Saturday, November 27, 2010

China Recap Part 2: Xi'an

After 4 days in Beijing, it was time to move on to Xi'an. Aaahh, Xi'an... this wasn't our favorite city of the trip. But I'll get to that.
We had booked soft-sleeper overnight train tickets to travel the 570 miles between cities. We weren't sure what to expect from this mode of transportation, and after making our way through some pretty um, interesting waiting areas at the Beijing train station and using the most horrifyingly disgusting "toilet" I've ever come across in my life, we were starting to second-guess our choice. However, once we got aboard the train we happily discovered it was going to be a perfectly luxurious trip. We even scored and didn't have a full train, so the top bunks were empty and we had ourselves a lovely private compartment! It was a great night of snuggling up in our comfy beds (I grew up riding Amtrak, and these were bigger and nicer than their sleeper cars) with the train rocking us to sleep, having not a care in the world.

Then we pulled into the Xi'an train station early the next morning, and all the niceness stopped. It quickly turned into the worst day of our trip.

This is the station as seen from the city wall the next day. Imagine it with about 10x this many people when we were there.

It was insanity. Advice: don't be at a Chinese train station on a Sunday. People everywhere, noise everywhere, smells everywhere, people bumping and yelling, and we had basically no clue what was going on or what we were doing. Trying to find the taxi line (while constantly deflecting the swarms of scammers and hawkers trying to come between us and our money in one way or another), our stress levels were starting to get maxed out. Then a "taxi driver" latched himself onto us, Corey couldn't get him to go away, I was oblivious to what the heck was going on (obvious hint: it's nice to know Mandarin when in China), and things got a little ugly for a while.

Eventually we made it to our hotel (The Bell Tower Hotel, which was ideally located, but otherwise just mediocre).

The Bell Tower Hotel

We were grumpy, tired, and overwhelmed, but not wanting to waste any of our precious time here, we hit the streets to go see the Terracotta Warriors. According to the hotel, the options for getting there included 1) hire a private car from the hotel for 450RMB ($70-ish) 2) Take a taxi for 350RMB or 3) Take a bus for 30 RMB ($4-ish). "Well that's an obvious choice," we say. "We'll take the bus!"

Only problem: the bus left from the train station. Stupidly, we made our way back to the train station, naively thinking we would actually be able to maneuver the crowds and find this alleged bus. FAIL. After dazedly walking laps around the station, we go for plan B and hail a taxi. A real character of a taxi driver picked us up and agreed to drive us. While he was friendly, I'm not totally convinced that the guy wasn't either a wee bit drunk or not quite all there mentally. Getting out of Xi'an traffic he was yelling and swearing up a storm (so says Corey, I wouldn't know...), and at one frustrated point he purposefully drove straight into a large group of pedestrians, causing quite a street flare up.

Things calmed down a bit when we got out of the city, until he pulled the car over to the side of a busy highway to pick up a man walking along the side of the road. Not a part of the plan, but honestly- not much we could do about it at that point. At some point it becomes apparent we're driving this new random guy around instead of going to the Warriors and we have no idea where we are. Random guy eventually gets out, and we spend more time driving around some backroads, until our driver is motioned to stop by some young girl (?) who says we can't go further because the government has closed the road. Of course it has.

So then this girl gets IN our taxi, and our driver turns off the road onto... nothing, basically. There's sort of a dirt road into fields. Girl starts asking us to come see "special local goods" she is selling. Corey asks where we're going and driver doesn't seem to know, and is instead turning whenever this girl tells him to. I'm thinking, "Wonderful, we are getting kidnapped, they're taking us out to the middle of nowhere and aren't going to bring us back to civilization until we give them money." Corey and I start a bit of internal panicking, thinking we've gotten ourselves into a horrible situation. Stress level back up to where it was when we first arrived. Not happy.

Then suddenly we made one turn onto a populated street and they told us to get out. We were at the Terracotta Warriors. Just like that. The driver took 40RMBs off the price he quoted us because of the hassle (even though he sort of ripped us off even with that discount). I suppose that girl was just helping a lost driver get us to our destination. Moral of the story: we're paranoid.

Once we were there (safe and sound, having avoided kidnappings and pedestrian maulings), we enjoyed the Terracotta Warriors very much! The site is made up of 3 "pits" and a large museum. Each pit is in a different state of excavation, and there are places to see rows and rows of fully intact "soldiers" displayed like they likely would have been and other places where the artifacts are still mostly buried. It was really, really interesting. I miiight have stuck it out as an archaeologist if I could have worked on something half this cool (hmm no, probably not...).

After this sight, we were pretty much done for the day and we crawled into the hole of our hotel for the rest of the evening and night.

The next day we felt a bit better and went out exploring the rest of the city. Our hotel was right in the town center across from the Bell and Drum towers, so we spent the morning visiting those.

The Drum Tower, as seen from the Bell Tower

View to the south gate of the old city wall from the Bell Tower

We spent most of the rest of the day walking the entire length of the old city walls that surround the city. It was really cool, and since the walls were pretty much empty it was a nice break from the crowds. It was a long (8 mile) walk. The original plan was to bike it, but thanks to my gimpy knee, that was a no-go. So we walked.

For about a mile on the north side, the wall was lined with these old decaying decorations. No idea what they were for or when they were used, but in their current state it gave the wall a strong "abandoned Alice in Wonderland" vibe. Creepy!

After the wall walk, we decided to check out the Muslim district of Xi'an. We had wanted to see a purportedly impressive mosque, but we're lame and couldn't find it. We did walk around plenty of super lively streets where people were cooking, tending to their sheep (there were sheep everywhere, right on the sidewalk), and eating. We were really intrigued by this area and wanted to try a bunch of the food and explore some more, but exhaustion and something akin to culture shock overtook us and we weren't really feeling up to diving into the experience. It's something we wish we had done now though, because it seemed completely cool.

And that was pretty much our experience with Xi'an. When we think about it, we sort of think, "ugh." But it's not Xi'an's fault. We found it to be much more overwhelming than Beijing (more people, more pollution, more noise, more crowds just about everywhere), and we let it get to us. If we had gotten off on a different foot, I think we would have enjoyed it much more. A couple of bad experiences ruined our moods, so I don't think Xi'an got a fair shot. I don't want to put anyone off of going there because there are a lot of great things to see.

Maybe book a tour to the Warriors though. That was all very annoying.

More pics of Xi'an have been added to the China album on my picture page.

The next stop was Chengdu, coming soon...

1 comment:

Michelle said...

When I went to Italy with my dad, we had a HORRIBLE experience with our taxi driver. We arrived in Rome at 10:00 p.m. and this man approached us as we walked out of the airport. A mix up at the rental car place forced us to take a cab to our hotel that night. The man wasn't an authorized taxi driver and also had no voice. He used one of those voice box things that you hold up to your throat. So bad. He drove us all over trying to find our hotel and an hour later, when he finally got correct directions from someone, he charged us an arm and a leg. We gave him ALL of our euro and American money and ran into our hotel because he still wanted more. It was so scary and a tough end to an already long day of travelling.
The next morning, the awesome hotel set us up with this super hot Italian personal driver with a BMW to drive us into town, straight to an ATM so we could get money. He only charged 20 EURO and he smelled really good. :)
It wouldn't be a trip to a foreign country if you didn't have this type of experience!