China Golden Route 10 DAYS
part 1: beijing | part 2: xi'an | part 3: shanghai | extras
D6 | Nov-8 (Thu): Xi'an (B/L/D)
Arrive in Xi'an in the morning. Eastern terminus of the fabled Silk Road and one of the ancient capitals of China, Xi'an is home to the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses. Designed to follow the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) into eternity, the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum located about 30km east of the city represents one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the 20th Century in the world. Visit an Art Ceramics Factory followed by a special Imperial Dumpling Banquet and spectacular music and dance show reminiscent of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), a period generally considered a golden era of the Chinese civilization.
i'm the last to bed & the first up, but i sleep decently on the train for about six hours. this sleep is interrupted by only a mild heart attack when joe returns from the restroom & accidentally grabs my leg to climb to the top bunk. thanks, pal.
we unload from the train early - too early for the hotel to accept us, but also, & more importantly, too early for the bus to pick us up. we're wrangled to the only breakfast spot that can accommodate us with our luggage - a fucking KFC. this is a horrible waste of a meal in my opinion, but i understand & grudgingly accept a "chick sandwich" over a "hamburg", & "soybean juice" instead of coffee. the sandwich is repulsive, oily & over-fried, but it's full of peas, carrots, & corn, so that's weird at best. i eat half of the bottom bun & the middle of the patty. the soymilk isn't terrible, served hot, but half a cup still makes my stomach unhappy & i give up on it.
our new local guide introduces himself as howard, but his real name is dai fei. he says we had to be careful of the pronunciation of his name, as "mandarin is a sophisticated language" - different inflections turn his name, which means "flying", into "strength", "gossip", or "bullshit". (for the last one, pronounce it "fay" & say it angrily & quickly.) for our convenience, he chose howard after a sports star, but we can call him fei if it's said happily & with a smile.
we drive past a park with a bunch of people using full-on bullwhips to spin tops, & arrive at the shanxi provincial historical museum. (today's itinerary is half tomorrow's.) they have some terra cotta warriors on display, but we're going to the real site tomorrow. we also see some gold plating done via mercury, still shiny hundreds of years later. a woman working in the gift shop tells me i have "special hair". joe notices nearly all the paintings of horses for sale are running to the left, & he jokes that they all have important business over there. only one painting is going right, & he was obviously the only horse to finish all his chores.
we visit an amazing buddhist temple off-itinerary; fei explains that he went here weekly with his parents. the carvings & sculptures are amazing. an old man follows me & repeatedly asks in mandarin where we're from until someone finally translates; i answer "america" & he finds this HILARIOUS. we have a calligraphy demonstration & i get to see the ancient & current characters for horse. the guide says that "all chinese people like horse", & it means success & prosperity. there's a papa john's & a pizza hut both in direct line of the temple, which is understandably "very controversial".
lunch is mediocre except for the moon cakes! omg, yum. we try bites of one with red bean paste & another with some kind of nut meal, & they make lunch worthwhile. the restaurant also has a beautiful bathroom. it's of note that restrooms here are not what we're used to in the states. there are usually some western toilets around, but many stalls have squatting toilets - what looks like a toilet seat but flat on the ground, textured a bit for shoes. (i declined to photograph any, but you can google image "chinese squatting toilet".) due to the length of my dreadlocks, i wasn't interested in trying it - i have enough to balance above a regular bowl. some toilets have two flush buttons, one in a crescent moon shape & the other filling it to round, which is a good way to save water. restrooms are also not consistently stocked with toilet paper - some nicer ones have paper in the stalls, but others have either a communal roll outside of the stalls or no paper at all, & it's up to the individual to bring their own. though china invented paper, they're surprisingly stingy with it - napkins also cannot be counted on at restaurants, & when there are napkins, they're small & thin & rough, like half of a tough tissue.
we go to the xi'an city wall next & see the big wild goose pagoda before checking in at the opulent titan times hotel. our room has a sitting area & an enormous bathroom with a tub, glass shower stall, & a large window into the main rooms. i can lay on the bed & watch joe take a shower... why don't we have this at home? there's wired internet in each hotel room & usually wifi in the main lobby; i sneak the better wifi password from another tour group & share it out to my group. i'm finding nowhere in china really lets you use google; yahoo is much more reliable. (google images works fine though? got me.) we're given a couple of hours to relax after last night's train ride, & i use it to watch a bit of tv while joe naps. weirdly, a lot of this week's shows mention china, including south park (which usually veers japanese iirc).
the restaurant has a huge sculptured wall outside, & our dumpling banquet dinner is likely my favorite meal of the trip. these dumplings are firm-skinned, not like the ones jakson took us to on day four. many of the dumplings are shaped to look like what's in them - fish, pig, cabbage, duck. the fish dumpling has peas for eyes, & joe thinks it looks more like a chestburster. No Pork has to ask about every dumpling, & it's not an easy task - she's often told things like, "no pork! just ham." this is hilarious but less than helpful. the tang dynasty show is pretty good, though joe & i agree we would've liked it more had we not already been completely wowed by the acrobatic show. (the cost of the meal & show is normally 360¥ each. surprisingly reasonable!)
after dinner, joe wants to walk all 15.97 miles of xi'an's city wall, but bails in favor of snkkzzzzzzzz. i stay up to catch up on email. the bed here is slightly better than jade palace's; it's still hard & unpleasant for bony little me, but at least i don't have to stack pillows.
D7 | Nov-9 (Fri): Xi'an - Shanghai (B/L/D) FM9206 @ 2100/2300
Visit the Shanxi Provincial Historical Museum in the morning. Enjoy a special local noodle lunch and noodle making demonstration. After lunch visit the Ancient City Wall which is not only the most complete city wall that has survived in China, but also one of the largest and most complete ancient military defense systems in the world. Then visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the symbol of the city. It is said to have been built to house and protect Buddhist scriptures collected by the Chinese monk, Xuan Zang, the key figure in the classical Chinese novel, "Journey to the West". Fly to Shanghai in the evening, the modern metropolis and commercial center of China.
breakfast is AWESOME, with lots of eastern choices. joe, my little stage 6 goth, has some black gruel & stirs into it all the black dried fruits & veggies on offer; i try the red bean porridge & a ton of different steamed & broiled vegetables, some i don't even recognize. a whole quarter of the buffet is pastries with dragonfruit, dried kiwi, jujubes, mango, et cetera. there's a thin mango juice too, unlike the thicker stuff i've had in the states. i take the tiniest clementine & unthinkingly peel it like a tiger lily. I AM BEING AFFECTED.
fei tells us about marriage in china, that people need to collect three objects before they can be wed. "you can be married without them, but all your friends will laugh at you." in the 70s, these were a watch, a sewing machine, & a bicycle; the 90s required a television, refrigerator, & washing machine; & now it's cash, a car, & a house. fei talks about the going rate for homes in china, & jokes that "china" stands for Cheap House Is Not Available.
on the way to the terra cotta warriors & horses site, fei tells us about emperor qin shi huang di, whose enormous tomb the warriors protect. it's still closed today for three main reasons: first, it's booby trapped, "like indiana jones". second, there is a fucking RIVER & LAKE of MERCURY flowing in there, modeled after the local area's actual rivers; it's so poisonous it can even be detected outside of the tomb. & third, even if we could contain the mercury, allowing oxygen & sunlight into the tomb would still destroy the paint & other relics within - the multicolored & realistic paint on the terra cotta warriors degraded to nothing inside thirty minutes from when they were first unearthed. & by the way, 400 untouched concubines were also buried alive when emperor qin bit it, so that's grand.
before going to the site, we visit the art ceramics factory where they make terra cotta warriors & horses with traditional methods & materials, as well as oldschool lacquer furniture. there's a headless warrior photo-op out front, & i get the best pic of joe ever. you can buy your own warrior or horse there, in full scale all the way down to pocket-sized, & they'll even mold & put your head on a warrior if you have the dosh. they're all made of a special clay that comes from the area, & when cured/baked properly, it's much stronger than typical clay & sounds like metal when flicked.
people here LOVE us & are polite about asking for pictures. one local man asks where in the US we're from; when i answer, he says a famous movie is from there. i nod, "sleepless in seattle", & give him a thumbs down. he laughs & nods back. his wife comes over & wants to know if my dreads are real or extensions - this becomes a very common question in xi'an. she is granted a photo of joe & me (i'm backwards, of course). the barista at the little coffee bar keeps staring at me, & she bursts into blushy giggles when caught & sends her friend over to ask me questions. i invite her to come over & touch, but she's far too shy.
in the front of the factory, an elderly chinese woman is selling beads & knickknacks. she sees me looking at a jade pendant with a horse carved into it, & holds a flashlight behind it to show me it's real. she says it's sixty years old, very unusual, & she'd like just 1500¥. i like it but not enough to buy it, & i respectfully say no. instead of the usual hard sell we've been getting, she says quietly, "i would still like to make the sale," & offers 1000¥. it's heartbreaking to say no again, but i wasn't trying to bargain.
on to the terra cotta warriors museum. each warrior is modeled after a real soldier who lived 2200 years ago. the pits are massive & they haven't even opened everything yet - many sites are left closed in the hope that technology will progress enough to open them & preserve the paint, wooden weapons, & other aspects that haven't held up the way the warriors themselves have. we're told there's a service where you can scan in your face & it'll locate a soldier that looks like you. there's a poster on the wall of some soldiers who look like current famous chinese people, which is creepy & awesome.
lunch at the museum has a decent buffet with a duck egg salad, braised meat, citrus-soaked asian pear, & something listed as "peanuts" that are larger & darker than the legume we're used to. they're less crunchy but do taste reasonably peanutty, & i think they're great. we finally brave the lines to see the two kinds of noodles being made. the first is quickly carved off a huge block held against the chest, kind of like a vegetable peeler would, & makes wide noodles. the other is stretched & folded like taffy; once the gluten has formed, it's then smacked into flour while being worked as before, which turns it into spaghetti-sized strands. Picky doesn't seem to like or want to try much, but New York is happy - except with the braised meat. as a chef, he says he's butchered tons of animals, & no animal he's served has two small bones next to each other like this. he insists it's dog. i insist it's delicious & that he's ridiculous. (thinking back, it was probably goat - we saw enough of them on the side of the road!)
we spend more time visiting the other areas of the museum. i photograph joe posed as various warriors, & he shoots me pretending to climb onto a terra cotta horse. we're then treated to a tea ceremony where we get to taste the lychee black tea (lovely), an xi tie guan yin (like orchids & fresh grass), & dragon well tea (tastes vaguely of roasted hazelnuts, but is mildly stinky; it's an acquired taste which is prized in china). the tasting is free, but Deal-Seeker also buys a full cup of tea, & the staff will add more hot water to her tea leaves as many times as she likes. she tries to get them to bring more cups to share her leaves; though she speaks mandarin fluently, they do not oblige.
walking back to the bus, New York buys two yellow pomegranates off a farmer woman on the street for 10¥. kindly, he does not barter with her. joe buys one off him & i'm excited to see if it tastes different, but we promptly forget about it when New York & Picky share their dried tomatoes & dates with us on the bus. i don't know how these tomatoes are made, but they're chewy & sweet like dried apricots, not at all like the sundried tomatoes we're familiar with. (the pomegranate is eventually taken away by airport security, unopened.)
the next stop is the xi'an airport. we drop off Sniffles for her 7pm flight, nearly two hours before the rest of us leave. i don't know why her travel agent booked her differently from everyone else, but we'll soon find out she's the lucky one.
dinner is at the airport, but is better than that sounds: two kinds of duck, a cold bean dish, green beans with szechuan peppers (instant group favorite), warmed winter melon, & a sweet egg soup. White Ponytail gives me a card with his & Adopted Grandma's email addresses, & tells us to keep in touch, that they'd be thinking of us. awww. on the walk to the ticket counter, we pass something awesome: sleep boxes! holy crap, why aren't these in the states?! while tina & fei confer with the ticket agents, we shuffle around the weight in our luggage, as domestic china flights have maximum weight limits for checked & carry-on baggage, & no one wants to pay extra fees.
it feels like we're waiting a little too long... & the news starts to funnel back that our flight to shanghai has been canceled. since this is now tina's problem & not ours, per se, we're all still chipper & start making jokes about how "we didn't get shanghai'd, we got xi'an'd!" (xi'an, you see, sounds enough like "shit on" for these purposes.) we go to find chairs, & sit within close range of a dunkin' donuts. they're a childhood favorite that i ironically can't get at home, so i buy the last blueberry-filled for 7.50¥.
time passes & i work on my write-up. tina comes over at 9:30pm & lets us know that the airport is bussing us to their hotel for a few hours. our replacement flight may be as early as 11:30pm, but is currently two hours away in shanghai & hasn't left yet. we board a less luxurious bus than we've grown accustomed to, & take a "five minute drive" to the hotel airport that takes forty-five minutes. joe & i nap in our motel-6-quality room until we're called to the lobby around midnight thirty. everyone has adorable bedhead.
we get back to the airport for the rescheduled flight boarding at 2am & go quickly through to the gate. china's security is fine, & far less psycho than the US has become - i don't have to remove my shoes & am quickly hand-wanded through. tina tells us that we'll get some money back as we board, & indeed i see them handing out 100¥ bills; turns out we're each handed 400¥! i'm stoked, as that'll pay for more than half of my tattoo. my ticket puts me several rows away from joe, but i'm able to swap my window seat for the aisle seat next to him. i eventually get the window seat anyhow, as the seating becomes 'open'. we're fed a meal decidedly odder than delta's fare, & i can't recognize some of it, like the shrink-wrapped crunchy yellow plant matter. i don't need the calories, but i eat part of it to help stay awake. we land in shanghai at nearly 5am.