Smoggy, sweaty Xi’an

Xi’an, the ancient capital and the place they call the ‘cradle of China’. Right in the centre of China this place is supposed to have more archaeology around it than anywhere else in the country. Needless to say we were drawn here by the Army Of The Terracotta Warriors but Xi’an was a very interesting place besides this.

After another dodgy night’s sleep we got off the train an hour late and hooked up with other westerners heading to the same HI hostel – Shuyuan, by the city’s south gate. We used their free shuttle service to whisk us across the city and we were soon booked in for our so far obligatory first night twin room. Of course it was a welcome relief and we soaked up the ‘luxury’ whilst we could. The next few nights we booked into a normal dorm.

First impressions of Xi’an: Very smoggy, the haze is ever present and it’s very hot and sticky. The city itself is a mix of modern ugly high-rises and ancient (in China anything earlier than 19th Century is called ancient, even in museums) houses. It’s nowhere near as pretty as Pingyao and it doesn’t have the same Hutong atmosphere as Beijing but it’s retained a very Chinese feel and doesn’t yet feel like a top rung modern city. Especially inside the walls. Outside there are several large towers and more being built. The city sprawls for many kilometres in every direction too but the bus services run anywhere you’d want to go and are very cheap at 1Y a trip. The people are still extremely friendly everywhere and as ever they are more than a litle interested in both my hair and my height. I was asked several times whether I was a basketball player. I suppose in China I would be an asset but anywhere else I’d be a hindrance.

So, a quick run down of what we got up to:

The first day we wrote off as R&R, and much needed too. Later on we went out and found a REALLY busy restaurant close the hostel. 3 floors of shouting Chinese and beautiful looking meals. We used the tried and tested method of pointing at random things on the menu and ended up with a very nice meal indeed. The local brewery is called Hans and although they re-use Tsingtao bottles their beer is quite tasty too. Chinese seem to enjoy drinking lager warm which to me is a bit weird but everywhere seems to know our preference for cold ones and they have a supply ready for us too. Which is most useful when you see the number of chilli peppers in each dish. We certainly won’t be Vitamin C deficient any time soon. Back at base that evening I re-named the card game Speed to Gump, because it’s fast and simple. A much more appropriate name. We went into the DVD room and started to watch Little Miss Sunshine when a drunk German popped round the curtain and said ‘You wanna come to Monkey Bar?’. How could we resist? We went out with a group of three Germans and a Chinese guy but soon found Moonkey Bar (sic) was closed. Led by Michael the Chinaman we went into a bar on the main street called Pink. Alarm bells had sounded earlier when we’d walked past it and seen how poor it looked but nevertheless we dived in. Yet more alarm bells rang when the bouncer/security check guys were dressed like soldiers but in a really camp way. We went up to the 3rd floor in a lift and emerged into a very glitzy club. We were ushered to a table and then set about trying to decipher the price list. Between six of us we ordered a dozen beers for 240Y which is quite expensive by our budget so far. After sitting through some of the worst music I’ve heard so far and being unable to talk over the ear-splitting volume we tried to get the second batch of our beers. It turned out we’d either been misled or plain ripped off as there were no more beers coming. And worse still whilst we’d paid 40Y for two beers (in theory) they had all paid 25Y each for one. Feeling cheated we left and went home.

Second day was wall day. My youth card was rejected by the gate keeper because I wasn’t Chinese, so we paid full whack to get up there, but it was worth it. The walls are about 15 metres wide at the top and very high. The original version was Ming I believe but until recently it wasn’t possible to circumnavigate the city on the wall so parts have been renovated or re-built. After a brief stroll we found a shack renting out bikes at 20Y for 110 minutes. I didn’t fancy being prey to one of Martyn’s beardy whims on a tandem bike so we each got our own and sped off. The ride was very bumpy at times but the bikes were built like tanks and seemed to be indestructible. We made it half way around the 14km circuit and realised we were running short of time and might have to pay a 5Y penalty (shock horror) so after some particularly fine action shots with ice cream we zoomed round the rest of the wall. Splattered with flies and sweat but pumping with endorphins we made it back to the shack just in time. After that we grabbed some cheap canteen food from a side street. Our aching arses told us to go back to the hostel so we did and played more games. That evening was the hostel’s weekly BBQ and was supposed to be extremely social so we hung around. We sat with 2 Danes (Benjamin and Alexander) and the German guys from our dorm (Jonny and whatshisname) for a few hours nibbling on semi-tasty morsels from the BBQ. I ordered a small steak and it came with fried banana which was unexpected. Later we went to the Dane’s room to watch the Champions League final but it started about 3am so I was falling asleep by half time and called it a night.

Day three we woke in a sauna. Our dorm had one upside – it was in the middle of the building so it was very dark but nobody hd put the air con on and we steamed all night. Martyn and I headed south to visit the Shanxi Museum. We caught a bus but had no idea what the place looked like and foolishly didn’t bringa map. We finally got off the bus by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and went in. The admission charge didn’t cover entry to the pagoda itself, only the surrounding Buddhist temple and as it was still deeply smoggy we decided there really wasn’t any point. Instead we wandered for an hour or so, looking at the caged dogs and birds and taking pictures of the butterflies. Nice and peaceful. Filled with new resolve we headed back towhere we hoped the museum would be. We walked for another hour before finding it just as I was prepared to give up. Sadly it was being tarted up and only 4 halls were open. There were a lot of excellent exhibits though and overall I’d say it was worth the hassle of finding it. Afterwards we tried to find the bus that delivered us to the south but to no avail. Yet more aimless strolling led us to a main road and we just guessed and took the first bus that came along. Luckily for us it delivered us exactly where we needed to be. We sipped on ‘Jim & Tonics’ for a few minutes and then went to the popular restaurant from day one where we had another huge feast. Back at base we watched the films 300 and Perfume (perfume has the most stupid ending after a vaguely promising start) to round out the day.

Day four was Terracotta Army or ‘The Eighth Wonder Of The World’ day. First we bought our train tickets to Shanghai easily and then we caught the 306 bus from the parking lot all the way to the museum about 40km outside the city. For 7Y that’s great value. When we got off an odd Englishman followed us for quite a while in the wrong sirection. We had gone on instinct but it turned out to be wrong. We had to run the gauntlet of annoying hawkers twice before finding the entrance. Then there was a short walk to the ticket office. Here we finally lost our strange shadow. Both of us were very tired today and in no mood to make small talk. 90Y was a lot of money for entry to the site and it’s debatable if it’s worth it. To see one of the most famous sights in China I would say it was, but only for Pit 1 where there are thousands of the warriors standing in ranks. This room was very impressive (though MANY other people have said they were bored by this room!). For some reason they don’t approve of flash photography in there despite there being no colours to damage on the warriors. I think it’s just a ploy to make sure you get only semi-decent snaps and have to buy from the literally scores of tat shops and hawkers by the exit. The second pit was a bit of a waste of time as even the forewore gives the impression you’ll see archaeologists at work. In reality it’s just a big hole with some shards of old pottery. You can’t easily tell which bits of the structure were put there by the excavation or ar part of the original. The third building is a museum of the site and it’s incredibly dull. Though the Chinese are rightly proud of the Army the claim that it should be a wonder of the world is a vast exageration. They are very good but in no way can they rival things like the Great Wall or the Pyramids. We ran the hawker gauntlet a third time but now I was wearing my shades so I wasn’t bothered by them at all really. Heading back into town was easy and we found a nice dumpling restaurant to fill ourselves up. That evening we watched Apocolypto after several failed and hilarious attempts to get other pirated DVDs to work. Half way through Jo and Nick appeared so afterwards we went for a few drinks and visited their hostel, the Bell Tower Hostel (I think) for free pool til very late.

Day five we headed out in really thick muggy conditions to find the Muslim quarter and browse some stalls full of trinkets available everywhere in China. We found the right area and stumbled across the Great Mosque which is built in a Chinese style. Full of sparrows the temple doesn’t really have anywhere not covered in mess to sit down but it was a fairly nice place. I think we were a bit too hot and bothered to appreciate it that day. The sights and smells of food in the back alleys was worth the walk though. After our walk we picked up our stuff and caught the train to Shanghai with ease, though there was a humongous queue to get through the ticket check and it was a bit of a free-for-all. We had soft sleeper (four bed cabin, nice mattress) tickets because everything else had sold out but it was a nice reminder of the trans-siberian. We had a Chinese guy in our cabin and though we couldn’t understand much of what he said we worked out that he was the author of a book he proudly presented to Martyn. He urged Martyn to read through it and though he said he couldn’t understand Chinese he still had a good look at the pictures to calm the man down. Later on he signed the book even though his face looked nothing like the little snapshot on the inside cover… Chinese man passed out quite early so we passed the evening with Scrabble and got early nights ourselves.

The next morning we woke in a land of canals and a giant lake, man-made I read, the smog was just as bad as ever. When we got off the train in Shanghai the heat and humidity were incredible. Not the best first few seconds in the new city.

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