Beijing to Xi’an

At the end of a lazy holiday, I planned on lazily heading to the airport. My flight was at 3pm, so I had a very lazy morning checking out of the hostel and doing some writing in the hostel bar. I think I spent about 75 per cent of my time in Beijing in the hostel. I don’t mind though, it’s a really nice hostel, perfect for meeting cool people or just relaxing and reading or writing. Plus the air-conditioning is great. At about 11am I went to Starbucks by the Qianmen. Behind me in the queue were two Australian sisters, travelling together now they’ve retired. I helped them with their order, and then we sat together and talked. After they headed off, I got my Kindle out to do some reading, and then Greg and Australian guy I met at the hostel says hello. We sit and talk for an hour or so, neither of us seeming particularly interested in getting contact details to keep in touch, but both of us quite happy with the transient type of friendship so common among backpackers.

At about 1pm I headed off to the airport. Beijing has an airport express train. But, just like the Stansted “Express” in London, there was nothing “express” about it. In fact, just like the Stansted “Express”, it was old, slow, rickety, and a bit smelly. The only difference was the price. The ticket was ¥70, which is about 70p, whereas the last time I took the Stansted “Express” it cost me something like £25.

As I had an e-ticket for my flight and no checked baggage, I used the electronic check-in machines and headed straight to security. Despite having two hours to spare, I “accidentally” chose the express lane for people who’s flights are departing very soon. It had nothing to do with not wanting to stand around for ages of course, honest. The security personal with the metal detector wands were all pretty young women. I “accidentally” left my phone in my pocket and had to get a pat down. Oops.

I wandered around the terminal for a bit, wondering what to do with the two hours before my flight. I picked up a copy of China Daily, the state’s English newspaper, to see what’s officially going on in China. On the front page was a story about how the Chinese Yuan Renminbi is going to outperform all other world currencies in the coming years. On page three there was a full length column about a FOREIGN English teacher who was playing in a swimming pool and used his FOREIGN culture to throw a five year old girl into the pool. The girl was traumatised by this FOREIGNER’S actions and so now he has to go back to his FOREIGN land of New Zealand. Did I mention that the article said the teacher was a FOREIGNER. Finally, I read two short paragraphs on page four about six workers who died in an industrial accident. I decided to take the entire paper as a sarcastically written comment and analysis piece on priorities and China, and didn’t bother reading the rest of the paper.

As soon as I boarded the plane I realised I had quite a major problem. I had to pee really quite urgently. Must have been that bottle of water I drank about half an hour earlier. Not to worry, I thought, we’ll soon be in the air cruising and then I can go to the bathroom. We pushed back from the gate about 20 minutes behind schedule and started taxiing towards the runway. But we must have lost our take-off slot, as we then waited on the taxi-way for a little while. After five minutes I thought that we had to take off soon. But then half an hour came and went. I was in physical pain. The term “bursting” almost became a literal reality, and still we waited. After an hour of sitting around on the taxi-way, waiting to take off, we finally approached the run way and powered into the air. I was looking around for any sign that we were levelling out and seat belt sign was going to be turned off, but I couldn’t wait much longer. Eventually, despite the seatbelt light, another passenger got up to walk to the bathroom and I hastily followed to the other bathroom. Ahh relief. Crisis averted.

From Xi’an airport I took the airport bus to the Bell Tower, and then the metro back home. I’ve been in Xi’an long enough now that it actually felt like home after having been on holiday.

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Beijing Day Two

I got up late, at about 10. I must have been really tired, since that’s about 11 hours sleep. I meet Kiki, the Swiss guy from the bar last night, and we had breakfast before heading over to the local shopping street that heads south from Qianmen. We had a look in Uni Qlo since he wanted a hat, and then headed up to Tiananmen square again.

We decided to go in the Great Hall of People of China. This is the meeting place for the National People’s Congress, so it acts like the Chinese Parliament. It feels like typically 1950’s communist architecture. You can tell a lot about places by the light fittings, and these looked like they were trying to be grand and simple at the same time. Exactly the effect an all powerful communist party would want to achieve.

Me and Kiki hit it off straight away with inane banter. We sat and looked at a large canvas with Chinese text on it. With our combined Chinese, we worked out it had something to do with three big people, and wondered if it was the instructions for changing the lightbulbs.

From the Great Hall, we headed to the main shopping street in Beijing. The street has air-conditioning units and vaporisers every 50 metres or so blowing out cool air and mist. It was a joy to slow down past these and cool off. We had a McDonalds lunch and then went to Gap. Gap had a sale, all mens shorts were ¥100. I considered it a lot, but decided that my one pair of shorts is actually enough.

After shopping, we headed to the new CCTV headquarters. I find it a little ironic that the state broadcaster in China has the same acronym as closed circuit television. Since Brittany answered the question of “what does it stand for?” a few weeks ago with “China Communist TV”, I can’t remember what it actually stands for and have to look it up every time. Ah, it’s actually China Central TV.

The reason for going to a TV broadcaster’s headquarters is the architecture. The building rises up on two sides, then extends out and joins up in mid air. It’s really quite cool.

After leaving the CCTV headquarters, I went back to the hostel to do some more writing. I was really getting into the writing but this point, knocking out several thousand words a day. A bit later on Kiki turned up and talked the evening away putting the world to rights.

Beijing Day One

I woke up at about 8am, wondering what had happened to the plan to get up at midnight after a power nap. I had a shower and then some breakfast in the hostel bar while I did some writing. At about 10am I headed out to see some of Beijing.
My hostel is on a street just south of the Qianmen, the gate at the southern entrance to Tiananmen Square. There’s a traditional looking shopping street running due south from the Qianmen with trams running up and down and western brands like Uni Qlo and H&M. Apparently the whole area was newly built before the Olympics to provide western tourists with a sanitised version of traditional China.

While major train stations in China have airport style security, every metro station in Beijing and major tourist attractions also have the same level of security. To get onto Tiananmen Square I had to use a metro station as an underpass, so one set of security checks, then to get onto the square itself I had to go through more security. There was a lot of security on the square itself, with police everywhere. I wonder why [cough]wikipedia[/cough].

The square is huge. In the centre is Mao’s mausoleum, which would have been interesting, but it was a Monday and he’s closed on Monday’s. Everyone needs a break from time to time. I wonder what he’s up to. On the east and west side is the National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People of China. At the north end is the Tiananmen, the gate of heavenly peace (‘tian’ = 天 = heaven, ‘an’ = 安 = peace, ‘men’ = 门 = gate). The square is mainly just a vast expanse of grey stone with very little shade, so I don’t spend too long there.

After the square I headed north through the gate itself and into the Forbidden City. As expected, the tour guide hawkers were out in force. I deliberated paying the ¥60 entrance fee, but decided it was worth it. Inside the Forbidden City are lots of old buildings. There wasn’t much explanation of what was what, so I just followed the crowds heading north and took lots of photos. It’s all very nice and the buildings are beautiful, but it started to feel a bit samey. It was like going to London and seeing five very slightly different versions of Shakespeare’s globe one after the other.

North of the Forbidden City is a beautiful park with a hill in the middle and a pagoda on the hill. It looked nice and shady and not too busy. The entrance fee was ¥2 which seemed like a bargain to get a high up view of central Beijing and the Forbidden City. The view was great, but I did get a sense of scale. I had been planning on walking due north to the Olympic Park, it didn’t look too far on the map and I thought it would give me an insight into a swathe of Beijing, but seeing how far away the Olympic Park was made me reconsider my plans and I went to find a metro station instead.

I consider myself a reasonably street wise person. The last time I was scammed was in Prague around eight years ago. That time, me and my friend Alistair got into a taxi that had a dodgy meter. The driver wanted a ridiculous sum that we didn’t have, and we eventually got away with paying him £20 in cash after convincing him that it was worth more than it actually is.

This time, I left the park by the east exit knowing where I was going. Turn right to the main road, turn left and arrive at the metro. Maybe it would take 15 minutes at most. But I was immediately accosted by a pedicab driver. “Where you go?” he asked. “I know where I’m going” was by now my standard response. “Metro?” he asked and I must have said yeah, because he then offered to take me for ¥3. It was hot, I was tired, but I still had some fight in me and I bartered him down to ¥2. Bargain. I hopped onto the pedicab and we set off. I have a good sense of direction, and even though we went down twisty narrow side streets I still knew we were heading in the right direction. I wasn’t worried at all, he probably just wanted to avoid the busy main road and I’ve never felt threatened in China. My mind did have a slight inkling that ¥2 might be too good to be true, but I was on the way now. I got the ¥2 out of my wallet during the journey so I wouldn’t have to open it in front of him.

A few minutes later we got to the main road and stopped. The driver said the metro station was just around the corner. Cheer’s mate, here’s your two kwai, to which I received a torrent of abuse. “Er kwai! Crazy! No! Fare san bai kwai, tip er kwai! You pay me three hundred!” He wanted ¥300, about £30. Fuck off mate, we agreed er kwai, here’s your ¥2. He mimed drinking and managed to stumble through saying he couldn’t buy a drink of water for ¥2. No, ¥2, you said two kwai, here’s your ¥2. He then said ¥200. I then remembered from the map that there was another main road to cross before the metro station. I also realised that this was a big guy, and we were down a narrow unkempt side street with lots of closed doors. One of the doors opened and a guy looked out to see what was going on. I thought that if I play this wrong it could go very badly indeed. I had to show a willingness to compromise, so said I’d give him ¥10 – 5 times what I thought we’d a greed and a 20th of what he now wanted. I also remembered I had a ¥20 in my pocket – I could give him that without getting my wallet out – so that was my mental limit. He said ¥100, and I said ¥20 and took out my note and gave it to him and walked off, he didn’t say anything after me.

I was simultaneously very pleased to be out of a potentially risky situation and furious at myself for being scammed for the first time since Prague. Still, ¥20 is about £2.

When he said that the metro station is around the corner, what he meant was that he’d taken me about a third of the way and it was still about a ten minute walk. By the metro station I saw a McDonalds and thought it was an ideal time for a spot of lunch, then I caught the metro up to the Olympic Park.

Coming out of the Olympic Park station, I passed some awful looking fake old buildings. Grey concrete bricks built to look like a little old Chinese village. Exactly the kind of fake twee that I hate in the UK. I caught a glimpse of the Birds Nest stadium. It doesn’t look as impressive as it looks on TV, but maybe I was too far away. One of the common themes of studying urban geography is the decay of disused Olympic facilities. Barcelona 1992, Turin 2006. It’s been less than 4 years since Beijing 2008, and already the park is getting a bit shabby. Despite all the talk of legacy, I expect to have to write the same thing about London in a few years.

There’s a tripod shaped building with glass pods and the Olympic rings on top, presumably a building for media organisations. The glass for the lift shafts looked dirty and discoloured, and there was rust coming through the white painted steel. Onwards I walked across the endless expanse of grey stone. The sun was beating down, heating up the stone, and the heat from the stone was rising up. Great bit of urban planning, well done Beijing.

I reached the landscaped area around the Birds Nest stadium itself. The grass and trees made a nice change, the area felt noticeably cooler. The stadium is impressive, no doubt about it, but it did feel a bit smaller than I was expecting. I wasn’t going to pay the ¥50 to go inside, but glimpsing the inside from some open passageways I realised that the athletic field is quite a bit lower down – it’s dug out into the ground, requiring less super structure for the stadium itself. I didn’t see any of the Beijing Olympics – I was cycling across Europe at the time – so I was interested to see a wall with a lot of the medal winners carved in. I walked along to rowing, and saw that Team GB won a few things. Nice.

Across the vast expanse of stone was the aquatics centre with its plastic bubbles. The plastic looked old and discoloured. Now the world’s media isn’t watching, there’s no incentive to keep them nice.

Leaving the Olympic Park, I took the metro back to the hostel. I had a table to myself in the bar and got on with some writing. Later on, a Swiss guy motioned to ask if he could sit with me so I said yes. He was cool. He’s teaching German at a university somewhere else in China, and we agreed to meet up the next day to do some sightseeing together.

Qingdao to Beijing

I planned to have another chilled out relaxing day, taking the train up from Qingdao to Beijing and checking into the hostel.
A lot of the travelling I’ve done in the past few years has been rushing around trying to see as many deprived parts of a town as possible (urban geography fieldtrips) or rushing around trying to see as many ‘must see’ tourist attractions as possible (holidays with friends). I was having none of that on this vacation. This time, if friends ask “what did you do on holiday?” and I can honestly answer “not much, just chilled out and relaxed a bit” then I’ll consider it a success.

My train to Beijing departed at 12:08, so I had lots of time to amble around packing and having some breakfast at the hostel. Excellent. I like train stations, watching the world go by, wondering where people are coming from and going to. As I mentioned in my post about the day in Qingdao, I also really like train station architecture. St Pancras station in London is perhaps one of my favourite places in the world. I find the juxtaposition of grand old architecture and grand modern architecture really exciting, and I’d read that Qingdao’s train station was old and had been re-developed so I was eager to have a good nose around.

I went in the east entrance of the station, through the security that seems to be obligatory in major Chinese train stations, to see a gleaming marble hall. I went up the stairs to the overpass and to look across the concourse and tracks. The roof is a modern glass and white painted steel structure, sitting on top of the old Germanic buildings. It was quite tastefully done. As I was looking up at the building, I realised I was standing above a sleeper train with hundreds of people boarding. My Chinese is now at a point where I can recognise about 20 or 30 characters, and I noticed that the departure board said 西安, Xi’an.

As I waited in the departure lounge, I realised that my ticket for this journey was in the middle of the three seats across on the Chinese trains. I hoped I could do the same trick of playing the ignorant westerner and sitting by the window again, but when I boarded the train I found that the window seat was already taken by a fat sleeping man spilling over onto my seat. He had a single very long beard hair. How had he managed to miss shaving that one hair his entire life, surely he knew it was there? Anyway, close to departure I thought I might be in luck and the other seat of the three might be unoccupied, but just before we pulled out of the station, another fat man arrived, carrying a supersized bucket of KFC.

The train journey was very similar to the one from Shanghai to Qingdao. The train was modern and smooth, and had a little display announcing the speed. The fastest I noticed was 308km/h, although you wouldn’t know it unless you look out of the window. Squashed between two fat men, one of whom stank of KFC, I decided to bury myself in some TV on my laptop, and then do some writing. I watched the first episode of the new Armando Iannucci comedy, Veep (didn’t think much of it), another episode of Modern Family (excellent), and watched the new Tron movie again (excellent).

Arriving in Beijing, I had to buy a metro ticket to get to the hostel. Knowing the metro ticket machines in Xi’an, and how fickle they can be about accepting notes of different values and ages, I’d managed to keep a small selection when receiving change. But the machine didn’t accept any of my ¥10, ¥20 or ¥50 notes. I tried each a couple of times but to no joy. The person behind me in the queue was probably getting a bit frustrated at waiting, although he didn’t show it, and eventually offered the ¥2 I needed in coins. China sometimes feels like the friendliest country in the world.

At the hostel in Beijing I checked in and went to my bunk in the shared dorm. It’s a really nice hostel, with messages written on the walls from pervious backpackers. All the more amazing is that no one seems to have abused the privilege of writing on the walls – all the messages are nice. The dorm had 10 beds and was wonderfully air-conditioned.

It was already 5pm and I didn’t feel like doing anything in Beijing yet, so I headed to the hostel bar to do some more writing. I was definitely over my writer’s block by now. I also promised I’d call my best friend Jaine back in England, so found a spot with free wifi and tried to use Skype, but I couldn’t get through.

In the hostel bar a bit later I met some cool people that had spontaneously formed a group. About four of them lived in Beijing and the other four were passing through. None of us could remember each other’s names, but since we were all from different places and had different accents we called each other by places. I became ‘posh London’ since there was another Londoner, and we also had New Zealand, Ohio, South Carolina, Canada, Ireland, Iceland and Sheffield. We were all getting on really well, and it was turning into an interesting evening, but I was really tired. At about 10 I asked if they’d all still be there at midnight before heading out somewhere else and they said probably yeah and that they’d wait for me, so I went for a power nap. Clearly the power nap turned into a deep sleep, as I woke up the next morning at 8am.