidebooks had anything about the area, and the information on Chinese travel websites was limited to the site of the former Jiangxi soviet in the mountains two hours west. So we just went, figuring we’d find something.
And we did. Upon exiting the train station, we found a hotel (before 8PM!) and asked the desk clerks what we ought to go see in the morning. As it turns out, in a 3,000-year-old country, there’s bound to be some local history wherever you are. With recommendations for some nearby “ancient villages,” we then found a cab driver back by the train station and negotiated price and a timeline. He also threw in some recommendations. And with that, we had ourselves a day.
Ji’an’s location along the Gan River, historically a key route linking northern China with the far-off province of Guang in the south, means that we certainly weren’t the first to come through here. We saw old Song Dynasty trading towns in various states of crumbling, the site of the famous Southern Song Dynasty general Jiang Wentian’s last stand against the unstoppable Mongols, and the house where Mao camped out in the 1920’s before retreating with his small force to the mountains on the Hunan border. All with a great lunch at a local favorite along the way.
Makes me think that we ought to be reading a good parenting book instead of that lousy guidebook.