Discovering the world with relentless curiosity

Category: China

Cover Story For Malaysia Airlines Inflight Magazine!

It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing –…

Cover Story 1_GoingPlaces_Nov15It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing – mostly on blog posts here and some contributions on other travel sites. And this November, my feature article was chosen as cover story for Malaysia Airlines (MAS), Going Places in-flight magazine.

I’ve been flying MAS since I was very young and in more recent years I’ve realised that in-flight magazines are what I look forward to when boarding flights. Going Places has been a signature for MAS and I’m stoked to have contributed to its pages.

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The TransSiberian rail journey in itself is a lifetime experience. It crosses three countries; China, Mongolia and Russia and passes through five different time zones. Culturally, it is a robust experience, awakening every facet of your physical senses; sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The real game changer for a holiday like this, is the people you choose to go with. I went with my husband and two-year-old toddler and they were fantastic travel buddies. We learned so much more about each other and about the world – the small train cabin forces you to be within close proximity. So choose your travel buddies wisely! 🙂

If you’re looking for a rich experiential holiday, take a read and decide for yourself if you’re up for a rail adventure of a lifetime.

The online version: http://bit.ly/GPTransSiberian

The November issue here:  http://bit.ly/GPnov15

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Trans-Mongolian Rail Adventure: Beijing To Ulaanbaatar

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the…

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the sack, we headed to the train station. It was chaotic – mad crowds at every turn, trolley bags knocking on my ankles, people elbowing at my side in a hurried puff, the air was still and incredibly humid. We had to find the station’s entrance, but all signs were in Chinese. Then we spotted a queue with some Western travelers in the line. We promptly asked if they were heading to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia capital and they said, “Yes”.

The line steadily snaked in going through security and then into a large waiting hall. It dawned on me that this is IT! We are really getting on a train starting our Trans-Mongolian railroad adventure! One sure sign was seeing other western travelers with their huge backpacks and hiking boots on – the look of rugged travelers ready to embark on a great adventure.

TransMongolian7The gates opened and there before us, the familiar green train with the famous red star on its side. I’ve seen this train in pictures after many months of researching prior to the trip. We were on the right track. I looked around and saw people taking selfies. There was a tangible mutual excitement that lingered in the air – an anticipation that was almost forceful enough to push the train along with a chugga-chugga.

TransMongolian8Our train attendant was a stalky, middle-aged friendly chap. He checked our tickets and waved us in. This was the first overnight train of many to come as we were headed west straight to Moscow in the next few weeks. New to the whole train scene, we got into our cabin of four, with two bunk beds on each side, a small table next to the window and enough for two adults to stand side by side.

TransMongolian9We stored our luggages under the bottom bunk bed and stowed away our small backpack. Surprisingly, although the cabin may seem small at first sight, after keeping our bags, there was enough room to sit comfortably, even with legs outstretched. Every space and fixture in the cabin has been thoughtfully positioned – we had hooks for small towels, hangers for clothes, a little rack for phones or small items and in each carriage had two power sockets and a samovar for hot water anytime of the day. It’s especially convenient for making instant noodles and coffee.

TransMongolian10TransMongolian11TransMongolian3Since we bought second-class tickets, our carriage did not have air-conditioning. And the worst part was that the windows in our cabin was faulty so it couldn’t be opened. The small fan helped with circulation, but since it was summer – it got a bit hot and stuffy in the afternoon. We would escape to the first-class carriages (two beds per cabin with a cushy seating space) to enjoy some cool air. But as soon as we received stern stares from the train attendant, we exited promptly. We did this several times until the afternoon heat simmered down.

One of the best things of train travel is meeting new friends. Stuck in a small space, we’re forced to forge new friendships. We shared our cabin with Samantha, a young British girl who was also headed for Mongolia and she was going to spend a month in the country before moving onto South Korea. We exchanged travel stories and shared umpteen snacks.

TransMongolian5Not long after we departed, our train attendant (each carriage has one attendant) knocked on our doors and gave us clean bed sheets and duvet covers. Then he gave us two red and green tickets for lunch and dinner – we couldn’t contain our excitement! No where in the ticket did it say lunch and dinner was provided. We did not catch this information on any of the guides we have read – so it was a pleasant surprise.

What we found out after the whole TransSiberian experience was that Chinese trains offered the best food. Who can fault a Chinese cook with a belly sticking out and a towel around his neck? There was a fully equipped kitchen in the dining carriage and the wok was fired up at full steam. We had rice and celery chicken for lunch and rice and meatballs for dinner. Sadly we were too enthused with the food to take any pictures. It didn’t stay long on our plates.

TransMongolian12Eight hours down, 20 hours to go! We’ve explored different carriages, visited the loo several times, read a few stories to Seth, finished a few chapters in our books and popped way too many raisins and nuts. Surprisingly, we were not bored (yet). The novelty of sitting on the train still gripped us. I kept taking out my phone to capture the ever-changing scenery. The train meandered past valleys with towering mountains on both sides, farmers were seen herding cattle and sheep in wide open plains, we saw modest Chinese homes with unmistakable a-framed tiled roofs clustered in small communities and we tunnelled through mountains – and each time we did, the cabin was pitch black. Seth’s favourite was going through tunnels. He would exclaim, “Mommy, where are you?” with hands outstretched, “Daddy, are you there?” groping in the dark. He would snicker as soon as we exited the tunnel.

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Changing Bogies At The Chinese-Mongolian Border

Whether you’re a regular train passenger or not, one of the more unusual experiences happens at the Chinese-Mongolian border – Erlian. Here, the train’s bogies (wheels) have to be changed due to the different track gauges used by Mongolia and China railway networks.

We arrived at 940pm at Erlian, immigration officers entered our carriage to carry out customs and immigration checks. They take our passports and ask us to verbally state our names while looking at us with a steady glare. We were given a choice to remain on the train or alight at the station. Once you get off the train, chances are you will not return until after the bogies have been changed – the whole process took about two hours. Terence went down to get some snacks and ended up waiting. At the station there are proper toilets, an ATM machine and some shops for drinks and snacks. Most people alighted, but I stayed since Seth was fast asleep and I had secretly wanted to see how the bogies were changed.

Our train wheeled into a shaded platform where each carriage was raised, one at a time during the bogie change. Toilets on the carriage were locked and electricity was shut down. The bogies are then removed and new ones are replaced. Every time an existing bogie was removed from a carriage the entire train would shake violently. There was a lot of banging and knocking involved too! At some point I thought Seth would wake up crying because of the loud clanking but he slept through, even snoring at some point.

After an hour and more of ground shaking activity, the carriages are lowered back onto the track and we headed back to the station to pick up the other passengers. It was another 30 minutes wait before we got our passports back and then we finally bid goodbye to China.

An hour into the ride and just as we were about to settle in for some slumber, we arrived at Zamyn Uud the Mongolian border. Our jarring cabin lights flicked on, a smart looking lady officer with strong perfume and brightly coloured nails motioned for our passports. We handed it over and she stamped our customs declaration forms. The wait continued – another two hours on a stationary train waiting for our passports to be cleared. Alas at 315am, about six hours since Erlian’s border crossing, the officers returned to the train and handed back our passports. Our train chugged away into no man’s land and we sank straight into bed.

Good Morning Mongolia!

The air was cool and arid, our cabin door was still shut but outside I could hear children from the other cabin exchanging notes on Mongolia, “Dad, can we ride a horse? Do they have camels too?” “What do people in Mongolia eat?” “They look like Chinese, but they are not.” I chuckled under my sheets and thought, what an amazing country Mongolia is – even children are genuinely curious about her.

TransMongolian14The scenery had changed dramatically. I saw horses galloping afar, random gers dotted in the field, and we even passed some grazing camels. The morning has broken and the skies were the brightest blue with stark white clouds and the occasional majestic eagle circling the sky.

TransMongolian6TransMongolian2We made our way to the dining carriage to grab some breakfast and I was completely spell bound when I opened the carriage door. The dining carriage must have been changed at one of the border crossings and I was now staring at a Mongolian-furnished dining hall. Wooden furnishings of Mongolian instruments, bow and arrow and other hunting paraphernalia. Faces of ancient gods were part of the fixtures too. I could tell that every person who walked in for the first time was equally surprised. They had that “Wow” look on their faces, almost gawking in disbelief. We had some hot goulash and buns for breakfast and immediately missed the great Chinese food the day before.

TransMongolian1328 hours after we first boarded the train, we arrived in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The day was incredibly hot, but a new country awaited us. We alighted with our bags and toddler in the sack and was greeted by a cheerful welcome from our hostel host. I love this country already!

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Tiananmen Square & The Forbidden City

Beijing’s Forbidden City is perhaps China’s most famous ancient museum, second to the impressive Great Wall as tourists’ attractions. We were warned of the crowds and unlike other iconic landmarks…

Beijing’s Forbidden City is perhaps China’s most famous ancient museum, second to the impressive Great Wall as tourists’ attractions. We were warned of the crowds and unlike other iconic landmarks around the world, in China, local attractions attract the local crowd. So when we got to Tiananmen Square on a Sunday morning, we were met with an endless sea of people – mostly Chinese.

The sprawling Square is the world’s largest, approximately 99 acres and is surprisingly devoid of trees, benches or sitting areas. Tiananmen Square was just a glimpse of the expanse within the Forbidden City and it entailed a LOT of walking. If you’re in Beijing during summer, bring lots of water to keep hydrated, snacks to satisfy the hunger pangs and cover for shade – either a cap or umbrella – the heat coupled with humidity can be very draining.

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Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden city are located directly opposite from each other. There are two subway stops, one on each end – Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West, both on Line 1. You can take either. Once you exit, just follow the crowd and you’d emerge at the Square’s imposing walls. Guards are stationed along the wall and they look intimidating, however, excited groups of tourists and kite flyers at the Square seemed unperturbed by their presence. Kite flyers pranced around as their kites dance in the air, tour guides wave colourful flags and some even blow resounding whistles to get their group’s attention. It’s quite chaotic and can be overwhelming trying to navigate through the crowd.

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We walked through the arched entrance with Chairman Mao staring right at us from above and into what is known as the Forbidden City. For nearly 500 years, this city (quite literally for its sheer size) have housed the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors up until 1911. A decade and more after the end of the dynasty, in 1925, the Forbidden City was open to the public and earned its place as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987.

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We followed the crowd in and was already spellbound by the size of the compound and beautiful courtyard-style buildings before us. Queues of people were seen on our left and signages read “Tickets” – we stood in one of the many lines and hoped that the wait would not be long. There were easily a few hundred people waiting for tickets – thankfully there were sufficient ticket counters to cater for the crowd. We ended up waiting 45 minutes for our tickets and proceeded in.

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Security is tight and our bags were scanned prior to entry. Audio guides in various languages are available – but we skipped it as Seth wouldn’t have had the patience to wait for us to complete the whole circuit while someone spoke to us in the ear.

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We wandered into the City’s compounds. Large uneven stone pavements led us into courtyards and plazas, first into the ‘Outer Court’ where the government and official events took place, then into more intimate spaces like the ‘Inner Court’ where the emperors and their concubines dwelt and then through small doors into a whole new world of beautifully manicured bonsai gardens.

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It’s incredibly fascinating to imagine what went on behind those wooden latticed doors. How did the emperors get from one place to another? It was too large to wander on foot, at least for an emperor. What secrets were told? How many people were tortured as the emperors were known to have ruled with an iron fist.

Marble-stoned bridges connected one plaza to another with shallow waters running past. The complex is a universe on its own – sufficient in every aspect – both spectacular, yet surreal.

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After hours of walking, little Seth finally dozed off to sleep and we crossed the road and entered into Jingshan Park. We were told that an uphill climb up to one of its summits would guaranteed a full, clear panoramic view of the entire Forbidden City. The discovery was well worth the sweat. We reached a beautiful temple at the top and looked down at the ancient museum for a different perspective – it’s vast compound continued to bewilder us. I wondered, what commoners would pay just to get a glimpse into the Forbidden City in the past – as within its City’s walls lie many untold stories, shrouded with mystery.

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Brickyard At Mutianyu, Beijing: A Factory Turned Retreat

Mutianyu is an interesting and well-preserved hamlet located 70 kilometres from China’s capital, Beijing – a little haven for exploration if you manage to beat the chaotic traffic congestion to…

Mutianyu is an interesting and well-preserved hamlet located 70 kilometres from China’s capital, Beijing – a little haven for exploration if you manage to beat the chaotic traffic congestion to get out here. The main draw, is of course the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, thought to be one of the best preserved parts of the Wall with 22 watchtowers densely situated along the wall boasting views from as high as 540 meters above sea level.

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Similarly, the unobstructed captivating views of the Great Wall is what attracts guests to the Brickyard Retreat at Mutianyu. But the Wall isn’t just all this property is about, the backstory of Brickyard is one of restoration, regeneration and rebuilding.

Back in 1986, Jim Spear, an American and his wife Liang Tang discovered the quaint Mutianyu hamlet after many weekend trips out from the city. Before long, they bought a peasant’s house and turned it into a retreat home. This was also the start of Jim’s self-taught designing journey. He worked closely with contractors and learn on the go as he remodelled the old dilapidated peasant home into a beautiful retreat fit for his family and personal guests.

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Around the same time, Mutianyu was also facing a social dilemma – young people were moving out to the city to find jobs leaving the very young and elderly behind. However, time was on their side – simultaneously, the Chinese government had also completed the restoration of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and an influx of tourists were to be expected in the years to come.

Jim and his business partners rolled out a sustainable plan to raise the social status of Mutianyu – they built the Schoolhouse, a high-end, high-quality restaurant that was once a primary school and is now a great advocate of the slow food movement. Today, the Schoolhouse is a collection of converted, restored buildings which includes Brickyard Retreat with 25 rooms and nine luxury retreat homes dotted around Mutianyu hamlet.

The business collective has provided many local people with employment and with a business model that is sustainable, the Schoolhouse (collective) through its lease of homes from peasants in the community have given these local families the opportunity and means to start their own small business and means to give their children quality tertiary education.

Restoration, Regeneration and Rebuilding

Few people can envision anything positive or promising of an old, rundown abandon tile factory. When Jim’s wife, Liang Tang first saw the factory, she didn’t see it for what it was, but what it could be. “It was a desert and the chimneys belched out horrible acrid, black smoke. I was appalled and thought ‘no way’ until she told me to turn round and I saw the incredible view of forested ridges topped by the imposing Great Wall,” Jim described.

It was clear that Jim wanted to keep the story alive even when he built the Brickyard. “When I designed the Brickyard my aim was to retain the original structures wherever possible. It means there is a real, and interesting, story for our guests to discover, but the main reason for keeping the old buildings was to be ecologically sound.”

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Stepping into compounds of the Brickyard is a humbling experience. Don’t expect a grand and pompous welcome, instead it is like walking into private quarters. The small reception area in an old kiln, modest and cosy. We walked the open courtyard and on the right is the Lodge, a traditional peasant brick house serving homemade comfort food and a fireplace with plush armchairs. I can only imagine how comforting this place can be on a cold winter night with a book and a cup of hot chocolate in front of a crackling fireplace.

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Entering our premium room is a small outdoor lounge with sun beds and large glass sliding doors welcoming us into the room. The walls are decorated with colourful glazed tiles set in a beautiful mural. The same tiles can be seen throughout the retreat and I have been told that the tiles are salvaged scraps from the former tile factory.

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The room decor is minimalistic and colours have been chosen to compliment the glazed tiles and earthy tones of the brick walls. A sense of harmony and symmetry flows through. The priceless view of the Great Wall is one the retreat’s biggest assets and I didn’t miss out it as top-to-floor panelled windows in the room provided unobstructed viewing. It was also a great source for natural light.

transsiberian_164For sensitive sleepers like me, the rising sun would have interrupted my slumber, but thanks to the eye masks provided by the hotel, I was able to snooze right past the break of dawn.

The Brickyard also has a spa promoting traditional massage methods like Tui Na and an outdoor jacuzzi perfect for star gazing. There is an organic garden on site, an outdoor play area for children, plenty of green spaces to lounge and a TV room for those that can’t go without entertainment.

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Staying at the Brickyard, I was able to explore Mutianyu’s part of the Great Wall without the throngs of tourists, I was free to venture into tiny lanes in the village, greet elderly folks while they sat outside playing mahjong, try local restaurants, poke my nose into local sundry shops and admire traditional homes while taking long summer strolls. At the end of the day, I’m back at Brickyard sipping a hot cup of tea in the cosy Lodge and enjoying homemade cookies, all this while mesmerised at the Wall before me.

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If You’re Gonna Travel To See A Wall – Make it This One!

As a Chinese, I’ve grown up with stories of the Great Wall. Although from a Chinese descent, China has always seemed like a foreign land to me. As a young…

As a Chinese, I’ve grown up with stories of the Great Wall. Although from a Chinese descent, China has always seemed like a foreign land to me. As a young girl, the little I knew about her was that my grandfather came from China many moons ago, that the Great Wall is one magnificent wonder I should not miss and that panda’s are still around, albeit close to extinction.

My grandmother used to tell me stories of her trip to ‘the’ magnificent wall. Over the years, I’ve laid eyes on many postcard-worthy photos and even watched documentaries with detailed facts from history. Instinctively, as I grew more passionate about seeing the world, the Great Wall was way on top of my bucket list.

THIS IS WHAT I CAME TO CHINA FOR!

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This timeless ruin completed in the Ming Dynasty to protect the Chinese empire from invasion against the Mongols is today one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Both a historical treasure and a man-made wonder, it is no surprise that thousands of tourists visit this site in busloads loads every day – yes, even in the thick of winter. One of the ways to beat the crowd is to get here early and to find sections of the wall that are least likely a choice mass tourists. The Badaling section is the most visited one out of the nine sections opened to tourists. We decided on Mutianyu to avoid the masses.

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Located 70 kilometres northeast of Beijing in Huairou County, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is thought to be one of the best-preserved and longest sections of the wall. Since it is farther from the city, the crowds are less – but still we got there early, at 8am before the tour buses arrived at 10am.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu is 22 kilometres long and has 22 watchtowers – the highest of which reaches an altitude of 540 meters above sea level. Before we set foot on the wall, we had a choice to take the chairlift or walk the dauntingly steep stairs to get to the wall. We chose the latter without knowing that it would be that steep and got our morning workout sorted.

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The first sight of the wall was unforgettable – the famous grey stoned-washed walls with unmistakable parapets stood before us bearing proof that this was once a defence fortress, hence the challenge of getting up there. The wall’s pathways are wide in some areas and narrow and uneven at other parts. Tall narrow stone steps led to watchtowers and eventually to Tower 1, the highest of the 22 towers.

transsiberian_180transsiberian_191When we finally got to Tower 1, the crowd was more evident. Casting our eyes along the wall, we saw pockets of people mostly posing for a picture, taking jump shots, waving selfie sticks in the air and making slow ascend to different watch towers. A tangible sense of awe is in the air – it’s hard not to appreciate a man-made structure like this.

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According to history, during the initial stages of the wall built during the Qin Dynasty (way before the Ming Dynasty), bricklayers used glutinous rice flour as binding material for the wall. A more gruesome truth however, is that the Great Wall is synonymous to the ‘longest cemetery on Earth’. Human remains have been found buried under the wall according to leading archeologists. Many talk about the grand magnificence of the wall, but if the wall could speak, I am dead sure that it would tell of the millions of lives lost in the construction of it. Bitter cold winters, hazardous terrain and arduous labour contributed to tragedy. And today, many tourists – me included, stand in wonder of this piece of living history.

I echo the words of my two-year-old, Seth, “The Great Wall – very impressive!”.

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transsiberian_183IMG_0736I gazed out the window at Tower 1 and took in all that this place had to offer. There in my moment of silence, a strange calm came over. If only I could overnight here, I would – I’m sure my imagination and stories of the past would make great company.

Getting to Mutianyu

There are many sites that tell you how to get to Mutianyu Great Wall, but I found this one on China Highlights very practical and easy to follow. And if you can’t get enough of the wall or want to be the first early bird up on the wall, then staying at Mutianyu is the perfect option. The village at the foot of the Great Wall is an interesting one with many eateries, local guesthouses and tiny sundry shops. We stayed at the Brickyard Retreat and enjoyed unobstructed views of the Wall with complete privacy in our personal outdoor lounge.

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Guilin To Beijing On The High Speed Train

Arriving in Guilin by air, we spent a few days exploring Guilin city and headed to the sleepy town of Yangshuo to have a better view of the beautiful karst…

Arriving in Guilin by air, we spent a few days exploring Guilin city and headed to the sleepy town of Yangshuo to have a better view of the beautiful karst mountains. Then took the high-speed train to Beijing with an estimated time of 10 hours and 30 minutes but eventually stretched to 12 hours due to some technical issues. We bought second class seats (RMB806 / $130 per person) which meant that our train seats can only be reclined a little and there were no pre-booked meals. The seats were more spacious than airline economic seats and the wide windows offered panoramic views of the changing landscape.

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Getting on the train was a feat in itself. We had to take a taxi from our Air BnB apartment and it was raining heavily. A very kind taxi lady stopped for us in the middle of the road and even came down and helped us with our bags. With our very broken and limited Mandarin, we managed to tell her where we wanted to go. At the train station, everything was in Mandarin. We had our tickets at hand and the only thing we could understand were the numbers on the ticket. “1035 (departure time), G422 (train number), 10 (Guessing it’s the carriage number) and 9 (Guessing it’s my seat number). There was a large crowd already at the waiting hall. Minutes later we heard an announcement on the PA system and everyone barged to the entrance. We followed suit, albeit with less haste and no pushing!

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We walked to the platform and saw number markings on the floor and made another guess that the markings meant the carriage number. We got into the train without a glitch and settled down into our designated seats.

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The doors closed and we were on our way. About ten seats in front of us, a ‘private party’ was going on. Chinese men were clanging beer bottles, laughing, chatting and eating pork and noodles with chopsticks over folded tissue paper. I looked around and people were already getting cosy in their seats, curled up with a pillow, others were snacking on cookies and many others were tuned-out and tuned-in to their electronic devices. I even spotted someone doing some yoga stretches.

yogaIMG_0609Throughout the journey, we made 18 stops alighting passengers and picking up new ones. The landscape was predominantly farming land with rolling hills as a backdrop. Block houses dotted in the fields and farmers with hats were bent over busy in the field. The sky was downcast and the clouds were low. A constant drizzle followed us through. Nearing Beijing, we stopped at ‘ghost towns’ with tall building blocks that seemed vacant. It was interesting to people watch when the train stopped, although there wasn’t enough time to leave the train.

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We had lunch and dinner on the train. For RMB40 ($6.50), we had pre-packed trays of rice meals – rice, beef, chicken, potatoes, veggies and Chinese condiments. It wasn’t horrible but it was definitely overpriced. We were so glad we had our own snacks to munch on.

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We filled the hours with reading, reading stories to Seth, walking to and fro different carriages, playing games and eating. We were constantly snacking! Peanuts, dried fruit, biscuits, preserved plums… you name it!

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Overall it was a great experience. We survived 12 hours, travelled 2,135 kilometers on a train with a toddler. A good sign and precursor for the many more train rides to come…!

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