Backwards To Beijing

21st September 2017

At the back of the trainWhen planning our trip, the bullet train between Shanghai and Beijing was a ‘must do’ even though it isn’t that much cheaper (or quicker) than flying. It got even more exciting a couple of days ago when we read that a new even faster train was being introduced into the service today and that it has a top speed of 400km/h (instead of the usual 300km/h).

As expected, Shanghai’s bullet train station (you have to be careful to go to the right station) is enormous – more like an airport terminal than any station in the UK. We knew it would be rammed with people and we knew to expect a visible police presence, luggage scans and more security theatre. It was a long walk to go and get my Starbucks but in the end we joined the crowd at our waiting area with plenty of time to spare. We were, though, very grateful that we’d been to the ticket office in a smaller station to collect our tickets.

Phone, check! Coffee check! All is good.In the end, the train was a bit of an anti-climax. We weren’t on the new train and so our journey time was going to be 4hr 55min (rather than 4hr on the new train). Having splashed out for 1st class seats, we’d been allocated seats 2A and 2C in carriage 1 and so were expecting something rather swish. But it turns out that there were two even posher ‘Executive Class’ seats in front of us – and, worse, our seats were not all that comfortable. Still, at least we were right at the front of the train and so would get a great view? Wrong! As we pull out of the station, the train is going backwards! Hey ho.

It’s 1,000km from Shanghai to Beijing and we averaged over 200km/h. Forwards or backwards, it was pretty dull and there wasn’t much else to do but watch the countryside – a mix of rural and urban areas. No complimentary food or drink like you’d get on a plane either. The most exciting bit was the bullet train yard just outside of Shanghai. It comprised of parallel train lines with row upon row of white bullet trains stretching off into the distance almost as far as you could see. All in all, we thought that the Japanese do bullet trains so much better. In the end the only real benefit of the bullet train over flying is that Beijing (bullet) train station is closer to the city centre than the airport is.

Main entrance to the Palace HotelA couple of weeks ago, we got a strange email in Chinese from the hotel we’d booked in Beijing. When we asked one of our guides to translate it, she explained that it was detailed instructions for a taxi driver on how to find the hotel. Well, we know how Chinese metro systems work so we were never going to get a taxi and we could see our Palace Hotel, Forbidden City on the map app on my phone so we were a bit puzzled as to why we needed this email. Surely the hotel would be obvious? As we walked up along the outside of the Forbidden City wall, we started to understand the email. The hotel is completely unmarked and down a tiny alley.

Looking through to the courtyardWe’d exchanged the faded colonial charm of the Astor House Hotel for a small, quirky hotel right by the Forbidden City in Beijing. The ‘what have we let ourselves in for’ initial reaction was reinforced when we were shown to our room directly off the main courtyard / reception area. With a frosted glass door and a curtained glass wall between us and the courtyard, would we get any privacy? However, there’s nothing really wrong with the room – we’ve definitely stayed in grottier. And it is right by the Forbidden City at only c. £75/night so we can’t really complain.

In the night marketIn the evening, we head out to explore and try and orientate ourselves. Although we are by the Forbidden City, we are clearly not in the city centre (whatever that is). So far, Beijing does not feel like a capital city – or even a modern city in the way that Shanghai did. Things get a bit more like it when we get to a busy crossroads with a pedestrian precinct to one side and an Apple store front and centre of a big shopping mall opposite. They do seem to like their Apple stuff in China.

Nearby, we find a restaurant advertising Yunnan food which brings back happy memories of what now seems a long time ago. The food is tasty enough (as we remembered) and cheap, especially for a restaurant near the centre of a big city. Sadly, we only spot that we could have had a beer with our food on the way out (it wasn’t mentioned in the menu at all).

Scorpions on sticks!Afterwards, we head on down the pedestrian precinct to see what the other nearby choices are – we have another 3 nights in Beijing to consider. Past the hoardings for a forthcoming (big) Victoria’s Secret store, we spot an ornate archway which, on further investigation, leads to an alley of (mostly) food stalls. It’s a night market! Unlike the ones in Xi’an (or Taiwan), this one is aimed squarely at tourists and not locals. Amongst all the usual fare are scorpions (either still wriggling or deep fried), centipedes (huge!) and little chicks – all available for people more adventurous (credulous?) than us to eat. Whichever, we’re uncomfortable about the treatment of particularly the chicks and settle for a couple of cans of beer from the nearby mini-market and head back to the hotel to contemplate the plan for our 3 days in Beijing.

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