Xi’an was muggy. The metro gave us a brief respite, but then it was back into the city-centre mug and down a backstreet alley. A couple of locals looked up with cool disinterest as we sweated past, clearly used to foreigners at the Han Tang Inn.
We were given three top bunks, the others taken by a trio of Canadian girls travelling for much longer than us (with heavier-duty bags to go with it). They were friendly but swiftly cut back into French, signalling an end to introductions.
The next morning I was on the go-slow getting up, and getting out was no quicker. The dorm bathroom’s loo roll mysteriously disappeared along with the Canadians on their trek up Hua Shan (a failed attempt of Calum’s and mine during Winter travels, due to the mountain in question being ‘closed for maintenance’).
After breakfast we made prayers to the gods of overseas cash withdrawal and they were (mostly) answered – no cards swallowed by the ATM and between us we had cash. Good ol’ ICBC. We muddled our way to the train station to survey buses to the Terracotta Warriors; having arrived later than planned, we decided to make or postpone our visit based on queues.
There weren’t queues, exactly. Actually the opposite – ‘quick quick quick!’ screeched competing bus operators, ‘get on, get on!’ OK then. The journey was around an hour, mostly due to minor detours taken to drop various passengers off. The buses seemed to serve as general-purpose shuttles to the area around the tourist site, so many of their patrons weren’t tourists at all.
We wandered through the tourism city around the site, as directly to the ticket office as possible. The lady behind the desk prepared three regular tickets as we walked up, which may have contributed to her not letting us use our student IDs for discounts. The 150¥ each burned a hole in our wallets (especially since we had been hoping for half-price entry as advertised).
We had to walk through a park dotted with tour guides trying to get our attention before the actual pits. Their rate wasn’t bad and I get that it’s their job, but we had looked up as much information as we found interesting online so we really didn’t want to pay. Chinese guides, either spoken or written, always seem to take great interest in endless statistics. The height and weight; quantity and materials; lists of constituent parts. I want to know why they were built – for whom, how, and what still hasn’t been discovered about them? All of this was available on several websites for free – and in my Lonely Planet guide. Sorry.
We started at Pit Three, at Lonely Planet’s advice, enjoyed the small collection of figures stood at the bottom, and returned to the heat on our way to Pit Two. This was more of the scale we had expected, but lacking one crucial element: the terracotta warriors. I had no idea, given that the site was discovered in the Seventies, but the place is still very much being excavated. Pit Two was a large expanse of corrugated trenches, resembling to my mind the furrows of a recently-ploughed field. A few ladders here and there, and the odd arm sticking out of a wall. No one appeared to be on duty that day, unfortunately.
Evie wasn’t feeling great but after some discussion outside we decided to push on: Pit One was the big hitter – I can very much see why the advice was to go there last. Rows of uniquely-designed soldiers looked from a distance as though they were about to start moving about, blinking, climbing their way up to us. An excitable man next to me kept pointing across the end of my panorama but I smiled through gritted teeth and tried again. Third time lucky? Fourth? Fifth.
We popped into the museum next door in search of some bronze chariots that turned out to be replicas, and stumbled into – of all things – a Pompeii exhibition. A *factually spurious* Pompeii exhibition. Once I got over the shock of seeing a cast of Julius Caesar labelled ‘a Roman man’, I did wonder why that was there instead of the famous plaster casts of victims of the eruptions (formed by forcing plaster into the underground voids left behind by decomposed bodies). There was a fun simulation of the eruption: a wall-to-wall screen showing the inside of a household courtyard with smoking Vesuvius in the background, and a complementary courtyard pond with the rippling, and later ash-strewn, water projected onto it from the ceiling. The two projections worked together to give the impression of earthquakes and billowing ash. Impressive, but they omitted the flows and mudslides, making it look as though the city just sort of gradually ‘caught fire’ as the mountain exploded (‘Where’s my Plinian mushroom cloud?!’ a revitalised Evie remarked).
Back in Xi’an we paid the Muslim Quarter a visit for lunch. Overpriced and touristy (the two are interchangeable in China), it had a bustling and inviting atmosphere nevertheless. We tried Biang-Biang Noodles, a Shaanxi province specialty known for the extreme complication of the name’s character, biang. Computers can’t display it, possibly because it doesn’t have a meaning (and programmers couldn’t be bothered to waste a Unicode slot on it), or possibly because it’s so detailed that most fonts wouldn’t be able to display it legibly. As it is, signs have to be a good foot in height before you can clearly make out all of the strokes.
Looming over said Quarter’s main street was the Drum Tower, accompanying the central Bell Tower visible a few blocks away. We paid both a visit, via a break at our hostel, and enjoyed the traditional drum performance at the former, just like the last time I was here but without a Classical Chinese rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
The next day we headed out for the city walls and cycled off at a hectic rate set by Evie. Around half way (just past the North gate) I called a time out to wring out my t-shirt, and then we headed off again. Evie had a similar turn to the previous day at the warriors, but the last section was a push for all of us, I think due to heat. It didn’t feel as far as 14 kilometres! We couldn’t cycle the last stretch past South Gate, frustratingly designated pedestrian-only, but we walked across to complete the circuit.
Back at ground level we missed our bus, stopped for water, and missed the next one. Third bus got us to the Muslim Quarter again for ‘Chinese burgers’ (as they are affectionately known; they’re like pitta with pulled pork stuffed inside) and soup dumplings, then some excellent frozen yoghurt rolls – I’ve seen videos online before; they start with plain yoghurt and churn in the chosen flavour on a cold-plate which slowly freezes the combination as it is mixed, then flattened like a crêpe, and scraped up into rolls.
Before long it was time for our train – besides, the hostel happy hour cocktails were calling to us dangerously siren-like – and having obviously missed the first bus we caught the second to the station. The leering was especially bad tonight – Evie caught the attention of the entire opposite row as she pointed out her shoulder-area sunburn to me. I was disappointed that Xi’an-ers didn’t seem more used to (gasp!) foreigners. Xi’an was far worse than the far West, but all over it has been more of a problem this time. I wonder if I noticed it less before; either that or I travelled more frequently with male-majority groups. The disappointment mounts.
Xi’an, however, was a pleasant city, packed with historical sites. It struck me that we saw a lot more in the same amount of time than I saw with Calum last time – but back then, it was our first ever travelling stop. Our train arrived, all the way from Ürümqi – the same that I took two Summers ago – and ferried us Shanghaiward.