Beijing, Pre-Olympics

We are not going to be in Beijing for the Olympics, but we did make a brief stop in Beijing in its final preparations for the Olympic Games. Due to security it wasn’t possible to get close to the new sporting facilities, but the stopover was worthwhile (for me) just to see the new airport and other city infrastructure. We had no problem finding a hotel room–due to the crackdown on visa issuances by the paranoid Chinese government, it seems like 2008 may see a fewer number of visitors to China than non-Olympics years!

Beijing National Stadium

On one of the new subway lines. Although we were there little more than a week before the opening ceremony, the subway line to the stadiums was not yet open!

Airport Express Line from Dongzhimen Station to Beijing Capital Airport

Terminal 3, Beijing Capital Airport (eerily similar to Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok)

Faces of Muslim China

Although we left China via the new terminal at Beijing Capital Airport, the overland core of our route was from Kashgar in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to Xian in Shaanxi Province, through the central parts of Muslim China. We may not think of China as a Muslim country, and indeed it is not, but there are some twenty million Muslims in China, a larger number than in the majority Islamic countries of Syria or Malaysia (though as a percentage less than 2%). China officially has 55 ethnic minorities, and ten of them are largely Muslim, including the Hui (almost 10 million), who are Muslim but otherwise culturally similar to Han Chinese, Uyghurs (over 8 million), and the other Central Asian Kazakhs/Kyrgyz/Uzbeks/Tajiks (in the aggregate less than 2 million). (For more thoughts on the Central Asian minorities, please see my post of 7.23.)

Since you’ve by now seen plenty of pictures of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz (posts of 6.16, 6.29 and 7.6, respectively), let’s start with the Uyghurs, who live largely in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Uyghur men, Kashgar

Uyghur man in typical Uyghur hat, Kashgar

Uyghur man, Yarkand

A young Uyghur woman with typically Central Asian features, Yarkand

Couple, Kashgar

Young men, Yarkand and Hotan

Siblings with astonishingly fair features, Yarkand

Even among the Central Asian minorities the Tajiks stand out for looking particularly “white” and apparently out-of-place in the PRC. What would you think if you met a Chinese Uyghur or Tajik in your home country, and upon your asking him where he was from, he responded “China?”

Tajik man, Tashkurgan

Tajik woman in traditional dress, Tashkurgan

Moving further east, many of China’s Muslims are classified as Hui, a designation that is not really ethnic, linguistic or cultural but religious–different groups of Hui have nothing in common but their Islamic faith, and the Hui are largely indistinguishable from the Han majority. The Hui have their own autonomous region near Xian, but most Hui live outside of it, all over China. We first encountered Hui in Jiayuguan in Gansu Province but saw the greatest numbers in the city of Xian in Shaanxi Province, where they dominate the city’s atmospheric Muslim Quarter.

Expensive Coffee

In these days of high inflation, it’s not surprising to see excessive prices, but I think this takes the cake: about $10 for a cup of coffee at Xian airport. We actually saw some customers in the store–they must either be stupid or spending someone else’s money.

Biang Biang Mian

In Xian we tried biang biang mian, a local noodle speciality famous not only for being tasty but for the convoluted characters with which the name of the noodles is written.

I asked a friend of mine to do some research for me on the origin of the noodles’ written name. Her findings:

One day, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty of terracotta warriors fame, was sick and lost his appetite for all of the delicate food available in his palace. One of his servants got him a bowl of biang biang noodles, which were sold by vendors in the streets of Xianyang, the capital of Qin dynasty near present-day Xian. Qin Shi Huang liked the noodles so much that he designated the dish as a must-have food in the palace.  

After Qin Shi Huang recovered, he went to the street to examine how the food vendors prepared the noodles.  After he saw the whole process, he proclaimed, “People in Qin are great, Qin will unify the whole country, and the Qin people will be united and bravely ride horses to win battles to protect the land of Qin.  May the Qin people have biang biang noodles every day and visit Xianyang every month.”  Qin Shi Huang took a brush and ink and created a character for “biang” including parts of all of the words in his statement.

Chinese Trains

Riding the rails is truly one of the joys of traveling in China, a fast and affordable way of covering the country’s great distances. Understanding the efficiency of overnight travel, the train system offers many of the most common routes as nighttime runs, with your choice of dirt cheap hard seat, economic hard sleeper (which is not so hard) or comfortable soft sleeper. A long ride also gives you the opportunity to, in effect, live with a group of locals, a microcosm of Chinese customs and habits on display. Some photographs, showing life on Chinese trains.

A vendor on a train station platform. Train stations in China actually have very few platform vendors, and the selection is no greater than that available on the train, somewhat less fun than, say, their Indian counterparts. It may be that the authorities have cracked down on vendors to reduce clutter on the platform (and facilitate the most efficient flow of passengers), while increasing their own onboard profits.

Train K592 from Dunhuang to Xian. The “K” stands for “kwai,” or fast. Other letter designations include “T” for special (“tebie”) tourist routes, “Z” for exclusively soft-sleeper runs such as those from Beijing to Shanghai and “D” for the new high-speed/bullet trains.

All aboard!

Hard seat. Hard seat is the cheapest mode of long-distance travel in China, and you can buy a hard seat ticket even if the train is full, on a “no seat” basis. We’ve met tourists who take hard seat almost exclusively, but given that seats don’t recline and legroom can be quite limited (picture your knees in the crotch of the guy across from you), most opt against hard seat for all but the shortest rides.

Hard sleeper, the most common choice of backpackers and budget travelers in China, including us. The beds themselves are pretty cushy, with clean and comfortable bedding, and there are two jumpseats along the window providing additional seating during the day. On the other hand, the beds themselves are somewhat narrower than bunks on Indian trains, and there is no “conversion” to daytime seating–the bunks are fixed. The lower bunk is the most expensive, and for us the least preferred because the space is shared during the day. The top bunk is cheapest and most private, but offers the least room.

In the middle, a small table, a garbage can and a thermos for hot water.

Soft sleeper. I’ve never actually traveled on soft sleeper, but the biggest difference seems to be that the bunks (four to a set) are in an enclosed, lockable compartment. If traveling in a group of three or four, it’d be great fun; otherwise, it’s hard to justify the somewhat considerable expense (not much less than a discounted airplane ticket).

Dining car. The food is fairly mediocre and somewhat pricey–much worse standards than the average restaurant in China–but for me eating in a dining car is one of the greatest joys of train travel, perhaps one of the greatest joys of travel, period!

Less expensive box meals and snacks are sold on carts that travel throughout the train.

In addition to food, attendants try to sell the strangest things, from lighters and keychains to strange gold commemorative plates.


In each car (as in every Chinese hotel room) is boiling water, for tea and instant noodles.

How do the Chinese pass the time on the long train journeys?

Chinese pasttime #1: gambling. Well, these people probably aren’t gambling, but you certainly do see a lot of people playing cards.

Chinese people love to snack (like anyone, I guess), and especially on sunflower seeds. Thankfully manners have improved such that the husks are not just spat out on the floor.

Corn on the cob

Smoking is near the doors, the passengers areas being strictly no-smoking (although occasionally this rule requires some policing).