Took my first overnight train across China two nights ago, trained from Hangzhou
. Snagged a "soft sleeper," and while the rooms were smaller than I had imagined and there was no WiFi to be had (again with the hype!), I was pleased to have a room with a door and a manageable number of beds (four). Two of the women I bunked with spoke English, which made for a rather enjoyable trip.
As it turns out, sleeping on a train is not as easy or pleasant as you'd think. It was a looooong night of being tossed about, the psychedelic glare of four TVs playing pranks on my dreams (TVs were unable to be shut off for some reason, was a problem train-wide, to my understanding; and yes, this was WHILE WEARING an eye mask), and spent most of yesterday stretching my back every which way -- I think I'm going to need a few things realigned after that.
Mob waiting to get into the subway
Not much in the way of a decent night's sleep. Although it was eons better than the dorm room I was sharing in Hangzhou, to be sure.
Anyway. So I wake up and stuff my feet into my shoes and stumble into the hallway and into the blazing, brilliant sunshine, and make a beeline for the beyond disgusting bathroom, details of which I'll spare you. On my way back to the room I glanced outside and WHOA BABY was I mesmerized! I stood in the hall for a good ten minutes just SQUEALING with delight (100% internally, I wasn't actually squealing -- the looks I was getting due to being the only foreigner on the train were enough as it was) at the scenery rushing past me. SNOW!! It SNOWED!!!
Now. Let me give you a little background.
Beijing Central Station
For those of you who grew up with changing temperatures and four proper seasons, you don't know how snow actually comes about. For those of us who grew up with two seasons (pleasant hot and HOT hot), this is how snow comes about (it's been scientifically proven): All the lucky boys and girls who live up north go to sleep one night and wake up in the morning and there is SNOW! To PLAY WITH! And better still -- SNOW DAYS! This whole autumn thing, sure. You had actual changing leaves and seasonal pumpkins and apples, as opposed to mere decorations or extra props you went to the store to purchase. But the temperature didn't change until there was snow. Didn't you know that? That was the hardest part about my first year in college -- it was so DAMN COLD and there was NO SNOW.
No snow! For months! And yet it was cold! UNSPEAKABLE CRIME! In my opinion (although it is far better now, after living in climates consisting of four seasons for the past several years), snow justifies cold. Everybody knows, it's warm unless there's snow outside. Duh. And this was EXACTLY how I perceived snow when I was younger: went to sleep in the hot, sticky weather in Hangzhou, and woke up to snow on the ground in Beijing. Brilliant.
Leaving the station, I took one look at the massive taxi line and for once was glad to be a frugal traveler. I wasn't going to have to stand in that
line. The fools. I then made it to the end of the block where the subway station was and the line to get into the subway DWARFED the taxi line.
Check out those icicles!
BY FAR. There were easily a thousand people standing there, groggy and grumpy and screaming and spitting and shoving, because obviously, when it's freezing outside and the ground is slick, shoving is the way to go. It was pretty cold (below zero Celsius), but considering I had just spent the last week sweating my brains out, I was THRILLED to be in the cold. Nevermind that my hands were going numb.
After making only one wrong turn down a very similarly named alley (to the one I was supposed to be on), I found the hostel and the very nice man let me check in on the spot. He even let me cash in on a free breakfast, even though I hadn't slept here the night before. (I haven't seen the days of free breakfasts since Korea -- oh how I've missed thee!) I then hung around for the next hour or two as people woke up and shuffled into the (slightly less freezing) common area from the (freezing!) outside.
DELICIOUS vege dumplings and tofu & greens for lunch. YUM.
Made some friends, read an English language Chinese newspaper (praising the increasing robustness of the air force and asserting that it would "NEVER be used against another nation," nevermind the outright gloating over the antiaircraft missiles and superb weaponry -- are these people for real??), poured over a map realized that I have FAR too little time in this massive, spectacular city, and managed to invite myself to tag along on an Australian couple's outing to the Summer Palace. (Shameless, I am.) I then proceeded to have my best day yet in China. Absolutely fabulous.
The Summer Palace is SPECTACULAR. Utterly gorgeous, peaceful, terrific views, sprawling grounds, more than enough to keep you totally occupied for a full day. We took our time and snagged a delicious (vegetarian!) lunch around the corner from the hostel, so made it there in the early afternoon and didn't have time to cover everything.
However, we managed quite a few hours poking around, and seeing as it was FREEZING (literally, hovered around freezing all day), a lengthy afternoon was both leisurely and well-spent, but also probably as much as we could have handled, given the temperature. (My mantra for the day was "You're not sweating your buns off in Hangzhou. You're not sweating your buns off in Hangzhou
.") Nicola and Dan said the Summer Palace was probably their favorite sight in Beijing, and seeing as they've been here for a full week and have tackled about as much as possible in that time period, I'd say that was pretty high praise. It was really impressive. And so beautiful. We loved it.
We made it to the subway as the sun was setting and looped around to the northern part of town, where the Olympic park is.
(My sister just snapped to attention at the word "Olympic" and is now focusing on my every word. Somebody
neglected to visit the Olympic grounds in Seoul and this was a MOST unforgivable offense. To be certain, I doubt the Olympic park would have made it to my radar if it weren't for those two. The way I see it is: why do I want to go out of my way to see an empty stadium? ESPECIALLY when it is below freezing outside.) Lucky for me, there was some event or another going on, and we could only get so close to the stadiums. (I say lucky because this meant we only stood around for thirty minutes or so before heading back to the subway.) They were lit up (apparently impressively), but again, I'm standing there practically convulsing it was so cold, going "why are we freezing our asses off just to look at an empty stadium?" So there you go Woozie, ticked that one off the list for you.
Olympians everywhere are flattered in your name.
We then decided to hunt down a vegetarian restaurant (hanging out with fellow vegetarians reaps HUGE benefits, I tell you what) that wasn't listed in the newest (2009) guidebook, and in my experience this means it no longer exists. But hey, it's fucking cold outside, why not wander around in the dark and try our luck? I finally drew the line at crossing a massive highway and said guys, see that construction site right there? See how there is no 183? And the number before it is smaller and the number after it is larger? I'm pretty sure that construction site is what we want. So let's cut our losses and find some food. Stat.
We wandered for about ten minutes before finding some random back alley with a few restaurants on it.
I went off to buy some oranges (ultimately refusing because the guy took one look at me and upped the price by like 300%) and they tried their luck with the hunt for vegetarian items on menus game. They were quite successful, and we got the last table available in a restaurant full of locals all too happy to ignore us in favor of stuffing their faces. Those are my kind of people. Dinner was delicious. Soooo good! We shared eggplant (Dan hesitatingly agreeing to my suggestion and then practically licking the plate clean, it was so good), a big plate of mixed vegetables (sopping with butter and oil, but a meat-free victory is about as good as you can hope for), the funniest looking squid I've ever seen in my life (with little spikes all over them!) with more butter-saturated vegetables, and some sort of tofu and bok choy soup with loads of thin noodles.
Three happy vegos indeed.
We made it back to the hostel a bit after 9pm, thoroughly worn out and having ridden almost every subway in Beijing. (There should be some sort of World Record for that.) Had great big giant beers (the standard twelve ounce bottles are going to look downright puny when I leave this country), sprinted back and forth between the heated common rooms and the sink room to brush my teeth and the bedroom to change and sleep, it's like an invigorating workout every time you need to go outdoors; requires mental preparation and a full-out sprint. Have you peed outside when it's below freezing and you can see your breath? It's COLD. Waking up to that is rough.
So, so happy to be in Beijing. Absolutely loving it.
On the whole it seems cleaner and more efficient than Shanghai (and EONS ahead of Hangzhou), and I couldn't be happier to be enjoying China. Something I've learned on this trip is not to take where you are for granted, and not to assume the next place will be as good (or bad). Hence, I opted to eat the change fee and extend my stay a few days. This city is absolutely MASSIVE, and there's so much to see and do here, even with the few extra days I still won't manage to tackle it all. Even if I opt to have a down day in the end, I know I'll be content in a terrific hostel run by wonderful people, and that's what it's all about, right? Calling this place home for the next few days, and feel right at home too. Doesn't get much better than that.