Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Off to XI'AN: Traveling within traveling

As much as I was enjoying Beijing, I had the travel bug and really wanted to explore outside that city. My first priority was to go to Xi'an, an ancient capital of China. Lynn unfortunately had to get things in order for the start of the new semester. After the bank fiasco, it was pretty clear she couldn't accompany me.

No problem though. I ventured into Beijing to the train station on my own and managed to get the appropriate ticket to Xi'an. I am trying to get on the #9 public bus at the train station. When the first bus came, I just observed how it's done. The second bus I tried to get on unsuccessfully. The third one I shoved my way into the appropriate position to get funneled in by force.
I took the Z19 train at 21:24. When getting my ticket I just kept repeating "Z" and "soft sleeper" and "Xi'an." In other words, get me on the fast luxury train to Xi'an.
This was the most luxurious train I've ever taken! There were 2 bunks per cabin, a personal TV and headset that I had no idea how to use, slippers and hot water - all for 400 RMB = $55. Of course I was with 3 business men in my cabin as normal ppl can't afford this accomodation.
After the 11 hr and 1 min overnight train, I arrived in Xi'an to much gloom and rain and madness. This picture captures my first hour in Xi'an rather well.

I had no hostel reservations, but according to Lonely Planet, I could get on the number 603 bus to the hostel .... except that there were many main streets and no less than 50 different bus lines at the train station! After about 45 min of wandering, being drenched, asking everyone for bus 603 in Chinese and avoiding a pick-pocketer (he tried to open my purse right in front of me! I just shot him a nasty look), I found bus 603! This would definitely be put into the "personal
growth" part of traveling!

However, now of course I had no idea when to get off seeing that I didn't know this city at all. I couldn't even see outside the fogged up windows, not that that would really help. So, crammed in this double-decker bus described as a pick-pocketer's paradise, I started showing "nice looking" ppl. the name of the street I was looking for. I got off a few stops too early and walked in a few circles, but alas found the hostel!

Only to find out that the hostel, while quaint and English friendly, had only a dorm room. No problem. I've done dorms before, and this was only 4 ppl. Except that it was small, dingy and a girl that was clearly sick was sprawled on the bed. The bathroom was no better. I quickly locked up all my belongings and headed out to secure my future train ticket and explore.
The drum tower. The center of the old city.

While wandering, I ended up finding a budget hotel near the drum tower that had a single with its own bathroom for a reasonable price and decided I was no longer 20 years old and only traveling for a little while, and it was my birthday weekend, so what the heck! I'll splurge for $25/night for the hotel! City Hotel Xi'an - I highly recommend it.

Now, for 4 glorious days in and around Xi'an...

Muslim Quarters:
The first afternoon I headed to the Muslim Quarters, which was one of my favorite areas in Xi'an. It's inhabited by one of the largest ethnic Muslim communities in China. I ended up going back every day to wander and eat the food.
Man walking through a side alley way. I loved strolling aimlessly around these quarters.
Kids playing on the stoop.
My first meal in Xi'an I just walked into this family restaurant and pointed to a bowl of noodles. The owner, above in white, saw my Lonely Planet book and was very intrigued. By the end of my meal, no less than 7 other ppl were beckoned over to look at my book, specifically the local foods written in Chinese. We had great conversation, or rather pointing, but I had to leave when they started smoking right into my face. I saw him 3 days later on a Moped and he honked and he invited me back to his restaurant.

You can get just about any type of "antique", "real" jade and trinkets here.

I loved eating the street food! My strategy was first to observe from a far. Then approach and point and saying something that sounded like "iga" which I think means "one of this". They would ask questions. I would nod. They would probably ask for X Yuans. I would hold out what I thought was more than enough, then they would ask for smaller bills or give change, then hand over the yummy food. With this method, I got to try just about everything I wanted too!
After salivating over these lamb skewers and many failed attempts to get them by my usual strategies, I finally secured 4 skewers and spiced grilled pita bread on my last day. It was absolutely delicious and one of my favorite meals here. A fabulous dried fruit market.Delicious potatoes. Muslim food contains lots of strong spices including cumin and star anise.

Too many different foods to try! But I managed to single-handedly get all the main ones. Here is where I wish I had a travel buddy to help me eat all the food! All of my days in Xi'an I just got street food. Even with sampling about 8 different things each day, I normally only spent 15-20 RMB (less than $3) on food.

The first night I ventured onto the bus outside into the modern city to see the big pagoda and a random water/music show that was popular with the locals and Chinese tourists. It was kinda weird, but interesting to see the crowd and the newer city on the bus ride.

Terracotta Warriors: the ghosts of the first emperor

The morning of my second day, I headed out to see the infamous warriors. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who unified the country in language, roads and much more, decided that he wanted an army of warriors to guard his tomb. That's perfectly logical. The main reason I wanted to come to Xi'an is to trek out to see these guys. So, I hopped on the public bus and rode an hour outside of the city.

Over 8,000 warriors, chariots and weapons were discovered in 1974 accidentally by a farmer drilling for a will. There are 3 different pits .
Each face is unique and each warrior signed by its artist.
His enemies raided some of the tombs, but a lot of the soldiers are still in tact. Excavation is still occuring.Hailed as the eighth wonder of the world, the terracotta warriors are definitely impressive.

Riding the wall:
After returning to the city, the weather looked promising so I biked the city wall. The old city wall is still standing around Xi'an. It's the most complete city wall to survive in China. Dividing the old modern city, it stands 12 m (40 ft) tall, ~14 m wide and 14 km in length.
Me and my bike on the wall. It was pretty leisurely, although a bit bumpy and rough on the butt at times. Since it cost 40 Y to get on the wall, it was peaceful and not full of crowds. Definitely one of my favorite activities here. The beautiful sunset from the city wall looking into the old city. But I couldn't stay up here forever so I descended into the city.
Getting steamed buns from a mom and her son (behind sign on the right).

Above is one of my favorite random streets that I found while meandering the back roads. It was dusk, and only locals were out and about - kids playing, barbers cutting hair, friends talking, dinner cooking. I stopped by a local bakery and chatted with a mom and daughter. While watching some kids, 4 of them were intrigued by my camera and approached me. This is exactly what I love about exploring.

By my last day in Xi'an, I had already seen everything, so I took it easy. I meandered the Muslim quarters getting the last of the food I was eying, window shopped in the local clothing stores and the upscale malls and spent the afternoon relaxing, reading and writing, at a local bakery while watching teens, couples, moms and daughters come in and out. It was nice to just chill out.

I loved Xi'an. It was pleasant to stroll around, had good food, great atmosphere. I had plenty of time just to explore. Most ppl zoom through in 2 days, but I had 3 days in the city and spent another day at Hua Shan - a mountain about 2 hrs outside of the city. That was quite the experience deserving its own post ...


caroline said...

mmmm. That food looked yummy!! I want some. "iga" is totally "one of them!" But how did that not work for the lamb skewers? I would think the point and "iga" should get you one! Yes, I'm most attracted by the food pictures. LOL

Those pictures of the terracotta warriors are great! Taht looks just wonderful. I'd love to go and visit.

Angela said...

OH!!! I see now. That's why it didn't work. Because you can just get "one" of the skewers. You get a whole bunch of them!