A Step Back in Time

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Where I stayed
ShaanxiWenyun Hotel
What I did
Forest of Stone Steles Museum Xi'an
Read my review - 3/5 stars
Huaqing Hot Springs Xi'an
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of China  , Shaanxi,
Monday, January 2, 2012

As the weather in China began to chill and my last semester of college was beginning to wind down, our trip to Xi'an finally began. Xi'an is one of those places that are semi-well known all over the world. If you can't recall the city you may very well be able to identify why the city has become famous to the outside world in the past few decades.

To give a brief backdrop, Xi'an is the ancient capital of many Chinese dynasties and therefore was a main destination along the Silk Trail in ancient times. This in turn lead to Xi’an being quite a culturally diverse city as Muslims, Christians and Buddhists alike traded and often times took up residence in Xi’an.

Xi’an is one of the last of the large Chinese cities to retain its traditional city wall. The Great Wall of China (长城 ) is a lavish extension of the city wall idea. Throughout Chinese history (along with most other histories) warfare was rampant and to protect the major population centers it was common practice to create a city wall to ward off possible unfriendly neighbors.

The Great Wall was a similar aspiration attempting to protect the population center of interior China from unfriendly folk, namely the Mongols. Xi’an is also the epicenter of many ancient stories and even current television shows about China’s history. Chinese television is currently full of dramatic period-piece stories centered on the intrigue of royalty and their daily doings (especially romance).

Anyways, I didn’t know much about Xi’an when I started my journey and still really don’t. But this is my trip and these are the details.

From my home city of Chengdu it’s a 447 mile trip. Most of my classmates and I opted for the 18 hour train ride; as trains are quite a bit cheaper than flying. From my experience, traveling by train in China has created a totally different feel for traveling as the "journey" actually has more substance than spending an hour or two in the air.

As a Western person traveling in China you must get used to being the target of frequent stares. In China, staring doesn’t seem to have a negative connotation as it does in the U.S. People are genuinely interested to observe your looks and behavior as they don’t often have up-close experience with foreigners.

You can also engage in staring of your own. But I’m thinking about gazing out the broad windows into the Chinese countryside. Getting lost in the views of lush hillsides and weaving waterways. Glancing at farmers in their fields and just taking in the vastness of the Chinese landscape.

On Chinese trains there are many ways to travel. I’m speaking in terms of how comfortable you want to be. A “Hard-seat” ($17) ticket is one of the cheaper ways to go (besides the seldom offered “standing” ticket). It’s a medium-sized seat in the general area of the train car. Personally I found this to be a terrible way to travel on rides longer than a couple hours. I survived a marathon 20 hour train ride on one of these seats on the way to Kunming (more on that in a future entry!).

Most students opted for the “Hard-sleeper” option. This is still a semi-cheap option ($32) it’s a narrow fold out bed in a separate car which houses 6 beds per enclave with three per size. The advantage is that you have a bed. The disadvantage is that you rarely will be able to fill 6 beds with friends so it’s not always easy to sleep two feet from strangers, also the lights in the Hard-Sleeper car go out at 10 pm. It can be loud as well as you have no door and people are constantly talking and walking past.

I (and one other student) opted for the “soft-sleeper” ($44). The bed is a bit wider, there are only four beds per room, you have a door to close for privacy and sound, each bed has a light if you want to stay up and read, it’s just a much more comfortable way to travel.

I was able to get some reading done. Finished The Hobbit and practiced a few Chinese phrases.
We arrived in Xi’an in the early afternoon. Our program assistant “Jack” was technically in charge of getting us to our hotel. Immediately he seemed a bit daunted by the task of finding us transportation from the train-station.

I was trying to be patient and wait for him to figure out what he was doing, even though I knew I could get a cab to the hotel easily and quickly. After about 15 minutes I told Jack that I, along with a few other students would get to the hotel ourselves. This actually brings up a very important dynamic that I wanted to discuss. Whenever you travel in a big group things are more-likely to be slow and annoying.
Because you can’t do anything until all of the people in your group are ready. I found this to be a frustrating aspect of study-abroad programs. For the most part you are forced into artificial friendships with people merely because they paid to be in the same program as you.

Even more troublesome are certain personalities inherent in college undergrad students and more pronounced in study-abroad students. Many of the students always want to have a say in everything that is done. No restaurant is ever good enough, no taxi ride is ever cheap enough, nothing is ever the perfection that these students wished for.

These students also tend to cluster together and complain to each other about the trivialities of the trip. The best thing a true traveler/explorer can do is to shy away from “the group” as much as possible; hence several of us taking off on our own to relieve Jack from having to arrange travel for so many people.

So Melody, Taalan and I walk down the street looking for a taxi. I quickly spot a hotel across the street. We run across as hotels are excellent places to catch taxis. We have good luck as a taxi is unloading some guests and we hop in. I show the driver the hotel address and confirm that he knows where he’s going.

The fare starts at 6Y ($.90) which is even cheaper than Chengdu. We arrive at the hotel first and check into our rooms. I’m sharing a room with Taalan. We relax for a few hours and then go to dinner with the group.

After dinner we arrive at orientation, as this trip is technically a one unit 400 level course. The teacher goes over her powerpoint presentation. Everyone is either tired or excited. Some of the students were being quite rude as they refused to stop chatting while the professor discussed what our class will entail.

After the class I relaxed in my room for a bit and then fell asleep.

The next day we got up bright and early. Xi’an was already quite cold and the morning air really woke me up as I left the hotel and boarded the bus.

Our first stop was Huaqing Hot Springs( 华清池 ). This was a historic local for geological hot springs. Apparently the Emperor's favorite concubine (Concubine Yang) who was was known to be one of the four historic beauties of China used this place as her personal bathing spa. It is said the mineral water kept her complexion excellent.

It was still early in the morning and the place was CHILLY. We walked around the various hot springs and also a humorous nude statue of Yang. Every Chinese tourist had a fascination with getting a picture grabbing her breasts. I twas pretty funny.

For a small price you could take a cable-car up the nearby mountainside and visit a famous pavillion. The place where the Communists kidnapped the Chinese President shortly after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. He was kidnapped in an attempt to force him to actively fight against the Japanese. It became known from then on as the "Xi'an Incident". I actually didn't go up to the pavilion because I had a pretty good view of it from where I was.

Next a few students as well as my program adviser and her daughter soaked our feet in the Hot Springs for a foot bath. It felt great!

It was then time to move on to the museum of the Terra-Cotta Warriors and Horses (兵马俑). The most-well known archaeology in the world outside of the Egyptian pyramids. This incredible site was found by a few poor farmers and has become a tourist attraction which put Xi'an back on the map.
More than 6,000 unique soldiers carved out of a single piece of material. Life-like horses and fully-operational chariots were created with the help of over 70,000 Chinese at the Emperor's behest. The ultimate funerary practice of bringing his entire army with him to the afterlife!

There was so much to see. Exhibit after exhibit. This museum had the most foreigners present then any place I had visited in China. There were people from all over the world speaking many different languages. As well as people from all over China.

Our next stop was the "Wild Goose Tower" or "Wild Goose Pagoda". A shrined enclosure with a large pagoda at its center. The story goes that there were a group of monks praying one day and that they prayed for a sign from the heavens and a wild goose fell from the air, dead before it hit the group. They took this to hard and dedicated the pagoda to the Goose and became vegetarian. It was an impressive shrine. When we arrived the monks were chanting and walking the courtyard and putting on quite a ritualistic performance. Several visiting Chinese caught the spiritual bug and joined in quite piously!

After we finished at the tower we went to a very good jiaozi banquet. It was basically several courses of boiled dumplings with many different fillings:shrimp, duck, tomato, as well as many others. After the dinner there was a stage to watch a classic Chinese performance with actors, dancers, eastern instruments and lots of beautiful props. The show was dedicated to the Emperor and his favorite concubine. The same concubine from the Hot Springs.

    The woman they had acting as concubine yang was one of the most beautiful girls I've seen in person. She was divine. The show was well done and very interesting! After that long day we were ready to call it a night and proceeded to head back to the hotel to rest.

    In the morning we visited the "Stone Steeles Museum". This was the beginning of what I considered a boring/unimpressive day. We left early on this cold morning to visit an outdoor museum which consisted of preserved stone slabs. Ten feet tall and maybe six feet wide, these ancient stone tablets preserved Chinese sayings and history. That's fabulous for those of us that can read ancient Chinese (not a single person in the group, including the teacher).

They were kind enough to occasionally include captions in simplified Mandarin but those weren't as commonly placed as needs be. Needless to say it was boring to look at stone for several hours which one cannot understand and has to wait in line to have the teacher come and translate your request.

Second we drove about an hour out of town to visit an old-style town. we had a cold lunch which was not to bad and walked around the town. There was too much construction going on and the only thing you could really do was talk to people selling pomegranates and nuts out of baskets.

We proceeded to visit two other boring sites on this day which i don't have the delight to write about and bore you as I didn't feel them worthy of taking pictures.

I did a little shopping when we returned to town and chatted with some local folk before heading to the train station for the long trip back to Chengdu. I recommend a visit to Xi'an, but prepare your trip carefully as some sites aren't that assessable to us intermediate Chinese speakers.

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