China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 224 (34)

Train to Xi'an

Monday 18th October

If there were any more tremors during the night, neither of us noticed them as we slept comfortably right through and awoke once again rested. I had received a very strange call last night from the hotel receptionist saying something about breakfast and the number two. I wondered this morning if this meant that breakfast would be served today on the second floor so we collected our kit together and headed there. Indeed, the breakfast buffet was all laid out with a number of Chinese guests already sitting at their tables. Most of them were puffing happily away and we received quite a number of stares from around the room as we strolled in with our backpacks strapped to our backs. Neither of us was quite thrilled about the spread for breakfast but we had to eat something since today was the dreaded big tablet day – yuck!

We checked out and walked over to the station terminal just across the street, where our trusty CITS officer was standing at the base of the steps with a beaming smile on his face. We thanked him for all his help and bid him a fond farewell. As we made for the queue of people now already starting to move from the waiting lounge onto the platform, we bumped into the same elderly Chinese couple that we sat near on the way here. We recognised each other immediately and they seemed quite enthusiastic about meeting us again. Unfortunately we were in a different carriage for the return journey back to Beijing.

I was rather hoping that we might have seats closer to a younger crowd for the return journey. I thought this might mean that there would be a better chance of interacting with people that would be more likely to speak a few words of English, and thus more likely to want to interact with us. Alas, although there was, once again, quite a compliment of younger passengers on our carriage, we were yet again seated with an older crowd with whom we hardly interacted for the whole journey other than the odd mutual smile.

The carriage itself seemed to be a little more modern than the one that brought us here. The seats were just a little more comfortable also and I suppose this explains the slightly more expensive ticket for this return journey. Once again, almost all the passengers brought with them their pots of instant noodles, flasks with tealeaves and herbs and all sorts of nuts and seeds to nibble on during the trip. Even though each table had a large dish on it to collect rubbish and seed shells, the attendant waltzed through the carriage a couple of times with a broom to sweep the floor clean of anything and everything.

The journey was otherwise uneventful and we arrived pretty much on time at Beijing West, supposedly the largest train terminal in all of China. We paid ¥20 ($2,40) to leave our backpacks inside some guarded lockers and thought about what we would now do with the several hours of downtime we now had to endure until our evening train departed for Xi’an. Sandy has run out of books to read and is suffering horrendous withdrawal symptoms. This is driving me nuts so we mutually agreed to make our way to one of a couple of English language book shops here in Beijing. Exactly which of us was responsible for the events that followed has been something of an ongoing debate between sandy and myself today, but suffice it to say that we had some difficulty trying to decipher from the map in the guidebook just exactly where we were in relation to the immediate vicinity of the station. Sandy thought she knew but I was a little worried about the absence of a metro station that was supposed to be here somewhere. We couldn’t resolve this oddity but Sandy was sure about which side of the road to grab a taxi from based on her idea of where we were supposedly heading. Being somewhat conscious of our budget situation, I wanted to make sure that we took a cheap taxi into town but this turned out to be a labour of love. It took us the better part of half an hour to eventually find one that was willing to take us to our destination but find one we did and off we set. Based on the map we were still trying to get to grips with, I started to get very worried when it looked like our driver was taking us on a bit of a wild goose chase. I hate being taken advantage of and so I quite deliberately started to study the map so that the driver would get the message that I knew where I was. Giving the appearance of knowing where you are, or just holding a map in your lap, can work wonders with a taxi driver who might otherwise want to go the long way around just to increase the fare. It was at this point that it dawned on us. The particular map in the guidebook that we were looking at was the one that covered the immediate area around a different train station altogether! No wonder we couldn’t find the bloody metro station! Sandy and I have had several arguments already about the merits of setting out somewhere without knowing exactly where we are going. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem anywhere else in the world where we could simply ask for directions. Here in China, however, where the language barrier hermetically seals us off from the rest of the world, not knowing where we are is a very much bigger problem. Being the control freak that I am, I’m loath to knowingly let myself get into this sort of situation as it invariably means endless and unproductive wandering around which, in turn, makes me tired and stressed. Needless to say, the tension in the taxi between Sandy and myself could not have been thicker.

Tension or no tension, our expected two-minute taxi ride terminated half way across the other side of Beijing about half an hour later. The extra time gave us both a chance to cool off a bit. We made our way to the bookshop we were looking for and I let sandy loose. She resurfaced half an hour later with half an arm full of books and a satisfied grin on her face. Whilst she was sniffing through the murder mystery section, I happened to pick up a couple of Lonely Planet guidebooks and noticed that the labelled price in Yuan was the equivalent to almost double the printed US Dollar price. Another western traveller and I commented about this clear and obvious rip-off and we got to talking about how very much cheaper it is pretty much anywhere else in Asia compared to Beijing. This other traveller and his partner had come up through South East Asia and up through China to Beijing, pretty much along a similar route through which we intend to travel down towards Kunming in South West China. According to him, the cost of travelling through China drops dramatically as soon as you leave Beijing or anywhere else on the east coast. This made me feel very much better about our budget. We’ve thus far been able to stick just beneath our self-imposed $80 per day budget. Since we’ve been able to do this in the most expensive part of the country, we should be golden for the rest of our time here, and indeed the rest of Asia. Hopefully, this means we will be able to save a little to help us with the more expensive countries like Australia.

With a bag full of books for Sandy and a little less stress on my shoulders, we left the bookshop and wandered around the immediate vicinity where there were a lot of shops and market stalls to keep us occupied. Many were selling the most unbelievable, cheap, plastic junk that you might expect to find in a Dollar shop. We had a bite to eat and strolled through some of the back alleys where more tourist traps and street vendor food stalls were catering to the slightly more adventurous tourists and local alike. Most of the roadside food stalls were selling anything and everything on a stick. Most of it was quite unidentifiable and there was quite a selection of various bugs on sticks including live scorpions. The fruit dripping from the caramel that it was smothered in looked particularly unappealing also.

Pretty much everywhere we go there are billboard with English translations to the Chinese script being advertised. Without exception, these English translations are always completely grammatically incorrect and often times make for some strange and hilarious combinations. There was a huge poster with David Beckam, for example, with the inspirational words ‘Possible is Everything’ sprawled across it is three feet high letters. The consistency with which these translations are so badly done is mind-boggling. You’d think that some of the major corporations at least would have the sense to run some of these translations but a native English speaker before going to print. If such a person exists, he or she must sit at home each night quietly chuckling to him or herself.

We eventually tired of all the walking around and found a cheap taxi to take us back to the Beijing West train station. It was certainly a cheap one and I definitely felt we got what we paid for this time. Just exactly what was holding the car and its engine together was somewhat of a mystery. What I found particularly funny was his use of a cigarette lighter every now and then to illuminate the dashboard instruments.

Back at the train station, we collected our bags from the lockers and made our way to the waiting lounge for our platform and found a seat to chill out for the remaining couple of hours before we could board the train. I rather like this idea of waiting lounges as opposed to standing around on a platform either in the baking heat of chilling cold. Other than when people are boarding or alighting at the start or end of a journey, nobody is even allowed down onto the platforms and it makes the whole process that much more orderly and less stressed.

As we waited, I wandered around the station to do a bit of shopping for supper and breakfast whilst on the train. I managed to find some fruit, boiled eggs, soft bread rolls and some meat paste for breakfast. It was quite entertaining pointing to the different animals on my little pictogram flipchart to try to determine from which animal the meat paste in question came from. All of the women in the little food marts seemed to get quite a kick out of this but funny or not, it did do the trick.

Our boarding call came about forty-five minutes before the train was due to depart and we purposely let everyone else go through before we even bothered to get up. All the passengers have assigned seats, or cabins in our case, so it really didn’t matter when we got on the train relative to everybody else but at least by letting the rush die down, we didn’t have to stand around too much with our backpacks on.

This was the first time that we have travelled in the soft sleeper class of carriage and I was hoping it was going to be a bit better than was the case in India. I have been very pleasantly surprised. The carriage looks like it is brand new and is extremely well appointed. The bright and airy cabins are enclosed with four bunks each. They are comfortably air-conditioned and the beds are already made up with clean linen and very comfortable pillows and quilts. Each bunk has a reading light and even a flat screen TV with several channels playing Chinese and English language films alike, with individually wrapped headphones for the audio so you don’t have to bother the other occupants of the cabin. To top it all off, there is even an electrical outlet for me to plug in my laptop into. It’s more like a cruise ship cabin that a train, in fact. If all the soft sleeper trains are anything like this one, we may very well chose train travel over the quicker but more expensive air travel after all.