Pictures from our slightly-chaotic first experience of a Chinese sleeper train. The original post is here.
Tag Archives: Xi’an
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.
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.
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.
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.