A cross country Chinese trip that challenges perspective and scale (written in 2013 by Stephanie Loke)
It is 6am, and I begin my Chinese cross country trek on an early spring morning in the Beijing metropolis, and like every other modern day capital the city pulsates with the bustle of peak time traffic. Spotting an opportunity, Yang, the taxi driver peddled his services at the bus stops in the knowledge that the first public bus did not leave until an hour later, and coalesced a haphazard party of four impatient Y-generation customers, all heading to the Beijing West Railway Station, willing to form a temporary alliance and spend an extra 10 yuan (approximately £1) each to get there an hour earlier.
The infamous smog that surrounds Beijing is clearly visible as we navigate the highways – Yang tells me that the marginal effects of the big clear up that preceded the 2008 Beijing Olympics lasted for a grand total of 2 weeks before it returned with a vengeance.
Beijing West Station imposes itself – the effect is a little bit like spotting Mount Everest on the Uyuni Salt Plains. At over five hundred thousand square metres, it is the largest train station in Asia, known to serve four hundred thousand people a day. With just a day before my train to Luoyang, I rush to collect my pre-booked train tickets and ditch my luggage at the storage section before running out to experience as much of Beijing – only to be stalled for over 15 minutes by my attempts at being English and queuing. I was the second in the queue (having caught the opening hour on the spot) – but it was not until I remembered how to use my elbows that I was finally served.
Having left my weights behind, I raced off to visit the usual tourist traps; Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace - en route I visited the National Performing Arts Centre, an elliptical glass and titanium dome floating serenely on its own lake with a hidden entrance to the north. Designed by Paul Andreu, the man behind many world renowned airports and La Defense, the building gives the impression of a giant drop of water suspended on glass.
The only way to describe Tiananmen Square is vast. Even after my brief visit to Beijing West, the scale of a public square that is 20 times bigger than Trafalgar Square packed with crowds as far as the eye could see baffled my senses – it felt as if the whole of Beijing has congregated in that mass of space. It is here that I first get a sense of the ever looming presence of the Chinese Army and Police in Beijing. Where in the UK you are spooked by a 1 CCTV camera for every 32 people statistic, I imagine a similar ratio for publicly funded security staff to citizens in Beijing. I journeyed onwards to the Forbidden City (nearly twice as big as Tiananmen Square), which historical significance and highlights deserves an article of its own. I spent the rest of the day wandering around with my electronic guide learning brief histories of the life and feuds of emperors, empresses, concubines and eunuchs, as well as introductory fengshui and Chinese Art.
On my way out of the Imperial Gardens, an old chinese grandmother shuffles across a small pavilion to accost me casually, as if I were her granddaughter, why I am running around in sandals without a coat in this cold weather and I casually explain to the perturbed woman that 15 degrees is really warm, and in England where I usually live, it sometimes snows in May and I still insist on wearing the same to tempt the warm weather out of hibernation. Returning to Beijing West on one of the cheapest subways in the world (each ride costs 2 yuan, or approximately 20 pence), I was confronted with the May Bank Holiday crowds, and learning from my previous lesson in the morning, I jostled my way through the queues and boarded the high speed train to Luoyang in the setting sun.
Luoyang, I very quickly learn, is a city of absolutely crazy bus drivers that work within millimetre precision to hustle the streets with the bravest commuters in the world. Traversing the intersections of Longmen Dadao, a 16-lane bypass split in to 4 sections that share common crossroads, is not for the faint hearted passenger and feels a bit like modern day jousting or a more ad-hoc, version of the game, Chicken. I witnessed first hand, bicycles riding up the wrong side of the road, and women crossing with children in prams in between, with the same suicidal tendencies as pheasants jumping out of bushes, as our bus hurtled down the freeway as though it was rushing to get to Russia by tomorrow.
Luoyang was the seat of the Three Kingdoms of Wei, Shu and Wu, an era of Chinese History marked by technological advances and bloody battles famously popularised by Luo Guanzhong in his historical novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Numerous museums, temples and paraphernalia dedicated to Guan Yu (a well known deified general in Chinese culture, which statue graces most traditional Chinese businesses around the world, and can be identified by his black / red face and long sword) are dotted around this ancient city.
Luoyang is also home to the Longmen Grottoes, and it is this ancient collection of over 100,000 statues and 1,400 caves of carvings that flank either sides of the River Yi that have attracted me to Luoyang in the first place. The oldest carvings date back to 439AD, and amongst the Buddhist statues - the largest over 5 stories high, and the smallest around the size of a pinky, are also poetic inscriptions and medicinal prescriptions. The caves are magnificent in the day, but in summer the caves are lit by lights and open until the late evening, providing a particularly unique and wondrous experience.
I end my day eating barbecue and hotpot from the night vendors on Xinghua Street - where amongst oysters, razor clams and cuttlefish you will find frogs, silkworms and grasshoppers cooked freshly for you upon order, before hopping on to a late overnight sleeper train to Chongqing.
The 20 Hour Sleeper Train
Owing to the Public Holiday, I was only able to get a top bunk hard sleeper bed on the train. For those unaccustomed to Chinese train conventions, as opposed to first and second class, you have the following options:
- Deluxe Soft Sleeper (2 people to a private room)
- Soft Sleeper (4 people to a private room with double bunk beds)
- Hard Sleeper (row of 3-tiered bunk beds in a corridor)
- Soft Seats (slightly better seats)
- Hard Seats (slightly worse seats)
- Standing Only (...good luck)
The top bunk of a hard sleeper leaves you with about 70cm of space between you and the roof of the train, and requires some tricky manoeuvring to get yourself in to your space in the first place. However, after a couple of long days, I was glad for the rest and passed 10 hours of my allocated 20 hour journey hibernating in my make shift MRI-tunnel bed.
In Chongqing I attended a friend's wedding and rushed around helping the bride to buy her dress the night before the big day. I am not at liberty to say much else here other than the fact that I ate terrapin for the first time in my life (no, I did not order it, and it seems such a waste that something that was already cooked was not finished), and I didn't enjoy the taste despite various reports that turtle is really yummy. Perhaps my conscience did not allow me to enjoy it.
No trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the fast disappearing hutongs, traditional narrow alleys where neighbourhood courtyards are linked together. With a history of more than 700 years, Nanluoguxiang is one of Beijing's oldest hutongs currently thriving as an alternative shopping street where many galleries, crafts shops as well as bars and eateries are located.
Booking Train Tickets
Booking a Chinese train ticket in advance is not as straightforward as it should be, and having a local friend with a UnionPay card (the Chinese version of Visa that monopolises the payment transaction industry in China), definitely helps. However, for a premium a few websites are starting to offer the train booking service for international travellers. Advance train bookings are advisable especially during peak season (Chinese New Year, May Day Holiday, and other major Chinese Festivities)
You can live relatively cheaply in China, but it is also easy to splurge and spend money quickly in the larger cities. Saying that, what are usually expensive luxuries in European countries are relatively cheaper in most of China.At a bare minimum, you will spend approximately 200 yuan a day (the equivalent of a bread and butter trip in Europe), but if you wanted the Ritz Carlton experience, I would budget at least 5000 yuan a day. A reasonable traveller should get by for about 500 yuan.