Friday, January 20, 2006

Xi'an, China - Warrior Country

Surrounded by a fairly impresive wall, Xi'an is a surprisingly big and modern city with plenty of money, reflected in the high rise glass buildings and the high end international fashion brands that have set up shop on the main thoroughfare and in some of the many new shopping malls. The city centre is spotless, bustling and very westernised with Pizza Huts and KFCs on every other corner.

We arrived in Xi'an on an overnight train from Datong, which took about 17 hours. This is quite an interesting journey with some nice scenery along the way, just make sure you get a sleeper cabin where you can actually get some form of sleep. We met some people who decided it would be a great idea to save a measly few bucks and settle for a carriage seat. They spent the whole time squashed into their seats with no air conditioning with people sitting on the floor around them and even sitting on top of them and their bags!! So unless you like to travel uncomfortably in order to save less than it would cost to buy yourself a crappy breakfast then by all means get a sleeper cabin!! You'll thank me.

Outside the station you will be greeted by shouting taxi drivers and bus drivers all eager to take you wherever you need to go. They know all the hotels and hostels so you should have no trouble. Also outside the train station (probably sheltering out of the sun under the massive arches of the City Wall) are hundreds of country folka and farmers who have come to Xi'an in the hope of a better life or to try get a train to another big city to earn a living. Since it is a major hub for the region there are trains to and from every major town and city in China, as well as an international airport about 17 miles outside the city that caters for the streams of tourists here to see the historical sights and the many business men coming to take advantage of the economic boom.

If you're guide book is more than a couple of years old you can pretty much gaurantee that it will be hardly any use to you in Xi'an. The city is changing so fast that restaurants and hotels that were in our 2 year old guidebook had been replaced by massive sky scrapers and apartment blocks. In fact it was hard to find anything that was mentioned in the guidebook at all, and even harder to find any decent food as it has all been replaced, as I mentioned earlier, by crappy western fast food joints.

Stay Here:
We stayed in the Xi'An City Youth Hostel, a perfectly located old style chinese building just on the inside of the South Wall. In fact the wall is literally outside the door. Its by no means a great hostel, although it does have a decent restaurant serving up fairly good Chinese and western cuisine which is good when you can't find anything else. There are double rooms in an open courtyard as well as dorms sleeping anything from 6 to 12 people. Prices can depend on how busy they are and on how much you can bargain off the price. Generally though, prices in Xi'an are more expensive than say, Beijing for example.

Do This:
No trip to Xi'An would be complete without a trip to see the incredibly impresive 'Terracotta Army', a collection of thousands of 500 year old life size hand sculpted warriors that were discovered only about 30 years ago. They were made to gaurd the tomb of an emperor and are lined up in intimidating formations near his tomb (which is about 1 mile away). The strange thing about them is that here is no historical record of them ever being made, which is all the more compelling when you see them for real. There are so many of them and it must have taken so long to make them that surely someone wrote something down somewhere? Anyway, to get here take one of the lines of public buses just waiting pounce on you outside the train station. They will probably charge you more than they charge the locals to go the same distance but its a lot less than you would pay to go on a tour bus (which can be organised in the hostel if you wish) that'll go to the same place. Make sure you get off at the actual Terracotta Army site and not the fake 'Tomb' abobut a mile or so before it which is a rip off tourist trap. We got caught out ourselves and had to walk all the way to the proper one in the scorching heat.

In the city itself you can walk up on the City Wall, nice at night when the lanterns are all lit. The Drum tower in the centre of town is pretty nice too. If you want to shop this is a great spot with lots of big shopping malls and some bargains to be had in the smaller shops on North side of the drum tower.

You'll be hard pressed to find a decent chinese food place on any of the main streets, especially a reasonable one. As mentioned previously, the hostel does fairly decent food. For the fun of it you should eat in Pizaz Hut. We actually had to put our names on a list to get in and come back over an hour later, which is crazy. To see the ques outside and the way they enjoy having the 'Western' experience is an experience in itself. They even try to use knives and forks - an entertaining sight, though I'm sure not as entertaining as us trying to use chopsticks.

Other Stuff:
The CITS Office in Xi'An was by far the worst one we visited in all China. They have no interest in helping you unless you are obviously rich and willing to spend extortionate amounts on the tours they offer to the Terracotta army. They were very ignorant towards us when we asked them anything that didn't relate directly to what they wanted to sell us and had no information to offer us about getting out of Xi'an.

A better option would be to get info from the hostel or from one of the travel agents based across the road from the train station who are much more helpful and have good English.

There are options to go visit panda bears in a sanctuary about 200 miled or so out of Xi'An among a few other touristy things that didn't really interest me or seem worth the time. But for the Warriors alone it was worth thr trip, they really are impressive.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Datong (China) - Coal Country

Datong is a large industrial city about 280km west of Beijing. The journey by train from Beijing takes about 7 hours and winds through some spectacular mountain scenery and endless paddy fields. There are even sections of the Great Wall for you to spot along the way.

This is a coal mining region and the pollution in the air in and around the city is immediatly apparent as you approach. Black soot appears to have lightly coated everything, including the
outside of the train and the attendants close all the windows when the train approaches the city as a result. The last thing you want is a face full of soot!!

The train station is chaotic, full of people either coming home from Beijing or those looking to leave Datong for a better life elsewhere. You'll be pestered by the touts and taxi drivers outside, something you can expect all over Asia. You'll also be pointed out and stared and face the likelyhood of a trail of interested kids following you around, which is kinda cute. But before you even get outside the station the chances are that you will be nabbed by one of the CITS guys who are based here in the station. Check out my post on those guys by clicking the link above.

Stay Here:
The Datong Hotel - 3 star (though more like four star) This place is the tops. We managed to bargain about 50% of the price!! The staff are very friendly and helpful, especially the consierge who has good English and is dying to use it!! It's literally across the road from the train station. Make sure you avail of your complimentary massage (there's a massage and relaxation floor) and the restaurant serves a good breakfast (included) as well as excellent lunch and dinner fare.

Do this:
Xuankong Si, or the Hanging Temples (pictures above) as they are more commonly called, are a bunch of spectacular tempes impossibl perched on the side of a sheer cliff face, hidden deep inside the mountains about 50km from Datong. You can make your own way here by using public transport, but it is not advisable if you don't speak the language as the buses have no set route and may not go directly there, or even take you back to town. The best way to get there as a tourist (if you are not from China, you are a tourist. I don't want to hear any of this "I'm not a tourist, I'm and 'traveller'" bullshit!!) is with the CITS, located in the train station. We met some people who went on trips organised by other places, such as thier hotels and hostels and can safely say they had a terrible time. A half day is plenty of time to see the temples.
The Yungang Caves, about the same distance from Datong as the temples though in the opposite direction, are another must see here. There are over 50 caves, each of them with spectacular sculptures of The Buddha some of which are over 50 feet tall. Some of the caves are deep enough for you to go into and walk around but most are sealed of with a waist high fence, though you can still see what is inside fairly well. Flash photography is prohibited here in order to preserve the paint on the walls, though that doesn't seem to stop a lot of people lighting the place up. The caves are also accessible by public transport with the same risks as the temples but an easier option is to, again, go to see them on a tour. The CITS can include both the caves and temples on the same day if you wish as they visit the temple in the morning and the caves in the afternoon. If you do decide to take both trips in one day with CITS you will get a complimentary (though not very appetising) lunch after you see the temples.

One more thing to see around Datong is the Wooden Pagoda, China's oldest surviving and tallest wooden structure. Unfortunately we didn't get to see it as it is a bit far out of town and it rained heavily the day we planned to go, meaning that some roads were impassible. Shame really. So obviously I can't really comment.

Datong city itself is nothing really to remark about. The only things of any interest are the Drum Tower in the centre of the city and the Nine Dragon Screen, a screen with nine golden dragons used to keep bad spirits away. The main street through the city, Xinjian Xilu changes name to Da Xijie (big west street) inside the walls and then to Da Dongjie (big east street) further east. Both it and the north south Da Nanjie are where you'll find most of Datong's main shopping, with some decent bargains to be had, though not too much choice.

Eat Here:

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