Friday had arrived at last, and armed with a comprehensive list of acts and shows to see, with a light sprinkling of pubs, restaurants and chocolate shops in need of visiting, I crammed onto an Edinburgh bound train from London Waterloo with what seemed like half of London’s sweaty, tired commuters kicking off the August Bank Holiday early!
The hotel looked heaps grander on the internet than it was in real life, and the smell of stale cigarette smoke hung in the room, despite the fact I’d selected ‘non-smoking’. The decor looked like it had dropped straight out of a 1960’s Bond movie – plush sofas, curtains made of heavy fabrics and clashing colours – and I was expecting Mr Bond to walk straight through the door…but he didn’t!
Today we tried our hand at Chinese handcraft before heading to the train station in an attempt to book trains from Beijing to Xi’an and Xi’an to Shanghai. We didn’t have any luck and I nearly caused a riot by not letting a tramp push in front of me…cultural differences.
And we thought hard sleepers were evil…we quickly re-assessed this thought when we sat down on these hard seats…and remained there for the next 6 hours!
After a sleepless night on what was effectively a metal tube tied together with some wire, we arrive in Hailar, Inner Mongolia, and I swear it is hotter than Haerbin which is strange considering we are further north! It was after this train ride I decided sleeping on any bunk other than the bottom was not wise! The view from the train is predominantly grassy, although we did get very excited when we saw some horses!
After spending a solid 7 hours crammed in an overheated sardine tin (sorry I mean train), looking like classic Western tourists in our rucksacks with our maps and sweaty faces – definitely the only Westerners on the whole train – we finally arrive in Harbin, Heilongjiang – China’s most northern province. The bus journey from station to university was so bumpy I wondered if Fred Flintstone had been commissioned to make the wheels AND the road!
HAPPY DRAGON HOSTEL BEIJING BIKE TOUR
This is probably the most exhilarating bike ride…in the world! And gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘exercise’. If you are a thrill seeker, death-cheater, or just plain mental, then this is the ride for you.
If you prefer to keep your feet firmly on the pavement then maybe a market or a walking tour of Beijing would be more up your street.
Time to get a bit of sight-seeing in before our mission to the North. We took a wander around the Forbidden City. This proved to be a very VERY crowded, hot and sticky affair. Take this advice- go early in the morning, before the crowds and before Beijing hots up too much, this reduces your chance of heat stroke, being barged around and poked with sun-umbrellas.
Arriving at midnight at Orange Stall 14 – exactly 12 hours late – the train ride had taken us to the point of exhaustion. The souk was still bustling with activity and interest at our arrival so we quickly scouted out Hotel Foucauld.
Compared to the dungeon of Tangier it was bearable – despite the holes in the wall, 1960s TV set and very tired-looking net curtains, we were relieved, however, to find a working shower with HOT water! Perfect for a cheap stay in Marrakech if you’re on a backpacker’s shoestring budget.
We arrived late in Tangier, and after eventually finding a hotel, that looked more like a derelict house, we were advised to stay in our rooms, to ‘be locking of our doors’ and ‘not have worry of the danger people outside’. Because if anyone did break in, the hotel manager would beat them with a large wooden pole he kept behind his desk. I could see we were in for an interesting night.