Water towns are ancient smaller towns built around a river (clever name, I know). All sources of life and daily living come from the river. While charming and it must have been very picturesque back in the day, today it’s a well-made tourist trap with loads of food, shops and gondola rides to nowhere. This particular town, however, was used in a scene from Mission Impossible 3, so we were promised some Tom Cruise memorabilia. We began our walk from the mini-bus parking lot through the outside wall of the town (when I asked Robert if the wall was original to the town buildings he chuckled and told me it was relatively new and built to prevent outsiders from entering the town without paying the entrance ticket fee first). It’s about a 15 minute walk to the actual historical gates and into town. We walked around the perimeter about ¾ of the way as a group so Robert could give us an idea of how it’s laid out and point out items of interest. One item that caught our attention right way was what we call 'Stinky Tofu.’ For those of you who watch Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, I can tell you that even he won’t touch this stuff. Stinky Tofu is fermented tofu (basically it’s rotten) that’s fried up so the steam carries the horrible smell for quite a few meters. It smells like a cross between a 3-day old port-a-pot and Hannah’s vomit. I was just happy that the smell was identified as I knew I smelled it in HK but didn’t know what it was. Anyway, once our introduction to Xi’tang was complete we all went off on our own for free time until a late lunch. A group of us decided to stroll through some shops and then to take a gondola ride. Both were uneventful and cold, but it was interesting to see the locals washing their dishes, clothes and feet in the river.
Back on dry land we met up with Robert and others from the group interested in a group lunch. We went to a local restaurant to dine on locally sustainable dishes. There were about 10 of us who opted in and I must say that it was quite the feast. We’re really lucky to have this tour because Robert knows where to take us and what to order so all we do is show up, stuff ourselves with goodies and pay the bill. Robert orders a selection of dishes so that we can all share and try everything. My favorite was a duck soup that also had wontons. The broth was delicious and the duck was excellent. During this lunch we got to know a few of our trip-mates better and learned that there is one in particular who likes to talk a lot about herself, ask ignorant questions and make for a rather unpleasant meal. In spite of this, we really enjoyed all the food and had fun with the rest of the group. We even teased a bit, so when Robert asked which of us would like to go to the top of the stairs to call down for the bill (in Chinese you say, Mai-don and they bring you the bill), we volunteered Dave. He was a good sport about it so I should have known something was up and he goes to the top of the stairs and bellows for the whole town to hear, “May-don”. I swear the walls shook and I’ve never heard him yell like this! It broke the tension and we all had quite a laugh at Dave’s joke. I bet Robert doesn’t ask any of us to ask for the bill anytime soon!
After lunch we wandered around the town a bit (we now know the town very well) and eventually made our way back to the bus. At 4pm we departed Xi’tang for the Shanghai Rail Station for our first overnight train in Asia. We arrived at the train station very early (almost 2 hours early) so we spent a lot of time in the waiting room, watching each other’s luggage and going to the squat toilets. These were not the Park Hyatt cleaning toilets by any means. About 40 minutes prior to the train departure time the gates to the waiting room opened and everyone ran for the train. We still don’t understand this custom as you’re assigned specific seats or bunks already when you buy your ticket. But, not wanting to look too much like tourists we all made a mad dash for train car #13 where we had our assigned bunks. We were in the cheap bunks where there are 6 bunks (1 person to a bunk), 3 on each side of a compartment. There are 12 in our group plus Robert so we were split 6 and 6 and then Robert took the 3rd car to room with locals.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a lot of space in the car, even a little table to congregate around. There were also seats outside the compartments to enjoy the outside view or eat. Shortly after the train took off at promptly 8pm Dave and I had a romantic dinner at one of the window tables, eating our ramen bowls and listening to our friend Anna’s Burt Bacharach. Once everyone had taken turns eating we all hopped from bunk to bunk enjoying some beverages that Anna and Tracy had brought for us. Since we were all in this together most of the long ride went flying by as we were chatting, listening to music, etc. The only cause for concern was the bathroom situation. I won’t go into too much detail and my picture came out blurry but I will say that for the 15 hour train journey each train car had one squat toilet and one sink with no soap. I’ve gotten very good at arming myself by rolling up my pants and bringing tissues and hand sanitizer with me each time I have to go. The good news was that Dave and I each had the very top bunk which had little room to sit up but was very private and cozy and safe. I had a great night’s sleep as I was lulled to sleep by the moving train and was only awoken by the attendant passing by shouting something in Chinese at 6:45am. We all slowly got up and made the best we could of brushing our teeth and freshening up. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much we could do and at this point I would have given anything for an old-fashioned bar of soap and hot, clean water. Once we pulled into the Xi’an Train Station we all disembarked (but not with the same urgency that we boarded the train, very strange custom) and located our driver with the Intrepid Tours flag to escort us to another mini-bus. A brief ride later we arrived at the Guan Zhong Hotel in Xi’an. The great news was that all our rooms were ready so we had an hour to freshen up. While the rooms are not impressive, I was able to take a very long, hot shower which cleared me up right way and shortly after I was ready for a full day of touring!
We made our way to the Bell Tower, one of the main towers in Xi’an. Xi’an is a thriving city of 8 million people and the heart of the city is surrounded by a high wall, the Xi’an City Wall. The Bell Tower is towards the South Gate to the city wall and is a short walk from our hotel, so I can see why we’re staying here. After a brief history about the Bell Tower (mainly renovated in the Ming Dynasty in the 1300s and it’s rung at sunrise, once an hour during the day and a sunset), we made our way to the Muslim Quarter.
The Muslim population in Xi’an settled during the Silk Road years and the community is well established. Today, there is an area of town with street food and vendors near the Great Mosque called the Muslim Quarter. Our tour group did a lap around the market so that Robert could point out interesting facts and items and tell us what the foods were. After the brief introduction we each had an hour to eat whatever we liked. Most of the folks in the group have varied food tastes, so while getting food from all the vendors and sharing was the suggested path, we each went our separate ways. Dave and I had heard about a lamb soup made with pieces of bread so we found one stall that had a restaurant behind it with steaming bowls. The soup is called Yang Rou Pao Muo, or lamb soup. We were challenged because the wait-staff spoke no English and our Chinese is still very basic. Once we figured out to pay and order at the counter first, we were directed to table to sit and wait for the soup. We could watch it being made from our seat which was helpful since when food was ready they called out ticket numbers (all 3 digits in length). We are pretty good with Chinese numbers through 10, but beyond that no luck. Dave was able to spot the food coming out with the attached number so we could tell when ours was up. Anyway, the soup was absolutely fantastic and so far, the best food item I’ve eaten on the trip. The steaming bowl was full of tender pieces of roasted lamb, glass noodles, little bits of bread, scallions, cabbage, garlic and hot chili sauce (added ourselves) and loads of other things I had no idea what they were. I know that we talk about food a lot but this was truly a unique experience as I’d never tasted anything like it. Halfway through our bowls our tour guide came down the stairs on his way out – if he’s eating there we must have found the right spot! Our bellies full we wandered for a few minutes through the market and purchased some ‘silk’ scarves for cheap then made our way back to meet the group. Some friends had purchased some fake designer gear for relatively inexpensive so we all admired each other’s purchases.
The walking tour then continued across the Bell Tower to the South Gate of the Xi’an wall. After paying the entrance fee to get into the wall walking path (Dave scored the half-price student discount with his student ID, good work), we spent about 15 minutes with Robert pointing out the Moat and other features to the wall. We then had free time to either rent bicycles on our own to cycle around the 13KM wall or walk as much as we pleased. Some chose the bike but it was a bit chilly and we weren’t staying more than 40 minutes so most of us decided to walk along the South wall for about 20 minutes for the views and the back. Although chilly the views were extraordinary and it was much quieter along this path, a welcome change from all the bustling cities.
Once we met up with Robert and left the City Wall we headed for a local Chinese massage. We could pick if we wanted a foot-only massage or a fully body massage. Dave and I both opted for the full body, along with a few other friends. This particular massage spa put all 6 of us interested in the body massage in one room which was awkward but efficient I guess. While I enjoyed the massage, it was very different than what we’re used to in the States. The massage is very rough with the masseuse using quick, short strokes on muscles and even slapping us around at one point. I did get a good stretch, but the best part was when I turned to look at Dave and this poor tiny Chinese woman is on top of his back on all fours grinding her knees into his back. She was sweating and panting and apparently he gave her quite the workout! I wish they would have allowed my camera because that was priceless. Dave later joked that she was bit rough and he might have a concussion. In the end, all good fun! Our massages all complete (even Robert scored a free foot massage for bringing all of us), we were slowly heading back to the hotel when Robert asked if we all cared for an earlier group dinner. It was about 5:30pm which was early but we love the group dinners so we all followed Robert to a local restaurant for what was one of our best meals here. We made him promise to not order loads of food and he agreed so we enjoyed a lovely meal for very inexpensive (well under $10US per person) which continues to amaze us. Our favorite was the Kung Pao Chicken – definitely the not the same as in the States and much tastier! Very tired from the full day, previous night on the train, massages and dinner we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel. On our way, however, we saw a sign for Wal-Mart and couldn’t resist! We thought we’d score cheaper bottled water so we decided to check it out. It was hilarious, right in the middle of a bustling mall a huge Wal-Mart! We enjoyed the selection (fruit, water, etc) and after making our purchases definitely headed back for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’re headed bright and early to see the Terra Cotta Warriors!
Tuesday morning we got up early and packed up to prepare for checkout. Before doing so, we met a few other trip companions at the dumpling café across the street for a lovely breakfast of meat dumplings and wonton soup. Unfortunately, the restaurant proprietors spoke no English and our limited Chinese made it a bit difficult to order and we possibly ate the wrong order, but no worries. It was all delicious and so great that I gobbled it up before taking a documentary photo. After settling the bill made our way back across the street for a final pack-up and check out with the entire group. We then all piled onto a just-right sized mini-bus for the 2 hour drive to Xi'tang, a Water Town. This wasn’t your normal tour-bus coach, and that makes sense because we’re not on a normal tour. This is a carry-your-own-luggage-lots-of-free-time-to–explore-on-your-own tour. Anyway, we all piled into the mini-bus with exactly 14 seats for 12 tour mates plus one guide and one driver. We started our ride with our guide, Robert, giving us a brief Chinese lesson before we all went to sleep. We can now say, "America", “I love you” and “No thanks, I don’t want to buy that” in Chinese. Lesson complete we napped the rest of the way until we arrived in Xi’tang.