Our arrival to Xi’an could not have been much more poorly coordinated. We made it from the bus station to the neighborhood where we were staying easily enough, but getting properly checked into our hostel was a doozy. First, the company maintains two hostels with nearly identical names on the same street, so we invariably hit up the first one we saw, and they informed us that we were probably staying at the other one since they couldn’t find our reservation. We walked down the street to the other one, but they told us they were overbooked and had moved us to their third property, which was a fair distance away. The property is located in the higher floors of an office building, so the elevators are shared with business people staring suspiciously at you. Our dorm was shared with employees from the hostel’s cafe on the top floor, who, according to another guest, come back into the room at 3am every day after work and watch TV. Sure enough, that morning at around 3am they came barging into the room, and one of them straight up started watching loud TV on his phone. I got up and asked him to turn it down, which did the trick, but it was still a strange thing for a hostel worker to do. Needless to say we changed hostels the following day. We’re happy to report that Han Tang’s other properties don’t have this particular problem, and our stay there was fairly pleasant.
Xi’an feels like a big city, but also very livable at the same time. The center of town is encircled by a large, (reconstructed) medieval wall, and it is the eastern end of the Silk Road. Being one of the first cities introduced to Islam in China, it is home to a sizable Muslim population (mostly Hui). On our first day in town we checked out the well-known Drum Tower and Bell Tower, two of several historical towers dominating the local skyline. Being that the towers are basically the sights to see in the center of town, the views from the towers themselves are a bit boring, we found that looking at them from outside (after sunset) is more rewarding. The Drum Tower is located just south of the lively Muslim quarter, so we headed there next. Clearly a tourist attraction on the crowded main street, the best parts of the neighborhood are the side alleys a bit away from the action. We found ourselves wandering down the narrow streets and sampling the street food for which Xi’an is famous. The Great Mosque of Xi’an was a highlight, in our opinion, and we spent a lot of time plying the peaceful courtyards.
What was not a highlight, on the other hand, was the very famous Terracotta Army, located some 45 minutes by bus from the center of Xi’an. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but the hordes of tourists and selfie sticks upon entry began to indicate that our time could be better spent elsewhere. Unfortunately, such attractions are essentially mandatory when visiting cities like this. How could we possibly explain that we skipped the Terracotta Army when we visited Xi’an? What if we did miss something spectacular? We’re glad we visited it in retrospect, but it was more checking off an item on our list rather than enjoying our time. Our activities the night before may have had something to do with our lethargy that day though…
We visited the local (only?) craft brewery in Xi’an, called Near Wall, the night before and met an expat who was living in Beijing. The beer was quite good, so we ended up drinking more than we bargained for late into the night, but we had lots of good conversation, and were pointed to a few cool spots in Beijing since it was our next destination.
We opted for the considerably more expensive fast train from Xi’an to Beijing instead of the typical overnighter. The fast train, clocking in at around six hours, rockets along an elevated trackway at about 300km/h for most of the journey, so it’s no surprise that the nearly 1000km between Xi’an and Beijing is covered so quickly. As it turns out, the charm of the fast train is quickly lost when you realize that basically all there is to see out the windows is the sprawling and drab industrial centers enshrouded in low-hanging smog between the two cities.
Coming from the rest of China, Beijing is a bit of a paradox. It’s very western for the most part, and spotting others westerners in the center is commonplace. Most of these people are expats or foreign students, but they seem to magnetize to Beijing and transform it accordingly. There are pockets of very western influence, notably some bars and cafes, where all you hear is English (chiefly of the American variety, it seems) alongside some very traditional Chinese noodle shops.
The majority of Beijing’s life is lived on its hutongs, which are narrow and winding residential alleyways. Our hostel was on one, and most of the places we visited (including all of the western bars) were on them as well. One such bar was Slow Boat Brewery, for which we have much lofty praise. Located down an otherwise unremarkable hutong in the Dongcheng district of Beijing, hidden behind the door is a small and cozy bar space lined with taps of interesting, locally-crafted brew and apparently the best burgers in Beijing. We can’t vouch for that particular bona fides as we didn’t try the others that Beijing had to offer, but Slow Boat’s were damned good. As we sat at the counter, we listened to the English barkeep’s story of how he ended up in Beijing. Strikingly similar to the stories of many other westerners in Beijing, it seems, in showing up there at some point many years ago and deciding to stay; conceding an affinity towards the exotic, yet familiar city.
It’s as quick as a trip to the Forbidden City to see another side of Beijing though, a half decidedly less intimate. Another of China’s must-see monuments, any trip to Beijing would be incomplete without such a visit, as tiring and formulaic as it may feel at the time. We wandered up to the gates of the Forbidden City in the mid afternoon, among the throngs of other (mostly Chinese) tourists. The young man standing guard, with an unwavering confidence and broken English, conveyed to us that they were no longer selling tickets that day and that we should come back the following day. We made it a point to get there early the next day, and took our walk through the Forbidden City. Walking through the smoggy and humid Beijing air that day was certainly tiring, but there was definitely history and beauty in the Forbidden City. We found ourselves enamored with the architecture of the Qing Dynasty rooftops, and focused more on them than anything else within the city walls. Notably absent from our sights seen in Beijing is perhaps the most famous of all, however: the Great Wall. We’ll have a few more days in Beijing in December, and decided to postpone our trip to the wall until then.
We concluded that Beijing is a city to be felt, rather than one to be seen. It definitely has its beauty, but the livelihood of its people and hutongs seems to be the most alluring part. We’re happy to be spending a few more days there later in the year, and hopefully we can come to appreciate it a bit more.
At this point we’re well on our way to Mongolia. We opted for the local transport method, which is by far the most time consuming, but also the cheapest. We spent most of our last day in Beijing waiting for our sleeper bus to leave from its decrepit, ad hoc station in an industrial area of South Beijing. None of the inner workings of Chinese bus schedules make any sense to the outsider, so we simply didn’t ask questions and hung around as our bus meandered from its official station, Muxiyuang, (30 minutes late, of course) to some random parking lot a few kilometers away. Sketchy looking men with prison tattoos (not excluding our driver) came and went, and passengers and undefined boxes of supplies slowly trickled aboard until we finally set off more than two and a half hours after our scheduled departure time. We slowly bumped our way along the highway to Erlian, where we awoke to a beautiful sunrise across the vast expanses of Inner Mongolia (as this region of China is known). Tomorrow we’ll be heading across into Mongolia proper, finally arriving in Ulaan Baatar on July 22nd.
At this time, it seems fair to conclude that of the cities in China which we’ve seen, we have an appreciation for Kunming the most. Perhaps it was our condition; dirty, tired, and sweaty, maddened by the traffic and the heat and the congestion of India that made Kunming so appealing, or perhaps there’s truly something special about the city. From the people and the food to the relaxed environment and the verdant sidewalks, it was the antithesis of the things we had grown tired of in India and it was pleasantly at odds with our expectations of China. Unfortunately we were not able to explore the rest of the Yunnan Province, but maybe we’ll leave that for next time.