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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

She sells Xi'an

CHINA | Friday, 5 November 2010 | Views [899]

Xi'An is one of the most exotically named cities we've visited and also one of the most dramatic to arrive in.  Immediately after exiting the identikit Chinese Train Station one is confronted by an immense wall stretching, like China, from east to west as far as the eye can see all lit up with spotlights and fairy lights.  Behind the wall lies the neon buzz of contemporary China, a perfect visual metaphor.  Lovely though all this is,  We've been trying to ring Bob's guesthouse on and off for the past three days and haven't got through.  We're a little nervous and very much aware we have nowhere to stay, no map and few directions.  Following our Indian compass we head East towards the setting sun along the wall.  The walk is a relief after so long on a train, even though it was a very good ride.

The scenery was like a story, telling a winding narrative from snowbound plateaus down to dusty hills and on through smog-filled plains.  First we climbed up to Na'Qu at 4520km, then across the tundra with vast herds of grazing yak set nicely against the snowfields.  It's different to what we saw in the other parts of Tibet, and much colder too.  The outside temperature hovers around 0 for most of the first day.  (There's a cunning electronic display tells us the time, temperature outside and our height!) Of course, we're inside a nice warm train, not too hot and not too cold and we end up sleeping like lambs.  Morning brings the plains and factories of China into sharp relief and our water bottles have contracted with the increase in pressure.  From here we wind on through rural-suburban-rural conurbations, never quite sure where one place finishes and another begins.  We've got company too, Bert from the tour group who is pushing on all the way to Beijing.  It's nice to be like one of the other passengers who are always darting between compartments to chat and socialise.  We elegantly waste hours idling in the comfort of the restaurant car until we're kicked out and share hastily-slurped noodle pots with each other on our lower bunk.  It's nice too to stagger the end of the group and nicer again to spend time with Bert who neither of us had spent a great deal of time with but who turned out to be jolly nice.

Anyway, enough of that, back to Bob's.  We found it easily enough in the end, it did exist and did have a room.  We communicated through a translation program on their computer and checked in to a nice enough room with a great shower, which was like manna from heaven.  After a good night's sleep it was time to clear up the ticket nonsense by getting tickets for our first-choice train on the day we wanted, from the regular ticket desk.  Chinese trian tickets are often said to be a pain, but so far it's been easy as pie for us.  Happy to have hurdled another obstacle, we head off to see some old toy soldiers

It's a hell of a collection, too, we're both awestruck by the scale and hubris of the project.  Equally as impressive is the presentation and the facilities.  It's a Big Sight that really delivers and is well managed - we'd forgotten what it was like.  Full and detailed explanations are given in a number of languages, individual figures are brought out and displayed seperately for closer examination and the semi-open pits with hundreds of men in rows are breathtaking.  There aren't just warriors but also lots of admin staff and entertainers but The Terracotta Jugglers and Notaries doesn't sound so good.

The other big draw in the city is of course the Wall.  It's the oldest and biggest in the world and dominates the entire city.  We manage halfway (about 6km) before ducking off to look at souveniers.  Our time in China is dwindling and it's the last call for cheap supplies.  It's a nice if cliched contrast to be on this ancient wall and then be overlooking modern buildings.  It feels often like we're looking at giant architect's models, which is after all what buildings are, but it's still odd.  Odder still is that all these new buildings are still going up in such an old city - Xi'an is the last stop on the silk road and stretches its history back 3,000 years.  The council have built nice parks at the base of the wall, so there's always space between it and tower blocks, creating a valley in places, filled with the wall.  The wall surrounds the Bell Tower, which is taken to be the centre of the city.  Even at just a kilometre away, the fog and smog is so thick as to render it invisible.  Still, it provides a fantastic focal point for the city - we saw dozens of youngsters gathering on roller-skates before dashing off in a giant line to all fall over on the first slope they came to. And that was before they tried the steps/escalator!

With such a large population and being one end of the silk road, China has lots and lots of Muslims.  Because it's so far east, here Muslims are western, and Xi'an is the capital of Western China despite being quite far east.  With all of this comes a grand mosque, China's oldest, and better food, surrounded by hundreds of very similiar market stalls.  Surprisingly, there's a good deal of victoriana and all manner of things besides.  The quality is hugely variable but everything's got a place and if one knew what one was doing, maybe here would be a very good place to be.  It's a shame but we don't have too much time for Xi'An, it seems as though there's enough to easily fill a fortnight or more.  Leaving somewhere with things to come back for but not having wasted time is a lovely way to be departing and it's something we've done a lot of.

Our final meal in China is in a nice-looking banquet hall that's surprisingly cheap and replete with Chinglish.  Some of the menu is instructive, some surreal and some threatening.  The staff are wheeling bikes through the dining hall.  And then, after having come back from 70 degrees east all the way to 110, more than halfway home to Tokyo, we finally begin the inexorable path west and north towards Europe and climb onto our top bunks on the T69 to Urumqi.


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