We spent 3 and a half days in Kashgar before flying to Beijing. Flying with bikes is usually a right pain, but thankfully things weren’t too bad on this occasion. A local bike shop in Kashgar did an excellent job of boxing the bikes up for us (for the princely sum of 4 pounds per bike), and then John from John’s cafe drove us to the airport with the bikes on the roof of his jeep. We knew that with the bikes, we would be somewhat over the 20kg weight limit, which could prove expensive, but conveniently John is friends with the head of security at the airport, and arranged it so that we only had to pay half the excess cost. After an uneventful flight we landed at Beijing at around 10.30pm, unfortunately just too late to take the train into the city. We investigated taking a taxi but the scoundrels demanded 400 yuan to take us and our bikes (normally it would be more like 100 yuan). So we took the bus, which was interesting because the exceptionally miserable and grumpy bus driver and ticket collector insisted that everybody on the bus take all their luggage on the bus with them, rather than using the luggage the compartments beneath – we think they couldn’t be bothered to stop and open the compartments en route. So despite the fact that our bikes would have fit under the bus perfectly, we had to struggle to get them on the bus, along with all our other luggage. Luckily we were sat next to an Irish couple who are living in Beijing at present, and who told us where to get off the bus and how to get to our hostel (which was near the bus stop) when we got there.
We stayed in Dreams Travel hostel in Dongcheng. This is one of the many YHA hostels in China, which in our experience so far offer an excellent standard of accommodation for a very reasonable price. At Dreams’ we had booked a basic double room (no en-suite), for around $18 a night (not bad for your own room in the centre of a capital city). But when we got there they told us all those rooms were full, so we got a free upgrade to a deluxe en-suite room for free, and they let us stay there for our whole time in Beijing for no extra cost, which was great. There is absolutely loads to do in Beijing, so we had a hectic itinerary planned. The first morning we spent booking our onwards train tickets to Xi’an (the hostel could do this for us, saving a whole load of hassle), reassembling our bikes, getting new glasses for Christine (her last pair had broken recently), and applying for our Vietnamese visas (this visa was the easiest to get so far – less than 20 minutes at there embassy in total, including applying and picking it up). Beijing is very well set up for cyclists so we cycled to the embassy and everywhere else we needed to go. Cycling is definitely the best way to get around as the traffic is quite heavy. All the roads have dedicated cycle lanes, often physically separated from the traffic, and even better they continue through junctions and around roundabouts. Loads of people are on bikes or electric mopeds so you are in good company. Being able to cycle so freely around the city was definitely a highlight of our visit to Beijing, it is a great way to see the city. The weather also helped – 25c and sunny every day made it excellent cycling weather.
In the afternoon we cycled up to the Olympic park to see the Bird’s nest stadium and Water Cube, and then down to Tian’anmen square to watch the lowering of the flag at sunset. Although Tian’anmen square is huge (it is the largest square in the world), it doesn’t feel so big because it has a big building in the middle (Mao’s mausoleum) and is surrounded on all sides by multi-lane roads. Still quite daunting to think what happened there though. From the huge number of Chinese tourists who come there to admire and have their picture taken it certainly seems like that part of history has been rather quietly swept under the carpet. After the flag-lowering, once we had escaped from the crush of Chinese tourists wanting to watch the ceremony, we headed to the hotel nearby where Christine’s parents had stayed a couple of weeks before (they had planned this trip to China since before we came away, but seeing as we weren’t intending to go that way we made no effort to co-ordinate itineraries. By the time we decided to go through China neither party could change their dates and we unfortunately we ended up missing each other by a couple of weeks). We had requested that before they came to China they pick up some good maps of China, and leave them for us – we had heard that it is virtually impossible to get good, English maps of China in the country itself (and hadn’t brought them with us as we didn’t expect to need them). We collected them and were pleased to discover they were exactly what we needed, and will make navigation much easier in the coming weeks! For dinner that night we tried a restaurant with the enticing name ‘Chinese Food English Menu’. OK so it sounded like a tourist trap but actually it was full of Chinese people and having an English menu is a rare treat in a country like this. And in fact it was a truly excellent choice, apart from the fact that we didn’t realise how big the meals were going to be and totally overordered. But it wasn’t expensive (way more food than we could eat, and beer, for less than 10 quid in total) and was very very tasty.
The next morning, after collecting our Vietnamese visas, we tackled the enormous Forbidden City. This fantastic complex from the Ming and Qing dynasties was built as a mini-city for the emperors and their entourages to inhabit. Despite being in places over 1,000 years old it has been well preserved and offers an interesting glimpse into what imperial life was like back then. We spent 3 hours there and could have spent longer but we had other things that we wanted to see so we pushed on to the enticingly named Temple of Heaven, a large complex of gardens and temples. The main draw here is the Temple for Praying for Good Harvest, a beautiful circular temple. We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the temples and the gardens, and doing some good people watching. Quite amusing are the large groups of Chinese tourists, all wearing the same cap or carrying the same bag, wandering around with dazed expressions on their faces while following someone waving an umbrella. Apparently this is how the Chinese go on holiday – even now, when independent tourism is really taking off, over 70% of Chinese tourists go on group package tours in China like this. Not our idea of fun! We also saw several music performances and quite a few people sitting sketching or painting the various temples.
After the Temple of Heaven we visited Belhai park, a large park containing several large lakes and pagodas, right in the centre of Beijing. We walked up to the main pagoda to get a good view over the rest of the city. By this time we were feeling pretty tired so headed back to our hostel, dropped the bikes, and went out to sample Peking duck for dinner – well it is one of our favourite dishes back at home, so we couldn’t exactly visit Peking and not try it. Somewhat predictably we were a little disappointed – like Mexican food in Mexico, it just isn’t as good as how we do it at home! The main thing is they roast rather than frying the duck meat, and only give you the breast meat rather than all of it. So you don’t actually get that much – I must admit we ended up going to McDonalds afterwards as we were still hungry!
The next day we joined a group tour to visit the Great Wall. We went to a less visited section than the section closest to Beijing, which we had heard gets absolutely mobbed with visitors. This proved to be a good decision, as the section we visited was not too busy at all. We spent almost 3 hours walking along the wall (which consists almost entirely of steep steps, so hard work!) before coming back down. The descent was good fun, as we went on a luge-type track that they have laid down (the alternative was the rather more sedate cable car). Building the wall must have been a mammoth effort, it is over 6000km in length and is very tall. Indeed, apparently one fifth of the entire population of China at the time was involved in its construction. It’s almost scary to think what one fifth of the current population of China could do if they got together!
We were due to take the train to Xi’an overnight the following evening, and planned to spend the day at the Sunmmer Palace. First we took the bikes and our luggage to Beijing train station, to check in our bikes onto the train (we had been advised to do this well in advance), and to drop our bags at left luggage. Although Beijing West train station is huge (the largest in Asia!) and was absolutely mobbed, it proved to be quite straightforward to find the luggage delivery office and drop the bikes off. We were a little nervous leaving them but sometimes you just have to do these things! We took the efficient Beijing metro to the Summer Palace and spent the lovely sunny afternoon wandering around the grounds. We also hired a pedalo for an hour to go round the large lake, unfortunately we didn’t factor in the wind direction when working out how much time we would need to return and ended up having to peddle really quite hard so we weren’t charged for an extra hour! We still had some time to spare after the Summer Palace so we headed to the main shopping street to buy some books – very annoyingly our Kindle has developed a crack on the screen so we can’t really use it now. This is a right pain as we use the Kindle loads, and aren’t impressed that it broke so easily. So for now we are back to paper books. Before heading back to the train station we also visited the night market where we considered trying (but decided against) such delicacies as scorpions, spiders and other various large insects served live on sticks.
The train journey to Xi’an was quite uneventful. Unfortunately we had been unable to book beds on the train as these were all sold out, but the seats we had were roomier than on UK trains and quite comfortable. There was also plenty of space for our luggage which was good as we have quite a few bags. We slept as well as we could but nonetheless felt distinctly dopey when we arrived into Xi’an at 8.30 the following morning. Thankfully the hostel we stayed at (Xiangzimen hostel, definitely recommended) had volunteered to pick us up for free from the train station, so all we had to do was get in a minibus (we had been told by the luggage delivery office at the station to pick up our bikes later on that day).
Our first impressions of Xi’an were not great, largely because we were tired, and it was a grey, rainy, smoggy day. Plus a new metro system is currently being built in Xi’an, resulting in terrible traffic and therefore even more honking of horns than normal. By the time we arrived at the hostel we were ready to relax, and spent the day catching up on sleep, plus things we had not had time to do in Beijing such as laundry and uploading photos, as well as picking up our bikes (which had arrived without a scratch on them). The following day we took the bus to see the Terracotta Army, for which Xi’an is famous. Very impressive and slightly spooky to see the thousands of warriors that have been excavated in situ. In the afternoon we wandered around Xi’an, and spent some time tracking down bicycle ponchos that we saw everybody on two wheels in Xi’an wearing in the rain. We haven’t often seen such garments in the UK before and don’t know why, as they are great! As well as covering the top half of your body they hook onto your handlebars so they also keep your hands and legs dry too. Just what we need for cycle touring at the end of the rainy season, which we are in. We also wangled our best discount yet on lunch – the restaurant we went into clocked us as tourists and produced an English menu which said a plate of noodles was 48 yuan – we know full well you can normally get a similar dish for between 5 and 10 yuan so we laughed and went to walk out, at which point they happily agreed to a price of 10 yuan – 20% of the asking price! It was good value too as the noodles were plentiful and very tasty.
The food in China is in general very good – the best on the trip so far – indeed we have yet to have a bad meal. The great thing is you can order in confidence knowing that whatever you get it will probably be tasty and filling. Ordering can be difficult though as menus are invariably in Chinese (which we cannot read), and our attempts at speaking are invariably not understood. Our latest tactic, which seems to work well, is to ensure we pick a restaurant in which other people are eating, take a look at their food and then just point at whatever you fancy to indicate you want the same. We also have photos of meals we have had to use if we have a lost in translation moment. These tactics are clearly working as when we weighed ourselves recently we had regained almost all the weight we lost in Central Asia!