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Archaeological treasures in a grimy, industrial wasteland

April 24-28, 1998

Where Beijing displays all the splendor of imperial China and Shanghai represents the new incarnation of the People's Republic, Xi'an represents another side of the PRC. Xi'an, population three million, is the capital of Shaanxi province in north-central China, about 1200 kilometers west of Shanghai. It is one of China's longest inhabited regions, with civilization dating back 6000 years. The Xi'an area served as China's capital from 221 BC when Emperor Qin Shihuang unified a China that had separated into five states. Though a short-lived dynasty, Emperor Qin Shihuang, in a bid for immortality protected his tomb with thousands of soldiers constructed of terracotta. Although it took over 2000 years, his plan for immortality eventually worked.

The Qin Dynasty was replaced by the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) who ran the empire from Xianyang, about twenty kilometers northwest of present day Xi'an. Xi'an was established under the Sui Dynasty in 582 AD as Chang'an. But it was under the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that Chang'an became one of Asia's most important cities. Once the dynasty collapsed in 907 China fell into a number of independent states and Chang'an went into decline. Today Xi'an (the city) is, with one area excepted, to this writer, a grotty, blue collar, ugly industrial wasteland of factories, mills, and nuclear power plants. The first image of Xi'an is a throw-back to the China of a few decades ago, the China of massive state run factories.

I came away with mixed feelings of the people in Xi'an. On one hand I encountered many friendly faces and many people, usually children, gave me an innocent 'hello' as opposed to being a pretense to obtaining my cash. But in some areas, especially around the train and bus station it seemed the entire city was populated with Village Idiots. And while I didn't have any particularly negative run-ins with anyone, save a few excessive gawkers, I heard numerous accounts of crime problems from other travelers. I did even witness one robbery but it was one Chinese person robbing another.

Having gone way over budget in Beijing I got more frugal in Xi'an. I headed for the popular backpacker hotel, The Flats of Remnin, in the northwest section of town. A private room came in at $15 US a night, a quarter of what I was paying in Beijing. And here there were no surprise charges. Except for waiting five to ten minutes for hot water, the room was every bit as nice as the one I had in Beijing. The hotel does cause some confusion with taxi drivers as there is a similarly named hotel in the center of town. It seems every traveler has at one time or another had to redirect their driver. Everything in China has the name 'Remnin', it means people's or something.

Across the street were two good, virtually identical restaurants catering to travelers, Dad's Home Cooking, and Mum's Home Cooking. Dad's and Mum's are famous worldwide in the backpacker traveler's circuit. Dad's is the original restaurant with Mum's coming along as a more aggressive copycat. Some people divide their time between both restaurants, others, self included, ended up giving all their business to just one. I spent my time at Mum's. Folks arriving by train from Beijing will always be greeted at the station by someone from Mum's, and probably from Dad's as well. As I arrived by airplane and took a taxi to the hotel (from where the CAAC bus stops in central Xi'an) I had the pleasure of having representatives from both restaurants run across the street, give me a business card and urge me to eat all my meals at their restaurant.

Aside from serving up decent cheap food, both restaurants will handle most other traveler needs. They hustle up train tickets, airplane tickets, taxis, tours, you name it, they'll get it. I don't object to touts from this kind of business as they deliver on their promises and don't rip you off (or at least seem not to rip you off). They were nice people, too.

First there was only Dad's Home Cooking until an enterprising neighbor, seeing their success, decided to try the same thing. The folks at Mum's copied the name, copied the menu, copied the services, the atmosphere, everything. And they worked a lot harder at getting my business. The people running the place were very friendly, mostly women in their twenties, and they seemed to have connections all over the place making them worthwhile for getting transportation tickets. I had them book three plane tickets for me. I got a Xi'an to Shanghai flight for less than a train ticket, and also got a discounted Guilin to Guangzhou plane ticket as well.

Most of Xi'an's sights are outside the city. This is just as well, except for one small part of the city there was little worth seeing in Xi'an anyway. There is a collection of sights to the west and also to the east. Opinions on the various sights are mixed, but most traveler's reports seem to come in on the negative side, mostly for reasons of presentation. The main attraction is the Army of Terracotta Warriors which I found to be far more interesting in concept than in presentation.

In the third century BC, Emperor Qin Shihuang constructed thousands of life-size warriors to protect his tomb. These figures, made of terracotta, are in full formation and hold actual weapons that have survived in remarkably good condition. Some stand, some kneel, some are atop horses. Every figure has a unique face and facial expression. These figures were unknown to the world until 1974 when some local residents discovered them while digging a well. Presently three separate vaults of warriors have been found. It is believed that far more awaits discovery.

The warriors are about 35 kilometers east of the city. If not in an organized tour group transport is by public bus, private minibus, or taxi. Organized tours are run to both the west attractions and the more famous east attractions. The general consensus is the tours are overpriced, several hundred yuan, and waste a lot of time at insignificant sights and souvenir stands. And if the group includes a significant number of Chinese expect to be further delayed by the endless photo sessions that will inevitably occur at every attraction.

I decided to take the public bus. Bus #306 runs from Xi'an to the warriors site and returns as bus #307. The buses left from outside the train station. To get to the station I could take local public bus #9 or a taxi. My hotel was a few hundred meters down from Huancheng Xilu Nanduan, one of Xi'an's main roads and home to public bus #9. Public bus #9, like Dad's and Mum's, is famous worldwide in traveler circles.

The morning I was going to the warriors, Monica, one of the women at Mum's, walked me down to the bus stop where I could pick up the famous Xi'an institution, public bus #9. A few minutes of waiting and the bus arrived. I saw why it was so famous, smashed faces on smashed bodies pressed against the windows. The bus had a curious bulge to it. Young Red Guards, reading Mao's little red book were stuck on this bus. Mao himself could have been on this bus. People were dressed in authentic Ming Dynasty attire. I think they really were from the Ming Dynasty. This is how 1.25 billion people live in China, at any one time half of them are on public bus #9. I think the reason I couldn't find Suzie Wong in Hong Kong is because she must have visited Xi'an back in 1968 and is still stuck riding public bus #9. Looking like a Village Idiot myself as I stared mouth wide open at this terrifying sight, I did what any sensible traveler on a budget would do in this situation, I flagged down a cab.

Once at the train station it took me a few minutes to locate bus #306, it leaves from a different area from other buses. In the same lot is a fleet of private minibuses all with aggressive touts. Though they cost a yuan less than the public bus they take a bit longer. This is a time to be glad you're not a Chinese traveler. While they shout and wave at me, some of these touts would physically grab their fellow Chinese travelers by the arm pulling the hapless person on board, shouting and yelling all the time. These buses will stop whenever they see a Chinese person standing on the side of the road and repeat the whole scenario of grabbing, yelling, and pulling. My only guess as to why they don't do this to foreigners is they probably all at one time or another tried only to be punched out by some 240-pound Australian rugby player on holiday. Nonetheless, I wouldn't be surprised if the bus touts behavior still resulted in the occasional fight. I've heard stories of competing minibus operators getting into fights with each other over access to potential passengers.

I managed to reach the Terracotta Warriors with little fuss. For about three or four hundred meters leading to the entrance is a road lined completely with souvenir and noodle stands. Like the minibus operators they all shout at you. The cost to enter the museum is a hefty 65 yuan ($8 US) which the Chinese have to pay, too. For 65 yuan I was permitted to walk inside three dark pavilions and gaze down at the figures below. A few have been removed and placed in glass cases for closer inspection. Photography is prohibited. The only option really, is to buy postcards. Imagine that.

I complained about the presentation of the Army of Terracotta Warriors but I'm not sure there's much of an alternative, except maybe lower the price a little. I'm assuming there is some kind of light sensitivity to these figures, so it's going to be dark. They have to keep people far enough away to prevent contact, and it really is best to see them in their original surroundings.

Leaving the 'museum' a little underwhelmed, I went for lunch at one of the many noodle stands that lined the entry road. It was an interesting experience. It was noisy. Not noisy from the customers, but from the vendors. In an effort to get my business they only yelled and waved a little, but to their fellow Chinese it was an outright assault. No sooner do I sit down on the bench to eat my noodles the vendor leaps from his chair and starts yelling and frantically waving his arms. I turn around to see what the fuss is about; it was simply three Chinese people walking by. But no sooner does this guy start jumping, yelling, and waving that his neighbor starts into the same thing. This is followed by banging on pots, pounding fists on tables, anything that makes noise. The vendors yelled at each other, too. This was repeated regularly, for every twenty or thirty seconds a few Chinese tourists would walk by. The first couple of times it was rather funny but soon it became tiring and then it became an outright annoyance.

Walking around the city of Xi'an was not the most inspiring experience. It's largely just shops and grime. If the heart of Beijing is run by a pacemaker, then the heart of Xi'an sits in a cadaver. This city is dead. Take your basic USA rustbelt city, put in three million people and you have Xi'an.

I walked over to the city's north gate. Much of the original city walls are still in place. The core city, much more of Xi'an spills out beyond the walls, is surrounded by walls twelve meters high and twelve to fourteen meters thick at the top, fifteen to eighteen meters thick at the base. There are gates at each axis, north, south, east, and west. For a small fee it's possible to walk to the top of the gates and in some areas walk along the wall. Atop the wall affords a view of the skyline of Xi'an where I could admire the smokestacks, factories, railroad yards, nuclear power plants, and other wondrous elements of industrial Chinese culture. There is also an art gallery replete with 'students' wanting to show off, and sell, their work.

Following a two-day mountain climbing trip at Huashan, I had one final day in Xi'an. After dispensing with a few errands, including a less than easy time getting a cash advance from the Bank of China, I walked over to the Muslim Quarter in the Old City neighborhood. This is a uniquely attractive section of narrow alleys lined with an assortment of shops, little restaurants serving up a variety of snacks and meals, and a lot of activity. The people are generally friendly. The Muslims are easily identified by the white hats they wear. It was a relaxing way to knock off for a couple of hours and is about the only thing within the city of Xi'an really worth seeing.

I met a few child beggars who tolerated my camera in exchange for a yuan or two. One such child, a young girl of maybe nine, was hard at work. She was in the street practically climbing through open windows of the numerous taxicabs stalled in traffic. Soon she gave up that plan, returned to the sidewalk and sat down, empty-handed. She was sitting by a tree looking a little pathetic when she eyed me and held up her hands with a pleading look in her eyes. I took a photo of her, capturing a thoroughly perplexed expression. She laughed so I took another one. I gave her two yuan and shot a third photo of her sitting with the two bills in her hand, happy at her successful fleecing of the foreigner.

A few seconds pass before another child accosts me. This one doesn't want money, this one wants my water. And this kid was *filthy*, like nuclear waste meets a sewage treatment plant filthy. I was not going to have this kid touch me or touch anything I had. This took skill. The kid comes up to me arms outstretched towards the half full bottle of water in my hand, saying some word (probably 'please') over and over. I deftly step to the right avoiding contact. He blocks me, and I step to the left. This little dance went on for about half a block before he gave up. Miraculously I avoided physical contact. Once clear of the mobile roadblock I heard laughter to my right where a cab driver, no doubt having observed the entire foreigner-beggar waltz was sitting in his car looking at me, pointing and laughing. I paused for a moment and seeing the humor in this bit of street theater he just witnessed I began laughing along with him. He gave me a hearty smile and a thumbs up sign.

During my walk a young woman, under the guise of wanting to speak English with me also approached me. After a few polite exchanges she told me she was an art student. This was too funny. Trying to maintain a straight face I asked if she was any relation to the same 'art students' from Xi'an I encountered in Beijing. She was rather evasive, maybe so, maybe not. Then, right on cue, she asked if I'd come by the gallery, it was just over by the mosque. I fled.

It was late afternoon, time to return to Mum's for food. I flagged down a taxi and give him my destination. Though I showed him the card that has Mum's written in Chinese characters he tried to deliver me to my hotel, which is across the street and also identified on the Mum's business card. A perfectly honest mistake. He was actually one of the funniest cab drivers I met in China, and through my phrasebook we cracked a few jokes at each other along the way.

He pulled into my hotel driveway, "no, no," I say, and pointed across the street to the restaurant. "Ahhh, O.K.!" he smiled and turned the car around. But he doesn't just let me off on the street in front of Mum's. Nope, to atone for his mistake he drives right up on the sidewalk, right up to one of the tables, literally allowing me to jump from the cab into a chair and not even touch my feet to the ground. This was seen with great amusement by the staff and customers of Mum's. I recommended to Stephanie, one of the managers, that maybe she should add "tableside taxi service" to her list of offerings.

It would be nice if that could be my last image of Xi'an, but it wasn't. As I'm sitting at the table eating rice and drinking lemonade I'm distracted by some commotion across the street. A man is speeding off on a bicycle while several sidewalk vendors chase after him, yelling and shouting. One of them throws something at him that lands ineffectively in the street. The old vendors were no match for the young guy on the bicycle. He had snatched one of the vendor's money bags. Marvelous. Thankfully, the next morning I was flying to Shanghai where a whole new China awaited me.


Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.