A Travellerspoint blog

Day 134 - Tours, Terracotta Warriors & Markets

Bonjour from Xi'an!

This blog post is coming to you from the roof terrace at my hostel. In a couple of hours I will board my train to Chengdu and settle in for the 16.5 hour journey, equipped with books to read, a fully charged iPod and a bag full of food and drinks :) You can check back in a couple of days to see how my journey was but for now I'd better get on with telling you about the exciting day that I had visiting the Terracotta Warriors.

So today started with my being awoken by the train conductor at about 5am as Xi'an was the next stop. What she didn't say however was that there was still an hour to go until we would reach the station. I got up and had some breakfast then got ready to disembark as we pulled into the station. I said goodbye to Josh and his mate and after buying my onward ticket from Xi'an to Chengdu I stood outside the station and waited for my free pickup to arrive. Over the course of an hour and a half I watched it change from night to day whilst fending off taxi drivers, map sellers & beggars who all wanted to try and part me from my money and who all failed in their efforts.

Eventually my pickup arrived and after hanging around for another twenty minutes whilst he waited for another guy that he was also due to pick up, we were off! It turned out that the hostel is actually only about two kilometres from the train station and had I known that at the time I could've just walked there instead but ah well. No sooner had I checked in than I was told about the hostel's tour to the Terracotta Warriors that was due to leave in about forty minutes time. I put my name down for it as it was reasonably priced and after rushing a shower and some breakfast, I got down to the tour bus just as it was due to leave. (phew!)

There was a good crowd on the tour, mainly consisting of English people but there was an Irish guy, a German girl, a Swiss guy & an Aussie onboard too. Our tour guide Ja Ja was hilarious along with being quite informative too so everyone had a great day and the driver wasn't a maniac like the guy in Datong so we could chat on the journey without fearing for our lives. We spent a few hours at the Terracotta Warriors and it was interesting to learn about how each warrior is unique and how they were discovered by a farmer in nineteen seventy something, whom they now employ in the onsite shop. He's an old guy now and he looked quite bored really just sat there, shaking people’s hands when they were offered and posing for photos with people. It reminded me of seeing a grizzly bear in Toronto Zoo who displayed very repetitive behaviour and who really didn't want to be there, although the farmer didn't look like he'd maul you like the bear may have done had a. After originally paying him just 10RMB (£1) for the discovery, they have now realised the error of their ways and have provided him and his family with a house and money and he's actually quite a famous guy in China so we were told.

We went around each of the pits in sequence, going from the least impressive to the most and boy was the last pit impressive. There were six thousand of the life-size terracotta warriors stood in formation, each of which had been painstakingly excavated in pieces before being stuck back together and arranged in their original positions. It really was an amazing sight and I imagine it will be even more impressive in forty years time when they should have excavated even more of them.

Once we had looked at all of the pits we watched a short film on how they were made and how they came to be found, before heading to a restaurant for lunch. I wasn't too hungry so rather than pay for lunch I stood outside and watched the group of bus drivers play cards. I tried to figure out which cards beat which others in their game but I came away clueless. Once the rest of the group had finished eating we headed to the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi; the emperor who had the terracotta warriors made and who ordered all of the workers to be killed afterwards. Unfortunately it was shut for excavation work so we just admired the man made hill from a distance before setting off back to the hostel.

When we got back I went for a walk with Anya, a German girl who was also on the tour to try and procure her a train ticket. After we had done so, we went for a wander around the Muslim quarter to try and find some food. It was full sensory overload with people, vehicles, food sellers, shops, lights, smells, and noise all around and we had to walk down the main street twice until we actually stopped for some food. We tried a few different things, from sweet potato doughnut things with sugar and sesame seeds inside to bread/pancake things with vegetables in and something that looked like fudge but which (to my disappointment) was actually made of powdered nuts and was very dry.

After walking around for a while we returned to the hostel and got a group together to participate in trivia night at the hostel. Unfortunately we didn't win free beer but I'd had a few anyway so after chatting to a few people in the hostel bar, I called it a day and went to bed.

Right I'm off to catch my train so bye for now folks!

Posted by UKtoCA 21:15 Comments (0)

Day 133 - Chinese Buddies, Birthday Parties & Moving On

Hey all!

Now as you can probably tell by the title of this blog post, I didn't do all that much today so there won't be a mammoth amount to read like there has been the past couple of days. (I know, you can breathe a sigh of relief!)

I started off the day by going for a short walk as I wanted to see what was outside Pingyao's city walls. When I made it there I found a small garden area and the city's UNESCO plaque, well it wasn't actually a plaque it was a huge rock that had the certification carved in to it. A young Chinese couple approached me as I was taking a photo of said rock and they asked if I could please take a photo of them with the city in the background. I happily obliged and after a couple of snaps they asked if they could take a photo that had me in it too. (anyone would think that I'm famous in China with the number of photos I've been asked to appear in...maybe it's the sunglasses or my striking resemblance to Brat Pitt, who knows) They then asked me what I was up to as they were from outside of the city and were in Pingyao for the weekend but they had a few hours to kill until their bus back home so they asked if they could walk around with me and practice their English which was fine with me.

We set off and walked for a while outside of the city walls before heading back inside and doing about half a lap of the city. We chatted all of they way around and it turned out that I was the first English person either of them had ever met. They were both in university studying electrical engineering and when they graduate and get jobs they want to eventually go travelling. It was very interesting finding out about their lives and sharing bits from my own with them but the time soon came for them to catch their bus, so after a quick photo we said our goodbyes and I headed back to the hostel.

On the way there I managed to end up in the middle of a Chinese Birthday party, complete with fireworks, a stage with live music and a tent that was set out for a few hundred people. They had unofficially taken over the street next to the city wall and there was no way around so I had to walk through it. Now luckily the party hadn't actually started yet, there were just a few people sat around drinking with music being played over the PA system but everyone gave me daggers as I walked through (as opposed to the normal stares that I get from the majority of Chinese people) so I didn't stop to take any photos!

Once back at my hostel I spent the rest of the day blogging and chatting with people, until the time arrived for me to go to the train station and catch my train to Xi'an. Myself and a few other people got a free lift there from the people that run the hostel which was nice and before I knew it I was in my hard sleeper bed (which is actually just as comfortable as the soft sleeper bed except that there's no room to sit up) and the lights had been turned off, signalling time to go to sleep.

Bye for now!

Posted by UKtoCA 07:41 Comments (0)

Day 132 - Dragons, Temples & Curious Monks

Why hello there!

So today was my first full day in Pingyao and I was determined to make the most of the little time that I have here. I was awoken after a few hours sleep by a loud, persistent knocking on the door which turned out to be the hostel owner's wife trying to let someone in to the room. I begrudgingly dragged myself out of bed and let the guy in and as I was now awake with no chance of going back to sleep due to it being very cold, I chatted with him for a while before deciding to get up and go out to explore. There was no hot water until 8.30am so having a shower wasn't an option. I didn't pong very much but would've liked a shower just to warm up however I just chucked on the couple of layers that I have and headed out into the cold.

When I had arrived at the hostel in the wee hours it didn't look very nice but in the stark light of day it's a beautiful place, full of old city charm with alleyways everywhere that split off from the main streets like arteries from a heart. There were loads of tourists on the streets and after a while exploring I came to find that the whole city is actually geared up for tourism. I think that tourism may be the only main source of income for the residents of Pingyao and that it may also be the reason why it hasn't been bulldozed to make way for a more 'modern' city. The whole city has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and after spending the day exploring the delights held within the imposing walls that surround it, I think that it definitely deserves the title.

There are eighteen different 'sights' in the city and even if you only visit one of them, you still have to pay the same entrance fee as someone who visits all of them. The city is so small that you could probably walk from the North to the South gate in about fifteen minutes, (if you have go go gadget legs like I do anyway) so I decided to try and get in as much as I possibly could do in the one day, starting with a Confucian temple.

The temple itself was stunning, set in lusciously green grounds with various nooks and crannies that hid all manner of delights. After a walk around I headed into the main temple building and got chatting to a group of monks who saw my iPhone and who then got theirs out and started showing me photos that they had taken, including some with various women at the temple who they said were "Very pretty girls, yes?". After answering various questions including how much I earn (always a favourite question of Chinese people), what I work(ed) as back home, what my plans are for travelling etc. I said goodbye to them and headed off to temple number two of the day; the Chenghuang Temple.

Now I won't bore you with just talking about temples for the whole blog post as they are very similar in looks and there weren't any interesting characters in the other two that I visited but they were both just as nice as the first one, albeit minus the friendly monks. In fact, I had my family 'blessed' by a group of Taoist monks in the final temple I visited, without my asking for it. They then showed me a book of people who had visited before me and who had apparently paid 2-400 Yuan for the privilege. Unfortunately I only had a couple of Yuan with me at the time *cough* sure I did *cough* so I couldn't pay them anywhere near to 200 but seeing as how it was the monks that filled in how much people had paid and that it was always a similar amount of exactly 200, 300 etc. I find it hard to believe that anyone paid them anywhere near that much and if they weren't monks I'd call it an outright scam. (ok so I don't actually care about them being monks and it is indeed an outright scam)

I took in a lot of other sights that day, including the first draft bank of China, the first armed escort agency in China (which surprisingly opened about the same time as the first bank did), a martial arts museum, the Chinese chamber of commerce museum and about eight other places. Unfortunately most of the articles that accompanied the exhibits in the museums were written solely in Chinese so I just had a look around each place before heading on to the next one. This was good in a way as it meant that I got to see thirteen places in one day but it unfortunately meant that I couldn't really learn anything about the places and exhibits, nor can I tell you about them on my blog. (feel free to breathe a sigh of relief)

After I'd ticked off everything that I was interested in on my list I had another walk around the town and I noticed a few things, the first being that there are an awful lot of dogs. I'm pretty sure that they are pets rather than lunch but they just run around in packs, playing or sleeping in the middle of the street or down alleyways. A couple of times I've thought that a dog was dead but on closer examination it became apparent that they were just very dirty, hot and tired and having a well deserved nap. The other thing that I've noticed is that most of the walls in the city (not the main city walls however) have been built without mortar, instead the bricks are just stacked in a different way and left to stay stood there for as long as the wall lasts. I imagine they would last quite a long time as long as they didn't get hit by a car/bike/dog/moth's wings and it would be easier to remodel your back yard any way you want to. (and judging by the huge piles of bricks in most of the back yards in Pingyao, people must do home improvements quite often...or maybe they're from walls that have fallen down, who knows!)

Right I'm rambling on a bit so I'll wrap it up before you fall asleep. After exploring the city some more I headed back to the hostel where I caught up with my blog whilst having a few beers and some food, then I had a nice hot shower before getting into bed for my final night both in Pingyao (boo!) and in my uncomfortable stone bed (woo!).

Right folks, that's it for today so you can breathe a sigh of relief but don't go just yet. If you've got a minute or twenty you should go and check out my photos as I've spent a few hours today sorting through them and uploading the crème de la crème of the bunch. Bear in mind before going to look at them that I'm no photographer and so you shouldn't expect National Geographic style shots as you'll only be disappointed and I don't want that to happen!

Bye for now!

Posted by UKtoCA 03:03 Comments (0)

Day 131 - Dragons, Train Rides & Stone Beds

Ni hao peeps!

I awoke early again today and was glad to not have to spend another night in my grotty hotel. I got up and went down to the street where I got a taxi to the old town of Datong. (well, what's left of it anyway) I headed to the nine dragon screen; the oldest of its kind in China, built in 1392 and which is 45.5m long and covered in glazed tiles. Today was just as cold as yesterday but it was also raining so the wall was deserted and although the colours of the tiles didn't really pop out without sunlight to illuminate them it was still a great thing to look at. After five minutes I had seen it in its entirety so I left and set off walking around town.

After an hour or so of walking in the rain I was freezing cold so I popped into KFC for a brew then got a taxi back to the train station. From there I went back to the CITS office where my tour had left from the previous day, as the tour guide had said that there was free wifi that I could use. (a rare thing in Datong) On my arrival I chatted with the manager, Gao for a while and he told me about the floods in Thailand and how they are also affecting Vietnam quite badly too as the Mekong River has burst its banks. As I plan on being in Vietnam in less than three weeks' time I hope that it's dry by then but if not I'll just have to arrange new plans which may involve spending another few weeks in China.

I failed to get online with the wifi password that Gao gave me but he said that if I try it in the hotel lobby next door (where it originates) it may work, so I went out for some food and would head back there later to try it again. I went to a small food stall that had an inside seating area and it looked ok from the outside but when I got inside it was pretty dirty and the various meats were all just sitting out in big metal bowls, uncovered. I decided against having anything with meat in it so I ordered the plain noodles and some egg soup, alright choices or so I thought. When the food arrived however it was a different story as the egg soup consisted of a bowl of greyish lukewarm water with a greasy film on top and little bits of egg, tomato and what looked to be cigarette ash in it. Straight away I decided that I was going to leave the soup but when the noodles came, they had an orange liquid and bits of meat in them which wasn't what I had ordered. After speaking to the guy who served me (through my translation app) he said that I could have the more expensive noodles for the same price as the plain ones (great) then he walked away. In the end I just pulled the noodles out of the soup and ate about half of them, leaving the meat behind.

I paid and left the restaurant then headed to the shop where I bought cakes and crackers to fill me up. Once I had some edible food I went to the hotel next to the CITS office and got the correct password for the wifi, then tried calling my Mum on Skype. The connection was really bad so after numerous attempts at speaking to her I gave up and said that I would call again later. I sat there for a while and chatted to one of the girls on reception to pass the time before I had to go and check out of my hotel. (I say chatted but it's pretty hard to chat through an app so it was more like I said things and she nodded and spoke back in Mandarin which I didn't understand)

When the time arrived for me to go and check out I stored my bag at the other hotel then managed to have a successful chat for more than an hour to my Dad on Skype. (woo!) It was nice to catch up and tell him about all of my adventures as it's been a while since we last spoke and before I knew it, it was time for me to go and catch my train to Pingyao.

I headed to the train station and after waiting around for five minutes I boarded my train and settled into my very comfy soft sleeper bed which was well worth the extra 120 Yuan (£13) over the hard seat ticket that I had considered buying originally. The seven hour train ride passed uneventfully, bar my first experience with a 'squatter' toilet. Luckily I had toilet paper with me as it isn't used in the toilets in China, nor do they have soap in any of the bathrooms, so people must just wipe with their hand then rinse it with water. I'm glad that Roy had managed to source some hand sanitizer for me in Beijing as if you imagine lots of people with unwashed wiping hands going around touching door handles, beds, chairs etc, the amount of bacteria that must be on all of the surfaces must be sky high. (and I haven't seen any adverts for Dettol surface cleaner whilst I've been in China either, I mean come on people, it kills 99.9% of bacteria!)

I read my Ian Rankin book for pretty much the whole journey (which is wicked by the way, if you haven't heard of him I'd highly recommend checking some of his stuff out as it rocks) so it passed pretty quickly and before I knew it, it was 12.30am and I had arrived in Pingyao. I left the train and there was a taxi driver waiting outside the station to take me to the hostel as they provide free pickup from the railway station. Me and a couple of French guys who were on the same train (one of whom; Joe had spent the past five years living in Xi'an and so spoke what sounded to me like fluent Mandarin) all got in the same taxi and a few minutes later we pulled up at the hostel.

I checked in and went to my 'dorm' room which was actually a twin room which was great. It was very basic but it was pretty warm inside and as I didn't sleep on the train I was pretty tired so I crawled into bed and tried to sleep. I say tried as it took a long time for me to fall asleep due to the bed being made of stone. (really, Google "Kang stone bed", it's a traditional style of bed in China) It had a very thin mat on top which didn't help much and there was a beanbag pillow which was pretty hard and which made loud noises whenever I moved my head a little bit. After a while I did manage to drift off though and I fell asleep excited for another day of exploration in a new city.

That's all for now folks!

Posted by UKtoCA 03:25 Comments (0)

Day 130 - Tours, Buddah-tastic Sights & Defying Death

Bonjour all!

Today was time for operation get-the-heck-out-of-this-hole-of-a-hotel (GTHOOTHOAH for short - catchy name eh) and after waking at 6am and having a nice hot shower (the one plus point of the hotel that I was in - hot water, woo!) I set off to the train station where I booked my onward ticket to Pingyao for the next night. Once I had my ticket, I made my way to the bus stop and it was still below freezing at this point . I was cursing not having bought some warmer clothes whilst I was in the shopping haven that is Beijing and Roy - if you're reading this you should know that you were right and I was wrong, it was a lot colder in Datong than Beijing! On arrival at the bus stop I found out that the bus I had planned on taking to the Yungang Grottoes wasn't running. Feeling defeated at the first hurdle, I headed back to the relative warmth of my hotel to look in my guidebook for something else to do however on the way I was accosted by the local CITS tour manager and was taken to their office to see what tours they had on offer that day.

In a good twist of fate it turned out that for the bargain price of 100 yuan (£10) they had a tour to both the Yungang Grottoes and the Hanging Monastery which was due to leave at 9am. I decided to book it and was glad that I had decided to get up early that day so that I could make the departure time. After a while six more people arrived and having not seen a single non-Chinese person in my time in Datong I wondered where they'd all came from. We all got chatting and it turned out that Ilhem and Peppe were from Boston, David & Elene were from Spain and Jane & Dima were from Russia and from first impressions, they all seemed to be very interesting people.

Nine AM came and we boarded the death trap (sorry, tour bus) that was to take us on our whirlwind tour of the main attractions near to Datong. I sat next to Ilhem and Peppe for the journey to the Hanging Monastery and we chatted the whole way there about our previous travels, what we were upto in China and how we were all scared for our lives due to the driver being a reckless maniac behind the wheel. Whether he is a reckless mainiac when he's not behind the wheel I don't know, I didn't think best to ask him whilst he was driving as he needed about 800% of his concentration to avoid head on collisions with trucks, buses and donkeys amongst other things.

We were driving along two lane roads with two feet high barriers and sheer drops on each side, overtaking long lines of traffic on the wrong side of the road, on long blind bends and with huge coal trucks coming the other way. We passed a car which had flipped over the barrier and which was being lifted out of the ditch by a crane. I don't know what car it was before the crash but when I saw it, it resembled one of the metallic cubes which come out the other end of a car crusher. I thought that the sight of the wreck (and our screaming in the back of the bus) may prompt our driver to slow down but he continued on in reckless abandonment until we finally made it to the monastery, somehow still in one piece.

The monastery was quite a sight, built about seven hundred years ago into the side of a mountain by people dangling from ropes anchored at the top. It was fixed to the mountainside by beams fitted into holes chiseled into the rockface and supported by wooden poles which went right down to ground level. It had been restored and strengthened over the centuries but the clever placement of it had meant that it avoided the majority of rain, wind and falling rocks and so it still looked brilliant. (see my pics once they're uploaded as I can't fully describe it in words)

The tour guide gave us an introduction to the history of it then left us to explore it for an hour or so which turned out to be plenty of time. There was a one way system in place as it was quite a small structure and you had to be careful not to trip as the guard rails were about three feet high and a one hundred foot fall onto solid rock would have seriously deminished the enjoyment factor of the visit.

After exploring it from top to bottom we all piled back into the death cruiser and although I wasn't looking forward to another destruction derby style drive across town I was glad to be able to warm up a bit. I was freezing cold after an hour of being there and the guide said that in winter the monastery only gets one hour of sunlight due to its' placement. How the monks must cope in their basic attire in a purely wooden structure with no insulation I don't know! (I don't think meditation can prevent frostbite but I may be wrong..) We set off and after an even longer trip, this time across fields and through building sites (both shortcuts apparently) we arrived at the Yungang Grottoes.

After paying and making our way through the souvenir stalls that tend to accompany any major tourist attraction in China, we arrived at the actual caves and they were amazing! There are 53 caves which contain 51,000 carvings and which represent the largest collection of Buddhist cave art anywhere in the world. The largest carving of a Buddha was 15 metres tall and the smallest was 2 centimetres tall. Lots of the carvings had damage caused by various things including water and wind damage, along with damage caused by drilling holes into them in order to attach clay which was then painted in centuries past and which had now all but disintigrated.

We spent a couple of hours looking around, starting with a tour from our guide around the main caves and then exploring the others by ourselves. After a fun packed day of sightseeing everyone was knackered and we all piled into the minibus for one final trip back to town with our fingers crossed that we'd get there in one piece. We made it back ok and I went out for food with Jane & Dima before returning to my hotel and getting another early night.

Wow, that was a lot to read. I saw so much today however that to put it in fewer words wouldn't have done it the justice that it deserves! Be sure to check out my pictures tomorrow when I've filtered through and uploaded them all as a picture really can tell a thousand words. (I should've just uploaded three photos rather than type all this lot, maybe I will do next time!)

Laters folks!

Posted by UKtoCA 01:02 Comments (0)

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