Xi’an is one of the former capital cities of China. There is quite a bit of history there, including a city wall, a bell tower, a drum tower, several emperor’s tombs, imperial baths, one of the four holy Zen mountains in China, and of course the world famous Terracotta Warriors. Every time someone digs around there, they seem to hit some archaeological ruins and the project is sidelined while an excavation is performed. There is no subway in Xi’an because of all of the artifacts which are still underground. This means that there are a tremendous number of buses.
The city is the smoggiest that we have yet visited. At times it seemed to interfere with our vision over distances as short as 20 feet or so. It was really horrific and I can only imagine what particulate matter was in the air. Coal dust? Toxic byproducts? Heavy metals? Very small stones? Probably all of the above. The large number of buses adds to the smog problem.
We had made a reservation for the Lu Dao hostel, so we were met at the train station by a representative and led back (it was only a few hundred meters) to check in. The hostel is located on the top floor of a hotel and we were able to use the amenities. The place was clean, the staff friendly, and the computers and Internet tolerable (a compliment for the country). We got a dorm style room so we could interact with more people. But we were the only ones who were ever assigned to that particular room, despite the fact that there were several other dorms which had room and which continued to receive new guests. Strange, but not a big deal. We spent less and had more space than if we’d gotten a double. We found plenty of opportunities to interact with others in the business center and the restaurant.
The first order of business was to secure our letter of permission for travel to Tibet. We did this through a guy at the hotel named “Jim Beam” — probably not his real name. This cost 450 RMB (roughly $60) and took 3 days. The official permission letter consists of nothing more than a fuzzy fax of some handwritten Chinese characters and a list with the names and nationalities of several other travelers. But we were unable to purchase a train ticket to Lhasa without it.
Most of the time we stayed within the city walls — a 14km perimeter recreated in the footsteps of a much older wall. There are a couple of malls, a few historic buildings, several open markets and food stands, and of course a McDonald’s. This area is more pedestrian friendly than the outside, so it was natural for us to spend most of our time here. However, the Terra Cotta Warriors stand guard over a tomb well outside the walls, and Hua Shan mountain and the Hua Qing hot springs (former private baths of the emperors) are also located outside.
The trip to get to the Terra Cotta Warriors was an interesting one. There are tours which will take you to see the warriors, the tomb of Qin Shi which they protect, a neolithic village, and the baths. This costs ~280 RMB. We had heard that the neolithic village was awful, that the tomb was just a big mound of dirt, and that there were numerous “rest breaks” conveniently located inside souvenir shops. We found out that the public bus, which cost 7RMB, would take us to see the baths and the warriors, so we did that instead.
The first place for us to get off was the baths. We didn’t know what stop it was, so we got off after we saw the “Hua Qing Bath Hotel and Spa”. However, we soon found out that this was about 2km short of the stop for the actual baths. That must be why we got so many funny looks when we got off the bus in the middle of a deserted street.
When we got to the actual Hua Qing park, we were greeted by several different groups of people trying to sell us cable car rides to the top of the mountain, English speaking tours, and a golf cart ride around the park. We declined all offers politely and paid our 40 RMB to get inside. We walked around inside and found it to be pretty uninteresting. We were charged 5 Jiao (a half of a Yuan) to touch the water, and it would have cost 2 RMB if we had wanted to dip our feet in it.
When we left the park, we were besieged by taxi drivers offering their services. Some promised not to charge us, some were very low prices. But none said where they were going to take us, so we declined. We caught the bus at the right stop and continued to the end of the line, the Terra Cotta Warriors. But before we could get to the complex where the statues are housed, we had to run a gauntlet of tourist shops, each having the same junk for sale for nearly the same price, depending on your bargaining skills. After about 1km of this, we arrived at a gate. However, this was not the gate to enter the park, it was only the gate to get to a different part of the walk. There were no shops here, instead there were people running up with trinkets in their hands. After another couple hundred meters, we were finally at the gate. We paid our 70 RMB and entered.
When we walked into the hangar-like building where the warriors are located, we were both awestruk as the enormity and quantity of the feature attraction hit us. There are thousands of hand made statues, each different from the next. There are also horses, carts, and everything else an army would need to fight other clay armies. While many have been reconstructed, most of the soldiers are still broken and in the ground. There is also a place where the soldiers are being rebuilt piece by piece from the remains found. The place really is spectacular, but words and pictures fail to properly capture it.
After leaving the park area, we were again approached by vendors carrying imitations of the warriors we’d seen inside. This time we decided to have fun with them. We offered ridiculously low prices to see how they would respond. Many times they would just walk away. However, one salesman accepted Brian’s price of 10 Yuan for a statue. For the rest of the walk, he attempted to sell the statue to the other vendors, parroting them saying “Ni yao” — “You want.” This confused them and many just laughed and left us alone.
We got on the city bus to go back to the hostel, spending another 7 Yuan. Our trip totalled 125 RMB and took about 5 hours. The tour package would have cost more than double that and taken 9 hours or so. Some things are much better done by yourself. It may be a bit more difficult, but in the end, you win.