Day 7 was a transition day; we were to fly to Xi’an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors.
Most of the tourists at our hotel in Beijing were German tourists, so we hadn’t spent a lot of time visiting with other folks at breakfast. On this last morning, though, we happened to sit with an American professor from North Carolina whose specialty was Chinese history (“only the last 500 years”). He had begun his travels to China back in the early seventies, when he had brought his young family here and had returned many times since with groups of students.
We had a fascinating conversation with him, not only about China, but also the American election race. He wanted to assure us that not all Americans were crazy, and referred to Mitt Romney as “This P.T. Barnum of a man.” We regretted that we hadn’t been able to connect with him earlier and, since this was our last morning in Beijing, wouldn’t be able to continue the conversation.
But we had places to go and other things to see. Jenny and our driver accompanied us to the airport, and we bid farewell to her with some reluctance.
Any concerns we had about domestic air travel in China were quickly allayed. All the airports we encountered in China except one were extremely new and ultra-modern. The exception was Yichang, which was a charming, tiny little airport with only 3 gates. Unfortunately, certain drawbacks come with modernity. Having allowed ourselves lots of time, we were through security early, so I set out to find us a coffee. What I found was a little coffee shop that supposedly sold up-scale coffee (cappuccinos, americanos, …). The bill came to 96 RMB, or $16 CDN, a price worthy of London’s Heathrow. What did I get for my $16? Two tiny little cups filled with the worst swill I had ever tasted in my life. Now, that would have been irksome enough had it happened in Heathrow, but the fact that I was sitting in a country where one can buy an excellent meal and two beer for $11 or $12 made the whole thing particularly galling. (In contrast, we would later have a meal in tiny little Yichang Airport – more food than we couldn’t hope to finish – for less than $10).
The planes we travelled on within China were better than what one might generally encounter on a domestic flight within Canada or a short-haul to the United States. Certainly they were a huge step up from the 48-passenger flying cigar that we had taken from Regina to Vancouver. And even though the flight was not particularly long and fell between mealtimes, they still served us a meal. I would love to say that the meals on Chinese airlines are better than those on western carriers, but I’m sad to say they’re about the same in quality – just Chinese.
When we arrived in Xi’an, we were met by Phoebe, our new guide. Phoebe was about Jenny’s age, perhaps a bit older, was married and had a 3-year old daughter. She was a bit more reserved and guarded than Jenny, but she too grew on us over the next few days.
On the way from the airport to our hotel, we stopped at the Hanyang tombs. This would serve as a preamble to the Terracotta Warriors the following day. The Hanyang tombs also contain terracotta warriors (photo), but these are much smaller than the life-size figures from the brief preceding Qin (pronounced “Chin” or “Tsin”) Dynasty. The First Emperor of Qin, whose burial chambers house the more famous terracotta warriors, was an ambitious fellow, who, among other things, was responsible for beginning construction on The Great Wall. Unfortunately, these ambitious projects came at a great cost, both financial and human. So, not wanting to bankrupt the country, the later Han emperors were much more conservative in their burial plans. The terracotta warriors within the Han tombs are much smaller (about 18″ in height) and, rather than each warrior being uniquely crafted by artisans, as was the case with the Qin warriors, these were mass-produced from moulds. So, it is rather ironic that the warriors which are best known around the world are those crafted to accompany an arrogant megalomaniac into the afterlife, while those buried with a much more sensible emperor are all but unknown. Even so, the living legacy of the Han dynasty is far more extensive and far-reaching than that of the Qin. Over 90% of China’s current population are Han Chinese, tracing their ancestry back to the Han Dynasty.
From the Hanyang Tombs, we travelled on into the city to our hotel. In our naivete, we had assumed that once we got away from Beijing, the air pollution and haze would diminish. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The haze in Xi’an was, if anything, thicker than that of Beijing. This might be attributable to several large power plants which we passed on our way into into the city.
Our hotel turned out to be a slightly older building. The carpet in the room showed signs of wear, and the furniture was nicked and worn as well, but we had made a conscious choice to go with 3-star facilities, so we had expected less than perfect rooms. In every other regard, though, the room was perfectly adequate and comfortable. Furthermore, Chinese hotel rooms, we discovered over time, come with many amenities we don’t normally expect in western hotels. Almost every room we stayed in had disposable slippers, toothbrushes, razors, and vanity kits (Q-tips, cotton swabs, …) And even though they were 3-star, they usually still had hair dryers, irons, and the like. All of our hotel rooms except one also had a safe, which was a blessing for storing passports and extra cash.
What our hotel lacked in fit and finish it more than made up for in location, lying within the ancient city walls of Xi’an, just a couple of blocks from city centre. Fortunately for tourists like us, the inner city is laid out in a simple grid, which is cut into quarters by two main arteries, aptly named North/South Streets and East/West Streets. To make matters even easier, the large Bell Tower serves as a city-centre navigation landmark, at the intersection of these two/four arteries. This made navigation easy even for the directionally-challenged, so once we’d settled into our hotel, we went exploring.
What we discovered was a city of contradictions. We had expected that within the ancient city walls we would find quaint architecture similar to the Hutong area of Beijing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Few historical buildings remain. Instead, the inner city of Xi’an seems more like someone dropped Las Vegas inside the walls of Jericho. South, East and West Streets are flanked by all sorts of haute couture shops: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Bally, Burberry, Dior, Estee Lauder, Givenchy, and Lancome, just to name a few. These are the true brand names, not knock-offs. And to add to the incongruity, brand names are even more expensive in China than in Europe and North America. We took a brief stroll through a large mall directly across from the Bell Tower only to find that even brands we might be able to afford in Canada (Columbia, Clarke, …) were out of our reach in Xi’an. And it was obvious from some of the young girls strutting the streets wearing clothing that cost enough to buy a small car, that this stuff sells.
The next day we asked Phoebe who could possibly afford to buy this stuff in China. She explained that there were considerable oil fields to the north of Xi’an, and many folks who had made their millions there, later moved to the city. When we asked how it was possible for someone to make a fortune on oil when it was doubtlessly a nationalized resource, she shrugged, “One would think that when the oil belongs to the government that this would not be possible, but they have ways.” ‘Nough said. We knew what she meant. The young girls we had seen, she explained, were “Second generation” who now sought to marry government officials who might be able to maintain their extravagant lifestyle. She also told us that many wealthy Chinese “save” money by flying to Europe to shop, thereby avoiding the inflated Chinese prices.
My Vegas analogy was, no doubt, an exaggeration. The city has at least seen fit to limit the height of buildings within the inner city, so high rises encircle the city walls on the outside, peering down on the more modest structures within. And one can find something approaching more normal Chinese life a few blocks away from these major streets. So that is where we sought out a restaurant to eat supper. Unless we wanted to eat at one of the ubiquitous McDonalds or KFC outlets, restaurants on the main drags were going to be prohibitively expensive. We ended up at a restaurant a couple blocks from our hotel and had one of the best meals of the entire trip, three or four dishes, all for them top notch. Adding two giant Chinese beer brought the total tab to 103 RMB, or $17, not our cheapest meal by any stretch, but well worth the price.