We had no planned activities on our last day in Beijing, and we took the opportunity to have a lie in — the remainder of the morning was spent packing. As we’d done many times before, when we left the hotel we headed out into the Hutong for a spot of shopping, mostly to buy all the bits and pieces we’d seen in shops but hadn’t got around to purchasing; some Pu-er tea, a Lotus-motif tea caddy, etc. At the North end of the alley we explored further. Music shops were openly selling bootlegged copies of Western music. Sam tried a white yoghurt like drink from a street stall, and an elderly man sat on a corner playing gorgeous traditional music on a plucked lute.
The Hutong is right next to Beijing’s Bell and Drum towers, towers that were used to announce the time and in the past would have looked out across Beijing. Being so close we paid them a visit, but it’s a good job we didn’t cross the city to get there as they were both closed for renovation — situated on a roundabout this seemed to be causing some traffic chaos too, although that could just be the norm. In Britain a building site would be closed off and signs would hang everywhere warning you not to enter, here we strolled across the half built areas, taking a look at the bits we could (as others were also doing).
We stopped for lunch at a Vietnamese place (you might guess that it was called Pho), and continued shopping until I grew tired. The biggest of our purchases were some calligraphy and painting pieces from Nanluo art gallery, which we spent a long time deliberating about and I spent an even longer time trying to find a cash machine to pay for the things. With the evening drawing near we opted to relax and make the most of Courtyard 7; chilling beneath a parasol we drank jasmine tea until the restaurant opened for food orders. The hotel’s food was lovely too; eel and rice and pork dumpling, although the random ginkgo seeds that we also ordered were odd and not at all good, turns out it’s something ancient and related to Chinese medicine.
The taxi to Beijing West railway station (Běijīngxī zhàn), where we’d be boarding our overnight Z19 sleeper train to Xi’an, predictably took a long time. The traffic around the Hutong is especially bad — the streets are too narrow. The station itself is huge, the largest in Asia, it towers into the sky like some esteemed hotel; traffic lanes approach it as if it were an airport. You can’t miss it.
Sam ran around the station buying food and supplies (and weirdly a metal hip flask filled with rice wine) for the overnight trip, and I parked myself and the bags near the gates, which open half an hour before departure. Our friends Emmie and Jan were there too, further back in the queue, they had tickets for the berth next door.
Eventually we boarded and the train left for Xi’an on time. We had a soft sleeper berth which comes with four bunks, a small table, air conditioning, a newspaper, a flask for boiling water and a vase with a flower. It was all very cosy and comfortable and significantly nicer than our sleeper train experiences in Vietnam, we even arranged for jasmine tea to be delivered to us at 7am. We were joined by a polite Chinese couple who couldn’t speak a word of English, though it didn’t stop them sharing their crabapples. We tried to engage them in a game of cards but there wasn’t a game we all knew the rules for. They both went to sleep, I wrote my blog and Sam went next door to chat for hours about Chinese culture and Xi’an with Emmie, Jan and a very talkative Xi’an resident.