Xi’an: The Tour

Having had little rest on our arrival day, I wasn’t very disappointed when we didn’t get to see the terracotta warriors that day.  By the next day, however, I was in much higher spirits.

For my entire stay in China, Caitlin had influenced me into being a local — that is, going places locals go, eating things locals eat.  The few touristy things we did in Beijing were all short trips we took on walks or subway rides.

By the time we got to the lobby to leave for our tour, I was excited that we finally got to play tourist.  We packed a small van full of white people, many of whom were middle aged and spoke little English, and we headed off like naïve sheep to a foreign land.

Since the older people got in first, Caitlin and I were forced to sit in the back of the bus, making snarky comments about it on the way.  It was obvious we were the kids on the trip, but all of the fun younger people sat around us and laughed at the unusually funny things.

The tour started off with the usual semi-awkward period of nobody knowing each other and me being excited, but once our guide Jia jia started talking in her idiosyncratic way, we all started bonding over that. Enough that I took a picture:

Most of the older people kept to themselves and in their own languages, but I did sneak a picture of a funny face one made at the factory:

In the several hours we all spent together, we came to take on many ongoing jokes. Jia jia’s flower was one, since it was a rather common and fairly important part of us all staying together. Once, when she needed to get tickets, she left the flower to the largest member of the group in order for us to all stay together:


Johnny was probably the most interesting person we have met on this trip. When I first saw him in the lobby of our hostel, I was kind of hoping he wasn’t going on our tour because he looked extremely strong and easily provoked. Turns out this is true, but in a good way.

He’s your typical testosterone-filled male, featuring a classic Australian accent and prominent muscles. He was a bit taken aback by Jia jia’s request that he hold the flower, but I think the juxtaposition between the masculinity and innocence really made for a good shot.

In the course of our conversations, we learned that he and his more reasonable friend Jaime were traveling all across Asia, and Xi’an was near the end of their journey. While Jaime works on Wall Street, Johnny is an electrician in a coal mine in Western Australia.

Their travels throughout the vast nothingness of Central Asia proved to be informative and the subject of several conversations. We had heard previously that they aren’t too fond of guidebooks in China, particularly ones like our Lonely Planet that cover the entire country in one book. They had a copy, but a border official confiscated it. Apparently the book is banned.

As the story goes, the guard looks at the book, opens it to the map, and indicates that Taiwan. “Taiwan is a different color than China. This is wrong. Taiwan is China. This book is banned.”

We’re in the process of making a cover for our book.

After everyone was pretty much done with eating, Johnny made it known that he was still hungry. Throughout the course of the meal, he decided it was too difficult to pick up the noodles with chopsticks — which, agreeably, it was —, so he started using his hands. This extrapolated into other areas of the meal as well, but it was a little hard to notice because he cleaned every plate on the table.

We had a giant bowl of soup that was barely touched, so several people were jokingly mentioning it to him. At that point, Jaime warned us that if we dared Johnny to do it, he would. No joke:

There was also a giant plate of rice, which Johnny understandably didn’t want to eat. Instead, he made a fist-sized ball and shoved the whole thing in his mouth:

The experience of being with all those people was hilarious and the most memorable part of the trip so far. I was worried that we would feel overly touristy and cheesy being bussed around, but the people overshadowed all of that by a long shot.

Jeff is a computer hog

So, I got an email from parents this morning basically wondering if I’m alive and what I’m doing. Obviously Jeff has been doing most of the updating, so while I have the computer, I just wanted to let everyone know I’m fine, and that Jeff is a computer hog. He has food poisoning combined with lactose intolerance, which means he’s feeling miserable enough that I easily got the computer while he went to take a nap. One man’s downfall is another man’s opportunity, I say! Ha ha!

Xi’an: Terracotta Warriors

On Thursday, we went on a tour with our hostel to see the famous Terracotta Army. The army contains thousands of life-sized clay soldiers built for Qin shihuang’s tomb. As we learned from a slightly hilarious video reenactment of his reign, Qin shihuang — which actually literally means Qin first emperor — was the first emperor of China. In 221 BC he conquered the other warring states of China, and spent his reign building the Great Wall, standardizing money, making a unified writing system and stamping out political opposition. Obsessed with living forever, he drank mercury potions which ironically caused an early death.

Qin shihuang is known today for both his great accomplishments and his brutality. During his reign he slaughtered thousands upon thousands in pursuit of unifying China. During his reign, he enslaved thousands to build his tomb and the Great Wall, which also led to incredibly suffering and deaths of many. In fact, in an effort to keep the construction of the terracotta army secret, he had all workers on the project killed after its completion.

Obsessed with continuing his power after death, his tomb is surrounded by these secret underground armies of clay soldiers, who he believed would protect his reign in the afterlife. His tomb itself has not been excavated yet, because in order to protect himself he ordered that a river of mercury surround the tomb, which keeps us out even 2,000 years later.

As our tour guide said, Qin shihuang was “kind of crazy.”

Our tour was led by a sweet and comedic woman, Jia jia, who worked reception at our hostel.

On the bus ride to our first stop, Jia jia asked everyone what country they were from. She got really excited by the people from Holland, which apparently has always been her favorite country, although she’s never been there. She talked a lot about windmills and cookies and wooden clogs, and even pulled several Dutch souvenirs from her bottomless purse. Then it came to our turn. She asked what country we were from, and it went like this:

Jeff: My name’s Jeff, and I’m from America!

Jia jia: … Holland! Holland is a great country… (continues talking about aforementioned Dutch items)

Jia jia also had a cute habit of repeating everything she said several times, which became a source of amusement for us rowdy kids in the back of the bus. We were sitting with two Australians — to be discussed later — and another American and a Dutch girl, and all of us were young and spirited.

Our first stop was a tour of a factory that makes replicas of the soldiers. We got to see how the little statues are made, which was actually pretty cool.

First we took lots of goofy pictures outside the factory.

Then we saw how the clay soldiers are made. This is one of the kilns filled with six-inch statues. There were several other kilns with other sizes of statues. I think the guide said they are fired at some ridiculous temperature, like 900 degrees.

We also got to see several rejects and castoffs. Some people on the tour tried to get free souvenirs, but our guide didn’t allow it.

Once we got to the “buy stuff” part of the tour, general hilarity ensued due to boredom. I guess they somehow thought that a bunch of cheap tourists staying in a hostel had a need for several-thousand-dollar furniture, statues and rugs.

Little did the ill-prepared clay army know, behind their perfect ranks loomed GODZILLA!!

Ahem. Yes. So anyway, we toodled around the store without intention of buying anything until it was time to get back on the bus.

Jia jia gave us a mini history lesson about the soldiers, and prepared us for what we would see there. As it turns out, the government was being really strict about letting foreigners come to see the clay soldiers, whatwith it being the Olympics and all. Because of course you should make it harder for tourists to see your tourist sites at a time when they are likely to come. Jia jia told us that she would need our passports to get us into the attraction. Of course, having had no forewarning about that, many folks didn’t have passports. But in the end, Jia jia decided that anything other than a passport would be better, and took all manner of random ID cards, including very unofficial student IDs from Jeff and I. Somehow, that was better to the guards than passports, so we got in no problem.

To make sure nobody gets lost, Chinese tour guides usually have a little flag for you to follow. Instead, Jia jia had a wilted stuff-animal flower.

Before going in, Jia jia told us to pay close attention to the faces of the terracotta soldiers, because every face is different.

“Who knows, you might see your face in there!” she repeated several times to our amusement. Of course, she said this to a bus full of white people.

But actually, while at the soldier factory not buying anything, we did see one that looked kinda white:

At any rate, we passed several checkpoints where we showed “ID” and then watched a very silly, historically inaccurate movie of the warriors’ history. Afterward, we saw the farmer who actually discovered the soldiers while digging a well in the 1970s. For $150 kuai we could buy a book for him to sign, but I would much have preferred a photo. He’s about 80 years old now, and he was sleeping quite apathetically in a chair while waiting for someone to buy a book. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed.

Finally, we saw the soldiers themselves.

There are three large pits that have been excavated and are on view to the public. A fourth pit was discovered this year as well. What is most impressive is just how large-scale the pits are, especially considering that there are believed to be many more areas that have yet to be found. In the past several decades, they have reconstructed about 2,000 soldiers, but 6,000 are believed to have originally been in the pit pictured above.

One of the coolest things is that you can see parts of soldiers not completely excavated.

All in all, it was really neat and very impressive. The soldiers do all have different heights and faces, so it’s incredible to see thousands of them arrayed. The soldiers also once had brilliant colors, but now the paint has completely faded. Only a few artifacts remain that show the colors that were once there — purples, blues, pinks, oranges, reds — it’s hard to imagine the brilliance the army once had.

After the tour we were all a little pooped, so we made our way through the gauntlet of souvenir hawkers, got on the bus and went to lunch.

Xi’an: Day One

To be fair, our day started a little roughly.  We got to our hostel around 4 a.m., and after sorting through all the business and whatnot, we finally fell asleep at 4:30.  Our main purpose in Xi’an was to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, so Caitlin got up early to find out what time their tour left.  It turns out it was leaving at that moment, so she rushed back and hurried me to throw my stuff together — which isn’t all that easy to do in a hostel.  Especially the first day, you have to rate all of your items either worth stealing or not, pack them, lock them if necessary, etc.  On top of that, I had to brush my teeth, so by the time we got to the lobby area, the tour had already left, and I was rather grumpy.

We probably had something important that got accomplished, but all I remember was waking back up in the mid-afternoon.

Xi’an is much like Beijing in the climate, atmosphere, and pollution. To top off the tour, we had both spent odd hours being awake and had not eaten all day, so the energy and decision-making skills were not at their best. In any case, we got a good tour of the center of the city, as we were staying just a few blocks from the Bell Tower, the big center:

We also noticed that most of the buildings, whether historic or not, were built with traditional Chinese architecture, leading to strange sights such as this Pizza Hut:

One of our main purposes of the exploration was to find the ticket office to get a trip out of the city, but we were nearly at a loss. We had a map with the location pointed out, but we walked up and down the street, all around the side street, and eventually went inside the bank and asked an official. He took us right outside the bank and pointed out a small, unmarked window with a big line. We stood in the line and found out that all the tickets were sold out. Disappointing.

We went back to our hostel and booked the tickets through the front desk, which turned out to be extremely friendly and helpful, although they did charge a 40 RMB service fee per ticket. We were so happy to get them that we didn’t care much at all. It would have been at least a week until they had an opening.

Since it was Wednesday, we had arranged to meet up with Monica and May for dinner and a little chat. By this point, we were famished and feeling faint, so when we were met with unclear bus directions to their place, there was a lot of grumbling and annoyance between the two of us. Somehow, we managed to get on the right bus in the right direction, but we didn’t know this until we heard the name of the stop.

We quickly convinced May that we should eat dinner first, so Monica met us at the restaurant. It was delicious, but that might have been because it was any form of sustenance. Looking back on it, I think one dish was entirely the starch water leftover from boiling noodles, but it tasted mighty good.

When we got to their apartment, one of the first things I noticed was a miniature oven, nothing more than a big sister to an Easy-Bake Oven, sitting on a large table of its own, in the living room. When I brought this up, both ladies were extremely proud of it. As Caitlin quickly learned from apartment hunting, there are no ovens in China. Anywhere. We were impressed by their find.

I’ve known Monica from California, but she was unaware that it was this particular Jeff that was visiting her, so it was fun to see the shock on her face. Just from walking around the town with her, she really seems to love it here, as we would often have to wait for her to finish playing with and talking to the little kids around the neighborhood.

May was a little different, but just as excited and enthusiastic about everything. She’s a short Filipino lady, but very friendly and warm. They both made us feel welcome and at home, even in an intimidating city.

It turns out that one of their friends was performing that evening, playing the hammered dulcimer at an opera nearby where we were staying. She hooked us all up with some free tickets, so we got to experience something that I never imagined.

Caitlin had seen a classical Chinese opera, but never a modern one, so even she was excited about the opportunity. It turned out to be quite memorable.

We all shared a taxi to the theatre and met up with our liaison to get the tickets. Once we had the giant red tickets in our hands, several Chinese people flocked to us, asking how much we paid for them. It seems they were trying to get some scalped tickets, a sign that whatever we were about to watch was something that Chinese people actually wanted to see.

Once we got inside, we found our way to our seats, which for some reason had all even numbers on the left and odds on the right. The theatre was really nice, and the seats were cushy, although they still managed to keep the Chinese tradition of no leg room alive.

I had never been to a performance or movie in China before, so I was a little shocked at the general etiquette. As people were trickling in, the volume grew with the number of audience members. However, once the lights dimmed and the orchestra started playing, the volume of the audience did not change. The singing was actually so loud, it hurt my eardrums, but it was necessary for everything to be understood over the racket.

It wasn’t a bad opera by any means, even through the language barriers. Luckily, Caitlin’s Chinese is really good, so she translated the gist for me. Here’s my summary:

A man marries a woman with the condition that she will wait for him as he goes off to war. The war is with Japan, China wins, but he doesn’t come home. She remains faithful. He appears only to her, explains that he has to go back to war — civil this time — and that she had to keep it a secret, and he instigates his fulfillment of his quota of children. Everyone thinks she cheated on him, they cast her out. The communists win the war, he comes back, the old people in his family get mad, she dies. Everyone is proud of her devotion to communism.

Also, it was colorful:

Throughout the play, many people were talking and discussing it and other various things. As usual, people liked commenting that there was a foreigner in the audience, particularly one translating for me.

Afterward, Caitlin and I were discussing the play according to our American and literary standards. She was arguing that it made communism seem good, since the couple was willing to die for it. I argued that it was actually bad, since it was communism that prevented the woman from explaining the whole situation which led to her death. The entire conflict was brought upon by communism — a fact which wasn’t negated at all by their willingness to die for it.

Either way, the walk from the theatre to the hostel was really pleasant and amazing. The traditional buildings had modern lights on them, reflecting on the polluted sky in a way that looked pretty cool. Also, it was full of people walking about, so there were the usual people trying to sell those people things, including crazy long kites that stretched all across the sky. It felt almost magical.

Our amazement was cut a little short by the fact that we had tickets to see the Terracotta Warriors early the next morning, and the opera had worn us down.

Train #1

We’ve heard a lot about other people’s train experiences in China.  Some say that you have to do a 37 hour ride in a hard seat at some point because it’s “part of the experience.”  For us, that experience doesn’t really seem to be necessary.

There are four types of tickets you can buy: hard seats, soft seats, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers. Hard seats are exactly that, and soft seats are a bit more roomy.  Hard sleepers aren’t much harder than any other bed in China (note: beds in China are really hard), and soft sleepers are pretty much the same, just roomier and enclosed.

Being the experts we are, we got hard sleepers, upper berth.  The bottom berth is the most expensive, and the middle is next, so we were also being a little cheap. But when it comes down to it, when you’re sleeping or resting, it’s actually quite comfortable:

However, when it comes to just plain sitting, it’s a different story altogether:

The bottom berth is generally the most popular because of this, since it’s possible to sit upright and still maintain your head. Of course, they keep these handy miniature socializing areas for the upper berths, which are great for looking cute and out of windows:

The first half of the trip, we were the quiet white(?) people talking in English, particularly about the only other white person on the entire train, who just happened to be three bunks over. Eventually, we got up the nerve to talk to her, and it turns out she was French and knew only a fair amount of English.

We struck up a conversation at the table between our little areas, which happened to be in front of the beds of a giggle of Chinese Olympic volunteer girls, most of whom had been learning English. The conversation was fun and interesting, but we got tired and eventually passed out on our respective beds.

Around 3 a.m., I was rudely awoken by the kind attendant informing me that we were to get off at the next stop. A lot of shuffling and grogginess later, we arrived at the Xi’an station, hobbled outside to remarkably pleasant weather, hopped in an overpriced taxi, apathetically paid, and got out at our hostel to start the first land-based leg of our journey.

The Journey Begins

All right, the journey began last Tuesday, but this is the first really stable internet connection we’ve had.

Tuesday morning, we set out for the train station for a big adventure.  Caitlin had been worrying because I didn’t have a plan or much input on the trip, but my plan was to play things by ear and do things as we go along.  It turns out that China sort of expects you to do this, since we pretty much had to buy tickets the day before we left.

We had heard moderately scary things about train ticketing and travel, so Caitlin had been hesitant to take the plunge.  We finally got to a place to buy tickets and talked to the guy behind the window.  He was mumbling a lot, but Caitlin understood that there was a train leaving for Xi’an at 8:30 p.m.  Since it’s a 13 or so hour ride, it’s best to leave at night, sleep the whole way, and wake up in a magical new land.

Once we walked outside, Caitlin looked at our tickets and realized they left at 2:30 p.m., meaning we would get to our destination at 3:30 a.m.  Suboptimal, and it had us upset for a little while.

By the time we were leaving, however, we were in much better spirits:

We got to the train station two hours early, because Caitlin wanted to make sure everything was in order.  I guess she assumed we were traveling internationally and had to go through TSA…

Once inside, I was struck by the sheer Asianness of the place. Chinese people everywhere!

It amazed me how few white people were there. I figured that with the Olympics freshly over and all, the tourists would be filling this place up, but there was not a Caucasian in sight.

Not only that, but it turns out that it’s the norm for the trains to be pretty much entirely Chinese. Aside from the usual semi-English signs, there was nothing that catered to foreigners. The locations on the giant sign were entirely in Chinese, the menus at the cafe were entirely in Chinese. Even (not surprisingly, though) when Caitlin noted that she wanted rice with her meal, the server yelled across the restaurant, in Mandarin, “The foreigner wants rice!”

Once we were done with lunch, we had a solid hour to kill before our train left.  The Chinese not only like to get to things early, but they also have this weird obsession with lining up.  It doesn’t matter what it is, if they see a line, they have to

  1. get in the line
  2. and

  3. get to the front of the line.

In this case, it meant that no matter what we did, we weren’t getting a seat in the waiting room.  So we waited our time on the floor, getting shooed away arbitrarily by one of the officials.

Finally, we passed through all of the shoving and pushing, finding our way to the platform, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel — the first of many, many tunnels (both literal and figurative).

Getting Home

The Olympics tend to draw large crowds from around the world, so it was inevitable that there would be someone I knew in the city.  As it turns out, I knew a couple of people, one of whom we actually decided to have dinner with.

Dinner was lengthy and enjoyable, and beforehand we even got to see the Beijing equivalent of Fremont street:

It turns out my friend was one of 300 international Olympic volunteers.  To put things in perspective, there were 100,000 volunteers of her category.  We had noticed there were different classes of volunteers, so we asked about the old people who sit around on every street doing pretty much exactly what they do every single other day, only wearing the Olympic shirt, and she explained that they’re there just in case someone needs a question answered.  Also, since there could potentially be a lot of questions, they are the largest class.  To quote our source, “There are a million of them.  Literally.”

During the course of dinner, I made it known that I had been wanting the Olympic polo shirt worn by the 100,000. I had even devised a plan to attack a lone Chinese girl, beating her up to steal the shirt. Fortunately, my lone American friend was so sick of the uniform, she offered the whole thing to me.

Unfortunately, this involved going to her place to pick it up, which wouldn’t be so bad, but Caitlin had to go back to her place to get ready to welcome a friend who would be staying the night. That meant I would have to get home by myself.

Getting across town was easy. I had a two-month local to take me on the trains, even mapping out my return to familiarity. As we were switching lines, however, we hit a bump in our plan. Waiting for the train to arrive, we watched it go right past us. More Chinese people collected, all looking confused:

It turns out the station was closing, but there was another train that stopped before we were out of luck.

We got to the right district, I got a new outfit (including the issued elastic-waisted pants and sock set), got shoved into a pre-informed taxi, and somehow made it back safely.  In fact, aside from the fact that I said nothing the entire time aside from “xie xie” when departing, I’m not sure the driver knew I didn’t speak Chinese.

Anyway, I did something in China without Caitlin!

Meeting the Athletes

On our wanderings through the Forbidden City, we noticed that many of the Olympic people (minus the volunteers) were still wandering around wearing their laminated badges.  On one of our many people-watching breaks, I discovered what sort of information was available.  Directly beneath the photo comes the name, then role, then country.  In the Forbidden City, we were only able to read JOURNALIST, HEAD COACH, and something else longer and unintelligable.

In our wanderings in the more allowed land, we came across two tall men trying to learn where the best place to catch a taxi was.  As they wandered away from a Chinese off-duty taxi driver with mildly confused faces, I mentioned to Caitlin that we should ask if they need help.

Since Caitlin is the “local,” I let her do the talking while I examined the badge I could see.  I wrote down the name to look up later, then did so.  I am such a stalker.

Well, it turns out one of our lost boys was Ben Rutleridge, a gold medalist Canadian rower.  Stalking is awesome.

I am so special.

The Amazing Shopkeeper

On our walk from the Forbidden City to the subway station, we needed to grab a snack.  We poked in the shop, looking around and eventually decided on the food we wanted.  When we went to pay, we gave the man money, he got us change, then handed the bills back to us.  We “xie xie”d him, walked out the door, and Caitlin turned to me.

“So, did you see that man’s thumbs?”

Of course I did. It was something so remarkable, I only allowed myself a little peek, then forced myself not to stare. I had to force myself not to stare, that’s how amazing it was.

The man had two thumbs. Well, he probably had more than that, but two was the number we saw on top of the stack of bills when he handed back our change with just his right hand.

Since it would be a little obvious if we went back inside to take a picture, we did a History channel reenactment. For your viewing pleasure:

The Forbidden City

In a last minute decision not to walk through a park, we decided to go to the Forbidden City today.  The ticket office said it closed at 4, and we got our tickets around 3, so we were planning on doing a little rush tour anyway.  Fortunately, Caitlin had already been there twice, and we were both suffering from a bit of the “all Chinese buildings look the same” syndrome, so once we both managed to get in at the student price, we were up for it.

The first thing I noticed was the amazing glory that is the giant Mao portrait.  This glory was carefully pointed out to me by the fact that every single person for a good mile in front of it was taking a picture with it as the background.  As is to be expected, the Chinese have different ways of posing for pictures, especially pictures with Mao.

I just had to join in on this action.

Once inside, we started walking.  Sure enough, the place is very much a city.  It is expansive.  It just keeps going.  And going.

There were roughly a million dozen thrones, each with a different purpose, but all in dimly lit rooms, so I didn’t bother taking any photos.

From the previous times Caitlin has visited, she noticed several differences. Even though she visited just a little bit before the Olympics, things had even been cleaned up more. For one, they added giant TVs:

Also, because it was so late, there were rather few people there. Other than that, it was the usual pretty cool. The gardens were pretty and spectacular, though.