A Travellerspoint blog

X marks the spot.

Fabulous Xi'an, the historic capital of China.

sunny 38 °C
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I arrived in Xi'an pretty excited. Chengdu was amazing, but Xi'an was the start of seeing proper ancient China. The end of the Silk Road, Xi'an has an entire wall, the drum and bell towers, the pagodas, a Muslim quarter and of course Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army.
I checked into Hangtang House and went immediately to the centre of the old city, 10 minutes walk from the hostel. The Bell Tower is marooned in a sea of traffic thankfully accessed by an underground tunnel.
View from Bell Tower

I was starving so I headed first to the Lonely Planet recommended 100 year old dumpling restaurant Defachang Jiaoziguan. Pity they had updated the decor in the 1980's but the dumplings and the view of the towers were fab.

The Drum and Bell towers were built in the 14th century, rebuilt in the 1700's. They are in the centre of the old city and were used to mark time. Bells were rung during the day and drums marked the night. They have been beautifully restored and I think better than the ones in Beijing. The bell on the bell tower was cast in 711AD!

Next stop was the wall...I headed to the South Gate immediately south from the Bell Tower. I had timed this perfectly as the day was super hot and I wanted to spend a couple of hours cycling round. So I got to see the sunset from the wall plus see it beautifully lit at night. Cycle hire was only $10 for two hours, bargain! Plus there was peaceful piped Chinese music all the way round.

These wall were built in the Ming Dynasty, 1370, and are 12 m high and 14 km in length. Much larger walls surrounded a larger city in the Tang Dynasty (618AD to 907 AD) and encircled an area of 83km2 with over a million people living within them at the time.

Dinner was grabbed from the Muslim Quarter. Chinese Muslims have lived in this area since the 7th century and it is the best part of the city. Narrow lanes with not just souvenir shops- people are just getting on with their lives here and it is fascinating.
The Grand Mosque. Chinese mosques are very different!

The next day I had booked myself on a tour to the Terracotta Army. It was a scorcher! The tour guide was a crack up. Her name was Ja Ja and she told us we could call her Lady Ja Ja. Her English accent was really hard to understand but she repeated herself several times which was useful.
The Army was built for the first Emperor of China. He was an impressive but crazy man. Born in 260 BC, he conquered all of China and unified China in 221BC becoming its first Emperor. During his reign the Great Wall was also built.

The creation of his Terracotta Army started when he ascended the throne of his home kingdom when he was just 13 years old. It continued until his death, foretold by a comet, but most probably due to the ingestion of mercury, in 210 BC. The mercury was supposed to make him immortal.
The face of every warrior is different, the faces were copies of the workmen that created them. The workmen had short lives and many were probably sacrificed during the creation of the army. They were possibly luckier than the 3000 concubines that were buried alive when the Emperor was interred.

The warriors were found by a farmer in 1974 when he was digging a well. According to Lady Ja Ja he found the only intact warrior found in the dig so far. The archer is on display in pit 2, the first pit we visited. I was lucky to see him as he was constantly surrounded by a sea of tourists hoping to get a snap of themselves with the famous warrior.

The farmer is also now very famous. His whole village was moved due to the discovery, he was compensated around $10 US, and now he signs books every day at the museum. I got to see him. Not too sure if he enjoys his new calling.

There are three pits at the dig. We started with pit 2 which is still being excavated, most warriors are still in pieces. You can see the walls and the impressions of the roofs that eventually collapsed. It is massive. So far 1300 warriors and horses have been found.
You can get up close and personal with some of the warriors in this pit, if you are patient and willing to shove people out of the way.

Pit 3 was the smallest pit and was thought to be army HQ. It contains high ranking officers and horses. Unfortunately some are headless.

Pit 1 is the most amazing. It is thought to contain 6000 warriors, 2000 are on display, the rest are being dug up and reassembled. All of the restored warriors are facing east, in battle formation. They have even found warriors from different regions in China with their distinct costumes and head pieces and hair do's.

We then visited the Emperor's actual resting place in the searing 38 degree heat. Lady Ja Ja said it wasn't very interesting to look at because it was just a hill.
But it is reputed to have underground rivers of flowing mercury (what is it with the mercury), booby traps, and the remains of the buried alive workers who had to take their secrets to the grave. The tomb doesn't appear to have been looted, unlike some of the warriors, so it must have worked. Archaeologists have sent probes down and mercury is around 100 times the normal rate that occurs naturally.
We also missed out on the bronze chariots and horses that are on this site. Lady Ja Ja must have been hungry.

My last day in Xian was spent using the subway and travelling to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, the Xian museum and the Great Mosque. I also ate more tasty food in the Muslim Quarter. The day was rainy and cold, complete opposite to the day before.

The goose pagodas (I don't know the significance of the names) were also built in the Tang Dynasty between 652 and 709 AD. They are Buddhist temples, built to hold sutras and Buddha figurines from India. They were both damaged by an earthquake in 1556 which I didn't know about when I climbed all the way to the top of the small pagoda. Lucky that.

Posted by Kiwi Holly 01:45 Archived in China Tagged xian terracotta_army Comments (0)

Cuteness in Chengdu

Well I mean the pandas of course.

sunny 24 °C
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As I write this from my second long distance train trip from Chengdu to Xian, I cannot understand why anyone would choose a different long distance mode of transport in China. Sleeper tickets are cheap, beds are comfortable, toilets are usually clean, views are amazing, and you get to walk about. They even have chargers for your electronics. On the down side smoking is allowed in special areas and the smokers never abide by the "close the door rule". Another new nasty experience on this journey is cheesy piped music and constant, what I imagine is, Chinese advertising with a soothing female voice, bring your I pod. So you do leave your journey satisfied but stinking of smoke.

For the future traveller, bullet trains are becoming more common.

Chengdu is a city with a population the size of NZ. So smaller than other cities in China but as I took a train through its outskirts and a taxi to my hostel it seemed much larger than that. And it is growing. Most of the population lives in apartments and the new ones being built advertise their square meterage on the side of the building with large banners. Most are around 140 to 200 m2, much larger than those stupid apartments Auckland built in the 1990's for the English language student boom.

My hostel "The Loft Design Hostel" was pretty cool for $10 a night. I shared my room with an Aussie and his Chinese girlfriend. They had been trekking through Nepal for 2 months and were preparing to leave for Tibet. A lot of people travelling to Tibet leave from Chengdu. The hostel attracts more Chinese than foreigner, especially based on the 5 squat toilets versus the one Western one. And no Chinese food in the cafe. Yikes! I have tried Western food here once and it is awful. Best to stick to the Chinese which is fast and tasty.

The cafe serves different types of coffee, coffee culture is permeating but I hope it isn't to the detriment of the amazing tea culture. Chengdu is known for its tea houses and I went to about 4 of them. There are hundreds, maybe thousands. During the day friends get together,go to a tea house, get tea in a big cup with a massive thermos filled with hot water, bring their own piles of fruit and peanuts in a shell and play cards or mahjong. They stay for hours, maybe having a nap, and maybe only paying for two servings of tea. Tea to get in Sichuan province is the locally produced jasmine bamboo leaf green tea from Mt Emei.

In terms of food, the Lonely Planet lists 5 top dishes, I tried 4 of them. Spicy chicken with peanuts (gongbao jiding), dry fried green beans (ganbian sijidou), mapo tofu, and boiled and stir fried pork with salty and hot sauce (huiguo rou). I left the fish because I have seen the state of the rivers here and I am not too good with whole fish. I also had Kung pao chicken as my friend Matthew Crawford suggested that I should. The Sichuan food was disappointingly unspicy. I even started eating the chillies. Maybe they saw my white face. The food was tasty though.
These handmade sweets are called Dragon's whiskers. Acquired taste.
Very nice barbecued skewers and BBQ bread. For $2 NZ

I didn't have enough time in Chengdu. There is a lot to see and I only had two and a half days. I did see the main attractions though and both were incredibly amazing, the Giant pandas and the Giant Buddha.

Pandas are cute. Especially baby ones that hang awkwardly in trees like badly placed Christmas decorations.

The research centre was impressive. It holds the largest number of captive red pandas, most possibly also Giant pandas. We took a tour from the hostel, our Chinese driver wasn't much of a guide but with signs in Mandarin and English it was pretty self explanatory.
Panda poo photo, yes, the biologist in me thought you needed to see that.
Panda cakes?

I took the bus to Leshan, two hours south (?) of Chengdu, the home of the giant Buddha. I met a nice Irish couple on the bus and spent the day looking round with them. Again there wasn't enough time, I would either suggest staying in Leshan or getting the earliest bus possible. As well as the grand Buddha there is several beautiful temples, tombs, a "fishing village", a massive collection of different Buddhas (including the worlds longest reclining Buddha 170m long), and wonderful gardens and trees. A great respite from Chengdu City.



The grand Buddha, Dafo, is 1200 years old. He was carved out of a river cliff at the confluence of the Dadu and Min river to calm the swift currents, protecting local boatmen. It worked. He is 71m tall, has 7m long ears, and his big toes are 8.5m long.

I also spent a night at the Sichuan opera for tourists. Have a look up "changing faces Sichuan opera" on you tube. It was astounding. The reason I said for tourists was that they tried to squish everything typically Sichuanese into the one show- singing, dancing, acrobatics, swordplay, amazing costumes, amazing sets( including rain), laser light shows, fire breathing, puppetry, and of course the changing faces, to the detriment of a storyline. Unfortunately no photos were allowed :(

Other cool things in Chengdu.
I recommend visiting here. Although not much of the old city is left, it has plenty to offer and is very laid back.

Posted by Kiwi Holly 19:34 Archived in China Tagged panda chengdu leshan Comments (1)

Two days cycling in Yangshuo

semi-overcast 20 °C
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We arrived at Bike Asia at 9am and met our guide Sam (from Yunnan province) and the other members of our group- a German couple and a mum and two daughters from Perth.

We set off through town and then out into the countryside. At a junction we were given the option of an easy ride, go left, or a more challenging ride, go right. I asked Sam for his honest opinion after observing our bike skills so far. The easy option was suggested.

It was still challenging
- cycling along a busy highway and having to cut across traffic at a traffic light (I think it was the only traffic light in Yangshuo) in which truck drivers and bus drivers pretty much ignore.
- narrow raised paths where losing your balance meant ending up in a rice paddy. Unfortunately one of our party managed to miss a rice paddy but ended up falling in a ditch saved by a thorny shrub. It took a while to get the thorns out.
- then to add more of a challenge, narrow raised paths with big unexpected rocks, for the inexperienced mountain biker meant one wrong turn= rice paddy.
- protective mother cows with babies on the paths.
- growling dogs in villages
- flat areas beside rivers with recent rain had turned into expansive mud puddles. I quickly learned that you have to speed up not slow down in those.
- cycling with a hard narrow seat. I think I am still recovering.

Anyway it was pretty awesome, we had a challenge, got really muddy, cycled 46 km (the most I have ever done) and got to see rural China plus a few old bridges.
Dragon Bridge
Fuli Bridge (?)
The next day I headed off by myself as Sandra had caught a bug from one of her work mates. It was not overcast like the previous day, Yangshuo was now hot, humid and sunny. Obviously that aided the views but it was not ideal hill cycling weather. I wanted to head to Xing Ping which was around 36km away. Armed with a map, some directions, and an emergency phone number, I headed out. I arrived at the same junction as the day before and turned right. Yikes.

Will (the English manager of Bike Asia) had told me that if I didn't make it up the first 1.5 km hill I was to turn back. Well I made it up the first hill, but when I decided I could travel faster on foot than on the bike, I got off and walked. I got up the next 4.5km hill with a few stops so decided it was ok to go on. The rest of the hills were ok, mostly steep up with long downhills.

Most of the time I was the only person on the road. It was brilliant. Mandarin orchards and karst hills.
That sign meant I was on the right track. 21 km down.
Big pile of dung for the mandarins.

The map combined with Will's directions was not good enough. I overshot the ferry crossing by about 3 km and I managed to use all my China phone credit calling Will. Anyway I made it in the end. The old village part of Xing Ping was pretty nice, probably nicer still if it wasn't a Chinese National Holiday ( the place was packed to the rafters), but the best part was the challenge getting there.
On the boat crossing the river to Xing Ping
Xing Ping

Posted by Kiwi Holly 18:39 Archived in China Comments (0)

Yo! Yangshuo!

semi-overcast 15 °C
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When we arrived in Yangshuo Sandra began to worry that the suggested idyllic holiday spot wasn't what her colleagues suggested. Yes there were the karst hills surrounding the town, more so than in Guilin, but it was busy, full of traffic and people. Luckily our taxi driver kept going and we soon arrived at the more touristic area of Yangshuo.

We were happy to see that our hostel was out of town, surrounded by market gardens and mandarin orchards. We were a short walk into town through a covered walkway that turned into a market during the day to sell tat to the hoards of boat tourists that floated down the Li River from Guilin.
The first day it was raining and we wanted to find our way around rather than heading out into the great unknown. So we wandered around town, had a fantastic meal at the Lotus Buddha vegetarian restaurant, booked a cycle tour with Bike Asia and a bike hire for the following day. This was expensive by China's standards but for 240 yuan ($48) we were in a small group, had an English speaking guide, had lunch thrown in, and were equipped with a safe mountain bike and helmet. Bike hire the next day was only $20.
Yangshou is the place to go to cycle. However most of the bike hire places have decorative bikes with no helmets. The Chinese and foreign tourists teeter around the town seemingly unaware of the other road users. It is quite entertaining and alarming to watch at the same time. What is more alarming is the ease in which scooters are hired out to people that clearly have no talent to use them.

Having organised our next two days we walked back to our hostel and then went for a walk from there into the rice paddies and surrounding villages. It was misty and a little cold but well worth venturing out. Planting of rice has begun in earnest. It was also great to see the farming practices at work. There were regular piles of rotted vegetation mixed with animal dung along the side of the road. It appears that most of the agriculture around here is organic. They have large planted up areas of water hyacinth, which is a unwanted organism in NZ (MPI is trying to eradicate it). Here it is used as fertilizer when decomposed.

I got to take some amazing photos.

Yangshuo at night is pretty cool!

Posted by Kiwi Holly 18:01 Archived in China Comments (0)

How to climb stairs in Guangxi Province # 2

Arroz! Climbing the Dragons backbone.

semi-overcast 20 °C
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Our group travelled the few hours out of Guilin into the mountains to visit the Longji Rice Terraces (Dragon's Backbone). According to the Lonely Planet, they are a marvel of farm engineering, rising up 1000m into the hills with minority villages scattered around. The people are either Zhuang, Yao, Dong or Miao- the most populous people in China are Han. The villages are around 600 years old.
It was a bit of a cramped ride, one of the English girls had to sit on a little wooden seat in the van. The road was very windy and narrow and there were a few rock falls. Our driver had no qualms about overtaking on blind corners, tooting his horn as he sped round (I have since discovered there are absolutely no road rules in China, dangerous overtaking is entirely the norm).

We arrived at the base of the terraces and our driver looked determined in taking the car up what looked to be a muddy slippery cart track, why walk up the hill when you could possibly drive? Thankfully he was persuaded to leave the car in the car park and follow us up the mountain on foot with the promise of lunch at the top.

The locals make some money carting up visitors belongings in basket backpacks, many of them with brightly embroidered clothing and elaborate hairdos. I tried to take photos of these ladies but they were too quick, so mainly I have photos of their backs. I also thought I would be asked to pay for the privilege. We were invited by a local to have lunch at her restaurant at the top of the terraces.

I think we started our walk at the Zhuang village, Ping'an. The villages are beautiful and simple- houses made of rock and wood. The steps up the mountain are paved with what looks like quartz or marble.

The rice paddies are empty at the moment, I think they are in preparation for this seasons plantings, not yet filled with water. I can only imagine what it would look like with rice fully grown.

We reached our lunch stop slightly before lunch in the village of Tiantouzhai. We had to order the food and climb the rest of the way to allow them to prepare it. We were having some local delicacies- pumpkin, wild vegetables, potato and pickled vegetables, bamboo sticky rice and chicken cooked in bamboo. The last two dishes were really interesting as the food was stuffed into large bamboo poles and then cooked in an open fire.
Sandra and I now wished we had planned a night up at this village, it was so peaceful, calm and quiet, such a juxtaposition to the craziness of Guilin and Shanghai.

We returned that evening incredibly happy that we had the chance to visit this beautiful place.

Next stop Yangshuo courtesy of our skilled Chinese driver.

Posted by Kiwi Holly 16:19 Archived in China Comments (1)

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