Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Days 196 to 198: Xian

It has been over three weeks now in Beijing, watching Burness being slowly nursed back to health. A degree of cabin fever has set in, it would be true to say, but our years working offshore have prepared us fully for dealing with this. Plus, for me, I've been able to have numerous expeditions to the Great Wall to occupy me.

Although the "ok" from the doctor to recommence travelling is still pending, with the general improvement we decided to have a weekend break in the nearby city of Xian. I say nearby, it's a 12-hour train journey away, but this is pretty close by Chinese standards. The trains in China are modern, speedy, and punctual, and so we arrived in Xian at 8am on Saturday exactly as planned (if this has been India, the cost would have been about a tenth, but we'd have arrived about 8pm).

Xian (pronounced She-ann) is a modern and fairly unattractive sprawl of a four-million-plus city, with ancient origins, one of these - the Terracotta Warriors - being the reason for our visit. The army of several thousand pottery soldiers are actually about an hour away from the city (although pretty much within within the same urban area), but right in the heart of Xian are other significant pieces of Chinese history.

Two of these are towers, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, in close proximity. The somewhat unnecessarily deluxe pamphlet available at their entrances calls them the twin towers of the city, with regard to their traditional pavilion-like architectural similarity and their height. At almost 40 metres high, they would once have been pretty dominant, but these days have been entirely superseded by a huge number of modern high-rise all around.

Around six hundred years old, originally (there have been many reconstructions), the Bell Tower these days is sat squat in a busy roundabout. Even if its bell was still used to announce the time, like London's Big Ben it would be drowned out by the rumbling engines and car horns. Still, as far as roundabout attractions go, it's not bad. The nearby Drum Tower has slightly more peaceful surroundings, with some cars parked around it but otherwise in a vaguely pedestrianised (nothing in China is fully pedestrianised) shopping area. Both are handsome structures that can be entered and climbed to their upper level, giving a decent view of the surrounding area - or at least a good look down four busy roads in the case of the Bell Tower. They are nice features of the city, although I would lying if I pretended that either Burness or I were entirely enthralled during our visit. To Luddites such as us, they were just some old Chinese-looking buildings, that at 50 RMB (£5) to visit the pair were just a little over-priced.

Both the towers were visited after we'd checked into our hostel, the excellent Han Tang Inn. With wooden decor, a relaxed main room/restaurant/bar, a pool table, and a rooftop garden, it was the very antithesis to our weeks in Beijing's somewhat sterile Jade Hostel (which in fairness has excellent facilities, is very comfortable, and very cheap). Really good hostels such as these tempt you into simply hanging around the hostel rather than exploring, but with just two days at our disposal and weeks of stagnancy behind us, we were in fairly exploratory mood and had a look round the Muslim Quarter, and its packed shops of souvenirs and street-food.

Xian's highlight, however, must certainly be the huge city walls that frame the city. Again, many hundreds of years old but with numerous reconstructions, recently included, Xian's city walls give focus and meaning to what might otherwise be a fairly anonymous-looking modern Chinese city. They are huge: probably 5 or 6km each side, in a more-or-less square shape based around the city centre. The city continues on way beyond the walls, but there's still a huge amount of city within them. It's a four hour walk around, but bicycles can be hired too for a pleasant 90-minute cycle. This makes the walls not only a terrific visual piece for Xian, but it makes them very enjoyable to visit. After my several visits to the Great Wall, I think we can safely agree that China has converted me to the merits of walls.

Both evenings in Xian were spent in the hostel, drinking, and even socialising a little (our last month with Burness's illness and our fairly sterile hostel has been marked by a lack of socialising). With the pool table, I took advantage of Burness's current half-sight to record some victories. And enjoying our hostel so much, in a moment of weakness, we opted to see the Terracotta Warriors on a day tour.

Anyone who has read much of this blog might have gathered what my feelings are on tour groups, so I can only put it down to a sheer mental aberration that made me decide that taking a tour booked through the hostel was a good idea. It was just as bad as I feared - worse, in fact. The usual number for the tour was about fifteen - but a group of ten people visiting Xian together swelled this to twenty-five. This was more than our tour group leader, a bossy and jittery woman, was comfortable with, and it showed in her military orders. Although she wasn't unpleasant, she was not at all relaxed, and her English was functional but somewhat at high-speed stacatto. Worse, her information about the Terracotta Army was way off, a fine blend of truth and myth pasted together and presented as fact. And of course, being part of a group, we had no freedom and we just ushered from place to place. "Here's a good place for a photo, ok let's go." What was I thinking?

The worst thing about being part of the tour group, however, was the members of the group. Well, one in particular. It's not often I'll use the word "hate", or express the sincere desire to see an unholy amount of pain inflicted upon someone, but these sentiments were fully charged that day. One of the group - part of the group of ten - was a young, loud, brash guy from America, who enjoyed goofing about, making a series of utterly idiotic comments, and made a bunch of noise in general. If I'd been given a button that, if pressed, would have seen him drop dead, I would have gleefully pressed it very very slowly and watch the life drain from him. Looking back upon my first day of the Terracotta Warriors, I less see the thousands of pottery soldiers and more see his inane grinning face. Somehow the group around him, who were a little annoying but seemed overall normal, seemed to tolerate him and even get some entertainment from him.

I'll write the review of the Terracotta Warriors soon, and will certainly omit him from it. Fortunately, as I do with all my Wonders, I visited again the next day, this time with a pleasant couple from London called Rob and Jules. They made intelligent and entertaining conversation without once resorting to pulling faces at the camera, or shouting out some piece of hilarity. As a result, unfettered from the chains of being cattle, visiting the Terracotta Warriors was a much better experience.

Burness only saw the Warriors once, as he'd flown back to Beijing that morning. I opted for the overnight train back later that evening, thus ending the weekend jaunt as I'd begun and arriving back in Beijing this morning.

A quick word on the travels. You may have noticed that things have been considerably stalled - a month in Beijing now. Hopefully, there will be progress soon, but it looks very much like several Wonders will have to be cut from these travels. The two that are definitely being cut are the Thousand Buddha Caves and the Three Gorges Dam, as there is simply no time to possibly do them before we go to Tibet in April. Likely the Spring Temple Buddha won't be possible either. The Leshan Giant Buddha is more likely, but still far from certain. It's a pretty disappointing conclusion, unfortunately, with the only consolation being that I will still visit these, some time in the future. Health is more important than travel, so big monuments can wait.

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