Brave the Cold, Avoid the Crowds

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December 26th 2006
Published: January 22nd 2007
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Jingle bell, jingle bell... in a one horse open slee... It took all afternoon and late into the evening to fly from Hiroshima to Xi'an via Dalian and Beijing. While passengers boarded or deplaned, The airline's xmas recording ran through its three song cycle, also including We Wish You a Merry Xmas. Who in China could recognize a figgy pudding? and a third doubtedly festive Chinese number. The man across the aisle whistled along as we taxied into Xi'an Airport. By my third flight, I was less enthused. As the wingflaps manoeuvred and the 737 touched down, I was immediately aware of a strong smell of smoke. This is it! We're gonna crash! The engine's on fire! Inside the airport, the smell was even stronger. Coal fires were burning everywhere. A nation of over a billion citizens were keeping warm for the winter. It's funny. When I returned home at the end of my jaunt thru central China, my sweater still carried the yellow-brown smell of coal smoke and I missed it. Yeah, central China in winter is damn cold and the sky is a murky overcast but I found the off-season wonderful.

I arrived in Xi'an Xmas Eve just before midnight. The streets were packed with young people dressed in santa hats and mardi gras masks, letting off fire crackers and twirling flashing lights and sparkly plastic bits of xmas cheer. Traffic was prohibited to enter inside the walled City that night so I couldn't reach my hotel. I followed a bright star in the sky leading me to a manger - no,no, wrong story. There was no sky. Not for two weeks did I see any sky. Visibility was at best a couple hundred metres. I took a taxi to another hotel.

For the next three days I explored the city and the surrounding countryside. I made my way to the 9th wonder Terra Cotta Warriors site, and the city's tourist attractions, the Shaanxi History Museum, Beilin Museum, Small and Large Goose Pagodas, slowly piecing together the great imperial history of the region. I found the locals very friendly and obliging, eager to help me with local transport and handing me back change if I offered too much. I took local transport to the Terra Cotta Warriors vaults but to visit the Ming tombs in the West, I found a chinese tour group and at each site was left free to explore on my own. The much acclaimed Famen Si is a great sight to see but I'd have to say, it was the variety of styles of tombs we visited that impressed me most. The highlights of Xi'an were the unexpected little happenchances: a morning walk in the mist along the moat shared with hundreds of folks practicing tai chi, some dancing with fans, others wielding swords, others playing badminton and the ever-present old men with their caged song birds. It was like a bizarre virtual reality game. In the evening, the town centre sidewalks come to life, vendors selling needless colourful, exotic, curios and little stands selling the most delicious sweets or deep fried mysteries. Some of the best food was in the Muslim Quarter. And yes, a block east of the Drum Tower, I found a cafe where each morning I could sit in peace, sip my cappuccino and "watch the morning on parade". Ignore that a cuppa cost more than my meals for the day. Why didn't cocoa beans make it on the Silk Route? For 20$US/night, I enjoyed a 2-3 star hotel with 24/7 hot water, sleep naked heating and a tray of cute little toiletries - your gifts for the folks back home are taken care of!

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