The next leg of our trip was a train ride from Beijing to Xian, the fast train this time, and only 9 hours. Newer and more luxurious than the trains through the rest of China, this one has individual seats that recline, are soft and comfy, and even rotate 180 degrees for when changing direction (they have some great ideas in China).
The train pulled out of Beijing at exactly 10:01, and into Xian North train station at 19:06, almost dead on schedule. We were greeted by a monstrous building, thousands of people could easily be accommodated by its expanse, yet there seemed to be only a few hundred strolling around, another case of forward thinking by the Chinese. One day this place will undoubtedly be filled to the brim with a burgeoning population, but for now, it is eerie in its gargantuan emptiness.
We stumbled around for a bit until locating the subway into town, easily done as there are english names to accompany the hieroglyphs which constitute a chinese language. 10 minutes later we were on the bus heading hopefully in the direction of our hostel. The hostel (Warriors youth hostel) had Chinese characters in their directions, so it was simple enough to request the help of strangers who are always more than happy to oblige.
Off the bus, another query to a stranger, and we were in the lobby of Warriors booking in for a night. In my previous travels/holidays, we had mostly stayed in hotels, and had an assumed view of what constitutes a youth hostel. Images of drunken foreigners, bed bug infestations and baby stealing cockroaches had always been the expectation, but since travelling on the cheap, and staying almost exclusively at these low-budget options, I have almost always been pleasantly surprised. Warriors, is a great example of a pleasant surprise. Big rooms with en suite, clean, aircon, pool table, good restaurant, friendly and helpful staff, it has it all, for a fraction of the cost, and it has the social aspect of communal areas, the place where you tend to meet most of your adventures and find out about what to do and where to do it. We even had live music played to us while munching down on a dinner of sweet and sour chicken. Our room for three nights cost us $50, I don’t think I will ever be able to justify staying in a hotel again.
The Terracotta Warriors
We only had two days in Xian, so had already decided to make the most of it and get things done! This plan was somewhat waylaid by waking up late on day one, and by a bit of work I had to do (which took way longer than it should have thanks to China’s Great Firewall…Ha, I just got that!). Nevertheless, at 1pm we hopped on a few buses and made our way to the Terra Cotta Army, Xian’s number 1 tourist hotspot. It takes an hour or 2 to get there, but after travelling in China for a while, an hour or two seems like nothing.
Once there we bought our tickets for $25 each and decided to walk rather than take the $1 cart to the main site. The walk is only 15 minutes or so, but in Xian at the moment, it is hot as hell! Humid, and hot. So by the time we reached the second entrance gate, both of us were praying for a bit of aircon, hence rushing into the nearest building without a clue what it was. Sarah had read that the best way to see the warriors was to start at the museum, and then work our way around from the smaller pit to the largest, in a happy coincidence this is just what happened. Our aircon haven was the museum part which explains how, why and where. Neither of us really needing to know much more than we did already, and not really enjoying being jostled by the crowd, wandered back out and into the next waiting building.
I had read that you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, and a few signs had warned that bags weren’t allowed in, but the expectation of being halted and led to a bag containment area proved unfounded, and we wandered into Pit 3 without any obstructions. Pit 3 is mostly ruins, but as a starting point still cool. Not knowing what to expect next I snapped away, happy to be allowed to record the moment, Pit 2 offered a few more complete terra guys and upped the ante of expectation. And then the coup de grace, Pit 1.
Pit 1 is a huuuge structure, and it contains a site which is not done justice by the photos in guidebooks, postcards and national geographic which spread the good word. Underneath the giant roof are thousands of mud men, standing in silence, as though waiting for a command to spring into action. The unique face of each adds to the feeling that these men are a moment in time, captured for 2200 years. You feel you are looking at the husk of a person, each with a life, sculpted into a portrait of the time. Fears, insecurities, dreams and expectations. Each one had them, and each is now laid before us to marvel at the ingenuity of ego. One mans desire to live on (Emperor Qin), and to do so in the manner he was accustomed, is responsible for the spectacle we now see millenia later. Kudos to him, he went out in style.
A hint for the return journey, if approached by someone offering you an alternative to the long line of people waiting for a bus, don’t do it! Yes the bus leaves sooner, but it also stops every hundred meters to canvas more people to get on the already full bus. A 1 hour journey home ended up taking more than 2. And every new stop causes another bout of frustration until you want to strangle the drivers extremely able PR person, wait the extra 20 minutes, and get home sooner.
The Muslim Quarter
After a well deserved shower, we jumped in another taxi and paid a visit to the muslim quarter, the muslim quarter is as the name suggests, quite different to the Chinese quarter that is China. The streets are even noisier, the smells often less than appealing, and the streets somewhat covered in litter, organic and otherwise. Because of rather than in spite of this, it is a cool place to walk through, and a great place for a tasty dinner.
Settling somewhat randomly on a roadside eatery, Sarah chose our dishes by their obscurity rather than visual appeal, and surprisingly, it was delicious. Cold, freshly made noodles in unnameable sauces, a bread lamb mixture with an odd but addictive texture, and skewers of every animal God in his infinite wisdom put at our disposal, we couldn’t get enough, and wolfed it down with a Fanta imitation containing more sugar than its well known cousin, smashing.
On our way out I had my first brush with violence in China. Worry not, I managed to leave the fray relatively unscathed. While Sarah was admiring some trinket or other. I was approached by a tiny Chinese man, not a midget, but about the height and build of an eleven year old girl, with insanity (or booze) in his eyes. He made a beeline for me, and delivered an elbow to my side with what I am sure was all his might. Despite the intended ferocity of his blow, I was left with little more than an unpleasant feeling of sweat on my skin, sweat which did not emanate from my own over active glands.
Somewhat surprised by the out-of-the-blue fray, I turned around confused, to see the vertically challenged fellow, glaring at me, waiting for my reaction. I tried to get Sarah’s attention without raising my voice, in case it should trigger the man-child into pouncing again, but her attention was firmly rooted in whatever she was doing. My inaction seemed to be trigger enough, and the little one approached with even more anger blazing in his blood-shot eyeballs. There we stood, nose to naval, him ranting in a dialect I knew nothing of at the best of times, me questioning whether this might be just a bizarre dream, and if I should pinch myself to see if the little imp would disappear.
Deciding to deal with the situation, real or imagined, I maneuvered Sarah away as he started demanding money from me in lunatic gestures, I briefly considered how the crowd might react if I had to thump the little blighter. How do you explain to a group of Chinese muslims that a 4 foot, crazy mini-man had tried to mug me! a 5’8″, heavier than I should be, bearded monster.
Reason winning out, I walked Sarah away with a bit of haste, watching out the corner of my eye as he continued his angry postulating. Nobody in the crowd around me seemed to pay much attention, so I guessed that he might just be the local loon out for an easy score. Explaining what had just happened to Sarah, it became obvious that she had been oblivious to the situation, leaving me to forever question the reality of this bizarre encounter, and just how much of an effect all that LSD in my younger days has had.
Lets go for a ride
The following day we took a bus ride to the North Gate of the old city wall, jumped on bicycles, and had a leisurely ride around its 14km distance. The day was hot, but the wall is more or less flat so not too hard going, and you get to see the city in all its smoggy/foggy glory. The wall is about 6 european cars wide (as put by an american fella we met on the great wall), and has what at least feels like a lot of the original cobble stones in place, be warned, shocks are lacking on the bikes, and your arse will hurt long before completing the full distance. It is still a great ride though, with a few places to stop and have a drink and a smoke. It is one of those places that makes you go, “Oh that’s right, I’m in China riding a bicycle around a 2000 year old wall…Sweet” (I suppose it is the only place that would make you repeat that exact phrase, but you know what I mean).
All in all, Xian is a great place to spend a few days wandering around, the people are as friendly as ever, there is cool shit to see and eat, and it is on the way to Chengdu from Beijing or vise versa. Just take a pair of cycle shorts, the ones with the baboon looking arse cheeks, and watch out for the midget mugger.