When I first came to China with my dad in 2005, in addition to visiting Beijing and Shanghai we were debating between taking a cruise down the Yangtze River or seeing the world famous Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. We opted for the former, and I pretty much dismissed the latter as something I’d never get the chance to do. But now I did have the chance. So Andy and I hopped on an overnight train, and away we went.
As this was Andy’s first time on a Chinese sleeper, he was surprised at how pleasant the ride actually was – a phrase like “Hard Sleeper in China” is likely to conjure images of uncomfortable straw mats and no pillows, but in reality the beds are nicely padded with clean blankets and pillows provided. The only mistake we made was choosing a middle bunk – no thanks to the Lonely Planet’s recommendation – and suffering a chicken-man-of-a-roomate who refused to stop climbing up and down the beds during all hours of the night.
(Note: the middle bunk recommendation is based on the fact that people sit on the bottom during the day, and there’s less headroom on the top. I found the top to be by far the best, as it’s the only place that nobody ever has to climb over, and it’s right next to the luggage storage rack – for easy access and better security).
The next morning, about an hour before our 8am arrival, one of the train staff came around to wake us up and ask if she could “practice her English with us.” We told her okay, but made it as apparent as possible – while still being polite – that we’d really prefer to be sleeping. She didn’t give up. Because her real motivation was to tout a friend’s hotel from which she’d almost certainly be receiving a percentage. She even brushed away several Chinese customers who came to ask for her assistance – which we thought was pretty rude.
After disembarking, we were immediately approached by another train-employee-gone-tout who we dubbed Mr. Dandruff, in memory of Mr. Dirty from Ouro Preto, Brazil.
Mr. Dandruff was the perfect tout.
He was polite, friendly, delivered EXACTLY what he promised, and never even asked for a tip. He even got us a price well below the one clearly marked on the signboard behind the front counter. Bravo, Mr. Dandruff!
We dropped off our bags in our cozy double room, complete with Internet and a private bathroom, just two blocks from the central train station. Then we caught a local bus out to the site of the world-famous Terracotta Warriors.
The actual sight of the Terracotta Army initially proves to be so boggling that you can’t get your head around it. It’s hard to imagine, after all, that a subterranean life-size army of thousands has silently stood guard over the soul of China’s first unifier for over two millennia
Indeed, it was a sight to behold. Especially when you consider that every single face is different – no two soldiers are alike.
However, as a tourist attraction, I’m glad my dad and I chose the Yangtze instead. The fact of the matter is that you just can’t get very close to the soldiers at all, and many of them – most of them – are still covered/buried or in a terrible state of disrepair. Only a very small portion is even recognizable as a stone army standing in battle formation.
To get a bit more historical insight and appreciation for the scale and significance of what we were seeing, we decided to hire a personal guide…who unfortunately turned out to be a lot less than we bargained for. She could barely speak English, let alone understand our questions, and pretty much reiterated the facts that we already knew from our pamphlets and guidebook.
Ah well. I have now seen the Terracotta Army of Xi’an. And I can rest easy knowing that the Yangtze River choice was a wise one 🙂
(An interesting side-note: like many of the world’s major discoveries, the uncovering of the Terracotta Army came by complete accident. In 1974, three peasants were drilling holes in hopes of finding water to dig wells. Instead of water, they stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological finds of the twentieth century. Can you imagine what that must’ve been like, to realize you’d uncovered the massive 2,200-year-old remains of a life-sized army, placed there by the first emperor of China?
Mr. Yang, one of the three farmers, was there signing books the day we visited. Unfortunately, no photos allowed.)
After making our way back to town, we decided to pop over for a peek of a small local theme park called Tang Paradise: supposedly it’s the city’s most popular destination among Chinese tourists. A pseudo-Disneyland which aims to recreate an entertainment-oriented version of the Tang dynasty.
We didn’t find it to be quite that. Instead, it felt like a very spacious public park – lots of lakes, grass, and neatly upkept walkways – around which there were periodic musical or dance performances.
It doesn’t sound so odd now that I’m actually describing it. But at the time, it felt very, very strange. Especially because nobody seemed to know when or where the performances were actually going to occur – so we spent much of the time just wandering about aimlessly 😛