The Big Red and Yellow Train Ride Part 2: Beijing - Chengde - Xian - Chengdu

Tuesday 25th March

I was woken by my alarm at 7.45, but I felt as though I could have slept for another 2 hours. The hotel provided a good buffet breakfast.

Six of us caught a bus from outside the hotel, to Jianshan Park. We walked through this park and across the road into Beihai Park, where we walked up to the White Dagoba, then walked on to reach the Forbidden City. We spent a few hours here - well worth seeing even for a second time. Visitors kept being moved out of certain areas, as Al Gore, the US Secretary of State, was making an official visit.

The weather had been hazy sunshine in the morning, but had become cloudier and slightly misty by afternoon.

Sandra had not been feeling well in the morning, so she and Brian had stayed at the hotel and had taken a taxi to the Forbidden City in the afternoon, where we met up with them by chance. We left by the main gateway, with its portrait of Mao, into Tiananmen Square, where we noticed an electronic countdown display outside the Museum of Modern Chinese History, which was displaying the number of seconds remaining until the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

Sandra and Brian returned to our hotel, while the rest of us remained in or around Tiananmen Square, and then walked on in search of a suitable restaurant for an evening meal. We settled on the Duck Restaurant, and called in at the adjacent Hendoman Hotel where we phoned Brian to let him know our plans, and he came by taxi to meet us. In the restaurant we decided not to have the duck again, but had a selection of other dishes including several vegetable dishes (Brian is vegetarian) which turned out to be an excellent meal, costing Y80 (about 6) per person.

We caught a bus back to the hotel.

Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which leads to the Forbidden City. Either side of the famous portrait of Mao are the slogans which read "Long Live the People's Republic of China" and "Long Live the Unity of the Peoples of the World"

Wednesday 26th March

We had to be up early for a 7 o'clock breakfast. A minibus with guide collected us at 8.30 for the journey to Chengde. We stopped for petrol on the outskirts of Beijing, where the price was Y2.24 (about 17p) per litre, much cheaper than at home. The pumps also had a control which allowed the user to preset an amount of fuel or a price.
We arrived at the Great Wall at Jinshanling and we were immediately mobbed by a crowd of villagers trying to sell books, postcards, t-shirts etc. About a dozen of the younger ones followed us onto the wall, continually pestering us as we walked. I bought a Mao-style green cap from them, as the sun was strong and I was in danger of getting my head burnt.

A packed lunch had been prepared for us, and we ate these at one of the towers. There were no other tourists on this section of the wall. Once we had finished lunch, we determined to carry on walking until our followers gave up. They were very persistent, but eventually they stopped and we carried on alone for another half-mile or so. The views of the wall snaking its way into the distance over the mountains were very impressive.

Eventually we returned to the minibus, with the villagers joining us again when we reached their resting place. The minibus took us the rest of the way to Chengde (it's pronounced something like Chng-der), which we reached at 5 o'clock. We checked into our hotel, which had the grand title of Chengde Guesthouse for Diplomatic Missions. We saw a steam passenger train on the railway across the river from the hotel.

In the evening we walked into the town and picked a restaurant, more or less at random. We were shown into a separate room with a single round table, which had a bowl of water above a burner at each place . The restaurant staff spoke no English, but they lit the burners, which were powered by solid fuel, and then brought the uncooked food to the table. We cooked the food ourselves in the boiling water. There was meat, fish, tiger prawns and a variety of vegetables. It made an interesting meal, but it was rather slow and I felt that by the end of the meal I hadn't really eaten all that much.

Back at the hotel, we had a drink in the bar, and learnt that what we had eaten was a Mongolian Hotpot.

The Great Wall

Thursday 27th March

We got up early and had a walk before breakfast, visiting the station to see if we could find out where the steam trains went to, with a view to having a ride on one later in the day. We could not make any sense of the timetables, which were only in Chinese script, so we gave up on that idea. In the town, many of the locals were doing Tai Chi (Chinese exercises) and others were out with their caged birds.

After breakfast in the hotel, we were taken by minibus to the Imperial Mountain Resort, which is where the emperors would come during the summer to get away from the heat of Beijing. The temple area was not particularly interesting, but the scenic area was a park, and it was very pleasant strolling round in the warm sunshine. We had tea in a Mongolian yurt, where items on sale included deers' penises, presumably as some sort of fertility symbol.

We had a good lunch in a restaurant in the town, then in the afternoon we visited two of the many temples in the Chengde area. These were the Puning Temple and the Putozongcheng Temple, the second one being based on the well-known Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

We paid our driver some extra money for him to take us to a spot on the railway which climbs steeply out of Chengde, in order to take some photographs of steam trains. A loaded train of coal came up the gradient from Chengde, with a steam loco on the front and two on the back, all working flat out and the train moving very slowly. As the train passed through some tunnels on the climb, we wondered about the amount of smoke the drivers must inhale, especially those on the rear locomotives. The noise would not do their hearing much good either, but it sounded very impressive to us at the lineside.

In the evening we had dinner at the hotel, then to bed.

Early morning Tai Chi

Friday 28th March

We had breakfast at 7, then the minibus departed at 8 to take us back to Beijing. Today, Andrew was feeling ill. We took the same route back as our outward journey, but not stopping at the Great Wall. Approaching Beijing the road has three lanes each way, with a bizarre assortment of traffic: bicycles, horses & carts, delivery tricycles, tractors, little motorised 3-wheel things, lorries, buses and cars all weaving from lane to lane without any discipline. I wondered what the accident rate was.

We arrived at Beijing Xi (West) station at about 12.15. It is a very striking large modern station built in a Chinese style. We were directed to the Soft Class waiting room by our guide, and after a short wait we were able to board our train to Xian. We found that we were split between four compartments, but some swapping around with other passengers (who were mostly Western tourists in this coach) reduced this to three. Bill and I shared a 4-berth compartment with a couple from New Zealand. We had a very good lunch in the restaurant car. Activities in the afternoon included getting out at the station stop at Shijiazhuang, where the locomotive was changed, and doing a Times crossword with Jim.

Dinner was delayed as the dining car was full with a party of German tourists, but eventually we were able to get seats and their tour guide, a young German-speaking Chinese lady, was able to help us to order our meal by communicating with us in German. Once again we had a very good meal, for just Y40 (3) including beers.

Another night on a train was a bit of a come-down after the last four nights in the luxury of hotel rooms, but at least on this train it was just the one night.

DF4D0028 at Shijiazhuang, at the head of the 13.23 Beijing Xi to Xian train

Saturday 29th March

We were knocked up by the sleeping car attendant at 5.30 for bedding to be collected. The train arrived in Xian at the uncivilised time of 6.22. We were met by our guide on the station, and taken to the Empress Hotel. There was a short delay before being allowed into our rooms on the 12th floor, and then we came down for a good buffet breakfast.

Andy was still feeling unwell, so he stayed behind at the hotel, and today's planned visit to the terracotta warriors was postponed until tomorrow so that he wouldn't miss that. Instead, our guide provided a tour of Xian (at an extra cost of Y400 total) including the Big Wild Goose pagoda and the Dacien Temple, the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, lunch at the Red Opera House (with Chinese 'entertainment'), then the Little Wild Goose pagoda, and an old street in the city with 'traditional' shops (many of which were selling souvenirs to tourists). It was a hot, sunny day.

We had dinner in the Chinese restaurant in the hotel, then had a drink in the bar and wrote some postcards.

A shop front in the old part of Xian

Sunday 30th March

We had breakfast at the hotel, and then packed our bags.

Andy was feeling a bit better today, so he was able to join us for the visit to the Terracotta Warriors. The site is 35km from Xian, and we were taken there by our guide in the minibus. Around the excavation site is a large expanse of souvenir shops and stalls. First we were given an audio-visual presentation which explained why the warriors had been made (to guard an emperor's tomb) and how they had been accidentally discovered by a farmer in the 1970s. We then saw the warriors themselves, firstly in the vast No.1 vault which houses the main body of the army, and then in the smaller No.2 and No.3 vaults. The No.1 vault was quite breathtaking.

We were taken for lunch in nearby Lin Tong, and then went on to Huaqing Pool to see the hot springs and bath houses. Later we visited a factory making replica warriors for sale to tourists. We asked to opt out of this visit, but it was 'compulsory' as our guide had to get his ticket signed there to prove to his employers that he had been there.

Finally, back in Xian, we had a short visit to the city wall at the East Gate. Most of the wall is closed off to the public, so it is not possible to walk round.

We were dropped off at the Golden Flower Hotel where we had arranged to meet a colleague of Andrew's from Rolls-Royce. We arrived there early so Jim, Dave and I had a short walk to a road flyover under construction where people were flying kites.

Back at the Golden Flower we met Paul and his Chinese wife, and they took us to a nearby restaurant where we had yet another excellent meal. Andy was still not able to eat much though.

We returned to the Golden Flower for a drink in the bar, then we were collected at 9.30 and taken to the station. I left my old winter coat with the guide, as the weather now seemed to be consistently warm and sunny and I wouldn't need it again.

At the station, we went via the Soft Class waiting room to the train, which was older and tattier than the previous trains. The restaurant car in particular looked very dirty. The train departed at 22.35 and we went more or less straight to bed, but I did not sleep well.

View along the city wall and moat, from Dongmen (East Gate)

Monday 31st March

I got up at 8 o'clock to see pleasant scenery outside the train, as it followed the Jialing Jiang river in a gorge. Spring was much more advanced here, with leaves on most trees.

We got out of the train at Yangpingguan, and walked to the front. We then got worried about the train leaving without us, so we boarded near the front and walked back through the train to our coach. This involved passing through the 'hard seating' accommodation. This really was quite disgusting: floors were filthy, with remnants of food and other rubbish.

We had a DIY breakfast, as the train passed into Sichuan province. The weather outside became cloudy and cooler as the train progressed during the morning.

We didn't risk the restaurant car lunch, but we went in for a few beers, and bought some cakes at a station stop. On most stations, trolleys selling drinks and snacks, and sometimes more substantial food, park in designated spaces marked out on the platform.

The train arrived in Chengdu at 17.00, and we were again met on the platform by a guide, who led us to the minibus which took us to the Lhasa Grand Hotel where we had dinner. The staff spoke little English, but we got a good meal of the staff's choice of dishes, even though when we ordered beer they brought orange juice.

The 22.35 Xian to Chongqing train at Yangpingguan, with locomotive SS-1097 at the front

Tuesday 1st April

We had a relaxing start to the day, with a 9 o'clock breakfast, which included soya milk, fruit and fried eggs. We were not expecting the additional Y15 charge, but paid up anyway. Andy arrived at 9.30, but we were becoming accustomed to this, and it was suggested that he was working to GMT (Gainsbury Mean Time). Afterwards we sorted out some clothes for the laundry.

We caught a bus into the centre of the city (Y0.6 each, about 5p) and alighted near a large statue of Chairman Mao, one of the few remaining in China. We walked the short distance to Renmin Park (The People's Park) and had a leisurely stroll around. We noted the monument to the Chengdu Railway Heroes, and the 5 of us who worked in the railway industry posed for photographs. There was also a pedal monorail, which some of us had a go on.

We passed most of the afternoon at the open-air tea-house, watching the locals, sipping tea and eating little nuts which had more shell than nut. I had a half-hour session in a pedal-boat with Dave and Andy, while Brian and Sandra shared another boat. We returned to the tea-house to sip some more tea, which cost Y5 per person including unlimited refills. After a dull start in the morning, the weather had brightened with a little sunshine in the afternoon.

After studying our guidebooks to select a place for an evening meal, we decided to walk to a street which has a number of hot-pot restaurants. We chose one that looked OK. It turned out to be similar to the Mongolian one in Chengde, but with a single central pot of water, and chilli oil to make things spicy.

We tried to get a bus back to the hotel, but after waiting for ages we decided to take taxis instead. They only cost Y13 per taxi.

We fancied an ice cream, but they didn't have any at the hotel restaurant. Sandra had some fruit instead, and the rest of us had some beers (Blue Sword).

Tea in the park

Wednesday 2nd April

Today we needed to be up earlier, and we were down for breakfast at seven. This morning we were told to help ourselves to the buffet, which was mostly Chinese. I had hot orange squash, ham, spicy vegetables, toast and jam, and coffee.

We met the minibus and driver at 8 o'clock for a sightseeing tour which we had arranged yesterday. First call was the Panda Breeding Research Centre. Here we saw three giant pandas - there are 23 altogether in Chengdu, but most were at the zoo as it was the breeding season. We also saw several lesser (red) pandas, and went around the museum. Here I learnt that there were only about 1000 giant pandas left in the wild, and these are divided between 30 isolated settlements. 80% are in Sichuan province, but 100 years ago their habitat extended across much of China. One display explained artificial insemination and that semen was obtained by 'electrical inspiration', which was the cue for a number of Michael Faraday jokes.

Later in the morning we were taken to the Wenshu monastery, where we walked around the gardens and eventually found the 'vegetarian' restaurant which is recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. We were surprised to see meat dishes, including stewed bear's paw. Some of the translations were amusing - I had 'shredded meat with galic bolt' and a large bowl of rice for Y5 (about 35p).

In the afternoon, we visited Du Fu's thatched cottage, or rather the ornamental gardens which have been created on the site where the 8th century poet Du Fu lived and wrote. Tea in the teahouse was Y10. Back at the hotel we paid our driver for the day's tour, a total of Y600.

After writing a couple of postcards we set out at 6.45 for a nearby restaurant which Bill had spotted earlier. However, before we got there we passed another restaurant which looked OK, so we went there instead. It turned out to be yet another variant of hot-pot restaurant. Here, the central pot on each table was divided into two compartments, one containing brown liquid and the other one white liquid, with the pot heated by an electric hotplate. After cooking the food in the pot, it could be dipped into oil which had chilli added. It was the best hot-pot of the three so far.

We returned to the hotel, where Jim, Dave and I had a few beers, and stayed up until 11 o'clock. We got the impression that this was very late for the Chinese, and that the hotel staff wanted to close up for the night.

A giant panda enjoying breakfast

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