Onto the second destination of the holiday… mainland China! We flew directly from Hong Kong to Xi An. We were in China from the 14th-22nd December visiting Xi An, Pingyao and Beijing. I learnt a very valuable lesson about keeping my personal possessions on me, but apart from an unhappy period of 24 hours, the rest of the time was awesome!
We had decided to fly to Xi An because I really wanted to visit the Terracotta Warriors, and you can easily access the museum from Xi An. We landed in Xi An quite late; our plane leaving Hong Kong had been delayed by an hour because a passenger decided to cancel her trip, and they had to unload all of the bags to get hers. Oh well, these things happen when you travel. When we landed it was -4° C (24.8° F)! Once we caught a taxi to the hotel, we rugged up and went out to battle the cold night air. Since we were only going to be in Xi An for one night, we really wanted to make the best of it. Our hotel was in a really good location inside Xi An’s ancient city walls, so we were walking distance to the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, which were both fantastic lit up at night. There were a lot of people out and about as well, including merchants selling various snacks on the street. We tried candied fruit from cart, and it was delicious, although we were surprised when we bit into a tomato (it was dark, we couldn’t see it properly!). We also found a local market around the Drum Tower, and it was interesting to see all the different foods and trinkets for sale (there was something that looked like frog, but I wasn’t game enough to try it 😦 ). Eventually the cold got too much for us, and we headed back to the hotel. Which was probably a good thing, because the next day was a big one! We caught the bus from Xi An’s railway station and out into the mountains to get to the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses. What an amazing museum! There’s four different buildings to visit; the Exhibit Hall, which had reconstructed chariots on display when we visited; Pit One, the main attendant pit, with most of the statues; Pit Two, containing different units of the army; and Pit Three, thought to be the command centre. I couldn’t get over how huge the pits were… Pit One is thought to have up to 6 000 statues in it! After spending the majority of our time at the museum (and having the world’s worst coffee and hot chocolate!) we caught a free shuttle-bus to visit Emperor Win Shi Huang’s Mausoleum, which was situated in a large park. There were a few other exhibits to look at there, and we managed to get hopelessly lost, because the only map we had was a tiny one on our ticket. Of course, this doesn’t matter, because the main thing is that we had fun! After almost missing the (last?) bus back to Xi An, we walked along the city walls from the train station to the north gate, before heading back to the hotel. However, our excitement wasn’t over for the day, since we had to collect our luggage, get back to the train station, and catch an overnight train to Pingyao! We thought we were going to miss out on collecting our tickets from the station, so one of us ended up sprinting ahead to get them, while the other two were left pulling all of the luggage along, fortunately a very kind middleschooler saw us struggling and offered to help out (his English was really good!). We eventually got there and onto the train without any further issue. Riding on a sleeper train was a pretty exciting new experience, and the beds were surprisingly comfy; we fell asleep after making friends with the others in our compartment.
After the overnight train, we arrived in Pingyao around 7.30 am, and it was freezing cold! It took us a bit to get started, since we needed to get from the train station we arrived at to a different train station that we’d be leaving from that afternoon to get a high-speed train to Beijing. We eventually got there via taxi, dropped off our luggage at the luggage-storage, collected our tickets, and made our way to Pingyao’s Ancient City, the reason we decided to stop in Pingyao. Pingyao was once a strong financial centre of China, and it’s city walls are amongst the best preserved in China. Once paying the entrance fee, you’re free to explore the many attractions inside the city, all containing signed information in English. There are also quite a number of shops and restaurants to take a look at. We visited the Temple of Erlong first, but soon had to take shelter in a coffee shop called Migu Coffee because we were so freezing cold! Although it was clear and sunny, we just couldn’t seem to stay warm! The worst thing was that the locals from Pingyao were barely rugged up, even though it was -4° C… makes you wonder just how cold it gets there. We eventually build up the courage to venture outside and visited the City Tower, the former residence of Lei Lutai, and a park, as well as climbing up onto the walls of the ancient city and walking around the perimeter for a little bit. After a quick lunch of noodles, we caught the taxi back to the train station, all prepared to catch the high-speed train to Beijing… except that I dropped my camera in the back of a taxi and didn’t realise until about five minutes later. Of course we didn’t have the numberplate of the taxi, and the other taxi drivers (using a translating app on their phone) recommend I see the police about it (every train station in China has a police station attached to it because they also work as the railway security guards). Here I should point out that there had been a definite issue with communication for the whole day; not many people we encountered could speak English, and we couldn’t speak any Mandarin. Fortunately, pointing can get you a long way when you travel, but trying to communicate that you’ve lost your camera and want to leave your email address in case someone hands it in is impossible without a decent understanding of each other. Luckily there was one female officer who could speak English quite fluently. She took me into the station and, with the help of the other female officers, asked me number of questions about the driver’s description and taxi. They were calling taxi drivers (that they knew?) to see if they knew the driver or to see if they were the driver. While all was this happening, my two friends, left out in the station, watched our train come and leave. One of my friends went to change our tickets for an overnight train that night to get us into Beijing the next morning while the female officer explained to me that the police would try to help find the camera before the night train, but there wasn’t much they could do since it wasn’t police business. They did so much. The boss of the police station had officers keeping an eye out for the taxi that matched the description, and I was even taken away by police car to a small apartment which was the surveillance centre of where the taxi had collected us; they were even checking the security cameras to try and get the taxi numberplate! Unfortunately, the time for the train came to quickly and we had to leave, but I am really thankful for them to try so hard. I left my email address without much hope to get it back (spoiler: I didn’t), and we boarded the overnight train. While we had beds for the first train, we only had seats for the second, and it was by far the worst experience of the trip. We barely got any sleep and when we arrived in Beijing we were a pretty miserable and tired group.
My mistake in Pingyao had cost us one day less in Beijing since all we did on the day we arrived was sleep. Luckily I have such awesome friends, who weren’t anywhere near as upset about the whole thing as I was. With only five days, we made the best of it. Our second day was spent visiting the nearby Yonghegong Lama Temple, the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in China outside of Tibet. There was a special exhibition on displaying some of the treasures of the temple, which was really cool! The whole of the next was spent exploring the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace. I never expected to to be so HUGE. There were so many halls and even a massive garden right near the south exit. All of the signs were in English, and were information rich, so we learnt plenty about the original functions of all the halls, and how they had changed from when they were originally built. The Forbidden City is in fact so huge that our group got separated from each other, and it took us three hours to reunite! One of the best experiences of our time in Beijing was probably the day trip we booked with our front desk to hike the Great Wall of China. We were picked up at 7.30 am and taken up to the Mutianyu section, one of the best preserved sections of the wall. The hike was exhausting, but the views and the experience made it worthwhile! It took us two hours to get from our starting point at Watchtower 14 to the peak at Watchtower 23. The hike back was more mentally fatiguing for me, since I’m terrified of heights, and park of the height included an incredibly steep staircase with over 200 steps; I was shaking for hours afterwards, but I did it! We spent the second-to-last day exploring the Temple of Heaven Park; there was a lot here to explore, so, even though we tried, we missed getting to Tiananmen Square, only able to visit it from the outside. I guess it’ll have to wait for the next trip! We spent the final day visiting the Confucian Temple, since it was close and small, and we had to fly to South Korea that night. I really liked all the old trees at this temple, and it was interesting to learn about China’s old imperial scholar system, in which scholars had to pass imperial exams based on Confucius’ teachings to become officials of the government.
It was a busy few days, but the time I spent in China was really enjoyable (lost camera aside!)! There were a lot of friendly people and a lot of interesting things to take in; I can’t wait to return!
WANT TO VISIT CHINA?
Here’s some tips from my experience in this ancient, amazing land;
Beijing should be on your list! The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven Park were two of the most interesting parks of my time there, and something I think everyone should experience. A day-trip to the Great Wall is also a must. I really liked the Mutianyu section for several reasons; its view, the wall’s architecutre and many watchtowers, and the fact that it’s one of the least-crowded parts of the wall. And it’s only a 1.5 hour drive from Beijing!
If you have the time to spare, a trip to Xi An and the Terracotta Warriors is well worth the extra trip. Not only is the museum interesting, but Xi An itself is really pretty, and the people are very friendly.
I didn’t like the hostel we stayed at in Beijing, but its location was really good; near a large shopping centre and restaurants, and walking distance from the Forbidden City. Our nearest subway station was Dongsi (Line 6/5 intersection), and anything around that area is a good location. I would recommend spending a little more than the really cheap options to get a decent place stay.
In Xi An, we stayed at the Ancient City International Youth Hostel, and its location inside the city walls meant we were close to some of the city’s major features including the Bell Tower, Drum Tower, North Tower, and train station. It was a pretty good hostel.
I was pleasantly surprised with how easy Beijing’s subway system was to use. As long as you have a map of the system in English, you can pretty much get anywhere you want to using the ticketing machines by yourself.
For long-distance travel and overnights trained, we pre-purchased our tickets using the China Highlights website. It’s a very convenient and reliable website to use if you need the tickets before you get into China. The website itself is also really informative about what the trains in China are like, so be sure to check it out!
It’s rather well-known that there a lot of tourist scams in Beijing, especially around major attractions such as the Forbidden City. Always be polite, but be firm in your refusal. The most well known scams include people offering to sell you their art, taking you out to tea, or being your guide. If someone approaches you with very good English and asks if you are alone or if everyone standing with you is all of your group, be cautious.
Rather that “beware”, there’s a couple of other things to “be aware” of while you’re in China. Firstly, China’s government is very strict, so a lot of websites (including Facebook and Google) are blocked. There are ways to get around it, but I’ll leave that to you to research yourself. You’ll also need to watch yourself to not criticise the government when in public, because there can be some serious consequences if you do. Secondly, manage your English expectations; we found that around Beijing we were mostly understood, but if you’re planning on travelling further out, you may not be understood if you can’t speak any Mandarin. Finally, we noticed that Caucasians get stared at a lot in China, even in Beijing. I’m not sure if it was just us (one of my friends and me are both quite tall), but it did put me off a few times.