China: part one

(No pictures I’m afraid! Chinese Internet is hard work!)

The operation of obtaining our Chinese visas went pretty smoothly in the end. We spent nearly a week in Hong Kong waiting for them to be processed, so we spent our time scoffing noodles and dim sum, we went to see the famous harbour light show (a little underwhelming if I’m honest), and explored Hong Kong botanical and zoological gardens complete with orangutans, giant tortoises and flamingos.

When we picked up our visas, we headed straight to the airport for our flight to Chengdu. We arrived pretty late and managed to find our hostel. It wasn’t quite what we had expected. We had to go into a residential complex with barriers, and then up some hidden stairs to the hostel, which was just a plain wooden door with no signage or anything. Despite this bizarre start, it was nice enough inside with a cosy communal space and a few dorms and private rooms. It was a bit like sleeping in someone’s front room! We didn’t get a fob for the gates or a key for the hostel itself, which was a bit of a pain to get back in. Oh well, we were just happy we had made it to China!

Chengdu felt cold. I say ‘felt’ because I think it was actually about 20c, a temperature that would warrant the exclamation, ‘el scorchio!’ back home. It felt downright chilly after four months of tropical temperatures. We appreciated it at night time when we could open the window and sleep comfortably without a fan blowing my hair around or the racket of air conditioning.

We had one full day in Chengdu and we were using it to see the Giant Pandas in the world renowned research base – a facility used to encourage the breeding of the heavily endangered species. It was great, the pandas had lots of green, wooded space and they seemed to be pretty blissed out – dozing in the sunshine and eating copious amounts of bamboo.

With the pandas checked off our China bucket list, we made plans to travel to the capital, Beijing, where Conor’s mum Gillian, auntie Debbie and Grandma Vera were on their way to meet us! Eden, the guy who ran our hostel, helped us out by taking us to the train station and aiding us in buying our tickets. I don’t think we could’ve done it without him; there was no English spoken whatsoever which, combined with the fact all the writing was in Chinese characters, made it a real challenge to figure out what on earth was going on.

Anyway, with Eden’s help, we booked two beds on a train for the following morning. Oh, just a quick 22 hours. It was £100 less than flying, and we figured it was all part of the experience.

We had one evening to spend in Chengdu, and so headed up to Jinli walking street. It was a picturesque labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets lined with traditional Chinese buildings on which hung glowing red lanterns. There was traditional entertainment and market stalls selling street food, trinkets and souvenirs. We explored the traditional alleys and sat down for a dinner of hot pot, which is traditional to the Sichuan province. We were first presented with several small dishes of various fresh herbs, onion and garlic. We had to place a liberal scoop of each I’m our own bowl, which was then covered in sesame oil. This served as a sort of dip. Then the hotpot itself was brought out; a huge metal dish full of bubbling liquid which was placed on a heating element in the centre of the table. A startling amount of red chillies, peppercorns, kimchi and various other spices were bobbing around in the pot. We added a load of thinly sliced raw beef, and some potato and turnips. We fished out bits of the cooked beef and veg, and dipped them into our bowl of oily herbs before eating. It was really tasty, but quite unlike anything I had ever eaten! A numbing spice is used, which does exactly what you expect, and the result is a completely different kind of spicy to what we are used to. We quelled the heat with a few bottles of Yanjing beer and headed back. Throughout the evening, three different groups had asked to have photos with us, and we had received a huge amount of stares. We felt like celebrities/aliens.

Back at the hostel, we played several games of Uno with Eden and his friends (we learnt some colours in Chinese!).

The next day, we headed to Chengdu station, which was huge, busy and chaotic. After scanning the huge departure boards, all in Mandarin, we managed to grasp where to go for our train. The train was absolutely massive. We found our little compartment; a cabin with six bunk beds, a window and a small table, and settled down for the next 22 hours!

It wasn’t as bad as you might think. We played some cards, slept, and watched the scenery roll past. Before we knew it, we were in Beijing! We headed over to the hotel and dropped off our bags. The ladies were doing their tour of the great wall that day, so Con & I had the day to ourselves. We started off by exploring the Forbidden City: a walled ancient palace complex (the largest in the world!) that is ringed by a 52m wide moat. It’s name comes from the fact that, in former ages, to enter uninvited would result in instant execution. Luckily, they don’t do that anymore so we were free to roam around the extensive grounds, with impressive ornate palace buildings and attractive gardens. Afterwards, we hopped over the road to the famous Tiananmen square.

That evening, Conor was reunited with his family and we headed out for the Beijing special: roast duck pancakes. The following day, we headed to the Summer Palace as a group. We spent a whole day exploring the palace, which was a summer escape for the emperors, wandering around grand buildings, hiring a pedalo around the central lake, and climbing up to hilltop temples which offered incredible views of the palace and the skyscrapers of Beijing beyond. We also had to pose for a lot of photos!

In the evening, we headed to a street of food stalls and realised China’s motto: if it goes on a stick, we can eat it. Conor, Vera and I all tried a little scorpion! It was a bit like a pork scratching. We did a spot of souvenir shopping and got some tasteful tees that document just how much we like Beijing.

The following day, it was mine and Conor’s turn to do the Great Wall. We were picked up at 7:30am and piled into a minivan. We headed up towards the mountains, stopping en route at a jade factory and the tombs from the Ming dynasty. The main attraction was the wall, of course, and when we arrived we hopped on a scary ski lift to the top. It was a magnificent structure, with some iconic scenery of the wall twirling through the green hills far into the distance. We powered up some almost vertical inclines, which simultaneously slanted to one side, which felt a bit like we were in a fun house! We got a really good sweat on marching up and down between the watchtowers, and also had a bit of time to relax and take in the scenery. For the way back down, we were delighted to discover we could toboggan down a slide!

The next day, the ladies went to check out the Forbidden city, so Conor and I went our own way and explored the oldest street in Beijing, full of market stalls and red lanterns.

That night, we had a overnight train booked to Xi’an. At the station, we all got separated and nearly missed the train! I was photographed like an animal in a zoo whilst Conor left me with the bags to go and search for the missing ladies. We found them in the nick of time and got on our train. 12 hours later, we arrived in Xian, which looked grey, cold and drizzly. We had an apartment booked for the five of us, which we managed to find with the help of a friendly taxi driver. Once we had freshened up after our long journey, we set off to see the Terracotta Warriors: thousands of life-sized terracotta figures lined up in battle formation over 2000 years old, but only discovered in the 70s. Each warrior is entirely individual, with distinctive facial features, hairstyles, and armour designs. They were built to stand guard over their emperor, who rests in a nearby tomb.

In the evening, we wandered around Xian by night, when the impressive city wall and towers were lit up, looking beautiful even in the rainy grey sky. We also explored the city’s bustling Muslim quarter, which had an endless amount of fascinating food being sold from market stalls. We tried some delicious, tender lamb barbecued on a stick of bamboo, and a pot of fragrant, super-spicy tofu. Grandma Vera got a skewer of sweet sticky rice. We all did some wheeling and dealing and came away with bags of souvenirs at bargained prices.

We got back to BJ via another sleeper train, and had a few last days there. We saw Chairman Mao’s embalmed corpse (a bizarre experience) and also went to Beijing Zoo so Grandma Vera could see some giant pandas.

Conor and I left to go to Pingyao by train, and so we said our goodbyes to the family, who were set to return to the UK the next day.

Our China adventure has just begun, and we are both really excited as to what the rest of it will hold! It doesn’t come without its challenges – mainly language barriers – but we are embracing it. At least these long trains give me time to learn a few Chinese phrases!

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