Chapter 5: Xi’an
And not soon enough, helloooo Xi’an (Xi = Sh). Went directly from the bus to the train station (at 5am) to investigate onwards journeys, mostly cos it’s not a fulfilled day if you haven’t spent at least half an hour of it in a Chinese train ticket queue. Got a faceful of ‘it’s full’ replies and turned, dejectedly, in search of a hostel instead. I say ‘in search of a hostel’, I called the one I’d found online before and asked them to come pick me up, which they efficiently did. Love ’em (Jessica and Catherine – smashing pair, even if C did think it very unchristian of one of the female residents to be pashing a boy on the same day as meeting him). Already up on the brownie points.
This act, however, rinsed the little credit that I had left on the Chinese sim that I’d bought for convenience back in Qingdao. Went into a shop to top-up. It was the wrong shop. Whoops. The accommodating people in the wrong-shop sent a lady to drag me to the right shop – China Mobile. Went to the automatic machine to try and add credit but that would be too simple. Retreated to the counter for assistance from the nice China Mobile Man. ‘Can I top this sim up please?’ ‘Erm, no.’ ‘Why? This is a China Mobile sim: this is China Mobile, right?’ Bear in mind that they’ve run with the whole ‘China’ notion in the title, implying a country-wide service. ‘Yes, you can’t top it up here because it is registered in Qingdao [approximately 100,000 miles away]. You have to go there and do it.’
That, my friends, completely defies the point of a mobile phone.
Anyway, spent a few days mooching around the city, getting to know it. It’s a wonderfully calm backwater compared to its brash cousins in the East, even if ‘calm’ means 3.5 million people. Let’s not forget that China is the most populated country in the world, even if India is close on its heels. They say that the One Child Policy has worked but, I don’t know. If both parties in a couple aged 30ish are single children, they are now formally allowed to have two children. But in my opinion, there seems to be a flagrant disregard for the policy. Most people tell you about their brothers and sisters. If their parents wanted more than one, they’d just pay the fine or move and register the birth in a different province. And it would be a dysfunctional generation that grew up without the important lessons siblings bring you: how to pin the blame, how to get out of doing the washing up, horse bites, chinese burns, how to take the wrap for someone.
Grandparents play an active role in the raising of children and you’ll often see Gran or Grandad taking the bairns to the park or sitting watching the world go by. It reaffirms the trans-generational approach that the Chinese are famous for and which we in the West have to work on. Actually, on the subject of babies, they don’t wear nappies. They wear what are basically crotchless trousers and go wherever and whenever they need. Environmentally sound, sure, but quite unnerving to look at.
The hostel I found myself in was located at the edge of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda park (no word of a lie; that’s the name. There is also a Small Wild Goose Pagoda.) which is just one of my favourite places to amble around. Busy throughout the day, it really comes into its own at night, when people from all over the city flock to join al fresco dance classes, rollerblade, watch Asia’s biggest fountain display (oh yes!), hang out with friends, play games (the Chinese are always playing games – keeps their brains agile), and practice calligraphy with a pot of water and a giant brush. It’s abuzz and I love it.
This to the front of the hostel. To the rear, I found an alleyway crammed with the mini noodle and dumpling restaurants that everyone tells you not to eat in. But me, I like the connection you earn by being the novelty white face in a restaurant, ordering by pointing at someone else’s bowl. At 40p a plate, it doesn’t even matter if you don’t eat it. My constitution is strong like ox, so I didn’t get poisoned , the food is excellent and the reward is more than worth it: I boast extra happy memory (Chinese table manners aside) of sitting in a roadside restaurant with a plate of parsley dumplings freshly plucked from a boiling cauldron, being taught by a old lady lady how to mix the sauce. Can’t buy that; not for all the tea in China.
Elsewhere, you can enjoy the dizzying sight of Xi’an’s Bell Tower (boring) or (much better) jump up on the city wall and hire a bike to peddle around the former city limit. As I poached alive in my own skin, I wondered if the experts had got it wrong and that this was in fact the world’s longest wall, but I was just being a pussy. It is a delightful pedal that allows you to see all the defensive precautions Chang’an, as it was called then, took to protect its position as the start of the Silk Road (imagine my glee!).
If you happen to be in Xi’an, definitely add the Shaanxi history museum to your list of things to see too. It is excellently laid out and a good source of background information for the nearby Terracotta Warriors, which in all likelihood will be the reason you’re in the hood. My favourites? The bronze silkworm (oh how I covet it for my trinket shelf) that the ancients created as a burial object, a 6,000 year old stove in amongst all the old bits of pottery and a clay model that someone had made in 691 AD depicting a pig sty and a toilet. Why? What a use of time!
You get a lot of pottery in these sort of museums and most, frankly, is quite boring. But look past the crockery itself and the dates seldom follow suit. I often marvel at just how bloody old these things are is! The techniques used 6,000 years ago to make a stove for dinner are probably not wholly dissimilar to the ones that we still use today. Course, this open-mouthed wonder can only hold true if they’re good with their dating and, Shaanxi, allowing yourself a 200 year window is cheating, k?
Unfortunately it was here that I also got to the end of my tether with the constant failure to comply with the Personal Bubble that we have in the West. Which is entirely my fault. Again, it’s a cultural idiosyncrasy born out of living in a crowded, dog-eat-dog society, but I do NOT like them (I’m afraid you have to suffer my sweeping generalisations) touching me. Especially persistently. Especially tramps. So the beggar hassling the queue outside for cash who kept following me and touching my arm got a firm and loud ‘don’t touch me!’ for his troubles. Me, I got laughed at by the queue.
You must go and see the Terracotta Warriors, despite what all the haters will tell you to the contrary. The site is still being excavated by a team of experts and with an estimated 6,000 life-sized, individually modelled warriors found, they’ve got their work cut out. One volunteer student who I spoke to here reckoned just one statue could take up to 2 years to restore, but her friend reckoned it was two days. Depends how good at jigsaws you are.
The complex is basically a replica city, designed to furnish the young and cerazee emperor with all he could need in the afterlife. And if you were planning for the afterlife, you’d throw in two acrobats too, wouldn’t you? But then, Emperor Qin Shi Huang was only 13 when he ascended to the throne and began thinking morbidly about his death so I guess you have to account for teenage rationale. It’s fascinating, even despite the crowd of 30,000 or so people who visit it every day. The onsite museum gives a glimpse of the history behind the site, but once I’d been shoulder-barged at speed by more than one fully-grown man, I decided to skim the exhibits and read up later. However I did read in one passage that he’d buried some of the horses alive – there’s no need for that.
The complex itself is a lot like a theme park and sells all the essentials, like Subway, KFC and animal pelts. You can book onto a tour from the hostels in town, but then you have to trail one of these awful flag-people around all day. Far better to take the public bus from the station (70p) and take it in at your leisure.
Being a mountain-phile, the chance of climbing Hua Shan was a big draw for me. By pure coincidence, Mum just a few days before had expressly forbidden me to climb it. Can’t see why. Looks super fun, even if everyone I told about my intentions warned me that it was treacherous. It’s almost like subconsciously these warnings aren’t enough for me. I almost without exception tackle such mountains, not just woefully unprepared, but generally on nil sleep. This was no different, so off to the train station to wait for the 0155, three hour journey – standing ticket, obviously – to the mountain, dodging drunken marriage proposals in the waiting room. Arrived at a desolate car park in the wee small hours to hijack a taxi with a couple of other obvious hikers on the way to the cable car station. Alas, it was raining and the cable car was not running. Fiddlesticks! Seeing sunrise from the summit was scythed from the agenda.
I was told that when the rain had passed in a few hours, all would be back to normal. All that remained was to bunk down. Was deposited at a hotel near the cable car where, it being a hotel, I expected to be able to wait it out with a coffee in the lobby. ‘No!’ shrieked the young thing on the reception desk, evidently pissed that she had to do the night shift. This is a popular mountain. People climb it through the night throughout the year. I refuse to believe that I’m the first tourist that was diverted by rain and needed somewhere to linger for three hours. Why not flog me two or three overpriced coffees and a slice of carrot cake? I naturally staged a stand-in (she wouldn’t let me sit) in the knowledge that there were no coffee shops in the vicinity, but there is only so much huffy screeching that you can take at 5am. Reluctantly wound up in a dingy room with two Chinese strangers watching Korean soap operas.
Alas, I was on a time budget to get back to the city by late morning and purchase the onwards ticket to Pingyao, which I was assured I could get at the bus station on the morning – no later – of the day of travel (can you see where this is going yet…?). By the time I made it to the mountain and up the first little section it was looking hopelessly tight. I had a train booked from Beijing in a week’s time and visas to line up in the meantime so didn’t have much flex in the schedule. Regrettably turned back to town in search of a bus. Found one with relative ease, complete with English-speaking Taoist monk to keep me company on the journey.
He told me how happy he is as a Taoist monk, soaking up the richest natural environments in his prayer but also cited some conspiracy theories. Convinced of the corrupt practices of the government, he believes that the pricey mountain entry has more to do with pocket-lining than it does of maintenance. I’m glad he said that cos I didn’t want to say it, but 18 quid is frightfully expensive when a) it’s a holy site and b) you do all the hard work yourself. He sadly pointed out that it often puts it beyond the reach of students who come to climb, see the price and then just mince around the bottom for a day looking mournfully upwards.
Got back to town, got to the bus station – no tickets to Pingyao today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day. ‘You could take this bus’, the girl told me, ‘it drops you at the nearby highway though, not the bus station.’ Well, we all know that’s nothing new for me. ‘Ok!’ ‘Ah, but there are no tickets today. Or tomorrow.’
‘You could take a bus to another city nearby and see if they have a bus from there,’ she suggested. ‘Ok!’ I said, snatching at any means possible; ‘how far away does it drop me?’ ‘About 6 hours.’ ‘How far does it even go from here?’ ‘About four hours.’ That is a retarded suggestion, especially given the difficulty, nay impossibility, of getting a ticket on the hoof. Little tease.
Summary: Stuck in Xi’an; mountain unconquered; day that could have been spent in conquering it squandered. Rrrrrrage. That’s life though, so I set about arranging another attempt at sunrise on the mountain. Long story short, another catalogue of disasters eventually put the plan to bed. Sometimes you’ve just got to accept that things just aren’t meant to be. I like to think that it was the Taoist powers that be telling me: ‘it’s a bit slippy’.
Instead, a night bus to Beijingers. Much MUCH nicer than the last one.
Chapter 6: Beijing
There are not 9 million bicycles in Beijing. That’s a fact. But there is an efficient network of buses, metros and taxis to whisk you around. Bicycles have steadily been disappearing and it grows harder for pedestrians to get across the congested, fast-moving streets. China is criss-crossed with pedestrian crossings but I don’t know why they bother: buses sail through junctions when the green man is showing and not a single vehicle stops for zebra crossings. The electric scooters that are all the rage are a menace, cos on top of them not obeying any traffic rules, they’re silent and stealthy too.
The city is big and modern and forward-facing. The buildings are big and glittery. the people are cosmopolitan though the fashion isn’t a patch on Korea – you won’t be lusting after a chinese wardrobe unless you’re a lady of the night. Or Russian.
Checked into the Kings Joy Hostel in Qingan. I didn’t love it on first impression, on account of its size and relative sterility, plus the fact that I took the check-in staff by surprise on arriving at reception with a backpack and booking, wanting to, erm, check in. But a few beers with new friends in the rooftop bar overlooking the main tourist sights and it grew on me. Quirky it ain’t, but it offers everything backpackers could reasonably want, within striking distance of Tianan’men Square – my favourite place in the whole city – at a bargainous price. Check it out at the sunset flag lowering ceremony.
Marvellous. And especially marvellous to finally be in the spot that I’d read about in Katie Adie’s prosaic but fascinating (oxymoron, I know; read it and you’ll understand) book, The Kindness of Strangers. Squares across the world, from Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kiev to Tahrir in Cairo, inspire revolutionary gatherings. She was there for the 1989 revolution when the proverbial hit the fan and dashed through the cross-fire on the square to get a report to the satellite, past the Chinese censors and to the world. The man running in front of her was shot and killed; she herself suffered a gunshot wound to the elbow. I mean, he got the rough end of the stick, but still.
Today, although the Chinese censors remain on high alert, Tianan’men is a peaceful and buzzing hub in the Chinese capital. I made sure I came here at least once a day and got a kick out of seeing the Chinese families obviously enjoying their first trip to the Big Smoke. It evoked fond memories of our first outing to London as nippers, awestruck at Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Beefeaters. These families with excitable children roam around taking photographs from every angle and collaring the whiteys as additional props wherever possible. For several mornings each week, you’ll see a queue snaking up and through Chairman Mao’s mausoleum as the curious go to see the man mummified and displayed in a crystal coffin. Each morning and evening there is a flag-raising and lowering formality, where a legion of fresh-out-of-nappies conscripts march in to do their ceremonial duty watched by a crowd of camera-wielding tourists. Being conscripts, they’re not especially passionate about professionalism so great at posing for pics. And at the moment, there’s the bonus prop of a giant communism logo as China celebrates 90 years of ‘communism’. Come on China. This isn’t Communism. It’s not even especially left-wing. Pure, unbridled, consumerist capitalism.
Beijing is rammed with people at all times so, against my better judgement, I gamely decided to head for the Forbidden City one Sunday morning. Mistake. Got there are 10am to see the most enormous throng queuing for tickets and swiftly abandoned the plan in favour of a promenade through the neighbouring park. Admired the Emperor’s rock collection (??), scoffed at the Etiquette Pavilion and saw a very weird show of soldiers wheeling through, singing a song at full volume and marching off again, but it’s a glorious park regardless. Returning to the Palace after a walk and bowl of Beijing noodles, I found the queues had much abated so skipped in for a looksee.
For those who don’t know, it’s called the Forbidden City cos the old Emperors, in a fit of Wizard of Oz mystery, quite simply didn’t let anyone through the doors. Tried to avoid the main crowds by sticking to the left-hand wall but, well, the crowds go down the middle for a reason. It’s where all the good shit is, like the Hall of Supreme Harmony. I know I’m going to sound like a Philistine in saying this, but, well, it’s all a bit samey. Once you’ve seen one old Hall of Condolences which – shocker – the concubines and an Empress used to live in, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Show me a room that didn’t once house concubines; the Emperors were randy. Impressively big, graceful architecture all the same and a nice garden. My favourite facts:
- the big old big of carving made from one giant, 250 ton piece of marble was moved here from its origin 70km away by sprinkling the roads with water in winter and sliding the monolith along the ice. Clever.
- the big bronze pots you find all through the palace were kept filled with water and acted as some of the world’s earliest fire extinguishers.
One of the other ‘must see’s on the China checklist is the Great Wall. There are a number of points at which you can clamber up and see the defensive (ineffectually – it’s like the Monster Raving Loonies’ defence policy but on a grander scale) structure in all its majesty. Some bits have been restored, some are still crumbling, some have zipwire exits coming from them, others have toboggan runs. Really authentic. I’d heard from some travellers about a stretch in a small village, reachable by a couple of buses, where they charge just 2yuan to go have a look and you have it to yourself. It seemed a bit too much like hard work to reach this spot in the space of a morning so me and my new friend Sven-Erik went for Mutianyu, allegedly a middle ground between utter seclusion and the circus that is Badaling.
Got up at 5am and headed for the bus station where I had read that you can catch a couple of different bus combinations to the start. Wandering around looking for the stop, a lady scooped us up and, on learning that we were on our way to Mutianyu, told us that we could take a different bus and jump a taxi for the short hop at the other end. Fucking liar. It drops you at a Miyun, more than 30km away from the Wall. Far enough that none of the locals knew where to take us, when asked. Grouchy from an early start and endless misinformation, I was not a happy camper, to mellow Sven’s amusement. Wandered aimless towards what looked like life in search of another bus or taxi.
Happily, faith in humankind was restored by a lovely English student with her teacher on speed dial who together negotiated a price and popped us in a taxi.
Arrived just before 9am to tackle the short climb up to the Wall, shrouded in mist. It is a pretty great wall. Y’know, for a wall. Tourists to China are required by law to have their photo taken next to it so had to be done. We went against the grain and hung a right which meant we had the Wall pretty much to ourselves for an hour of dicking around taking hundreds of photos as soon as the cloud lifted.
A few hours later and back down at the bottom, I made investigations about timings for the next bus back to town (about 2 and a half hours on a good run). Not until 2pm, still two hours away. Arse. Had to pick my passport up from the Mongolians between 4 and 5pm in order to be able to catch my 7am train to Ulaanbaatur the next day. Screw waiting. Blagged my way onto a privately-hired tour bus with a Chinese-Taiwanese-American group who were in town making a holiday of a recent family wedding. Hoorah! Passed the time on the journey back talking about neuroscience and furniture importing and were dropped within a couple of Metro stops of the Embassy. What nice folks.
I’m never very good at goodbyes, especially travelling when you know that you probably won’t ever see those people again. It’s all too tempting to try and hold on to every connection that you make, however fleeting, but that’s impossible. Mostly you need to accept the fluidity. As Lester put it in American Beauty: “Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember, to relax, and not try to hold onto it all. And then it flow through me like rain.” Bleurgh! But I like it. Chills me out when the travels hit sensory overload.
The impression you leaves a country with depends very much on the experience that you have within it, which in turn is enormously subjective. It depends on how a billion variables have played out. For me, the jury is still out on China. I could see in it frustrations that at times drove me to distraction in Dubai and I don’t like the sort of person that makes me. (Read – grumpy, short-tempered.)
1.3 billion people taking their summer holidays does not make for an easy place to move around, especially for a last-minute, haphazard backpacker like myself (though nor is Europe at this timeof year) and the sheer difficulty of doing anything made me cranky. There, I said it. The spitting is rank; the table noises are hard for my English sensitivities to bear; I found it hard to connect with many (not all) Chinese people in a way that was more than simply a language barrier. Many just don’t want to communicate with you. I’m sure they see more than enough dumb tourists and have got their own stuff to be getting on with.
My reserves of patience ran low at points: I disappoint myself if I don’t handle annoying situations with good humour and pragmatism. But by the same token, I met some beautiful, genuine and heart-warmingly helpful people. The place is suffused with history, the scenery is beautiful, the food is delicious, the mountains are marvellous, the beer is good, it is enormously varied.. Swings and roundabouts. For once I was happy to leave, but as usual, I’m sure I’ll be back. Just not in the summer holidays.
Ubiquity stakes – Crocs, mucus