We woke up very early and sat in the courtyard, sipping tea while we waited for breakfast to open at 7. The breakfast at our hotel was a delicious Chinese buffet, which included dumplings, stir fry, steamed vegetarian and pork buns, sausage, and fruit.
We checked out of our hotel but the very kind staff held our bags for us so we could enjoy our day in Beijing before our train later that afternoon.
The Lama Temple
After figuring out how the Beijing train system worked, we ended up at the Lama Temple, a monastery of the Geleng school of Tibetan Buddhism. This is still a deeply religious space and so photos were not allowed in certain sections.
First we walked along a shaded path surrounded by some trees, before reaching the true entrance with the beautifully ornate arches. On either side attendants handed out free bunches of incense sticks, which you can light at various spots in the temple.
After walking into the first courtyard we were overcome by the powerful smell of burning incense. As we approached we could see a few fire pits with people crowded around trying to light their sticks. At the very front there were lines of people kneeling, bowing their upper bodies continuously so it looked like a sea of bobbing heads with smoke streaming up into the air above them. Others standing in the courtyard clutched their incense sticks and bowed to the north, then to the east, south and finally west.
Although we are not Buddhist it felt polite to light our incense sticks and at least look contemplatively at our surroundings. This was much harder than I expected. We reached into a deep fiery pit and seemed to have more luck burning our hands with heat than lighting our stubborn sticks. Eventually we lit some but with the close proximity to other burning incense it was really hard to breathe and look peaceful. So after spluttering through the smoke we put our sticks into a pit and moved along.
After walking so much the day before it was really hard to enjoy being outside again. We were all drenched in sweat and the sun prickled our skin. The chafing was the worst part, there’s just not much you can do to stop that horrible pain from ruining your day.
But we powered through, took photos and marveled at the really unique Buddha figures and statues in each of the rooms. One in particular, the Statue of Maitreya, was very impressive and actually made it into the Guinness World Book of Records. I snuck a photo, but it’s a little blurry and difficult to fully appreciate the get the scale of this statue. Personally I felt it was wasted stuck in a really tall and narrow building and not in a open space where she could be seen from afar.
Hot Pot in Ghost Street
For lunch we found a hot pot restaurant in “Ghost Street”, which is famous for having restaurants open 24/7. This was one of the most awkward and uncomfortable experiences because nobody spoke English, the menu was only in Chinese, and we can’t speak or read Chinese. But Addam did his best trying to communicate by pointing at what we wanted to eat, and eventually we got a delicious authentic hot pot meal. It reminded me of Dainty Sichuan, a Chinese hot pot restaurant in South Yarra, Melbourne.
Shopping in Bejing
By this time we were utterly exhausted, but it was still too early to go back to the hotel, so we went to the shopping district where there are multi level modern malls and stores. This is very close to Tiananmen Square so there were a lot of tourists around.
We discovered a massive bookstore, which looked really foreign on the inside because the Chinese book covers are designed differently to English books. The children and young adult section on the third floor was the best part. It was so colourful and busy with parents and kids reading books. G and I have started a collection of foreign language Harry Potter books that we purchase as souvenirs when we visit new countries. So we found the mandarin versions (maybe my favourite so far!) and Addam purchased a couple of books too.
Finally we went back to the hotel where the kindest hotel staff on earth let us sit in their shady, and cool bar room, brought us bottles of water, our bags and called us a taxi. Did I mention they also gave us some tea as a parting gift. I left them a nice review on trip.com.
Beijing West Train Station
And now for one of the craziest experiences of my life – Beijing West train station. No words, photos or videos can truly convey the craziness of this place. I have never seen so many people rushing around in an open space in my life. The only thing I can compare it to was peak hour in London and a wave of professionally-dressed bodies moving in unison toward one train station but multiplied by a thousand. I estimate that the number of people at this station numbered in the tens of thousands. The formally quiet streets of Beijing became a loud thunder of voices cut with the ear-ringing inducing shouting of microphone voices coming from behind service windows. Some signs were translated into English but we could not have found our way around without the help of trip.com.
We used trip.com to book all of our hotels and train tickets because it is a Chinese company but boy was I so glad we used it when we got to the station. They have descriptions and accompanying photos to help you navigate a major train station. Along with these instructions they provide hotel vouchers, taxi printouts and ticket descriptions in English with Mandarin translations so all you have to do is show the person your phone screen and they know exactly what address or ticket number they need to reference.
Blindly following the instructions we lined up to pick up our tickets, app and passports in hand. We were dehydrated, tired, chaffed and utterly overwhelmed by foreign sounds and bodies around us. I instinctually started to feel panicked. I guess it was a visceral reaction to being so “other”. To take my mind off the chaos around me I focused on the people at the front of the line, observing their interactions with the staff in an attempt to practice what I needed to do to get our tickets. Thankfully everything turned out to be extremely simple. I handed over my phone and passports. The man typed up our information, and printed our tickets.
The next challenge was to get to our waiting room. At these train stations you don’t wait at a platform. You look at the screens, find your train number and the waiting room number. It’s very much like finding your gate to board a plane. We found a screen that gave us the number, but before we could walk over we needed to go through scanned security. Despite thousands of people all needing to go through, the process was very efficient and fast. There’s no waiting, you throw your bag onto the conveyer belt, walk through the metal detector, get patted down, grab your bag and leave.
Through throngs of people, we found our way to the waiting room, sat for about an hour, and eventually boarded our first bullet train to Xi’an.
The journey covers an impressive 1215 km in just 4.5 hours, travelling at a max speed of 304km per hour. The second class chairs aren’t the comfiest but they do recline and are a good deal for about $80 pp. We were so exhausted that all three of us slept through most of it.
When we arrived we spent 30 min in a taxi line before finally checking into Vimoon Hotel, a short drive from Xi’an North station.