Saturday, 10 November 2012

Xi'an - and the flowerpot men

For the first couple of days we thought that Xi’an was China’s equivalent of Birmingham.  We were staying in a lovely hostel within the city walls, with an amazing roof garden, but our first impressions of the city were that it was just a dirty (not helped by the appalling pollution), very westernised (mobile phone shops everywhere), unappealing place.  

It was also very polluted for much of our time there, and we viewed an alien sun through a sickly grey haze.

We had travelled by bus from Pingyao, which was an experience in itself.  We were persuaded by Sara at the Harmony Hostel in Pingyao that train tickets were (a) impossible to get hold of and (b) the bus was quicker.  We’re not sure whether we believe (a) was correct however it was indeed quicker than the train (only 6 hours as opposed to at least 8 on the train) but only if you don’t take into account the waiting time.  We were waiting on the highway with 7 other people from the hostel for the 9.30am bus which eventually turned up at 11.00am. 
And unfortunately we did not end up at the main central bus station in Xi’an so it was a 60 yuan taxi ride into town.  After much discussion with our fellow western passengers we agreed that it was probably the black market bus which left Pingyao when it was full up (as opposed when it was actually scheduled leave to leave), and that we were dropped off at the black market bus station.  However we arrived safely and without incident.

We had booked ahead at the Han Tang Hostel (recommended in Lonely Planet) and so, it would appear, had almost every other westerner we had encountered so far in China.  It was almost like travelling in a staggered tour group.  Everyone on the bus had booked there, and in the next couple of days people arrived that we had encountered in Pingyao and we even met Machel, a Dutch guy we had met at our hostel in Beijing. 
We decided to chill for a couple of days (a pattern is emerging here!).  We knew we wanted to visit the Terracotta Warriors and the hostel ran a trip every day.  As we were hoping to catch a train to Jiayuguan late on Friday night we decided that Friday would be a good day to take the trip, otherwise we would spend the whole day on Friday feeling as if we were just waiting for the train.  It turned out to be a good decision.

Xi’an is also the base from where most people visit Hua Shan – the mountain that is famous for being stupidly high up, where you either risk your life walking up it on ladder like stairs, along peaks with sheer drops either side and plank paths with only chain separating you and instant death.  You can also subject yourself to a terror filled 20 minutes in a cable car.  Just our thing! 
Hua Shan is not recommended for anyone who suffers from vertigo but apparently the views from the top are just incredible.  Much discussion was needed as to whether we were going to attempt this.  After a chat with an older couple from New Zealand, who made the trip and returned unscathed, we decided we would at least get the train to the cable car and take it from there.  This decision was made, despite their advice that being scared of heights we really shouldn’t bother.
The little known art district

We spent our first few days in Xi’an just mooching around.   Actually, to be more accurate, Paul mooched around on the first day and got lost as I stayed put with a bad back and generally feeling crap.  He returned with tales of the famous Muslim Quarter and its market with sheep’s heads and other delicacies on display.  Indeed, everyone mentioned the sheep’s heads so when we returned the following day, with me suitably drugged up on painkillers, I was disappointed not to see a single sheep’s head – lots of sheep’s bodies being butchered but not a sheep’s head in sight.  Disappointed is probably too strong a word.  It is something I can happily live without seeing.
We also visited the Mosque, the largest in China, which is slap bang in the middle of the Muslim quarter (as you would expect), built around 4 courtyards.  It was strange to see a mixture of Chinese characters and Arabic script all around the area, and the minaret was actually a Chinese pagoda.  But it was a very tranquil space, and clearly somewhere the locals hang out chewing the fat, as well as attending for prayer.

On his lone travels on the first day Paul had stumbled across a little art district so on our third day in Xi’an we attempted to find it again.  The plan was quite simple – we headed down the underpass at the main central intersection and chose an exit at random and started walking in an attempt to get lost - that was how he stumbled on it in the first place and this approach seemed to work.  We soon found ourselves wandering around a place lined with art galleries with stalls selling much of what we had seen in the Muslim market, but also lots of calligraphy and associated equipment – inks, brushes and paper.  It was a lovely little area, and not somewhere that is mentioned in any of the guide books (well it wasn’t mentioned in Lonely Planet and no-one else mentioned it while we were in Xi’an).
Paul and our little friend Anna
Xi’an’s old town is surrounded by a city wall, but after Pingyao we didn’t see the point paying to climb it – it was more money for something that we had already seen, only somewhere else.  You can spend your whole budget in China just visiting tourist attractions, and we agreed we had to start being a little selective.  There is also the danger of overkill – all the sights you see start to merge into one so it is a pretty pointless exercise cramming everything in.

We wondered whether we should visit either the Big Wild Goose Pagoda or the Small Goose Pagoda (the smaller one being the nicer apparently) but again, after a short discussion, we decided that we would only get fleeced again to visit places we weren’t really that interested in seeing, and we had already seen a fair few pagodas so far.
In fairness, we had seen the Big Wild Goose Pagoda the previous evening, as we were driven around on a whistle stop tour of the sights of Xi’an by a family we had befriended on the first night.  Indeed, it was this that made us re-evaluate our initial impression of Xi’an as being a little harsh.

The Muslim market
Which brings me nicely to the Chinese friends we made.  Anna, the daughter of the family, was 7 years old and we first spotted her sat in the hostel lounge area, chatting to a group of western travellers practising her English.  She has been learning English since kindergarten and was encouraged by her family to practice as much as possible. 
At the time we met Anna and her family we were outside having our obligatory cigarette and beer, watching the world go by.  Neither her mum nor her dad spoke any English.  Paul, like Anna with her English, welcomed the opportunity to practice his Mandarin – he has been doing really well with Mandarin, just frustrated that he can’t always catch what they say in return, and that his vocabulary is so limited.  However, with the help of his dictionary (and also continuing to do his lessons on a daily basis), he is improving a lot.

The second evening, we met Anna and her dad, and we wandered up to a park together.  After that we went to a local restaurant where we had some chicken, beef and fish (washed down with a couple of beers).  Anna had some food but her father refused to join us in anything – Paul managed to pay.  We then invited them out the following evening, to eat with us.  The intention was to say thank you for their company and it was arranged that Anna’s mum would come along too.
Inside the grounds of the Mosque
So on the third evening, we were duly picked up by Anna and her mum and dad.  Anna’s dad drove us to a couple of parks  and on the way we saw the Big Goose Pagoda.  

Chinese parks are very formal affairs – there are usually lots of fountains, statues, and if there is any grass you are supposed to keep off it, but mainly they are concreted or paved.  At night, they are lit up and are really impressive.  The second park we visited was set around a lake and it just looked magical but difficult for an amatuer photographer like me to capture.  These parks were at least free to get in (which is unusual in China as they normally charge a fee to go anywhere – not much by itself but it was all beginning to add up).

We finally ended up at a restaurant where we were served up with the best Chinese food we had tasted since we arrived in China.  The vegetable and beef dumplings were delicious, as were the cold noodles with coriander and other spices, egg fried rice and deep fried fish (I couldn’t bring myself to eat the head as the eye was just staring at me – rude I know but throwing up is also rude and that was the alternative).  Other than that it was delicious.
I should also mention here that we sat at a table next to a no smoking sign.  These are everywhere – in all the hostels who pride themselves as being non-smoking, and in most restaurants.  The words “No Smoking” are in English but we are convinced that the Chinese above it says “No Smoking if you can’t read Chinese – if you can, fill your boots”.  The Chinese take no notice of these signs whatsoever.  Even in the hostels, the westerners are supposed to go to the designated smoking areas (or outside) but staff and Chinese just happily puff away wherever they want and at the same chastising any westerners for daring to light up.  At the hostel in Pingyao, there were actually used ashtrays on all the tables but still no smoking signs everywhere.  Got to love the Chinese.  They are a bit like the French as far as smoking is concerned!
The Bell Tower

Anyway, at the end of the meal (it might have been during, I can't quite remember) Anna’s dad just lit up and offered us both cigarettes and when we asked where the ashtray was, he just pointed to the floor!
When it was time to leave there also came the awkward moment of paying.  Paul tried to pay but Anna’s dad wasn’t having any of it.  It’s hard to know how much to insist without offending.  Apparently, it's polite to insist but also polite to accept your host's hospitality. The bill wasn’t much but that wasn’t the point.  We had invited them and really wanted to treat them, particularly after they had provided a guided tour of their city, but Paul realised this was not going to be possible.  We are still trying to think of a way of expressing our thanks, in a way that will not cause a loss of face.  They really were lovely, and we were so lucky to have spent some time with a Chinese family and to have them welcome us so warmly.

Hua Shan
Completely against our better judgment we decided we would visit Hua Shan.  We arranged to go with Machel (the Dutch guy from Beijing we also bumped into in Pingyao and who subsequently turned up at the same hostel in Xi’an.  He wanted to visit Hua Shan so we agreed we would head up there on the Thursday, get the bullet train from Xi'an North railway station at about 9am to Hua Shan and take it from there.  It couldn’t be that hard, could it?

We set off after breakfast at 7.30am and caught the subway to Xi’an North railway station.  This is a space age railway station, built like an airport, but with only a few trains passing through each day.  You get the feeling as you travel through China, seeing the amount of building and infrastructure going up that China knows something the rest of the world doesn’t.  There are huge bridges, high speed rail links, massive railway stations and huge roads being built everywhere but some places are grossly underused and often there is hardly any sign of life.
Even one of these projects would take the UK about 20 years from conception to completion.  Paul commented that if the Chinese had been in charge of the Hindhead Tunnel project they would finish it in a day, digging with a teaspoon.  The sheer number and size of the building projects you see everywhere is staggering.

Anyway, we missed our train and had to wait 2 hours for the next one.  This was going to cut it a bit fine up the mountain, particularly as we knew the walk from the cable car to all the peaks took about 4 hours.  That was without factoring in the cable car.
The bullet train was amazing.  We trundled along at about 265km/h and reached Hua Shan station in 30 minutes.  The bus takes two hours to do the same journey!

From the station you get a ticket to ride in a taxi for 10 yuan each to the mountain entrance, where you then have to pay to get to the mountain.  China must be the only place that charges you to visit a bloody mountain, but it does.  China charges entrance fees for just about everything.
The "quite long" queue for the cable car
And the entrance fee is quite steep (excuse the pun) at 180 yuan each (£18) plus 40 yuan for the bus from the ticket office to the foot of the mountain.  Then you get fleeced to be terrified on the cable car at 150 yuan each. 

As we had arrived later than hoped the queue was quite long for the cable car.  So Paul and I had 30 minutes to contemplate certain death by cable car.  Not really a good thing.  The ride is terrifying and neither of us could understand why we had decided to do this.  Hua Shan is famous for its plank walks around the cliffsides (optional), stairways along mountain ridges with sheer drops either side, as well as the number of deaths over the years.  When we reached the top, it was crowded with masses of mainly Chinese tourists, and the path underfoot did not really feel too stable to either of us.
In fairness, when we were researching the trip, we had looked at Hua Shan and our initial reaction was that we wouldn’t be able to do the walk because it involved just too much terror to be in any way enjoyable but we hoped we would at least be able to brave the cable car, any maybe reach one or two of the peaks on the less scary walks.  We are glad we did manage the cable car, but sadly, we were unable to even contemplate adding to that terrifying experience by climbing to the peaks because we were both just frozen with fear and it was just too busy.  There were so many tourists jostling around it’s no wonder there are casualties on a regular basis.

No way were we going along that path!
We sent Machel on his way, apologising for our cowardice and agreed to meet back at the hostel.  We headed straight back down in the cable car, desperate to get the ride down over and done with although I have to say, the trip down wasn’t half as terrifying as the trip up.  And we were both relieved to note that the elderly Chinese man who shared our cable car, was equally terrified, clinging onto his seat in grim fear.  We all smiled at each other in relief when we reached the bottom!
We spent some time at the bottom just enjoying the mountain scenery which is just as beautiful from the base of the mountain.  Then we headed back on the bus to the ticket office, where we found a taxi to take us back to the train station and caught a train back to Xi’an, this time reaching speeds of over 290km/h.

The whole day had cost us over £100 and we didn’t even get to the top of the mountain.  We should never have attempted it but if we hadn’t then we would never have known whether we could summon up the courage to climb to the top.  We have since agreed, no more cable cars and no more ridiculous mountain peaks.
During our stay we met a really interesting couple from Alaska, Jim and Laura.  We first met them when they travelled with us from Pingyao and we ended up at the same hostel as us in Xi’an.  We tended to meet in the roof garden of the hostel around 5.30pm each evening when Paul and I had a couple of beers and they shared a bottle of wine!  They are both retired but for the last 6 years have taught English for 6 months of the year in China.  They travel for a couple of months either side of their work schedule in China and were able to give us lots of tips about places to go at this time of year.  They were headed south to Yangshuo and we were heading west although at this point we were getting a bit worried west was going to be a bit cold – I had bought another fleece at the market to keep warm during the cold (freezing) evenings in the desert.

When in China Jim and Laura lived and worked in Yangshuo near Guilin in the south of China.  It is their favourite place in China, along the river Li among the amazing karst mountain landscape – classic Chinese scenery! Certainly, they were able to persuade us that once we had been west, we should head to certain pockets of warmth in the south as soon as possible.  That recommendation was becoming more and more appealing!
Terracotta Warriors

Paul successfully booked a soft sleeper train to Jiayuguan for Friday evening so Friday morning we went on the trip arranged by the hostel to the Terracotta Warriors, another iconic tourist attraction which really can’t be missed. Nor can you get this experience anywhere else in China so it is worth the money.
Each face is individually carved
However, there’s not really much to say about them - they are just a bunch of flowerpots really.  Only one was ever found intact, none have any colour left on them (when they are first unearthed they were colourfully painted but the oxidisation fades the colour within 30 minutes), no two have the same face, they represent 56 different ethnic groups in their look and the way they are dressed, and there are a hell of a lot of them! 

There are 4 pits (only 3 open to the public) and in order to avoid being hugely disappointed you must save pit 1 until last.  Pits 2 and 3 are still in the process of being excavated and very little can be seen, but pit 1 is where they have put together and lined up about 2000 of them and they are indeed impressive.  Whenever you see a photograph of the Terracotta Warriors you can guarantee it is pit 1 you are seeing.
They date from 200BC and were ordered to be built by the first Emperor of the China in the Qing Dynasty.  About 30 years were  spent putting them together – they were to guard his tomb in the afterlife.  One of the reasons they are not in particularly good condition is because a few years after the Emperor’s death the peasants revolted and sacked the underground rooms housing the warriors taking most of the weapons the warriors had been armed with (although they left the burial chamber intact which is about 1km from the warriors).

As part of the tour you are also taken to the Emperor’s burial mound which houses his burial chamber but that is really not worth visiting.  It is a just a grassy knoll which has never been excavated.  The burial chamber is apparently full of priceless treasures but they have discovered that there is also apparently an underground moat filled with mercury around the burial site and the archaeologists cite this is a reason to not open and investigate the burial chamber.  However, many people think that they are worried that whoever opens the burial chamber will be subject to a curse (a la Tutankhamen), and I think that is probably the case because the Chinese are a very superstitious bunch.  Either that, or there is no treasure there at all and it's just another story to tell.
That's a lot of flowerpots!
All in all, it is certainly worth seeing the Terracotta Warriors and the archaeological importance of the whole site cannot be underestimated. 

We spent our last few hours in Xi’an relaxing in the rooftop garden of the hostel before we headed off in the evening to catch our train.  We caught a very crowded bus to the train station and spent over an hour waiting in front of the station along with what seemed like thousands of Chinese, also waiting for their trains.

Wherever you are in China you are surrounded by people.  And wherever you travel you see people everywhere or at least evidence of people.  China is just teeming with people and it becomes more and more apparent just how many live in this vast land, the more time you spend here.

We were quite happy to leave Xi’an and were looking forward to our journey west.  We shared a compartment with a couple and their son.  Other people came and went too and we weren’t sure who was who but they were all very friendly, and we were showered with food (deep fried something and oranges!).
One of the amusing signs we have seen in China.
But travelling in a compartment with only two other people can be a bit exhausting – at least when you travel on a hard sleeper, there are lots of other people milling about and you don’t feel obliged to try and converse with everyone!

The journey to Jiayuguan took us through desert and the landscape really started to change.  It was similar to the Mongolian landscape but the difference was that in Mongolia, there is very little evidence of human interference, but in China there is evidence of people everywhere, even if it is just a road in the distance, or tyre tracks in the sand, huge pylons marching across the mountains , massive wind farms for as far as the eye can see - you just know there are people nearby.
We arrived at Jiayuguan the following morning feeling that we had really arrived in the desert, tired but excited to be beginning this part of the journey west, and a little apprehensive because we were clearly heading off the well-trodden tourist path.



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