Cara & Imouto’s World Adventure! – Part 3 China: Beijing & Xi’an
Okay, god knows how long this post will take – our impression of China was drastically different to Japan, and while it was an irreplaceable experience and I’m glad we went, I can’t profess having any desire to ever visit the country again!
Getting to Beijing for a start was somewhat traumatic. Our flight was rerouted through Shanghai rather than being direct as expected, and we felt rather harried while going through the immigration and transfer procedures, plus Imouto had her carry-on bag broken by the harpies at the security check and we nearly died of shock when exposed to Chinese driving for the first time. Getting to the hotel was such a relief – and yes we had hotels rather than hostels for the duration of our time in China as well as a private guide & driver – I did not trust my ability to navigate round China the same way I did in Japan, and I am so glad I did so because even with an agency organising everything for me I still felt found the trip stressful.
Our first day in Beijing was jam-packed. Our first stop was Tienanmen Square – which isn’t all that remarkable, just a massive square filled with Chinese people trying to flog us stuff or knock us over. The square was decorated with amazing floral displays since it was the start of a national holiday though. Shoving our way through the crowds we made our way to the Forbidden City next. The architecture was really impressive, but it was difficult to really appreciate the place since it was just so crowded and the Chinese just don’t seem to be able to form orderly lines or appreciate other people’s personal space! Still our guide was excellent and told us (well I say us, but Imouto wasn’t really listening so it was mostly me) lots about the palace and the interesting buildings and treasures we were seeing.
After lunch we were taken to the Temple of Heaven. The Temple is a beautiful complex of buildings, and once again our guide was a mine of information, about the purpose of everything on the site. We took a brief stroll through a pretty park, before going to a theatre to see a Kung Fu show. It was amazing! Absolutely astounding how these men can perform such difficult feats and make it look so easy! Afterwards we went to a restaurant for a dinner of Peking duck – the table was filled with enough food to feed four, but Imouto and I put in a brave effort and cleared quite a lot of it.
It was a very early start the following day, but we were soon wide awake when our driver hit the freeway on the way to the Great Wall! Holy crap – there is no way in hell I would ever attempt to drive in China, people are fecking mental with absolutely no regard for road markings, indicators, other cars or their own safety! About 20mins we decided it was way too terrifying to keep our eyes open so attempted to doze off (which was difficult considering how fond the Chinese are of sitting on their horns!).
We did make it to the Great Wall in one piece though – we were taken to a section known as the Mutianyu section, which is a more difficult section to access & climb, but accordingly it is much less busy than the tourist heavy (but easier) Badaling section. We were very lucky to get a spectacular day – beautiful clear blue skies, so we had excellent views of the Wall running along the mountain tops. It really is deserving of its title as a Wonder of the World.
After lunch we went to a cloisonné factory and were given a tour of the workshops and shown how they produce the most beautiful vases, plates and pictures with copper and powdered stone. It was amazing stuff – the factory was quite small and rundown feeling, but the fabulous things they produced was just wonderful. We looked through their shop and showroom, lamenting the fact we couldn’t really buy anything larger than a keyring due to lack of space.
We then headed back into Beijing to go to the Summer Palace……which was heaving with people! I’d imagine the beautiful gardens, covered corridors and pretty peach-shaped lake filled with little boats would be very soothing and enjoyable to stroll around on a quiet day, but that day it was just stressful to have to constantly weave in and out of people, pressed on all sides by ignorant people who refuse to get out of your way. Imouto and I don’t deal with crowds well, so we elected to head back to the hotel early rather than continue further into the gardens – we needed some time to ourselves to de-stress!
Our last day in Beijing was free for ourselves to explore, and it turned out that the Olympic Park & Birds Nest Stadium was within walking distance of our hotel, so we decided to have a wander round there. Have to say we were a touch disappointed by the Birds Nest – it’s nowhere near as nice looking as it appeared on TV, signs of disrepair and lack of cleaning were everywhere, and the middle of the stadium looked like a bit of a dumping ground for old props. The exhibits were few and far between – over all it just felt like a massive waste of potential. Wandering around the grounds we once again found ourselves drawing a lot of random attention from Chinese people, who almost fell over themselves to stop in their tracks to stare at us – we even had some random woman and her child stop me to ask for a photograph! Even though I had been warned this may happen, I still found it fecking weird.
After we popped out for some dinner our guide met us at the hotel and we started heading towards the train station – white-knuckle grip on the door handle for the Beijing traffic once more. The train station was chaos – and we had about 2 hours to wait for the blasted overnight train to Xi’an! Eventually it was time to board the train – now this was an experience. We were in the first carriage so had to walk the entire length of the train, dragging our bags along with us. Once we finally got to our compartment, we discovered that the entire carriage was pretty much completely booked up by a German tour group – all 27 of them, and our room-mates were two nice German men; the younger of which spoke pretty good English.
However the compartment made some of the hostel bathrooms in Japan look generous (speaking of which, let us not speak of the horror of the train bathroom – we dared not brave that disaster area!) We had to do so some artful arranging of our luggage in order to fit into the fecking compartment – we were very lucky that the Germans only had small overnight bags with them! Sleep for me didn’t really happen, and Imouto only managed a handful of hours on and off; reason being that the train driver seemed to have the same obsession with the horn that all Chinese drivers have – which is fecking bizarre since we were on bloody train-tracks with no other traffic to contend with!
We reached Xi’an early the next morning, feeling tired, grumpy and grimy. I really wanted nothing more than a shower & a change of clothes, but it was not to be as our new guide shepparded us into a car and headed straight for the Terracotta Army in a bid to get a jump on the crowds. Well, I would have hated to see the place when the true crowds arrived if this was the case – there were just hordes of people everywhere and there was no one keeping order of things at all! It was difficult to appreciate the history and scale of the place, because we were preoccupied by not getting knocked over or hurt since the swarm of Chinese folks just have absolutely no regard for anything around them. We soon resorted to kicking and elbowing people in a bid to get some breathing room – thank god we’re both fairly tall! It was the same thing in all three pits, and we were slightly disappointed by how the Army was presented – the Chinese don’t seem to have much skill at displaying priceless items of their cultural history, nor are they very good at preserving what they uncover.
After lunch, even though we both said we’d rather take it easy and see one of the city’s pagodas, our guide dragged us off to the nearby city walls and gave us a couple of bikes and told us we had 100mins and that the walls were 14km long……yippee. Now I haven’t been on a bike in a good 15 years, so it was a pretty interesting experience to have to relearn when knackered, not really dressed for the occasion and carting around a really heavy bag. I actually think we both were a little overwhelmed at this point since we broke down into hysterical laughter at one stage before deciding to just head back. Thankfully this time we were taken to our hotel and we basically crashed from exhaustion.
Our final day in Xi’an found us at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which sits in the grounds of a Buddhist temple, quite early in the morning (although the ever present swarm of people was still present). The temple was actually quite chilled but we elected to skip scaling the Pagoda itself when told that the stairwell was very narrow and steep – I didn’t fancy having a panic attack in some random Chinese Pagoda!
The guide then announced we would be going to the museum next, to which we had to ask “the same museum with the horde wrapped round the block twice over that we passed earlier??” Of course it was, so Imouto & I stuck our heels in and said, thanks but no thanks, we don’t want to go through what we did yesterday – neither of us could bare the thought of having to squeeze through bodies all over again. Our guide was a bit put out by our flat refusal to follow the itinerary so we ended up wandering about, watching some dancing fountains (and getting soaked) before eventually heading for lunch – a traditional Xi’an speciality dish in one of their best restaurants we were told. I did like the restaurant, it was the nicest we’ve been in yet in China, but the food was pretty woeful.
First they present you with a bowl with two crumpet type pieces of bread, and we were told to shred these into tiny pieces. We did so – not entirely seeing the point of having the customer create breadcrumbs, but we did it. Then were asked to choose either mutton or beef – we went with beef, and off the waitress went with our bowl of breadcrumbs. After a bit the waitress came back with our bowl, to which a beef broth & rice noodles had been added. After being assured that this combination of shredded bread & beef broth was delicious, Imouto and I tucked in……….and it tasted exactly like a salty beef stock with gloopy bits of bread floating in it – pretty rough. We stuck it out though, managing to finish the majority of the bowl (being hungry helped), but then they came out with bowls of soup…….which turned out to be more fecking beef broth. Drinking what tasted like bisto gravy was just not happening for me!
We hit up a market after lunch, rather caught up in all the bootleg bargains to be had (but would have preferred not to be pied pipering our guide around with us), before heading for the airport and our flight to Guilin. Had to be said that we were thoroughly sick of Xi’an and how inflexible our guide was at this stage. But we immediately relaxed once we were checked in and left on our own.
However we once again experienced the stares and blatant photograph taking – making us feel like some sort of zoo exhibit, there was even a fella on the actual plane snapping pics of us & I kept catching him starring throughout the flight – very disconcerting. We found ourselves desperately hoping Guilin would be less stressful and crowded and signs were good once we landed and met the latest guide. The night-time riverside illuminations were really pretty and we found ourselves looking forward to seeing some of the sights the following day.
Now I think this post has been plenty long – I’ll write about the rest of our time in China next post!