Pictures from our slightly-chaotic first experience of a Chinese sleeper train. The original post is here.
Category Archives: China
Lama Temple (photos)
Photos from the Lama Temple. Original blog post here.
Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City (photos)
I thought it was about time that I uploaded some photos from the days where we were in a hotel with a slow Internet connection and just wanted to get something uploaded.
Here’s the first set, from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (as if you couldn’t guess from the title…); the original post is here.
Almost completely by accident, the day after we got back from China, we found this series on BBC iPlayer: Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, with Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang.
The first episode features, amongst other things, the interesting snacks available at Donghuamen Night Market, as mentioned in an earlier post. It’s also given us a couple of ideas of places to look for when we’re back in Beijing (and that’s definitely ‘when’, not ‘if’).
I’m definitely hoping to improve my Mandarin before we go back; I think it’ll make it much easier to escape from the places that cater to tourists, and experience more of the authentic cuisine.
Shop ’til you Drop
Today was shopping day. Whoopee.
We’d done the “handbag” thing yesterday, but that was fairly painless as Clare already knew where to go, who to see, and the secret handshakes to gain access to the inner sanctums of handbag heaven. She had a shopping list, and the prices weren’t negotiable.
Today was very different: heading to the Silk Market to buy treats for ourselves and for others. The shops are notionally grouped by category per floor, but most of them have so much stuff in that you can’t see the tat for the… other tat, frankly. And as for the prices… oh, dear.
First task was a set of prescription sunglasses for Clare. This wasn’t too painful, once she’d decided on the style, and a mutually-agreeable price was arrived at fairly painlessly, followed by a rudimentary eye test. I had a look at some O*kley sports glasses, but decided to leave them until later when we had to come back for Clare’s glasses. We had a look at the same style of O*kleys in another shop on the same floor (after buying some R*y-bans for our nieces), and without any serious negotiation got a price of ¥80 as we were walking away, which at least gave us a target for later.
Then came one of our many, many visits to the main “toys and tat” stall, where we found almost exactly what we wanted for somebody, but not in the right colour, and that was all they had. Damn.
Then downstairs, for the first circuit of the clothes floors: if I’d worn a suit more than about once in the last year,I’d have got myself one made-to-measure, but there doesn’t seem to be much point.
We had a look at some shirts, found nothing promising, but did find some linen trousers for me… although I don’t think the brand in question ever made linen trousers, but what the hell. Given my almost comically large legs, we thought it was best if I tried them on; the changing room was the corner of the stall, with the shop proprietor respectfully turning her back and staff on the other stalls trying to avert their eyes and giggling amongst themselves. Takes more than that to embarrass me, though! Yet again, another painful negotiation starting from a clearly-ridiculous price, eventually arriving at something not-too-bad, but still probably paying over the odds.
By then it was about time for lunch, so we went to the newly-opened food court upstairs, and decided that xiabu xiabu looked quite promising.
This is a fast-food style hotpot restaurant, where each diner gets their own hotpot, and obviously their own choice of soup base and main ingredients. We were here for over an hour, and didn’t manage to get through all of our food; even I was absolutely stuffed, and still had noodles and vegetables that I hadn’t cooked. All for the very reasonable price of ¥84, including a bucket of Coke and a large glass of beer! *burp*
Back then to the “opticians” to pick up Clare’s sunglasses. The prescription didn’t turn out to be quite as accurate as hoped, but once she’d given her eyes a chance to recover from wearing contact lenses then it seemed like it’d be good enough for the occasional use that they’ll get. We had a try at negotiating for the O*kleys starting from the price we’d been offered elsewhere, but the lady wasn’t biting, making claims of better quality (justified), and being less than her cost price (absolute rubbish). By this time I’d got bored of the whole thing, and noticed that the colour on a couple of components didn’t match, so we walked away from that one.
Time for another attempt on the toys and tat stall, where they magically found some different colours of what we’d been looking for earlier. This time round the price negotiations where truly painful, with us walking away several times and getting called back through different entrances to the store. Eventually a “best price” was agreed upon, less than 10% of the originally-offered “not normal price, special price for you lady”.
Another crack at the clothes floor to find some polo shirts for work. We found some “P*ul Smith” ones that looked fairly good quality, and agreed a price… then once the girl had gone to find the right sizes some of them came back as “Pola Smith”, clearly not the same designer at all!
We thought it was worth a look for some Vibram FiveFingers style shoes; it was worth a go at a vastly-reduced price, just to have a try of them. We tried one stall, but misjudged the size, and by the time we’d done some initial bartering decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The next place we tried, we managed to find some the right size, but while one shoes looked fairly “new”, the other looked like it had been tried on by every Tom, Dick and Harry, so we didn’t finish our negotiations here. Then we found another stall that had something that looked very much the same as FiveFingers, but with different branding. We fairly quickly negotiated an agreeable price, and they went and found a pair in the right size… and turned up with exactly the ones that I’d tried on earlier. Enough of that lark, I think.
That was all we could take of haggling, so we went over to the Wangfujing area where we’d been the previous night, as we thought there was a supermarket in the basement of the shopping centre there, where we could pick up some interesting snacks to bring home. No sign of the supermarket (it seems to have closed since the Lonely Planet guide was written), but we did have another wander around the tat stalls in the area and found a lucky cat for my desk at work!
We also noticed some other foodstuffs that we hadn’t seen the night before: flying lizards (not flying any more), normal lizards, and rows and rows of deep-fried chicks (species indeterminate). Unfortunately I was still feeling full after my hotpot lunch, so didn’t bother sampling any of these delicacies. Shame.
After a fruitless attempt to get a taxi back to the hotel, we decided to wing it and get the Metro to where we thought there was a Wal-Mart to do our snack shopping. By this time it was rush-hour, and the Metro was heaving, packed enough that there were people employed at one of the stations to make sure not too many people got on that the doors wouldn’t close.
As soon as we managed to escape from the Metro system, we could see the Wal-Mart on the other side of the road: success! This clearly wasn’t a tourist area though, and we got a lot of glances, with varying degrees of discreetness. One place we passed was obviously the local scooter dealers, with fresh-from-the-crate scooters stood on their wheel-less forks on the pavement.
Wal-Mart was quite amusing. We didn’t know what to expect: I think the last one I’d been in was in Florida, where you could buy yourself a pump-action shotgun while doing your weekly shop. This one wasn’t quite so strange, but it certainly had plenty of strange stuff for sale. The fresh “fish” section was quite amusing: the usual selection of live and dead fish, turtles, seafood, etc., and a special section that at first looked like a selection of cigars, but turned out to be some particularly fine sea cucumbers (probably more expensive than cigars).
Some bizarre transaction went on with our foreign currency card at the checkout, with Clare getting dragged off somewhere else to pay; I suspect only one till could use MasterCard, or something. Very odd.
By this time it was dark outside, but the traffic was freer moving, so we tried to hail a taxi again, along with a few locals. The first one that we got had a look at the hotel’s card for a bit, then obviously decided he wasn’t sure where it was, or didn’t want to go that way, so we had to get out. The next taxi seemed to slow down enough to identify that we were Westerners, then sped off again. Third time lucky: there was much examination of the card, and some pointing on our behalf to indicated the general direction of the hotel, but finally we were off. Another examination of the card whilst waiting at the next junction, and a confirmation of the turn to make (“Wǒmen zhīdào”), things were looking very promising. When we finally got to the hotel junction, Clare dredged up an unexpected string of Chinese (“Fàndiàn zài nà!”), and we stopped in exactly the right place! We even gave the driver a rare tip, and hope that gives a little help to the next groups of Westerners desperately trying to hail a taxi in Beijing.
An Evening of Eating Dangerously
I know there’s a few days of stuff that we haven’t mentioned yet, but we thought it was worth writing up this evening while it was still fresh in our minds.
Having arrived back in Beijing after our “7 beds in 7 nights” tour of a small part of China, and quickly getting the compulsory handbag shopping out of the way, it was decided that for this evening’s dining it was about time I got to experience the culinary delights of Donghuamen Night Market.
This is obviously set up for the tourists, Chinese as well as Westerners. Some of the snacks are pretty standard fare, and we took advantage of these to line our stomachs to start with: something burger-like, made with chopped-up cooked pork, fresh chilli and coriander, which was really quite nice; and some fried dumplings, not the best we’ve had but still quite palatable. We thought we’d seen something that looked like a cheesy chip butty, but it turned out to be something like two fried eggs with chips squashed in the middle, so we gave that a miss.
Then we could put it off no longer: it was time to sample the more esoteric offerings. The big scorpions were quite expensive at ¥50 (£5) each, so we went for two small ones on a stick for ¥15. As Clare had tried these before, it fell to me to have the first one. Not too bad, actually: a bit like a small shrimp, deep-fried in its shell. Not very meaty at all. Clare had the second one, barely turning her nose up at all.
The first hurdle having been crossed, it was time to raise the stakes a bit: crickets. Not just a little cricket, but decent sized ones that looked like they might have a bit of meat on them. Not too expensive either, at ¥20 for two. I decided that the legs weren’t worth the bother of nibbling separately, so just put the whole lot in my mouth in one go and crunched it. Quite meaty in the middle.
Clare had to brace herself to eat her cricket; I think she’d spent too long looking at it and watching me eat it, rather than just getting it over and done with. Probably didn’t help that it was the one from the middle of the stick, not so easy to just stick it in your mouth and chew!
We decided that was enough dodgy food: the starfish didn’t look that appetising, I’d been warned that the snake was just chewy and unpleasant, and the silkworm pupae seemed like the casing might be a bit too crunchy. Besides which, the lights had been turned off on all the stalls, so it was obviously packing-up time. We grabbed a quick large stuffed pancake just to make sure we weren’t hungry, then headed off round the corner on to Wangfujing Street.
This is lined with expensive designer shops (most of which I’ve never heard of), and leads off to Wangfujing Snack Street on one side, through a traditional Chinese gate, as if we haven’t seen enough of those this week. (What you can’t see in the picture is the woman who’s trying to get me to give her money because she’s got a baby.) This area has a mixture of tat stalls and food stalls, selling much the same assortment as the night market, but with still-wriggling scorpions (before they go in the deep fryer, anyway), and something else: seahorses. I really didn’t fancy trying them, not just because I thought they’d be all crunch and no meat, but mainly because I didn’t think it was the sort of thing that should be encouraged.
We had a token browse around the tat stalls, and discovered that Chinese hats don’t fit my very Western head, lucky cats aren’t as cheap as we hoped they might be, and no, we still don’t want to buy any more chopsticks!
Bright Lights, Big City
After recuperating back in our hotel for a few hours, we worked up the energy to head out for the evening about 9 o’clock. Apparently the “place to go” in the evening in Xi’an is the Moslem quarter, founded by Arab traders over 2000 years ago.
To start with, we just wandered around the small alleys enjoying the sights and soaking up the smells, but very quickly found that the food was just too tempting. First we tried something that were like fried spring rolls, and just ate them walking down the street. This gave us sufficient sustenance to cope with walking around a little more, until we decided that we really needed to eat something more substantial.
We picked one of the many meat-on-stick places, somewhere that looked reasonably clean, and through the usual combination of our poor Chinese, the staff’s broken English, and a bit of pointing, managed to order some meat and a couple of beers. We soon realised that we hadn’t ordered enough meat, so got another round of sticks, and a type of flat bread (paid for separately), which the waitress sliced up for us… and when I say “sliced”, I mean put on a chopping board and hacked apart with a cleaver!
We also got some free entertainment while we were eating: a guy walked into the restaurant with an ehru (sounds like the beginning of a bad Chinese joke), and went round the tables asking if anybody wanted him to play for them. A group of show-off Chinese businessmen types engaged his services, and after going through a few typical Chinese pieces, he launched into Auld Lang Syne, which seems to be very popular over here!
After leaving the “restaurant” and walking around a bit more, we headed to a likely place to find a taxi about 11 o’clock, as more and more traders started setting up their stalls: the night was clearly still young! As well as the usual stalls selling tat, and the people flying huge strings of small kites, we saw something that we’d never seen before: tricycle-mounted telescopes! They were pretty big ones too, something like 15″ reflectors, although I don’t think they’d be able to see much as it was fairly overcast that evening.
Terracota Warriors and other stories
After a quick shower and rather strange breakfast in our Xi’an hotel, we were taken by our guide (Nigh – pronounced “nee”, as in “I’ve got nee money left to buy any more tatt”) and driver (Mr Hoo) to see the terracotta warriors. This has been something of an ambition of mine to see, so after the long journey to get there, I was getting really quite excited. However, as I’ve come to expect, there was more important business to attend to first: a trip to the ‘official’ ‘fake’ terracotta warriors factory.
This is apparently the only factory officially licensed to reproduce the statues as souvenirs and also produces reproduction life-size ones for displays, exhibitions, etc. After a 2 minute tour by one of their own ‘artists’, we were taken to the obligatory showroom where he did his best to try to sell us a life-sized warrior, shipped directly to the UK, including all insurances and fees, for approx £2000. Tempting, but we resisted. Instead we settled on two 30cm high statues for a lot less. Suckers, I know.
Then, we went to see the real thing. We arrived in the South Gate car park, where the tickets are purchased. The first thing I noticed was a stall selling fur: row after row of pelts in various colours. Nice. The museum itself however, is inside the North gate, a 10 minute walk away. So, off we went, passing stall after stall of souvenir vendors, selling warriors (I didn’t dare check prices, but at least I knew mine were genuine fakes), jade and, bizarrely, the occasional German Shepherd dog statue. Strange.
Eventually, we reached the North Gate. WOW. There are three pits in all, each within a large building. The first, and probably the most well known, is like being inside an aircraft hangar, with rows and rows of these amazing soldiers in formation. We stood and stared for ages, it is utterly mesmerising. Towards the rear of the pit is an area which is still being excavated (all this work takes place during the night), with heads, limbs and armour poking out of piles of earth. There is also a collection of ‘jigsaw’ soldiers, which are being painstakingly pieced together. It must be an archaeologist’s dream job.
Pits 2 and 3 are equally fascinating, if less jaw-dropping. Pit 2 is still largely un-excavated, but with small sections exposed to reveal more of the same piles of broken statues, this time with the odd horse poking out here and there. Pit 3 is much smaller but exposed in amazing detail, showing horses and generals and the original tiled floor on which they were all set out.
We finished with a look around the 4th building, a museum containing other relics found on the site, including bronze horses and chariots, and some of the weapons which the soldiers would have been carrying. Unfortunately due to being made of wood, these have not survived. Our guide, Nigh, was of course very knowledgeable and happy to wait whilst we just stood and stared (and Paul took photo after photo).
After lunch on the way back down to the South Gate, we passed more fur vendors, this time noticing much larger pelts. “Bear” I suggested? Apparently not. Only when I saw the ears and nose did I realise the relevance of the “Sascha” statues. All of a sudden Nigh seemed at a loss for answers to my questions. Perhaps I’m lucky that I’ve now spent so long here and not been challenged by such things, but it was rather an upsetting end to an otherwise amazing day.
Quick Catch-Up 3: Sleeper Train
After some confusion with the hotel bellboy not quite understanding that we wanted two of our bags out of storage, and one of the others out for long enough to swap stuff round, we got ourselves changed into some clean clothes for our train journey. As it turned out, I don’t think we should have bothered.
We got a taxi over to Beijing West Railway Station, and were unceremoniously dropped on the wrong side of the road to it. I don’t think the taxi driver wanted to negotiate the circuitous route in and out; however, I was very impressed by him doing a Rubik’s Cube style puzzle whenever the traffic stopped, so I’ll let him off.
We’d been warned that Beijing West was big, and they were certainly right about that. It’s huge! However, it’s very different to UK railway stations. All tickets are bought in advance, and you have to show your ticket (plus passport for sleepers) to get in to the station. Once inside, it’s more like an airport: there are shops and restaurants, and signs tell you which departure lounge you should wait in for your train.
Because we had soft-sleeper tickets, we could wait in some comfy chairs in a different departure lounge to where we’d otherwise have to wait, once we managed to find some space. We knew that boarding would start about 30 minutes before departure, so about 15 minutes before then we headed to our ‘proper’ departure lounge, to find a massive queue already forming at the ‘gate’. After about 20 minutes or so, we started moving forward as they checked tickets again before letting people on to the platforms. Because of the way this is done, the only people on the platforms are those getting on or getting off trains.
Of course, we ended up on the platform at the wrong end of the train so had to walk most of the length of it, but easily found our carriage and our sleeper berths. Despite it being a 4-bed compartment, we were sharing it with another three: grandad, grandma, and grand-daughter, who was too small to need a bed of her own. They had, however, pinched three of the four sets of slippers before we got there. They seemed to be travelling very light, having just a couple of carriers bags of supplies, and no apparent change of clothes.
There’s not much space for luggage in these compartments, and the holdall we’d decided to take turned out to be just slightly too high to fit under the bottom bunk, which meant Clare had to share the bed with it all night. After scoffing the left-over bread products we’d got from 85C the previous night, we quickly realised that there wasn’t much space to do anything other than lie on the bunks, so we got changed into our pyjamas and settled down with our Kindles.
The granddaughter spent most of the early evening playing with every control she could find on the train, and the grandparents didn’t seem to care what she was doing, which meant we ended up with the “train radio” on full-blast until it thankfully turned off at 10pm. I don’t know if the air-conditioning turned off at that time too, or if granddaughter had turned it off, but the cabin just seemed to get warmer and warmer all night; I don’t know how they thought anybody would need the provided duvets.
We both slept on-and-off, but at least we did sleep. If it hadn’t been so ridiculously warm, it might have been quite pleasant. The train seemed to roll along at 95mph most of the time (according to my GPS), but it seemed to be very smooth compared to UK trains (not that I’ve ever tried a bed on one).
Once it was clear that everybody was awake in the morning, I got up and watched the world go by the train window for an hour. There are fold-down seats in the corridor outside the compartments, as there’s really not enough room for everybody to be in them at once unless everyone’s in bed!
We eventually got to Xi’an about 45 minutes late, and everything seemed very chaotic as soon as we got off the train and headed towards the exit: crowds and crowds of people, and lots of them asking if we needed a taxi, which we wouldn’t have accepted even if we did! Our guide turned out to be quite easy to spot, once we got out of the station (where it was still just as crowded), and he led us off to find out driver who would take us for an early check-in (and late breakfast) at our hotel.
Quick Catch-Up 2: Lama Temple
On Monday morning, we briefly got out of bed at 5:45 to wave goodbye to the rest of the teachers… then we were on our own in China! Of course, the only sensible thing to do at this point was go back to bed…
Later, having got up at a much more reasonable hour and had breakfast, we got a taxi to take us to the CITS (travel agency) offices, so we could pick up our tickets for that evening’s sleeper train to Xi’an. This being a Monday morning, it seemed to take absolutely ages, but we got there without any problems (aside from our first encounter with “professional friendly locals”, who I think try to engage you in conversation then get you to go somewhere for something expensive that you didn’t really want).
Then I got my first experience of the Beijing Metro, as we headed to the Lama Temple. The subway seems perfect: 20p per journey of any distance, clean, regular, punctual, easy to navigate and work out where you are at any stage of the journey. I suppose that’s the advantage of being fairly new, rather than having 100+ years of history to deal with like the London Underground.
The Lama Temple is incredibly tranquil and peaceful inside, despite being at the junction of two inner-city dual carriageways. You pass through a number of different main and side temples, containing different types (manifestations?) of buddhas, each of whom have their own specialities. Outside of each is a place to light incense sticks as an homage to Buddha; you’re not allowed to take pictures or light incense inside them, but you can leave the incense sticks or other offerings instead.
The Buddha statues are in an incredibly variety of shapes, some with many arms, feet, faces and heads, and range in size from roughly person-sized up to the biggest which is some 16m tall (IIRC), carved from a single piece of wood.
After wandering through every bit of the Lama Temple, we made our way back out to the noise and hubbub outside, and took a chance on a restaurant that Clare had spotted on our way in, which turned out to be perfect. Clean and modern inside, friendly service, and not at all expensive despite being in a very touristy area. Probably one to go back to if we’re ever in the same area.
After that, we got the Metro back to the nearest station to the hotel, which is about a twenty minute walk. We did find another area that’s worth exploring if we had more time, as this is full of art shops and music shops, but we just needed to get back to sort ourselves out for the evening train.