Thursday, 3 March 2011

Xi'an and The Terracotta Warriors, 29 December 2010 - 3 January 2011

Climbing aboard the overnight Beijing to Xi'an train was a totally different experience to the last train I was on which was from Ulan Bator to Zamiin Uud. We were travelling in the hard sleeper which in China means you have 6 berths per compartment without a door whereas soft sleepers have 4 beds per compartment with a door. The carriages were surprisingly clean and modern and the only problem we had was understanding the ticket and finding our bed. In Russia each berth in the compartment has a number which are clearly stated on the door of each compartment but in China the compartments are numbered and then it states whether you are upper, middle or lower berth with a Chinese character.

City walls of Xi'an

My ticket apparently stated that I was on the lower bunk but I was met by an elderly lady who pleaded with me and asked me whether she could swap beds as she was given the upper bunk which she clearly couldn't get up to. I was, of course, happy to do this, plus I like to have the upper bunk on the train anyway as it's your space and if you want to sleep you can. June and I were in the same compartment but Karin ended up in the compartment next to us but it was a very short train journey anyway of only 12 hours over night. In our compartment we met Trina Li who worked for a company creating links between universities in China and the Western world. She was heading to Xi'an to do a presentation and then head straight back to Beijing the next day. We didn't have much time to talk with Trina as the lights got turned off mid conversation which were our orders to go to bed!

The night was awful, it was so hot in the train sweat was just pouring off me. For the first time I had to remove most of my clothing. I thought I was the only one but I found out in the morning that both Trina and June felt exactly the same. We pulled up into the station around 9am and were thrust into an incredibly busy station and were greeted by touts trying to get us in their guest houses or giving us lifts. We barged through them and found the girl who held up a hand written piece of paper with KARIN written on it. It was for us, she asked us whether we wanted to walk or get a taxi which we thought was odd as when you use a pick up service, they usually collect you in a car. We asked how far the hostel was and she replied just around the corner. Why we would need a taxi was beyond me and we opted to walk and arrived at the hostel five minutes later.

My god my face hurt. After my trip into the Terelj National Park in Mongolia a lesion appeared on my left temple. In Beijing we suspected it may have been frostbite from where I had been sweating onto exposed skin. However, during the Christmas period the lesion had spread further down my face, onto my left elbow, my left little finger and my left thigh. This expelled the diagnosis of frostbite and it was beginning to hurt and become infected so my first excursion in Xi'an was to find a Pharmacy. It may seem strange to some but going into pharmacies in foreign countries is a fun adventure of mime artistry. Sometimes a little embarrassing but this time little mime was needed, I walked in, greeted them and pointed at the lesions on my temple, arm and finger. The two girls gathered round me to inspect my arm and recoiled with a tut that would compete with an mechanic who had just inspected your car and was preparing to tell you the bad news. The girls stood there for a moment speechless, motionless, leaving me pondering what their diagnosis was. They weren't saying anything and wondered whether they thought I was just sowing them what I had got and didn't want anything, so I mimed rubbing cream into it and taking pills. Finally they sprung into action and retrieved some cream and two packets of antibiotics and tried to explain how many I should take and how often in Chinese. I had no idea what they said and later checked with the hostel staff who could translate for me.
Lucky Archer
The main reason for people to visit Xi'an is the Terracotta Warriors, bīngmǎ yǒng, which is only a 7 Yuan (70p) bus journey away. Although it took us some time walking the streets to find the buses when we did find it it was so simple to climb aboard hand over the money, sit back and relax. The Terracotta Warriors was the brain child of Emperor Qin who was the first emperor to rule the newly unified China. The creation of the Terracotta Warriors began when Qin was only thirteen years old and he demanded that no two soldiers should be alike. It is rumoured that Qin actually wanted his whole army to be buried alive with him to protect his soul from evil forces and continue to fight with him in the afterlife but his close advisers luckily managed to discourage him from this idea. Qin was a harsh ruler and to protect and create a stable society he burned certain books and even buried scholars alive who may have posed a threat.

The whole complex is huge, there are over 8,000 unique soldiers and hundreds of chariots and horses. Unfortunately through time the majority of the warriors were destroyed as pits collapsed as fire broke out in several sections. Qin's mausoleum adhered to the principles of Feng Shui as he was buried with a hill to the north and his army and a river to the south. Although the history and concept of the Terracotta Warriors is astonishing and inspiring, you can't help but be a little disappointed when you actually visit the site. There are very few warriors that are standing and they have all been restored to their original structure but the magnificent colours have faded. I believe that when we see pictures of the complex, we imagine the warriors going on into the distance, but there are only a few. To have great expectations is always a bad thing as you usually get disappointed. No matter the slight disappointment, to see the warriors and their intricacy is not to be missed or underestimated. As I said before, no two soldiers are the same and they used a few face moulds to create a general face and then used clay to create the unique features. The warriors were originally brightly coloured, unfortunately the colours deteriorated when they were exposed to the open air and sunlight. The authorities have kept many soldiers buried so that they remain full of colour and one day they may have the technology to protect the colours from fading.

June and Karin on the wall behind me
Xi'an is a city of great historical importance to China as it was one of the great Chinese capitals and the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Despite this, there is not much else to do here. One day June, Karin and I thought it would be fun to cycle the city wall which still surrounds the inner city. A journey of 25.7km on the 12m high wall around the city was a fun trip and gave us a semi bird's eye view of the city.

New Year's Eve arrived which meant I was going to lose Karin and June who headed off to Chengdu. I was going to follow them the next day but unfortunately once I battled my way to the front of the ticket office queue I found out that there were no available trains until 3 January!! Buying tickets in the train stations is an experience. Of course there are no queues and when you get to the front you are continually being pushed and shoved from behind by people who think they should go before you. That's where the elbows come into play. My top tip for buying train tickets abroad is find out which train you want before you go to the station and write the train number down, including time and if possible get someone to write down a Mandarin translation for you. This way, you save a lot of time with translation problems and your ticket is promptly issued.

As I was on antibiotics, I was unable to drink but that didn't seem to matter as my hostel was full of Chinese people who didn't celebrate the calendar new year anyway. I spent the evening feeling a little depressed as I was alone for the first time in many weeks and it was New Year's Eve! Kaela, the Australian guy who was in my room, convinced me to go out for one midnight drink and go into a club. So we left the hostel around 23:30 and headed towards the main road to grab a taxi to the club. We had an issue getting a taxi to stop so we flagged down a rickshaw driver and got him to take us. Time was ticking down rapidly and we only had 15 minutes to get to the club, into the club and buy a drink before midnight. The rickshaw was struggling and I thought we were never going to make it but the driver pursued the goal, running red lights, weaving around stationary cars, bikes and pedestrians and we pulled up outside the club and got into the lift that was going to take us in. Nightmare, we arrived and were refused entry because they were full. This presented serious issues and we needed to find an alternative bar to have a New Year drink, fast. We headed round the corner with a quick stride and found an Irish Bar, went in a bought a drink just as the clock struck and Auld Langs Syne rang out of the pub's speakers whilst Hu Jintao appeared on the TV with his message of propaganda. I'm glad I got to have my one drink at midnight, New Years without a drink just isn't the same!

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
Happy New Year to one and all. I spent the day on a massive trek to the southern side of the city and the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda which was a little more difficult as there had been snow showers overnight so it meant slipping on every paving slab. The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda was all right, but even more impressive is the fountain in front of it which is, on China's Superlative Tour, the biggest fountain in Asia and the biggest water, light and music show in Asia. The area was just full of Chinese tourists taking photos and blatantly ignoring warning signs by climbing into the fountain to pose. On my walk back to the north side I stopped at a stall where a man was selling some corn on the cob, I specifically said not too spicy but I think he heard the opposite because my mouth was melting all the way back into the centre of town until I could relieve it with a ice cream bought besides the Drum Tower. Sitting in the snow, in China eating an ice cream seemed strange but it was worth it!

Drum Tower
A short walk from the drum tower is the Muslin Quarter and food street, my favourite part of Xi'an by far because there are so many food stalls selling delicious and interesting delights. It's a great area to stroll around and just pick up little bits and pieces to eat. Sometimes you get the odd thing which is disgusting but the majority of time you are pleasantly surprised. Food is one thing China does well to a certain extent. No matter where you are or when it is, you will be able to find something to eat somewhere.

My last day saw another trip to the chemist, this time for a cough and cold which I had had on and off since Moscow. I went to find the pharmacist I visited for the flesh eating bacteria but missed it and ended up in a traditional Chinese medicine shop where I gave a well received performance of cough and cold. He then gave me some random pills and wrote in broken English some directions on how to take them. I know you're reading this thinking that I am becoming a hypochondriac but this cough was not only keeping me from sleeping but the rest of the dorm.

Food Street
Pills in hand I headed for the Shanxi history museum which has been noted as one of the best in China. It was free entry which was a bonus but after looking round hundreds of artefacts I couldn't fathom why it was one of the best. Perhaps I have reached the point where museums begin to bore me and I can't stand seeing hundreds of pottery bowls with a label stuck to it stating the estimated year. There is, however, an area of the museum which you need to pay for that might have been better but I wasn't in the mood to go any further. I left the museum after watching a couple of films on the Terracotta Army and the old capital of China and hopped in a rickshaw for an exhilarating journey back to the hostel.

I collected my belongings and joyfully headed over to the train station to get my train out of Xi'an and onto the homeland of Pandas, Chengdu. Getting on a train in China is like getting on a flight. You must arrive at the station around one hour as you are required to pass through a metal detector and your bags must be x-rayed before entering. Then you have to check the departure boards to find which boarding gate you must wait at. I was sitting in the departure lounge for a long time, the departure time approached fast and I was concerned as I hadn't boarded the train yet. I was trying to have a look at other people's tickets to ascertain whether they were on my train or not. I asked people and finally an official told me that it was late, so I sat down a little relieved and bored.  Kaela appeared through the doors accompanied officers because he was carrying two Japanese swords with him. They stopped to talk with me before all heading back to their office and they seemed very friendly.

Another fifteen minutes passed and my anxiousness hit an all time high. I was perched on the benches with my backpack still on fully prepared to spring into action. I kept making eye contact with the official who stood beside the door with his computer and controlled the masses boarding trains but was continually met with him shaking his head. The train was now nearly an hour late and I decided that it was time to remove my backpack and get comfortable but the moment I did the official motioned for me to go over to him. He told me that my train was there, checked my, told me the platform number and opened the door for me. This was a really pleasant thing to do as he made sure that I got through before the other people that were waiting to board the train. It was great, not having to push and shove my way through a queue and be apart of the race to get aboard first.

I got to the platform and boarded the train, my compartment was already occupied by three other people, no sorry four other people, two men and a mother and her young daughter. I made myself at home and promptly fell asleep after reading a couple of pages of 'Tuk to the Road'. I woke up during the night to discover a man hovering over my face reading his book. His nose can't have been more than two inches away from mine and he was taking up most of the person's bed. I'm not going to lie to you, it creeped me out and it's a perfect example that respect of personal space does not exist in China.

The morning arrived after a night of tossing and turning in the heat and I began speaking with the girl that had swapped with one of the men during the night. She was a student at a university in Chengdu and had just visited her parents. She was studying to become a teacher and we continued to have a confused conversation throughout the rest of the journey. The train passed through fields with crops and green trees borders and I suddenly realised that this was the first greenery I had seen since leaving the UK in November!

The train finally arrived in Chengdu around 11.30am and into a dull grey Chengdu.

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