My last stop in Beijing (oh, all right, so the very last one was actually a bar/bookshop, but let’s not squabble over details) was the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan (The Garden of Perfect Brightness – I am a huge fan of literal name translations from Chinese: any other language makes them sound ridiculous). It was built in 18th century as a residence for the Qing Dynasty emperors. It was then destroyed in 1860 (first looted by the French and then burned by the British) during the Second Opium War in retaliation for the kidnapping, torture and death of about 30 envoys sent to negotiate a truce.
There is also the Western Mansion, built in the 18th century by Jesuit missionaries to satisfy the emperor’s interest in the exotic (funny to think of the Western culture as being on the receiving end of exoticism, isn’t it?). Part of it is this little labyrinth. Sweet.
Then there’s the European-style palace. It feels really weird to see Western ruins in China, kind of cognitive dissonance. But it’s a nice place, definitely worth a visit. Okay, enough of the boring touristy stuff. Now for some travelling meat from a world-weary back-packer!
On the evening of that day I was supposed to meet up with my flatmate from Hangzhou, who was staying somewhere else in Beijing, and we were to take a train to Xi’an. We agreed to meet at a metro station two bus stops away from the West Train Station.
Tip No. 1: if you’re going to take a train from the Beijing West Train Station – don’t. Wait a few months with your trip and let them finish the metro station first. Take my word.
Of course at the time we didn’t know any better, so we went for it. 30-45 minutes should be more than enough to ride two bus stops, right? Oh, sweet naiveté…
Tip No. 2: if you absolutely have to take a train from the West Station now, know that getting there from anywhere, no matter how close, will take you a very, very, very long time, especially from about 3 to 9 pm. We were both looking at the watch and panicking as the bus literally crawled its way through the evening gridlock, looking at the Station building looming ahead and not visibly getting any closer, knowing full well we would have walked the distance much more quickly (yes, even with our twenty kilo backpacks).
When we finally got there, it was a sprint slalom to make it on time. Then a nervous break when we were queueing up to the ticket control gate. Then a sprint slalom again.
Tip No. 3: sprinting with a heavy backpack while trying to circumnavigate crowds of Chinese people who are all trying to get on their respective trains is. Not. Easy.
All in all, we got there just in time to board the train, but it was quite a close call. Then it was just an overnight ride and – next stop (and next post): Xi’an!
(Tip No. 4: it is possible to spend a night in the hard-seater carriage in a supine position, if you accept the risk of bumping your head against the seats you’re sleeping under or having your legs/all of you crushed under the feet of other passengers and generally have very high threshold when it comes to hygiene.)