China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 219 (29)
Wednesday 13th October
We afforded ourselves another slow start this morning. Breakfast on the roof was leisurely and we pondered what, if anything, we ere going to do with the day. We have now ticked off most of the must-see things there are to do here in Beijing, save for the Temple of Heaven, which we may visit this afternoon.
After breakfast, we spent a fair bit of time talking with the travel agent about the remainder of our agenda here in China. Our time here in Beijing is drawing to a close and we need to figure out where we will be going next and the necessary travel arrangements. The terms of our visas dictate that we leave the country thirty days after our arrival so we need to determine how much time will be burned by travel and how much will be left to explore new places. I already have a pretty good idea about which places I want for us toe pass through but the logistics of how to do so still needs to be addressed. The main decision we need to make is whether we should travel by train or by air. We have limited time but also limited funds. Flights will be more expensive but trains will eat more into our time allowance. What to do?
We already have our train tickets to Datong for Friday, where we plan on spending the weekend. Our travel agent had told us that it was possible to take a train from Datong directly to Xi’an but it turns out that this would be a twenty-four hour train journey and this is out of the question. She then told us that we would be better off walking to the train station and visiting the foreigner’s ticket office, where they speak English, have an electronic timetable and could work everything out for us. This would have been very useful information yesterday when she sold us the tickets for the trip from Beijing to Datong!
After doing some more research on the Internet, I decided that the best thing to do was to arrange our train tickets to Datong and back and then to also to take the train from Beijing to Xi’an. The train to Xi’an is only a fourteen-hour ride and by taking the night train, we would at least economise with not having to also pay for a night’s accommodation. This way we will also have gotten one decent train journey in China under our belt. From Xi’an to Chengdu to Kunming and back to Hong Kong again (or most likely Shenzhen and then the ferry) are best done with flights. There is only a marginal difference in the cost of the train versus going by air and the twenty to sixty hour journeys that we would otherwise have to make on the tail network are just simply too much of a good thing. The travel agent did tell us that we would be better off waiting till closer the time before arranging our flights since we will have a much better chance of getting discounted tickets that way. It will also allow us more flexibility too, since the more we book ahead of time, the more we will have to fight to maintain deadlines and this can make for a stressful travel itinerary. She also told us that it shouldn’t be a problem to extend our visas if necessary but with very few available tickets left on the flights from Kunming to Shenzhen, we will have to keep a close eye on that situation. Finding ourselves just a couple of days away from our visa deadline with no available flights and a sixty-hour train journey to look forward to is not something I’m keen for us to get lumbered with.
Armed with all the information I could muster from the travel agent and a brief spell on the Internet, off we set towards the Beijing train station to see about organising our tickets from Datong to Beijing and then on to Xi’an. Although the train station was quite packed with people trying to get in and out of the main ticket hall, we managed to find the quiet corner of the building that housed the foreigner’s counter and an English speaking clerk who helped us with or tickets. We paid just ¥31 ($3,75) each for our Beijing to Datong tickets (excluding the ¥20 commission on each ticket) but for some reason the ticket from Datong back to Beijing, although the same journey and class, was ¥42 ($5,25) each. I was less worried about that than I was the whopping ¥400 ($48,75) each for the ticket to Xi’an. Still, for a fourteen-hour soft sleeper (the most comfortable class of carriage going), it still isn’t bad compared to Western prices.
With our tickets in hand, we headed back to the hostel to collect our day-pack and cameras and set off to find a taxi to the Temple of Heaven, where we spent the rest of the afternoon walking leisurely through the serene setting of the vast park that surrounds the various buildings. There were some nice photo opportunities and we took in almost all of the monuments and structures dotted around the complex but it isn’t as significant a site as, say, the Great Wall or the Summer Palace. Still, it was a nice diversion for the afternoon.
One of the restaurants here in town that we’ve been aiming to get to is a place called Grandma’s Kitchen. The guidebooks also rave about it and it’s supposedly an American style restaurant that also provides free Internet access to its patrons. We exited the Temple of Heaven through the West gate in search of a metro station, which turned out to be at the East gate exit so we hailed a taxi instead.
Grandma’s Kitchen was nice enough and the food was OK. We both ordered but for some reason my meal came out first and was nearly completely devoured before we realised that it was listed as a starter in the menu. We had to ask for Sandy’s steak to be brought out so that she could also eat.
Back at the hostel, we decided to sit in the common room for a while and truck up conversations with several other travellers there. Some of them had amazing stories to tell and we thoroughly enjoyed just sitting there and relaxing whilst exchanging anecdotes. For all the monuments and fabulous sites that we’ve seen around the world, some of the very best experiences we’ve had have been simply with sitting and chatting to either the locals or other travellers.