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Drowning in Humidity

Xi'an, China

I've been in Xi'an for two days now, and to tell you the truth, I don't quite know what to make of it. Getting here, however, was quite an adventure.

The train ride from Beijing to Xi'an took about 10 hours. To get to the train station in Beijing, I hopped on a taxi, which was basically a 3-wheeler motorbike with a metal box on top of it. I sat in the cage facing backward as the driver, missing two fingers and all (and few more teeth), snaked his way thru traffic, honking and cursing non-stop. I didn't know if the missing fingers had anything to do with his complete disregard for braking, but I was running behind on schedule so I didn't mind too much.

We ran into a police check point about half a mile from the station entrance (no vehicles were allowed access), and the driver tried to persuade the police officers to let us pass, and he wasn't shy about leveraging my status as a foreigner to get his way ("our brethren from America" were his exact words). It was an exercise in futility and I was happy to walk the remaining way with my 30lb backpack in 85% humidity instead of risking never been heard from again.

The scene at the train station was caotic, and I made it to the waiting room just when boarding began. I had stopped by a ticketing agency earlier in the day and planned to get a 'Soft Sleeper', but the train was completely sold out and all I could manage was a 'Soft Seat'. At first glance it looked decent; clean, comfortable and plenty of leg rooms compared to airplanes. The seating arrangement was in quartets (2 facing 2, with a table inbetween). That would prove to be a problem, however.

The train moved at a steady pace and I suspect it's to ensure a smoother ride conducive to sleeping. There wasn't much outside the window to see, so soon everyone started dozing off. I tried to sleep but my body can stay contorted for only so long, and the quartet seating took away any meaningful legrooms I was hoping to enjoy. My night was broken up into small naps and muscle spasms. Lessons learned: buy ticket early as possible and get myself a Sleeper the rest of the trip.

The first light at 5am was a welcomed sight; my first encounter with China's countryside. The train traveled along the ridge of a long gorge, with towns located down below in the narrow flat land. Cell phone signal was spotty depending on if the train happened to be traveling by a town (or village?) at that particular time. The train was an express so it whizzed by train stations without stopping.

The gov't in Beijing implemented a 'western mobilization initiative' a few years ago to develop the vast unpopulated area of the region, so it wasn't uncommon to spot huge factories and chimneys, as well as giant construction equipments. For about an hour all I saw were factories, followed by rows of undescript Soviet-era apartment buildings, huge shipping yards, then nothing. Repeat that sequence several times and you get the idea.

The train pulled into Xi'an at about 7:30am and it was quite a scene outside the station. Under the old city wall (train station is right outside of the north wall) hundreds of migrant workers camped out (without tents) waiting for their trains to go wherever they were headed (home or wherever work is waiting). I was told that they do this because they have no money for hotels and want to save a day's room/board, and yet 30 yards away the city folks in their fashionable attires and import cars presented a stark contrast to the inbalance of mildly rich and poor.

Xi'an is a city of roughly 5 million people and a popular tourist destination for both foreigners and Chinese nationals (its economy is largely built on tourism). Xi'an is where 13 dynasties called their capitals, and it's easy to see why: geographically it is surrounded by mountains and two rivers, making it easy to defend against any invaders. The soil is fertile and the area produces many precious minerals, including gold and jade, a favorite of the Chinese people.

Tired and dirty from the long train ride, I spent day one just getting acclimated in city center, and although there were plenty of old stuff around (like the Drum and Bell Towers used to signal dawn and dusk each day for over 1,000 years), they were surrounded by giant shiny shopping malls and residential buildings. It's almost as if Xi'an woke up one day and realized people actually would come to the city to see these old relics they've neglcted for years, so they put up a new coat of paint, slapped on signage, and started selling souvenirs. I checked out a few places on the guidebook, but the best part of the whole day was visiting the Muslim Quarter night market and watched how the locals spent their evenings.

The next day I headed outside of city for the Huaqing Garden, the tomb of the fist emperor of China, and ended at the Terracotta Warriors. My guide, Mr. Sun, a farmer who lives around the Terracotta Warriors, told me his family will eventually be relocated to make further excavation possible. He was not a professional tour guide but anything he could've told me I can read up on my own. I found his view of the country most interesting, such as 'South produces scholars; North produces generals' and many more. He showed very little interest in America. I guess when one hasn't even traveled outside of his own province, a country an ocean away might as well be another planet.

I got back in the city at around 5 to visit the Tang Dynasty Pagoda in the southern part of the city, distinctly newer compare to the city center. The area around the Pagoda had been designated National Heritage Preservation Site, and most of the people there were locals. There were plenty of open spaces for a casual stroll in the evening and street vendors lined the outer perimeter in nicely built stalls. Next to the Pagoda huge recreational spaces and parks were perfect hangouts for families and young lovers. People number in the hundreds were exercising by dancing in unisom to music selections ranging from hip-hop, techno, waltz, to folksongs; and smaller groups to the side doing their best DWTS imitation. This happens every night! Further west were rows of nightclubs and bars, boutqiue stores and a Universal Studio-like theme park. I decided it it was time to head back.

My impression of Xi'an is that it's like any other major cities around the world (minus the subways, which is coming soon). I am glad I can now check it off my list, just be warned that the tourist attractions are packed with people and hot/humid as hell, which made absorbing the information very difficult. Unless you are a history buff, skip the city and your sweat glands will be grateful to you.

By the way, I had to write this note 3 times, once due to power failure at the hostel, which also wiped out all of my photos. That certainly didn't help me form a favorable opinion of the city.

Next stop is Dunhuang and I am very much looking forward to it. After all, the Silk Road can't begin with Audis and BMWs aplenty on the street of Xi'an, in my opinion.

permalink written by  Chihyau on June 22, 2010 from Xi'an, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
tagged China and Xian

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another good Story, and while you are sweating your already dehydrated self to even skinnier stature, we are enjoying some marvelous weather over here! perfect temp, with no humidity!

With all that humidity are you getting used to pulling your shirt up!

Glad to see you are still alive and sweating!

permalink written by  Robert on June 24, 2010

Hey...where are the photos? If you are pulling your shirt up, we do not need photos of that please.

Your adventures sound so exciting already!

permalink written by  A. Chu on June 24, 2010

Keep it up!! I mean, the journal not your shirt.

permalink written by  sansanw on June 26, 2010

Thx for entertaining me. So does this mean u have not accidentally wandered into a brothel...excuse me, I meant massage parlor.

permalink written by  Angie C. on June 27, 2010

im happy you are well. and it sounds like your journey is treating you relatively well. 85 degree humidity is unacceptable and would kill me, but im sure you are loving life. So if internet in Xi'an isnt working well im assuming that we will not hear from you when you are genuinely in the backwoods. so excited for you. have fun!

permalink written by  Bianca S on June 28, 2010

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