For the Chinese, Xian is the beginning of the silk road. For me the capital of the Shaanxi province was the end of it. Two things struck my eye in this city: there were loads of Western tourists, which were not present further west in China and the city has, despite the strive for renewal in China, still some character.
Just after 6pm I stood at the bus stop of bus line 5 in Xining, the line which should bring me to the train station of that city. What I didn’t expect was the waiting time of 40 minutes for a city bus. The delay led to me going quickly to the train station from the bus stop, where I could directly board the night train to Xian. Once again I had a berth in a compartment of 6. The berth at the top was not really what I had hoped for, since the head part is slanted, which takes an important part of room.
The night on the train once again was quiet and uneventful, such that I arrived in Xian half way relaxed. The pick-up service of the Han Tang hostel was already waiting for me, along with Melissa, an American English teacher who works in Shanghai. Once we found the shuttle bus, we directly drove to the hostel which is at a very central location. I checked in at the hostel where I met Lukas, a German from Haltern am See. Lukas was an exchange student for one semester at the university in Seoul and before heading home visited parts of China. Later during the morning, Yeroen, a Durch exchange student in Beijing, completed the list of foreigners in my dorm. The two immediately jumped on different tours organized by the hostel, while my primary concern was to buy a train ticket to Beijing. Since the traveling season for Chinese new year had already started, it was advisable to buy train tickets as early as possible.
Near the hostel there was a small kiosk which sold train tickets and at least I was able to get a train ticket in the soft-sleeper class. This meant I had one of the most expensive tickets on the train. At least I did have a ticket and was able to reach Beijing as planned on January 9. Once I had my train ticket, I headed back to the hostel to relax some more, since I was tired after all after the night on the train and my cold was still not healed.
In the late afternoon I finally started my first discovery tour through the city and the Muslim quarter. One might not recognize this when arriving at the city from the east, but for me the Central Asian influences were clearly visible. Since I had left the Xinjiang province I had not seen a kebab or the typical bread called nan. Here in the Muslim quarter of Xian, they were very present. The question I raised was, whether this was some natural phenomenon and the kebabs and nan were brought to Xian through the historic silk road or whether it was a effort of the Chinese government to demonstrate unity across the country. Even though there are quite frequent uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese government tries to demonstrate that everyone is Chinese and has a common interest. At least the faces of the people selling the kebabs were as far as I could tell not Uyghur, but rather Hui, the Muslim Chinese.
On Friday, I joined Melissa, Yeroen and Josie, a Chinese tourist from Shanghai, on a trip to visit the terracotta warriors outside of Xian. I felt healthy again such that the excursion was absolutely no problem as far as health was concerned. The four of us caught a taxi to bring us to the train station from where we took the bus 306 which brought as to the terracotta warriors in a little bit more than an hour. Melissa decided to try her luck and buy a box of small warriors as a souvenir. Unfortunately she paid way too much for here little warriors. What I was more interested in was the behavior of the sales lady when we walked past her again. She started laughing like mad, when Melissa passed. I was interested in the background of this laughter and asked Josie, whether she could explain this to me. Josie said that Chinese normally only laugh when they are nervous and thus we analyzed the reason for this laughter actually being a guilty conscience over ripping off an unsuspecting tourist. Josie then suggested I should write a book about my discoveries in China and I told her that a blog would have to do for the time being.
Once we had left all the tourist shops behind us we finally reached the entrance to the historic complex. He had gotten the recommendation to watch the video, which gives an overview over the whole site, first. The former information center however is a tea house now and the video was displayed in a different building. However the nice lady of the tea house pointed us in the right direction. We arrived in the middle of the English display, which we watched to the end before heading on out to see the warriors in pit 3, the smallest pit on the site.
Pit 3 displays the commanders of the terracotta army and is rather small and dark. Besides a few soldiers, some horses and remains of carriages were visible. Pit 2 was quite a bit larger but didn’t display everything there is, since excavation is still ongoing. The expect to find many more horses and carriages in pit 2. Besides the pit there are some exhibits displaying some warriors and the detailed work which was applied to them. I learned that the warriors were not only made from terracotta, but also colored and glazed. This leads to a whole new dimension of the sheer size and the effort put into creating these warriors.
Finally we visited pit 1, the largest and most well known pit of the complex. In this pit all the famous pictures of the warriors were probably taken, since the pit displays some 2000 warriors with an additional 4000 still expected to be unearthed in the future.
Once we completed our visit to the terracotta warriors, we started our shopping tour along the shops in front of the complex. I waited to see what the others were paying for their mini-warriors before I bought some myself. The cheapest offer which was accepted were 10RMB for one box of soldiers. I thus decided that this offer should still be negotiated and ended up paying 8RMB for my souvenirs. This only worked when I threatened to leave the shop without buying.
After the shopping tour, which Melissa completed the most successfully, we caught the bus back to Xian. We spent the evening discussing different matters and especially how to handle the Chinese over a beer. It was very interesting to listen to the experiences of other foreigners who had spent an extended period of time in China.
Even though I thought I was healthy again, Saturday taught me otherwise. Therefore I stayed in bed for the better part of the morning and once I started feeling a little bit better, I ate a “Swiss” breakfast in the hostel, before heading out to the city to take some pictures. First I strolled along the streets of the Muslim quarter before I visited the Drum and the Bell Towers in central Xian.
On the Drum Tower I was approached by two Chinese girls who asked whether I understood what was written on all the drums. Nice questions, which of course I had to answer with “no”, since the signs were only written in Mandarin. The girls then went out of their way to explain at least the first half of the drums to me, which mostly were used during the different seasons of the year, such as beginning of fall or beginning of winter. I was just in time to observe to the drum performance in the tower. A group of 5 to 6 drummers played the drums in a very precise and impressive manner. The visit was definitely worth the time.
The timing was not quite that good in the Bell Tower, such that I did not see the performance there. The two towers are solid rocks in the renewal efforts of the Chinese and seem to withstand these efforts. The Bell Tower for example stands on the main intersection of the old town of Xian.
After this short photography trip I found some noodles to eat in a small restaurant before I headed back to the hostel. I spent the evening in the common room of the hostel where I watched other guests cook dumplings, while I just chatted with the people around. Lukas and three history teachers from around the world now teaching in Japan were interested in my experiences travelling the silk road and thus I told them where I had traveled and how.
I again spent Sunday morning in bed before I had to check out of the hostel at noon, which is actually the typical check-out time in China. During breakfast I met Melissa and Yeroen again who just came back from a tour around the city. The wanted to rest briefly before heading out to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda for the 4pm fountain show. I walked around the block to find some more noodles only to join the two a little later on their excursion, since I wanted to visit the pagoda too. We finally arrived at the fountain just a little after 4pm.
As in other cities around the world there is a music show during which the fountain adjusts its jets according to the music being played. There was one show at 4pm and a second one at 8:30pm. The most impressive is the size of the fountain, apparently the largest fountain in Asia. We started joking about the people walking in the middle of the fountain, even though there were many signs prohibiting exactly that. After a few minutes of the show, we decided to head on to the pagoda. The entrance was of course on the opposite side such that we had to walk around the whole complex first. The pagoda itself I found little inspiring, but I did like the large temple complex surrounding it. Apparently the sutras brought to China from India by Xuan Zang, one of the most important writers about the silk road, are still kept in this temple complex.
While Melissa and Yeroen wanted to see the pagoda from the inside, I decided it was time to move on did I not want to miss my train to Beijing. Even though I intended to catch a taxi, I ended up riding a bus, since it just happened to be at the station when I arrived. I arrived at the hostel according to my plan and picked up my backpack and said farewell to the staff of the hostel. I headed to the next bus stop where I took the bus to the train station a few minutes later. At the train station I encountered another obstacle: all of China seemed to be wanting to take a train in Xian on this Sunday night. Even the large square in front of the train station was packed with people. I recognized some waiting rooms for trains in front of the train station, but none of them with the number of my train. The displays at the train station also did not show a sign of the train number which I was supposed to take. I thus started showing my train ticket to all the present staff of the Chinese railways and thus was pointed in the right direction. The last fellow told me I had to hurry even though there were still an hour and a half before my train left. The queue for entering the train station fortunately moved rather quickly such that I stood inside the train station only fifteen minutes later. I wonder how well the security check is actually executed. The x-ray machines rather seems to be a conveyor belt leading through some metal box than an actual x-ray machine. The check of the people is not really thorough either. Anway, asking one more staff of Chinese railways I found the waiting area for the train Z20 from Xian to Beijing. Once the gate opened I boarded the train were I immediately found my luxury compartment in the first car behind the engine.