In my last entry, I told you all about our adventures in Beijing.... as it turned out, Xi'an was even more of an adventure! Wednesday night we boarded, yet another, overnight train, to go to Xi'an (pronounced Shee-ann). This time, the train was not nearly as nice as we were in the "hard sleeper" section, which meant six people to a room. However, it wasn't really a room, more like having a room minus one wall so anyone could come and go from "room" to "room". We made the best of it though, as several Chinese students came by to talk to us, which was a lot of fun.
In the morning, we arrived in Xi'an, found our new guide, Peter, and headed out for breakfast. Two things stood out to me about Xi'an - one was that the air is much cleaner here than in Beijing (although still much worse than back home) and the other is that this is a much more "historical" city, which I'll get into later. We checked into our hotel, which, if this were the US, we would have complained and stayed somewhere else. All of the rooms smelled like mildew and had massive stains all over the carpet where who knows what happened. As soon as you opened the door, the scent overpowered you, much like the scent of a boys' locker room or very old grandmother who wears way too much perfume. Needless to say, we vowed to spend as little time as possible in that room!
We then headed out to the old part of the city and visited the drum tower end of the city wall. (All cities here, historically, had two towers, a bell tower and a drum tower, to tell people when it was time to get up and when to go to sleep.) We walked up the city wall (about 40 feet high) and had a spectacular view of the city. Unfortunately, we did not have time to ride a bike on the city wall around it's perimeter (about 9 miles). We did get a quick lesson on all of the different types of jade and, of course, were offered jade at their "very best prices". Afterwards, we hit the agricultural market, which was a unique experience in and of itself. I've never seen so many fruits, vegetables, spices, and yes, dead animals, just lying around for sale. Think of it as a giant farmers' market. One member of our group decided to buy a banana which turned the heads of several Chinese shoppers. A translater later told us that they were in awe that white people eat bananas just like they do! (It's always nice to find common ground between different cultures!) From there, we ate a quick lunch and headed off to the Terra Cotta Warrior museum.
Along the way, we stopped off and saw how the Terra Cotta soldiers were actually made. The only difference in how they are made today, as replicas, versus the orginals, is the type of molding used. This was one stop that I actually didn't mind, because I was able to pick up a few authentic replica warriors (check my desk out in the near future). They even sold life-sized warriors for about $2000 (that includes shipping and insurance!). I thought about petitioning the Symposium committee for some funds, but decided not to! Then it was off to the actual Terra Cotta Museum. For those of you who don't know, the Terra Cotta army was created by an emperor during the Qin Dynasty, I think, in the 3rd Century A.D. It's purpose was to serve and protect the emperor in his afterlife. Prior to this, the Chinese buried live soldiers and servants to serve the emperor. However, this particular emperor found this method to be "more humane". The museum is unique because it's really just an archaeological dig site with a roof over it. You can look down and see where scientists dug up these remins and how they have set up the figures in a manner that they believe they were originally set in. It was really facinating! (Sorry, Rob, that you didn't get to see this one.)
From there, we headed back to the hotel to change quick, and then it was off to the Sunshine Theater for a dinner show. We sat with a woman from New York who was working with Visa for the Olympics in Beijing. As it turns out, this is the 5th Olympiad that she has worked at. (I'm seriously in the wrong line of work!) The show was absolutely spectacular. It closely mirrored a show that would have been done during the Tang Dynasty (about 600-900 AD) for the emperor and his concubines. It was nothing short of amazing. There were various dances, songs, and acrobatics which were truly amazing. The acrobats, by far, stole the show, as they did their routine using an apparatus known as a diabolo. (Basically, it's two sticks with a string tied in between and you use this to toss and catch a device that looks like a yoyo, without a string attached to it. If this is too confusing, google it.) From there, it was back to the smelly hotel for a night's rest (notice the absence of the word "good" here!).
Friday morning, we had breakfast at the hotel. While there, I heard that those who went out in the morning found all sorts of activities that people do together - tai chi, table tennis, other stretching exercises, etc. Apparently, our crew held their own against the Chinese in ping pong, which is nothing short of a moral victory! Then, it was out to Mount Hua, about two hours east of Xi'an. At first, many of us were not really excited about hiking some mountain, but once we got there, the mood changed instantly. To get to the base of the mountain for a gondola ride, you must take a bus that goes through this winding road, which, if you're not careful, could easily result in a head-on crash! Then, you take a gondola up to the main peak from which you can hike to other peaks. The gondola took a group of six up the mountain (more than one mile in elevation) in just 10-15 minutes. It was so high that you could not see the end of the gondola because it was lost in the clouds! On the way up, we learned that this was a stop during the 2004 season of the Amazing Race! (They had to unlock a key on the North Peak.) Traditionally, people lock padlocks to the chain that surrounds part of the mountain peak as good luck. The views from this mountain were absolutely breath-taking. By far, it was a much better view than what we saw at the Great Wall. (Check out my Facebook page in the near future to see this.) This time, we were both very well-hydrated, and thus, able to navigate much of the mountain with relative ease. Again, words will not describe this view adequately. Hands down, this was my favorite site of the trip, despite my fear of heights. At the mountain, we also had "rock star" status as many of the people here had never seen a foreigner. I don't know how many pictures I was asked to be in. Of course, Jamie and the other girls were asked to be in many more than me! Oh well... After a couple of hours, it was time to head back to the van and take the two hour drive back to the hotel. Not quite ready to head back to our stinky room, several of us hit the Starbucks across the street as a much-needed diversion before going to sleep.
Saturday was our final day in Xi'an. We woke up somewhat early to go to two historic sites within Xi'an. The first was the Islamic Mosque, which was founded sometime during the 8th Century AD. I found it very interesting that there is a significant Muslim population in Xi'an despite the restrictions on practicing religions in China. After that, we went to a large Buddhist temple in Xi'an, which is also rather old. Until recently, people were allowed to climb the pagoda which is at least 10 stories high. Unfortunately, it sustained some cracks during an aftershock of the earthquake in the Sichuan Province and is now closed. However, there were still several other places to look at and walk around. Again, the architecture is so amazing. It's sad how today, we don't put as much time into creating beautiful buildings that will last for centuries like people did back then. From there, it was time to head to the hotel for a quick lunch before seven of us headed for the airport to fly back to Shanghai. It was sad to see the team finally have to part ways, but the time had come.
After a brief flight on Deer Airlines (which I'm sure none of you have ever heard of), we landed in Shanghai and went back to the hotel to enjoy one last meal at our favorite restaurant in the hotel. It was so nice to be back in a hotel that we knew was very clean and eat our favorite foods - peanut chicken and a beef pepper stir-fry. We then were able to catch a few hours of sleep before having to leave for the airport at 5am.
It is now about 5:30 pm on Sunday afternoon. We've been back in Minneapolis for about five hours now. As much as we love being back home (the clean air, much safer driving, lower humidity, etc.), there are things that we will truly miss about China. (Yes, using silverware is very awkward. I'm actually more comfortable with chopsticks!) There are so many of you that we would love to get together with and answer questions, share stories and pictures, and just catch up with. Feel free to email us and let us know what you're up to. (Don't call for a few days - who knows what times of day I'll be sleeping while I recover from jet lag.) It's been a blast writing down all of our thoughts and experiences and I hope you've truly enjoyed sharing our trip with us!