Worth the trouble
Trip Start Sep 15, 2007
20Trip End Dec 15, 2007
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Where I stayed
i managed to rejoin lauren, ellen,and char in xi'an...we had discovered that we were planning on being there around the same time and exchanged mobile numbers in datong. we all ended up staying at the shuyuan hostel in xi'an, probably the busiest one i've been in so far, but thankfully also very pleasant. i get the impression that xi'an is one of the most visited cities in china...i guess maybe because of the terracotta warriors, a statue army built over 2000 years ago to guard the tomb of emperor qin shi huang. the most interesting explanation i've read about why they were built is that the emperor believed that he would rule in the afterlife as well, and so had an army built to come along with him. there were about 8000 statues built and around 2000 have been recovered and/or pieced back together since a farmer discovered the tomb digging a well in 1974. so of course i went to see them...i signed up for a tour through the hostel. i've decided that if the price is reasonable and the site that i want to visit is difficult to get to i'm willing to pay a bit extra to be driven there from the hostel door. i'm not sure what i was expecting really...but i ended up being a bit underwhelmed by it all. it was pissing rain all day, and the tour was obviously subsidized by having us stop at 'factories' in case we wanted to buy a set of reproduction terracotta warriors of our very own...neither of which helped perhaps. also, it's possible that in my mind i envisioned a gloomy cavern lit with flickering torches on the wall, the terracotta statues slowly emerging from the darkness as i entered. such flighty fantasies make it harder to be awed by a hockey rink packed full of tourists all taking pictures of lines of statues that have been clinically cleaned and laid out. i mean, it was impressive, strictly speaking. just not 'blow my mind' impressive. although i'll admit to being somewhat surprised by the realization that every face of every statue is uniquely carved.
other activities in xi'an included cycling around the old city walls with the women from chicago...a 14 km circuit that took us about an hour and a half. we also explored the muslim quarter with some other hostelers (although the great mosque was closed...which is too bad because chinese mosques are a fascinating mix of chinese and islamlic architecture...the chinese muslim community is much larger than i thought it was). to give some idea as to the wonderful way that people flow together and break apart when backpacking: i met lauren, ellen,and char in datong (although we suspect that we might have briefly crossed paths in beijing as well at the far east hostel)...they ran into two english women that they had met in beijing at the hostel in xi'an, rachel and chloe. rachel and chloe have both been traveling for a long time (rachel - 9 months, and chloe - 1 year, although 4 months in there were spent working in laos). rachel and chloe had only met in china a short while before meeting lauren, ellen, and char in beijing. staying in the three bed dorm room with rachel and chloe was another brit named tam (who's from london, although he vaguely resents that fact and sometimes tells people he's from budapest where his parents are from, his accent usually giving him away) who, when he heard of my plans to go to tibet and nepal, was so excited by them he asked if he could come along. so through three levels of randomness, i might now have some company on my trek in nepal! and it all happened so naturally...it's one of the things i love about traveling. i suspect that i'm more open to these types of possibilities now than i was when i traveled in india 6 years ago. i guess i'm just more comfortable with myself at 29 than i was at 23.
since leaving xi'an i've been to the village of guoliang. in the lonely planet it's called guoliangcun, but cun (pronounced 'tsun') just means village...so everyone there called it guoliang. i was nervous about getting there...since my difficulties in getting to and from wudalian chi in the north-east i haven't been anywhere that isn't off the beaten path. after an overnight train from xi'an to xinxiang i still had to take two different local buses to get to guoliang, the second of which might drop me in the village itself...or maybe just at the bottom of a three km long steep winding road. to even find the first bus i had to take a bicycle rickshaw to the bus stop, which turned out to be an unmarked bit of road (as local bus stops often are). it was easily walkable, but i never would have found it without the rickshaw. the first bus i needed to take is a regular bus that runs between xinxiang and the nearby town of huixian. from there i would have to switch to a less regular (2-3 times a day) bus to guoliang. there was a bus already at the stop. i confirmed that it was going to huixian and got on, feeling like everything was going well so far. on the way to huixian the woman who sells tickets on the bus started chattering at me about something...i tried to explain that i couldn't understand her, but to no avail. i assumed that maybe she was trying to tell me that i had missed that first connecting bus and would have to wait 3 or 4 hours before i could get the next bus to guoliang...which i was prepared for anyway. as we were approaching huixian, if not actually in it, the bus pulled over at the side of the road where another bus was parked. i thought that maybe this was the stop that i needed to get off at to switch buses. just as the thought had crossed my mind, a man got of the bus and asked me in half-decent english if i was going to guoliang. when i said yes he motioned for me to get off the bus. i gladly followed, assuming he was being helpful and getting me to the right bus. as i exited i noticed that the bus that had been parked there had left and that the 'helpful' man was standing beside a car into which he was stuffing my bag. he turned to me and said that he'd take me to guoliang for only 20 dollars. i looked around...no buses...i had no idea where i was except for somewhere between xinxiang and huixian, two places i'd never been before in a country where i don't speak the language...a text-book definition of stranded. that the man with the car had opened the 'discussion' with dollars was bad. i explained that i only had yuan...he said no problem...20 dollars or 120 yuan. thankfully he hadn't seen the exchange rates recently because 20 dollars is more like 140 yuan. he explained that he likes to talk in dollars because he worries that the price in yuan sounds high to foreigners...when really it's only 20 dollars, a pittance for folks like me! i half-heartedly tried to get the price down, but he sensed my hesitation and isolation and stuck to 120 yuan...i gave in and agreed. i could see no other way to get to guoliang...and i didn't know how to get back to xinxiang even if i wanted to turn around and go back. as we drove i learned that he had been to colorado and that his daughter was going to college in canada (although i'm not sure if that's true since he only told me that after i said that i was from canada). he drove me straight to guoliang, including up the steep road into the village, so i at least got good service for what i paid...which in the end was about $18. cheap by canadian standards to take a taxi about 25 km. my 'driver' provided me one other service...he explained to the man who owned the guest house where i was staying that i was vegetarian, and so all my meals during my stay were meat free without the usual stress of food related communication.
i had no idea what to expect really...and while the village itself was less than i'd imagined, its setting was absolutely gorgeous. the village is located high on top of sheer cliffs...part of the road up to the village having been carved right into the cliff face in spectacular fashion. set back from the cliffs are more mountains the rise up behind the village...the type of rock resulting in 'karst' scenery, which are those kind of jutting, steeply vertical mountain tops caused by erosion that are often associated with china, although usually further south. the area around guoliang has been turned into a 'geopark' with hiking trails that lead to various geological phenomena of interest, including caves, springs, pools, and viewing stations. i went into one of the caves, called white dragon cave. i had no idea what to expect when i went in. i paid the man who guards the entrance 10 yuan (on top of the 60 that i'd paid to get through the geopark entrance...as usual in china, paying the general fee to enter a park or area doesn't actually get you into any of the sites of interest in that area) and he kindly turned on the lights. it was very big (not so much cavernous as deep) with strange rock formations scattered everywhere and water dripping throughout. i was the only person inside and when a bat started flapping around above me i will admit to feeling a little spooked. for some reason i had thought that i was supposed to exit out the other side of the cave, so when the way before me dead-ended at a pool of water laying in the shadows i wondered if i'd taken a wrong turn somehow. spooked became creeped out. i turned around and made my way back to the entrance, the only entrance as it turns out. i found the trail i was supposed to follow and continued on my way. there are lots of signboards explaining the geology of the region sprinkled along the trails, written in both mandarin and english. i'm not sure if it's the style of writing or the strange translation...but they were often unintentionally hilarious. my favourite was one that said that although the rounded stones being discussed might remind someone of a dragon (?) it was 'charmingly naive' to think so. i spent a lot of time hiking and climbing up and down hundreds of steps during the two days i was there...much needed practice for nepal, i figure.
i'm happy that i went...guoliang is definitely worth the hassle of getting there, and my expensive car ride was made more palatable by how inexpensive it was to sleep and eat. as i was hiking down the road to get back to where i thought the bus stop was a passing car stopped and a man asked me if i wanted to ride to xinxiang, guessing correctly where i was headed. amused, i asked how much. he said 100 yuan. i said i'd go with him for 50. we agreed on 60. the two buses would have cost 15-20...so i was happy to get a direct ride all the way back to the train station for only 3-4 times that, especially when it was half of what i'd paid for a ride to guoliang. it's amazing how much a difference some confidence makes when negotiating. when he was trying to convince me to come with him the man had referred to his car as a bus and at the time i just took it as confused english. but i realized on the ride back to the train station that he really did mean bus. he seemed to be self-employed as a replacement bus service because as we drove back he would stop at every local bus stop, roll down the window, and try to convince those people waiting for the bus to come with him instead. he had success with one man who came part of the way back with us. it probably helps to be crafty in a country with so many people trying to scrape by.