Working For The Xi’ankee Dollar

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 24, 2010

Xi’an, China

RIDING along with us  – or hidden somewhere in Phil’s bag – is a folder containing pretty much all the trivial (and the odd important) facts we need to know.

Emblazoned on that folder are a variety of stickers, the largest of which reads: “I am not a tourist, I live here”.

We shirk away from accusations of being tourists. We will tell you, at great length after a few beers, that we are travellers.*

Xi'an - Big Wild Goose Pagoda
The sun beats down on the Big Wild Goose Pagoda

But for a few days in China, guided around by Gary and a succession of local experts, we joined the tourist trail for the major sights of the provinces.

It was all a bit of a culture shock.

Used as we are to being a largely self-contained group, informed by Phil’s whirlwind histories of 20th century Europe (“Someone invaded, people died, somebody else invaded, more people died”) or guides he knew before securing their services (the wonderful Anna and Galina in Russia), we suddenly found ourselves among the hordes.

All of a sudden we were one of many buses being delivered to a restaurant – all entered or exited through a gift shop – to join the conveyor belt of tourists, dominated by large gaggles of Americans, to be processed and spat out towards whichever major sight was next on the agenda

Nowhere was this more apparent than the trip to the Terracotta Warriors, which – sadly – ranks as a disappointment.

Our trip out to the warriors followed our overnight dash to the city of Xi’an, right in the centre of China, and the pace never slackened throughout the day.

Whisked away from the station by our diminutive guide An, we were fed a huge breakfast at the hotel and spirited away for a whirlwind tour of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which once housed the first Buddhist scripts in China.

Golden Buddha, Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Golden Buddha, Big Wild Goose Pagoda

It comes complete with the requisite gift shop and my discovery that being born in the Year of the Dog makes me honest and loyal. I will also roll over and let you tickle my tummy for a treat, but draw the line at chasing sticks.

From there it was off to another shopping opportunity at a jade factory – adding a piece of neophrite to the growing collection of things dangling around my neck – and, via the conveyor belt roll-em-in, feed-em, ship-em-out lunch, onto the Terracotta Warriors.

Built to guard the tomb of Emperor Qin and discovered by farmers in 1974, the attraction is billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World (wasn’t that Patsy Kensit’s short-lived pop band in the 1980s?).

And while it is impressive, it just doesn’t really live up to that billing.

What you rarely get told in the blurb is that Qin’s successor ransacked the tomb and wrecked the warriors, meaning most of the many thousand there are either undiscovered (so how they know how many there are, goodness only knows) or broken.

Terracotta Warriors
The Terracotta Warriors stand guard in the elegantly named Pit One

Restoration work continues apace (well, quite slowly actually) and while what is there is worth checking out, it is not on the sheer scale we were expecting – most of the huge pits on view are devoid of warriors.

Underwhelmed by what we had seen, we headed back to Xi’an and, stumbling off the tourist trail for the evening, again fell across a real gem when least expected.

Tucked out of the centre on a main ring road, our hotel – possibly the pick of the trip – was not exactly blessed with too many neighbourhood bars or restaurants, so the usual suspects stumbled down the road to the nearest noodle bar with the express intention of a quick snack and a quiet night.

What followed, once our idea of keeping the ordering simple ended with our table being presented with a whole chicken, complete with head, on a plate of prawn crackers, was a real taste of China and its people – with the odd piece of ornamental fish kidnapping thrown in.

We first attracted the attention of a bunch of young lads who were determined to drink and eat as much as possible, make as big a mess as possible and practise their limited English on us.

Terracotta Archer
Terracotta Archer, sadly without his bow

By the time they had gone, Phoebe and celebrity traveller Marlo were chatting – or attempting to chat with – four older Chinese guys, so as the others left, the easy solution was to join them and finish my beer.

But for the next couple of hours, it magically never emptied – every time our glasses dropped below half full, they were refilled by our hosts, who refused to take a cent from us in repayment.

One of our new companions was the oldest there, therefore he was the host and had to pay for everything – a system worth introducing whenever drinking with Nick for the rest of the trip.

With the help of their restricted English, our even more limited Chinese (you can’t get very far with “How are you?”, “Thank you” and “Cheers”) and the translator on our host’s phone, we stumbled through a conversation – I was “heavy, but with a good soul”, making me sound even more like a Labrador, while Phoebe has “temperament” – until the passing Gary was dragged off the street to help out and a hugely enjoyable evening ran well past closing time.

The next morning saw me run into one of our companions again.

Or, to be more accurate, he nearly ran into me while riding a bike around the ancient city walls of Xi’an.

Xi'an's City Walls
The ancient city walls in Xi’an

The walking option had seemed more appealing, but a group had headed out to do a full circuit on two wheels. Others completed the full 14km loop on foot, although Julie and Gerda paid the price with a touch of sunburn as the Mediterranean-type climate produced a lovely day.

After an afternoon fighting off the salesmen at another market, it turned into a lovely evening back at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, enjoying the spectacular fountain display, before adjourning to the hotel and a late-night, filling street snack which cost six of us the grand total of just over £2.

And that was that for Xi’an, a city which succeeded in charming us during our limited stay.

The third biggest city in China – after Beijing and Shanghai – it has a much more relaxed feel than the capital (unless you are sat in the back of a taxi, where relaxing is the last thing possible) and while you can give directions around Beijing using branches of KFC as guiding points, you get the feeling Xi’an is much more like the old China.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda at night
All lit up – The light and fountain show at The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

But nothing like as old as our next stop – Pingyao, of which more next time.

Coming up: Sharing with The Bear in Pingyao, Redecorating the Great Wall and Norwegian Wood in Beijing.

*NB – The traveller v tourist argument is the oldest in the travelling world. Having worked in the travel industry since this blog was originally written, it is quite clearly pointless and merely a form of snobbery. The whole point of travelling is freedom and experiencing the world around us – how each of us do it is down to the individual.

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Senses Working Overtime

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 22, 2010

Beijing, China

DURING his excellent Googlewhack Adventure stage show, Dave Gorman launches into a string of coincidences and absurdities which have occurred during his attempts to compile a chain of elusive Googlewhacks.

Each tale is linked, in increasingly frantic tones, by the phrase: “It doesn’t make sense”.

Alive or Dead, Sir?
Alive or Dead, Sir? – The menu in a Beijing street market

And after 10 days in China, that is one phrase used more than any other (with the possible exceptions of “same again, please”, “No, I don’t want to be dragged into your market stall to see your range of tourist tat”, “Oh look, another Buddha/ temple/courtyard”, “Who’s clothes were they anyway?” or “What flags have you got?” – explanations follow in the next couple of entries, but the last two must wait until we are out of Chinese jurisdiction).

  • The sheer number of people – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The inability to drive in a straight line or on the right side without an accident every few hundred yards – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The fact all the market stalls appear to sell the same thing, yet they make a living – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The fact we managed to buy pretty much everything for a fraction of the asking price (bar one Irish haggler who started with a high offer and tried to work down) – it doesn’t make sense.
  • That you can stuff yourself silly 24 hours a day for mere pennies, yet the entire population seems to be thin and healthy – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The sheer number of western, capitalist brand names in the high street in such a supposedly closed-off, communist society so proud of its own culture and traditions – it doesn’t make sense.
  • That we went from getting sunburn on Xi’an’s city walls to snowball fights on the road to Datong in the space of three days – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The foresight of previous generations to build all the major attractions on the other side of a gift shop from the entrance – it doesn’t make sense.

And neither does so much more about this wonderful, intriguing, mystifying country.

But throw it all in together, check your western preconceptions in at customs and somehow, taken as a whole, it makes perfect sense.

Beijing Street Market
In the market for a snack – On the search for lunch in Beijing

To the extent that being thrown straight back into the western world – this is being written on one of the many poolsides of the Diamond Princess cruise ship as we sit dockside at Qingdao on our second day at sea – is equally as big a culture shock as arriving in China in the first place.

Admittedly, by the final day in China more than one of us needed an escape from the mountains of Chinese food (or food as they call it in these parts) which were routinely placed in front of us.

Thankfully, Old McDonald had seen fit to build one of his golden arches just down the street from our hotel, causing some frantic backtracking from early scorn poured on those with fast-food habits. Never has a Big Mac tasted so good. Nor been served so politely.

China has treated us well and has moved straight to the upper echelons of places to visit again.

But let’s rewind to where you left us – in our Beijing hotel attempting, without success, to flick M&Ms into Fran’s mouth in the early hours of Day 32.

What followed on the rest of Day 32 – for those of us who eschewed the trip to the Summer Palace – was a rare off-day and a chance to catch up on washing and get a little personal time.

So the day was spent arguing with a tumble dryer (and the French people who kept taking my stuff out of it) and being accosted by over-enthusiastic vendors, convinced new T-shirts, jewellery, handbags, statues of Buddha, Mao’s Little Red Book or whatever they were peddling was top of my shopping list.

Beijing Street Market
People and food – The Beijing Experience

Topping the list of memorable sellers are the bloke selling our favourite snack “sticks” with the constant tab on the go, the guy who nearly set fire to my arm (twice) as he tried to prove his lighters worked and the young Chinese girl who was actually dangling off my arm at one point as she tried to physically drag me into her shop.

By the evening my clothes still weren’t dry – it took an early-morning alarm to chuck them back in the dryer to be ready for packing – and the normal suspects were reconvened for another mountain of food in a traditional Chinese restaurant.

Eight meals, eight sets of drinks, assorted side dishes, decent tip which they insisted on chasing us out of the restaurant with to hand back – 320 yuan. About £4 each.

We then retired for a quiet(ish) evening in our new local, the still flag-strewn Bar 365, which was enlivened by our elder statesmen Duncan and Mary taking to the dance floor and Mike’s perfectly-timed tribute to Roy Keane – one of which was charming, the other reduced us to giggling fools for at least five minutes.

Beijing Station
Which platform is it? – Beijing Station

Mike was at it again the next morning – after we had stripped down our bags with merely enough clothes for our five-day tour of the provinces – when he spoke at just the wrong time during our tour of a silk factory, inadvertently volunteering to eat the by-product of production, the worm.

He had the perfect opportunity to wash it down with something more appetising on our next stop, downtown Beijing’s main, big-name shopping area.

While most of the group scurried around the designer stores, went hunting for much-needed necessities (our hunt for deodorant was still proving fruitless) or, in the case of Irish compadres Dave and Leila, got lost on a single street, our motley little crew found our idea of shopping heaven – a market street crammed with street food vendors.

Not that everything had us licking our lips. Even Phil’s willingness to eat almost anything was not enough to persuade him to try scorpion on a stick or entire baby bird, while the starfish on a stick were priced out of the market.

Having fuelled up on spring rolls, sticks and some weird dumplings whose liquid filling Phil managed to spray all over Mike, we headed to our toughest shopping test of the trip – the Pearl Market.

Night train to Xi'an
Set for a last night on the train – Note spilt beer in tray

It is difficult to explain quite what an assault on the senses this is – a four-storey indoor market selling designer label clothes (of distinctly dubious origin), leather goods, jewellery, electrical goods (of even more dubious providence) and pretty much anything the modern global traveller would want.

But that is only half the story.

Each stall is manned by one or more assistants who are not going to wait for you to have a look at their stock. They will shout at you, physically pull you to their store, block your way and generally get right in your face.

It could be intimidating, but it is, largely, good natured and amusing. The trouble is, if you smile at it, they take that as a sign of interest and double their effort to lure you in.

By the time we emerged, blinking and shellshocked into the sunshine to compare our purchases – and tried to outdo each other on how much we had haggled them down to – we were all a bit exhausted.

For the record, my purchases were leather cord necklace (most of the guys are now festooned with more necklaces than the girls), a shirt of exceedingly dubious taste and a T-shirt, which resulted in me being briefly held captive by three small Chinese women who would not let me out of their stall until Phoebe and Fran turned the corner and distracted them.

What we needed after that was a good rest. What we got was our final night on a train, heading south to Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors.

Exiled to the back of the train – 12 carriages away from the rest of the group with only Marlo making the long, late-night trek down to visit in his train-issue paper slippers – Nick’s Bar stocked up for one final time with beer (before any of us remembered we didn’t have a bottle opener), vodka and rice wine and welcomed new resident Dave for his indoctrination into life in the bar.

He instantly made himself at home, showering his beer bottle over Nick’s bed in an attempt to open it using the door handle.

He was in good company, Mike had already soaked Nick’s bed in a bizarre exploding beer can episode.

At least three of us had a good, dry night’s sleep…

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