Friday, March 5, 2010

Us and a few thousand clay warriors…

Feb 24th –> 27th, by Jason

Well, we arrived safely in Xian after our nice flight on Hainan Airlines (quite a different level of quality compared to Spring Airlines or any US carrier for that matter…a hot meal and free English language newspaper on a 2 hr domestic flight!! Craziness I tell you…) So we grabbed our luggage and hopped on Airport Shuttle #1, which for 25 RMB takes you directly to the Bell Tower in the center of Xian, about 40 km from the airport. We quickly found our hostel (thanks to the map we got from a fellow traveler back in Nanjing) and were all checked in. Now we’ve stayed in many hostels over the past few months and they’ve spanned the range from nice to…well…not so nice (ok, total hell holes) but this place we stayed at, the Han Tang Inn was one of the nicest hostels we’ve stayed in, probably in a the Top 5 of this trip. It’s a brand new location down a local little side road (meaning tons of cheap street vendors nearby) with a varied menu to eat (although food was not that great), only 6RMB for a large beer (plus one free beer every night for every guest) and brand new rooms with great heating / cooling units (although we can only attest to the heating side of those things) and fairly comfortable beds. The place was very clean and really well done plus judging by the number of cappuccinos Swiss had there the coffee is pretty good! We arrived fairly late and just had dinner and a beer in the cafe area before heading to bed. Before hitting the sack, though, we met JoAnne, an American woman from Oregon (originally Walnut Creek, CA, though) traveling with her daughter. It was interesting to hear her perspective on China and also on traveling in hostels (she hasn’t done it in 30 years.) We did hear from her, though, that trains from Xian to Beijing were sold out days in advance and that she had actually stayed in Xian longer than planned in order to get on a train to Beijing. That sealed our plans for the next morning, which was getting up early to try and buy train tickets for Saturday night.

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Amusingly enough, just before going to bed we met the other 2 people staying in our room, two French guys traveling for 3 months. It was their last night in Xian (apparently they’d been there a while) and they went out to celebrate, much to our excitement since we knew they’d be back late and could almost certainly count on them being loud. Sure enough they returned at 5.45am and were not in a mental state to be quiet. The great part, though, was that about 15 minutes after they went to bed, around 6am, the hotel staff came in to wake them as they’d booked a shuttle to the airport for their early morning flight. Needless to say they were not too pleased to be getting up 15 minutes after getting into bed to head to their airport. We never saw them again, so we assume they made it on their flight.

What ticket luck?!?

We got up early and headed to the ticket booth only 5 minutes around the corner from our place. We went armed with “Xian –> Beijing, hard sleeper, Feb. 27th” as written by yours truly in Chinese! [I copied the Chinese symbols out of our guide book, and was later told that my handwriting looks like that of a 1st grader.] Doesn’t matter because a.) it worked and we got our tickets, and b.) the woman at the ticket office spoke English.

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Of course the train we wanted did not have a hard sleeper option (which doesn’t refer to the softness of the bed but actually the number of beds stacked up, either 2 high, soft sleeper, or 3 high, hard sleeper) so we booked the soft sleeper option, which was actually quite nice. We headed back to the hostel to hang out with our friend, the hostel puppy, and enjoy breakfast.

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We spent the afternoon walking on top of the city wall (the whole wall is about a 14 km loop, so we did about a quarter of it) from the south gate to the east gate.

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I pretty sure that the staph wasn’t supposed to be removable, but someone else broke it before we arrived and it made for a fun picture :)

Afterwards we walked back to the Muslim Quarter which we were told is a must see and also has some great street food. We were not disappointed! The area is a bustling street market and selection of restaurants and we had a small snack of ground beef spread in between to flat pancake like wrappers and fried. It was served like a quesadilla almost and quite tasty.

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We headed back home around 3 pm as we were both in need of a nap (I didn’t sleep too much with our interruptions from our roommates the night before.) Swiss didn’t sleep too much and hung out in the lobby while I managed to sleep until 8.30pm! [I never nap, so that was quite impressive for me…I know, it’s a rough life.] We headed back to the Muslim Quarter for dinner and happened upon a restaurant that advertised an English menu…we were sold. Normally I would be hesitant of such things in other countries, but here it’s a blessing and worked out well. We had a few skewers of grilled beef and lamb along with a bowl of a mutton/pancake soup. They actually break up these dense pancake like breads into the bowl and add noodles (carb overload!) broth and in this case stewed mutton meat. Neither of us had our cameras on us, but trust us it was delicious, and less than 30 RMB/person for the whole meal [Making us feel better about not getting ripped off as tourists]

Thousands of Large Toy Soldiers

Friday was our day to visit the Terra Cotta Warriors, the most famous site in Xian and also one of the most famous in all of China. They were discovered in 1974 by a local farmer looking to make a well and were quickly declared a national treasure by the government and excavation work began. It was believed that Emperors needed one of everything they had in this life with them in the after life, so the warriors, horses and chariots were made in order to create an inanimate version of Qin Shi Huang’s army to go with him into the afterlife. They were housed in wooden buildings covered with sod and dirt and built partially into the ground. Unfortunately this setup, dirt on wood, caused the wooden ceilings to rot and collapse, destroying most of the terra cotta warriors so it’s been a 30 year challenge of carefully excavating the pieces and reconstructing the warriors for display. Interestingly enough the farmer that found the site is still alive today and is available daily at the entrance to pit no. 2 autographing copies of books about the finding and excavation of the site.

There are numerous options for taking a tour from town (the site is about 40 km outside of Xian city center) but we instead opted to do it on our own. We took bus no. 306 (aka tourist bus no. 5) from the railway station for only 7 RMB (the last stop on their route is the terra cotta warriors, about 1 hour.) Since we went to the site between Dec. –> Feb we got the low season price of only 65 RMB for admission (compared to 90 RMB the rest of the year.) We were of course hassled by gaggles of tour guides that told us that we’d get lost inside, that we wouldn’t be able to understand anything since we can’t read Chinese and that we wouldn’t understand the history without them. Let me just tell you, they’re all wrong. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site I’m fairly certain they have to have signage in English, which they have plenty of, and it’s really well laid out. They do a pretty decent job explaining the history with signage and any gaps we had we could fill in by reading Wikipedia or other online sites later. If you want a tour guide, tours in low season seem to start at around 140 RMB (including transportation, English speaking tour guide and entrance fee) but we were pretty content to do it on our own. It’s one of the more touristy sites we’ve been to in China. After the ticket office you’re forced to walk through this developed shopping and eating complex (think a small/medium sized outdoor mall just with tons of souvenir shops.) This place has a dico’s (Chinese version of KFC), a KFC (the Chinese REALLY love fried chicken) and a Subway sandwich shop. Nothing like a little east meets west at an ancient historic site!

We started with the exhibition hall which includes a lot of the history about the ancient times in this area and also the rebuilding of the remains that were found:

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After this great introduction to the site we headed over to Pits No. 2 and 3, the smaller pits, saving the largest (and hopefully most impressive) for last:

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To be honesty, Pit No. 2 is medium sized but has MUCH work left to be done in terms of excavation and rebuilding the warriors and Pit No. 3 is relatively small, so I was slightly disappointed at this point. Still an amazing site, but not the sea of warriors as far as the eye can see that I was expecting. Luckily Pit No. 1 did not disappoint:

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A very cool site that will only get better with time as they uncover and reconstruct more of the soldiers. Definitely a must see on any visit to China!

Now, when heading back into town you have several bus options. You can take the 306 bus back (the same route you took from town) or the 914. We hopped onto the 914 because the price was the same as the 306 (7 RMB) and one was leaving right as we walked up (and they kinda hustled us to get on.) Well, the ride was fine, and we got where we needed to go, but it was a little tight. The attendant and driver stopped every 500 m – 1.5 km for a good chunk of the ride to ask people if they needed a ride into the city center and loaded all seats plus the aisle…they also took the local roads back instead of the expressway…so if you’re making the trip yourself I’d recommend waiting a few minutes for the next 306.

Back to the Muslim Quarter

I cannot stress enough what a great area the Muslim Quarter is in Xian! After we got home we caught up a little online and I uploaded some pics to flickr and we hung out with our favorite new dog,

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after which we headed back to the Muslim Quarter for dinner. We were not terribly hungry after a late lunch, but really wanted some more grilled meat kabobs and this round flat bread they serve…nothing better than grilled meat and bread!! We decided to be a little more brave and just headed into a local place without any English language signs and plopped ourselves into a table. Luckily one of the staff spoke some English and they even had an English menu, making the experience that much easier. Dinner was delicious!

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Even more time in the Muslim Quarter

So Saturday morning we got up, had some street food breakfast and checked out of our room. Not wanting to waste a whole day doing nothing before our 8pm train to Beijing, we settled on two sites, the Great Mosque (the largest Mosque in China) and the Big Goose Pagoda.

Through all our visits to the area, we’d never seen the Mosque and after 20 minutes of wandering around we spotted these signs (after walking past them more than once)

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The Mosque is a beautiful mix of Chinese and Muslim architecture styles and really nice. PLUS, with your admission (15 RMB) they even give you a guidebook in Chinese and English! We spent just under an hour wandering around the complex…

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After which we grabbed lunch at a local street stall where we had more beef soup with noodles and small piece of broken pancake…

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Next up was the “Big Goose Pagoda” just south of town. We were expecting it to be a quick ride there but instead it was a sardine can packed bus that took almost 45 minutes to get us there (it didn’t look that far on the map, but traffic was also bad) so we settled for a walk around the area and some photos as we really didn’t have enough time to go inside and make it to the store to buy dinner before we had to get to the train station.

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The whole area was really the pagoda (a religious site) surrounded by more shopping than the eye could take in! Capitalism in China at it’s finest. Afterwards we stopped by Walmart to grab food to take on the train…

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We headed to the train station around 6.30 pm figuring that was plenty of time to get there (only 20 minutes away) and board out train. Well needless to say we made it but it was CRAZY! The traffic heading up there was a disaster and we actually got off the bus and walked the rest of the way to the station. When we got there it was just utter chaos and literally thousands of people trying to enter the station. We spent a good 15 minutes or so waiting in line to go through the x-ray. We finally got inside and boarded our train a little after 7.30pm.

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Off to Beijing!

1 comments:

Alvin said...

Interesting - I worked with a Joanne when I was working in Walnut Creek and she eventually moved to way Northern Cali / Oregon border area... And she also has a daughter.

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