The huge waiting room in the Bejing train station was packed with travellers heading home for the ancestors holiday. Adults sat with bundles and sacks while kids made a game out of pushing each other on wheeled luggage. Eliot drowned out the noise with his iPod and I went exploring for food. The snacks available- duck tongues, and chinese dates – did not appeal to me. So, I opted for coconut buns and bought some “cultural revolution playing cards”.
Our compartment had 4 bunk beds with granny bed covers, a thermos, a table and a control for the AC. Eliot took the top bunk and I got the bottom. The young man and daughter that shared our “soft sleeper” compartment were quiet and respectful. The girl bowed in thanks after I gave her an orange. Lights were out at 10.00 and I fell asleep to the rustling sound made by the springs in Eliot’s bunk over my head. I woke to the dawn light, rinsed my face in the washroom, made tea and sat down to take photos of the country side. The farms, towns, crumbling factories and industrial installations gave way to blocks of residential towers and then the walls of the old town.
We arrived in Xian at around 9 am and followed a group of tourists out the wrong exit. After walking around a number of barriers and into traffic along the city wall, we found our guide -Dave-. He provided snacks including a cake that tasted like duck. He then started by telling us what was “famous” about Xian (Terra Cotta Warriors, Moslem Market, Wall and shaped dumplings).
Xian is located about 1000 km west of Beijing. According to our guide and wikitravel it is more than 3,000 years old and was known as Chang’an (长安) in ancient times. It is the eastern terminus of the Silk Road（丝绸之路) For 1,000 years, the city was the capital for 13 dynasties, and a total of 73 emperors ruled here. Xi’an is the root of Chinese civilization having served as the capital city for the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang dynasties. It has often been said that, “if you have not been to Xi’an, you have not been to China!”
The old city is surrounded by a 20+ km long wall. Outside the wall there are new districts. On our first day, we went to see the Terra Cotta warriors, had a traditional lunch, biked the around the top of the wall along the ramparts and ended with the Muslem market.
The warriors date back to the 3rd century BCE and were discovered in 1974 by farmers. They were commissioned by an emperor to guard his tomb and help maintain his position in the afterlife. He was buried with riches in an underground city along with an estimated 2,000,000 warriors. The warriors had different ranks and weaponry. Also the faces are different.There are other artifacts including a bronze horse and chariot. The ego and vanity of “great men” never ceases to amaze me. It is not enough to have an empire, countless riches and concubines in this life. He also wants to have it all in the next life. I guess he did live on in a way as thousands file in every day to see his tomb.
The site itself was very busy with Chinese tourists. Dave told us how on holidays they can get over 100,000 visitors. On the way out we passed a restaurant that refuses to serve Japanese tourists. A small reminder of some of the tension that remains after the war.
My favourite part of the day was the Muslim market. It was located on a crowded street with vendors and hawkers on both sides. There were noodle makers, ice sellers and spicy lamb kebabs on branches. Vendors sang out the virtues of their products. It was one of the best markets I have been too, everyone seemed very good natured and the place felt prosperous.
We stayed at a large modern hotel. Our room included a gas mask/survival kit- an interesting touch that goes beyond the usual soap and vanity kits. That evening we walked around the hotel to the bellower. We passed outlet stores, noodles joints and a mall with luxury brands. For dinner, we settled on spicy noodles and dumplings. The locals were very friendly to us in the restaurant.
On our second day, we visited the Shaanxi Historic Museum (陕西历史博物馆) and the Big wild goose pogoda- an ancient Buddhist structure. The former had an impressive collection of artifacts from the different dynasties. The queue was around the block and we asked about alternatives. Our guide said “yes” which really meant no, as he struggled to find a way to get us in. He eventually succeeded by buying scalped tickets (after a failed attempt to enter through the gift shop). We learned that in China people rarely say no so they say yes but then ignore the question. We passed a water fountain show that was a bit disney meets North Korea.
At the buddhist complex we were guided by a devotee. Many of the temples had been destroyed in the cultural revolution. When we asked about that time and what she felt about it, she smiled and said yes, when pressed she said, that in China people do not criticize the actions of the government like they do in the West. It was an enlightening exchange. Similar to one with our guide in Beijing who told us about difficulties in getting an apartment for a reasonable price and other issues, but refused to criticize the government and was also appreciative of the very real economic progress that he had seen in his lifetime.
After touring, we had another excellent Xian chinese meal and then headed to the station for our next overnight train to Beijing. This time there were more amazing views of the countryside. Next stop Shanghai.