6 to 10 August – We caught the train from Beijing to Xi’An today, a roughly 1200km trip taking around 6 hours. The 200km/hr average was achieved despite 7 stops by the train rattling along at speeds reaching 306km/hr. At that speed, passing another bullet train at a combined speed of 600km/hr is a real blast. We passed through a number of cities along the way, including Shijiazhuang and Zhengzhou but in reality, most of the journey was through towering housing estates. It seems as though for every 30 storey housing block, there are three being constructed. Several car manufacturing plants spread across areas greater than the average Perth suburb and enormous freeway complexes crisscrossed the land. Amongst all this concrete, the Chinese still find room to grow crops, and a great many trees. Corn dominated, along with green vegetables. The train was very comfortable, despite the fact that we had booked second class seats in error. Past experience has made us shy away from second class seats but in this case it was more than enough.
Along the way, we got an email message from Booking.com to say the hotel we were heading to was no longer available. We hastily research another, thankful that we at least received a couple of hours’ warning.
The train terminated at Xi’An North Station, leaving us a half hour subway trip into Central Xi’An. With backpacks on, we negotiated our way out of the station and onto the Metro. The entire journey was below ground so we really had no idea of what things were like until we emerged from the subway at Xi’An’s famous Bell Tower, right in the centre of the ancient walled city. We found our hotel easily enough and booked in. It wasn’t long before Christine had the maintenance man in to fix all the things that were wrong with the room. One thing she couldn’t fix was the breakfast, included with the booking. It turned out to be a plastic bag for each guest, containing four slices of dry bread, a paper cup, instant coffee with whitener, a brown boiled egg in a sealed plastic bag and some pickled salt vegetables. Excellent for weight loss.
Fortunately, the hotel is in a brilliant location, right in the hub of things and there is no shortage of eats and interesting sights. After settling in, we roamed the streets for a while, got a beer or two and picked up a few interesting pieces of street food to take back to the room.
Xi’An is the capital of Shaanxi in China’s North West. It has been China’s capital city through the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang Dynasties was the starting point of the Silk Road trade route to the West. Because of this, there is a significant Muslim influence. The city itself has a population of 8.5 million with 13.5 million in the immediate area.
The Central part of the city is walled, the ancient fortifications being in excellent condition. Many old buildings are in evidence around and the shopping and nightlife districts center around the famous Bell Tower and Drum Tower, both of which served as warning towers and time-telling towers. The main streets are very wide, with underpasses provided at regular intervals to facilitate crossing and wide open spaces are much in evidence. The traffic seems heavier than Beijing with a greater proportion of cars. With fewer electric vehicles, the traffic noise is greater too. Fortunately, the pedestrian is well protected from having to interact with vehicles, except for the rogue motorbike riders who make a run down the expansive walkways.
We spent a very pleasant three hours wandering around the central area, taking in the sights. One beautiful area was Shuncheng Lane, full of antique and calligraphy shops, all set along beautifully shaded walks and the air full of interesting aromas of incense and strange spices.
We wandered around the Drum Tower, an amazing structure from the 14th Century with enormous skinned drums lining its sides. The interior is filled with incredible furniture displays, much of it dating back many centuries. There must have been a fortune’s worth on display. As with all ancient Chinese buildings, the roof is the feature, an amazing web of highly decorated solid timber beams supporting a bamboo and clay-tile covering. It is a great spot to take in the expanses of the city and appreciate the simple yet effective planning and use of open space.
Next to the tower, the Muslim Quarter beckons, a highly touristy yet wonderful experience. Everywhere one looks, there is food being prepared over open coals or little frying pots. We sampled a number of things on sticks, the highlight being a large whole cuttlefish coated with spicy stuff and grilled. It was absolutely the best squid/cuttlefish we had ever had, and we have had a lot. Another option would have been a skewer containing three crabs (in shell), dusted with a coating and grilled. There were pieces of meat being stuffed into unusual flatbread creations, long toffee-like creations being pulled and twisted into metre long hanks and all manner of meats roasted on bamboo skewers. The street is around 500m long, employs thousands of people (literally) and was packed with customers. Every other street food experience from now on has this to live up to.
The XiAn City Walls enclose 36 km² of the city with a 14km long fortification, with regular towers and gates spread along its length. Initially built in 1370 by the first Ming Emperor as a defence for establishing Xian as his capital, the walls are 12m high and 12-14 metres wide. We entered the wall at the South Gate and hired a couple of bikes to complete the ride around. It was interesting enough and thankfully flat, although the same can’t be said for the road surface, it being composed of paving and cobbles in various states of repair. Repairs to the structure are an ongoing work and the balance between original ancient works and modern reconstruction seems to have been well met. However, riding a bike for 14km across the cobbles takes its toll, producing a nagging headache and a growing pain in other more tender regions. The wall is a great place to take in XiAn, but the view was not all that exciting, being composed mostly of towering concrete accommodation blocks and blankets of smog. After 10km, we left the bikes at the West Gate and descended from the wall, not because we were unable to continue, but more because it was the best access point to walk to the Muslim Food Street for more street food delights.
The Terracotta Army is probably the most famous of Xi’An’s attraction. Discovered buried under farming land in 1974, the army consists of 8000 life sized warriors, each one unique, along with all the support an army needs such as cavalry, supply trains, transport wagons and the like. It was created to protect the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China around 200BC. It is reported that more than 700,000 workers were involved in the creation of the army. The figures have lain protected by dry earth for centuries, and once exposed to the air, the paint and lacquer covering immediately deteriorates, peeling within seconds and falling off after only 4 minutes.
We set off to visit the site out in Lintong, about 40km out of XiAn. Having done some research, we figured the best way was to catch the number 306 public bus from the XiAn Railway Station. Setting out early to avoid the crowds, a trip on the subway took us to the station. The buses were reported to be out the front to the right but there was no sign of any buses at all. Then it dawned, the instructions we had researched were for XiAn Central and we were at XiAn North. Damn! Back on the subway, alight at the the nearest stop and walk around 2km to XiAn Central Railway Station, fight our way through a collection of parked taxis and trucks to find a long line, a very long line indeed. It snaked back on itself three times before reaching the place where the number 306 arrived. After 45 minutes of slowly moving forward and yelling at people attempting to push in, we finally got on the bus and paid our 6RMB ($1.10) fare, better than the 250RMB for a taxi and set off for the hour’s trip to Lintong.
The bus dropped us off and we followed the crowds through to the ticket office, another long walk past numerous small souvenir stalls and dodgey eateries, to find the entrance ticket was 150RMB ($30) each. Ouch! As soon as we had our ticket, the “hire a guide” people were on to us and followed aggressively, insisting they were official English guides. “GO AWAY!!” got the message across and we entered the viewing area. Actually, we got access to another half kilometre walk through parklands to a security check and bag scan. Once through that, we followed a crowd to another gate and very nearly went through it until we realised, just in the nick of time, that it was the EXIT. It was nearly a very expensive walk. We located the correct building and joined the 3000 or so other people inside. Fortunately, the building, a huge aircraft hangar suspended over the excavations, is so huge that it easily accommodated the enormous crowd.
After all the effort, it was good to finally see the army, or one part of it. There are four pits, but only three seem to contain warriors. It is thought that only three pits were completed by the time the Emperor died and that work ceased soon after. Pit One is certainly impressive but the true wonder lies with the history and endeavour behind the creation of the army. The sight itself is a bit of a disappointment really. The scope is almost beyond imagination and the workmanship superb but this is one of those times when we probably didn’t need to see the actual thing to appreciate it. A good research session (which we had done before hand) is probably enough and some of the virtualizations and films on the Internet are excellent. Still, it is another thing ticked off the list.
The walk back to find the number 306 bus was no shorter and the heat had climbed into the mid thirties. We grabbed a bite to eat from some street vendors along the way and took the ride back to XiAn. By the time we had walked another 2km to catch the subway again, we were bushed.
XiAn is a wonderful city to visit. It has all the pollution problems of Beijing and its population is well out of control but it is well organised and easy to move around. For the history buffs, there are a great many places to visit. We only touched on a tiny percentage of the many historic sites dotted around the city. For the foodies like us, it is pure heaven. I’m not sure that we will be back because there are so many other places to explore but it is a place I can only recommend.