We pulled into Beijingzhan with much relief — after nearly a week on a train, it was great to be able to walk and stretch and feel solid, steady ground beneath our sandalled feet. We walked out of the train — looooong platforms — and out into the heat and noise and crowds. In moments our Trans-Mongolian crowd joined another larger crowd, the masses of mostly-Chinese travellers who were all passing through Beijing Central that day. We pushed and were pushed, eventually emerging out from the station and into the glaring midday sun.
More people, of course, and we got a few stares as we walked around the broad, bright square in front of the station. With no map and only the vaguest suspicion regarding which of Beijing’s many train stations we were at, we decided to a) get some money out (Chinese yuan, the people’s currency) and b) find a place to eat; the former proved easy enough, with a “hole in the wall” just outside the station, whilst finding food saw us wandering into a KFC (!!) next to the bus-stop.
With hand-written directions to our hostel copied down from the website we boarded the number 9 bus. A couple of elderly Chinese women stared, and smiled, and offered us a fan to cool ourselves from the swelter inside the bus. We tore out into traffic, honking and swerving, and were quickly on our way. Except, as we found out after 15 minutes and some halting questions to our new friends, we were on the WRONG way — AWAY from Qianmen. By the time we disembarked — and with a stern look and wagging finger towards me from one of the ladies — we were one stop from the end of the line.
How were we to know? Buses in Beijing use the same number for each direction, far enough, but the bus-stops are not nicely opposite each other — it was a good twenty minute walk down the road (we stood at corners and waited for a bus to come past so we knew which way to turn) before we found one going the other way. Another 1rmb, “yi kwai”, and we were once more on the straight and narrow.
We missed our stop, naturally, but only just (it wasn’t announced; worse, actually, as the announcement was for another stop altogether) so it wasn’t too much of a hike back to our general neighbour, and as we approached we saw (and smelled!) markets streets and food and bars and people, people, people. The hostel staff checked us in without a fuss, and after we’d showered — carrying these backpacks around is hard work, I tell you! — we headed out into the unknown, sans packs.
It was three days in Beijing, and it was both enough and not enough. The city itself is very much just another city, although the little streets and market sellers are interesting and some of the architecture is brilliantly Chinese, but there are a myriad of things to do and see nearby. Our second day, for example, we visited Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City (actually the Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City, as it was too hot to walk around aimlessly), and we even managed to bus out to the Great Wall near Badaling, although we didn’t have time to hike around the wall itself — we had a train to Xian to catch!
But each evening we spent the same way: the “Sakura” or 356 Cafe (not sure which — it had two names) was a pretty little “tourist bar” filled with westerners, and we found ourselves there each evening, eating, drinking, talking, people-watching and planning the next bits of the trip. By the end of our stay in Beijing it had pretty much become our second home!
Our hostel “proper” — Qianmen Hostel — was very nice too, if basic, and they served up a delicious “Swiss Breakfast” of fruit and yoghurt, eggs and toast. “Johnny” at the front-desk was absolutely brilliant, too: when we wanted to go to Xian on a sleeper train, he first tried calling himself (no bunks left) then wrote out a “crib sheet” for us to take to the ticket office. Just had to hand over the small piece of paper and voila! We had a “soft” sleeper on the following night! Thank you, thank you, thank you Johnny: you solved our language problems!