Beijing, China – Sunday 30th July to Thursday 3rd August
We boarded our last train of the Trans-Mongolian Route, headed for China! This time we were riding on the Mongolian train, which is modelled on the Chinese version. So, finally, our first class cabin had it’s own toilet!
After Phil had manhandled our bags onto the top bunk and over the door, we settled in to another 28 hours on a train. In reality, the ‘better equipped’ cabin wasn’t as practical as the spacious Russian one, but we were super happy to be able to experience a different type of train. Now we know for next time.
In the morning we awoke to stunning hilly scenery. High peaks dropped suddenly only to rise again, moments later; and we travelled through tunnel after tunnel.
China. Definitely not Mongolia anymore.
As we approached Beijing we notice two key things: things got a lot more built up; and the skies became grey. It wasn’t cloudy; we were seeing Beijing’s infamous smog!
Beijing was hot. Really hot. High thirties with crazy high humidity. It made Mongolia feel like a cool day at the zoo.
After a great Chinese lunch near the hotel, our first day was spent wandering the streets. Still on the hunt for shoes and hot-weather-wear for Hannah, we headed to Sanlitun Tai Koo Li, a super-westernised high-end shopping area, full of Nikes, H&Ms and Uniqlos. Armed with clothes, but still no shoes, we ended up at the Shing-A brewery for dinner.
Monday we knew would be an admin day. Our first task was a Chinese SIM card, which cost us £33 and a whole morning. Then booking our onward tickets for Xi’an and Chengdu. We’d heard horror stories about this process, so had steeled ourselves to be at the ticket office for the long haul.
Refreshingly, the ticket purchase was actually pretty straightforward; and we managed to get first class tickets on the bullet train to Xi’an for £94 each, and hard sleeper births on the twelve hour train to Chengdu for just £31 each.
Though the station was chaotically busy, we simply zoned into the small task at hand, and we were only there for an hour or so (most of which was queuing).
Though perhaps a little overwhelming to us, everybody was simply getting on with their day. It just so happens that there are an awful lot of days going on here.
Tuesday we kicked into tourist mode. One of the biggest tourist draws in the city has to be the Forbidden City, both figuratively and literally; the ancient imperial palace is the largest palace complex in the world.
Crowds and pollution at the Forbidden City
We were immediately hit with the huge numbers of Chinese tourists who were here to see just what we were here to see. The numbers were simply staggering, and it was just an average Tuesday morning.
I desperately want to say that the experience was amazing; indeed the palace complex is remarkable for it’s size. However, the most impressive/oppressive thing about the experience for us was the crowds.
We were still hungry for more culture, so set our sights on the Summer Palace, in the North West of the City.
The Summer Palace was where the imperial court relocated to escape the summer heat of Beijing, and though only a few miles away, there was a definite difference in climate here. It was, however, still crazy hot!
Hannah keeps cool at the Summer Palace
Here we found our place in Beijing, and we thoroughly recommend any visitors to make the trip out here.
The complex is still full of life, in contrast to the sterility of the Forbidden City. Shops, restaurants, and hawkers vie for your attention, while up every stair, and around every corner there was a new sight to behold.
Suzhou Street in the Summer Palace
You can pay for just entry to the park, but we paid for all inclusive ticket for £7 each. This gets you entry to the park and in addition entry to various galleries and attractions, including the delightful Suzhou Street, and the imposing Tower of Buddhist Incense.
We also decided that in the heat it was totally appropriate to hire a boat to pootle around Kunming Lake. Thinking ourselves clever we got the electric option, which was great, until the battery started to go!
Captain Hannah, before engine failure
Our plan then was to hunt down a massage for Hannah, when suddenly she was gripped by crippling stomach cramps which, literally, put her on the floor in tears.
Fortuitously, we were right by an English speaking clinic. So, instead of a nice relaxing massage, Hannah was treated to an extensive examination and an X-ray! After a couple of hours, and with a bag of pills, we were sent on our way.
Sadly, Hannah’s illness put paid to our plans to visit the Great Wall of China. And our last day in Beijing had us holed up in our hotel in recovery mode. Next time, Gadget… Next time…
Xi’an, China – Thursday 3rd August to Monday 7th August
The ticket hall in a Beijing station was one thing. Departures was quite another. Waiting for our train was like being in a real life Where’s Wally.
Once on the train, however, it was a totally different experience. Cruising along on a train at nearly 200 miles per hour is an amazing experience. The train was totally smooth, and whisper quiet. It made Britain’s train network seem shoddy and antiquated in comparison.
Just four hours and forty minutes later we pulled into Xi’an North station and hailed a cab for the long ride to our accommodation. We were staying at the Ancient City Youth Hostel for £21 a night. After a less than ideal hotel in Beijing, we were pleasantly surprised by how nice it was! Clean rooms, a bar with a pool table, and English speaking staff. If you ever come to Xi’an, put it on your list.
Our hostel was just around the corner from ‘Muslim Street’, a long bustling corridor brimming with street food stalls and restaurants offering traditional muslim-Chinese fare. Between flayed squid-on-a-stick and various meat kebab offerings, we decided upon the Chinese Hamburger. Kind of like a pulled pork sandwich in a thick pitta bread, the first one we had was really tasty. Subsequent ones over the next couple of days, however, started to make our stomachs turn!
Muslim Street on a regular Thursday Night
Finally, on Friday, with the mercury rising well over the forty degree mark, we decided to hire some bikes and cycle the circumference of the old town on top of the 12m high fortified city wall.
Green to the right; high rise to the left
Xi’an had a totally different feel to Beijing. Though it has the same population as London, it felt small by comparison – inside the city walls. Outside, however, is another matter entirely. The city centre is ringed by mile after mile of densely packed tower blocks in all directions. The skyline is so crowded that, a lot of the time, you cannot see any horizon at all, for all the buildings. And the amount of construction shows just how much the city is still growing.
Next week we venture out of the city to visit Hua Shan Mountain and the Terracotta Army, before riding the slow train to Chengdu.
Hannah and Phil x
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