Leaving Mongolia by train is straightforward and easy.
The most difficult task happens outside the windows. For two hours we were locked into our compartment as they slowly lifted each train car and changed the wheels.
Outside our windows men dashed here and there in the glow of orange lighting.
Methodically they pulled wheels out and slid new ones in under each carriage.
The rail gauge in China is different than Mongolia and Russia, so to continue the journey, adjustments needed to be made. It was a metaphor for the changes waiting ahead in China. After a month and a half of exploring the empty countryside wilds of Mongolia, I was about to be thrown into the mass of humanity that symbolizes China. Even changing the wheel gauges couldn’t prepare me for this.
As I stepped out of the train station in Beijing, every direction I stared my eyes were filled with large crowds of people moving. It threw me into a temporary stage of overwhelm and a moment of culture shock. Slowly I made the adjustment.
Thankfully three young women from the hotel had come to pick me up along with some other travelers from the train. Basically all there was to do was follow.
“Your first time to China?” asked Ms. Lee, one of my greeters.
“Yes,” I said, now aware that I must have an overwhelmed look on my face.
“Here, let me help you with your bags.”
Two hours later I took a stroll across Tiananmen Square. Approaching the world’s largest public square I came to a police checkpoint where they were searching people’s bags and such as if they were boarding onto a airplane. When my turn came, they just waved me through with no desire to look into my rucksack. Apparently foreigners were spared the search.
The square crawled with police, paranoia filled the air, as if they were afraid someone might at any moment start another demonstration.
It brought to mind what a Chinese university student had told me: “One is free to express a dissenting opinion in China as long as it is not done in a public place and no one is listening.”
It is impossible not to be impressed by the shear size of the square. The place is spotless, as Chairman Mao’s portrait stands guard symbolically from the past.
Next I set out to find the Olympic village. All eyes of the world will be on China for the 2008 Olympics stating in August.
The main stadium, which the locals referred to as the bird’s nest because of its design, is still under construction. Getting close to the stadium is a challenge because it is still fenced off for construction work.
As I walked around the edge, I found a hole in the fence that gave my Australian companion and myself a chance to sneak in for a closer look. For over an hour we strolled around the grounds, snapping photos of the construction and visiting with guards positioned at various positions.
Just as we were about to leave a police van came roaring up to where we stood and skidded to a stop.
A policeman jumped out of the drivers seat and said in a stern voice:
“Get into the van.”
I responded with a snappy and straight to the point: “Nope,” and immediately started to walk away.
All I could imagine was having them delete all my photos, or worse yet, keeping my camera.
His jaw dropped to the ground with a look of shock on his face. Before he could regroup we made our way to a hole in the fence and disappeared into the busy streets of Beijing.
A quick tour the next day of the Great Wall of China put to bed a major goal for the journey.
Without wanting to push my luck, I jumped aboard a train and set off to find pandas.