The terracotta warriors is what people imagine when Xi’An is mentioned. It is also the beginning of the Silk Route and kind of a chinese silicon valley. This time I feel like I probably should not miss the town’s biggest attraction.
Few advises: Take the public transport. It’s as quick as anything else, cheaper, and more fun (well, if you are not annoyed by the locals taking cheeky pictures of you, you will be after this ride). Take bus 306 (7 yuan) from the central station, they leave continuously when full. It takes roughly 1.5 hours to get to the site, depending on traffic.
The terracotta army: I am not quite sure what to think. It is of course astonishing, ancient, and given it’s UNESCO protected, they cannot treat it in quite the same way they treat the rest of their heritage. But is it worth the hassle of getting there and paying 150 Y entrance? I am not sure, to be fair. It’s crowded, not much information is provided (in English, that is), and you will have to fight your way to the viewing platform through hundreds of rude chinese (and their selfie sticks – speaking of which, I hope the guy who invented selfie sticks meets the same fate as the guy who own(ed) Segway), and when you eventually manage to see something, you’ll be disappointed. You’ll be thinking: “oh how cute, toy soldiers!”, while fighting off some idiot who’ll be sticking his phone under your nose in an attempt to take a (bad) picture. On the other hand, cherish this moment, because this will be one of very few occasions when the chinese will try to get you off their photo, as opposed to secretly take one of you. So yeah, you push your way around the three excavation pits and see f-all, and then you can indulge in all your guilty pleasures just outside, because the obligatory exit goes through a huge shopping mall with all the unmissable Starbucks, McDs, KFCs, you name it.
Back to Xi’an – accidentally on a wrong bus (307 instead of 306), but it doesn’t really matter because it takes me to the Great Goose Pagoda, that I would not see otherwise. Many people try to approach me with something that looks like a catalogue of prostitutes (must be my short hair, why on earth would anyone assume that I am after a hooker), later I realize that they try to make me dress like Turandot and take a photo with the pagoda in the background. It’s dark by the time I make it to the city walls (all “decorated” with bright neon lights). The good thing is it’s empty, and I can rent a bike and ride the loop around the fortifications. The girl at the rental is a bit worried, because “they are closing in two hours”. I reply that the loop is 14km and I will be back in an hour at the latest if I stop to take many pictures. In fact I am back in 45 minutes (exactly for that reason) and she looks at me as if I have just won the olympics. Also, you guys need to sort out your priorities. 10 tourist crap shops along the route and not a single bar?
Dinner time. I point at something at the menu and I get an entire fish. Now, how to eat an entire fish with just chopsticks? With a lot of patience. Also, trying to take the bones out of my mouth politely and quietly is unnecessary and somehow exotic. The rest of the guests just spit the bones on the floor. Charming.
Morning Visit to the Confucius Temple, now Beilin museum of stone stelae. Stela is a tall stone with an a carved inscription (usually a poetry or a philosophic text), executed by a master of calligraphy, with a very distinct and apparently elegant style. Now, I am completely alien to traditional chinese calligraphy, so I don’t have the means to appreciate it, and of course I cannot read traditional (or any other) chinese symbols, but some of the stelae are decorated with exquisite carvings. There is also a workshop of what I at first mistake for conservation. A couple of men cover the stones with paper, and then copy the inscription by passing a layer of ink over it. And then you can buy it. A copy made directly from the original hundreds of years old stela. This cannot be good.
Highlight of Xi’An: the muslim quarters. There is one main pedestrian road just behind the Drum tower, lined with many street food stands. Ignore it and wander off into the back alleys, where you will find the real muslim quarter: winding narrow streets with dozens of eateries (try the meat sandwich or a fried squid on a stick), bakeries (get the sesame and sunflower flat bread – it may be your last chance of having a good bread in China), shops that sell candied nuts and fruits, open-air butcheries (much cleaner than livestock markets), enjoy all this while constantly jumping out of the way of electric scooters that show no intention of slowing down (in fact they have none). Somehow, the two hours in Xi’An muslim quarter have been the most real experience of urban China of my entire stay, not a recreation of an old town purely for tourists.
Evening flight to Chengdu.
Combined trip to the city’s main attraction – the Panda Breeding Station – and Leshan Buddha. Now, in my opinion, an animal that has a digestive system of a carnivore, but only eats bamboo, and has to be forced to shag (that is when they don’t inseminate artificially), has had the extinction long time coming. But of course the pandas are cute. Go early in the morning, when the station opens. For two reasons: the chinese don’t walk, therefore they will spend hours queueing for the electric bus, rather than walk 10 minutes from the ticket office to the panda station, meaning the place will be half empty for the first hour or so. Second reason is that the pandas are fed around that time, so they are awake and actually do things. Later in the day they will be busy digesting all the lignin that they are not meant to digest in the first place, and they will just be sitting around in catatonic state or sleeping. You can also pet a (drugged) panda, if you really like, for a “voluntary” donation of 2000 yuan, but I refuse to sponsor the communist party of China more than I already have to.
To you, ladies and gents, cuteness overload:
Leshan Buddha – absolutely not worth the hassle. 3 hours drive there (and 3 more back) and all you see is a big statue with hundreds of people around it.
Attempted DIY trek to the Quingcheng Mountain with Davide and Daniele, two young Italians that I met in the hostel. We take a public bus to Dujiangyan, where we want to transfer to a local service to the entrance to the trail. Unfortunately the nice people send us on a wrong bus, so the entire mission miserably fails. Instead we end up in the middle of nowhere, in some village where a western tourist has never ventured before, so we decide to have lunch and head back. The boys don’t eat meat, which makes the lunch a further adventure, because when the locals at the next table understand that, they make us try all the vegetarian food on their table, which is great fun. Sichuan food is amazing, if you like spicy. It’s not curry- or chilly-spicy though. They use sichuan pepper, which gives you a weird tongue numbing sensation. Now, some of my readers may be too young or too western to remember the flat batteries, but when I was little, we used to check if such battery was charged by licking the two metal thinghies. That would close the circuit and you would feel the current passing on your tongue. That is exactly the sensation the sichuan pepper gives.
I actually play with the idea to retackle the trek again and actually do it this time, but I end up with a completely different programme altogether, probably not suitable for sharing with you people. I learned a lot about pandas, though.
Evening flight to Shangri-La. The Chinese are pretty paranoid when it comes to airport security. They don’t care about liquids, but they are frightened by batteries. Probably because they are well aware that the chinese copy of whatever model of Samsung autoignites is even more likely to go on fire than the infamous original. Anyway, I check my luggage, have a coffee, and go towards the security check. And there is a giant display, all over the gate area, with my name written all over. I’m like: what the hell is this? So I stop a random chinese and ask him what may be the reason of my name adorning the entire ceiling of the departures hall, and he replies (thank God he speaks english) that I am asked to go to some security room because they don’t like something in my luggage. The something turns out to be my solar power bank. Now, I already mentioned that the Chinese treat the westerners as freaks. You’d think that surely it cannot be the first time they see a white woman, but clearly it is for some of them. While I wait in line to check my luggage at the airport, I glance at the cellphone of the girl in front of me and notice that she is sending a photo of me to someone. Now what could anyone possibly care about seeing a photo of an unknown random westerner. Maybe it’s my hair. Or lack of any.
Places to stay recommendations:
Xi’An: Xing Long no. 37 Hostel – excellent location, easy to reach by public transport and the staff speaks good english
Chengdu: Lazybones Hostel – popular with western backpackers (trust me, you will feel the need to talk to someone who understands what you’re saying), very helpful staff, and VPN wifi available (so you can post pictures of cute little pandas on your facebook, yay!)