A Travellerspoint blog

Magical mystery tours

Impromptu tour of the Xi’an suburbs as we try to catch our Bangkok flight

sunny 33 °C

Xi’an, China to Bangkok, Thailand

Our travel day from China to Thailand begins with a frustrating taxi ride to Xi’an airport. Stopping for a quick Compressed Natural Gas refill our taxi driver appears intent on driving in circles, avoiding any roads that lead to the airport. With little time to spare and with no desire to extend this magical mystery tour his dispatcher on a cell phone demands that we pay a flat rate to the airport (which we can guarantee will be more than the meter) I am in no mood to placate or pacify. Making the need for us to arrive at the airport, in the extremely near future, using the taxi’s perfectly serviceable meter more than apparent we soon enter the freeway for what should have been a forty minute drive to the out of town airport. Arriving, after much longer than this but for considerably less than the dispatcher offered rate we are soon checked in and on our way to Bangkok.

A week in China is a short time but with the ungracious attitude of the Chinese people, when en masse, it is as much as we can take. Individually, there are few nationalities politer. Even when a common means of communication is not available smiles and gestures nearly always become apparent. Yet this observation fades into oblivion when the Chinese are grouped together or behind the wheel of any form of motorized vehicle. At that point all courtesy is dropped and a survival instinct takes over. These bad manners soon become contagious and it is often all too easy to drop one’s own behavior to that of the surrounding mass.

Our remaining travels in SE Asia should remove these unwanted tendencies quickly. With the volume of people now resident in China one can certainly understand the attitudes that prevail. However, it does not make for pleasant and enjoyable travelling. The sounds and sights of China or often both fascinating and intriguing. Yet the attitude of those tourist hordes, at this peak tourist time, detract for nearly every activity that is undertaken. When considering a future trip to China we will certainly try to visit during the off season or if unavoidable make sure we sharpen our elbows in preparation for pushing in the inevitable unruly crowds that we will find.

Posted by jamesh1066 16:02 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Mugged by Terracotta warriors

Poor organization cannot detract from the spectacle of the 8th Wonder of the World

sunny 33 °C

Xi’an, China

As planned we depart our hotel relatively early to make the hour long journey to the main purpose of our visit to Xi’an. Located outside the city a simple and efficient bus ride, from the train station, has us stop briefly at the Huaqing Hot Springs before we arrive at what appears to be a service area. Confused that a one hour bus ride needs a toilet stop it is only after the bus conductor advises in very broken English that we have ‘arrived’ that we disembark.

Greeted by a sea of sidewalk restaurants and tourist vendors there are no discernible signs, in any language, pointing the many thousands of tourists that arrive at this major tourist sight, towards what is often billed as the 8th Wonder of the World. Sign language and mime are required to discern that we must walk through a car park and up a hill to reach the entrance to this huge archeological site. Remind me again how this nation organized a successful Olympic Games!

A general in full military regalia

A general in full military regalia

With an entrance charge of almost $20USD each I am unsure whether to hand over our Yuan or put my hands up and accept the perpetrated mugging. With entry costing twice that of the Forbidden City this has to be an incredible museum. Knowing that we have a 15 minute walk to the warriors from the Ticket Booth we saunter through an attractive park as the noon day heat soars to 32c. As we set off a mass of Chinese nationals fight and push to board the electric golf carts that can circumvent this brief walk. With hundreds queuing, to avoid exercise, we can be sure of reaching the museum proper well ahead of those joining the back of the scrum.

Horses with bronze head gear

Horses with bronze head gear

Close to the museum entry we show our golden tickets and pass through security. Fifty yards later another security check iterates the entire operation for no apparent reason. Entering the museum courtyard we are faced by a variety of monolithic buildings. With no discernible signs or maps in English we are left to wandering aimlessly in search of a promised movie theatre that should help set the historical context of the museum. Stumbling into the one time entry only museum of Chinese Archeology we are told, in sporadic English, of the history of the Chinese empire with apparently random references to the Terracotta Warriors. Unsure whether the entire history of China, along with a history of the museum we are now in, with little focus on the Terracotta Army is tacit we continue our search for the fabled movie theatre.

A charioteer still holding long disintegrated reins

A charioteer still holding long disintegrated reins

Close to the Exit we find a map of the museum grounds. Why the only map of the grounds should be positioned next to the exit one can only imagine. With the entrance fees being charged one might have hoped for a usefully positioned map to help the 1,000s of non-Chinese tourists that visit the museum every day. Clearly, too much to ask we note the location of the movie theatre and make our way to what has to be the worst museum information movie ever I have ever seen. The movie was clearly made in the 1970s when the museum originally opened. In places faded and blurred through continual playback the majority of the movie displays incomprehensible scenes of flowing rivers and terribly acted battle scenes, reminiscent of the very worst 70s style Chinese war movie imaginable – think soldiers throwing themselves into the camera lens to die like some ham actor or opera singer. Some 3-4 minutes of the 20 minutes film is given over to the feats of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Clearly, not impressed we head for Pit 3, the smallest and most recently excavated of the three pits of this UNESCO World Heritage Site that are available for public viewing.

Rows of warriors greet us

Rows of warriors greet us

From earlier reading and a fondly remembered trip, as a child, to the Royal Agricultural Halls in London, to see a very small example of these warriors we know that the Terracotta Army dates from the 3rd century BC. Discovered in 1974, by local farmers digging a well, each figure is unique, varying in both facial expression and height; with the tallest being the generals. The Army includes everything that the Emperor might need to both enjoy and conquer the afterlife. Warriors, chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, musicians and herders. The attention to detail is as amazing as the quantity of figures identified. Current estimates have the three pits containing over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. As we will see the majority have yet to be discovered but even with ‘only’ some 20% uncovered and restored the sight is impressive.

Pit 3 holds the Generals Headquarters

Pit 3 holds the Generals Headquarters

The General flanked by his lieutenants

The General flanked by his lieutenants

Pit 3, is the smallest unearthed pit, holding the Generals headquarters with high ranking generals and their attendants clearly visible, alongside still to be reconstructed statues. Next door in Pit 2 a military guard of, as yet largely uncovered cavalry and infantry units, provides an insight into the amount of restoration work required to return these warriors to their original, although now unpainted, condition.

Pit 2 is still largely uncovered

Pit 2 is still largely uncovered

According to historian Sima Qian (145-90 BC), construction of this mausoleum began in 246BC, involving some 700,000 works and taking almost four decades – Qin Shi was 13 years old when construction began. With the mausoleum of Emperor Qin still unopened, for fear of damaging what remains inside, archeologists can only guess at the treasures and ‘wonderful objects’ that were reputed to have been buried alongside the Emperor and is army of the afterlife.

Posing in front of the army

Posing in front of the army

Wooden beams would have supported the roof above the warriors

Wooden beams would have supported the roof above the warriors

An amazing sight

An amazing sight

The Terracota Warriors

The Terracota Warriors

520 Terracota horses have been unearthed

520 Terracota horses have been unearthed

Entering the largest and busiest of the three pits the scale of Pit 1 is instantly visible, allowing us to forget the terrible accompanying movie and lack of basic museum organization. 700ft long it contains the Main army, estimated at 8,000 figures with some 800 figures on view, currently. Ones first view of the statuesque army is mesmerizing. An army of individuals stood still, attending their Emperor. Whilst Emperor Qin had to be completely mad the scale of his achievement has to justify the often overused epilate ‘8th Wonder of the World’ for surely this is. Along with the Great Wall of China, coincidentally also commissioned by Emperor Qin, this is a sight that genuinely warrants its publicity.

Terracota Warriors

Terracota Warriors

More warriors await their General

More warriors await their General

Restoration work is slow and laborious

Restoration work is slow and laborious

Pit 1

Pit 1

The 8th Wonder of the World

The 8th Wonder of the World

Cavalrymen leading their horses

Cavalrymen leading their horses

Often fighting the continuous scrum of Chinese trying to obtain their own photo opportunity we peruse the entire Hall, maybe not in serene comfort, but certainly in awe. To the rear a closed for the weekend restoration area at least provides some hope that the exorbitant charge for entering the museum might be used for good use. Certainly, the authorities are not using it to provide helpful signage for non-Chinese speaking visitors.

Hard at work on my Blog!

Hard at work on my Blog!

Weary from the volume of visitors we are contending with we are soon back on the efficient, cheap and extremely frequent bus service back to Xi’an. Returning to our hotel and after a brief sojourn we return to the walled city to explore the various markets and bars around the southern gate. Finding ourselves back in the Muslim Quarter we happily wonder the souk styled stalls before returning to our hotel by moto. With our first moto showing signs of wear and unable to make the ten minute journey to our accommodation we switch bikes mid alleyway and finally return to our hotel. Weary from the days travelling we finish packing and fall sound asleep ready to depart tomorrow for Bangkok and more gracious territory.

The Drum Tower lit at night

The Drum Tower lit at night

Riding a working moto

Riding a working moto

Posted by jamesh1066 17:48 Archived in China Tagged xi'an terracotta warriors Comments (0)

Drum Towers and riding on sidewalks

Exploring the ancient city of Xi’an

sunny 30 °C

Xi’an, China

Our flight to Xi’an was smooth and uneventful. After a hectic few days in Beijing it allowed a couple of increasingly rare hours to catch up on both Blogs and reading. Descending into Xi’an the weather was much the same as it had been throughout our time in China, overcast and dull. Fortunately, by the time we arrived at hotel in this Terracotta city the light rain had stopped and we were free to explore the city labeled as the start of the Silk Road in relative comfort.

Entering the city through the vast West Gate

Entering the city through the vast West Gate

Xi’an is one of few cities whose medieval walls are still complete. Rising some 30ft and extending for 10 miles they would have dominated the surrounding area when originally constructed. Today, they overlook a sea of modern office buildings and rampant traffic systems. Yet entering the ancient city of Xi’an through the West Gate one can easily be reminded of ancient glories, even though little of the ancient trading capital remains.

Exploring the alleys of Xi'an city

Exploring the alleys of Xi'an city

Delving into the narrow alleyways and backstreets of the Muslin Quarter we are soon passing Chinese wearing the white Muslim skull caps so prevalent in this area. As quiet backstreets make way for busy vendor thoroughfares the sights and sounds, of spices, dates and freshly baked bread, remind one of an Arabian souk far more than a Chinese market.

Shops sell all manner of merchandise - some identifiable

Shops sell all manner of merchandise - some identifiable

The stalls of tourist vendors merge happily with those aimed at local trade with all manner of tourist paraphernalia from Terracotta army statues to silk purses available alongside unidentifiable food items that oscillate between the repulsive and intriguing.

Dim sum!

Dim sum!

The Folk House

The Folk House

Stumbling upon the Folk House we enter an oasis of calm in this bustling world. Reconstructed courtyard houses portray a past Chinese life of quiet tea ceremonies and puppet shows. Local painters demonstrate the familiar art of Chinese calligraphy painting with a few notable pieces now carefully en route back to the UK.

The Drum Tower

The Drum Tower

A short walk from this house can be found the Drum and Bell Towers’. Key landmarks of the Xi’an tourist trail. Now located in the centre of a busy traffic roundabout the Bell Tower would toll to signify the arrival of morning. The far larger and imposing Drum Tower would perform a similar function at night. Enormous in proportion it is easy to imagine how these single purposes buildings would have once dominated the surrounding landscape.

The grounds of the Great Mosque

The grounds of the Great Mosque

From the towers we are able to visit the Great Mosque, the largest in China. With construction beginning in the 8th century the mosque offers a strange but beautiful mélange of both Chinese architecture and Muslim religious necessity. A Chinese style landscape gives little sign of its Muslim nature, apart from a few palm trees close to the entrance. The minaret is curiously hidden within a Chinese pagoda with Chinese calligraphy predominant throughout what is an extremely attractive mosque. With, essentially, only the gardens open to visitors our visit it relatively brief and we are soon back in the hustle and bustle of the surrounding alleyways.

The chinese styled Great Mosque

The chinese styled Great Mosque

Leaning on a lamp post in a corner of the Great Mosque

Leaning on a lamp post in a corner of the Great Mosque

Ready for a brief respite back at hotel we hail one of the motorized rickshaws that continuously circle the streets. Termed ‘moto’ they offer two seats attached to a motorized scooter. More expensive than a taxi, for no discernible reason, they offer a fascinating vista of the narrow alleyways, as we dodge pedestrians and bicycles, trying to make use of the sidewalk also. As throughout China the bare bottoms of happy babies seem to predominate our journey with the Chinese, apparently, having only limited need for nappies. Curious as these scenes of human life pass by we are soon back at hotel.

A few cocktails has us pining for a relaxing evening in the comfort of our suite. Easy to get lost in, our accommodation boasts plenty of space to relax and so we enjoy our first ‘night in’ for some time. Ready for the warriors we are to meet in the morning.

Posted by jamesh1066 17:49 Archived in China Tagged xi'an Comments (0)

Olympic temples and waterfront bars

The 2008 Olympic site, the largest Buddhist temple in China and the Houhai Lake

sunny 30 °C

Beijing, China

Along with the benefit of an excellent electronic toilet seat that can both wash, dry and heat the seat all at the same time our suite also offers a 24-hour butler. Waking this morning to a strong cup of English breakfast the wet weather outside provided an ideal excuse to delay our departure from the hotel and spend a few hours relaxing.

In desperate need of a haircut I used the time to get a quick ‘bank and sides’. Throughout our trip hair cuts have been an interesting, periodic activity. Often with limited or mis-understood English there is always the potential for mishap and disaster. Possibly one of the best haircuts I have ever received was in the Philippines, where a relatively small amount of money, from a very effeminate barber, provided for a great styling. Today, I am faced with a grim Chinese barber who speaks very little English and judging from his own haircut likes hair short and ordered. Trying to explain the various nuisances I require we eventually limit the haircut to short until I say stop. Too concerned over my bouffant I end with a perfunctory haircut, a little longer than I might have liked, carried out in total silence. With discretion truly the better part of valor, on this occasion, I at least look presentable and have not been scalped!

With the promised showers now abated we are clear to once again enter the Subway system, which has now become perfunctory and acceptable, as long as we avoid the hellish Line 1, and head for the Olympic Park. At the Olympic Stadium Chinese tourists ask us in an intelligable mix of English and sign language if they can have their picture taken with Trey. This is fast becoming a 'normal' request in Beijing. Perhaps we should start charging!

Posing in the subway with Trey's new friend

Posing in the subway with Trey's new friend

The aptly named Bird's Nest stadium - No idea why Minnie is there

The aptly named Bird's Nest stadium - No idea why Minnie is there

With no real desire to enter any of the stadiums a brisk walk along Olympic Boulevard allows us to marvel at the ‘Birds Nest’ Stadium and the Water Park. Both are spectacular feats of design and engineering. Like us the volume of local tourists exploring the area, as we are, is also surprising. Vendors sell kites, food an tickets to the arenas whilst most families seem happy to run, play and picnic in the vast concrete area between the Stadiums. We enjoy the imagery but are soon back on the subway and heading to the largest Buddhist temple in China and the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.

Outside the stadium

Outside the stadium

The Water Cube

The Water Cube

Entering the Lama Temple

Entering the Lama Temple

The Lama Temple was converted to a lamasery in 1744 after serving as the former residence of Emperor Yong Zheng. Through a variety of courtyards and temple buildings the final temple hall, Wanfu Pavilion contains a magnificent 55ft high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, clothed in yellow silk and reputedly sculptured from a single block of sandalwood.

The Lama Temple

The Lama Temple

Inside the Lama Temple

Inside the Lama Temple

Incense burners inside the Lama Temple

Incense burners inside the Lama Temple

Plenty of space for monks to pray

Plenty of space for monks to pray

Peeking through doors at the Lama Temple

Peeking through doors at the Lama Temple

With incense burning in each of the large bronze tubs outside the temples and offered to the many Buddha statues and images that we pass it is clear that the many shops piled high with all manner of Buddhist charms, keepsakes and amulets are kept well employed by the devote pilgrims visiting this temple.

One of many religious stores near the temple

One of many religious stores near the temple

Along a narrow Hútòng, now far from the Lama Temple we glance into the Confucius Temple and Imperial College but happily decline its invitation and find a local restaurant for a satisfying lunch of Peking Duck. Fulfilling our need for sustenance but also avoiding a brief but monsoon like shower that passed over whislt we are eating.

One of the many beautiful doors that Trey photographs

One of the many beautiful doors that Trey photographs

After a late start we are soon heading back to the hotel to rest before heading out for our last evening in Beijing. With a variety of subway line changes our evening is spent, like many other permanent and temporary residents of Beijing it would appear, at Houhai Lake.

The Hutongs around Houhai Lake

The Hutongs around Houhai Lake

Atmospheric little Chinese restaurant

Atmospheric little Chinese restaurant

Great hygiene standards here

Great hygiene standards here

Surrounded by boutique style shops and a variety of bars (none with pole dancing this time!) the lake area offers an intriguing mix of boutique and family style activities. Battery powered, pedal or luxury boats, replete with appealing red Chinese lanterns, can be hired for a ride on the lake. Families with food and drink cruise past as we walk along the shore of the lake enjoying a riot of neon signs and live Chinese vocals. Yet, having already enjoyed drinks and nibbles earlier in the evening a post-supper walk is all that we require. Enjoying the sights and sounds of the lake and surrounding areas we return late to our hotel we were must pack and prepare for are departure from this capital city that despite its sheer scale and number of people crammed into almost every public space has grown up in us the more we linger. At every corner we have found new experiences, surprised by the unexpected sights and sounds of this diverse and ever changing city.

Houhai Lake

Houhai Lake

Like many high density cities travelling about, whilst unchallenging, can be unpleasant due to sheer volume of people. Yet the transportation systems are cheap and efficient. The tourist attractions are easy to visit and around every corner a different style or culture offers both surprise and diversity. I suspect Beijing illicits a feeling a loathing and adoration in many travelers. For us it has been an interesting experience but we have no reservations in moving onto Xi’an tomorrow morning.

Posted by jamesh1066 16:38 Archived in China Tagged olympics beijing Comments (0)

Chinese Pole Dancing and the Forbidden City

Temple fatigue and dodgy bars

sunny 30 °C

Beijing, China

Awakening to a relaxing, oscillating water jet on the electronic and fully customizable toilet, come bidet our relocation from open Mongolian field toilet to the height of technological bathroom experience in Beijing could not be more complete. A hole in the ground replaced by Japanese innovation. Hard to decide which we prefer. Certainly the view was better in Mongolia!

Controls galore on the toilet

Controls galore on the toilet

A vast moat surrounds the City

A vast moat surrounds the City

Ready to explore the Forbidden City we are soon crammed onto the unavoidable Subway Line 1, once again giving a passable impression of sardines in a can. Released from our temporary and intimate predicament we are soon outside the ancient buildings, where entry was forbidden for 500 years and that served as home to two dynasties of Emperors, the Ming and Qing. In former ages the price for uninvited entry was execution; today Y60 ($10 USD) was sufficient.

Shortly after taking this a very stern officer asked me to stop taking pictures!

Shortly after taking this a very stern officer asked me to stop taking pictures!

Outside the Forbidden Palace

Outside the Forbidden Palace

The Meridiian Gate

The Meridiian Gate

The southern Meridien Gate

The southern Meridien Gate

The Gate of Supreme Harmony

The Gate of Supreme Harmony

Gate of Supreme Harmony

Gate of Supreme Harmony

Trey loses her head!

Trey loses her head!

Wondering the City

Wondering the City

The sheer size and scale of the city is spectacular. As we entered through the southern Meridien Gate one courtyard after another appeared before us until we approached the Palace of Heavenly Purity, a residence of Ming and early Qing emperors, and later an audience hall for receiving foreign envoys and high officials. From the outside the Chinese style architecture could not fail to impress, although the dusty and off limits interiors of what appeared consistently to be rather staid looking beds was a little disappointing. From this northern area a multitude of small courtyards house further buildings, once residences, storage rooms and even telecommunication centers but now either shops, museums and locked to the public.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

Wall murals show how the palace would have looked

Wall murals show how the palace would have looked

Crowds flock to the Hall of Supreme Harmony

Crowds flock to the Hall of Supreme Harmony

Hanging out by the door

Hanging out by the door

Intricate architecture abounds

Intricate architecture abounds

Yet, despite its scale and perhaps due to the volume of tourists crawling over ever area of the city or a growing temple fatigue the Forbidden City does not capture our passions and certainly does not offer up the splendid photographic opportunities we had hoped for. Maybe we need more classes! So we explore the city and wonder at the buildings but cannot help but compare to both sights on this trip and previous that have engaged us more.

The gardens of the Forbidden Palace

The gardens of the Forbidden Palace

Inside the Forbidden Palace

Inside the Forbidden Palace

The hill at Jingshan Park

The hill at Jingshan Park

Heading out of the Forbidden City

Heading out of the Forbidden City

However, on leaving the Forbidden City after some hours exploration, as it truly is a city within an capital we are keen to climb to the top of the hill, shaped from the earth excavated to create the palace moat that still surround the city. With its priceless views Jingshan Park offers an amazing panorama of both the Forbidden City and central Beijing. Whilst Chinese tourists dress in the Emperors traditional robes for the sought after photograph we descend the hill through the quieter northern area of the park and towards the tourist Hútòng of Nanluogu Xiang. Replete with western tourists, kitsch stores and bohemian style cafes this area of Beijing reminds one of the shopping alleyways of Shanghai but certainly not the busy, modern capital of Beijing we have become used to.

Viewing the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park Hill

Viewing the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park Hill

The yellow roofs of the Forbidden Palace

The yellow roofs of the Forbidden Palace

Wondering the Hutongs

Wondering the Hutongs

Typical hutong architecture

Typical hutong architecture

With a brief return to the Silk Market to hard bargain purchases of ‘must have’ items that we never realized we wanted we spend an interesting evening, after drinks and nibbles at the hotel, exploring the Sanlitun Lu bar street of the Chaoyang embassy district.

Throughout Beijing we have seen small motorbikes embedded within essentially an enclosed steel box that allows the driver to transport two passengers short distances both on the road and sidewalk. Riding in one of these to the Sanlitun one feels like a slightly cramped convict on way to trial, in a micro paddy wagon, with nothing but a small windows to see out of. However, they are relatively comfortable after the subway and with us averaging 15 miles a day, walking, a welcome respite.

Our steel box on wheels

Our steel box on wheels

Trey rides her own paddy wagon

Trey rides her own paddy wagon

Riding in our micro paddy wagon

Riding in our micro paddy wagon

The bar street itself is a capitalist mélange of quality fashion stores and neon lit relatively seedy looking bars. The fusion of these very different environments is both strange and unexpected in Beijing. Approaching one bar we are excitedly told not to worry. The singer on stage will be ending soon and two girls, gesticulated at as if at the zoo, will be pole dancing soon. Not unsurprisingly we give that bar a miss and find one that proffered a somewhat cheesy ‘American I Got Talent Idol’ style singer and electronic pianist. With expensive beers and a desperately empty bar we ‘savored’ the atmosphere as the bar began to fill with Chinese men purchasing large amounts of beer and clearly settling in for the evening.

Sanlitun Bar Street

Sanlitun Bar Street

Slightly cheesy band!

Slightly cheesy band!

As our bottles of local beer emptied we were informed that as the main event was to start soon our comfy chairs would got $150USD if we were to stay. With no interest in paying, on a whole variety of fronts, we were soon back on the street and returning to our hotel. Yet, as we passed other bars, that clearly started their ‘action’ early, the pole dancing appeared to be a weird, well covered, Turkish style dancing that will certainly not worry a Mr. Stringfellow or certain bar owners in Bangkok, I will warrant. With both Chinese and foreign tourists enjoying the warm night air at these bars clearly the sight of well clothed young girls, pole dancing, does not concern either customer or authority in what must becoming a slightly more accepting Beijing.

Posted by jamesh1066 17:51 Archived in China Tagged beijing Comments (0)

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