It is impossible to describe a country of 1.35 billion people, 56 ethnic groups, 292 languages and landscapes varying from jungles to deserts. Entering China 3 weeks ago, we didn’t know what to expect or if we’d even like it. We don’t like it, we love it! Although we would advise people not to go to China in summer as it is stinking hot (sweating 24/7). So we’ll try and give you a flavour of China in this post, describing some of the best (food, friendly people) and worst things (spitting, pushing and no queues) we have seen in the past weeks.
Our last day on the Trans-Mongolian Express :'(. We woke up in China (having fallen asleep in Mongolia) and looked out the window to be greeted by gorgeous mountain ranges. After arriving in Beijing around 11 am, we got some money out and checked our luggage at the train station. We then walked to Tienanmen Square, through back streets (On the way David grabbed a chicken and seaweed hamburger, which was super delicious)
Tiananmen square. You have to go though a security check (like everywhere in China) to get in, but it is pretty half assed (like everywhere in China). The words “very big” don’t quite do it justice. It is not hard to believe that up to 1,000,000 people would fit here during the communist rallies. There was perhaps 5,000 – 10,000 people in the square, didn’t feel even slightly crowded.
After the scorching sun and oppressive humidity of the square, we sought refuge in the National Museum of China, right beside it. It has an amazing collection of art (read: propaganda), is free and even more importantly has air-con and wifi.
After checking out the collection of hilariously shaped ancient Chinese coins, we headed to our couch surfing host Bruce. He is a very outgoing guy and does anything to help you. He shared his apartment with two roommates Maria (from Argentina) and Menka (from Canada). After a quick shower, we went for dinner to a little restaurant nearby and had our first Chinese meal. After 2 weeks in Mongolia, dirt with pepper in it would have tasted full of flavour, so we may be biased when we said it was: AMAZING! Tasty, very quick and super cheap (like everywhere in China). After dinner we went out and Bruce got us on the entry list for a pretty upmarket club. Full of models (David didn’t notice, Tamar had to tell David, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to see them), tables of Chinese people drinking high class whiskey and a mix of trendy Chinese and foreigners (expats is a bit of a dated term, don’t you think?). Pretty good fun 🙂
The next day we went to the Summer Palace and spent 5 hrs wandering, getting a little lost and rather enjoying ourselves. It is place that requires a huge amount of time to investigate, as it is so large. We will let the following pictures illustrate some of what we saw:
Afterwards we went out for dinner with Bruce and his roomies, plus some extra friends at Grandma’s Kitchen, a well-known Chinese food chain that serves yummy food cheaply and quickly. We ate to bursting, with a huge glass of lemonade to wash it down with.
The next day we went out and wandered some hutongs, then went out for date night. We decided that every so often we would dress up and have a special evening together, as we spend every day together during this trip. We don’t want our relationship to get stuck in a rut (sleur in Dutch). So what else could you possible have on a date night in Beijing, other than Peking Duck? Well, ours was amazing, we even ordered some scallops to go along with it. Decedent deliciousness.
On our second last day in Beijing we got up very early, in a bid to go and see the Great Wall of China. We arrived to the train station 30min early, only to find out that the 08:00 train didn’t exist and the 09:00 train doesn’t run on Mondays and the next train would leave at 11:00. We would see that Great Wall, but only from the train, as we left Beijing the next day. Here is the shot, not quite as nice as seeing it yourself, you’ll agree. Ah well…
So, instead of waiting for 3 hours we changed plans and decided to go to the Forbidden City. It was pretty cool, but we both agree that would have liked more information signposted about all the intrigue and goings-ons (this emperor had 1000’s of concubines). We did learn that only 50% of men survived the operation to become a eunuch. David says he knows which 50% he’d rather be.
In any case, we finished wandering and found the Wangfujing Night Market, which offers a huge variety of exotic snacks, David fulfilling a life long wish to eat a scorpion. Crunchy (no, it doesn’t taste like chicken) and spicy, not too bad at all.
The next day, we got to the train station 1hr early, grabbed a yummy street food snack and entered the building, ready and on time. Only to be greeted with a 2hr delay. After getting up at 4am, no coffee to be found and having to wait in an overcrowded waiting room, we were not too chirpy. After our rather uneventful train ride to Datong (excepting seeing the Chinese grandma opposite us cough and cough and then just spit the resultant goo on the floor, about 20cm from our feet. Charming), we got to our awesome hostel (we needed some time in a room of our own after camping, train and couchsurfing in the last 3 weeks) and then went for dinner. BBQ sticks a-plenty with a couple of cold beers to wash it down with. This is traveling 😉
The next day we sorted out the rest of the train journeys within China as it was raining. It was the end of the ticket seller’s shift, which should have sent some alarm bells ringing. She opened up our passports and entered the information in, but used Tamar’s Indian visa application page instead of her real information. So, Tamar travels the rest of the time in China under the name “Tourist”.
Unwilling to correct her mistake, even after it was pointed out to her, she simply finished and walked away. 5 star customer service here in China ;-). It actually doesn’t matter, but it is an example of the breathtaking stupidity and bureaucracy here. After this delightful experience, we boarded the bus to the Yúngāng Grottoes. There are 1000s (51,000 according to the tourist information) of Buddhas carved into the little caves, some small, some huge. Worth a visit, as they are indeed impressive.
Next day we went early to the Hanging Monastery, which was pretty beautiful. Due to the expensive entry cost (€22,- pp), we didn’t go in, preferring to admire it from a distance (often entry to such places, we have found, is not worth the steep entry cost).
As we had the whole morning left, we walked the 1km back down the mountain, to the incredulous disbelief of 6 taxi drivers, who attempted to prevent this ‘exercise madness’. What is next, people thinking for themselves? Madness, madness I tell you! We walked around a little village and enjoyed seeing the local people just doing their thing.
That evening we got our overnight sleeper train to Xian. We are now using hard sleeper (this doesn’t mean that the bed is hard, just means no private room. Each section, which is open to the corridor, has 6 beds and there 22 sections to a carriage. And there are about 20 carriages to a train. Surprisingly, doesn’t feel too crowded.). The staff are quite determined to sell junk to you (they come past about every 15min, for 16hrs a day, selling all kinds of toys, noisy things and food), but the train quite clean and air conditioned. However, unlike the Trans-Mongolian express, people are very possessive of their bunk. This means that if you don’t have the bottom bunk you have to lie down on your own bed the whole time, as there are only two seats in the hallway for every six beds (and sometimes even one). Very different from taking a sleeper train in India or the Trans-
We arrived at 9am the next day to our hotel in Xian, keen for some real relaxation and sleeping in, as we would stay for 3 nights. Not much sleep much in the 3-4 weeks before, so a couple of rest days were more than overdue. We walked to the Muslim quarter and grabbed a local specialty for lunch, Biang Bian Mian, which is ‘pulled noodles’ with meat and vegetables. Very delicious. Afterwards, we checked out Xian’s famous drum and bell towers.
The next two days we spent just making brief excursions into the city to eat, looking at attractions from just beyond the ticket booth (and getting chased away by security), relaxing in our air conditioned hotel room, enjoying each others company, watching series (currently addicted to series ‘The Walking Dead’) and reading.
Our last night in Xian we went out for dinner in the Muslim quarter again, a street with many different dishes and much life and character. Here are some of the awesome food sights to behold on this street:
We left with our bikes just as the rain began and it just got harder and harder and harder. The thunder rumbled, lightning flashed and the heavens opened. We walked into our hotel completely wet, dripping from head to toe. It was a memorable experience, to say the least ;-).
So, off to see the famous Terracotta Warriors. We met a well traveled Canadian called David, as we searched for our bus and spent the day swapping travel stories. It is always so nice to meet people on your travels that you just click with straight away and we enjoyed chatting with him the whole day. But back to the Terracotta Warriors. We arrived, bought our ticket and wandered into the museum, near the entrance. It was a horrific experience. 1000s of Chinese people crammed in a small space, selfie sticks swinging through the air like swords on a battle field, the screams of hungry children piecing the air like a stuck pig, the click click click click click of obsessive photo taking and the ever present crush of sweating humanity. It was, in a word: hellish.
Thankfully, we were spared a further decent into madness as we entered Pit 1. This is what we had been waiting for and it really delivered the terracotta goodness we had read so much about (read: scanned Wikipedia the night before). 100s of well restored warriors and horses greeted us. All in their original positions. It was a pretty awe inspiring sight, worth having the sweat of a hundred different people rubbed on your shirt from pressing through frenetic crowds.
We then went to check out the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (the guy the terracotta warriors were made for), got lost, found the Mausoleum by taking an illegal route through the woods, to find the mausoleum. It was super underwhelming, just a big mound of earth, about 50m high. Time to get back, to catch our train. Ah, the naive dreams we had of showers and food. Convinced that we would be on time, we got on our bus and headed back to Xian. About 5min later the sky broke in half and we were inundated with a biblical style flooding, as you can see below:
Our bus driver gave absolutely not one single fuck, and simply drove on the wrong side of the road in the bicycle lane to avoid cars who were all scared about the 1m deep flood waters (babies). Giving less than zero fucks, he navigated up onto the highway, briefly going the wrong way up an on-ramp on a four-lane highway and turning across all the traffic. Champion driving, Chinese style.
We got back, running to rickshaws, grabbing our gear from the hotel, another rickshaw, sprinting to the train station, desperately trying to find the entrance, 1000s of people seemed to be milling around. Everyone was pushing, shouting and trying to get into the train station to catch their train. If you have ever seen a movie where people are trying desperate to exit the country, due to zombies/plague, you’ll know what sort of crush we were up against. After seeing 1000s of people exiting the entrance hall of the train station, we knew something was up. Terrorist attack? Train crash? The reason we couldn’t get into the station, was that ALL trains were canceled and had been so from at least 5pm, due to the afore mentioned torrential rain. Xian is home to one of the most visited tourist sites in all of China (2,000,000 visitors a year at the Terracotta Warriors) and has a population of 8,500,000. There must have been at least 10,000 angry and confused Chinese people. At one moment we thought the mob might turn ugly. And there you are, 20:00, your train is not running, you don’t peak or read Chinese and you don’t have place to stay anymore in the city…
Eventually, we met some people who would turn out to be our saviors. They were Pakistani students, who had just finished 4 years of studying in Xian. One of the Pakistani students helped us find a hotel some distance away (as all ones near were already fully booked). The hotel agreed to let us stay illegally (not in so many words, but they didn’t take any ID from us, so, you know…) as not all the hotels in China are allowed to take foreigners. The room smelled, it had this view from a nearby balcony:
We loved it, as we could sleep a few hours, before going back to this scene:
to get our train ticket refunded. Turns out, all the trains to Shanghai for the next 5 days were fully booked. No trains, time for sleeper bus. With the help of an awesome bus driver (who lead us through the staff entrance of the bus hall and nonchalantly jumped to the front of the queue to buy tickets for us) we booked a sleeper bus for the next day (by the way, queue jumping in front of people is a very normal thing to do for Chinese people. You push and squeeze your way in and if you don’t do it, you will get nowhere). We quickly went back to our hotel to use the wifi and find another hotel before check-out time. So we changed hotels and ended up a nice residential area.
As we were already 5 days in Xian, we didn’t do much until we left at midday the following day. The sleeper bus seemed clean (no shoes allowed inside) and the beds comfy. Not quite the Knight Bus, as David had wistfully imagined, but ok. We had the back bunks, which thankfully kept us far away from the venomous harridan bus conductor at the front.
This journey was our least comfortable so far. Tamar was sitting next to the engine, thus the bed was super warm along with hot air from the engine flowing directly onto her. David also couldn’t get enough sleep that night (bed was too small), so we were both very tired when we arrived around 2 pm in Shanghai. We had planned three days for Shanghai, but due to the cancelation from the train in Xian and the bus arriving at 2pm instead of 7am (as we had thought), we ended up with less than 24hrs. However, the view from our Airbnb apartment was awesome and it recharged us (somewhat at least).
After a much needed shower, we jumped into the metro to The Bund. It is a very interesting stretch along the river, mixed with buildings such as the old Customs House and 500m high skyscrapers.
There we took some photo’s and continued our journey to the old city. This is comprised of some nice tiny streets, like Beijing hutongs. David bought some yummy food and we had a foot massage. And that was Shanghai for us. We really liked it the vibe of the city. Hopefully we get back there in the future.
The train journey to Shenzhen went smoothly and we had the bottom bunks, so a more comfortable journey. From Shenzhen you walk over the border into Hong Kong (HK) and then you take the metro. Our couchsurfing hosts (Ken and Minnie) lived on the south side of Hong Kong Island, so we needed to also get a bus there. But before of all this, we had a ferry to catch to Tung Lung Island, as David had a highline meeting to attend! He had been touch with some guys living in China for months, trying to arrange a highline in China and luckily the dates worked out very well. So we stored our luggage at a metro station, had a quick brekky (actually one of our worst in China) and caught the 10:30 ferry. At the island Will was waiting for us and together with Maxim (a French highliner), we walked to the highline spot, meeting Daniel and the rest of the highliners. The highline community is incredibly warm and welcoming, we both felt straight away like old friends. It is a lot like couchsurfing in that regard.
We caught the ferry back and made our way to our couch surfing hosts, Ken and Minnie. One thing we noticed right away was that people in HK stand in very neat queues. Such a big difference to the jostling and madness of mainland China. That evening we had a great discussion with our hosts about world problems and China (somehow linked…), which was great, as politics is really not discussed on the Chinese mainland. The following day Ken had competitions with his Dragon boat team at the harbour in Aberdeen.
The rest of the day we discovered HK by foot, metro and ferry and met up with Ken at the Symphony of Lights. It is big light show between the (close) islands, but it didn’t show its full beauty because of clouds and rain and very annoying accompanying music. We went out for dinner and Ken brought us to a nice please for a yummy dessert (durian fruit ice flakes for David).
Unfortunately the next day it kept raining. Ever since we have been travelling we have rain at least one day in every city we stay at. We are getting hunted, lol. So we had a delicious breakfast at the local dimsum restaurant in Aberdeen (The restaurant is always packed in the morning with people over 65 years old) and went to the library afterwards to arrange some things online (email, whatsapp, hostels and couchsurf places etc). We were by the way so happy to have full access to Facebook, google and gmail again in HK. When you can’t go to these sites, you find out how much you normally use them. Anyway, we did our thing in the library and went afterwards into the city centre to buy a new e-reader for David (as he had broken his old one by accident). And we went to a park called Tamar Park (incl a Tamar cafe, amphitheater etc.). We met Ken at 7 pm at home to go to his grandmother for dinner. We had a lovely dinner with her and his uncle and aunt.
Afterwards Ken took us on a stroll along the river (with hills full of statues) and ended up at a small secret beach with a waterfall.
Train to Kashgar
The next day we were already leaving and it was still raining in the morning, so we repeated the day before in the morning, dimsum and library. After lunch and packing we went to Shenzhen again to catch the train to Wuhan. We arrived early in the morning to Wuhan after a night in a very small freezer (the top bunk in a new K class train with freezing cold AC blasting into us). We stored our luggage at the station and wandered into town. Having a look at the river and Mao’s old home. Meh.
At 16:56 our next train (journey of 40 hours) left, so we bought a nice meal to go. Four hours later the owners of the bottom bunks arrived (father and two kids) and we had to move to our middle beds for the rest of the long journey. Which was fine as we slept, read, ate, watched some series and wrote our China blog.
After 40 hours we arrived in Urumqi. We stored our luggage and walked into the city center entering an amusement park for free and walked up the hill to see the pagoda with a nice view over the city. Back at the train station we bought some food for dinner, had a great late lunch at a Muslim restaurant. In Urumqi you have the Han Chinese, but you also have the Uyghur ethnic group. They are Muslims and look different from Chinese, they look more like a mix of people from Turkey and the Stans. With 40 minutes left we picked up our luggage and tried to get into the train station. I mean, it is right there in front of us, should be fine, right? Oh shit, those are some long lines… We fought our way in front (Chinese style) and then we got picked out by security. (Security in Urumgi and Kashgar is very very serious and ubiquitous. Military with guns at every corner, bayonets already on). David had to open his backpack and they took his pocket knife out. There went our belief that as westerosies (demonym for people from Westeros. We call ourselves westerosies, instead of westerners. Yes, we are developing our own ‘in’ terms) we are untouchable ;-). The clock was ticking and after telling security that we didn’t have time for this shit (in nearly as many words) as our train was about to leave, they let us go. Running up the escalators, down the stairs and run into the train. Another train that we just made in time. The last train in China brought us to Kashgar. We had the bottom beds and a 4 person carriage, such a luxury. Such luxury in fact, that everyone had gotten off the train in Kashgar, before we realized that we had arrived at the right stop!
Nobody speaks Mandarin here and we don’t have the local language on our google translate app, so getting a cab was tricky. We went to the international bus station first to get some bus tickets to Osh for Monday. The bus station was closed up, permanently. We couldn’t get another taxi (no one could understand us, or even figure out that the GPS on my phone was showing them exactly where to go), so we walked 1.5 km to our hostel (in 45 degrees), which was a bit more hidden that we anticipated. Checked in, we had the reception write down that we wanted two tickets for Monday to Osh, and jumped on a city bus back to the train station because the new international bus station was just across the road from there. Yes, it is an international bus station, but to different places. We needed a different international bus station. FML. Luckily, helpful staff gave us the right directions and buses to catch to get to the right bus station, 15km away. When we arrived, the counter for tickets to Osh was closed and they told us to come back tomorrow from 10:00. Damn it! In the meantime we wandered the streets of Osh and really liked the relaxed athmosphere and talking with other travelers at our hostel.
In the end, we got the bustickets and right now getting onto the sleeper bus. In a couple of days we’ll start our 35 day overland tour through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. We cannot wait for this new adventure to begin!