A Tour Too Far
I can’t comment much on the night train to Xi’an – I slept the whole way. I suppose that’s the highest compliment one could pay a second-class sleeper anywhere, and it was meant to be just that. The Chinese trains, as a reflection of the new classless society where some people take trains and some are driven in caravans of Mercedes SUVs, are separated into “soft” and “hard” seats. Similarly, the sleepers are broken down into two categories. I booked a berth on the dubiously designated hard sleeper expecting the worst, but not wanting to pay too much at the outset of the “holiday” part of this trip. A quick tip for anyone traveling in China – any hotel or guest house can and will happily book your tickets for you. Most end up charging about 10 RMB to do it – a fee that’s more than worth it, given the time you’ll save.
I prepared myself well – even broke down and bought an 80 gig ShanghaI-Pod for the trip and decked it out with the new Resident Evil film bit-torrented from the Beijing Apple store. I figured, worst-case scenario, I could just break out the laptop and cut some of the videos I’ve been shooting. The cabins on the trains are made for 6 sleepers each – three beds on the left, three on the right. I booked the top bunk, even though it was the cheapest and “least desirable”, according to the agent. This is high silliness, and here’s the secret: the top berth is a bit harder to climb into, but it pretty much guarantees you first dibs on the storage compartment, which is both convenient and safe. You’re also well elevated above the constant stream of fellow travelers on their way to spit and smoke between cars. Like the Indians, the Chinese can’t seem to sit still for more than about 10 minutes at a stretch and feel the need to perambulate all night long.
I was expecting to fall asleep clutching my beloved camera (no offence, honey 😉 ) which, attractive as it may be to some, isn’t the most comfortable or sturdy sleeping companion. If you take the hard sleeper in China, reserve the top berth for sure. Your companions in the cabin are entirely out of your hands, sadly, but I lucked out. Five relatively docile students climbed in at the last minute and offered meek, well-meaning hellos to the foreigner. I crammed the camera into the overhead compartment at my feet and slept like a baby until the piped-in folk music woke me up in Xi’an.
Xi’an is, according to some, China’s namesake. It was one terminus of the Silk Road, and served as the capital of the Middle Kingdom for centuries before being overrun and abandoned in favor of Beijing by the Ming. The pristinely restored Ming city walls still surround the old city, which has quite a bit to offer, even though it’s been pretty thoroughly remade in the model of the new Chinese neon city. The old muslim quarter was left almost entirely alone by the Cultural Revolution, thankfully, and now it draws tourist crowds from all over China and the world. The highlights here are the food and the main mosque, which is really a weird and beautiful sort of hideaway in the center of the bustling market quarter.
The great mosque was originally built sometime in the 7th century and disguised somewhat with typical Chinese architectural flourishes. It feels more like a garden, with ancient cypress trees and memorial stone tablets popping up in strict symmetry all through the compound. The mosque itself is off limits to all but worshippers, but it is a huge wooden hall decorated with dragons and Arabic script. The gateman could say hello and a few other scattered phrases in almost every language on the planet. After running through Czech, Polish and Arabic, I added Hungarian to his collection! Outside the tranquility of the mosque, a huge, dense market teemed with laowai fighting off offers of “real” terracotta warriors and mah-jong tiles amid clouds of smoke from broiling lamb kebabs. It seemed more like Istanbul than Xi’an for a few streets. Deeper in, it regains its “Chinese” character as the tourist shops thin. I found a fantastic noodle shop that served a single, tasty concoction of some sort of preserved beef, square pasta-like noodles and veggies. It’s eaten quickly, with lots of chili paste and sound effects. Also worth trying are the small rice-pudding cakes. They steam the puddings in little bamboo steamers, then fill them with plum filling and top it off with sugar and crushed nuts. At 1 RMB, they can’t be beat for a midnight snack.
The main attraction in Xi’an, of course, are the Terracotta Warriors. Found accidentally by a farmer who was digging a well, they have become second only to the great wall on the list of China’s “must see” attractions. The first moment that old man lowered himself into the cave he found and lit up his torch must have been one of the most terrifying and awe-inspiring moments any human being has ever experienced. Thousands of clay soldiers – each with different faces, hair, rank and function, were cast and fired to go to the afterlife with the emperor Qin, who evidently thought that if he couldn’t take it all with him, he could at least kick some ass when he got there.
For such a massive world heritage site, the Chinese have managed it admirably. Most backpacker types will scoff at the paved and air-conditioned halls, organized exhibits and inevitable gift shops that surround the huge area, but they really have done an excellent job of keeping the site accessible, safe and pleasant for everyone who wants to visit. Respect 😉 The other complaint some folks have is that you really can’t get close to the warriors, but honestly – the things are 2000 years old. You can’t have millions of people a year in close proximity to something that insanely valuable and delicate. The guardhouses on the great wall were carved with the equivalent of “Larry Loves Lucy” in every language known to man, and I don’t believe that people can resist, sadly. People at the 1st pit were desperately scraping away at the dirt on the other side of the barrier, hoping to unearth god knows what revelation with their own grubby hands. Bring a telephoto lens and quit yer bitchin’.
Avoid tours at all costs. This is a sad fact, but in China, “tour” means that you go see every gift shop and factory shop in the city before hitting the attraction you signed up for. You really get to feeling like a bank machine – with everyone expecting to make a buck out of you at every turn. I got suckered in at the comfortable hostel I stayed in at Xi’an, thinking that they probably know what my “type” is looking for, but never again. The bus to the Terracotta Warriors from Xi’an center costs about 10 kwai and entrance is 35. Read a good guidebook and pay no more forever 😉
The guests at the hostel were one of the most interesting groups I’ve ever met in any such place. Primarily European, almost all of them had studied quite a bit of Chinese history and language. They were truly interested in the place, and their enthusiasm was catching. It was almost the idyllic hostel experience – sitting in their little café/bar at night talking with a friendly, thoughtful and open group of people from all over the world – picking up bits of Chinese, bits of politics and hints for the next destination. Absolutely enjoyable. Happy travels to all of you – Guy, Shidos, Michael, Robert, Charlotte, Maria Vittoria, Vitor and Lily – hope to run into you all again sometime soon, and if you’re ever in Prague, drop a line!
I’m off to Chengdu next to see some baby pandas… (aaaaawwwww!) and take in the Szechwan flavors. More soon, M.