An early rise for day 3, waking up at 04.00, aka stupid o’clock! I had a train to catch at 06.20 from Beijing West Station (北京西站), taking me westwards towards Xi’an North Station (西安北站). I say westwards, it was more southwest towards Zhengzhou (郑州), where my ancestors were from thousands of years ago, and then westwards across what would is known as the Zhongyuan (中原), or translated as the Central Plains, towards Xi’an (西安). Xi Jinping (习近平), the President of China, once commented to students on a visit to America that there are three cities you need to visit to see the history of China. Shanghai (上海) to see the last 100 odd years, Beijing (北京) to see the last 500 or so years, and Xi’an to see the last few thousand years.
I had booked my train tickets in advance via China Highlights (https://www.chinahighlights.com). Train tickets are bookable around a month in advance, so for my trip, I placed my order towards the end of July. Their website seems simple enough to use, and the customer services seems to be pretty responsive from what I’ve experienced. There are other agencies with which you can book train tickets for China, so do shop around, as different companies will offer different pricing structures in terms of their arrangement fees. For example, a quote which I received from the official government backed Chinese tourism office (http://www.cits.net) for my tickets from Beijing to Xi’an, to Shanghai, and then back to Beijing again amounted to over US$400, whereas I paid around US$270 for with China Highlights. When you book your train tickets, you will be given the opportunity to have your ticket(s) delivered to your hotel, or you can pick them up from a train station yourself. I opted for the latter, only because I wanted the experience. When you pick up your ticket(s), it’ll look something like this:
What’s been blacked out on the ticket are my passport number and my name. As I mentioned in my earlier post here, make sure you have your passport number and names exactly in your passport, as you will have trouble collecting your tickets otherwise. They actually do check, and as I said before, I actually saw some other tourists having to buy their tickets again because they ordered their tickets online using the wrong passport number and could not collect them!
You’ll have to learn the Chinese for your destinations, as the train stations do not have signage for the trains and destinatons in English. Make sure you learn the Chinese characters for your destination, and the slight variations in which the characters may be displayed on the electronic screens… or you could just remember your train time and train number I guess. That also works too, if not a little unadventurous and boring haha.
Oh, and it might be a good idea here to remind you to make sure you get to the right station to travel. You can collect your tickets from any station, but obviously you can only travel from the designated station. For example, I collected my tickets from Beijing Station, but travelled from Beijing West Station.
As with the subway, you will have to go through airport style security with bags through the x-ray machine, and going through the metal detector arch. Oh, and you’ll have to speak to someone to get into the station, as you can only get in to the station through the barriers if you have a valid ticket and a Chinese ID card. Show your valid ticket with your passport to the staff at the gate line and they’ll let you in if your papers check out.
As I mentioned above, there are no English signs as to where your train is going, so match up the characters, or the train number, or the time of departure… or all of the above. Once you have found out from where your train is departing / the waiting area, it’s just waiting for the gates to open. It’s pretty much like waiting for a plane, to be honest.
There are some announcements in English on the train, the station announcements are anything but English. So learn Mandarin… or just watch and see what people are doing, and then follow.
It’s a good idea to get to the station early since the waiting areas can fill up very quickly, and it gives you that extra time to have breakfast, check out the signs to make sure you’re in the right place, re-reading signs because Chinglish (I saw a sign for the porter service translated as “baggage lugging service”).
So, breakfast. You can have a number of things. There are hot water points in the station, as well as shops and stalls which sell instand noodles. Put the two and two together and you get a very East Asian breakfast… or you could go for this.
Yes, I know, I know. I have travelled over 5,000 miles and I’m having McDonald’s… or more like McDonald’s turned KFC. I decided to give the usual breakfast items a skip and try something more adventurous. Next time though, I’m going back to the usual breakfast items. Not saying the grilled chicken sandwich wasn’t bad, but it was a bit heavy for the morning (as if a Double Sausage McMuffin isn’t?!).
I arrived in Xi’an just past 11.00, and headed towards my hotel, which is situated right by the southern wall of Xi’an, a nice simple journey from the train station to the southern gate of Xi’an on one subway line, and then just a short walk away. I opted for something more old school this time and stayed in a courtyard hotel, in a room with a kang (炕), which is a very old form of bed which takes up more space than a modern bed. You would do pretty much everything from sleeping, to general day things on the kang.
It was around midday when I checked in, and I stayed in the room for a bit enjoying the air conditioning before heading out a little later in the afternoon. Although Xi’an can be hot, the heat is not a problem as it’s generally a dry heat, which makes it more comfortable than humid hot weather. A nice breeze also helps.
I headed up onto the city wall. I believe Xi’an has the only fully preserved ancient city wall (城墙) left in China, if not one of the best preserved. A wall was first built in the 14th Century during the Ming Dynasty, and the wall you can see today is pretty mu dates to the Qing Dynasty, obviously with ongoing restoration and maintenance since then.
Entry fee to the wall itself cost 54 RMB, and you can even walk around the whole city along the wall if you wanted. It is quite a view you get from atop the city wall, as you can really get the sense of old meeting new, where from the Qing Dynasty ramparts you can see the modern skyscrapers and lights of Xi’an city.
As well as the old city walls, Xi’an also has its bell and drum towers in tact. The bell and drum towers acted as the official clock of the city. The bell of the bell tower (钟楼) would sound at dawn, and the drum in the drum tower (鼓楼) sounded at sunset to signal the end of the day. At night, the bell and drum towers are lit up by bright lights.
Dinner was hosted by a dumplings restaurant in between the bell and drum towers of Xi’an. The shuijiao (水饺), as they are called in Mandarin, have a bit of a sour taste to them, but are absolutely delicious. Xi’an is rather famous for its dumplings, and so if you head to Xi’an, do make sure you try the dumplings.
I remeber a joke my aunt once told me about dumplings, and why it’s so important to make sure you ask properly. If you want to ask how much is a bowl of dumplings in Mandarin, you can ask by saying “Yī wǎn shuǐjiǎo duōshǎo qián?” (一碗水饺多少钱？). Change the intonation slightly to “Yī wǎn shuìjiào duōshǎo qián?” (一晚睡觉多少钱？) and you’ll end up asking the person you’re speaking to how much it would be to sleep with them for a night. Tonal languages are all fun and games haha.