What’s the absolute worst thing you can imagine could happen when you’ve almost had it with a country and can’t wait to leave? You get food poisoning and get stuck in the most humid wet dirty shithole of a Chinese city you could have stumbled into. Meet Nanning. We love great architecture and old buildings, every Chinese city has loads of both. Not Nanning.
We walked around Nanning for an hour, looking for our hostel. We are pretty sure after an hour the news we had arrived had spread like wildfire. The staring was definitely the worst in Nanning. Or maybe I was hallucinating from the food I ate on the train.
As we were walking, my health was quickly deteriorating and I was feeling worse and worse by the minute. By the time we found another hostel I was sweating like a pig and nauseous like I’d never been before. While checking in I was practically throwing up in my mouth and my mood wasn’t getting much better. I bounded to our room as if the pope was hot on my heels, trying to pull me under his tabard.
I had barely opened the door before I started throwing up violently. There was no sink, so the trashcan was receiving like it never had before. After that, I was sick for three days. I shouldn’t have eaten that food on the train, it’s quite clear to me now.
Angela cared for me like a little angel. The first day she brought me a slice of pizza, some chicken wings and yoghurt. I quickly disposed of the fat stuff, and the smell of it laying in the trashcan had me quickly follow it with what was left of my stomachs contents. This went on for three days, three days of extreme humidity, vomit and yoghurt. We were so incredibly ready to leave China.
In all of the Chinese cities we visited we snapped a lot of shots of buildings we liked. Chinese architecture is a style on its own. There is such a big difference between the old and the new. The old buildings are, well..old and super Chinese. Like out of a movie. The new buildings are super new and fancy. None of them are Nannings’, there is just not a lot to be seen there worthy taking a picture of.
We’ve done all of our traveling in China by train and we absolutely loved it. China has one of the most extensive train networks in the world and you can explore almost every corner of China by train. Doing so will get you great views, convenience, decent comfort, cheap travel and a brief look into the everyday Chinese life. Here are five reasons why you will love train travel in China!
Train travel gets you some of the best views of China you can get
Lush valleys, misty rice paddies in full growth or during harvest, gargantuan cityscapes, bamboo forests in the south of China, dramatic mountain scenes, stretches of desert in the north of China, gigantic rivers meandering through the land, there is simply no end to the list of things we saw from China’s trains. We’ve been amazed again and again by the beauty of China. China’s landscape, as seen from a train, is ever-changing. The views just keep on coming.
Train travel in China is convenient and easy
Almost every train station of the larger cities in China has at least one ‘English-speaking’ ticket booth. This means that with a lot of pointing on our side and some broken English on the other side of the window you’ll get the tickets. What always helped me was a guidebook or a note with the Chinese characters for my destination on it. Your hotel/hostel staff won’t mind writing such a note for you if you ask. The ticket-seller has a monitor facing your way with all the information on it, like date of the ticket, prices, train number and departure/arrival time.
The signage in Chinese train stations is always clear enough make out where the train is leaving, in what waiting room you have to wait and at what time you are expected to stumble onto the train. If you are ever in doubt, just follow the herd that gets up as your train is announced.
Chinese train-stations will generally be in the center of the city, and I always make sure to pick our hostel or hotel strategically, so we can either walk there or take a short bus ride. This is great compared to airports, which are usually located 10+ km outside of cities.
There are lots of different classes in Chinese trains all the way from ‘deluxe soft sleeper’ to ‘hard seat’. Deluxe soft sleeper is a private cabin with two beds and sometimes even a toilet and a sink. This class is offered on only a very small percentage of Chinese trains, so you’ll be very lucky to find one every time. Hard seat can be as spartan as wooden benches, but usually they’re just regular train seats in a not air-conditioned carriage.
In all day time trains I’ve taken so far, I always had a soft seat. These carriages are air-conditioned and not as busy as the hard seat carriages.
I also took a night train several times and I can recommend it. It saves you some money on a night in a hotel and it’s comfortable enough. As a couple, we opted for hard sleeper every time, and it’s fine. It’s six beds in an open compartment. Three beds above each other, facing another three beds. We only had a snorer once or twice and earplugs work fine in that situation. Watch out for the tiny, frail grandma’s though, they fart a lot and it isn’t pretty.
You can pick the berth (lower, middle or upper) when you get your ticket. I liked the middle berths best as they have lots more space than the upper berths. The upper berths are a quite cramped. The lower berths will seat the other people in your cabin until it’s sleepy-time (lights go out at 22:00 and on again at 7:00). The lower berths are a lot more spacious though and Angela prefers those. You get clean sheets and pillowcases every time. If not, complain with the train-attendant as they probably just didn’t feel like changing them.
Do some grocery shopping before you get on the train. In some trains there’s a dining cart, or train-attendants will come by with a food cart. I ate the food served on two separate occasions. The first time it was delicious. So naturally I took it again on the next trip. It gave me food poisoning. You can’t pick, they just serve one dish, or maybe two. The price should be on the cart, make sure you don’t pay too much, I speak from experience here.
There were some telltale signs the second time, I should have used my common sense. The first time it was served by a fresh-looking lady, with a clean uniform, from a well-kept food cart. The second time however, the food was served by a grumpy teen in (very!) dirty cooks garments, that obviously hadn’t been washed for a while. The cart was a little rusty, my rice was overcooked and the meat was undefinable. The first time it was clearly chicken, but I’m still completely in the dark as to what I’ve eaten the second time. That’s an common occurrence in China though.
The toilets in Chinese trains are squat toilets. After a little practice these are actually more hygienic than Western-style toilets because you don’t have to touch anything while you’re using them. Make sure to bring some toilet paper as it’s always out.
Train travel in China is cheap
We got our train tickets at a fraction of the prices of flights. For example, a hard sleeper middle berth ticket from Beijing to Xi’an costs RMB265, which is around €31,- with current exchange rates, and that’s for 1,200 kilometers of train travel! That same trip by plane ranges from RMB777 (€93,-) to RMB1300 (€156,-).
Make sure to bring your passports when you go buy train tickets. We forgot them once. We were in Beijing and it was Golden Week. It was horrifying. It was our first time buying a train ticket in China and it had cost us an hour and a half to get from our hostel to the train station (always go to the train station to buy tickets, travel agents and hotels/hostels will charge you extra), about 45 minutes waiting in line, 15 minutes of discussing the specifics of our tickets with a stressed out ticket seller only to be asked for our passports. We nearly shit ourselves. By the time we got back at the English-speaking booth with our passports, around two and a half hours later, it was closed. We had to wait in line at the information desk for another half hour to get the number of the new English-speaking booth. The tickets we wanted were sold out by that time, so we had to get hard seat tickets, for an overnight train journey of around 14 hours. We survived though.
After that, we took a night train several times and we found it convenient to know the Chinese signs for the lower (下铺), middle (中铺) and upper berth (上铺) when you’re buying tickets, so you can specify which berth you want. They differ a little in price, with the lower being the most expensive, and the upper the cheapest. The soft sleeper is around RMB200 more expensive than the hard sleeper. You get a compartment with a door and only an upper and lower berth for that.
Train travel in China gets you an inside look in everyday Chinese life
As much as the Chinese stare at you on the train, or everywhere else, it’s fun to watch them go about their business. The Chinese are very social people and will often engage in conversation with each other (about you). It doesn’t necessarily sound nice to our Western ears, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. Chinese often shout in conversation, or just stop halfway through a sentence to retch and spit. It’s so completely different from our standards of human interaction that it’s very interesting to watch.
All in all, I loved train travel in China for these reasons and we know for sure you will too. Did you travel by train in China? What were your experiences? Did you love it or hate it? Let us know in the comments!
Chinese culture is so completely different from Western culture
We’ve have traveled China for two months. The first couple of weeks were, although great fun, quite difficult and different. Chinese culture and people are so completely different from what we know that it seems impossible to ever fully understand what’s going on. Traveling in China leaves you feeling bipolar. One minute you absolutely love it, the next you hate it and want to see the whole country burn. I’m still not sure if I liked China or not.
When we were in Xi’an I picked up a copy of Xianease where Jennifer Yip wrote this article. Reading this made me understand a little more about the Chinese culture and why they do like they do. Jennifer wrote some more articles about understanding China and Chinese culture. You can find them on the Xianease website, just look for ‘Perspective’. We’ve got her permission to post it here.
Perspective: Individuality VS unity
Over the summer, several things happened. Most importantly, the Olympics were held for 16 days. Of course, everyone had Olympic fever during that period.
I taught summer intensive classes over the long break. In the teacher’s lounge at the language training school where I worked, the Chinese teachers there would often discuss the Olympic competitions from the night before. One teacher expressed how she thought the Chinese athletes took the competitions a lot more seriously, were a lot more anxious about the Olympics compared to their counterparts, and gave themselves more pressure to succeed and to win medals. Another teacher said her husband cried when he watched Chinese sprinter, Liu Xiang, fall over a hurdle and suffered an injury. When I heard that, I thought, “Cry? Isn’t that a bit extreme, even for watching the Olympics?”
I did not understand nor could I relate to the Chinese people’s emotional reaction to the athletes at the time. So I asked the resident expert in my household, my husband, about the mentality of the Chinese as related to this topic. He explained, “You know with the Chinese people, we always think and operate as a unit, not as an individual like westerners. For example, when Chinese people identify themselves, they always tell you their surname first, then given name. This is to explain which family they belong to, i.e., which group they are part of. Whereas, when you introduce yourself to someone, you always say, “Hello, I’m Jennifer Yip.” You say it that way because you are Western. That is based on individualism. You always tell the others exactly who you are, based on your given name first, not your family name.
If we look at the way the Chinese write addresses, we can also see how they view themselves as a unit. For example, when you mail something at the post office here, the address that you write in Chinese, for the sender’s and recipient’s addresses, always starts with the country first (e.g. China, province, city, street name, number of street). This method of writing an address is indicative of Chinese culture, i.e., you identify which country you are from first, not which street you live on first. Again, this is based on the mentality of belonging to a group. For westerners, it is the complete opposite. You list the number and street name first in the address.”
Now based on the perspective of belonging to a unit or a group, I can understand the Chinese people’s emotional reaction to their countrymen and women’s Olympic performances and why the Chinese athletes gave themselves more pressure to win. For them, it is like putting the weight of the entire country on their shoulders.
As a foreign teacher at the university where I work, I’ve noticed the prominent theme of belonging to a unit or operating as a group from my students as well. When the students talk about their plans after graduation, they always speak in the same fashion. They always include something about “When I enter society…” For the young adults at the university, they already know their role, i.e., they will become a part of the massive society in China. Many of them will obey their parents’ wishes and do what their parents ask them to do, even if it means sacrificing their own dreams and not being truly happy.
Even a few of my students said to me last semester, “Individualism would not work in Chinese society. There would be too many conflicts, too many people in one group who want different things.” Decisions are made based on the consensus of a unit here, such as your parents and/or grandparents, your team members, etc.
Even in the summer intensive classes that I taught in, conforming to a group or to group standards was prominent in the way the kids (between the ages of 8 to 16) played team games. For example, when we played jenga, a team member rarely pulled out a piece just based on his or her own decision. The student always waited for the advice of his or her team mates and listened to them carefully before making a move. The students were reluctant to act on their own. Whereas, if I were playing jenga with my friends, we’d pull out a piece any way that we’d like without caring much of what our team members say or advise us to do. That’s because for westerners we are accustomed to making decisions based on individual thinking, not conforming to please the entire group.
Taking the entire group into consideration is admirable. Or does it not mean you are not able to think for yourself? Acting on something just based on your own wishes may be selfish. Or is it? These are some of the differences between individuality vs. unity.
China’s most laid back city is Dali, we liked it and that’s probably why we’ve spent two weeks in Dali working. And with work comes coffee. One of us is an avid coffee drinker and the other is crazy about tea, we’re always happy to find a good cup of either in the cities we work. China is famous for its tea and you can get it everywhere, finding a good cup of tea is easier than finding a decent cup of coffee. We have spent many hours finding good coffee in Dali and this are the three places we loved most.
Ok, I realize it’s a bummer I can’t remember the name of the place in Dali where I liked the coffee best. I’ve tried finding it online, to no avail. Luckily for you however, I still know what street it’s on and the general location on said street. Angela made a map to show you where it is.
From the outside it looks like a regular European café, big window, with a door to the left. The window frame is painted a light shade of blue and you can see a lot of plants behind the window. It looks kind of hippie-esque, but so does every bar in Dali. You should see the bar behind the door. It looks pretty dark from the street.
The coffee and espresso served here is made with a classic, the percolator. Because of this it can take up to 10 minutes before your coffee is served, but it is great coffee, the strongest I’ve had in Dali. The tea served is made from dried tea leaves, no pre-packaged tea here. It’s tea from the region and bought on the market. Fresh, organic produce can come with some unwanted friends. Angie found a tiny caterpillar on her mint leaves. She refused to drink any more tea the following week.
Like all the places on this list, they offer free WiFi.
2. Bakery 88
The coffee here is pretty good but what makes this place truly great are its sandwiches. After a couple of weeks in China you’ll find yourself with a craving for decent bread, cheese and meats. I sure did. Bakery 88 is the place to go if you want a taste of home while in Dali. They have different kinds of bread here, all home-baked. The whole-wheat nut bread goes great with old cheese, and I loved my BLT. They also sell home-made jams and imported olive oil.
You can pick whatever kind of bread you want for your sandwich. The pastry, pies and cookies are also very tasty. The cheeses and meats are mostly imported from Europe. The cheese is really good!
We couldn’t find a website for Bakery 88, so here’s the TripAdvisor review page: Bakery 88
3. Black Dragon Cafe
Another lunchroom-style café we loved was the Black Dragon Cafe. We both get a literary hard-on when we see books and this place is full of it. They’ve got plenty of new books for sale, and shelves full of second-hand books you can either read there or buy.
They’ve got a decent coffee, and the tea here is amazing. They’ve got a tea called ‘Black Dragon Eight Treasures Tea’, with marigold, globe amaranth, jasmine, peppermint, orange zest, Chinese date, goji berry and rose leaves. It looks cool, the taste is special. The rest of the menu looks good. We had some home-made pie and cookies when we were there and they were delicious.
I should make a statement here about how much I love food, but it seems a bit inane since everybody loves food. I’ve never met anyone that said to me: ‘You know what Nick, I really hate food, I hate eating, I’d rather sew my mouth shut and never eat again’. So I’m not going to tell you how much I like food, and I’m not going to tell you that if you love food as much as me, you should go to Xi’an.
The Muslim Quarter
Most people go to Xi’an as a transport hub to visit the Terracotta Army, but Xi’an has so much to offer.
The Muslim Quarter is home to the majority of Chinese Muslims living in China today. It’s full of tiny alleyways, mosques, markets and street vendors. There are so many impressive sights, sounds, smells and flavors in the Muslim Quarter, we spent days and days there to take it all in, but the food was the thing that made us come back every day.
The markets of the Muslim Quarter
The main market most tourists stumble over when they first enter the Muslim Quarter behind Xi’an’s Drum Tower. You can buy everything the Muslim Quarter has to offer right there on the first street, but what would be the fun in that. We love to explore and that’s what we did.
The main market is huge, spanning over dozens of streets. The food you can have there is so amazing, we’re still dreaming about it. One of our favorites was fried tortilla-like pancakes, stuffed with veggies, meat or mushroom. So good, I can’t even describe it to you. I can show you some pictures though.
We arrived in Xi’an during Golden Week, which we have talked about in length before. Traveling during Golden Week is hellish, and it was very busy in Xi’an that week. I’m not sure if that was necessarily a bad thing though. It did help the vendors get rid of their wares, and thus made sure you always got fresh food. It never had a chance to lay there for more than a few minutes, which made all the great food even better.
One of the things that still visits our sweetest dreams is an amazing kind of candy/pastry they sold. I contacted an expat blogger from Xi’an to find out what it’s called and loosely translated the Chinese call it ‘Walnut Flaky Food’ (核桃酥) or ‘Peanut Flaky Food’ (花生酥). It was amazing. I was speechless for over a minute the first time I tried it, and I’ve eaten a lot of the stuff after that first time. I never grew tired of it. It’s best described as a kind of puff pastry, but instead of dough, built up out of layers of crispy caramelized sugar, laced with nuts. We tried to send a box home for my dad’s birthday, as I was sure he’d love it as much as I did, but sadly the Chinese Post wouldn’t let us send food. I have grand plans involving containers full of the stuff shipped home.
We were also amazed by the amount of dried fruit, walnuts, dates, jujubes and other stuff. It all looked and tasted amazing. The beautiful look of all the dried fruits added so much to the experience. The sheer amount of quail eggs being sold is incredible. Those things are a luxury item in the Netherlands, so it was very surprising to see them in such abundance at a Chinese street market. They sold the quail eggs fried, five on a stick, with a peanut sauce. Delicious!
Have you visited Xi’an? How did you like the food?
There are several crazy stories going around about China and the things Chinese do. Eating babies, among others. Most of these are hoaxes. The Dwarf Empire however, is not a hoax. It exists. It’s a village built for and inhabited by vertically challenged people, or dwarfs. It also goes by the name of the Kingdom of the Little People and it’s a theme park located near Kunming, that features performances by people with dwarfism. The correct term for anyone with dwarfism is: a person/people of short stature. I’ll say dwarf, as it’s shorter.
Quote from the Dwarf Empire flyer:
The biggest Dwarves Empire in the world, Dwarfs Empire is the magical refuge for the small people who now can live their lifes in peace, away from big city and also big people. Here they can able to be united and do the one thing that make them most happy: to sing and dance for you, spreading for you their Universal Love!
The Kingdom of the Little People is the brainchild of Chen Mingjing, a wealthy and flamboyant real estate investor. At the age of 44, he decided he no longer wanted to make money just for the sake of making money, he wanted to do something else with his life. Chen wanted to do good. So he did what anyone with a right mind would have done: he opened a dwarf theme park. According to Chen, the Dwarf Empire is a rare opportunity for dwarfs to find work and respect.
The current situation in China
Supporters of the park claim that it provides employment to people who would otherwise be unable to find work, but it has been criticized for treating dwarfism as a humorous condition. These opinions are pretty black and white. I think there’s a lot more to it. Read on to see what.
Attitudes toward disabled folk are getting a little better since China hosted the Paralympics along with the Olympics in 2008. This has moved disabled people into the view of the government. Healthcare and support for disabled people have improved since. However many of the Chinese still regard all disabled people as freaks. In smaller communities and bigger cities alike all around China they are often left without employment, healthcare, housing or any other help, ostracized by neighbors and stared at in the streets.
Many disabled people in China are degraded to beggars or to scrounge garbage dump sites. There’s just no one that will hire or help them. The Chinese are a very superstitious people, and some believe having a disabled around brings bad luck to a household. It sounds like the Middle Ages, but do not forget that even though Asia is in some fronts further advanced than Western countries, it lacks severely on others like healthcare and education.
Working at the dwarf empire
At the moment the Kingdom employs well over a 100 people. There are two requirements for being employed at the Dwarf Empire: you need to be aged between 19 and 48, and no taller than 130 centimeters to qualify for a job. The park receives 3 to 4 job applications every week from all over China. This does not necessarily mean the theme park is a popular employer among people of short stature, but I think it points out the bad job opportunities for disabled in China.
The employees of the Dwarf Empire pretend to live in the small, mushroom-shaped houses during the performances. In reality, they live in nearby dormitories, specially constructed for people of short stature. All necessary facilities are available. The employees are given English lessons and counseling/therapy during their employment. Even speed-dating sessions are being held among the employees of the park.
The employees make around ¥1000, or around €150 a month, including housing. University graduates in China make significantly less. Does this make up for the fact that these people essentially live in a freak show? Hard to say. Some interviewed employees claim to be genuinely happy.
They are proud to have a job where they are not extorted by their employers, they are proud they have learned to perform, and believe they entertain people by their skills, instead of how they look. They are proud for even having a job at all. They do not feel like they are living in a zoo. Many employees are happy to live and work with other people of short stature, they feel at home among themselves. They feel they gain self-respect by being able to provide for themselves and their family. According to the few interviewed dwarfs a fair share of current employees of the park had been considering suicide before they came to live at the park, and feel happy now.
So what about it?
I’m still in doubt. Is the Dwarf Empire a good thing or not? It’s a very ambiguous subject. There are obviously benefits to the place for its employees. Many of them lead good lives, happy to be among people they can relate too. Of course there is reason for critique as well. There is a semblance with a 1920’s freak show. People don’t visit the Dwarf Empire to admire the dwarfs’ dancing skills. But according the Kingdom’s inhabitants, they don’t really care. They are proud of their jobs, and their lives. There are lots of Western organizations that do not condone this park, but the question is whether these organizations look at the individuals involved and the dire circumstances some of these people have had to face before coming to the Kingdom of the Little People.
How much exactly can the Little People of America foundation say about the lives of people of short stature in a country that’s so vastly different from theirs in so many ways? The people working and living at the Dwarf Empire will probably never (at least not in their lifetimes) be accepted into China’s mainstream society, will never be given decent jobs, will never have equal opportunities. It’s unfair, but in the Dwarf Empire they are at least with like-minded people they can relate with. I respect the employees of the Dwarf Empire for making this choice for themselves. Their employment is voluntary, and they can quit when they want. The injustice that’s driven them to the Dwarf Empire is far greater than the injustice that’s being done to them there.
As long as rights for all humans in China are not up to par with those in Western countries, I believe the Kingdom of the Little People might be a safe haven for its inhabitants. So in this case, the ethics of this place may be related to human rights in China. As they change, ethics change. Ethics aren’t static, you need to view them through the specific characteristics of a region, that region’s culture and that regions development. I think anyone fighting the battle against the Dwarf Empire is fighting the wrong battle. Human rights in China should be your priority.
I’d love it if you share your thoughts! Respond in the comments section below.
This is my story of traveling by train from Beijing to Xi’an during Golden Week 2012 in China. I will walk you through my experience .
China has two mayor holidays throughout the year, where everyone gets a week off. One of those weeks is Golden Week, the first week of October. Now, China is always a crowded place, with people everywhere, all the time, but Golden Week is something else entirely. The Chinese celebrate the end of the harvest and the founding of China in this week. This Golden Week (2012) 86 million people travelled by road, 7.6 million people travelled by air and 60.9 million people traveled by train. In one week. Chinese people love to travel during Golden Week!
People use this week to go home and visit the family they can’t see for most of the year, or for seeing the landmarks of their great nation, mainly Tain’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, both in Beijing.
This completely clogs up the public transport systems of China. In Beijing they closed the subway stations at Tian’anmen Square, due to the masses and fear of terrorist attacks. More stations all over Beijing were closed for the same reasons. In this week, we chose to take the train. This story might scare you, but I promise it’s not always this bad.
In China, besides hard/soft sleeper, hard/soft seat, but you can also buy standing tickets. For 16 hour train rides. In Golden Week, even the standing tickets are sold out.
Getting in to the train station
Imagine arriving at the station, trying to fight your way out of a bus, into a huge crowd. All these people need to get into the station, past luggage checks, ticket checks and body searching officials. You kind of charge your way through, using your elbows and the added weight of your backpack and the daypack in front of you (the only occasion where having two bags on me was convenient), you get in what you think is the line for the ticket check.
When you finally get to the wrong gate you will be let through on account of being a lǎowài (foreigner). After having your ticket checked you can get in line again, luggage check. Usually this line moves reasonably fast.
It works like this: you dump your bags on a conveyor belt and walk through a metal-detector gate, while a bored official with a big gun pretends to look at the screen where the x-ray of your bag appears. Everyone beeps at those gates, no one gets checked. This predicament cleared, another official (with white gloves, think Mickey Mouse, but Chinese) will pretend to do a body search on you, so her boss will think she’s actually doing any work. The boss is smoking a cigarette and playing with his phone at that moment, so it doesn’t really matter what she does, it’s just keeping up appearances.
So after all this, you arrive in the waiting hall. Sounds relaxed eh? It’s not. The waiting room is small, filled with stinky, coughing, retching, farting, noodle-eating, staring-at-you Chinese. It’s the most impressive cacophony of sound and smell anyone can ever experience, barring India.
Every track has its own waiting hall, and usually about four trains per day leave from a track. So most of the people in that hall are waiting for the exact same train you are waiting for.
Surprisingly, Chinese trains and railway stations almost always run in time, we’ve only once or twice experienced a late train.
Getting on the train
After about an hour of waiting, the gates to the track open up, and everyone around you stands and rushes headlong to the gates dragging along kids and bags, creating a nice little traffic congestion on the way. After waiting in line for a while, your ticket again gets checked at the gate. So you get to the train.
It’s usually about 20 carts long, and printed on your ticket is your cart number, and your seat number. If you get a bed there is also upper, middle or lower printed in a Chinese character, which is pretty easy to read. You’ll be fine.
Anyway, you get to the train, along with the two thousand people who were in the waiting hall with you. You find your cart and get in line to get on. Your tickets are checked once again, this time by the caretaker of your cart. Every cart has a caretaker/train-conductor who sweeps and comes by with a garbage bag once an hour. He has to do this or else all the waste the Chinese produce will soon fill the train to pour out the windows. The conductor didn’t even try to do this in Golden Week, as there was no way he could have swept the floor with all those people standing, sitting and lying everywhere.
We had only gotten our tickets two days earlier. This due to some amazing planning and great ignorance on our side. We didn’t even know China had a Golden Week until about three days before. The only tickets we could get for our 13-hour train ride were hard seat tickets. Mixed in with the hard seat crowd are the standing tickets people.
Getting in your seat
When you get on the train it will became painfully clear to you just how much of a train ride from hell this is going to be. There already is some disagreeable woman and her fourteen bags sitting on your seat. This woman has a standing ticket and isn’t planning to use it, she’s planning to use your seat. Getting her off your seat is a challenge involving smiling on your side, angry looks on her side, her studying your ticket for about 5 minutes, a train conductor, some shouting and help of the Chinese crowd around you. But in the end, you will claim your seat, promise.
The seat is hard. You will have to sit on it for 13 hours. There is no air conditioning and there are over a hundred people with standing tickets in your car. Chinese like to stare and if they’re a crowd they care even less than usual. Being in a crowd that stares justifies staring for them. At least you’ll have the feeling you’re being well looked after.. Or at.
After a while an elderly lady spreads out a bamboo mat underneath some chairs which are about 40cm from the floor. You wonder what she is going to do. Next thing you know she crawls under those seats, and starts sleeping. It honestly looks like a better idea than your hard seat, but imagine an elderly European woman on a train in any country in Europa taking a bamboo mat out of her luggage, spreading it out underneath some chairs people are sitting on, and then shooing these people out of the way so she can crawl under and get to sleep. Can you even?
Did we tell you travelling during Golden Week is madness?
Getting of the train
So after a night of wallowing in excruciating pain in your entire body, caused by the hard seats, you get to sit there for a couple more hours while all the Chinese do what Chinese do best. Staring. At you. You should be used to it by now. When you finally get to Xi’an, sleep deprived and in need of a psychotherapist, you are glad to have it over with. If only.
You get out of the train and walk toward the exit of the tracks, along with all the rest of the people on the train. Your tickets are being checked again at that point. Then you get to walk toward the exit of the station, where you pass through another luggage check, body search and ticket check, because apparently the ones in Beijing aren’t sufficient. You walk out the station and are greeted by a huge crowd of people. Those people are the families, extended families and friends of the people who shared the train with you, who’ve come to pick up their relatives.
Imagine about ten-thousand people crammed into an area that’s not fit for even a quarter of them. So you do the routine of charging your way through again, to find the bus stop. Same story there. On the way there you are constantly harassed by motor drivers who are sure they can bring you, your girlfriend, two 50 liter backpacks and two daypacks to your hostel just fine. As you are in no mood to die after all this, you politely tell them to fuck off.
You got on the bus, built in 1934, and a miracle unfolds. It’s the right bus, and you have the right amount of yuan to buy your ticket. Bus drivers in China don’t do change, you just give them what you have closest to what it costs. It’s similarly crowded in the bus as everywhere else during Golden Week, but at that point you’re happy to have found the right one.
After this train trip, finding your hostel is cake, and as you collapse on your bed you vow yourself never to travel during Golden Week again.
It takes a lot for me to be impressed but when I got out of the minivan and saw the Great Wall of China for the first time, I was awestruck. We approached the wall and I could just sense the greatness of societies past. I have never felt so humbled before a structure.
If you want to enjoy the Great Wall of China in peace and quiet, go to the Great Wall at Huanghua. According to official government signs this part of the wall is closed but villagers from Huanghua keep it open, charging 3 yuan entrance fee.
There is no entrance to the Great Wall but a rickety ladder. The ladder is way steeper than it looks on the pictures, and the steps are quite slippery. At the end of the ladder is a window you have to crawl through to get on the Wall. All in all, lots of fun.
Once on top there’s a lot of climbing and walking to do. Try to get to the highest top you can reach, it’s well worth it for the experience and the view.