A Travellerspoint blog

China September 2014

Highlights from Beijing & Xi'an

sunny 31 °C

Visa for China

To visit China you may need to apply to the Chinese Embassy for a visa. For British citizens applying from the UK this takes 5 to 10 days by post from the Chinese Embassies in London, Manchester or Edinburgh. As an alternative you may choose to use any one of the number of agencies who may turn the process around a little faster for a premium. You will need to verify your travel plans and accommodation in advance. Visa For China

Shanghai Metro

We began our Journey flying with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to Shanghai. On arrival at Pudong International Airport we were directed to the Shanghai metro which is very easy to use, extremely affordable and all the signs are translated into English. Be prepared for very crowded subway stations and trains with X-Ray machines on entry to every station. You may wish to pack light as the subway system has limited escalator access. We took Line 2 clear across the city all the way to Hongqiao Railway Station in western Shanghai which cost less than £1.00 (about one dollar!) Shanghai Subway Map

Train Ticket Collection

You will need to collect your tickets at any mainland China railway station using your passport. Please be advised that Chinese stations are massive with many ticket desks therefore if you are unable to collect your tickets in advance, please leave at least 3 hours before departure to complete this process. Many Chinese cities have multiple railway stations so please check carefully which station your trains depart from. We recommend using Seat61 for advice. Chinese train tickets are only available for sale 19 days in advance, with this in mind you should first register your interest in rail travel with an agency like Ctrip.

Shanghai to Beijing

We pre booked an express train direct to Beijing in First Class on the G18 high speed train which covered well over a thousand kilometres in about 5 hours reaching speeds over 300 kph! This was a limited stop service and was very smooth which we were very grateful for after a long flight from London. Although First Class seats are very comfortable they are not as sumptuous as the Business Class seats.


On arrival at Beijing Nan (South Station) we were exhausted and decided to try for a taxi to our accommodation. The station staff spoke good English and were very helpful and directed us to the taxi rank. We were disappointed to find that the line for the taxis was ridiculously long and was moving very slowly. Taxis in Beijing are cheap and are in high demand (a theme which would continue throughout our trip.) We abandoned the taxi line and went for the Beijing Metro instead which, like Shanghai is very easy to use if you don't mind the crowds. Beijing Subway Map

We booked 3 nights in a central Beijing guest house called the Double Happiness in the historic Dongcheng area. The nearest Subway station to the Double Happiness is Dongsi NOT Dongsi Sitao. We had a nightmare trying to find this lovely little guest house because we got off the train at the wrong stop. We asked some friendly locals but they hadn't heard of it. It then took about an hour to flag down a Taxi even the driver had to phone his boss to check the location! The Double Happiness Courtyard was a lille gem. The staff were extremely helpful and our room was very comfortable and most importantly very quiet. Well worth the journey - we slept for 14 hours solid... Awesome!

Day 1 - Tiananmen Square

As the Forbidden city is closed on Mondays we decided to take an easy stroll through Tiananmen Square. The weather on this first day was dull and a little wet but these conditions can make for some very interesting photography, particularly dramatic monochrome images. At the time of this publication there was no charge to enter Tiananmen Square but please be advised that security is tight. If you like authentic Chinese food obviously you will not have a problem in Beijing but if you are vegetarian you may struggle. For great Vegetarian food we recommend the following restaurant. It is within walking distance from the Forbidden City in Dongcheng. Fuhui Ciyuan Vegetarian Restauraunt. Alternatively why not browse the food stalls at Dōnghuámén Night Market. Here you will find a wide variety of sea food and other snacks including sweet treats. These are available at very reasonable prices from friendly street vendors.


Day 2 - Great Wall Mutianyu

We booked an essential tour through our hotel to the Great Wall with various options to consider. The most famous sections include Badaling, Huanghuacheng, Mutianyu, Jiankou, Gubeikou, Jinshanling and Simatai. We chose Mutianyu as we were told that this location was very close to Beijing, much quieter than other locations and provided a good introduction to the Great Wall. Our tour guide collected us shortly after breakfast in a mini bus, it took under an hour to drive to Mutianyu in Huairou County. We were excited about the cable car which would take us from the village to the top of the wall. Turn up early and you will not be disappointed, we enjoyed a good hour on the wall before the larger tour busses turned up. We were lucky with the weather and got some amazing photos. To view these online please go to downroute design and click through to our gallery.

We were a little disappointed that our tour guide did not follow us up to provide historic information we were however free to wander along the wall at our leisure. What we were most surprised about was the option to descend from the wall by toboggan! This proved very popular with the younger tourists and indeed with ourselves. However to reach the speed limit on toboggan run would have been a fine chance. We found it frustrating that other tourists kept stopping their toboggan for mysterious reasons and therefore halting our descent. The cable car costs 100 Yuan which includes the toboggan descent. Despite this it was still fun so we paid an extra 100 Yuan each for another ride down. Lunch was included on our tour in a local restaurant with some vegetarian options. Drinks were extra but inexpensive Mutianyu Great Wall

Day 3 Morning - Temple of Heaven

As usual no rest for the wicked! The morning of day 3 was spent looking over the Temple of Heaven. There are two metro stops which allow access to the Temple complex both are within walking distance - Tiantandongmen is directly opposite the east entrance the other is Ciqikou which is slightly further and north of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Both stations are on the purple line 5 with easy connections from Chongwenmen Station. Beijing Subway The temple area is a substantial area to cover and is surrounded by a beautiful park, rich in history and culture it is well worth a visit. For opening times and entry fees click here: Temple of Heaven

Day 3 Afternoon - Forbidden City & Palace Museum

No visit to China would be complete without checking out The Forbidden City and the Imperial Palaces. We spent an afternoon exploring this amazing location but with the benefit of hindsight we wished that we had allocated a whole day. Trust me you will need it especially id it is a weekend or public holiday! We entered through Tiananmen and the Meridian Gate and were blown away at the sheer scale of this area. Each magnificently decorated gate and hall is followed by another and another. If you are a keen photographer it may be prudent to pack an extra memory card. To really absorb the history an audio tour is recommended, these are of course available in a number of languages at a premium. The tour concludes with a stroll through the Imperial Gardens at the north end of the complex at which point you may exit through the north gate to visit Jingshan Park with an elevated vista of The Forbidden City and Beijing. Alternatively if you wait until closing time and double back to Tiananmen you can get some great photos of The Hall of Supreme Harmony with no other tourist around! Forbidden City


Beijing to Xi'an

We took an overnight sleeper train with a private berth departing from Beijing Xi West Station, this was an express service but not high speed. To enter the station one must first validate your ticket using your passport only. After passing security make your way up the escalators to the departure halls. This is an extremely busy station which may be very confusing to tourists so please leave plenty of time to navigate this huge station and as we suggested before pack light. There are dozens of different departure halls serving scores of platforms we were amazed that we found the correct platform! The train cabin was private and comfortable although the en suite WC could have used a deep clean. We found that if we kept the door closed we didn't really notice the smell. The train attendant spoke excellent English and offered to wake us 30 minutes before arrival into Xi'an with a cup of coffee for 20 Yuan for which we were very grateful. Overnight trains are of course a great way to save on hotel bills.


Upon our arrival at Xi'an South Station from Beijing we were greeted by a horde of taxi touts many of which were un-licenced. We did not expect Xi'an to be so heavily populated and were unaware that an underground subway system was already established (at the time of this publication upgrades to Xi'an metro were ongoing.). We decided to take a chance and accept a ride from a taxi tout who directed us to his car in a nearby car park. He seemed friendly and trustworthy but we had been warned that these drives may try to rip us off. Actually it was fine, he drove us directly to our hotel Citadines Cental and only cost about 50 Yuan. He offered to drive us to the Terracotta Warriors during our stay but we declined on advice from the hotel concierge who explained that the hotel receives many complaints from such drivers.

Day 1 Terracotta Warriors

After freshening up we booked an authorised driver through our hotel concierge who recommended some other places of interests. We then drove directly to the Terracotta Warriors which took over an hour in heavy traffic. There are other options to participate in a larger tour group which may include a guide but we actually prefer the freedom to explore without the restrictions of organised tours. It took a while to figure out where the entrance was due to lack of English signage. Entry cost around 150 Yuan and we headed straight to pit one which was the biggest and most impressive. We would recommend to our friends to see pits two and three first which are smaller sites and then view pit one last.


On the way back we visited an attraction dedicated to Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum. We thought we had purchased tickets to the Mausoleum site park itself and were very disappointed with the attraction. Inside there was an impressive model or diorama of the Mausoleum but there were no authentic relics and the tour was only available in Mandarin. Don't waste your money on this attraction you have been warned! Huaqing Hot Springs Is a much more worthwhile activity. Here you can view some very picturesque gardens punctuated by attractive traditional pavilions. Relax by soaking you tired feet in the naturally heated water then if you have time take the cable car up Li Mountain for some great panoramas.

Day 2 Morning - Bell & Drum Towers

The Xi'an Citadines Cental was very comfortable and the staff were very helpful. It was also quiet with a great central location between the Drum & Bell Towers. We booked this hotel because of the location and because breakfast was included. We were however disappointed that breakfast was limited to just one day out of our two night stay for which we were given a voucher. The buffet itself was very limited and the quality of the food was, in our opinion, quite poor so we decided to grab a Mc Donald's from over the street.

The Bell (14th Century) and Drum tower (13th Century) in central Xi'an are two almost identical ancient structures which date back to the Ming Dynasty. During these early times the drums or bells were used to signal the running of time and on occasion were used as an alarm in emergency situations. For a small entrance fee visitors may view the interiors of these beautiful buildings and observe the city below from their observation levels. The towers are particularly impressive when illuminated at night.

Day 2 Afternoon - City Wall Cycle

If you grow tired of walking we recommend a cycle ride across the ancient ramparts of the city walls. This is a really fun activity particularly on a tandem although regular bicycles are also available for hire. Head to the southern gate of the city walls and use the subway to cross the busy street. On either side on top of the southern watchtower you will find two locations with hundreds of well maintained bikes. There is a time limit of two hours but if you get tired, don't worry you may leave your bike at various locations around the walls. We had such a giggle!

Day 2 Evening - Tang Paradise

For our last night in Xi'an we decided to visit Tang Paradise, a cultural theme park built in 2005. This is a very photogenic location with fireworks on most nights (weather permitting) During the day pedal boats may be hired for guaranteed family fun. There is also an opportunity to book a cultural dance show and dine in various restaurants surrounding the park. Not far from here you will find the Big Wild Goose Pagoda a UNESCO world heritage site. Built during the Tang Dynasty this is a holy buddhist temple which attracts many visitors.

Xi'an to Shanghai

The Overnight train back to Shanghai departed from Xi'an Bei (North Station) which is roughly 10km from the centre of the city. You can get the subway to this location or hire a private car for about 200 Yuan. (good luck flagging a taxi!) Xi'an Bei Station is relatively easy to navigate once you jump through the usual security hoops, it is set out rather like Shanghai's Hongqiao Station but on a smaller scale. We were booked on an overnight semi express service which offered shared berths only. Don't expect a good night's sleep other passengers will be opening and closing the cabin door regularly. Apart from this minor inconvenience the journey was quite comfortable, in fact the attendant had to wake us up and kick us off 10 minutes after we arrived at Hongqiao! Zzzz


To conclude our epic voyage of discovery we splashed out on a more luxurious hotel The Jin Jang Pacific. Situated not far from the bund you can enjoy elegant accommodation in a historic neoclassical building with easy access to one of Shanghai's main shopping streets. Nanjing Road. The staff are very helpful when we asked for directions to one of Shanghai's ancient villages.

Day 1 - Ancient Zhujiajiao

This ancient water village is located west of Shanghai in the Qingpu District and if you have time it is definitely worth a visit, particularly if you are interested in traditional Chinese culture. Nicknamed the Venice of China, Zhujiajiao boasts one of China's oldest post offices dating from the Qing dynasty. Here you can enjoy refreshments in one of the many coffee shops, browse for souvenirs or simple amble along the canal banks and enjoy the views of many ancient stone bridges.

Posted by downroute 15:52 Archived in China Tagged trains travel palace city china xian great beijing army railway shanghai wall terracotta warriors forbidden

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