Xi'an and Chengdu

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
Trip End Apr 13, 2011

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Flag of China  , Shaanxi,
Saturday, September 18, 2010

Xi'an is somewhere I have found alluring for a while, probably because it starts with an X and has an apostraphe in the middle of it, so sounds a bit mystical to me. During the middle ages, Xi'an was the biggest city on Earth, and was the capital of China for a long time.Today, it is a huge city of 8 million, and is famous for being the home of the terracotta warriors.

After a surprisingly decent nights sleep on the overnight train from Beijing, we arrived in the unwelcomingly hot and humid Xi'an, and set out to visit the terracotta army. There are about a thousand life sized, uniquely carved statues there, each supposedly modelled on a soldier from the first emperor's army in 200BC. Their purpose was to accompany the Emperor into the afterlife, the emperors original plan being to have 1000 of his own soldiers killed instead.

The warriors are incredibly life like, as if a real army in battle formation has suddenly been turned into stone. They are located inside a giant aircraft hangar style building with no air conditioning, probably designed to get as many tourists in and out as quickly as possible.

Our guide, a petite Chinese girl with incredibly hairy armpits explained how the Emperor would kill any craftsman whose statues did not measure up. In the end, he killed them all amyway in order to keep the site secret. It must have worked as they werent discovered until 1974 when a farmer chanced upon them whilst digging a well.

That evening I headed to the centre of the old town on a crowded local bus with a few from my tour group. We had a much welcomed pizza and then took in an impressive dancing fountains display. After watching the locals running between the fountains and getting a soaking, a few of us did the same thing and got drenched, getting much needed relief from the humidity.

Xi'an old town is all within the ancient, three storey high city walls. These date from the 14th century, and are still fully intact with impressive pagoda style watch towers at each of the four main gates, and red Chinese lanterns lining the pathway around the top. Inside the walls, nothing higher than the central bell tower is allowed to be constructed, outside however, there is a forest of the usual anonymous tower blocks dwarfing the small old town area, and sprawl as far as the eye can see, which isnt very far given the haze and pollution. On our only morning in Xi'an, I braved the oppressive heat and took a 10 mile bike ride along the top of the walls - my first time on a proper bike for a about 20 years. I managed not to fall off despite the potholes and the bike being an antiquated boneshaker.

I liked Xi'an, it has a lot more character than Beijing, and I could have done with a few more days there to take in the sights we didnt have time for. Instead, we took a 16 hour overnight train to Chengdu. We waited in the sweaty overcrowded station for our delayed train for two hours, then joined an almighty surge through a tiny gate to reach the platform. Our carriage was divided into compartments of 6 beds, and was open to the corridor running past. This meant I was kept awake by noisy Chinese people walking past all night, and was awoken at 5am by a dawn chorus of Chinese clearing their throat - the most disgusting sound in the world.

We were in Chengdu to visit the nearby panda breeding institute and were lucky enough to see some giant pandas that were awake, as they spend most of their time sleeping. When they are awake, they just sit there eating bamboo, its no wonder they are so fat. We saw about a dozen pandas, some up trees, most just scoffing their faces. We also saw some tiny newborns in incubators. Thier inactivity and disinterest in reproduction, along with the mother's disdain for their newborn cubs (we watched a video of mothers flinging their babies across the pen and squashing them underneath their huge bulk) and of course, human hunting, has caused their numbers to dwindle to a few thousand. The centre we visited breeds them by artificial means, using 'massage and electrical stimulation' to extract the sperm from the males.

There were also red pandas at the facility. These are feisty little things, running round and fighting most of the time. They would also mark their territory every few feet by rubbing their groin on the ground.

Chengdu itself is a fairly nondescript city of 4 million people, with little to offer besides the panda centre. anything of historic interest was torn down during the Cultural Revolution. There are also lots of run down tower blocks and a huge statue of Mao looking as if he is hailing a taxi. I have had enough of crowded, humid and generally unfreindly Chinese cities now - the next stop is a Buddhist holy mountain in the countryside.   
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