We left for Xi'an in the 'hard sleeper' compartment of the train. This was our first experience of Chinese rail travel and it was fantastic. The beds were big and comfortable with three stacked on top of each other facing another three on the opposite side. If you are on the top bunk it's really high up and with no ladders so you have to climb up monkey-style using footholds that flip down from the wall. We managed to sleep most of the way through until we were awoken at 7:00 by loud announcements and music, annoyingly unnecessary seeing as we didn't arrive until 9:30.
Our arrival introduced us to the chaos that is Xi'an train station. It had the look, atmosphere and smell of a refugee camp with people everywhere, squatting on the ground, sitting or sleeping on newspapers, hawking, begging, touting, and selling everything and anything; massive groups of people looking like they'd been there for days having completely forgotten why they were there in the first place.
But first impressions don't count (if you are travelling around China by train you wouldn't like anywhere if they did). I liked Xi'an; the city walls made me feel
right at home, although they didn't look much like York's being that they are as wide as they are tall and are very new looking. The city itself was chaotic and the most Chinese of the places we have been so far on the crazy-roads index. The roads have just enough traffic to present a significantly higher risk of being run down but not enough to cause gridlock and slow the generally ascribed to speed of breakneck (and break everything else for that matter). The city strangely has nothing in the way of lights for pedestrian crossings and the old Vietnam style of road-crossing was re-employed (although quickly dismissed as being suicidal because in China they don't meet you halfway and actually try to avoid you).
We were in Xi'an for pretty much the same reason as everyone else: The Terracotta Warriors. The warriors receive so much attention as one of China's premiere tourist attractions that I was worried they might disappoint. The problem with China is that it's so big you spend an improbable number of hours going somewhere completely out of the way so it better be worth it when you get there. Anyway, it was more
than worth it. I heard some intensely annoying people saying that the number of warriors wasn't quite as impressive as they'd hoped (there are thousands of them!) but these are the same people who would complain that the great wall is 'a little on the short side.'
We started by watching a film about the warriors. It wasn't a documentary as we'd expected but a surround-vision dramatisation. And dramatic it was. The narrator would dryly declare 'and so China went to war'
which was followed by ten minutes of battle scenes with extras (everyone in it was an extra - even the leads could not be considered actors by any normal definition) coming right up to the camera to die in a fantastically over-acted, open-mouthed, death-rattle manner. All good entertainment but not exactly why we were there. Luckily I had read a little beforehand and knew that the Emperor who had ordered the warriors to be made was a complete genius and an utter maniac. He unified China and the Chinese script, got the Great Wall underway, killed province-loads of people and was obsessed with finding the Elixir of Life. No one knows for sure why he ordered the
warriors to be built, but most agree it was at least for protection in death and possibly even to help him rule in the afterlife. The scale of all of his achievements and destruction were molehills compared to his ego.
I was really impressed by the warriors; rows and rows of them stretch out before you, all stunningly detailed and unique right down to their hair, expressions and armour. The pits are still being excavated and many of the warriors are smashed and broken with a head here, an arm there. Some have been put together with parts missing; others are completely perfect and look newly made.
Our next stop was the lovely Chengdu. Another city, another too long train journey. This one was 18 hours and we chugged along p a i n f u l l y s l o w l y . We also weren't as lucky with our cabin mates and we were greeted by a man with one trouser leg rolled up and one down (they stayed that way for the entire journey), blackened teeth and a textbook village-idiot grin. He was very excited to have some westerners to stare at for
the entire journey and he got to work right away. Thankfully he turned out to be reasonably harmless and apart from tirelessly trying to converse with us in Mandarin, trying to read Paul's book, taking Paul's earphones to listen to his music, throwing his rubbish out of the window, chain-smoking in the room and cleaning his ears with a key, he was absolutely fine.
Having said that, the people we have met so far have been stunningly kind and friendly. We have been blown away by how friendly people are and how much they want to help....and not everyone cleans their ears with keys, thank god.
Anyway, Chengdu. We love it. Got to admit that, that is mainly down to Sims - the best hostel I have ever stayed in - and Pandas - the cutest animals ever. Sims is run by a couple who are travellers themselves and know how to make a fantastic hostel that no one wants to leave. We've also met some really cool people here and had plenty of nights of Tsingtao on the roof bar. The pandas really made it though. They are so docile and seem to have almost zero control
over their bodies. They were forever falling off branches, rolling off logs and sliding down tree trunks. They are so soft that when they hit the floor, they just look mildly surprised then pick themselves up and do it all over again. Playing is a very lazy affair and involves rolling around and trying to get each other to fall off things. This is all very good natured, it seems that they are not only cute but also have a slap-stick sense of humour.
We also went horse-trekking in Songpan (you can see why this blog is closely following the last - we've done a lot recently). The trekking itself was fantastic, with some awesome scenery and great guides. I loved opening up the tent in the morning to find horses all around, blowing out the morning cold.
Unfortunately the guy who ran the horse-trekking centre (the only one in Songpan) was a complete _____ (expletive of your choice). So our 2-day trek to see the beautiful lakes and hot springs in the area with 4-5 hours of riding per day was not strictly as promised. We actually had about two and half hours of riding per
day and an equal amount of walking (because they didn't have separate pack horses and the horses probably would have keeled over with all the weight). The majority of the lakes were bone dry and the hot springs were inexplicably cold. We were so p'd off about all this because it takes eight hours of rattling about on a bus to get to Songpan and the guy had clearly lied to us about pretty much every aspect of the trek. We told him this (in a calm and collected way) when we arrived back and he went completely nuts. Ranting and raving 'why everyone always complain'
(I wish he could have understood the stupidity of that remark). He responded to my question of 'why would anyone want to see lakes with no water in them'
with 'I don't care'
and 'why Chinese no problem, you always have problem.'
He kept running outside to shout at the guides (who are paid a pittance and had absolutely nothing to do with it) and I had to keep asking him to stop shouting and listen (if he was a child he would have definitely been put in the naughty room for a time-out).
When I mentioned a discount he completely lost it and ran out of the building and across the road apparently never to be seen again. We could see the funny side of the situation but were not willing to give up and staged a stake-out in his office. He eventually came scampering back to bare his teeth and tell us to go away and after a bit we did but made sure he knew it wasn't over.
We took it up with the manager of the hostel (we had booked it through them) and managed to get a partial refund and VIP tickets to the Sichuan Opera which certainly softened the blow (particularly loved the costumes and somewhat freaky facial expressions). As much as I would love that guy to go out of business, I wouldn't suggest that people don't go horse-trekking in Songpan (when we were there, his was the only company); it is beautiful
and there are the livelihoods of genuinely nice and hard-working people relying on the money it brings in - just don't be surprised if what you pay for and what you get are laughably different.
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