China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 226 (36)

Xi'an

Wednesday 20th October

The noise from the bar did eventually die down to the point where we were able to nod off to an otherwise restful sleep. When we got up, Sandy took care of doing some laundry whilst I went out to find a train ticket office where I could by our onward tickets to Chengdu. A nearby bank has a train ticket office and, as has frequently been the case here, the clerk behind the window knew just enough English words to transact a very basic conversation in selling a train ticket. This always gives the impression that the person you are talking to knows more English than is actually the case. Straying even just slightly from the normal and expected conversational path will swiftly reduce the level of communication to near nothing. There are apparently two trains that travel to Chengdu tomorrow and one is more expensive than the other even though they take the same seventeen hours to traverse the distance. I was quite chuffed with myself for having successfully extracted from her that the difference in price was due to air-conditioning. I’ll be even more chuffed if this actually turns out to be the case since I opted for the more expensive of the two tickets. Our train tomorrow will leave Xi’an at exactly thirteen minutes past one in the afternoon (the trains here always seem to run exactly to the minute) and is expected to arrive in Chengdu at around six the following morning. I paid ¥525 ($64) for our upper and lower bunks in a four bunk air-conditioned soft sleeper compartment. Not bad for a comfortable seventeen hour train journey.

With such an early-anticipated arrival in Chengdu, I decided to book ahead with our youth hostel’s sister establishment in Chengdu. They will pick us up at the train station and the room rate is the same as it is here in Xi’an. We’ve met several other travellers here that have chosen to do the same thing so it will be nice to see some familiar faces there again. One of the things that we are particularly looking forward to is visiting the Panda reserves. Chengdu is apparently the best place in China, indeed the whole world, to see Pandas. There is a Panda breeding and research centre in Chengdu itself but there is also a very much more extensive Panda reserve just a few hours drive North West of the city. We’ve already met some travellers that have travelled up through China and through Chengdu and they have told us that for ¥400 ($49), you can hold and play with a baby Panda. Lisa will be so jealous.

Other than the terracotta soldiers, there really isn’t a great deal more to do and see in Xi’an. One other thing worth seeing is the Big Goose Pagoda. It’s a huge nine-story brick pagoda and is just a short bus ride away so we went there to occupy the afternoon. Not surprisingly, we didn’t find the bus stop to be anywhere near where we were told it should be but we did catch the bus driver’s eye as our bus passed us and she was good enough to stop the bus to allow us to step on. Even though it too was a rickety old thing, it did have a monitor on the dashboard showing the image from a camera looking at the rear automatic doors. This didn’t stop the driver pulling away when people were still getting on or off, however.

Along the ten-minute bus route to the pagoda, we saw street cleaners wielding absolutely huge mops and trying to sweep away the falling autumn leaves from the streets. These bizarre looking implements looked extremely inefficient for the task at hand and we’ve seen quite a wide range of these sweeping implements throughout China.

The bus stopped a few hundred yards from the enormous pagoda but even though it was huge, the air-pollution made it difficult to see at first. We walked the remainder of the way to get to it. In front of the structure is a huge cascading fountain. Apparently, there is quite a spectacular water and light show that takes place here several times a week but we will not have the opportunity to see it now that we are leaving for Chengdu tomorrow afternoon.

Either side of the fountain and all around the pagoda itself are pleasant park like grounds with modern art sculptures and statues. If it weren’t for the chilling cold, it would have been quite a serene sight. The pagoda itself sits inside a smaller enclosure of religious buildings and there is a ¥20 ($2,40) entrance price to get in. The various Buddhist buildings within the pagoda grounds are also quite interesting with the usual array of Buddha effigies and urns in which to burn incense sticks. During our visit, there was apparently a group of rather important looking dignitaries being led around by monks. Quite cheekily, we tagged along with them and gained entry to some places that I don’t think were really open to the general public.

Sandy wasn’t too keen to climb the nine stories to the top of the pagoda but I was quite up for it. Quite annoyingly, however, I was first relieved of some more money to enter the pagoda itself. Nothing on the outside ticket window gave this away but at least I was able to get in for the student discounted half price at just ¥5 ($0,60). It was quite a climb up one of the two spiralling staircases and the view from the top was somewhat marred by the thick air pollution but it was interesting nevertheless.

After wandering around the pleasant grounds and taking photos for the next half hour or so, we made our way back to the bus stop and waited for our bus to arrive. When it did, we had to fight quite aggressively to get aboard along with everyone else. I think the reason for the rush was due to the fact that there are very few seats on the city busses. There is just one row of seats along each side with lots of standing room in the huge isle between them.

Instead of going straight back to the hostel when we arrived back at the South Gate, we wandered down a little side street that was lined on either side by dozens of market stalls with locals selling a wide range of souvenirs and other handy crafts. The stall owners were much less pushy here and this was clearly an area of town that catered to Chinese as well as foreign tourists alike. We had earlier been told that Xi’an is a good place to buy souvenirs and with this being our last full day here, we decided to indulge. After scoping out the wares and deciding what we were interested in, we asked a few stall owners for the prices of some things just to gauge the going rates before looking for some specific items we were interested in to start haggling for. The first thing we bought was a flute like instrument that looked rather like a large, dark grey egg with holes in it. There were quite a number of these things being sold at a lot of the stalls so I’m not sure if it is a musical instrument that is specific to this region or not but it seemed like a nice enough souvenir that we both liked. I was able to pick a nicely carved one out for the eventually agreed price of ¥60 ($7,30). Another very popular item is a stone stamp. They come in quite a wide range of sizes and styles and usually are carved at one end into a detailed dragon or emperor or whatever. The idea is that you chose a design and the artist will sit there and engrave the bottom of the stone to match the design so that this becomes the stamp. Sandy decided to buy a couple of these stamps and to have a dragon motif etched into them in mirror images of each other. We negotiated ¥60 ($7,30) for the pair and stood there and watched the artist apply his trade. After the initial ten minutes of trying to communicate what image we wanted the stamp to reflect, it took the skilled craftsman about ten minutes each to carve out the stamps. He showed us the result by inking them both and stamping a piece of paper with them. We were both really quite impressed and Sandy was quite glad to have found a nice little souvenir that is unique.

It dawned on us after a while that a small group of old men was trailing us as we walked and shopped. They seemed to be quite interested in my haggling techniques and I found their presence actually to be quite useful. I was able to gauge from their expressions when the asking price was too high and even when the negotiations had reached a stalling point, which it did on several occasions. By definition, you have to be prepared to walk away from a deal to be sure that you are getting the very best price possible, for it at the moment of walking away where the best deals are to be had. You have to do this a few times to accurately gauge what specific items will go for. Several times, in fact, we had to forego a purchase when the stall owner was not prepared to come down any further. With so many stalls there, however, this was never really a problem since we could always find something either the same or very similar just a few yards farther. Sandy wanted to buy a set of terracotta soldiers but we never really found any that were of the right size, quality and colour that she liked. The last thing we bought was a terracotta soldier plaque, which will look very nice on our future mantelpiece.

The market started to close down just as we were nearing completion of our circuit all the way through and back again so went back to the hostel to warm up a bit before setting out for dinner. Our restaurant of choice today was the very highly recommended Brazilian, which just happened to be right around the corner from the hostel. We were apparently the first to arrive this evening and had our pick at all the fresh food at the buffet. The restaurant was Brazilian both by name and by style. The idea is that a wide range cooked meats would be brought to the table slowly throughout the evening and the server would slice bits away from the skewer as you liked. Suffice to say that meat of pretty much every description features very highly in Brazilian cuisine. There were the usual staples such as chicken, pork, lamb and steak but there was also chicken hearts, which I ventured to try, as well as horse tongue, cow tongue and various seafood tempters such as fish, squid and shrimp. We each paid ¥55 ($6,70) to get in and could eat as much as we could shovel in all night long. Shortly after we arrived, an English couple toting a pair of kids came in and we spent much of the evening talking with them. They apparently live in Singapore and take the kids travelling with them all over the place.

The waiters, although clearly oriental, were all wearing cowboy outfits and Stetsons. At one point, one of them brought out a skewer with German sausage wrapped around it. It was at this point that it suddenly hit me. Here we were, an English man and Dutch woman being served German sausage by an oriental cowboy in a Brazilian restaurant in the middle of China. The sudden realisation made me chuckle out load.

We had a thoroughly good time at the Brazilian and staggered back to the hostel well and truly stuffed. Sandy had decided that it was high time that we took advantage of the very cheap massages that are always on offer at the hostels here in China and swiftly arranged for a full body work over for the two of us. At just ¥40 ($4,90) for an hour, it is hard to turn down the opportunity. They have a special massage room right here at the hostel and after a couple of brief phone calls by the receptionist, a young made and woman showed up and led us both away. We both took our places on the massage tables and the young girl went to work on my head and face. She prodded and rubbed pretty much everywhere, including inside my ears. She left no part of my head untouched and it really was quite intimate. They systematically plied every last muscle in our bodies and this left us both invigorated and relaxed. As we keep on saying to ourselves, we need to do this more often.

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