Published: October 10th 2008October 10th 2008
When we arrived in Hong Kong the pollution blown down from China made it almost impossible to see more than a few hundred metres. On day we left, the threatening typhoon blew the pollution away and we were able to see the hills and harbour at last - but only briefly. It also blew in heavy rain and strong winds and, as the train to Guangzhou crossed into China, we were pleased to be leaving.
The night before, we met our three travelling companions for the journey: David, an ex-geologist and current teacher living in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, a seasoned traveller with many countries under his belt; Michael, American-Irish and pretending to be a leprechaun with goatee beard, longish grey hair and carrying a big stick - also a seasoned traveller who has written a book about pilgrimage routes in Europe and is hoping to write another book about this journey; and Tsoge, our tour manager, a young Mongolian woman, a recently graduated lawyer who now spends her time guiding people on the trans-mongolian rail journey. You'll see photos of them as the journey progresses.
We met at a Dum Sum restaurant (Yum Cha for the
Australians). It was Sylvia's first experience of Chinese customer service and she started to laugh, describing it as like being in a Fawlty Towers episode. The man who poured our tea poured more of it on the table cloth than into the cups; the girl who served the food put it as far away as possible from the person who wanted it - and these were big round tables; if you asked for beer you got coca-cola and vice versa; we were told there was no white wine but people at the tables next to us were served with it without trouble; food was cleared away before it was finished. You get the idea - and it wasn't just our table. Everyone was treated the same way.
My first impression after crossing the border was that China had no countryside, only space between buildings. As we travelled further north, however, the countryside increased but there is never a view which doesn't include a multitude of dwellings. The rain eased as we got further away from Hong Kong and by the time we arrived in Guangzhou it had stopped completely. Unfortunately the pollution had returned and visibility was back to
a few hundred yards at best.
Guangzhou is the Mandarin name for Canton. The Chinese government insists on Mandarin being used for all official names which is why many of the old names (Peking, Canton, Shanghai, etc) have disappeared - they are Cantonese names. For us it was only a brief stopover while we waited for the evening train to Xian. We visited the Chin Family Temple - now a museum - and took a walk around the medicine market.
I referred above to Sylvia's introduction to Chinese customer service. The stations have been another eye-opener. While the trains are comfortable and efficient, it almost seems that the stations are designed to make it as difficult and as uncomfortable as possible to actually get on the train. Dragging a heavy suitcase up several steep stairways and lifting them on to carriages which are over a metre above the ground - with no steps - is not for the faint-hearted. If you have more than one bag it becomes a nightmare. We managed but almost divorced in the process!
After a night and day on the train (I'll describe train life in another blog), we arrived in Xian
about 11pm and settled in to our four-star hotel. We are not used to these posh hotels and feel a bit out of place but no doubt we will get used to them. They tend to be a bit characterless and it is difficult to tell one from another. The services are also expensive. Nonetheless, they are comfortable and clean and, so far, close to the centre of town so it is easy to get about and visit places.
The main attraction in Xian is the tomb of the first (and last) Chin Emperor and the discovery of thousands of terracotta statues of warriors set to guard the tomb. I'll leave you to look up the full story for yourselves but the excavation site is impressive and the statues are awe-inspiring.
We also visited a factory where full-sized and minature replica statues are made for export to museums and exhibitions around the world. Sylvia was more impressed by the lacquer furniture and the silk carpets but I managed to restrain here from buying any. I wasn't so sucessful at the silk factory we went to but I have to admit that the wall-hanging will look nice in our
bedroom at home.
Our second day in Xian was as heavily polluted as the previous days but with the addition of constant rain. There was not much wind, though, so we decided we would see what we could before catching the overnight train to Beijing. We visited the City Wall and the Bell Tower. We had been told that the views from the wall and Bell Tower over the city were spectacular but on this day we could hardly see from one side of the City Wall to the other. It was something of a relief to get on the train and out of the weather.
There are more photos below