Home of the Terracotta Warriors, and not much else.
Tuesday 1st SeptemberHeading to the train station for an overnight train to Xian, it was time to bid farewell to Beijing.
I won't miss the CCTV cameras everywhere - makes you feel like you ARE doing something wrong, just because of the overt surveillance - or the smog, but I will miss Beijings wide streets and not-so-manic traffic.
Time for a train trip with a bed. Even being the well-travelled little backpacker that I am, I think China is my 54th country, I've never had an overnight train bed. Sure, I've done some long train journeys, such as 48 hours from Vancouver to LA down America's west coast, but I just had a seat. When I travel, I'm not into saving money on accommodation by travelling at night. I usually prefer to travel by day and look out the window and have a proper bed at night. Being on an organised 'tour' takes these choices away from you and you just go with it, but it does have it's benefits too, as we discovered. Firstly, while we'd had the day at the Forbidden City, our guide Ling had been fighting Chinese train ticket booths where no one queues and the bargers win, to get our tickets. Secondly, as we arrived at the 'correct' train station, I was confused by the iridescent wall of changing Chinese characters that listed arriving and departing trains with not a word in English. Like disciples, we dutifully followed her to the correct platform, carriage and cabin for our overnight journey. Who said a guide was a waste of time?
Eating before we left and boarding at 9:00pm, we sat around on the bottom bunks chatting and drinking BYO (cold)beer until 'lights out' at 10:30.
With bunks stacked triple high, my bed on the top required the skills of a Chinese contortionist to enter it. With no room to sit up, reading in bed was not really an option, despite the personal light. Clean linen, a warm doona and the rhythmic clickety clack of the train soon had me to sleep. The hard bed and occassional lurches and bangs that only a train can make, meant that it was an interrupted sleep.
Note to self - if on top bunk, avoid beer before bedtime. Getting up in the night was an acrobatic adventure of twisted limbs, compounded by the darkness.
On waking and surveying the passing scenery, it seemed that the smog in China is all-pervasive. Even out of the city, the pall of polution just blankets the country, reducing the sun and hiding the clouds.
The other thing that is ubiquitous in China seems to be construction. Concrete and cranes are everywhere. Cities, countryside, China looks like it's trying to pull the world out of recession single-handedly. Forget the phrase, "All the tea in China." What about, "All the cranes in China."
We hadn't been up too long in the morning and we were in Xian, our destination and the home of the Terracotta Warriors.
Backpacks on, front and back, we pushed through the throng of waiting crowds that seem to be a feature of train stations the world over, and walked about 10 minutes away to a waiting bus.
It was mid-morning by now and we were fortunate in being able to check straight into our hotel rooms. Quick showers all round and the group met at 11:30 for an orientation walk of the city before a group lunch.
Apart from a fantastic big old city wall that surrounds the city, and us, Xian doesn't have a lot to offer it seems. That is unless you count food. Lunch today continued the run of fantastic food in China. Ling just ordered a bunch of stuff for us and it arrived bit by bit and each dish started spinning it's way around the lazy susan. Spicy sichuan beans, a delicious eggplant dish and 4 different types of steamed dumplings. The cucumber dumplings, with a lovely broth were one of my favourite foods so far.
This afternoon, we left town to go and see the Terracotta Warriors. A grand scheme by Emperor Qin he took an army of workers to build over 600 underground bunkers and filled them with over 7000 clay soldiers, each unique in dress and facial features, in addition to other things he would need in the afterlife. This all took place over 2000 years ago by the same mad emperor who built the first 'great wall', out of dirt. (The classic one you see now is the stone one from the much more recent (1368-1644 AD) Ming Dynasty.
"Mad" a bit harsh? As per his wishes, his 3000 concubines were buried alive in his tomb with him in addition to killing one million people, about a fifth of China's population through sheer hard work in achieving his mad schemes. He did unify China and introduce a common language, measurement system and currency, but on the whole, he was not a man of the people. Proof of this was manifest when just a year after his death, the peasants revolted, (Conversation in Imperial court - "Emperor! The peasants are revolting." "Yes, I know.") and pillaged the tombs he had constructed for his afterlife, smashing all but one of the terracotta warriors and burning the tombs.
This makes the terracotta warriors on display even more impressive. They are a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle of broken pottery set in semistone. Archeaolgist's nightmare or career-spanning challenge? Take your pick.
There are 3 sheds that house the warriors you can look at, but most are still underground because although they were painted, it fades on excavation and exposure.
Compared with the Great Wall of China from earlier in the week that blew me away more than I expected, I will admit to being a little underwhelmed by the terracotta warriors. I'd seen them when some came to Perth a few years ago and didn't really gain much more looking at them in a shed on site.
We caught a local bus back to Xian station and from there we jumped on a public double decker bus for the ride back to our hotel. I grabbed the front top seat for an elevated view of the carnaged on the road that is Chinese driving.
(Our guide Ling does not have her licence, to which Brett quipped, "You're Chinese and female, so that's probably a good thing.")
As the bus ploughed through throngs of traffic and pedestrians, they magically separated at just the last minute, but not so soon that we didn't think we might have scored a hit. Twas a hoot of a view.
Tonight we wandered the night markets in the Muslim Quarter, intending to have a dinner of street stall snacks. We hit the taste jackpot at the start with a sweet steamed rice snack on a skewer. Appetiser? After walking the usual gauntlet of repetitious traders selling trinkets and other things we didn't need or want, we decided instead to eat in a restaurant. I LOVE street food, but you need to be choosy about who you buy from. Some are fresh and fantastic, however the ones on this street were not. I won't disgust you with details, suffice to say we chose to eat elsewhere.
Wandering back, I left Amanda at the hotel room and tried to find the internet cafe our guide had told us about. It wasn't there any more and no one knew where it had gone. Here in China you need a special licence to run an internet cafe, making for fewer, but larger ones. Back at the hotel again, the receptionist came to the rescue, I hoped, with a scribbled map of directions and instructions that began with "Go left out the front door and through the iron gate, up the dark alley...."
After that, and more dodgy little back streets of Xian, I found it where she said. No signs out the front and it was hidden on the 3rd floor behind not one, but two thick curtained doorways. I felt like I was meeting a triad leader or involved in some clandestine drug deal, but no, all this intrepid traveller was trying to do was keep my avid blog readers up to date with my travels. An hour later it was after midnight and I retraced my steps all the way back along dark alleys, only to find the 3 metre high wrought iron gate now chained and locked. I could see the entrace to my hotel, just 50 metres up a lit street. Faced with the option of continuing to walk the city streets without a map, I scaled the wall and pretended nothing had happened. All this just to do internet for you.
Thursday - Wall top bike riding. We proved that it's not just stunt bikers that can ride along walls.
Some of us got up early and went for a bike ride around the city wall. Xian has a lovely high wall around the 'old city', built in 1370 during the Ming Dynasty. (They must have liked building walls, not just 'Great' ones.) There's bikes to rent on top and seizing the chance to do something new, Amanda and I hired a tandem bike. It's 12 kms around the city wall. It's about 20 metres wide on top and the views should be good, only the all pervasive smog puts paid to that. We didn't crash, or get into fisticuffs and we pretty much had the wall to ourselves until returning an hour later at 10 after one lazy lap of the wall, at which point there were many more tourists renting bikes. The early bird gets the worm, or in this case, a quiet time without crowds.
We were meeting in reception at 11:30 to catch our train to Chengdu, so I grabbed breakfast from the street vendor near the hotel. A freshly fried egg came in a bun of lovely flakey dough, like a flat croissant. Packing done, one good bun deserved another! I told you I like GOOD street vendor food.
We caught a bus to the train station to catch the overnight train to Chengdu, home of pandas. My next blog will be about that, and some nights in mountain monasteries.
I'll leave you with some of my thoughts on Chinese beer.
The brands may change, but it's always the same tasteless low alcohol watery beer really. They seem happy to drink it warm too and sometimes they ask you, "Cold?" Stupid question to ask an Aussie hey!
They have a popular one in China called Snow Beer, I think it's because they taste the same. I'd rather have NO beer than Snow Beer.
In a flurry of inspiration, or would that be frustration, I penned 11 slogans that I think Chinese brewers could use to promote their products.
11 SLOGANS FOR CHINESE BEER
1) The beer you have when you're not having a beer.
2) Any closer to water, there'd be fish in it.
3) Now you can drink water, but still look like a beer-drinking man.
4) There's more hops in a dead frog.
5) Like lemonade, but with less bubbles.
6) The same poor quality you've come to expect from China.\
7) The beer you CAN drink and still drive.
8) Just because we can make cheap platic shit, doe not mean we can make good beer.
9) Beer - It's Mandarin for 'water'.
10) Guaranteed NOT to give you beer goggles.
11) Made with clean spring water, and not much else.