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Nellu and I had run around China like crazy people. Even in our final days in the country, we took the train from Shanghai to Hong Kong, the subway to a ferry to a cab to Macau, a bus to a ferry back to Hong Kong and a subway to a bus to the sleepy fishing village of Tai O on Lantau Island before getting on a flight for Delhi via Bangkok. (For our all comings and goings through Hong Kong, we now have six stamps on our passport just from their immigration officials.) It was all worth it but that kind of traveling can really take its toll.
I promised Nellu when we reached Delhi we would stay in one place for at least a week. We found Mala Bindra B&B through Trip Advisor, which stood out not only for its chic simple style but all of its reviews were positive – in fact they were all glowing. Phrases like “we particularly enjoyed the delightful food and the thoughtful and attentive staff,” “everyone feels so comfortable here,” “Only stay at Mala Bindra’s if you want a fantastic experience in Delhi,” convinced me that we stumbled on a gem and I confirmed the reservation as soon as I realized.
When we arrived at the door, Mala and her husband Gurpreet invited us into their living room for introductions and offered us chicken wraps and mango ice cream (heavenly). We must have talked to them for more than two hours when we first arrived, meeting both their daughter Nyamat and son Kabir. When we were getting ready for bed that night Nellu turned to me and said, “We should see if we could stay here for a few more days.” We ended up staying with them for eleven nights on our first go around and made sure to book some more time with them at the end of our India walkabout before taking off for Thailand.
For the next couple of days, we took it easy. In fact the first day, not only did we sleep in but we actually didn’t leave the house. We spent the day catching up on emails and working on the backlog of pictures, videos and blogs. We had a late, very full brunch at home and ate dinner with the family as well. Mala, who has a thriving business making cakes, also shared with us the “cake tops” to one of her delicious chocolate cakes with afternoon tea. A little piece of home, even if it’s not technically our home, was exactly what we needed. Why leave?
We did eventually venture out of the house but took it easy not rushing to see all that Delhi had to offer in one fell swoop. And we got a lot of advice from the Bindras on where to go, what to see, how to get there, and what to avoid. The pace of sightseeing was even easier here than in China partly because we did considerably less walking (more on our auto rickshaw experiences to come!)
We ate out for dinner a few nights (we were so full from breakfast that we rarely needed more than a quick snack for lunch.) But we quickly realized how nice it was to have dinner with the Bindra family at home. They’re the type of family that wants to make sure their guests are completely satisfied. You often hear, “What can I pass you,” even when you still have food on your plate. They’ve introduced us to different traditional Indian cuisine. Oh and the desserts! You can imagine that we’ve gotten lots of Mala’s tasty cakes but there’s always more! (And you cannot underestimate how wonderful it is to stay in a place where the smell of cakes regularly fills the air). There was one day that we had not only butterscotch ice cream but fresh chocolate cake with a hot fudge frosting for dessert. I know it was gluttonous but I ate it all. You just don’t get that kind of food love on the road.
As good as the food is…it’s only second to the company. We loved sitting around the dining room table sharing stories with the family. By the end of our time there, we joked that we were vying for adoption. Nellu eventually started referring to Mala as “our Mom” and Gurpreet as “our Dad”.
The whole family really went out of their way to help us and make us feel more at home. There was one Sunday, when Nyamat woke up early with me to take me all the way across town to try out a yoga class. We were also invited to come out with the family to a fundraiser for her work at the Real Medicine Foundation. You can find more information (and donate!) to this very worthy cause by clicking here and here. Not only are they fighting malnutrition in the impoverished area of southwestern Madhya Pradesh but they’re also working to bring education to tribal children.
On this trip, we’ve found when people open their lives to you in such a manner, it makes you feel more like you belong in a place rather than just passing through. When you feel more at home, its easier to open up and enjoy.
Our experience with the Chinese train system on the five overnight trains we took throughout the country can be summed by the following phrases: totally fine, avoid the bathrooms, OMG you’ve got to be kidding me, whatever – we made it, and just lovely.
Warning: This is the longest of my blog posts so far, but I needed a few extra paragraphs to provide a sufficient level of detail to really bring the experience alive for the reader.
So we begin at curiosity and enthusiasm…
After we booked our round-the-world airplane tickets, it became clear that we were going to need to find alternative modes of transportation if we wanted to see more than one city in each country. But good news! We’d heard that China has a pretty advanced high-speed rail network , Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is one of my favorite movies, I reasoned if we slept on overnight trains we would save on housing for the night, and trains have to be better than buses for long distance travel. Taking trains was actually going to be just a part of the fun of traveling. Yay trains!
Before I get into the ins and outs of our experiences, I should take this opportunity to quickly describe the various classes of tickets on China’s overnight trains.
Hard Seat: This is the kind of seat that you’d expect to find on a commuter railroad in the States.
Hard Sleeper: This is your standard fare of sleeper class in China. A ticket for this class gets you a bunk in an open compartment of six bunks. There are lower, middle and upper bunks with the later having the least amount of headroom and priced accordingly. The hard sleepers aren’t quite as hard as you’d expect but not exactly soft either. They provide you with a nice pillow and a blanket that appears to be covered by a freshly washed duvet.
Soft Sleeper: A slightly softer (but not remarkably so) bunk in a compartment of four with a door that closes.
Deluxe Soft Sleeper: A bunk in a roomier compartment. I believe this one only has two berths and a door that closes.
Oh and I almost forgot there’s standing room only tickets, which means what its says. This class of tickets has additional implications for the hard seat ticket holders as well. But we’ll get to that later.
Check out seat61.com for more information on trains in China and elsewhere. It is an amazing resource for travelers.
Back to the story…
Overnight Train #1: Hong Kong to Beijing – Hard Sleeper Upper Bunks
We knew we’d need to secure was our first overnight train from Hong Kong to Beijing soon after we arrived. I’d read trains in China book up quickly. After failing to find an online booking option (the guidebook-which-shall-not-be-named told us we could book online for this trip), we headed over to Hong Kong’s Hung Hom station not far from where we were staying. We went to the main ticket counter asked for the overnight train. (There seem to be all kinds of rules on how soon you can buy a ticket for each route, I was never able to fully understand this system but if you happen to be at a large train station and you know your travel dates, I would just see if you can book the trains as soon as possible.)
The route from Hong Kong to Beijing only ran every other day so even booking four days in advance, we were only able to secure the upper bunks in the hard sleeper class. Totally fine. We had decided to go for the hard sleepers after reading some comparisons on the price/value of the hard sleeper vs. soft sleeper. Hard sleepers are about half the cost of soft sleepers. I was slightly worried for the next couple of days that Nellu wouldn’t fit on the top bunk and there would be no place for our luggage but we’d just have to figure it out when we got on the train.
We arrived at the train station super early with plenty of time to work out all the potential issues and get through customs.
Good news, Nellu fit! Not only did he fit but when we climbed up into our bunks we found a storage compartment big enough for all our luggage at our feet, closed off to the rest of the train. Wonderful! As we got settled, the rest of our bunk mates arrived. It appeared to be a grandmother, a mom and two girls about eight and ten-years old. They seemed to get a huge kick out of us (more Nellu than I). They said hello and giggled at us for most of the trip.
The train took just under 24 hours to get to Beijing. We slept for a good portion of the trip. We had stocked up on bowls of instant noodles and tea as all the trains have built-in hot water spouts in every car. We also brought along dried fruit and nuts so we had plenty to eat. We were feeling pretty good when we arrived.
We couldn’t wait to share the experience with our nephews who we hoped to impress with two points: 1) we slept in the top bunks of bunk beds which 2) just happened to be on an overnight train. Yes it’s true the little girls weren’t quite as cute when they woke us up giggling at 7am but all in all our first experience on the overnight train was a success. It was totally fine.
Overnight Train #2: Beijing to Xi’an – Hard Sleeper Upper Bunks
We didn’t get off on the best foot with our train that left Beijing for Xi’an about a week later. In fact, we almost missed it. We had allowed about an hour to take the bus from our hostel to the train station and another hour of buffer time to arrive at the station and find our platform. We had considered calling a cab but the ladies at the hostel told us it would be hard to get one at the time we needed it – around 4pm. Turned out it was an even worse idea to take the bus because traffic was horrendous and we inched our way there. At one point when I was in full freak-out mode, Nellu even suggested we walk the last 2.8 km in a desperate attempt to calm me down.
When the bus finally arrived about an hour and forty minutes later, the station was offset from the road a frightening distance away. We had to run down the road, up the steps, through vendors and crowds of people, get through security, find our train, find our platform, and find our seats. We were going full “Home Alone” with our huge duffel bags on our backs. But we made it with just under seven minutes to spare.
Our accommodations were much like the hard sleeper upper bunks we had in the first train except this train looked like it had not been cleaned…ever. This is also the train where we figured out that the squat toilet in the bathroom was actually just a hole through the bottom of the car. Your “deposit” went straight onto the train tracks, hence why they ask you not to use the bathroom while the train is in the station. The water from the sink of this train also drained directly on to the floor. Our motto here was avoid the bathrooms as much as possible.
Overnight Train #3: Xi’an to Chongqing – Hard Seats
“OMG! You’ve got to be kidding me” is an understatement for this leg of the trip. We had tried several times to book our tickets for this stretch in advance with the help of the ladies at the Chinese Box Hostel in Beijing. But when we were able to secure tickets, only hard seats were available.
This was overnight train but the trip itself was only supposed to be 14 hours or so. Nellu and I figured we had spent longer amounts of time sitting up on buses so the hard seats would be just fine. Besides, trains had a nice way of rocking you to sleep.
We could not have been more wrong with our assessment.
After our near-miss situation with the last train, I insisted we get to the station at least an hour early even though it was only about 1.5 km away from our hostel in the sleepy city of Xi’an.When we arrived, we were hustled into a large waiting area that was already packed. The crowd continued to form around us. Even though there was some semblance of a line, pushing and shoving ensued. We tried to distract ourselves by watching news reports of Vice President Biden’s visit to China on the monitors above. We couldn’t hear any sound but Nellu is quite entertaining and impressively en pointe with his faux voiceovers.
When the gates were opened, the pushing and shoving got worse and didn’t stop all the way through the gates, up the stairs, around the corner, and down onto the platform.
By the time Nellu and I found our car, we were fully frazzled. The overhead luggage racks were sloppily and inconsiderately loaded so there appeared to be very little space. We had to rearrange several suitcases to stow our heavy duffels. At one point, Nellu had maneuvered a space for my bag and when he turned around to pick it up, the woman below him snuck her small purse into the clearing. He was enraged and let the woman know…although she appeared unfazed.
We took our seats in a row of three seats deep and tried to get settled. There was a small older man in the row with us and we were facing a family of five – a grandmother, a mother and three kids. It became clear right off the bat that personal space would not be honored when the mother of the family stretched her stocking foot across our small isle to use the space between me and the man as a foot rest. But after the first blow up, we tried to take it in stride.
One of the reasons the overhead space was so packed was that there were many people in our car that appeared to have booked standing room only. A group of 20 or so teenagers had chosen our area as the place they would crash. We doubted they would be on the train for much of the trip.
Wrong again. As the train got on its way, someone came around selling plastic stools for those with standing room only to sit on. It became clear everyone was in it for the long haul. To make matters worse, every 20 minutes a train employee would come through with a cart, screaming out what he was selling, and make everyone sitting in the isles get up or move closer in and on top of the people sitting in the hard seats. As the standing room only crowd moved in on us even more people got on the train.
I really think that we could have managed with this situation had everyone just laid low and slept for most of the trip. But of course that was never going to happen. We were amazed at those who were able to sleep as they often used strangers as a pillows. They never dimmed the lights, there was load talking, vendors screaming and music blaring. Deep down I know that at some point during this year-long trip, I will come to peace with the idea that there will always be that person who loves their music so much they want to share it, no matter how crappy their speakers are, with everyone around. This was not that moment. I tried to be polite when I asked the offender to turn the music down.
I was less than polite when I asked him to stop smoking at some ungodly hour of the night in the grossly overcrowded train car (and spritzed his cigarette with Purell and actually took his hand and stamped it out on the floor when he refused to put it out). In our car not only were there people comfortable sleeping all over each other, they were sleeping on all the filth and garbage they and others had thrown on the ground. This included everything from nut shells to cigarette butts to goopy noodle sauce packets. You couldn’t get up to use the bathroom without stepping on at least 30 people (and we were pretty close to the door). In this environment, people smoked right at their seat or sitting on the floor although there were no less than four no smoking signs with pictures in our car. We had reached our breaking point.
Nellu and I didn’t sleep at all for the first 10 hours of the trip. The family across from us was out cold except for the grandmother. It was amazing to watch her patiently accommodate the other members of her family, helping the kids stretch out, etc. At one point, she even let one of the standing room only teenagers use her seat as a pillow. I think she’s going straight to heaven.
Then sometime in the wee hours of the morning , we got a mild reprieve. Three-quarters of the people in our car got off the train! I can’t even remember the name of the stop where everyone got out or what time it was when they did. But they were gone!
Unfortunately, the water torture didn’t stop. As the sun started to come up and we could see the shapes of a more peaceful-looking Chinese countryside, Nellu and I started to drift off to sleep. Enter Mr. Doucheman (not his real name). Mr. Doucheman was probably in his mid to late 30s. He looked reasonable well off but had no consideration for anyone. He really wanted to start a conversation with us even though it was painfully clear that Nellu and I couldn’t understand him. He then attempted to spread out over the empty seats in our row and even into the seat that I occupied. (Don’t worry, I drew him an invisible line letting him know what was my side and what was his side just like third grade.) He kicked out the small old man that had been sleeping on Nellu earlier, got in a fight with a lady who took the seat he took from the old man, he shaved at his seat, clipped his finger nails, and did a few morning exercises. We just rolled our eyes. What could you do? Only four more hours to go and this nightmare would be over. We started to drift off to sleep again but woke up when he started smoking. Both Nellu and I jumped up and let him no that he could not smoke here. (Again there are no less than four no-smoking signs with pictures in the car). If you want to smoke all you have to do is get off your ass, walk 10 feet and smoke in the area between cars. There were no people sleeping on the floor at this point.
We did make it to Chongqing and to our lovely hostel. But we spent a good part of our time there trying to book train tickets so we never had to go through this again.
Overnight Train #4: Wuchang to Shanghai – Hard Sleeper Upper Bunks
From Chongqing , we took a boat down the Yangtze River to Yichang so we were able to get away from the train drama for a few days. But once we reached Yichang, there was no ideal transportation solution to take us to Shanghai. (At one point, I was so traumatized my the memory of overnight train #3 that I wanted to use our airline points to fly us out of there.) There was one overnight train but we feared we’d miss that train if our boat was delayed. So we booked what seemed at the time to be the best solution at the time. A boat to Yichang, a cab to the center of town, a bus from Yichang to the Wuchang section of Wuhan, and an overnight train from Wuchang to Shanghai.
Of course, multiple forms of transportation leave a lot to be desired. In this case, we could only get a bus to the bus station on the far side of town and not to the bus station conveniently located next to the train station. After failing to hail a cab, we ended up walking about 2km or so in the hot stinking rain.
But whatever – we made it. We made it to the station and on to the train. We had the upper bunks in the hard sleeper class on this trip too, except this car had open concept layout where the compartment walls were missing. We had no privacy or luggage nook.
But whatever – we made it. And they sold beer on this train. It was warm but beer none-the-less.
Incidentally, there were also several high-speed trains that went from Wuhan/Wuchang to Shanghai but unfortunately, the timing did not work for us. We didn’t end up taking one high-speed train in all of China.
Overnight Train #5: Shanghai to Hong Kong – Soft Sleeper Upper Bunks
There was plenty of drama in the lead into buying these ticket. On the day we arrived in Shanghai, we ran around like crazy people trying to make sure we could get back to Hong Kong on time. You couldn’t purchase tickets at the Shanghai South Railway Station we had come in on and a travel service I had tried to book tickets through online told us the hard sleeper class was sold out for the day we wanted to leave. Like the train from Hong Kong to Beijing, this train departs every other day. With some help from our Shanghai host Jessica, we ran over to the other train station to book our tickets.
It took us a little time to find the advance ticket sales booth. But we were able to find one where the woman spoke English. When it was our turn at the counter, we found they only had soft sleepers left. Soft sleepers cost twice as much as hard sleepers at over $100 each. But any other transportation alternative would have been much more expensive and more complicated. And besides we deserved it! Fine, whatever, let’s book it. We only had enough cash on us for hard sleepers so we begged the saleswoman to hold the tickets and we raced to an ATM with no clear indication whether she actually would or not. But after waiting in line again, we got the tickets.
This ride itself was just lovely. While there isn’t much difference between the hard sleeper and soft sleeper bed, each compartment only has four bunks rather than six. The other two people in our four bunk compartment: a dad and his very quiet teenage daughter. We got two pillows each and a door that closed. I slept for most of the trip and even got out my laptop to get some work done. It was just lovely.
My fascination with overnight trains has firmly worn off, although it looks like we will have much more train travel in the future. There are clearly advantages to going by train but it still wears on you after a while.
As I mentioned before, we got a lot of help online at seat61.com. The site comes complete with rough itineraries and pictures so you can get an idea of what you’re in for.
The first attempt at the night market, while failing to live up to the culinary expectation due to unforeseen changes, was still quite an adventure. The next day, we decided to press our luck and try it again. This time we took the metro, having been in the Wangfujing area 4 time previously. We decided to visit both markets first, to gauge the situation.The first market was filled to capacity with pedestrian traffic. As stated previously, this market area is more touristy and has more than just food (clothes, shoes, jewelry ,bags, tea, etc). We mostly just explored this section and took photos of some of the overlapping food options. The food options here were not as varied, but the items were displayed more artistically and hence better for my photos. After getting our fill of the overcrowded market, we decided it was time to start eating and made our way to the same place I had started at last night, a block away. We first walked down the street in it’s entirety to gauge the tasty options. My first stop: scorpions.
There were two options; 3 tiny fried scorpions on a stick or 3 giant fried scorpions on a stick. Since this was only my second tasting (after the previous night’s silkworms), I wanted to start slowly. Also the price was a factor as the large scorpion was double the price of the small. To be completely honest, I was slightly intimidated by the sheer size of the large scorpion. I regret not having the large after my tasting of the small ones. They were perfectly seasoned and crunchy. I could easily see myself watching sports, drinking beers and popping scorpions like popcorn. Ok, perhaps popcorn is a bad analogy as you need at least 2 bits to finish one, but it did have me craving more. It was crispy, yet contained more substance than the baked tarantula I had before I left. Having thoroughly enjoyed the scorpions I was now eager for the next tasting.Stop #2 : cicadas.
I wanted to try cicadas next, simply because they were so prevalent around Beijing and they looked quite bug-like. I was again quite surprised by the taste. As compared to the silkworms from the previous night, the scorpions and cicadas were quite good. The stale taste that I had experienced with the silkworms did not reappear this day. The taste was of something deep-fried and crispy, yet there was more substance to it than a potato chip. I kept trying to convince Molly to try one, but she was having enough difficulty taking reaction shots of me eating and at the same time keeping her food down. Ultimately, she would end up not tasting any of the “treats of the day”.Attempt #3 : starfish
This is an item I did not expect to find on a stick, but was more substantial and delicious than it looked. Out of all the things I tried this day, taking into account that all these items were deep-fried and seasoned the same way, this was the most unique in color, texture and taste. While crunchy on the outside, the inside was green and resembled white fish meat in taste (though obviously not white). While the insects were more finger food/snack, the starfish could be considered a small meal onto itself. One might call it the hot-dog of China….
Food #4 : snake
By this point, I had gotten most of these items from the same food vendor and I was building a bit of a rapport, to the point where I was providing temporary monetary exchange for him. I was offered the choice of either goat penis or snake. Ultimately, I went with snake (this time). This was probably the most ordinary of the things I ate at the market that day. The head was missing and it was on a stick (no surprise there). The taste resembled fried eel with small crunchy, but edible bones. It was skillfully seasoned and was quite spicy.Final stop : squid tentacles
By this point I had started to lose steam and was becoming satiated, fast. Of all the options left to me, I wanted to try something familiar yet prepared in an unusual way. I had tried squid (calamari) previously, but the spicy tentacles on a stick intrigued me. Unfortunately, this was not my favorite. It was spicy, the way I like it, however the tentacles were a bit chewy and left me with a slight queasy feeling. Thankfully the freshly brewed iced tea and bubble soda drinks helped wash this down.
After trying several things at the market, none tasted strange enough that I would not recommend it to a friend. It is true that their outward appearance was strange, yet the taste was far from it. I could have potentially stayed there the whole night trying different things. One problem was that there were so many options I had yet to try (goat penis, cat, dog, sea urchin, etc. to name a few) and we needed to be at the BBQ dinner at our hostel (Chinese Box) for our friends final night in Beijing. The other problem is that I can only eat so much at once. That night I slept well, stomach churning full of BBQ, a variety of night market edibles and Chinese beer, dreaming of all the unusual foods I would get to try next, wherever that may be.