In July, before the summer heat really hit, a friend and I set off on a 3,000 mile train journey around China. We started by taking the bullet train to Beijing: five hours travelling at 300km/h.
Beijing is a very impressive city, but hard to describe as there are so many contrasts — from the ‘fish shop’ on the back of a bike in a rundown Hutong alleyway to the hours we spent wondering around the epically large Forbidden City to the Olympic Park, complete with swimming pool concert inside the water cube. We ate strange food in the snack alleyways, spent a day literally inside a raincloud on the Great Wall — which felt like a scene from ‘Game of Thrones’ — and climbed ‘Longevity Hill’ at the summer palace to see the views across Kunming lake to the city. Each one of these places is worthy of an epic in itself.
Rather shattered we climbed into our ‘hard sleepers’ for a 12-hour train ride to Xi’an. We made friends with the couple in our little bay of six beds and spent most of the next morning playing card games with them in pidgeon Chinese. In Xi’an, I met up with my ex-housemate, who has moved back home to finish her studies. She and her boyfriend took us for dinner in the Muslim quarter which included everything from ‘Muslim barbeque’ and peanut noodles to egg and rice wine soup. We climbed the Bell tower and explored the ‘Big wild goose pagoda’ with the rather questionable ‘fountain dance’ in the park outside.
It was astounding and quite haunting to see those partially excavated rows of warriors each unique, with different hair and facial expressions, emerging from the ground.
Of course the main reason we were in Xi’an was to see the terracotta army. The emperor who built it was the same man who built the Great Wall, over 2,000 years ago. It was astounding and quite haunting to see those partially excavated rows of warriors each unique, with different hair and facial expressions, emerging from the ground.
From there, we hopped on another 12-hour train to Chengdu to meet the Giant pandas. They are even cuter than the photos but considerably smaller than I expected. It was raining so they were pretty ‘active’. I think one did actually walk from one side of his enclosure to the other to eat some of his pile of bamboo.
We spent a day exploring Chengdu where we burned our mouths on spicy Sichuan food, were told by a little old guy at a temple that Emma couldn’t be English as her hair and eyes were the wrong colour and caused so much fuss at a hotpot restaurant because I couldn’t understand their Chinese accent and they couldn’t understand mine to the extent that the manager hid himself behind a pillar to avoid us as we left.
After Chengdu, we had a 27-hour train to Guilin. In Guilin, we took a bamboo boat up the Li River to see the landscape of Karst rock formations; it is dream-like scenery there. The towering formations with almost vertical sides look like the scenery of a great stage and, as you twist through them on the river — boarded by what looks like frozen green waves of bamboo —, they constantly move in relation to each other changing the view every minute or so.
the manager hid himself behind a pillar to avoid us as we left
After an afternoon in the tiny town of Xing Ping, we got a bus back to Guilin — most of the way was on half-finished roads through farmland straight out of a woodcut, complete with farmers in conical hats. The bus didn’t have official stops but just slowed when there was someone sat at the edge of the road whereupon the driver’s wife would lean out of the door and shout ‘YangShou, Guilin?’, and, if they looked amenable, we would crash to a halt and they would clamber on with their plastic sacks of sticks, rice etc. and start arguing with the driver’s wife about the fare whilst we screeched off again.
On our last morning, we wandered around Guilin eating street food and exploring the big indoor food market with its sections for meat (live or dead), fish (mostly live), and vegetables. We then hopped onto our final 27-hour train back to Shanghai. We had a rather epic time, tasted more types of food than was probably advisable, seen some truly awesome sights and been humbled by how friendly and hospitable all the people we have met on the way have been.