China 16: Soft Sleeper to Beijing

Saturday, 26th April, 2014

We are sharing a sleeper berth with Helen and Ian from Rhodes as we rattle towards Beijing. It has been an hilarious evening but back to this morning.

One of the things we really wanted to do was ride around the wall at Xian on bikes. We even brought our helmets with us. It was 50 yuan to go on the wall and another 40 to hire a bike (300 deposit). The bikes had no gears but good shock absorbers for the bumpy paving. We were having a great time when without warning John crossed in front of me and I hit his back wheel. Next minute I was sprawled across the pavement but fortunately had only minor injuries. We are still debating whose fault it was but it was interesting to see the same thing happened to another couple.

I have to admit to having a coffee at Starbucks. I ordered double shots and it was quite drinkable. We had a McDonalds lunch of green wraps with pork or beef and salad. Again quite edible.

The afternoon was spent walking around Xian and getting lost. We finally bought a map and found the Muslim Quarter was not where we thought it was. We had checked out at 2 and stored our luggage in the foyer. John bought a shirt and I bought some night cream from a fire sale. It literally was as some of the boxes were burnt black from a fire. I managed to find a clean box and its contents seem OK.

Just before six we stocked up on noodle boxes, red wine (French), bananas, longans, chips and peanut bars before heading off to the train station with our luggage by bus. At 7.30 we boarded and were rather perplexed as to how we could fit four adults and four big suitcases in such a little space. I am in a top bunk and am pretty comfortable. It feels a bit like a school camp with everyone visiting everyone else to see what their cabin is like, card games raging and lots of laughter. We enjoyed our meal and donned our slippers to visit the three sinks to clean our teeth. The toilet is western style to everyone’s relief. In seven and a half hours we will be in Beijing.

Sunday, 27th April, 2014

The group had varied opinions on the soft sleeper ride. Some didn’t sleep a wink while others found the rocking of the train lulled them off. The train rattled a lot and felt like it had a flat tyre but it was certainly preferable to 11 hours in the air. Although we woke at 5.30, the loud musical wake up call didn’t start until 6.30 and at 7 we pulled into Beijing Station.

What!!!! This could not be Beijing. The sun was shining, the sky was blue with only a haze above the horizon. Where was the choking pollution? We are keeping fingers crossed the clear, sunny weather will continue for the next two days.

As we could not check into our rooms at the Dong Fang Hotel, it being only 8 o’clock in the morning, we left our luggage and looked around the building. Built in 1918, the original hotel was luxurious in its heyday. There is a lovely courtyard at the rear overlooked by rooms with semicircular balconies. A new high rise was added to it more recently which is where our room is situated on the 11th floor.

It was off to Tian’an Men Square for us in a crowded local bus. The masses of people swarming around had to be seen to be believed. Mao’s Mausoleum is on one side but the queues to get in there were horrendous. Finally we entered the Forbidden City. It has been extremely well restored in some parts with others left in more original condition. What amazed us was the fact that the first building in the Forbidden City led to another massive courtyard and another and another and then more. It seemed endless and definitely exceeded expectations. There were whole buildings devoted to choosing concubines or for the Emperor to prepare a speech. Just incredible in scale.

Getting back on a public bus proved tricky. They were all crowded but eventually we found one with enough space for 16 squashed tourists and one guide.

Thankfully we took our room keys, showered and had a late lunch at a nearby restaurant. As usual it was delicious with meat balls, sizzling duck, eggplant stir fry, prawns with shallot. I’m still not sick of Chinese food.

A sleep this afternoon restored our energy. Some who missed lunch had dinner at 5.30. We planned to have it at 8.30 after the Acrobatic Show. It was a short walk to the theatre where we had VIP seats. The acts came one after the other and were all highly skilled. The strength of the men supporting the full weight of another man on an arm or a leg was amazing. Ten women on a bicycle looked impossible and as for five motorbikes roaring around inside a steel sphere we held our breath wondering how they didn’t collide.

We returned to the same restaurant where we had lunch. There were only five of us so we had four plates of food chosen by Xing Xing. Again delicious and cost was about $4.50 each.

Tomorrow we will drive two hours to The Great Wall.

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