XI’AN | CHINA
XI’AN IS ONE OF THE OLDEST CITIES IN THE LAND. IT IS THE FINAL RESTING PLACE OF THE FIRST EMPEROR OF THE COUNTRY WHICH WOULD BE KNOWN AS CHINA. IT’S ALSO A BITCH TO FIND SOMETHING TO EAT.
I was feeling a little weird getting off the train that morning. I put it down to just being tired after yet another night train. Then the usual rat race began : looking for the hostel. The city of Xi’an is dominated by it’s huge city walls, the largest and most complete in China. The train station is just north of the wall, and according to the directions, the hostel wasn’t far away. Easy. Or so I thought. Places are much easier to find when you can see them from the street. Personally I don’t believe it’s beneficial to have your sign on the inside of a large building. It definitely wasn’t beneficial for me when I eventually found it, hot, sweaty and tired two hours later.
Locked and loaded I went looking for some lunch but there didn’t seem to be much around. And so it was more walking. Eventually I found a weird food market with open seating and small stalls bubbling away by the sides. After much pointing and miming I ended up with what I thought was some sort of chicken curry and rice dish from an old man who looked like he was serving an alien. It wasn’t chicken, it was slimy tofu. It was not good. Hungry, the search continued. In due course I found a cheap KFC knock-off further down the street. How hard can it be to screw up take-away chicken? I’m of the opinion the girls working inside were so excited to see me that they forgot to actually cook the chicken. There was so much giggling and laughing I thought I was gonna have to start signing autographs. It was all going so well and until I bit into the chicken and discovered it had the consistency of roast marshmallow. Well they do say most female serial killers are poisoners. It must be a skill that comes naturally.
By now I was feeling pretty crap, and still hungry, so I retired to the hostel. (I’d later read that all the good places to eat are on the south side of the wall. It’s like the culinary equivalent of “Sorry Mario, but the princess is in another castle!”)
Hooray! They had a bar / restaurant there. The food wasn’t amazing, but it’s nice and cheap enough, and I didn’t have to go outside. Which is good cos I’m feeling like the floor of a taxi cab. It was developing into a bad cold so I developed a new plan : lie in bed for a few days and watch the world cup. I booked an en-suite private bedroom, and it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a decent european hotel, never mind an asian hostel. I was over the moon, this was exactly what I needed. My new regime included sleeping, eating, internet browsing and watching the football. The life of a guy on the dole back home basically. It was great fun.
I watched the North gate of the Xi’an city wall light up at night from the hostel balcony. It was pretty, and I would have loved to explore the ramparts in person if I was feeling better. On my last day I decided I’d better get out and visit something. I met a young swiss guy at the hostel and together we walked to the bus station and inadvertently jumped a huge queue to board the bus taking us to the Terracotta Warriors. If in doubt claim the ignorance of a stupid tourist. I figured that chinese people have jumped in front of me so often it was only karma. My swiss friend was studying Chinese, but after actually spending time in China was unsure whether he actually liked it or not. One thing was for sure. He was looking forward to going home. So was I, but only because I was still feeling a little crappy.
The Warrior’s site is quite large. The Terracotta figures themselves are housed in four separate pits, each one covered and displayed in-situ. It’s estimated that almost 9,000 figures of soldiers, horses and cavalry are buried here – excavation and reconstruction is still ongoing. They were commissioned by emperor Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century BC. Qin Shi was a strange guy. In those times it was customary for the emperors wife and slaves to be killed and buried with him so that they could serve in the after life. Probably feeling like slaughtering 9,000 people was a little overkill, even for those days, Qin Shi planned a huge life sized army to protect him in the next world. Each figure is unique, as you’d expect in the days before mass production, and is modeled accurately by rank and position.
About a kilometer away from the pits, and under an imposing pyramidal mound lies one of the most fascinating archaeological stories in the world – the Necropolis of Qin Shi. This is a tomb which hasn’t been excavated due to the possible danger it poses to the scientists entering it. Fears of Indiana Jones style booby traps are very real, as are the rivers and seas of mercury saturating the interior. Mercury was believed to be a magical life giving liquid (they couldn’t have been more wrong) Qin Shi is said to have recreated the seas and rivers of his kingdom in the stuff. If you think that sounds stupid just think of the recent scares with lead paint and asbestos lined walls and remind yourself that we outdo ourselves in stupidity every century. If the thought of trip wires and boiling rivers of death weren’t cool enough some people are always looking to try and add another layer of crazy on top of bizarre. Rumours abound about the real reasons the Chinese government won’t allow the site to be fully excavated. They range from evidence of ancient biological weapons, ancient aliens to Bruce Lee being down there. And he’s still alive.
Back in town it was time to collect my train ticket to Lhasa, Tibet. It was the moment of truth. The procedure to enter Tibet isn’t exactly straight forward. I had my permit from the travel agency printed out along with my train reservation and passport. I was expecting to be thrown into a windowless room and practically waterboarded by Chinese secret service agents trying to discover my real reasons for entering Tibet. As it turned out I walked up to the window, asked for my Lhasa ticket and it was printed out and handed over. No questions asked. A bit of a disappointing anti-climax really, just like me after a few beers. Maybe I don’t wanna go to Tibet now if they’ll obviously just let anyone waltz in?
Next time : Train carriages with oxygen as standard, raunchy conductors, girls laugh at me again. Oh and Tibet.