The train network in China can seem complicated and overwhelming if you walk into a national train station and attempt to buy a ticket. Take a few deep breaths, look for a ticket sign, followed by a "foreigners" sign, followed by an "English-speaking" queue, and you should eventually get your hands on a ticket, though it may not be the class you want. By eventually, I mean four to six hours later - possibly even days - for busy routes.
A much easier way to get a ticket is to pre-book through one of the many available booking websites. I found www.chinaticketonline.com to be quick and reliable - all of my reserved tickets were waiting for me when I arrived at my first hostel in China. I found the "soft-sleeper" class to be comfortable and clean, though the hostels advised foreigners not to book any class other than "soft/hard sleeper" for an overnight train.
Twelve hours after leaving Shanghai, I arrived in Xian, China's oldest city and its ancient capital. It is also the end of the Silk Route, home to 10 Chinese dynasties and, most recently, the Terracotta Warriors. Hostel Shuyan in Xian (51 yuan [Dh27] per person per night) was my favourite hostel stay in China for its sociability factor, unbeatable breakfasts and super-friendly staff. They also arrange train station pick-ups, which can be a godsend when you step off a train in pickpocket saturated Xian with a couple of backpacks in tow.
I was initially reluctant to book on to a tour of the Terracotta Warrior excavation sites (230 yuan [Dh124] per person including entrance fee, transport and lunch), but its location out of town made a tour seem the most feasible option. Our guide, Lady Jaja, brought the added benefit of knowing useful facts about the meticulous life-sized statutes, with a dose of local humour. She pointed out an old man signing books at the site; he turned out to be the farmer who had discovered the army in 1974 and is now a local celebrity.
As China is home to the panda (and owns every panda around the world), I didn't want to leave without seeing one. I had heard Beijing Zoo was crowded, caged and expensive, so a place to definitely avoid. After some quick internet research, I found a panda conservation and breeding centre just outside Xian. The hostel agreed to take me if I could find enough people interested to go along. I wrote "panda trip" in huge letters on the hostel noticeboard and generated more than enough interest (180 yuan [Dh97], including the entrance fee and transport). The Lougantain wildlife conservation centre was a really enjoyable day out and the centre allows you to freely roam the various conservation areas. The pandas were happy and playful, and gladly accepted shoots of bamboo from strangers.
The walled city of Xian was also home to a large Uighur Muslim Chinese community. I enjoyed freshly grilled kebabs and naan near the night market, a welcome change from the rice and noodles I'd been eating all month. Within the same area is a mosque which boasts a grand pagoda roof rather than a dome; easily the most different-looking mosque I had ever seen. Xian turned out to have much more to offer than just an excavated terracotta army.
The overnight sleeper to Beijing was even more luxurious than the first and judging by fellow travellers' horror stories of trying to book on to the train a day before (with some ending up standing for 14 hours), Xian-Beijing seems like a busy route. I met some friendly Chinese students on board who offered plenty of advice on what to avoid, what and where to go in Beijing, and taught me a Chinese card game called Dou Di Zhu (Fight the Landlord). They seemed friendly and eager to practise their English, and I couldn't get them to stop talking. I found the younger generation of Chinese much more pleasant towards foreigners than the older locals.
With so much dynastic history in Beijing, it's hard to figure out where to begin. The scale of the city is also unimaginably huge, unless you explore one district at a time - a single block in Beijing is equivalent to three blocks in Abu Dhabi. The Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square are must-sees and all impressive in their own right. However long you think it will take to see these places, add on double the amount of time for getting there and queuing (entrance fees range from 15-60 yuan [Dh8-Dh32]; prepare to queue for approximately three hours to see Mao Zedong's body at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall). The obvious cultural and historical sites aside, another element to Beijing I wasn't expecting was the hutong (alleyway) culture. Getting lost in the hutongs of Beijing, particularly in the Nanluogu Xiang area and the Dongcheng district, opened me up to an independent, edgy, chic, retro side of the city I wasn't expecting.
Made in China. With the volume of knock-off goods available in the Sanlitun Yashow clothing markets and the pearl and silk markets, it made me wonder what wasn't made in China. A complete tourist trap for buyers but for observers and passersby, the buyer-seller culture in these markets is hilarious. I made the mistake of curiously asking how much the obviously fake brands were being sold for and got followed down a few aisles. The mark-up on the goods was so outrageous that by the time I reached the silk market, where I was actually looking to buy a Chinese silk gown, I was well armed with haggling power.
"How much for that gown?" "800 yuan [Dh432]". "800 yuan? You must be joking. I'll buy it for 80 yuan [Dh43]," I said, and walked away. A few seconds later I heard, "OK, you buy for 85 then I make profit." I smiled, turned around, took the price back to 80 yuan and then walked away with a satisfactory purchase. Next week: Ismat visits the Great Wall as she tours China on her journey around the world.