Beijing to Xi’An

Monday 27 July

At 0640 I snuck out of the hotel leaving Sylvia sleeping. A 30-minute stroll to Tiananmen Square was relatively quiet. I had headed there to check out Mau who like Lenin has been preserved or embalmed. We had checked out the sign yesterday and worked out it was open 0700 to 1100 in July. Reaching the square there were already thousands of people about, mainly in groups of fifty to a hundred with earphones in place with a guide gobbing into a mike. Obviously here early to beat the heat; it’s in the late 20s already. Reaching the tomb entry point there was no queue. The gate was closed. I managed to find out from the soldier on guard “closed Monday”!

The stroll back to the hotel was more interesting. Crowds of people were on the footpaths heading for work. I followed a large group that just seemed to melt away into the many tall buildings. Beggars were out in force holding up their disfigured children, a girl on a skate board displayed the infected stump of a missing leg.

The buildings are mainly large modern concrete structures intermingled with a few traditional style ones and the odd European dome-capped building.

Later a car transports us to the high speed railway station. Getting there took thirty minutes; getting to the drop of point another fifteen. Another hour got us to the business lounge after security and collecting our prepaid tickets. There are dozens of non-stop queues. There are more people in any part of this station than you get flies while gutting a deer in the Kaweka bush on a hot day.

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The train is impressive, much sleeker than the European ones. Guys are going along the outside with mops cleaning the carriages, windows are also being cleaned. There are 16 carriages and we are in the last one. Sylvia’s booked business class and there are only eight large seats in  our half of the carriage. Quite quickly we are out of the city cruising along at 308 kph. The ride is smooth and quiet, a real contrast from our last trains.

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An hour south of the city clear visibility is around 250 metres. The flat land on each side of the elevated track is intensively farmed; there is not a square meter of land that is not cropped or planted. With around 22 million mouths to feed in Beijing alone I suppose it’s not surprising.

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Two hours or around 600km south we are still amongst the non-stop planted fields.

We have passed through several cities with many tall apartment buildings under construction. In one place there were in excess of fifty twenty-plus storey apartments all under construction.

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A stop at Zheng Zhou Dong reveals a clean tidy station with twenty-plus platforms all for high speed trains. The construction continues south of the station. We head through some hills, the land on either side terraces growing stuff.

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Arriving at Xi’An it felt like we had just ridden through 1200 kms of enclosed market garden beneath a ceiling of smog.

The drive from the station to the Gran Melia hotel took about 40 minutes. We even spotted some blue sky along the way. It is like the smog is just a wall here. The hotel is stunning with a huge marble lined foyer. We are escorted to the Red Floor and checked in there. It has its own bar and breakfast area. We had just missed the happy hour – bugger! After declining the bag unpacking service we settled in and then headed down to the Spanish restaurant for dinner. The service was outstanding with the young Spanish manager giving us a rundown on the Spanish run hotel chain and the restaurant. The food was excellent plus to say the least.

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Tuesday 28 July

After breakfast we met our taxi driver for the day downstairs. He seemed to think he was Sterling Moss, swerving in and out of the traffic like he owned the road. I probably would have felt better about this if there had been seatbelts in the back. After about an hour we arrived at the site of the Terracotta Warriors. We negotiated our way through the mobs of tour guides and small stalls, managed to arrange tickets and followed the crowds to the museums. After first visiting a section on the Qi and Qin Dynasties and some impressive horses and chariots that were unearthed nearby we made it to the first of three halls of warriors.

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I had been prepared to be disappointed after hearing other’s experiences of this place but the reverse was the case. I found the whole place to be incredible. In the first hall row after row of soldier, each one unique, was in place. This has been an incredible labour of love and care from the archaeologists involved with the work still in progress. We could see parts that were not yet dug up, soldiers in various states of repair etc. I was quite surprised that the halls and soldiers were open to the air – the humidity of thousands of excited, noisy, jostling visitors everyday must be taking its toll but I guess it is also paying for the process. At 150 locals per person they must be raking it in.

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We wandered back to meet our driver again and headed back into the centre of Xi-An, passing through the old city walls, built during the Ming Dynasty around the 1300’s. Our first stop was Shu Yuan Men or Ancient Street, the art market, a street that has many traditional Chinese homes and stores with shops selling art supplies and different types of art. Some of the paint brushes were huge.

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Next we headed to the Drum and Bell Towers both built in the late 14th century. They used to mark time. We climbed up the Drum Tower where Roger couldn’t resist tapping on one of the drums – “the sign says don’t knock”! Given the amount of sound from a gentle tap, they must make an impressive sound when hit properly.

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Right next to the Drum Tower we explored the old alleys and streets of the Muslim area where we saw an amazing array of food stalls, from taffy pulling to chicken feet, mutton kebabs etc. It was an amazing array of colours and smells.

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Our driver then took us back to the city gates where we were able to climb onto the walls of the city which form a rectangle 14km around. The walls are in excellent condition with lanterns every few metres and a rampart every 100m or so. There are larger gates on each of the four sides. Outside the walls the moat has been restored creating a park like environment. We wandered along the wall for a while but at 40-odd degrees it was too hot to do the complete circuit.

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We headed back to the hotel in time for the Happy Hour and a nice relaxing evening. I have mentioned the ubiquitous umbrellas before – everyone seems to carry them to protect them from the shade. We were quite amused today to see even the motor scooters with umbrellas on – stretched out to cover the passenger as well.

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