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Published: November 26th 2007
Thoughtfully 'atin his breakfast
The plane began it's descent, and we chatted away, looking out all the time, eating our free dried salted plums and bean-curd, each of us secretly hoping to be the first to glimpse Xi'an. Then the clouds turned orangy-brown, we saw a parched tree and much nothing else, the visibility was so bad, and the wheel touched down.
While the fog or pollution or smoke or desert sand, or combination of these, cleared a few days in, after four days in that city, and now having been in Chengdu, our lungs hurt from pollution and we craved blue skies.
Avoiding the touts, Alan navigated the way to the hostel, walking by the ancient Drum and the Bell towers as well as less ancient KFC, Pizza Hut and two McDonalds. The hostel was great, set in a four hundred year old Chinese building complete with courtyards and photographs of Mao in the corridor - our room had a raised traditional bed and lots of dark wood.
The amount of staff working in the hostel would have sent Michael O'Leary spinning in his leather swivel chair. I ordered toast for breakfast, and the order was passed through three staff to
the kitchen, promptly forgotten, until the third manager noticed (the two above him were in a meeting).
Aw toast, I had missed you. Neither of us had a slice of toast in two and a half months, and it tasted great. You hear a lot of people who travel giving out about western food, but not me. In one of the hostels we stayed in, a former set of guests really downed on the owners for having western food on the menu, I think that is really unfair, as the hostel was just trying to meet a need, and in fairness to them, their toasted bacon and egg sandwiches were delicious as was their fried rice and beef and ginger. I'd equate it with imagining that Irish people can't enjoy a good chinese or indian, when of course we love it.
And as for toast, food of the God's - first thing when I get home, it will be a pan of Buttercrust Toastie bread, and some kerrygold melting softly into it....mmm. A few months of savoury porridge, or noodles, or strange white steamed buns for brekkie, and it's toast we crave.
I digress, back to Xi'an.
We decided to book into a tour in the hostel to see the amazing Terracotta Warriors (who Caoimhe had informed us were in London, and we were relieved to find out they had left a few behind just for us), a neolithic village 'Banpo village' and the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang. It was cheaper than doing it ourselves, and we thought it might be informative to have a guide.
Our guide called himself 'Bruce Lee' and only ever referred to himself in the third person, like Mr T. We were Bruce's only customers, which made the day rather intense, and Bruce liked to crack jokes, awful jokes, and got offended when my jaw, which hurt greatly from fake smiling, refused to do the honours at his third and rather strange Monica Lewinsky joke, involving Bill Clinton, a tripod, and a meandering plot without a punchline. Alan thinks Bruce must have been told the joke by an American and not fully understood it. I think I agree. Poor Bruce, he really tried after that.
He rewarded us with free additional extras we hadn't booked on the trip, such as a visit to 'Terracotta Warrior Factory Number One' and
A terracotta warrior, having found gainful employment as a shop-dummy, gazes wistfully at a symbol of Old China
a visit to 'Silk Factory Number One'. He whizzed us past the start of the Silk Road, which we were interested in, and deposited us at a bizarre tourist restaurant where food appeared and disappeared mysteriously, and tea was proferred in chipped cups, at one stage we were given a free biscuit, which disappeared when we chose not to purchase any more. A special chef also arrived at our table stretching noodle dough, which was great, but he swiftly departed, as did his smile when we said we didn't need any noodle soup, thoughtfully priced at only one dollar.
At the silk factory we were given our own personal tour, which involved showing us how silk is made, and even how they remove the silkworms and stretch the silk. Many staff awoke from their slumber to display these to us, with a highly strung besuited man giving us a guided tour. It was all the more bizarre as we had no idea where we were going, Bruce had simply said, 'driver tell Bruce he get petrol, so Bruce bring you in here now'. Alan looked confused at this point, as he saw the driver skulking away and reversing the
Aoife in front of the Drum Tower
car across to another parking space as we were brought into the factory which had no signage. I thoroughly enjoyed the tour, and was considering the benefits of buying my very own silk duvet to travel around the world with (I'm sure it would have fit in the backpack), but Alan was having none of it, so I waved a forlorn hand at the many new friends I would have made had we bought the thing, sadly they had already started to slumber again and didn't notice my departure.
At this point we were only dying to see something we had actually paid to see, and so were terribly disappointed to learn that Bruce didn't want to bring us to the tomb. Resigned we agreed to go somewhere else, which he said would be much better than the tomb. 'Bruce think that boring' he said, 'Bruce think this much better.' We realised that we had travelled to Xi'an to see, wait for it folks, a fibreglass model of the tomb, adorned with fairy-lights. It was like the Moving Crib, but without Matt Talbot's stuffed dog. Wonderful.
That said, the village was fascinating - and the neolithic times were
Aoife prepares to cycle the city walls
matriarchical, much to my delight, as Bruce said, 'Bruce say this mean Aoife in charge now.' And there was silence.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached the warriors, and they were amazing. Bruce enlivened our experience by telling us jokes about them - e.g. 'Bruce think that soldier has too much to drink...' etc.,. It did nothing to dampen their magnificance.
What a nutter that Qin Shi Huang (the guy who created the soldiers) was, he had thousands of these lads individually fired up and painted for his tomb so he could continue to conquer in the afterlife. In a way he did have the last laugh, here we are, tourists flocking in our thousands, he was right, he'll never be forgotten. Unlike the poor guys who only put forty years of their lives into making them and then were promptly killed for their efforts so they couldn't repeat the trick (tell that to 'Terracotta Soldier Factory Number One').
Alan had a great time taking photographs despite the dust, darkness and Bruce ocassionally popping his head into shot saying, 'Bruce Lee ask, why you take picture of that? You crazy' (he really did). We
were both amazed by the detail and the scale of the whole thing.
Other sports we enjoyed in Xi'an included: cycling the city walls - this was amazing, fourteen kms of wall encircle the old city (there isn't too much of this left) and you can cycle all around on bone-shakers in about an hour and a half - although some people were going faster than others (Alan). We also enjoyed the local sport of 'traffic dodging' which is great fun altogether, particularly due to the astute lack of pedestrian lights, great idea in a city of eight million inhabitants, really enjoyable.
There's a fascinating Muslim quarter where traders sell all sorts of aromatically spiced meats and potato cakes, along with dried fruits and nuts, cloths, trinkets and even tiny birds. We saw a poignant scene where a little wild sparrow flew down from a tree and seemed to conduct a conversation with a caged bird. Quite strange really and a bit moving.
Our next city was Chengdu, about six hundred kilometres south (and no, we weren't up for cycling it) and a lot warmer. We were quite excited as we'd both looked forward to this for
The hostel's kitten was Aoife's best friend for the duration of our stay in Xi'an - as soon as she appeared he jumped onto her lap and refused to budge!
the whole trip. Outside the city there's a wonderful Panda Sanctuary where they successfully breed these amazing creatures. They're so sleepy that you have to get up early to watch them eat their illogical diet of much bamboo (illogical as they can't digest it properly, despite the fact that it's all they'll eat). We drove out to the sanctuary with three others, a sound Irish guy from Slane (who incidentally had also been on a similar tour in Xi'an, and saw the Number One factories too), a Welshman and a Dutch guy. It was a real case of tripods at dawn, I played David Attenborough to these film-makers.
However the narration was punctuated by 'oohing' and 'aahing' - Pandas actually look like men dressed in Panda suits and it's very funny how they eat the bamboo - they eat stacks of it, so they each have their own habits and techniques - some of them love the leaves and abandon the stalks, and others ditch the leaves for the stalks. The teenagers fight and hug, and when they fall, it's hilarious as they aren't very agile but do like to show off, so it's all paws and biting of
A view down the south wall
ears, and then 'whump' as one of them falls, flailing through the air without any grace or style.
Naturally the babies are probably the cutest things you can imagine, they actually look like teddy bears that are alive. Unfortunately their mothers often can't care for them, so there is more human interaction than would be ideal. We were delighted to get to watch the nurses take them, clean them, and then put them back on the mat, where you expect that they will sit up but they just go 'thump' on the floor and fall asleep to the delight of the oohing and aahing female (and male) audience.
I think they have it sussed. We stayed for hours, and by the time we left they were all asleep, some of them even climbed up skinny little trees and then went 'zzzzzz' in the most ridiculous poses.
Apart from that we spent our time in Chengdu planning the next stage of the trip, having some cheap beers and good chats with other hostellers, visiting a temple and chilling out in our really relaxed hostel 'Cosy Sims' run by a Singaporean/Japanese couple, who have rabbits, frogs, carp and human
The Banpo stone-age village museum
babies running around the grounds for amusement. But as there are no pandas, I am sadly unamused.
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