Two Months in Asia: Bullet Trains and Samurai Swords

Saturday 17th May

We slept for about ten hours straight after our Great Wall excursion. Had a bit of a lazy day the next day but managed to see a few more sights in central Beijing. The Drum and Bell towers are situated in the north of the city and provided the city’s first public timing system. On the way to this part of town we dove down some alleys and through some street markets. Street food here is excellent stuff, nothing like the generally mixed bag you get in England in that it’s actually good and doesn’t make you hurl.

2014-05-17 16.00.38
A view from the drum tower in North Beijing
The Mean Streets of Beijing
A Beijing resident eyes Mike with suspicion.

Unfortunately, due to our laziness and meanderings, the Bell tower was shut by the time we got there. This tower provided a bell ringing system to tell locals what time it was. We did manage to get up the Drum tower, inside which they had a mini museum about ancient methods of recording time. They had some primitive water clocks, incense clocks, dragon clocks. Lots of clocks basically. The room also  contained about twenty enormous ancient drums. These were used to signify dawn and dusk but are now just used to put on percussion shows for tourists.

In the evening we had a horrific time trying to book flights online because of website issues (the internet in China is surprisingly awful) and subsequently went hunting for food a little on the late side for Beijing. After  being alternately told that the kitchen was either open or closed a few times we managed to secure some local grub at a nearby backpacker bar. The food here was actually pretty rubbish because they over simplified everything for westerners. Everything just tasted sugary and bland but we were glad of the food regardless.

While begrudgingly eating our rubbish food and flat beer, a nearby sink behind the bar erupted with a column of yellow flame. For about three seconds both us and the bar staff were first completely terrified and then rolling around with laughter. Some things transcend the language barrier rather nicely, an exploding sink being one of the more entertaining ones.

During the course of our meal we also witnessed something else rather special. A middle aged western woman walked into the bar with who must’ve been her 80+ year old mother. As they sat down on the table next to us I noticed the younger woman holding a long, curved stick type thing that I couldn’t quite make out in the dingy light conditions. I thought nothing of it at the time. After about five minutes the younger woman stands up and unsheathes a four foot samurai sword and begins inspecting it in the middle of the bar! I’d be astounded if they’ve managed to get that through Chinese customs.

After this we tried to find a street market that we were told sold scorpions and other interesting things. Annoyingly, everything in Beijing seems to shut down at 11pm so the “Night Market” we were supposed to find was already closed for the day. When I say everything, I mean public transport, cabs and bars. We literally had to bribe cabby to drive us home at about 11.30 when we were lost once.

Sunday 18th May – Off to Xi’an

This was the day we had to say goodbye to Beijing. We’d heard good things about Xi’an, a small city in central China and home to the Terracotta Army. Little did we know that getting there was going to be more stressful than our long haul flights to Beijing by a country mile.

A view from the train. Much of China still seems to be under construction…
Pretty speedy
So speedy…

Our first task was getting to the correct station for our bullet train. Should be easy, right? We’ll only need an hour to get there, right? Wrong. We headed down to our nearest main road and tried to hail a cab. Beijing cab drivers are pretty much the least helpful people in the world. It’s the only city I’ve ever visited where cab drivers will turn away fares because they just can’t be bothered. We met a small group of cabbies standing by their cars who seemed to be saying we should just walk the 3 or so miles with all our gear. Eventually we gave up on cabs and tried the tube. The tube in Beijing is fantastic. It is not fantastic with 15 kilos of gear in rush hour. Despite the crowds and madness of navigating a Chinese metro network,  we eventually made the train with 9 minutes to spare but it was a pretty stressful journey in the 30+ degree heat.

Once we got on the bullet train all was well. These trains are more advanced than anything I’ve been on in the UK by far. They’re about 15 carriages long, very roomy and can go up to 400 km/hr (about 270 mph). The ride was excellent and we were feeling pretty happy with ourselves.

We arrived at Xi’an North station at around 10pm. Interestingly for us, we’d assumed that we’d be arriving at another station right next to our hostel, rather than one on the edge of town several tens of miles away. We then panicked a bit and got completely lost in the massive airport-sized place while being chased (yes, chased) about by a mad cab driver who desperately wanted us to go with him. The awkward thing was that we reached a point at which it became apparent that we probably needed a cab so actually ended up engaging the chap in a haggling match. It went something like this.

Us: “How much to [our hostel]?”
Cabbie: “150 yuan. Come on my car is over there give me your bags lets go.” (lack of punctuation is intended)
Us: “Well, no. That’s ridiculous. 50?”
*cab driver pulls a face like we’ve just slapped his mother*
Cabbie: “Nonononononoonono. 150”
Us: “Ok, what about 80?”
Cabbie: “140. Last offer”
Us: “90?”
*Cabbie storms off and finds another cabbie. They start conversing angrily and gesticulating in our direction*

Lost in Xi'an
Outside the wrong train station in Xi’an. Shiny though innit?

Fortunately, we ended up finding a metro entrance and rode that to the station near our hostel, costing us a whopping 3 yuan each. Upon arriving, I switched on my GPS and began navigating to the hostel. This has worked outstandingly well* so far but, as soon became evident, we had been taking it for granted rather too much. We walked about for roughly half an hour and  became increasingly aware that the road names  we were seeing didn’t line up with out GPS position. The email from the hostel had some directions but we were so lost that we couldn’t make much of them. We continued for another hour and a half walking up and down the same streets.

About an hour later we came across a hostel but it had a completely different name to our destination so we dismissed it. During our trek we received contradictory directions from a receptionist at a five-star hotel, some american kids and a random chinese guy. We even ended up back at the metro station once, from which we just got a cab (70p) to the hostel we’d been at earlier. Turned out that was the right hostel all along, they just happened to be using an old name on the sign. Maddening!

mmmm
Tasty dinner.

Our hostel

Despite this fairly stressful evening, the hostel was totally worth it. The place was an old military head quarters during the revolution so was really interesting and unique. By the time we got there the kitchen was closed. In the end we settled on a beer and a snickers bar each (a dinner of kings) before crashing out for the night.

*With the exception of getting us lost in Beijing at midnight ONE TIME

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