Our Odyssey to China is nearing the end, but there is still so much to look forward to on this trip, starting with today’s transit to Beijing by High Speed Train. On our original itinerary, this was to be our only HST trip but, you may recall, the lost days on the Yangtze were replaced by buses and an extra HST ride from Huangshan to Wuhan. That journey only whetted our appetite for the HST experience and we were really looking forward to today’s ride.
Readers in Europe and the UK may wonder at our excitement over a fast train ride, but the fact of the matter is that nothing like this exists in Australia. Our routine intercity trains from Newcastle to Sydney rarely exceed 80 kph and that journey of around 150 km typically takes 2 1/2 hours. Scenic? Definitely! Comfortable? Usually. Fast? Absolutely not!! So, the fact that we were about to travel 1200 km by train - about 200 km further than from our home to Melbourne - in less time than a return train ride to Sydney, was something to look forward to.
We made an early start to travel to the railway station, arriving at an enormous building, more in keeping with a major airport. We have seen some of the other big stations of the world - eg King’s Cross and Gare du Nord - but they were dwarfed by the Xi’an HST station. Inside, the reason for such a large station became obvious; the crowds of people travelling were HUGE! It was still the tail of the holiday season, after all. Despite this, we managed to check in and find our platform gate with ease and settled down for a relatively short wait to board.
At Huangshan, and again here in Xi’an, we noticed the entry to the platform allowed for two queues - regular and special needs. Since we were travelling as a group and there were some in our group who had difficulty standing for long periods, we felt OK in lining up in the special needs queue. Besides, we can’t speak Mandarin so that qualified us as well !
Once through the barrier, we quickly found our assigned seats, stashed our luggage and took stock of our train. It was very comfortable and our carriage was conveniently close to the dining car and bar - very handy! With plenty of time before departure, Ray disembarked to take some pictures. He walked to the engine and, looking back, was amazed at the length of the train. After taking a few pictures, Ray paced out the length of the train - it turned out to be around 400m - awesome.
Back on board and we departed right on time. With the station being a fair distance from the centre of Xi’an, it didn’t take long to get up to speed. In fact, we reached 300 kph in under 15 minutes, but the design of the windows - higher sills than on a regular train - give the illusion of a slightly more sedate speed. The bar being close was handy, but there was also a very regular trolley service for those times when you might be peckish but lazy. All in all, the on-board passenger experience was excellent.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the scenic experience. Sadly, the Autumn haze (my cynical side says “smog”) lay over the landscape for the entire 1200 km journey, almost completely obliterating the sky and reducing the nearby Taihang Mountains to vague, hulking beasts. We travelled mainly along the broad flood plains within the mountain range, and expected to see at least some evidence of large scale agriculture - I guess we were in the wrong part of China. We did see some land under crop but not one farm animal - no herds of sheep or cattle. The agricultural endeavours were completely dwarfed by the countless examples of the urbanisation of China. Dozens of tower cranes, many cleared sites for future construction, and literally hundreds of newly completed tower blocks lined the route, along with numerous new highways and High Speed Train lines in various stages of construction.
Other interesting sights along the way included a group of at least three coal-fired power stations not too far outside Xi’an, making their contribution to the “haze”; and what appeared to be a Space industry park as we neared Beijing - a reminder of China’s increasing interest in space travel.
Four and a half hours after departing Xi’an, we disembarked 1200 kms away in Beijing. This is an increasingly routine experience for the Chinese, but for us it was a memorable and very enjoyable journey - one of many highlights of the trip, so far.
Despite the huge crowds in the Beijing HST station, our guide found us quite easily. What was not so easy was the long walk, dragging our cases, to the coach. To reach it, we had to negotiate droves of people; crowd control barriers and very busy intersections. However, we managed the gauntlet without loss of life or limb, which was a very positive start to our visit to Beijing .
A short half hour drive took us close to one of the remaining Hutongs of Beijing. These are ancient residential areas where laneways connect traditional courtyard homes in small, but distinct, communities. Beijing was once surrounded by hundreds of Hutongs, but most have been demolished as part of the modernisation of China. However, in recent years, a number of Hutongs have been granted protected status in order to preserve the cultural links to the past that they represent. The few dozen that remain have become very important to the tourism industry of Beijing - a contribution to which, we were about to provide!
Once we disembarked from the bus, we had another ten minute walk to get to the rickshaw stand in Sichahai Hutong, - at least we didn’t have to drag our bags along! After milling about for quite awhile, waiting for the requisite number of rickshaws to arrive, we set off for a tour of Sichahai. The ride was very enjoyable and we couldn’t help but wonder at the skill of our riders. They seemed to slip through gaps not big enough for a bicycle, never mind a rickshaw! Sichahai Hutong is located alongside Qian Hai and Hou Hai lakes, a very scenic spot and a local favourite are for strolling and dating. With the Hutong on one side and the lakes on the other, our ride was very enjoyable and relaxing.
After a while, we alighted from our rickshaws and walked into the maze of laneways of the Hutong. This was no random wander, however. We soon arrived at one of the courtyard residences, that are synonymous with the Hutong, where the owners have established a niche market of catering meals to small tourist groups. This was to be our dinner venue for the evening and it did not disappoint. The food was just about as genuine as any Western tourist on a budget tour could hope to be offered. While most meals we have had to date were good, there was a certain sameness to them and a clear attempt to make the local food more acceptable to Western palates. This was different. The food was fresh, tasty and very “home cooked”! Even more different was the environment. We were dining in the family home which, to all appearances, is essentially a one-room house with an external kitchen - the owners bed was behind our dining table! It was a great way to spend an hour or so.
We walked back to our rickshaws and returned to the stand, then strolled to our bus. A mere 45 minute drive later, we arrived at our hotel, the Wyndham. By Australian standards, it is a long way out of the city, but in Beijing it is merely on the outskirts. Situated inside the sixth(!) of seven ring roads that surround this enormous city, it is fairly well placed, although the sheer size of Beijing means that any tourist excursion is going to take awhile. We need to be mindful of this over the next couple of days as we hit the high spots!