At the end of the last blog I mentioned that I wasn't looking forward to the next day, I'll now explain why. During the ticket fiasco in Nanchang the week before we had successfully bought tickets to Xi'an which is on the way home from Lanzhou to Nanchang. This move made perfect sense because train tickets worked out cheaper if you stopped off in Xi'an and it meant we could use our few days of holiday productively by seeing one of the most iconic tourist sites in all of China; the terracotta warriors. So basically we had train tickets to Xi'an. Now there's a problem; we don't have any transport from Xi'an to Nanchang because you have to wait until 10 days in advance. This is fine, we thought, we'll book them in Lanzhou. We tried and were told that we were a day early, come back tomorrow. Naturally, due to the language course we couldn't and we tried to ask our host families for help. They told us you could only book tickets at the station you were travelling from (which we knew was wrong) and then told us the trains were all sold out (we are trying to travel during a National Holiday after all). Panic set in. Our 4 passports changed hands between us as we each tried our best to sort something out (you need your passport to book trains and hotels in China). We each used every Chinese contact we could and just when we were despairing and about to book expensive (well, expensive for China) plane tickets via Alion's Mum, Rob's host Frank came up trumps. Somehow (we're assuming is Dad his some kind of Del Boy wheeler dealer guy) he'd 'acquired' 4 hard sleeper tickets on the train to Nanchang on the right day at the perfect time! Of course we all treated Frank like a hero for the rest of the week because he saved us.
That was slightly off topic but I forgot to mention that in my last blog - just to demonstrate how frustrating travel in China can be. The reason I wasn't looking forward to the next day was because we didn't have just any tickets on the train to Xi'an. We had standing tickets. That's right, standing room only on a 9 hour Chinese train with a fair bit of luggage each. The Chinese people we'd spoken to about this had not filled us with confidence - Rose informed us there were no seats at all and people were crammed in to be standing so you can barely move. Naturally we all conjured up images of dilapidated cattle wagon with no windows, no light and people crammed face to face with just enough room to breathe. As it happened we were pleasantly surprised. I had done the usual trick (getting quite good at this now) of sprinting ahead, despite carrying a giant Bergen and 3 pieces of luggage. We hoped that I'd be able to stake a small corner of the hell carriage in which to pile our bags and stand around, maybe even force a bit of floor space to take turns sitting down. Instead I was ushered onto a normal looking carriage with seats. Of course I didn't waste my head start and immediately took up as much of the luggage space as possible so our bags could all be stowed safely and together. Then I took one of the many empty seats and waited for the others with Beth. We soon realised that everyone else had proper seat tickets and slowly our horde of seats had to be unwillingly given up. We stubbornly sat in every seat until a ticket holder came along and by the end we were all standing in the aisle, where we were meant to be. This looked like a fun 9 hours. At least we could follow Jamie and Jony's advice and purchase a cheap ticket in the dining carriage - the plan was to rotate around this seat. Beth and I set off with a feeling of hope which was immediately dashed by the grumpy woman in charge who just kept shaking her head and pointing back to our place to stand. It was far better than expected though, for a start the carriage had windows AND a place to put our luggage - if that's not luxury I don't know what is. We began to while away the hours; I read some Sherlock Holmes, listened to my iPod and gazed listlessly out the window. Cat ended up on the floor in the aisle after a very short time and in doing so earned half a seat from some uni students near us. Another woman kept vanishing for long periods of time so between the 6 of us we now had one and a half seats! Naturally, with Rob, Nold and I being such gents we made sure the ladies always had a seat. To be honest, standing wasn't too bad and after a couple of hours Naomi came to find us (Naomi and Jess had seated tickets a few carriages down). We thought we'd spice things up a bit and went to say hello to some more uni students at the end of the carriage who were playing cards very raucously. They were delighted to see us and we joined straight in, they were all early 20's studying a variety of things and all female except for one guy sitting opposite me. He was pretty big, absolutely hilarious and called 'Nar' - he was from Kazakhstan and spoke good Mandarin and English on top of his native Kazakh. We taught them cheat and they had us playing some simple Chinese games. For once we had a seat but it was probably more uncomfortable than standing since I was balancing half on half off. We had fun and it kept us occupied for a while. After that I went to stare out the windows in the section between carriages and gawp and the pretty spectacular landscape. I was joined by Nold and Naomi and had a sense of déjà vu - it was Nold and I that had stared out of a plane window together only a matter of weeks ago. We were following the course of the Yellow River from Lanzhou to Xi'an and hadn't left its side once. The train was insanely long, as we could see when we went along a long curve. We were surrounded by pretty big, lush green mountains with the Yellow River winding its way around the base of it all. It was beautiful although the very train we were on had scarred the landscape. In order to build the direct train route the Chinese had bridged across every ravine and hewn straight through the side of every mountain. This meant our journey alternated between light and dark and as the train literally cut its way directly through the landscape. I ended the last few hours of the journey crouched on the grimy floor between two carriages with a freezing breeze coming through a hole underneath my bum. I was reasonably content reading Sherlock Holmes until three guys came to 'talk' to me. They could barely speak English and I wasn't a fan of them so I made small talk then told them I had to go - I made my camp in the next carriage down where I was joined by Nold. I blocked the same freezing airhole, common to all carriages it seems, with my hoody and we had some quiet time. We arrived in Xi'an (after a panicky few minutes trying to discover whether the next station was 'Xi'an' or some other place which sounds exactly the same but apparently isn't) and managed to get off at the right station.
We were impressed. First impressions of Xi'an = it looks amazing. In contrast to where we'd just left it was much cleaner, much prettier, lots of interesting things to look at (the massive city walls were our first sight off the train) and plenty of people seemed to be out and about down lit up, exciting looking streets. Someone exclaimed that 'Xi'an is the Las Vegas of China' and so far I have no trouble believing that. We piled into different taxis with all our luggage and headed off to the hostel. Some people were booked into the Bell Tower Hostel but the majority of us were booked into Shuyuan Hostel. During our drive we saw a large square building in the middle of the roundabout, it looked amazing as it was night-time and all lit up. This was Xi'an's famous bell tower. We got even more excited when we passed it and saw a McDonalds! Our hostel wasn't far away, we reached the next roundabout which was again impressive as the roundabout was pretty big with the monstrous city wall sitting right in the middle of it and extending across to either side - the roundabout continued through two small gateways in the base of the wall. Our hostel was tucked away a few metres down a little sidestreet, we were greeted with a good first impression as the hostel was right next to the wall (the sidestreet had the giant wall on one side and the hostel facing it from across the tiny street). It had two stone lions at either side of the steps and big red doors warmly lit up with glowing lanterns. We walked in and realised we'd hit the jackpot here. We registered and gave the woman our passports then headed off to find our rooms, this hostel was amazing and it was costing us 50 yuan/a fiver a night to stay. You enter the hostel into a little entrance room and then head down a long corridor. This corridor continues all the way to the end of the hostel (which is much further back than you'd expect) with rooms opening off either side. However, the corridor is punctuated with three large courtyards. These have no roof and have bathrooms on the bottom level with at least three more levels above which you reach via staircases and balconies around the edges. One courtyard had a staircase leading down to the ParQin bar and the end of the corridor opened into the final courtyard with a nice restaurant opening off it.
The lads were in one room so we wasted no time in grabbing bunks, locking our valuables away then freshening up ready to head out for the night. Naturally we decided to check out the bar first and descended the stone steps to the basement bar. You entered straight into a pool room which we were chuffed with then a door opened into the bar itself. It had a really good atmosphere, loads of people of all nationalities and played live music every night. We were amazed that the bar sold foreign drinks - we grabbed a pint of proper beer (practically unheard of in China) then settled down around a long table to feel pretty pleased with ourselves. A pint of beer cost 25 yuan/£2.50 which is good for England but insanely expensive here. We just had the one then decided to go out and find a cheap, Chinese bar. Easier said than done. To cut a long story short, two hours later I had still only had one pint and had spent the rest of the evening either wandering aimlessly round looking for people or standing aimlessly around waiting for people that had gone missing. I was in a pretty bad mood and eventually I gave up, took the drinks Nold had bought and marched off to the green space on the roundabout. Eventually other people caught up and we made a little circle with the city walls staring down at us on one side and surrounded by the never ending Chinese traffic. All the same it was pretty peaceful and it was what we wanted to be doing - I haven't mentioned this but we had been travelling on Mid-Autumn Festival and today was 'Moon Day.' It's a day when families and friends should all celebrate together underneath the full moon. Unfortunately we'd spent Moon Day travelling - pretty unavoidable since PT told us we had to leave Lanzhou that morning at the latest. But most importantly we did spend the evening sitting under a full moon, with friends, having a laugh. Tad cheesy but it's what you're meant to do and it was lovely. Oh yeah and Henry brought along a case of mooncakes his family had gifted to him - the Chinese love their mooncakes. We think most of them are foul, some bearable and the odd one nice enough but exceptionally dry. The girls headed back first while the lads stayed out a bit longer. We headed back to the hostel and met some more foreigners then got an early night.
Sorry this blog post isn't more interesting - it pretty much just covers one journey oops. I'm cutting it off here though because I'm trying to keep each post a maximum of roughly 2000 words. I'll get the full account of Xi'an uploaded in the next couple of days along with pictures!