open to the air (no doors, not even curtains) with just enough room raise your head to get out of bed and NO more. I forget that most Chinese are indeed a good deal shorter than Westerners, so perhaps this lack of headroom is not an issue for them. For me, it is an exercise in neck agility and yoga madness just to get in and out of bed. I choose the middle bunk, which due to the dizzying height of the top bunk and the depths of the bottom bunk seems appropriate. Once our train gets moving, our eyes, throats, lungs and nostrils scream at us, warning that this is a smoking train - an activity more encouraged than merely allowed. Everyone except the Westerners has the narrow, familiar white tube sticking out of their mouth, smoke curling up from the red burning tips.Not long after this horrid realization that I would be sleeping inside an enclosed smoke filled steel tube, I start to feel what it must be like to be a hapless laboratory animal. The narrow cramped compartment, crowded by humans with barely enough space for their own aura, rapidly filled with noxious cigarette smoke. To complete the experience, the mass of humanity meant our home for the night got progressively warmer and increasingly pungent. After the train got going we figured we could open the windows for some air, but we soon discover to our horror that the rugged, not to be messed with, undoubtedly trained by the People's Liberation Army, railroad officials locked our windows shut. Based on the impenetrable smog in Beijing, we joked this must be for health reasons due to hazardous outdoor air quality.
This lack of fresh air, haze of cigarette smoke, hordes of humans and no air conditioning (what was I thinking?) started to fry my brain. Adding heat to what was now feeling like some sort of Chinese torture chamber was almost too much to bear. Sensing that this grave situation might unhinge the Westerners, Marcel, the great smiling Dutchman, is out on the platform throwing money at some guy just before the train is scheduled to leave. He taps on the window with great urgency and just before the windows are unlocked, he passes us huge bottles of ice cold beer after beer after beer. Finally, we know how to get through the ordeal ahead. Our grim faces break into huge smiles, being mercifully grateful for the cold, crisp Tsingtao. It doesn't matter that we wouldn't drink this beer in a bar back home if our life depended on it. Right now, it actually does. And right now, it's the best thing on earth. We decide this is the perfect time to get to know more about each other. We share songs and stories, music and raucous laughter. We drank ourselves into a stupor as a strategy, so we could pass out in our shoulder width, six inch depth beds. Once we experienced the story for another day bathrooms, we drank faster and more furiously, which had the curious effect of having to use them more frequently. A perplexing, biological catch 22. We we not capable of handling the conditions without being numbed in some manner, but the numbing caused us to have to experience the very worst of what this economy train had to offer!! Ahhh but the stories, and the looks on our faces after the visit to the Chinese train john. Thank Mary, Joseph and all the Saints for Purel, is all I can say. That and beer, and sharing our horror and laughter became the saviors of our trip. Marcel, you are the almighty God of the Xi'an Train!! Before getting on the train, I went to see China's most famous attraction, The Great Wall. I entered onto it at Mutianyu, in the Huairou district of Beijing, about 20km from the nearest highway. I use that term loosely, as the only real highway is the one leaving the international airport. Making it out of Beijing alive through crazed Chinese traffic feels like a miraculous feat of engineering and navigation in and of itself. It costs 40 yuan to get in, which at about $5 is one of the more expensive tourist attractions. Once we arrive at The Great Wall, we learn that seeing this treasure has another cost:there are at least 800 ridiculously small, steep, at points crumbling stone steps. Since my visit, I've seen reports of 3700 steps, which come to think of it from the stinging feeling in my quadriceps, feels much more accurate. However, once legs and lungs cooperate to bring you to the Wall's entry, this world wonder is absolutely awesome.This part of the Wall was rebuilt under the command of General Xuda, who served the Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang in the early Ming Dynasty (14th century). It was renovating ruins of the Wall from the North-Qi Dynasty. The weather was again a very cloudy mix of fog, haze and smog so while we had very good views of the surrounding mountains, our photographs cannot reflect the stunning sight. Even so, this portion of the Wall is so wondrous and well preserved, weather doesn't really matter. We learn that at one point in its construction, fully 70% of all Chinese men were involved with work building the Wall. What I found unbelievable was that if a person was born into a family with a criminal sentence and that was not fulfilled upon their death, you, the criminal's innocent offspring could be forced to finish the sentence of their father or family member and their entire life might be spent working to build the wall. Looking at the Wall and walking on its cobblestones was an remarkable experience, to feel its history underneath me as I walk. In places the pathways lean at about a 45 degree angle. Though initially built for an emperor's fancy for protection from Mongol invaders, it never served its intended military purpose and instead served more as an ancient highway to transport goods and services from one town to another along its 4000 mile, meandering route through the mountains. However, the road between the wall towers is so steep, with many many steps and vertical grades along the way, transport must have been backbreaking. As I walked the Wall, I thought about the laborers who laid these stones and the people who must have traveled along its corridors. It is not merely a marvel of engineering, but a tremendous bridge to the past. It is a true world treasure. Upon getting back to Beijing after another tremendous day, I went to the Chaoyang Theatre in Beijing to see the famous Chinese acrobats. These are the 12 - 23 year old young people with almost inhuman talent. These kids have unbelievable balance, eery flexibility and can contort their slender bodies in ways that hurt to watch, yet are absolutely mesmerizing. They also balance 15 people on moving bicycles, do phenomenal plate spinning, gymnastic feats and stand on top of one another with balls, planks and other props. These are the scouting grounds for Cirque de Soleil, and sheer magic to watch. The artists are hand picked by government officials to represent China to the world when they are only young children. See videos for yourself at their website, http://www.bjcyjc.com/en/index.aspx After the long train ride to Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, we go on the perpetual quest for food. After being in China now for almost two weeks, I am weary of noodles morning, noon and night. I am desperate for some bread!! Xi'an is a large city of almost 3 million, and we are warned that it is also famous for pickpockets. It has a fantastic street market with merchants selling everything from jewelry, embroidered fabrics and other trinkets to dried fruits. It is here that I discover my love for dried mangos. Cheap, travel worthy and delicious, I buy a huge bag and keep it with me for the long bus rides. I still need dinner, so I coopt two travel buddies because on the way into the city I spotted a Pizza Hut. I know what you're thinking, all the way in China and she wants pizza? But until you know the pangs of hunger and the need for cheese and bread, I can't begin to explain my salivating and desire when I saw that sign. It was the best damn Pizza Hut pizza I have ever had in my life!!! They must send these waiters to PH University, because the place was spotlessly clean - not something I experienced a lot in China - extremely courteous, a norm, and the food was fantastic. My stomach was so delighted, I was ready to go back on my Chinese diet for the next several weeks. I discovered that every once in a while, having a taste of home, if it was truly a taste of home and not a tragic food mistake, was a godsend, giving me the energy to continue on my exotic ways. Xi'an itself is a bustling city, with an ancient Ming Dynasty wall surrounding the old city, a Muslim Market and an old Drum Tower. http://www.chinavista.com/travel/info/shaanxi/enxi'an.html Again, the haze and pollution make it difficult to get a real feel for the place, other than dingy, dirty and pollution filled, but I enjoy walking around the Muslim market area and seeing the restaurant owners cook their food right on the sidewalks. The aromas of the streets are strong, but it is a colorful place and I buy some trinkets and wish now I bought a silk robe like the rest of the girls. I made the decision to travel light, and so it goes. I enjoy looking at the gorgeous, flowing colors of silk and the hand stitched embroidery. I then travel by bus to the fields outside the city. I view the newly renovated (in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics) Museum of Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shihuang, discovered by a farmer in 1974 while digging a well. Archeologists believe there are over 6,000 of these life size, hand painted warriors made from pottery that are over 2,000 years old. Again, these were commissioned by emperor Qin Shihuang to protect and accompany him in his tomb. I can only say this site was fantastic. Everything I see in China so far seems to fit one description: massive. The site for Pit 1 is the size of an airplane hangar. These fragile soldiers all have distinct facial expressions and were painstakingly put together from the broken clay by archeologists piece by piece. It is a fantastic showcase of the richness of ancient Chinese art and culture, and one of China's greatest treasures. The grounds have all been renovated in a thoroughly contemporary museum style in anticipation of the upcoming Olympics. Yes, very good bathrooms here!! When I can I will post photos of all of the above but right now I'm in a casino style internet cafe where I can't do that, and that is an entire story itself. http://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/shaanxi/xian/terra_cotta_army/
I've connected with 11 fellow travelers from the UK, Canada, Australia and Japan to go the 15 hours south to Xi'an, home of the 8th wonder of the world, the Terra Cotta Warriors. But first, let me tell you about the Great Wall and the 15 hour train ride. The overnight train ride and the insanely busy Beijing train station are some of the best examples of everyday life in China.There must have been a million people in Beijing's central train station. This is not any exaggeration, remember this is China, with a population of 1.3 billion, most of whom live in bustling urban centers. Just getting the tickets, waiting for the train and following the hordes of train goers was like nothing else except exiting a a huge event like the Inaugural, or the Fourth of July on the National Mall, except that here the humans were walking simultaneously in a seriously confined space. An army of ants and flocks of sheep also come to mind. Luckily Marcel, my tall Dutch friend, became our herder because he and his leather Australian cowboy hat stood out above the massive crowd, giving me a clear lead to follow through the wave of humanity. Even being Western, standing out like a New Yorker in a redneck bar didn't really help if I were to get lost in this sea of people. All I could see were heads in front of me, bobbing, moving up what must be stairs and round corners, behind gates onto what I hope is the right platform. This is one of many moments where I just have to trust I'm heading in the right direction. Relieved, I finally arrive with my pack, all my gear and myself to the train going to Xi'an. Our 6 bed train compartment was to the left as you walk through the train. Narrow bunks opened perpendicular to the sides of the train, 3 on each side