Monday 23rd May / Tuesday 24th May
We had heard and read many tales from people using the China train system, specifically buying tickets so we thought we needed to test it out for ourselves. We are pleased to report that it lived up to it’s reputation when we were buying tickets for our Xian to Chengdu leg. We are going via night train and after being passed from window to window (can’t pay by credit card…go to window 6 / Window 6….no take credit card go to window 8 / We are not all together in the same sleeper…go to window 16 and so it went on) As it stands we are still not all together in the same sleeper car but we’ll work it out once we get onboard. Its a 15hr trip by the way. (no high speed train runs this route)
There is a story about why we had to book tickets to Chengdu from Xian when I had done it already earlier but there’s not enough space here to cover that…..
Monday we covered around 1000km from Beijing to Xian via high speed train. The top speed we were going was 300kmh which was equal to 5km covered each minute or to put it into perspective Frankton to Queenstown in around 1 minute. Overall with a few stops made along the way it took 5.5 hours with us arriving in Xian around 3.30pm.
Our day started at 6am getting the kids out of bed and into the bar for a hot chocolate for breakfast. Bags packed, goodbyes made we took the subway to the Beijing West station (2 line transfers) and arrived with around an hour to spare. We had 2nd class seating which was equivalent to flying cattle class but with more legroom (and that you didn’t have to wear a belt). There was the ability to get up move around and visit the dining car to buy things from the menu such as stupid bread (seriously). We tried to buy some but it was sold out – if you are what you eat then it says everything you need to know.
The landscape speeding by at 300kmh was one of agriculture and cranes. We passed literally 100’s of cranes and constructions and if we weren’t passing development we were passing fields of wheat, potatoes and we assume rice. In the distance at times there were a few large cooling towers.
A couple of observations were made….
- We passed by many towns (they would probably be cities in NZ) with 6 lane roads and no traffic on them. In fact the infrastructure seemed to far outweigh the needs of the population. QLDC take note!
- Every building/house seemed to have a solar panel on it. This is either well subsidised or they have a sustainable bent about them.It was impressive and poses the question why Central Otago with all it’s sunshine hours is not similar.
We were pleasantly surprised by Beijing’s cleanliness as we left and entered the countryside the standards seemed to drop with more litter and rubbish sighted (and less people) Arriving into Xian we were greeted with a 4 degree drop in temperature, a balmy 26 degrees…. Beijing averages 40m above sea level whilst Xian sits at 400m above.
Like the backpackers we are, we found the subway at the train station and following the directions from our trusty lonely planet Discover China book we found our hostel. It wasn’t the hostel we had originally booked but another traveller put us onto this one so we cancelled our original booking (in hindsight…..no regrets). This hostel in called Han Tang Inn and is located down a small side street (that looks decidedly unfriendly but is anything but) and not far from the centre of town. This hostel has won numerous awards and considered the best around. It is in an old building with a wooden interior and stairs. There is a pool table, ping pong table, a bar/common area and a mass of travellers of all nationalities and ages passing through. As usual they all think the kids are twins and amazed to see them carrying loaded packs. The staff speak fantastic English, in fact people in Xian seem to speak better English than those we encountered in Beijing.
After some dinner we took part in the calligraphy lessons they were conducting. They offer different activities each night ( Friday night is the drinking game night but we will miss that) 10pm bedtime.
Tuesday……6.15am alarm goes off……7.30 wake up. I had signed us up for a free walking tour the hostel offers starting at 9.30am. We ended up being the only ones taking advantage of it and we were questioning what the catch was. We had a hostel employee named Sherri (from Xian) who was our guide. She said it would take until 2.30pm and we would be taken around places of interest. She was great as she spoke impeccable English and had great knowledge not just of the area but the history of the city and the dynasties.
After being taken to the bell tower (700 yrs old) which sits as and is the middle of town we were then taken to the city walls. The old city of which we are staying in has a 13km stone wall around it which was built during the Ming Dynasty 700yrs ago to keep out invaders. It is 12m high, 12-14m wide at the top and 14-18m at the base. This is truly impressive and you can either walk around it or you can……………hire a mountain bike – Yeah now we are talking! Even better for 90 yuan you can hire a tandem mountain bike (single speed) so we did the only thing that seemed appropriate and got 2 tandems. Hiring a bike in China had been on our to do list. The guide gave us 2 hours to complete the loop and for 13km we thought no probs…….. but with a head wind for half the way, a few stops for photos and looking at the historic gates and towers we found ourselves left to cover around 7km in 30mins. The surface was cobbled so a bit rough however we made it back to our guide a few minutes late. If your ever in Xian this is a must do. Now having crossed this off the list it makes my top 3 list of things we have done so far.
After this the guide took us through a few more side streets to a Taoist Temple then down another street that was full of bars and teahouses. Apparently these are frequented by locals rather than visitors or expats but the street exuded a real ambience and at night you can only imagine how good the atmosphere would be. We then headed to another Taoist temple she wanted to check out for the walking tour where we got to see a group of old people playing traditional instruments and music.
Entering the main temple (no photos) you had the alter and a large figure of the city father overlooking you and off to the side 4 huge fearsome looking figures which represented the day, date, week and month. In the background was a huge painting depicting the taoist beliefs of life after death and what can happen to you. There are apparently 18 methods of suffering in the afterlife if you were not of good character. Being sawn in half looked a bit extreme as did being burnt or being put through a churn. All of this was enclosed in an ornate building with gold and silver ying and yang symbols on the ceiling.
After this we made our way down to the Muslim quarter which is a famous part of the city. The population of Xian stands around 9 million but our guide did insist it was 7 billion. The Muslim quarter is a thriving shopping and eating district that has a life and atmosphere of it’s own. We stopped to eat a bowl of noodles at a restaurant for which was by now around 3pm. We told the guide we would make our own way back (which we did eventually after a wrong exit from an underground pass under the bell tower)
We then carried on down checking out the stalls and stores. The most entertaining were the stalls making a pulled sugar outside on the pavement which they then pound with wooden hammers and finally throw in sesame seeds and nuts before cutting up and selling. We gave the peanut ones a miss but went hard with the free samples for the others.
After this we stopped for a green tea soft serve ( the efficiency of flow and moving people through lines is not as apparent here. As Guy Delisle notes in his excellent book Shenzhen of which we are carrying a copy, “In China if there is a space it will be filled”) before visiting the local apple store for the free wifi and started looking at accomodation for Hong Kong. They had a life size model of Steve Jobs in the store (another Madame Tussauds job??). We said he may have been preserved like the Chairman and he was periodically moved around Apple stores.
We finally got back to the Hostel around 5.30pm pretty beat so tonight we are taking it easy over some dumplings and fried rice.
There are some noticeable differences from Beijing. The cleanliness is not as a high standard but there seems to be less people and they are more relaxed. The ambience and vibe is different and it is actually an enjoyable city to be in. There seems to be a thriving expat population which is well organised. The food and drinks are slightly cheaper than BJ and we expect once we get to Chengdu things get cheaper and slower again…then we get to HK and life changes but not for the better. Hong Kong people are known to be too busy and rushed to even smile or breathe and we know that from our time there 20 years ago so we are mentally prepping ourselves.
Tomorrow we are aiming to get to the Terracotta Warriors which I hope live up to expectation….it may be hard to after our ride around the city wall today but i’ve got an open mind.
Photos up when we can.
PLEASE NOTE: – as Google is barred in China we cannot access our gmail accounts so please if you have tried to contact us you’ll need to wait until we leave before we can respond. If you need to urgently get hold of us then firstname.lastname@example.org