We woke up facing a seventeen hour train journey from Beijing to X'ian. Seventeen hours. On a train. Granted it was an overnight one but still, the prospect was daunting. Not least because it meant we had to find food, edible food, that would sustain us for the journey's duration. As our time in Beijing had made clear, this would be no easy task.
Before all that though, we decided to fit in one more of Beijing's recommended sights and made our way to the Summer Palace, situated in the North of the city. It was far, but it was worth it. The view that the sight afforded was nothing short of glorious. A large, traditionally Chinese looking building stood solitary and grand within one of the many hills that formed a crescent moon around a serene, blue lake, the stillness of which was disturbed only by the gentle motion of the long boats that glided through it. It was a beautiful scene to uphold. Once you had elbowed your way through the hoards of other tourists that is. We'd come on a Saturday.
There was little else to do at the Summer Palace, or rather little else we were prepared to pay to do (still reeling after paying for the bell and drum tower) and so it wasn't long before we returned to the hostel and picked up our big bags for the dreaded seventeen hour stretch awaiting us. On the way, we did our best to pick out some supplies. After scrutinising every item available in the largest supermarket we could find, I came away with a packet of biscuits, some Walkers pringles, a strange looking pastry (which potentially contained some unidentifiable sort of meat) and some dried orange (which turned out to be dried orange peel, a slight but crucial and much more disgusting distinction). A pretty sorry assortment of goods.
Armed with an incongruous array of unsatisfying and unhealthy food stuffs we made our way to the train station. It soon became apparent that the system of a Chinese train station is more akin to our airports because , once we arrived, we were made tui go through security before then being directed to a departure waiting room where we would make our way to the correct platform. Soon our number was called and we were swarming around the front desk with the rest of the passengers, impatiently pushing and shoving our way through to the other side. Or queuing according to the Chinese.
On board things were a lot more settled and we came to our accommodation for the night without any hassle. What we found were two, three tiered bunk beds, almost hugging one another as they sat compressed in one of the many tiny squares that lined the carriage. We were to be sleeping on the top bunk which basically meant crouching or laying for the entirety of the journey whilst trying not to turn too much for fear of falling out of our narrow wooden bed.
Despite the tight living conditions and uninspiring dinner for one, the journey was actually fine. With a movie, sleep and a bit of reading, the seventeen hours drifted by pretty smoothly. And the excitement of experiencing an overnight train for the first time allowed us to overlook the shouting and shrieking at six in the morning from a rather excitable group of old Chinese men and women, as well as the lingering smell of the nearby toilet. It was all part of the adventure I told myself as I held my nose, fumbling for my earphones.
After arriving into the station, our next step was to find the metro that would take us pretty much straight to our hostel. We asked the tourist centre, we asked the railway attendants, we asked the police and finally, after following flimsy hand gestures that pointed in various different directions, we were shown a very long queue and told to join in. Being British, we felt safe within the confines of a queue and we stood for well over an hour, patient but slightly puzzled that a metro would require such a line just to get inside it. Eventually, we found ourselves at the front with nothing but a bus standing before us. 'Metro?' we asked the officer standing nearby. 'Terracotta Warriors' he replied. We'd been standing for an hour in a tour bus queue. Ah.
Using the power of Google translate (on his phone not ours) we were given some fresh directions to the metro and this time we found it okay. It was then not long at all until we were at our hostel.
With the Terracotta Warriors being the main sight in X'ian, we thought we would just wander into the nearby Muslim Quarter which was famed for its intoxicating atmosphere. Intoxicating is the word. For the Muslim Quarter was full of really strange and pungent smells that came from the range of weird, unidentifiable meats that hung off hooks, were spread across big wooden tables or stuck on the ends of sticks waiting for the Chinese to feast on them
And they did, eagerly. It was pretty gross at times, especially when walking past open carsesses with their innards hanging out. But it was captivating. We'd never seen anything like it. Because it was a bank holiday, the place was full of people and so we couldn't always get that close to see what exactly was being sold, but in truth, we were kinda happy to keep our distance. Suffice it to say, we were happy to look and leave it at that.