Xi'an 2002

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Are you lonesome tonight...?

Hard sleeper to Xi'an seemed the way to go. Why fly when it's a not too long overnight train ride? As the train rocked and swayed out of Shanghai station we were asked to swap beds so that a family could stay together. That was no problem - but that's also when we met 'David', a Chinese high school student with an overdeveloped desire to practice his English - constantly. My wife and I are the type who prefer to admire the scenery or read while we travel. David obviously isn't. Nevertheless he was a nice enough young chap and it's pleasing to see yet another young person in China doing his best to reach his goals. For several hours he pointed out various landmarks along the way (such as the cooling stacks of the nuclear plants) and translated the conductor's messages ("Does anyone have medicine to supply to the person having a heart attack in Car 7?"). As we passed through the very rural Anhui province we enjoyed seeing the old thatched roof houses, oxen carts, rice fields and enough ducks to feed Beijing - for a few days at least. For a grand finale David sang, "Are you Lonesome Tonight?" then finally ambled off to his bunk. At 10.00pm the lights were turned off without warning, encouraging all to sleep.

We awoke at 5.50am to the 'Chinese alarm clock' - the coughing and hacking of phlegm. The early morning light revealed the changing character of the area and increasing muslim influence. There were dry barren lands with a decidedly poor population, caves dug out of the side of hills and obviously populated with families, plus flat roof homes with many people sleeping on top to escape the summer heat inside. Outside Xi'an the train slowed and finally crawled into the station around 9.00am.

We fought our way through the wall of touts, map sellers, etc., and made our way out of the station square, not exactly quite sure where were headed. But anywhere was okay, as long as it was away from the maddening crush. We dropped into a very nice muslim restaurant in the main street and had a delicious, if somewhat spicy, morning repast. We grabbed a cab to the Wenshang Hotel and found it clean and very conveniently located near the famous Bell Tower. The rate was very reasonable too. Maybe it was because we were placed in a room over the top of the karaoke bar. Our experience this trip found that hotel rack rates in the west are extremely negotiable. At some places they would drop from 450RMB a night to maybe 120-150RMB without even batting an eyelid.

After resting up we decided to just walk vaguely in the direction of the South Gate and see what happened. We first stumbled upon an old street in the shadow of the city walls that contained a lot of art shops. We would have loved to have taken home a whole bundle of things, including the HUGE framed traditional Chinese paintings for around 300RMB, but it was only our second day and there was only so much space in the backpacks. We finally settled on a couple of oil paintings that could be rolled up and framed once we got back to Shanghai. Walking from there we found ourselves at the gate of the delightful Provincial Museum. Just 'finding ourselves' somewhere was to be a constant theme on this journey, particularly in Xi'an. From the museum we took a short stroll along the city walls and then a lengthy hot trek to the Little Goose pagoda. We didn't bother climbing up as the top fell off yonks ago and we didn't want to be caught just in case there happened to any other sudden separation without notice.

Given our increasing dehydration and lethargy we decided to get a taxi to the quite overrated Shaanxi History Museum. From there it was impossible to get a taxi back to the hotel. From what we could discern there seemed some invisible taxi force field that kicked in somewhere around the South Gate. We managed to get into one cab, only to be ejected 100 metres later when he found out where we were going. We finally got one driver to agree to take us NEAR the South Gate and then we would have to hoof it from there back to the hotel. Along the way he called a number on his mobile then handed it to us. On the other end a female voice in somewhat broken English tried to convince us to take his taxi on a day tour to the Entombed Warriors and surrounds. After several calls back and forth, plus a good deal of bartering, we were able to set up a trip for the next day. After some delicious street corner satays and a touch of shopping we returned to the hotel quite satisfied with our first full day out.

In the morning we stopped on the same street corner for breakfast as the night before. We partook of traditional steamed buns with some kind of meat inside. What the filling was I'm not exactly sure but it closely resembled the taste of tuna. Our driver turned up on time and whipped us out first to the Entombed Warriors. We enjoyed seeing them but could have lived without the long excruciating explanations from our guide (the voice on the other end of the mobile phone). Of course there had to be the obligatory stops in the gift shop. Here we met the man who actually discovered the warriors all those years ago. He now makes a living by sitting next to the book counter and signing the various tomes purchased by visitors.

After the warriors we gave the tomb of Shi Huang Di (the first emperor) a miss as, at this stage anyway, it is no more than a small hill to be climbed up. There have been numerous offers from overseas to open up and explore the tomb which is fabulously described in old writings and even contains rivers of mercury. However, this right is being jealously guarded by China until they feel the time and technology is right. Given it is such a significant piece of their history it is quite understandable I guess. As you travel around Xi'an, and even on the way to the airport, you see many of these burial mounds - all still untouched. What mysteries and treasures of the past they must contain. Just the sight of so many of them is awesome. Next stop, the Huaqing Pools were worth the visit. What is not mentioned in the foreign travel guides is that this was the site of the 'Xi'an Incident' in the 1930's when Chang Kai Shek was forced to form an alliance with the Communists against the Japanese. There are still broken windows and pockmarked walls preserved from the brief battle. From there we went to Xi'an Hall which does not make it into the guides. A little 'cheesy', but it's cheap and quite interesting in regard to modern Chinese history. Then again, I guess I do talk from the viewpoint of one who actually teaches Chinese history. We thought we would end the tour there and give our last stop, the reportedly kitschy Banpuo Village, a miss.

After lunch back in Xi'an we rested for awhile before I went to Laodong Nan Lu where there are several airline booking offices and buses for the airport. Additionally you can negotiate cheap taxi rides to the airport from that area but you must check if they will sting you for the highway fee as well (10-15RMB), as that makes it not such a cheap deal. After hawking around a couple of the offices I finally booked a flight to Chengdu with a small 10% discount. In the coolness of the evening we spent a few hours discovering the muslim quarter. After a wander down the interesting market street we found ourselves at the gates of the Great Mosque. Not really great, but still worth a look. The restaurant street on the way back was alive with noisy groups of people and loud hawkers proclaiming the virtues of their establishments. At the top of the street we decided to venture into a famous dumpling restaurant that appeared to be almost completely inhabited by tour groups. My wife and I loved the one gaggle of Koreans that all wore the same (get this), hats, shirts, jackets and pants. Not sure about the underwear. Talk about group identity! Maybe they were some strange Moonie group or similar. Quite full of delicious dumplings we wandered back to the hotel and slept the sleep of the dead - even with the karaoke...

We had a lazy start the next morning and negotiated a taxi to the airport. We bought a buffet lunch at the airport for 35RMB only to discover that they served a substantial lunch on the plane. We stashed the consumables in sealed bags away for later and just drank the coffee that was so sweet it will ensure a positive diabetics test for us both in the very near future. The flight was generally smooth and soon we were landing in Chengdu, Sichuan.

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