China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 225 (35)

Xi'an

Tuesday 19th October

The train was every bit as comfortable as it looked. After the Chinese guy in the next bunk finally fell asleep, I was able to lean over and turn off his headset. Quite annoyingly, he had the volume turned up to maximum and seemed to need this to fall asleep. It was driving me nuts and my earlier attempts at trying to get him to turn the volume down were unsuccessful so I was extremely relieved when he finally did nod off.

The carriage attendant was a young man and spoke quite good English. Still wearing his neat conductor’s uniform, he passed through the carriage about an hour before the train arrived to wake everybody up. It turns out that this train is one of the new Z-class trains that have only been in service just a couple of months. These new trains must travel quite a bit faster than the older trains do since we arrived after just twelve hours as opposed to the fourteen that we had originally been led to believe. We will be very lucky if we are able to book any further passages on this new class of train.

Quite surprisingly, there was quite a hubbub on the platform when we alighted. It seemed more like India for a moment as we were approached numerous times by touts looking to take us to hotels or offering taxi rides. Even though several people asked is if we were going to the Shuyuan Youth Hostel, one of the hostels we were actually considering staying in, we still didn’t bother with any of them for fear of having to ultimately pay for their commission. One of the touts, however, did hand us a very handy English language map of Xi’an and the surrounding area. It turned out to be a brochure for the Shuyuan Youth Hostel and, quite usefully, had all the bus routes laid out. This made things much easier for us since we decided to forego a taxi ride, our usual and preferred method of first getting to our destination, in favour of simply stepping onto one of the very many city buses, which just happened to stop right near the hostel. Finding the bus stop at the very busy train terminal involved a bit of legwork since there were buses dotted all over the place and we found it hard to distinguish between the city buses and tourist buses. Just to add a bit of stress into the equation, a number of tourist bus touts were constantly trying to lead us off towards their buses. Some of them were even arguing with each other over who saw us first and had the subsequent right to try and hook us. I felt like our persistence in ignoring them was depriving them of their income but we did eventually make to the right bus stop and onto the relatively calmer environment of the correct city bus. It was a double decker, as it turned out, and much like every other city bus we’ve encountered here in China, it was quite dilapidated and falling apart at the seams. A ride on a Chinese city bus will cost you just ¥1 ($0,12) to get you through the door and fortunately, this time we had exact change.

Xi’an clearly suffers from the same problem of chronic air pollution that we’ve seen in both Beijing and Datong. An eerie white mist hangs in the air and greatly reduces visibility. There isn’t really any smell of pollution in the air and so far we’ve not experienced any respiratory problems or even notice the pollution other than by sight. Still, I have to wonder what it is doing to the long-term health of the locals. We’ve seen a number of city workers such as traffic wardens and road sweepers all wearing facemasks and I think that this above all else is a clear giveaway that it can’t be good.

Arriving in a new place is always a bit of a dilemma as far as accommodation is concerned. On the one hand you can book ahead and completely remove the stress of having to traipse around the city with a full load on your back. Booking ahead can often also have the advantage of someone being at whatever the port of entry is to collect us, thus eliminating the need to figure out the local transportation network and saving the cost of travelling across town. The downside to this, however, is a much-reduced ability to negotiate a lower room rate. Often times we have the best luck at haggling a decent discount simply by walking in off the street. When you’ve received a free ride half way across town from the hostel or hotel, we sometimes feel a bit awkward about then demanding a lower price for the room since we already feel slightly indebted at that point. I thought we’d be ahead of the game this morning by getting to the hostel on our own steam and unannounced. As hard as I tried, however, I couldn’t get them to give anything more than the ¥20 ($2,50) discount for YHI members. I resigned myself to this fate after twenty minutes of fun haggling with the lovely young girl at the reception desk, who also seemed to get a big kick out of all of the banter as well as my ability to apparently pronounce her name correctly. Once again, they didn’t have a double room available but let us have a triple for the cost of a double at ¥140 ($17) after the discount. We love it when this happens as it means there is an extra bed that we can use to lay out our backpacks and stuff without having to feel too cramped. The room is quite nice and even has an ensuite bathroom with hot running water. We should be quite comfortable here for the duration. The only problem we did find with the room was that the windows didn’t have any latches and I was quite concerned for the security of our belongings when we weren’t in the room. They soon had this rectified to our satisfaction, however, so we remain happy.

Even though we literally just arrived, we immediately set about making our onward travel arrangements. The young woman at the travel desk was extremely helpful in laying out our options for us. Our most pressing need was, in fact, not how to move on from Xi’an but how to move on from Chengdu, our next destination, to Kunming in Yunnan province. We knew that it wasn’t going to be a major problem getting to Chengdu from here by train so there was no pressing need to make that particular booking just yet. The train journey from Chengdu to Kunming, however, is almost twenty hours long and so we’ve decided to cover that distance by air to save on time. Getting the best discounts on that air ticket, however, means booking the flight around about now so we went over the prices for the different flights at around the time we expect to want to move on again from Chengdu. We ended up booking a flight on October 26th for ¥1,000 ($122) for the two of us. That gives us one week to take in the sites in and around both Xi’an and Chengdu.

The travel agent girl seemed quite bored when we first entered her little office next to the Internet terminals and was clearly quite pleased at having something to do all of a sudden. We struck up quite a good rapport with her and she even told us how to get to the terracotta soldiers site using the cheapest method possible, being the city bus. We can apparently make the round trip by taking the ¥1 ($0,12) bus back to the train station and then the ¥5 ($0,60) bus the rest of the way. By reversing the whole thing at the end of our visit, we can both make the entire round trip journey for just ¥12 ($1,46). Added to the ¥90 ($11) each to get into the attraction, our total outgoings would be just ¥192 ($23,4). This is a far cry from the ¥200 ($24,40) or more each that they charge to join one of their guided tours. And we get to stay there for as long or as short as we want without the annoying little side trips along the way and back either.

We stopped off for a bite to eat on the way to the bus stop. A mother a young girl had taken up residence on the pavement outside the restaurant entrance to beg the passing tourists for food and money. Restaurants seem to be the most common places for beggars to hang out. The young girl could not have been more than about eight years old and, seemingly on the direction of her mother, stood right next to our table on the other side of the window and kept motioning her hand to her mouth. After a few minutes of this, one of the restaurant staff went outside and shooed her away. When we passed this restaurant later in the day, both the girl and her mother were still sitting there, but this time they were both eating from what looked like it might have been some leftovers handed to them by one of the restaurant patrons. They seemed quite content and I could see quite clearly now why they choose this spot to sit and beg.

Although a bit bumpy, the bus ride out to the terracotta soldiers site was not as long as we had feared and we got out when the bus pulled into a huge car park. A few traders were already making their way over to the bus with little terracotta soldier figures, fruit and various other bits and pieces in the hope that someone would buy something. Nobody did, ourselves included. After moving through the car park, we next had to navigate our way through several rows of dozens of market stalls, all identical to each other and selling the exact same merchandise. This didn’t stop each and every single one of the market stall owners launching into their own sales pitch as we pass them all one by one, even though it was quite clear that were not interested in buying anything. With the loose touts also walking up to us and thrusting various bit of rubbish into our faces, it was actually quite annoying and, once again, I have to wonder just what the logic is of pestering tourists to the point of annoyance, as this is clearly counterproductive in the long run.

We emerged from the little market thinking that we would find the ticket office but instead, we had to next do battle with a barrage of guides all offering us their services. Beyond them, there was a two hundred yard walk to get to the main complex. A Disneyland type tram could have taken us these remaining few yards for the same price we paid to travel the previous thirty or so Kilometres by bus. It truly boggles the mind but there were plenty enough people all too willing to hop on. We passed up the offer and made our own way by foot.

I did my best to get the student discount when we finally made it all the way to the ticket window but it seems that here, at least, you had to specifically be a Chinese student and there was no way we were going to convince anyone of that so I reluctantly handed over the full whack.

Once we passed through the turnstiles, we were confronted with an array of buildings and we had to make a choice as to which one to enter first. With no guide by our side and no English signs anywhere in sight, we chose one at random and went inside. It turned out to be a museum of sorts with a rather extensive array of exhibits comprising of anything and everything that was dug up here along with the terracotta soldiers themselves. It was interesting enough, even though all the labels and explanations were in Chinese only, but this was not really what I came here to see and I was anxious to move on. Sandy, however, had other ideas and took her time looking through all the exhibits, much to my own annoyance.

The next building we moved into looked more promising. Its construction made it look like it was basically a huge roof erected over a very large pit. When we made it all the way to the guardrail about twenty meters from the main entrance, however, all we could see were empty trenches. Once again I was thwarted and by now I was starting to fear that the soldiers themselves had perhaps been relocated to elsewhere for further study, reconstruction, preservation or whatever. I had this image in my mind’s eye of hundreds of stone soldiers frozen in time and all lined up in trenches. This is what I came here to see and was starting to get a little despondent at not finding it. With two buildings down and just two left to explore, I was starting to wonder if this was going to turn into a bad day but all my hopes would come to fruition in the next building, which we discovered was signposted as a very promising ‘Pit 1’. This was by far the largest building and it too was essentially a very wide and extremely long roof supported exclusively by the outer four walls. There were also a lot more people lining the insides of this building and when we made it to the guardrail, I finally found what I came here to see – the terracotta soldiers. Hundreds, if not thousands of them were all standing there in their glory in rows of about four or five to a trench and about ten trenches in all. Each of them was facing the same direction and each with his very own distinct and different face. The trenches are a few meters beneath the level of the guardrails and swarming tourists were all happily snapping away with their cameras, in spite of the clearly posted ‘No photos’ signs everywhere. We took our time wandering around the guardrail that extends around the entire hall and took plenty of photos from all directions. It really is an amazing sight to see them all standing there, large as life. It’s ironic that these soldiers were constructed and placed here with the intention of never being seen by human eyes ever again and yet they are now the most visited and viewed attraction in the whole of China.

People from all walks of life were visiting this day and we found it particularly amusing to see Buddhist monks wandering around wearing nothing but the very basic of slippers and robes but with high tech cameras and camcorders hanging around their necks.

Visiting the terracotta soldiers was quite amazing and we’ve now ticked off another must-see site here in China. Other than this and the many attractions in Beijing, such as the Great Wall, Summer Palace, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, there are probably no other places in China that are quite so well known about that we would have included on our overall life’s to-do list before doing all the research into what China had to offer. That doesn’t mean so say that there aren’t still plenty of worthwhile things to do and see here in this vast land - quite the contrary, in fact. We’ve only just about reached the half way mark as far as our China itinerary is concerned and we are very much looking forward to many more exciting places and experiences. Indeed each time we meet other travellers as we move through the country, we hear stories and anecdotes of things they saw that make us quite jealous for not having had the opportunity to explore in that direction a little more. China’s vastness and diversity means that we could travel here for years and still not see everything.

Having stood in awe at the terracotta soldiers for as long as we could stand, we reversed our bus journey to make our way back to the hostel in Xi’an and I was able to once again hook up the laptop to send out some more updates and to refresh the contents of our website. We asked the reception staff for a recommendation of where to eat and followed their directions to the letter. Alas, all we found was a row of hairdressers. What else is new! For some weeks now, I’ve been e-mailing with an English language teacher here in Xi’an and we had arranged to meet up with her and her students today. The clock was now ticking so we had to find somewhere to eat soon if we were going to be on time for our appointment, which we were both very much looking forward to. Giving up on finding our intended restaurant, we eventually stumbled into what looked like a Chinese buffet restaurant and we figured this would be the best option to grab a bit to eat fast. We paid ¥18 ($2,20) each to get in and could east as much as we liked from the various arrays of dishes all sorted into their respective food groups. We had no idea what most of it was but we’re both getting more and more daring when it comes to Chinese food and tried a wide variety of things. Most of it was really quite nice, although I suspect we would have turned our noses up if we knew just what it was we were eating.

By now, we were running desperately late to meet up with Nancy and her English students so we walked out onto the street (literally) to hail a taxi. It was now the evening rush hour and finding a taxi that was both vacant and willing to take us to our destination, proved to be quite the challenge. It took us the best part of half an hour to do so. We were walking along the road when we were trying to flag down the taxi, making slow progress in the direction we needed to go, but when we finally found one and got in, our forward movement deteriorated drastically due to heavy traffic. Traffic in Xi’an is about as bad as we’ve seen anywhere else so far. The frustrating thing is that it really needn’t be so if only the pedestrians, cyclists, cars and buses just adhered to the most basic of road rules. With everyone weaving in and out of each other like a complete free-for-all, the near constant gridlock here is inevitable.

Nancy had told me to have the taxi take us to a particularly well know hotel near where she lives so as not to confuse the driver any more than was necessary. Once we arrived, we found two young girls holding a sign with our names on it. We ushered them in and they directed the taxi driver, now quite relieved to have someone with whom he could finally communicate, to Nancy’s apartment building. She was standing at the building entrance waiting to receive us and we went inside after introductions all around. Nancy is a very warm person and I fell in love with her on the spot.

Spending the evening with her and her students has been one of the highlights of our entire trip so far. There were two groups of students that came and chatted with us over the course of the evening and we were also joined at one point by a young English couple from Manchester that were also here in China for a year to teach English at the same school as Nancy. I was very impressed not only with the students’ general level of English language skills but also their thirst for knowledge about our culture. Some were a bit more hesitant that others but we did the best to break the ice by getting them all to point out on a map of China on Nancy’s living room wall, where they each came from. We spoke about many different subjects such as the differences between our cultures and our travelling lifestyle. During the course of the evening, we were also treated to impromptu performances by the students of traditional Han dancing, song and even a rendition by one of the boys on a Chinese flute. It was a thoroughly entertaining evening and I wished we had enough time in Xi’an to have repeated the whole exercise again. I felt we were very fortunate to have been offered the chance by Nancy to meet with these students, as it has given us a deeper understanding of China and its people from a perspective that I doubt we would ever have seen otherwise.

As the evening grew late, the students finally left and the five of us remaining adults sat and chatted about life in China and the challenges involved. When it got very late, Nancy walked us out to the main street to help us find a taxi. We bid her a very fond farewell and I’m sure we will keep in touch in the future. After finally convincing the taxi driver of where to take us, he drove us through the now very thick pollution back to our hostel. Fortunately, the evening rush hour had died away completely by now and we made it back in good time. Having finally figured out how to work the heating mechanism, we arrived to a very toasty room but had to wait until well past midnight for the noise in the bar beneath us to die down to the point of being able to get some sleep.

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