Xi’An China Trip – Day 1

The trip to Xi’An began like the one for Beijing, with a train ride.  Unfortunately we had to settle for a tour group to get a ride their as all the train tickets were booked.  Air travel would have allowed an extra day their along with more convenience but with Coco being 5 months pregnant I felt it was much safer to take the train.  On the trip to Beijing we had 2nd class tickets, meaning there were 4 beds in 1 room, and we could close the door of the room.  On Chinese long distance trains there are 5 classes.  1st class, or VIP rooms, these rooms are very plush and nice, they sleep 4 but have couches and their own bathrooms.  2nd class rooms, being as I just described above.  3rd class, more like my living conditions were in the Navy, sleeping 3 high 6 in a compartment, no door so you hear everything going on around you.  4th class, with no bed at all, just seats but comfortable seats.  Finally the 5th class, you guessed it just small seats that are no bigger then a phone book and fold into the walls.

We left from the Shanghai Railway Station, the one close by to our home.  We left on the first day of golden week, one of 3 weeks of vacation a year.  The first day is the worst to travel as every travel outlet is jam packed with vacationers.  We did make our train on time and were off to Xi’An on our 14 hour train ride.  The train ride was not too bad.  We had plenty of snacks and sleep the night before so it was not too bad.  We also played some poker, it was Coco’s first time, but she did pretty good, check out the last photo of the Xi’An Trip album for a tally of who won and lost the most hands.

We awoke on the train and pulled into Xi’An in the morning.  The train station is right in front of the main gate entrance, so when you exit the train station all you see is the main gate entering the city.  Our tour group assembled and we hiked to our bus, a long hike too.  The bus took off straight for our first stop on our tour, one of the emperor’s concubine’s palaces, 18.6 miles (30 Km) east of the city. 

The Huaqing Hot Springs Palace has a very old history going back nearly 6,000 years, including the hot springs inside the palace.  The palace is built at the base of the Lishan Mountain, and is often surrounded by mist and fog.  The palace was originally built in its first carnation in 711 BC by King You in the Western Zhou Dynasty, then added to China’s first Emperor, Qing in the early 200’s BC, again by Emperor Wu in the 100’s BC and finally Emperor Xuanzong who placed the palace in its current configuration during the mid 700’s AD.  He spent a great deal of resources on its completion for his favorite concubine, Yang Guifei.

The palace boasted the first heater in China in its main living quarters and many smaller buildings, including a private bath exclusively for Yang.  As with all Chinese stories this one has a tragic ending as Xuanzong was forced to have Yang executed then after grieving he committed suicide over the matter.

We only had an hour and a half to see the palace, so we actually only saw ½ of it.  The bathroom was very lavish and beyond any public museum’s bathroom I have ever seen.  One must be careful when visiting because the old brick and stone pathways and sidewalks are covered with a green moss due to the constant mist and cool temperatures at the mountain’s base.  There are many gardens, old trees, and hedges in nearly every corner.  They also have a period dress re-enactment of a royal court visit that is a treat to see, even if you can’t understand what is being said.  The palace was packed, with both Chinese nationals taking advantage of golden week and foreigners who must not have been informed of this type of event.

We left the hot springs and headed off to lunch.  This is one of the advantages to a tour group, your room, meals, and entrance fee into all places is covered so all you have to worry about is snacks and souvenirs, of which for the gardens there weren’t any specific ones so Coco just got an apron.  Lunch was pretty good as it was my first experience with Xi’An food.  The food is more bland then that of Shanghai, the tea is also not as flavorful.  Our guide later explained Xi’An people are easily satisfied and happy with all the common and ordinary flavors of their local foods. 

After lunch we arrived at a geological museum where we got to see some of the stones of the region, this area is famous for its gold and jade, and also for one of our planned tour shopping sprees (yes the tour agency gets a commission).  We did find some interesting tea cups and pots here, typical of the region.  The cups have a pedestal in the middle with a dragon head on it.  The mouth is open there is a hole at the base of the cup that also leads to a hole in the bottom.  When filled half way air pressure prevents the contents from spilling out, but if you fill it to where liquid gets into the dragons mouth the air pocket is broken and all the contents spills out of the hole in the bottom.  The cup is to keep people from drinking too much.  The accompanying tea pot is filled through the bottom and when turned upright no liquid is spilled out of it, it also holds just enough liquid for 2 cups full. 

After the museum we went out to see the Terra Cotta Warrior exhibit of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.  He ruled from the mid to late 200 BC period, and was the first Emperor to unite all the surrounding kingdoms to form China, and making Xi’An its capital.  The pits are vast and took nearly all the resources of China for many years to build the army, his accompanying mausoleum (an exact duplicate of Xi’An with a man made mountain in the middle, then all were buried and all the leading workers and engineers executed so as not to replicate or share their knowledge of location or ability to duplicate for other emperors.  On the way we stopped off at a site close to the emperor’s actual mausoleum, we did not see the mausoleum of the Emperor, as it is little more then a display model of what is supposed to be inside as they have not explored it yet, they do not want to open the doors and allow oxygen in as it may destroy many things inside.  We just saw the model and headed out to see the warriors as going to the actual mausoleum would just be going to see a lager door underground.

Unfortunately it seems soon after his death people in the new country still knew about the location and a general manned an army to overthrow the empire.  He knew he needed a well armed army and the only way to get the weapons necessary quick enough was to rob them from the tomb, so the peasant army he raised broke into the chambers and took all the weapons from the terra cotta army, smashed some of the soldiers and the rest of the site was forgotten.  The farmer who discovered the army while digging for a well in 1974 is still alive and when I bought a book about the army he was there to sign it, yes he is old but a signed book is a signed book. 

On the way to the museum we obtained an English speaking tour guide so I could understand what was going on, as the first two sites I had little of any ability to understand anything that was being said.  Our guide was able to get a cart for us so Coco did not have to walk to the museum, it was quite a walk.  We entered and our guide began her tour.  We went to the place where I got my book and it signed, then to the building holding the artifacts like the bronze chariots. 

We then with to pit #1, there are 3 pits, the largest, and it was immense.  When you walk in the room and walls seem to go on forever as the area and a vast majority of the 7,000 total warrior army is housed in this pit.  Not the entire pit is excavated as there are still some rows in different states of excavation.  This is due to the Chinese governments attempts to find a way to uncover some of the statues without losing the brightly colored painting on their exterior.

As we were going to pit #2 the tour guide insisted Coco take a rest as it was warm and she said Coco was looking a bit pale.  We went on to pit #2 as Coco rested outside the pit #1 entrance.  We continued our tour and I learned this pit contained many of the chariots and horses, but the chariots being made of wood had long ago rotted away.  This area was also holding some unexcavated areas.  We then went to a gift shop and it was there the tour guides real plan took shape.  I was placed in a hard sell environment with people who would not bargain.  The clay warriors in this area were supposedly made with the same clay and techniques as the real ones, yea right, and after nearly 30 minutes of haggling I could not get anywhere with them.  So just to get out of the area and back to the tour group before they left I broke down and bought a super high priced statue, Coco did not have her cell phone with her so I could not call her for help.  But the merchants and tour guide were not satisfied with this yet.  They then insisted I bought some jade, it was not nice insisting either and no was not in their vocabulary.  I am not a jade expert, but Coco’s family is and so is she.  I knew I was being taken for a ride, but could do little about it.  After buying a very over priced piece of fake jade, about 10,000 times over priced mind you, my guide was now happy to continue on the tour, but a whirlwind one now as my bus was leaving in 15 minuets.  We breezed through pit #3, the command station for the terra cotta army due to its lack of warriors, but its formations and structure and the types and warriors there all pointed to it being the command center according to experts.

I was finally rejoined to my wife and the first thing I told her was how I got ripped off with the tour guide present.  My wife got a little more upset then I imagined.  She said it was my own stupidity for the warrior figure, but she took the fake jade purchase as a personal insult.  The jade she appraised at 5 RMB, way less then the 850 RMB it was listed at and the 667 RMB I was able to talk the merchant down to.  She chewed out the tour guide in front of tourists, which did not go over well for the tour guide and insisted on her taking us to return the item.  On the way the tour guide tried to ditch us several time but I told Coco of her attempts and she just yelled at her more.  I was beginning to worry this would not be good for the baby for Coco to get so upset and began trying to calm her down, it didn’t work.  We made it to the shop but only after the tour guide was able to sneak in a few phone calls on her cell to warn them we were coming.  That did not matter as we entered the store the man who sold me both the statue and the jade did not recognize me, I took of my hat, and I told Coco it was him… that was all she wrote for him.  All Coco did was ask him if he sold this jade a grade A, all he said was he was bringing our money back.  The tour guide knew we were on a tight schedule and she must have tipped them off of this because they stalled for 15 minutes due to lost paper work and return procedures.  By the time it was over there were 4 security guards around us, 4 sales people and the owner of the jade booth and him and Coco were arguing over his jade quality and sales staffs practices.  We got our money back and left to get back to the bus.  On the way Coco calmed down but still took the ruse as a personal attack on her, when it was me, the dumb foreigner, that was the target.

We did find some time to get quite a few souvenirs on the way, shopping is always a good way to calm down a woman.  We were able to get nearly 15 items for less then I paid for my statue, nearly 150 RMB less (the statue cost 350 RMB, all together the 15 items cost 180 RMB).  We got onto our bus, with all the bags and a camera full of pictures, and headed back to Xi’An for dinner. 

We stopped for dinner in a nice place, they had plenty of bread in different forms… a rarity in China to have bread with your meal.  After dinner we went off to our hotel, a 4 star one just outside of the city gate.  We unloaded all out luggage, and bags full of souvenirs and waited in the lobby.  Unfortunately this was not the end of the days adventure.  The rooms they booked were on the first floor and in a newly renovated area.  Many in the tour group complained about the smell of the new paint, carpet, and other construction items.  They were right, the smell was strong and I determined Coco was not staying there, today was enough stress on her as it was.  After numerous outbursts from an older lady in the group and meetings, and nearly 2 hours wait the tour organizer found us new rooms in a hotel, but it was quite a ride away.  We loaded everything back onto the bus and got to our new hotel, an older one but very nice and we settled in for the night.

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