Sometimes you can't make it on your own

Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
Trip End Aug 27, 2010

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Where I stayed
Han Tang Inn

Flag of China  , Shaanxi,
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On the train it was a relief to find the berths to be exactly what we had booked this time; four soft sleeper beds in a private cabin, each of which had a reading light and TV screen (not working of course). We slept well and awoke the next morning to find that the train would be late arriving into Xi'an….clearly we’re not in Japan anymore ;-)

Arrival in Xi’an was quite the eye-opener; the train station was very dirty and crowded compared with Shanghai and we were relieved to be greeted by our hostel representative holding a sign with Sarah’s name on it. A short taxi ride and we were soon checking into the Han Tang Inn – our home for the next three days. Hang Tan Inn is a hostel located pretty close to the centre of town and is one of the nicest hostels we’ve been in. Lots of communal areas, bar, games, a really good vibe and our four-bed room is beautifully clean.

Before even setting foot in Shanghai, we noticed just how bad the air quality was and so were looking forward to getting out of the big city to Xi’an. Xi’an is a "small" city of 8 or 9 million people, but the air here is far worse than Shanghai; the city itself is a dirty dustbowl and the air is so bad that visibility is significantly lower than anywhere else that we have ever been. But let’s not get too disheartened….

It seems ironic that our first port of call upon arrival anywhere in China is to arrange the escape route! In truth, this has more to do with the non-integrated reservation systems that require booking from the departure city, and so we popped back to the train station to take care of business. That afternoon was spent getting a feel for the city, whereupon we were amused to discover that here in Xi’an they have several branches of Walmart! After unsuccessfully searching for kids shoes in Shanghai and elsewhere in Xi’an we made our way to Walmart, only to discover that it was more grocery store than anything else. Disappointing as it was to still be shoeless, the grocery store was quite fascinating. We were able to find all sorts of interesting items, from western foods to Chinese food and ingredients including; a whole rack of MSG options by the bag, dried seahorses and snakes, durian (sweaty feet smelling fruit), and vacuum packed, ready to eat chicken feet.

Interestingly, despite the air pollution there is a level of environmental concern here that some parts of the western world could learn from; garbage containers are always partnered with recycle containers (and they keep it simple, things are simply recyclable or non-recyclable) and it is illegal to give away plastic shopping bags and so consequently you have to buy a bag if you need one. With the latter fact in mind, we managed to stuff all of our shopping into two bags before hightailing it back to the hostel.

Instead of taking a tour, we decided to make our own way by public transport to see the Terra-cotta Warriors. Two buses and an hour or so later, we arrived at a large parking lot where everyone else disembarked and so we followed suit. Making our way through a massive parking lot, then running the gauntlet of 15 or so private tour guides (“No, I do not want a guide thank you”, “No, I didn’t want the last guide and I don’t want you either”, “NO, thank you”, “NO”, “GO AWAY”), then negotiating ticket office, we discovered that a mandatory gauntlet part 2 was in store. The grounds before entry to the TW museum are huge and tourists must walk past a myriad desperate souvenir stands then another fifteen minutes along dusty, paved, ugly walkways before reaching the actual turnstile. Once inside the gates (having read the Lonely Planet tips) we headed straight for the theatre where we watched a brief 360 degree movie on Emperor Qin (pronounced “chin”), the building of his army, his demise, the peasant uprising and the eventual rediscovery of the Terra-cotta Warriors in 1970’s. Emperor Qin ruled for 37 years and has quite an impressive record including the idea to start building a little wall you might’ve heard of, and also the plans for the creation of his own tomb and protective army. The work took almost four decades to complete. Historians are divided as to why the army was built, but the more common theory subscribed to is that Qin believed his rule would continue on the other side and he needed this army to retain control - you know, some people just can't make it on their own! A year after his death during the peasant uprising his tomb was broken into and many of the warriors were smashed and the wooden chariots and anything else combustible were burned.

Trying to avoid the numerous Chinese tour groups and acting on Lonely Planet’s advice we briefly ducked into the museum before heading to pits 2, 3 and 1 in that order. Pit 2 seemed to be the least excavated pit; pit 3 was also relatively small with much work still to do. Pit 3 was where they discovered two bronze chariots and associated teams of horses which now reside in the museum. Pit 1 was the site originally discovered in 1974 when local farmers drilling a well discovered the head of a warrior (muct’ve been quite the shock – they are quite realistic). The classic pictures of the warriors are taken there and are where the massive ranks of ordinary soldiers and horses can be found; excavation and restoration work continues and by looks of things will do so for many years.

It was with great amusement that yet again we discovered that although we were there to see a UNESCO world heritage site, our kids seemed to be almost as big an attraction to the Chinese as the warriors themselves. Consequently there were numerous photo opportunities requested and the kids are becoming pretty good at posing. Maybe we should start charging a fee?

With the warriors taken care of and the Chinese tourists satisfied, we caught the local bus back to Xi’an and arrived just in time to make it to the Yellow River Soup Kitchen. Tony, an amazing English ex-pat, was introduced to us at the hostel and we had spent some time chatting with him and learnt that he had set up a soup kitchen in Xi’an. But this was not just any old soup kitchen, this was the first of its kind in the whole of China! What started five years ago with buying dinner for eight homeless individuals has now grown into an organization that has seen some 1600 volunteers help with the feeding of the homeless of Xi’an three times a week and has expanded to help villages in the mountains and delivered aid to some of the victims of the 2008 earthquake. Tony’s outstanding achievements have begun to be realized much further afield and he’s been asked to speak at prestigious events and has even had a documentary made about the soup kitchen. He invited us to come along and see how it all worked and so we managed to get there just in time to help with distributing some of the food; Sarah and the kids each took a bag of baozi (filled dumplings) and handed them out to anyone who wanted them – plenty of takers.

Feeling hungry after the day’s adventures we made our way to a restaurant that Tony had recommended. It was easy to find, and once seated the challenge began; the menu was entirely in Chinese and although there were some pictures, it’s not always easy to tell exactly what things are. Fortunately Sarah had her notebook with our “special” dietary preferences written in Chinese characters and so with a combination of the notebook and lots of pointing we managed to place an order. The food soon arrived and we had a fantastic dinner of a couple of types of salad, soup, shrimp dumplings and veggie dumplings all for about $10.

The next day started bright and early with a 7:30 departure from the hostel in a minibus to go to a wildlife rescue centre. We arrived at the centre at about 9:30 and set forth to explore with our guide Jason (or Trevor… he was referred to as both, and there’s a fair chance neither were the name he was born with) and about seven other people. The main focus of the research and breeding centre is Panda bears and knowing that we wouldn’t be going to Chengdu we thought this would be a good opportunity to see some of the cuddly creatures. We weren’t sure quite what to expect as we had read that it was more zoo than reserve and the first panda we saw did little to alleviate that concern, although it looked to be perfectly happy chowing down on piles of bamboo! We walked through the centre, viewing the peacocks en route, and arrived at the “new” panda house and were delighted to see two young panda cubs gamboling around a large and fairly natural area. The cubs are about eight months old and very playful. They were soon joined by a third cub of similar age, though this one was strikingly different in that it had brown markings instead of black! The three of them were a joy to behold and were very comical in their activities. There was also another slightly older pair in the same compound and we could’ve stayed there all day watching their antics. I’m sure you can imagine just how much fun the kids had with these beautiful creatures all playing in the sun.

There’s more to the centre than just pandas and we also visited golden taiken (yak like animals with incredibly long pointy front hooves), red pandas, serows (strange looking creatures that looked like a cross between a mountain goat and a horse), monkeys and one very forlorn looking leopard.

After an excellent lunch at a nearby restaurant we returned to Xi’an and had a lazy afternoon in the hostel. We ended up staying in the hostel for dinner and joined in the “travel story party” night and had fun chatting and hanging out with lots of other travelers. This is the first hostel where we’ve truly felt the travel vibe and we had a great time in the evenings here.

After a couple of busy days, our last day needed to be more laid back and so after checking out and stowing our bags we strolled through the backstreets of Xi’an to the Muslim quarter. Upon passing a shoe store we popped in and managed to finally find Alex some new shoes – yeah, one down, one to go! Stopping now and again to grab some street snacks, we had some really good steamed veggie dumplings and some rather strange hot jelly like substance cooked with spices and other veggies – still no idea what it was but the lady assured us that it was vegetable?

Our final tourist stop in Xi’an was the Bell Tower (located right in the centre of the city) which we had passed it at least twice a day every day since our arrival and so finally took the time to go inside. After climbing up inside we arrived just in time to catch one of the “authentic” traditional music performances they have a few times each day.

It was time to head back to the hostel and say a fond farewell to the staff before catching our overnight train to Beijing. We really enjoyed the Hang Tan Inn and were sad to leave, particularly the kids who had had a blast playing with Teddy (a seven month old labradoodle), watching Tom’s magic tricks, playing with the pet rabbits, playing pool, strumming the guitar and hanging out with the various travelers, none of whom wanted to touch their hair.
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