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Chapter one hundred - Pingyao to Beijing

We took the midnight train going anywhere

sunny 24 °C

Day 360: Pingyao, Shanxi to Beijing, China 23/09/2012

Incredible and deflating to think that tonight will be the final journey of the whole trip, with our eight o'clock departure time making for a bit of a nothing day in Pingyao. Where has this year gone? We head out again in the same sort of direction we have taken before and nothing much has changed in this day or so. We even find the same pig asleep in the same position as it was last time we walked through this way. We do, however, find ourselves some new places and new sights to add to the list of the past three hundred odd days, leaving the confines of the city walls and the ancient world and stepping through a portal into a bright, modern part of the city, with a nice water feature. An old man comes to wash his hyperactive, fluffy white dog in the water around the wooden decking walkways, shampooing his pooch before being left stranded as the dog took flight and charged off in any direction it thought necessary. Highly amusing and one made more surreal when the dog jumped back in the water to find it came up only to its knees.

Walking back towards the city gates, we find a two hundred metre red carpet leading up to a twenty foot tall camera found in the middle of a host of international flags. Seems the photography festival we came across was a pretty big deal. We grant several requests for photos and are welcomed to China by a teenage welcoming committee. A bit late but very kind all the same. Walking around the perimeter of the city walls we find ourselves at an open air theatre performance, where a sizeable crowd of locals are gathered to watch an uncomfortably loud and seemingly very violent Chinese rendition of what I guess was Punch and Judy. Fun to watch, but being the only white faces around there is more gawping at us than at the poor actors.

A catch up with the blog and a decent cup of tea before dinner sees us right up to taxi time and we are soon boarding our sleeper carriage. Destination Beijing. A little more uncomfortable than the last train but the ten o'clock lights out rule makes it impossible to see a thing. Not so much fun when sleep doesn't come too easily...

Posted by tevs 12:38 Archived in China Tagged train theatre china beijing pingyao Comments (0)

Chapter ninety seven - Chengdu to Xi'an

Another train journey. Slight decrease in duration. Slight increase in price. Huge increase in comfort.

overcast 27 °C

Day 353: Chengdu, Sichuan - Xi'an, Shanxi 16/09/2012

A nice relaxed start to the day, with a lie in and a spot of reading before showering and donning the backpacks for the three hundred and fifteen thousand eight hundred and twenty eighth time of the trip. After hailing a cab (easier said than done on a Sunday morning) we are through the ridiculously busy roads of Chengdu and to the station. Forty minutes after leaving we arrive at the station with a bit of a rush on our hands. G runs to grab a lunch of a Chinese colonel's recipe of eight secret herbs and spices and we are running to the train with seconds to spare despite our sensibly early start to the day. Sweating quite disgustingly, we settle into our six bed berth and meet our neighbours for the next fourteen hours - two middle aged men and an elderly couple, who all already seem quite matey.

The sleeper carriage is infinitely quieter and more comfortable than the hard seat carriage we endured enjoyed on our last trip on the Chinese railways. After being befriended by our bedfellows, we are bullied quite forcibly into sharing their food and drink, with the pork ribs and the 52% rice whisky being particularly memorable consumable gifts. As the evening and the journey wear on, we make more and more friends in the carriage, befriending a trainee pilot and a number of younger English speaking passengers. Soon on the top bunk and drift off thinking the ribs were maybe a step too far...

Posted by tevs 13:47 Archived in China Tagged train china xian railway chengdu Comments (0)

Chapter ninety six - Chengdu

Spicy ricey

rain 17 °C

Day 348: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 11/09/2012

The journey continues. And continues. And continues. After minimal sleep and plenty of pages of the book read, everyone is ready to get off. The poor small boy is up and on his sixth meal of the day by seven. The offering of the fleece over his sleeping mother was the turning point in our relationship with the family. There are lots of people gawping at the baggy eyed, greasy haired western couple and there is even time for a few poses for photos and pot noodles (not like the ones at home - actually good ones) kindly donated to us. We are befriended by a couple of English speaking students and hindsight reveals that despite being four hours behind schedule, this has turned into a reasonably comfortable but hugely entertaining journey. The first hour and the one chance at a first impression did little to endear this train to us as every man and his dog brought their worldly possessions - in some cases including the kitchen sink - onto the carriage. However, it is amazing what can be done with a few smiles and a bit of banter.

We eventually arrive in Chengdu, another huge city, this one of around fourteen million people in the entire metropolitan area. A twenty minute cab ride from the station to the hostel costs an extortionate £3 and we are in our room after a mammoth thirty two hour journey door to door. The layer of grease removed from ourselves in the shower needed to be seen to be believed. Just time for tea and my, my, my it is spicy. Liken the sensation in my mouth of the chilli-local pepper combo to putting a whole packet of popping candy in your mouth when it is already numb.

Day 349: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 12/09/2012

Sleep like a baby for a full twelve hours, with me being awoken by the cleaner telling me to move rooms. Ours has a leak. I do so, shower and find Gemma downstairs on the computers. We head out after some advice on the best way to book train tickets and soon find ourselves at the booking window buying tickets for our next epic journey. After managing to get a sleeper ticket this time, we get a typically spicy Sichuan lunch and go for a walk around the city.

Gemma finds herself a pavement based foot specialist, who works wonders, removing dead skin, cracked heels and even starts a verruca removal. He then asks for fifty quid. He gets five. Moving hastily on, we find ourselves in the People's Park, where we discover the most ridiculous thing in ages - a public square full of people of all descriptions dancing furiously in the rain to huge sound systems pumping out some sort of Chinese folk techno music. Some hilarious moves on show here. Hugely entertaining. In addition to this, there are any number of other ways to be entertained here, including traditional opera, theatre and singing as well as some stunning tea gardens. No swings though.

We head to the Wanchau Temple area for the evening and whilst we don't visit the temple itself there is plenty to keep one occupied in the quaint streets surrounding it, which although made purely for tourists, is a good place to visit. Some amazing handicrafts and food available here. A few hands of cards on the rooftop terrace sees the day off perfectly

Day 350: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 13/09/2012

Despite the noise of staying in a room opening onto a communal area of the hostel, we manage another good night's sleep. A cheap, delicious and filling brunch is taken from a nearby cafe shortly after arising, and with the mammoth hard seat journey still fresh in the memory and the pins and needles in the butt, we decide we will book another ticket nice and early, this time for our last big journey of the trip - Pingyao to Beijing.

We catch a bus through the heavily congested streets of Chengdu to Chengdu North station to be greeted by the most enormous train terminal we have ever seen (think Manchester Airport big) and a crowd of people unlike any I have seen in the past twenty years (think Wembley Way on cup final day). There must be a hundred thousand people here and about half that amount of cars, all of them parked in the behemoth of a car park. We manage to find the right ticket window without too many problems, only to be told to come back tomorrow as train tickets are only sold ten days in advance.

Leave the station empty handed to stumble upon a market/wholesale district, which amazingly is even busier than the station was! Imagine any product that you possibly can and you can get it at a bargain price. Imagine a ten foot Spongebob teddy. It's there. Imagine a million hairclips. They're there. Imagine a turtle in a keyring fishbowl. There. All made in China.

Gemma gets some bargain clothes and we end up getting horribly lost in a maze of children's clothing stalls. China at its most enterprising and entrepreneurial best. An early tea and an early night.

Day 351: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 14/09/2012

Up nice and early today for our date with that most famous of Chinese creatures, the Giant Panda. A 7.15 pick up soon sees us stuttering our way through the gridlocked streets of central Chengdu, arriving at the Panda Research Base at around eightish and before long we are watching six adolescent pandas acting like any group of teenagers, reclining on a sort of sofa made of bamboo poles and munching on bamboo shoots, in a pose familiar to anyone that has spent time at university. A tour of the park then takes us on to see a series of mature pandas, some with young offspring giving their siblings a bit of rough and tumble. These magnificent, languid and beautiful animals have the whole crowd of tourists cooing and purring with delight, their insatiable appetites for bamboo shoots being a complete mismatch to the sheer size and apparent weight of these animals. As the morning wears on, the pandas' lethargy and need for sleep becomes more than apparent and the majority of the Giant Pandas we encounter from about half nine onwards are sleeping off a busy morning.

With the adult pandas snoozing, we are taken to the baby panda unit and the sight of two tiny, black, white and fragile cubs has the ladies gushing and definitely pulling on the heartstrings of even the most hardened of the older Chinese men in the group. The use of a baby incubator gave a definite human element to their survival and highlighted the importance of and difficulty in ensuring these elegant creatures' survival. A brief foray into the lair of the Red Pandas - they have free reign over parts of the park due to the presence of purpose built holes in their enclosures. The signs instructing us to not get too close to the Red Pandas - on account of their temper - seems a bit redundant due to the fact that they can run up to visitors, have a chat and walk alongside them on the walkways through the park. Still, a bit more mobile and athletic than their giant cousins, the Red Pandas are another great creature to add to the list we have met this year and before long it is time to jump back on the minibus and head back to the hostel.

A quick lunch is followed by a return visit to the train station, and despite being prepared for the hustle and bustle of the place, we are still amazed by the sheer number of the people here. Return to the hostel the proud owners of two tickets for a hard sleeper between Pingyao and Beijing, before embarking on a rather disappointing Friday night out near the temple.

Day 352: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 15/09/2012

An eventful morning starts at four for me, with numerous trips to and from the shared toilet from our room confirming that I have a poorly stomach. This eventually eases off until about midday, at which point we venture out for a bite to eat. VERY busy around the temple opposite the hotel, with thousands of Chinese day trippers taking advantage of the weekend to come and swoon over a bit of traditional China. The crowds and some of the manners, coupled with my slightly fragile state of bowel and mind, make me a grumpy fellow so my apologies to my patient and faithful companion for this! A cup of scented tea in a traditional tea house and a steaming bowl of noodle soup help aid the recovery so again thanks go to Gemma.

An otherwise uneventful day sees us pack the bags and prepare for tomorrow's onward journey to Xi'an. Chengdu has had its moments, and though we probably stayed a day too long, the spicy food and yesterday's panda experience, not to mention the sheer scale and intimidation of the train station, will live long in the memory.

Posted by tevs 13:40 Archived in China Tagged park train city china panda chengdu people's_park Comments (0)

Chapter ninety five - Yangshuo - Chengdu

The longest journey of the year. And the hardest.

overcast 26 °C

Day 347: Yangshuo - Guilin - Chengdu, China 10/09/2012

An eight am bus to Guilin is the first order of the day and a two hour journey flies by due mainly to the manic driver. We soon find ourselves in Guilin and en route to the train station, stopping to have two breakfasts (one bad, one good). Killing some time at a cafe outside the station playing cards, we are elevated to minor celebrity status, again bringing back memories of India. We then head into the train station and an informative overhead screen helpfully informs me I can get HIV from having my hair cut.

Before too long we are piling onto a train with what seems like half of China. The train itself is clean and efficient, which is more than can be said for the extended family that seems to be surrounding us from every conceivable direction. Over the next 32 hours a love/hate relationship develops with these people, highlights including the poor boy made to sleep on the floor under his mum's seat, the same poor boy who tries to eat Gemma's pot noodle off her fork and the same poor boy who discovers he cannot burp despite his best efforts - a small meow comes from his mouth every time he tries.

The night is hard, noisy and busy but bearable. Both manage to get a little sleep and have a surprisingly good dinner in the dining car.

Posted by tevs 13:19 Archived in China Tagged train china guilin chengdu yangshuo hard_seat Comments (0)

Chapter fifty six - Somewhere in Java

A loooong journey

sunny 25 °C

Day 216: Somewhere in Java, Indonesia 02/05/2012

Wake up slightly the worse for wear after yesterday's drinks (quite a lot by recent standards) and with this our bonus day in Pangandaran (as decided last night) we are soon at the beach trying to decide on our next move. Reading the Lonely Planet when have a brainwave...why not travel overnight?

Straight to the internet cafe to check the train times, when on the way in we see a baby monkey tethered to the tree outside. As I run back to get the camera there is a seven year old boy feeding the monkey using a baby's bottle. Take a moment to stroke him. The monkey that is, not the boy...

It soon becomes apparent that the overnight train is a possibility to get to Mount Bromo tomorrow. We hurriedly gather up our stuff, head to the bus station and learn the last bus to Sidarejar (the nearest train station) has sailed and the next one is in the morning. However, there is an alternative route according to the old bus conductor, going from Banjar to Surabaya - check this online and he is right. So, we jump on the bus to Banjar, hopeful we would be on time for the train, get dropped outside the station in good time and after a quick tea we bunk down in the train carriage ready to cross a fair chunk of Java by the morning. Reasonably comfortable to be fair.

Posted by tevs 04:10 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia java travel train Comments (0)

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