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