Nihao from China!
I’ve just spent a couple of days in Beijing and a couple of days in Xi’An and the coolest the weather has been is 38 degrees. It’s quite warm and humid, so you’re always sweating and gross – add to that the smog from all the pollution in these cities, and it adds to the sticky, dirty feeling! No amount of showers per day helps you feel clean for long! I’m now aboard a night train from Xi’An to Shanghai, where it’s forecast to be a nice cool 31 – I’m looking forward to it!
For this 14 hour train, I’ve treated myself to Deluxe Soft Sleeper (First Class) which is pretty fancy. Instead of having 4 beds in a compartment, there are only 2 and an armchair – and it’s own toilet! Which is great compared to the normal 2 toilets for the whole carriage, however I’m not sure how sound and smell proof it’s going to be! I’ve pretty much got the compartment to myself at the moment, as the guy in the upper bed is in the next compartment socialising with his mates. Sweet!
So, let’s rewind to when I first arrived in Beijing… As I said at the end of the last blog post, I left my new found friends when we got to Beijing and went to my hostel. Once I’d had a rest and shower, I decided to go exploring Beijing for a while.
Not far from my hostel was the Lama Temple (Buddhist monks, not mini, wooly, spitting camels) But I arrived at 16:00 and it was closing at 16:30, so I decided to give it a miss and come back another day – sadly I didn’t make it, but I’m sure there will be plenty of time to see more Buddhist temples over the next few weeks in Asia. I then got the metro to a street market area which had all sorts of crazy foods including scorpions and bats on skewers! The bats were lucky as they were dead and cooked, the scorpions were still alive and wriggling on the skewers!!! As tempted as I was by the scorpions, I decided to get (what I was told was) beef dumplings.
From the street market, I made my way to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which are at the same place. Forbidden City had also closed for the day, so I had a look at the main gates from the outside and wandered around Tiananmen Square for a while. It was pretty cool to stop and think of all the history of this square – the good and the bad, recent and ancient. From here, I decided to head back to my hostel as it was hot, I was exhausted and I had an early morning the next day to go to the Great Wall of China with the friends I’d made on the train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing.
We were meeting at 8am at a bus station near Dongzhimen subway station, which was easy enough as it was pretty close to my hostel. Sadly though, we were not more specific and I didn’t look up more information about this bus station as I assumed there would be clear signs from the subway. Not the case! I got to Dongzhimen station right on 8am, but could not find the bus station. No signs pointing the way or anything – I kept looking around to see if I could see people I recognised or anything that looked like a bus station. I found a couple of places that had a bunch of busses, but they turned out to not be the right place. I asked several people, but they didn’t understand me at all. 10 minutes went by, 15 minutes, 20 – I was getting frustrated and desperate! I didn’t want to hold up the others, but also didn’t want to miss them and have to find my own way to the wall – I hadn’t done much research on it as I was following them!
Eventually I realised that there was another exit from the subway to the other side of the highway, so ran across and guess what!? There was a sign saying “Transport Hub” with a image of a bus on it! Success!!! Now, to find my friends. The bus station was pretty mental, people everywhere (which is pretty standard for China), but I could see nobody I recognised. Figuring that by now they would have given up on me and just gone, I decided to check out the queues for the busses and see if I could see them, if not then I’d just have to work out how to get there myself. A lovely Chinese woman who spoke great English saw the stress on my face and came to my rescue – I explained the situation and she said she will help me look for my friends and if we can’t find them, she’ll at least get me on a bus to the Wall.
It only took a couple of minutes to find them, but they were on the other side of countless people and 3 fences, and literally boarding a bus right then! ARGH! I started yelling their names, but they couldn’t hear me. The lovely lady helping me showed me a short cut, where there was a gate through the fence and I thanked her and ran. I got within a few metres of them, but there was another fence! I yelled and they heard me, and we gave each other this look that basically said “this place is mental, I don’t know what’s going on, and I doubt you’re going to get on this bus!” when all of a sudden this bus attendance woman opens the fence, moves a desk and waves me through! Wow, lovely! She clearly saw the panic on my face and knew I’d be screwed if I didn’t get to my mates. Thank God – I was on the bus, with my friends, including one who speaks some Chinese. Such a relief!!!! I paid twice as much as I needed to for the bus (still only £2) because they wouldn’t give change, but at this point I really didn’t care.
I think it was about an hour, maybe two on this bus before we got to the stop we were going to. Beware – know what stop you’re going to and stick with it! People will try to convince you it’s better to get off earlier, but it’s a scam so they can charge you whatever they like to drive you instead. From there we got a private minibus to the Great Wall for Y20 each (£2), after our friend who speaks Chinese had a several minute heated conversation with the drivers.
Now, there are many places you can see the Great Wall of China, some very touristy and some less so, and some completely wild. We’d planned on a less touristy area, but ended up somewhere else – we were a bit disappointed as this place was meant to be more touristy, however we ended up really enjoying it – yes, there were a lot of people, but not a crowd at all and I have several photos of the wall without tourists. We had lunch at one of the restaurants at the bottom – beef noodles for Y20 each (bargained down from Y30 – no price in China is set!) before starting the walk.
We could have got a bus and cable car to the top, but we decided to walk. It was about 30 minutes to walk along the road up the hill to the entrance and the foot of the cable car. We then bought our entry tickets and started the steep hike up the mountain. It was beautiful, but with the hear, humidity and smog it was hard work and we all tired a lot easier than we normally would. It was exciting to see the Great Wall getting closer and closer, and eventually we were there! OMG, we’re really here, at the Great Wall of China! Often I feel a bit let down by major, famous tourist attractions as I’ve built them up in my mind over the years and have such high expectations, and these expectations tend to be deflated on arrival. This was not so much the case with the Great Wall – it was pretty much as I expected – amazing! It just goes on and on for as far as you can see, over some amazing mountainous scenery with thick forest. Note that the Great Wall is not just one wall, it’s many walls across thousands of kilometres of northern China.
We spent some time walking along the wall, and it was amazing yet exhausting. It is still very steep even when you’re on the top of the wall and it’s very much a hike rather than an enjoyable walk – especially as it’s still hot, humid and smoggy (did I mention the heat and smog yet??). We walked a fair way, and usually we probably would have liked to walk further but we were exhausted, out of water and sweating more than we ever had in our lives (the Irish guys looked like somebody had thrown a bucket of water over them. Hilarious!). We decided to walk back to where we’d got onto the Wall and get the toboggan (yes, toboggan) back down.
For the walk back, the 2 Irish guys took their shirts off – wow, did this draw some attention! Already we were constantly being stared at by local people (especially the really white red haired guy!) and now they were showing off their white torsos as well – people were trying to sneakily take photos, children stopped and pointed, people stared. It was brilliant! Oh, and they were not the only ones with no shirts on, a fair few local guys did too – so it wasn’t just that they were half naked on the Great Wall of China.
The toboggan down was very expensive at Y80 (£8), but so much fun! We were all really glad we did it. We then started walking back down the road to the main entry, when a driver stopped to offer to drive us – after some more heating conversations in Chinese (omg she was so useful! As well as good fun to be around) we agreed on a price to drive us all the way back to the bus stop – same price as it was on the way here, even though it’s a few minutes further. The bus back to Beijing was so full that Tom and I didn’t get a seat, so we were sitting on the steps on the exit door which was not very comfortable, and we had to get up every time somebody wanted to get off the bus – but it was all good fun, a nice Asian experience for us.
That night we decided we’d check out Beijing’s clubbing scene – after going back to my hostel for a shower and rest for a couple of hours, I met the others at their hostel for dinner and drinks. About midnight we got a taxi to a nightclub called “Babyface” and it was pretty incredible! Drinks were way more expensive than in a normal bar, but there was no entry fee, and it was still much cheaper than at home so I wasn’t too worried. The club was huge, had great music and lighting, with people dancing on small stages all around the place. We were like celebrities – this group of foreigners in the club – and people kept coming up to join us, give us drinks, dance with us and stuff. It was pretty surreal!
At about 4amish I think, Jane and I decided it was time to go home to sleep but the others all wanted to stay. It took a fair while to find a taxi to take us, and for a reasonable price but eventually we got one – I’m sure we still paid way too much, but by this time we just wanted to be home. None of us were very well the next day, and I didn’t leave my hostel until about 4pm.
I had to work out what the deal was with my train tickets, and collect them from the train station. They’d all been booked in advance by awesome online agency China DIY Travel – I highly recommend them! Most of the other people I’ve met are booking their tickets as they get here, but are struggling to get the tickets they want for the day they want as everything is booked out. I don’t really fancy a 20 hour ride on a Chinese hard seat train – I’m quite happy with my soft sleeper (and in this case deluxe soft sleeper!). Unlike other online agencies, they don’t charge crazily high amounts of commission – just $10 per ticket. You can reserve it with them as far in advance as you like, and they book them as the tickets become available (about 3 weeks prior to the journey) they then email you the online booking confirmation, as well as all sorts of helpful information such as useful phrases written in Chinese (like “please take me to Xi’an Railway Station” and “I’m here to collect my online ticket for….”).
Anyway, it was fairly simple to get to the train station and collect my tickets, so I then went to have a wander around Beijing for a couple of hours and see some cool local side streets with traditional houses and small markets. It was very enjoyable, but I was still tired and a bit hungover so about 8pm went back to my hostel for a nice burger and chips before an early night.
My last full day in Beijing saw us visit the Summer Palace and Forbidden City. Both involved a lot of steep walking in the heat, but was totally worth it. If I had more time and was by myself I probably would have stayed at the Forbidden City longer, reading the information and properly learning about it – but we pretty much had a lazy walk through, see it, take photos, read some of the information, sit in the shade for a while and do some more.
On the last day, I just had breakfast in the hostel, checked out and went to Beijing West Railway station for my fast train to Xi’An. It took about 4.5 hours to get to Xi’An and we went 300km/h nearly the whole way, with just 1 stop along the way. The smog did not stop the whole way, which I thought was pretty incredible! There was some pretty dramatic scenery along the way, mountains and valleys with heaps of caves in the sides of them. The photos didn’t work out so well due to the smog, dirty windows and the fact I was travelling at 300km/h.
Arriving at my hostel in Xi’An – Green Forest Hostel, I checked in, had dinner and a couple of beers before having a fairly early night ready to explore the new city the next day.
Remember, you can see all of my travel photos at: