Friday, April 06, 2007 China China


The eastern end of the Silk Road

[IMG_1934]
Terracotta Warriors museum [Enlarge]

Up to now we've had guides in their early twenties that make us feel very old so we were glad to meet 34 year old Julia. We were even more glad when we discovered that she spoke excellent English, was very knowledgeable and interesting, and was a thoroughly nice person. The head office of Marco Polo Travel (the company behind TravelChinaGuide) is in Xi'an and we couldn't help wondering if they'd sent us their best guide to make up for Peter. The first day's only itinerary item was to be taken straight to the hotel.

The main tourist attraction in Xi'an is the Terracotta Warriors, and that's where we headed at 08:30 the next morning. The warriors are slightly larger-than-life clay figures constructed to guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who unified China for the first time. The theory of why they were buried here in the first place is that it was believed that if the Qin Dynasty emperors were attacked, the buried warriors would come to life to defend the kingdom. Unfortunately for the dynasty, the belief was proved to be unfounded. A peasant uprising in 206 BC, four years after Qin Shi Huang's death brought the dynasty to an end and the terracotta warriors were smashed to pieces and buried. It took over 2,000 years for them to re-emerge. In 1974 some farmers were digging a well and discovered some strange pieces of terracotta. The national archaeology authorities got to hear about the finds and they moved in. To date more than 7,000 pottery soldiers and horses have been found. We, like most people, had seen photos of the warriors before, but they really have to be seen to be appreciated. The process of restoring them is far from finished and they will keep a lot of archaeologists employed for a very long time. We spent all morning marvelling over the scale of the place and the amazing craftsmanship of the clay carvings.

Back in Xi'an city we enjoyed a Cantonese meal in a local restaurant and then went to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This is a 64.5 metre-high tower which stands in the grounds of the Da Ci'en Temple, surrounded by peonies, China's national flower. Luckily for us the peonies are just starting to bloom here in Xi'an so we are here at just the right time. After the pagoda we visited the Provincial Museum. Julia's local knowledge was invaluable in showing us around the exhibitions charting Xi'an's history as the first capital city of unified China and its importance as the starting point of the Silk Road. We found a map showing the old silk routes and Julia translated the names of Constantinople (─░stanbul), Aleppo and Damascus, places we visited back in December and January. She was interested to hear about the similarities we'd noticed in Chinese and Islamic architecture.

"This one shape like duck, is duck!" [IMG_1975]
Duck dumpling [Enlarge]

Our day was rounded off with a Tang Dynasty Music and Dance Show and a dumpling banquet. We're more than ever convinced that the Chinese actually want to kill off tourists with the mad quantities of food they expect us to eat. We lost count of exactly how many dumplings they served. They were very delicious and the comedic waitresses added to the fun. As each plate was set down they talked us through its contents: "this one look like duck, is duck; this one look like pig, is pork". When we complained that we couldn't even begin to eat the umpteenth course (a soup containing lots of stuff plus eight tiny dumplings), the waitress said that it would be extremely bad luck not to try to find the "small baby dumplings" and practically force-fed us.

Julia made the next morning's shopportunity optional so we exercised our option and skipped it. We started our day at the very civilised hour of 10:30—our first lie in for what seems like weeks. We went to Xi'an's rectangular city wall which is still complete, although the city has long since expanded outside its confines. We rented a couple of bicycles and rode the 13.7 kilometres around the top of the wall. It was good to get some exercise and work off some of those dumplings. Finally we visited the city mosque—the first one we've been to since Damascus at the other end of the Silk Road. As well as sending silk west, the Silk Road brought a substantial Muslim population east. It was friday and there were quite a few worshippers enjoying the sunshine in the courtyards. This was a very different experience from mosques in the Middle East. We kept our shoes on and Isla and Julia did not have to cover their heads. The architecture was traditional Chinese so the call to prayer came from under a tiled roof, rather than the top of a minaret.

Lunch was in a Sichuan restaurant in the same building as TravelChinaGuide's offices and half way through the meal the agent who had handled our booking came down to speak to us. As promised in the phone call we had received in Suzhou, he had followed up on our comments about Peter. He handed us a written letter of apology from Peter and explained that Peter was no longer working as a tour guide for them and their managers would be deciding what to do with him. Bloody hell! We didn't think our complaint was quite that serious. Now we had poor Peter's blood on our hands. Then the agent pulled out a bag and presented us with a 30 cm tall statue of a terracotta warrior in recompense. We felt guilty and sorry for Peter. When we'd sent our email it was intended to point out what was wrong with the tour in general and the itinerary that Peter was having to work with, not just his failings—now it seemed like he was being made a scapegoat. Yet again the differences between the British and Chinese way of doing things was made clear. In the UK he would have been given a bit more training or maybe some supervision. In China, he was summarily relieved of his duties. Sitting in the airport after lunch, waiting for our flight to Beijing we had time to reflect. We hope that Peter won't lose his job, and will be given whatever training he needs to bring his English up to a decent standard. On balance we still think we made the right decision in complaining. We paid a lot of money for this tour and it hasn't been up to scratch. Now we have the small matter of what to do with a one-foot tall warrior for the remainder of our round the world trip.

Finally we have a confession to make. Thus far we had prided ourselves on being travellers rather than backpackers. One distinction is that we carry small messenger bags rather than huge backpacks. It's a small difference, but to us it's important. However, when we collected Isla's bag from the luggage carousel at Xi'an airport the strap was broken—it's a miracle it's lasted this long as it's the bag we always check in on planes. We tried and failed to get it repaired in Xi'an, so in the couple of hours we had in the airport waiting for our flight to Beijing, we bought a replacement bag. It's the same tiny size as the first bag, but yes, it's a backpack. Isla finds it much more comfortable to carry though, so we guess that's the most important thing. Now that we've taken the first step on the slippery slope to backpacker-dom how long will it be before we stop washing and get dreadlocks? You'll have to keep reading to see!

Map of Day 131

Day 131
Hangzhou to Xi'an

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.