Ancient History, What Dynasty?

Trip Start Sep 01, 2004
Trip End Apr 25, 2005

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Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Hi Folks,

We are in Chengdu right now. We have had just a few crazy days here. I'm wondering if that might be our "China theme song".

We left Beijing at 7:00pm... or should I say 19:00 because that is how we tell time now... on the night train on the 29th. I guess we were lucky because we got a SOFT sleeper, and they are hard to get. We had a nice mother and daughter (the girl studied in New Zealand for 6 years and spoke perfect English) for company in our compartment. JoAnn said that I snored like a chain saw and the Chinese women were so nice, and didn't complain at all.

We got to Pingyao at 5:30am and sat in the train station until it was day light. While waiting for the sun to come up I tried to buy tickets to Xian, soft or even hard sleeper, and they kept shaking their head that none were available. If you have to settle for a hard seat, it is just a little 1'x 1' hard seat that folds down from the wall and you have to just sit there the whole 9 hours. During these futile negotiations it became apparent that there was no one within a hundred miles that spoke English. Although my negotiating skills have been fine tuned over the last three months, my inability to speak Chinese was taking a heavy toll on the process. After about an hour and a half of reading Chinese signs and pointing to words in our Chinese phrase book, I finally figured out what train we needed, and continued to ask for soft sleeper tickets over and over again. After asking for about an hour the woman finally relented and sold me tickets for two hard sleepers. I can assure you that hard sleepers are much, much, less accommodating than fourth class anywhere else, except for maybe India or rural Mexico. Hard sleepers are three hard bunks high, with as many as they can cram into a rail car, with the fold down hard seats at the end of each row. Think of a dirty dorm room with 100 people squeezed in. The Lonely planet guide says that fourth class sleepers are for only the "very adventurous". JoAnn calls these experiences, "opportunities for personal growth". It's a tough way to travel, but at least you get to lay down. The train left at 10:30am so we ran out of the station, found a little storage place across the street for our bags, and got a motor bike taxi for a town tour.

Pingyao is one of only five original Chinese cities that has not been "improved". That makes it a really small, walled city that contains the first Chinese bank, that is about a zillion years old. The residents all still live there and go about their daily life like it was hundreds of years ago. It was very cold with snow still on the ground in spots and everyone there had red cheeks or bad colds. Being the only western people around made us the entertainment for everyone that saw us. I think that JoAnn got most of the stares because of her long flowing brown hair.LOL Everyone's hair in China is black.

We returned to pickup our bags from storage and the woman that I paid, was gone and replaced by a guy that wanted me to pay again. After a very tense, loud five minutes, he gave us our bags and we got to the station with five minutes to spare, for the 9 hour ride to Xian.

The big problem in China with the trains is that you can't buy your forwarding tickets before you arrive at your destination. You have to buy your tickets from the station that you are leaving from. We went out on the platform and kept being directed farther and farther to the end of it. It turns out that we were in almost the last car available. JoAnn immediately passed out the valium and we had to only kick out one startled guy from our bunks. I climbed up to the middle bunk and gave JoAnn the lower berth. I fell asleep almost immediately, while leaving JoAnn to fluently converse with the elderly couple in the bed across from her. Fluent is probably not the correct term to use with JoAnn's communication. The only real difference between our language approach is that she tries very hard to communicate and I just mimic people and laugh a lot. I don't think she gains much more than I do. She kept practicing her Chinese on our bunk partners. They continued to try and teach JoAnn how to pronounce things right and sign numbers with her hand. This old couple with brown rotten teeth spent the entire trip laughing their heads off at her. If he didn't think that she was getting the concept he would repeat it over and over again, and talk louder and louder. It wasn't long before he was yelling so she would yell back, and then all of them would laugh together. It was so funny that the entire train car wanted to know what was going on. I don't think the "hard sleeper car" usually has any laughter associated with it. In fact, I think if the passengers were given a choice, they would rather ride on the top of the car if it was possible.

JoAnn is having a really hard time with the harking, spitting, belching and farting though. They hark a big one, spit it on the floor by your feet and then someone comes along with a filthy mop and cleans it up. There are many "OFPG", "Opportunities For Personal Growth". There are lots of these opportunities at the toilets here. She has given the toilets a star rating system. Zero stars mean, dirty, stinky, pit toilet. One star means pit toilet, but doesn't stink, still no toilet paper. Two stars means hole in the floor flush, no toilet paper. Three stars means hole in the floor flush with toilet paper. Four stars means seat toilet, clean, but no toilet paper. 5 stars means, seat toilet, clean, with toilet paper. Stars can be deducted for unique circumstances, like people can see you from the street.

Our nine hour train ride from Pingyao turned into an eleven hour trial. When we got into the train station in Xian it was raining and dark and the touts were rested and anxious for us. I always tell JoAnn, in a loud voice, when we exit into these situations, "Fresh Meat"! Xian has a reputation for the most crooked taxi drivers. After being surrounded by six or seven drivers all yelling at me to use their taxi,I said out loud, "legal taxi, with a meter, guys" They started to mimic me and we all laughed. A separate guy (they call themselves tour guides) after hearing me speak English, ran over and jumped in the front seat of the car and began telling us about all of our hotel options in English. I only had to interrupt him twice to get the driver to start the meter for the cab. First our Hotel of choice was too expensive (he knew a cheaper one), then the Hotel was in a bad location (he knew one closer to everything), then he assured us our hotel was probably full (he knew one that had rooms available). I told him that my heart was set on "my" choice. He then told me if I had to stay there he could get a room for us at 650 yuan, because he had connections with the manager. I told him that I liked to negotiate these things myself. Upon our arrival at the hotel I was able to get them to lower their price from 550 yuan to 450 yuan. The tour guide, after long deliberations with the hotel staff, got us the room for 430 yuan if we paid him directly. The whole process probably only took 30 minutes, but after the train ride from hell we really enjoyed finally getting to our room.

Xian is an international destination and all setup for tourism. Everyone comes to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and even though it was the middle of winter the exhibit was pretty crowded. The funny thing is that it's crowded with Chinese. The Chinese love to travel and visit places in their own country. We saw probably six or seven English speaking tourists and a tour group from India. The exhibit is amazing and huge. Three really large buildings are needed for the stuff that they have excavated so far, and they think there is more. You can't believe the detail in these life size warriors. Each one has a different face and they even mixed and matched different hair styles and facial hair. The horses seem more like small horses or large ponies and the weapons were made of bronze with a chrome type plating that wasn't even discovered and patented until about 1950 in Germany.

Xian itself was a walled city that was huge. The walls and towers made the ones on Pingyao seem child like. A lot of the walls have been removed for urban development but some towers look almost new. It's a bustling, busy, modern city. It lacks good public transportation but there must be a million bikes on the streets at any given time.

We visited the "Big Goose Pagoda" and were amazed at the height. JoAnn's knee has been bothering her so I climbed the stairs and took some pictures. The gardens were nice and the Buddist stuff is always so much more relaxed and enjoyable to visit. We also visited the Muslem market and Mosque area in Xian and were surprised at how intense they were. There are very few tourists here this time of year so the people selling stuff seemed a little desperate. I bargained there for some warm gloves to use in Tibet. They were some big, thick, Northface fleece mountaineering gloves that the woman was asking 140 yuan. I ended up paying 20 yuan or about $2.40 for them. They only need to last about three weeks until we return to southern China. I also bought this antique brass monkey padlock. You put the key in the monkey's butt to unlock it. It just seemed to strike my funny bone, and at about 75 cents I couldn't resist. JoAnn is always looking for unique high quality items but they seem to be nonexistent. I guess all the tourists just want crap, so that is what the Chinese have to sell. She loves the atmosphere in the market and is always taking pictures of the people and the stuff they are selling.

We left Xian early on the second day and flew to Chengdu. It was only an hour flight and it was a great change from the train. We seem to be traveling fast to get to Tibet because the weather, road conditions, and available flights in and out, are something we are unable to plan for. Getting stuck in Lhasa for an extra week doesn't fit well into our schedule.

We miss everyone and would love to hear from you. How was everyone's Thanksgiving? How is Christmas shaping up? What exciting things are we missing? We send the Travelpod out to almost 100 people each time and get two or three responses. Travelpod tells us that people are reading them. Write and tell us if it's too much, not enough, boring, the wrong type of info, or what you would like to hear. We will try and write what you would like to read. Stay healthy and warm. Very warm wishes.

Don and JoAnn
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