The Sleeper Train

Xi'an Travel Blog

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The hallway of the train.

I had heard all about the trains in China from friends who had travelled there. It seems like one of those experiences that everyone needs to have in China. So I decided to take an overnight train from Xi'an to Beijing instead of flying there. In addition to getting the experience, I also wanted to see some of the countryside of China. That is one of the regrets I have from my trip--that I didn't get to see more of the countryside.

I have to confess that I didn't opt for the full, hard-core China train experience. In China you have several options when purchasing a train ticket. There are hard seats, soft seats, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers. The hard seats are the worst.

The births. There was only about 1.5 feet of space between each side. It was hard to get non-blurry photos due to the movement of the train.
You basically get loaded on like cattle, and they will sell far more tickets than they have seats. So on really busy trains, people will sometimes have to stand for an entire trip, including multi-day trips. The soft seats are a little better, and I think that you do get guaranteed a seat. The favorite ticket for most of the seasoned China travellers I've spoken with are the hard sleepers. Here you have berths against one wall of the car that are three deep. (These are not tall trains, so it is pretty tight.) There is no privacy on these cars. People are constantly passing by. But this is where you get the real experience of chatting with all of the other passengers, sharing food (everyone brings food), and soaking up the atmosphere.

But I chickened out and opted for the soft sleeper.

These are the second-nicest cars that you can get. There are four berths to a compartment, and you get an actual door to close. You also get a special lounge in the train station. I didn't think I would really care about that. But then I saw the train station on a Friday night. I can't possibly describe how many people were there. There were masses of people outside the station. Some were catching trains, some were arriving, many were waiting for loved ones who would be arriving soon. And some just seemed to hang out there for no reason. But that was nothing. Once I got inside my claustrophobia immediately kicked into gear. The entire station was like one of the city buses during rushhour. Wave after wave of people were going in every direction. After hauling my luggage up and down the stairs, I finally found the soft-sleeper lounge. It was nothng special, but boy was I glad to be there! It wasn't crowded. There were enough plush seats for everyone to sit and still have a few feet of personal space. I felt pretty guilty being in there-it just seemed so elitist. But I wasn't about to go back into the main terminal.

People with soft-sleeper tickets are allowed to board the train before the other passengers. All of the announcements were in Chinese, but there was also an electronic sign board. It displayed info in both Chinese and English. So I was watching that sign like a hawk to see when my train began to board. It kept showing that the train had not arrived, so I figured it was running late. Then, about 5 minutes before the train departure time one of the lounge attendants asked to see my ticket and told me to go board the train. I had to run down this underground tunnel with all of my luggage, run back up the other side, and then I couldn't figure out what car to go to. I ended up just getting on the first car that would let me enter, because I was afraid that the train would leave without me. Then I had to haul my luggage up and down the steps of 4 cars until I reached mine. By that time I was covered in sweat and gasping for breath, and my roommates probably thought I was a madwoman. Fortunately they were very nice. One man spoke a tiny bit of English. So between the two of us we made some very small small-talk in a combination of languages.

But despite all that, the train ride itself was really enjoyable. The berths are comfortable enough, and I find the motion of the train to be very relaxing. It is a little awkward to share a very small room with 3 complete strangers, but everyone seemed to be considerate of the others. I slept pretty well that night. I woke up around 7:00 and excitedly pulled back the window shade to see the countryside--only to discover that there was a thick fog blanketing the area and I couldn't see 5 feet from the train. So that plan didn't work. But all-in-all I am very glad to have had that experience. And I've been able to warn the other volunteers about that darn electronic sign at the station.

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I stayed at a really great place in Beijing called the Red Lantern House. It is a hostel with a few different buildings located a short walk apart in an honest-to-goodness hutong area northwest of downtown. The hutongs are mazes of tiny streets and alleys that are filled from end to end with shops, restaurants, hair salons, mini-markets, and the like. But I need to stress that nearly all of the businesses are tiny, and they are all scrunched together. In about 10 paces you may pass a store that sells plastic bowls, a hair salon, and a dumpling shop. Many of the restaurants have windows to the street where you can get your food to go. These alleys had a different feel from the ones in Xi'an. In Xi'an I was always aware that the main streets were just a block or two away, even though they were completely hidden from view. In the hutong neighborhood of the hostel, it felt more like a city of it's own. These types of neighborhoods have existed all over the city, but a lot of them have been cleared during the past decade to make room for rapid housing growth and the Olympic venues.
I decided to treat myself with a private room with an attached bathroom. I had just left two weeks of dorm living, and I was ready for some privacy. My room was very nice. It was clean and bright with sunlight. This hostel building was built around a courtyard. In the summer this would be an excellent place to hang out. It was a little too chilly for that in March. But it also had a very comfortable common room for the guests that had a little restaurant, coffee bar (yes, coffee!!!), and a tv. The food was overpriced, but what do you expect when you can go there in your slippers? I only had a couple meals there. But I had coffee every day.

My first day there was a bit of a bust. I arrived on a Saturday, and I had to fly back home on Tuesday, so I wanted to see some sights during that first evening. Unfortunately, I ended up spending the entire afternoon roaming up and down the streets looking for a store that sold a supply I needed. (Since there are guys reading this, I won't say more.) I must have walked a good 3 miles before I returned to the hostel. An interesting note about the area--one of the big city streets is located nearby, and it apparently is a music district. There were stores on the street with every kind of instrument imaginable stacked up in the windows. There were cellos, clarinets, keyboards, traditional instruments, and dozens of others. I had never seen anything like it before.

After my 3 mile search, I took a nap. Then I decided that I would go to something called the Night Market. One of the other guests told me about it. It is this outdoor market that is intended mainly for tourists (both domestic and foreign) that sells all kinds of really wierd stuff. The food items included scorpions-on-a-stick, and other buggy bites. (I met a guy on the bus to the Terra Cotta Army who actually had a photo of himself eating a scorpion. Ugh!) I didn't intend to eat there, but I thought it would be worth checking out.

The manager of the hostel explained which bus I should take, and showed me on the map. I caught the right bus (still just about 12 cents per ride) and went the right way. But I misunderstood where I was supposed to get off and went far past the market. By that time I was pretty exhausted and decided to call it a night. I took the bus going the other way and wandered around the hutongs a bit before going to bed. So that was my first day in Beijing.

Before I go on to talk about Beijing, I need to mention the Tang Dynasty Dinner Theatre. I went there with the other volunteers on my last night in Xi'an. This is a broadway-style show in Xi'an. It is definitely meant for the Westerners. The narration was almost entirely in English. The waitstaff wore elaborate costumes and headdresses with ropes of fake hair. We witnessed a birthday celebration and an anniversary celebration. Both tables got cakes, and the waitresses (all very thin and tall--equal opportunity employment apparently is not a concern in China) brought a huge scythe-like plastic weapon with a 6 foot staff to each table and the guests used it to cut the cake. Just like they did in the olden days. Then the show started. It was about an hour long and involved mostly dancing and playing musical instruments in bright costumes with dry ice and strobe lights to add to the effect. I think you get the picture. It also cost a very Western price--nearly $40! It is a fun event to do as a group, if you are just looking for a fun night out. But if you ever go to Xi'an with the goal of learning about the ancient history of China, you'll want to reconsider plans to go here. I've posted pictures of the show. It is too bad I didn't get any of the audience, because I truly think that every Western person in the entire city was there. It was odd, because prior to that I had been surprised by how few of us I saw in the city. I guess most of them don't venture on to the city buses.

I wasn't originally planning to go to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. These are life size figures that were buried with Emperor Qin (cheen) during 209 BCE. The fascinating thing about them is that there are about 7,000 of them buried there, and each one is unique. The theory is that the Emperor had them created during his lifetime to protect him in the next world after death. They were discovered in 1976 by some farmers who were digging a well. The majority of them are still underground and it is still a working excavation site.

I wasn't planning to go because you can't really get close to any of the statues. You can only walk around the edge of the huge pit and see them from a far distance. But I ended up having a free day on my last day in Xi'an, so I decided to head up there. They were impressive, but once you've stared at them for about 15 minutes, that's about all there is to it. They are too far away to see the individual details of each. Some of the visitors had hired English speaking guides to lead them through the site. I eavesdropped on a few of them, and the visit would probably have been much more interesting if I had hired one of them.

There is a museum on the site that is interesting. It explains how the statues were found and how they were recovered. It also has a collection of porcelain pots on display. And there was also a somewhat random exhibit of Buddhist paintings that had absolutely no connection with the warriors. But they were really fascinating. They were several hundred years old, but the colors were still vibrant. And the pictures were not the kinds of images that are generally associated with Buddhism, at least in the west. There were demons and devils and holy men involved in various activities. Some of the subjects had body parts in the wrong place. Unfortunately I didn't think photos were allowed, so I didn't get any.

Apart from the pits and the museum, the scenery in the area is really nice. The Warriors are located about an hour away from Xi'an and are within site of the LiShan mountains. (I believe that means black horse mountains.) Also, the compound that houses the Warriors is very picturesque in some spots. I have included photos.

Inevitably, just beyond the exit of the site a whole tourist-related village has been built. It is actually pretty unbelievable. There are several strip malls all filled with little shops selling things like miniature warriors, fake jade bracelets, hats, and every other kind of tourist trinket you can imagine. There are also restaurants, which are ridiculously expensive because they have a captive audience. I found a little sidewalk stand that had noodles and dumplings and I bought some of those. They were way too expensive compared to what you would pay elsewhere, but still far cheaper than any restaurant.

That was my last day in Xi'an. At 9:00 that night I set off for Beijing in an overnight train, which I will write about next.

If anyone is reading this on the i-to-i site who is considering going to Xi'an to teach, my advice is to go for several weeks. For several reasons I was only able to go for 2 weeks, which is the shortest amount of time possible. The school I worked at was new to i-to-i, and we were the first volunteers to go there. When the English teachers worked out a schedule for me I ended up visiting each class just once per week. (Grades 1 through 6.) This meant that I saw each class only two times during the entire time I was there. So I did not get a chance to bond with the students or even develop a sense of how much English they had learned or understood. I'm sure this was in some part due to the fact that it was a new project, and some of that will get established in a little while. It is also possible that you may be assigned to a different school than the one I worked at. But I still think that in order to have a really satisfying experience, you need to go for a longer time.

I've posted some pictures from the school on this site. There wasn't really a good opportunity to get pictures of me teaching the class, it would have been really awkward. But I have some photos of the students doing their morning exercises and dances, as well as some photos of the building.

The hallway of the train.
The hallway of the train.
The births.  There was only about …
The births. There was only about…
photo by: Deats