So, Xi’an. Just a couple hours flight from Shangri-la, but worlds apart. And, thankfully, normal altitude. I hadn’t realised, but it was the end of the Silk Road, with lots of Middle Eastern influence over the last millennium – so it has a huge Muslim quarter, with mosques and markets and people wearing headscarves; a rare sight here where over 90% of the population is Han. Even the market was more Arabian style, with delicious things like fresh pomegranate juice and flatbreads. And all noisy as hell, with all the vendors shooting at top of their lungs, candy makers hammering nougat with wooden mallets, and even ear cleaners – which I’d have thought would be a silent profession – chiming strange metal sticks, something like giant tuning forks. I would have liked to discover-by-doing what role the tuning forks had in professional ear cleaning, but they didn’t do westerners: our ear wax is too sticky, apparently. (Found this BBC article afterwards explaining the tuning forks, fwiw)
The city is odd: it alternates between giant modern skyscraping office blocks, the medieval chaos of the market, and the most enormous city walls from the dark ages. The walls are impressive: some ten to twenty metres wide as well as high, surrounding a 4x4km block of city centre, and as wide and well paved as a decent road on top – you can rent bikes and (apparently) golf buggies if you want to do the full 16km circuit. They’re about the last major city walls in China, obviously reconstructed many times over the centuries, particularly by the recent government. But there’s a cross section where you can still see (apparently) the old earth core from the 700s, the older brickwork from the 1200s, and the newest outer layers from modern times.
But, of course, the main reason people go to Xi’an – other it being an easy flight from Shangri-La’s – was the Terracotta Warriors. I’d had serious second thoughts about whether to go or not – it sounded, tbh, a bit dull, for all it’s meant to be so world renowned and amazingly culturally important. I have limited appreciation for two thousand year old terracotta objects to begin with, and frankly, you see one terracotta warrior, you’ve seen ’em all. And it was gonna be rammed with tourists, take 1h each way in taxi, and cost £50ish between tickets and taxis. But – what the hell – off we went anyway. And while I can’t quite go the wholehearted OMGZ it was mind-altering amazing, but yep, we enjoyed more than expected. Worth the trip, though don’t think we’ll go again if we’re ever in Xi’an. The place is massive – they’ve basically put giant warehouses around the three pits that have been found so far, and they’re still slowly excavating. Pit 1 – the biggest – only has under 2000 of the likely 6000 warriors fully assembled: the rest are still very much work in progress – shards piled neatly, heads sticking out of the mud. Slow work, given it was accidentally discovered in 1974 (by local farmers sinking a well) so it’s over 40 years in. What has been completed so far, is laid out exactly as it had been uncovered, in full proper army formation, all the columns and divisions in neat order, archers separated from foot soldiers, and the flanks facing outwards to protect the sides. And it’s huge, the size of a football stadium or so, and you can watch the archeologists digging away still (archeology is not a great spectator sport, btw: Indiana Jones was a lie). There are a few that you can get close to in glass cases, and see how every detail, from the strands of their hair to the sole patterns on their shoes, is individually varied. Sounds dull, perhaps: it’s the kinda thing every guidebook raves about – ALL! INDIVIDUALLY! VARIED! – of course it’s fecking varied: they didn’t have a factory churning the dam’ stuff out. But all in all, it was more interesting than I’d expected, anyway. They also had a bunch of relics from a later emperor, around 150 BC: he’d gone for the downsized warriors, all about a foot high instead of life size. Cheapskate. But presumably, they were considered equally effective in doing whatever they needed to do for the afterlife; quantity, rather than size, counts. He also seemed more domestic and less martial – many farmyard animals as well as warriors.
The actual emperor’s tomb is still unopened – how can they resist? Qin was the ‘first emperor’, the one to unite China, back in 250BC, and they’re still not quite sure *why* he did all the warriors – maybe to protect himself from enemies in the afterlife; maybe to continue his campaigning and wars in the heavens. Apparently he started getting his mausoleum worked on at the age of 13, before he’d even conquered stuff – very emo. It took over 700,000 workers to create; he built a town for 30,0000 people to work on it – and he had a fair portion of them buried alive with him, apparently. The ancient records of his burial talk about the terracotta warriors and also about how the emperor’s tomb is an underground palace full of treasures and booby traps, such as rivers of mercury. And, high mercury levels have been found in the ground there. Yes, I daresay it’s probably sensible to hold off till can do it properly without damaging things. But really, again: how can they resist? (Ref: wikipedia)
China, overall, is puzzling in the things it has and the things it has not. They don’t have tampons, for example. Or Diet Coke (regular Coke, yes. Diet/Zero: no). And they are curiously stingy about toilet paper – miniscule rolls that barely last a few visits: one of our most used translations is the request for more. But they are generous in providing combs and toothbrush / toothpaste packs in every hotel room, and free tea with every meal – odd, given that tea is surprisingly expensive. As previously mentioned, ATMs are rare, and cards are accepted almost nowhere – even huge tourist places like the ticket office for the terracotta warriors, or most hotels. But electric scooters/motorbikes are everywhere.
Also, the digital world that’s evolved behind the great firewall separate to the Western digital world is huge: Alipay and Wepay mobile payments are accepted everywhere, far more than in the West; QR code scanning in-app rules as the way to connect with someone or pay for something even in market stalls and kiosks – hell, even beggars are using them, apparently, with Chinese-specific offerings like ‘red packets’ (giving a small financial gift to family and friends) going large. Parallel systems like Didi are equivalent to Uber, and Baidu to Google – maps and all. Did you know you can have your pet cloned? It’s £50k, but it’s terrifying that it’s even available. And they have cloned police dogs! WeChat is ubiquitous, and email almost dead: back when Vanessa was first booking hotels in China, they’d always ask for her wechat immediately and continue the conversation there, rather than email. It has translation built in, which helps a lot. All the translation options are flakey, though: Google translate has been a lifesaver but we’ve also got a lot of puzzled looks and odd responses… and what they’ve shown in back in their translation apps has been equally incomprehensible. For example, AliPay in Chinese translates to treasure in English – which I realised too late to save one difficult hotel conversation (why, in the name of god, do they keep talking about treasure?)
Everything is complicated.
Take direction finding, for example. Google maps is only slightly better than nothing – people haven’t been able to update for a few years, afaict, so not only does it not have businesses like hotels, it’s also missing huge new roads (the Hong Kong-Macau bridge crossing, for example) and a lot of old minor ones – it had almost none of Lijiang old town, for example. Baidu maps is accurate, but Chinese only, so fairly impossible to use unless you’re fluent in drawing and recognising characters. And place names vary in a very frustrating way – so if you’re cross referencing between, say, Lonely Planet, Google maps and a printed tourist map, it can take a long time to realise that what’s called “South Lu road” in one, is called “Nanlujia” in another, translating the words for South and alley, or Nan-lu Street in another. And this makes general searching extra difficult, as the permutations of spaces and hyphens vary further. And that, of course, assumes you have data connection and working VPN…
Train travel likewise. In China, for a train, you:
- Have to go via a third party agency to get tickets. You have to tell them in detail what options you want, in case the ticket you want isn’t available – because tickets are released a month before, so they won’t know what’s available, and you won’t know what you got till then.
- Have to go to the station waaay in advance to collect the ticket…
- Because ticket collection means you have to queue to go through security bag scan, then figure out which ticket queue is yours – non trivial: dozens of queues and signs are in Chinese, and on LED displays, so Google Translate camera doesn’t work, and no one speaks English…
- Then more security, show passport and ticket, bag scan again
- Then figure out which waiting area you’re meant to be in – again, non trivial
- Then, 20 mins before, queue for boarding… slightly simpler: just 2 queues per platform depending on whether you have a manual or automatic ticket. But Chinese queue means a lot of elbow working too so people jumping in front of you. I’ve grown quite brutal.
- Aaaand – board! The trains are excellent – it’s just the passengers that are the problem from then on: loud phone conversations with speaker on, music and games at top volume, hacking, snoring and coughing… but: clean, great, punctual trains.
There is shag all evidence of communism around, other than occasional hammer and sickle flags. Capitalism is rampant: hideous factories and grim new constructions can be slapped into the loveliest of places; shops are overflowing with all sorts of crap; enterprise of all sorts seem generally encouraged, and wealth is proudly flaunted. All the cars are new – in 2012, car ownership was at the same level as USA in 1920, 8% (source), and it’s doubled since then, by 120 million. So instead of the usual blend of crappy old cars and shiny new, it’s mostly shiny new, and by a bunch of unfamiliar brands, in strange ways – three wheelers are common, either as a kind of motorbike with van/truck back, or in a rather snazzy smart car type format. And most bicycles seem to be electric – even the old looking bikes seem to have been converted to electric.
And, omgz, the amount of construction underway is astounding. The world’s longest bridge – 55k between Hong Kong, Macau and mainland Zhuhai – had opened just a few months before we crossed it; the high speed bullet train from Kunming to Lijiang likewise. Driving from Lijiang to Shangri La, Rachel pointed out the new motorway AND high speed train line being driven through the immense mountains for some 400km of that route – enormous viaducts and tunnels, planned to finish next year. As she said with pride, in the West, they take decades to decide. In China, they decide and two years later, it’s done. I can only agree.