Saturday, November 1, 2008

Beijing/Xian: Part 1

After Japan, Beijing was like a slap in the face with an unwashed hand. Admittedly, the experience was instantly tarnished when my infected sinus almost exploded on the flight in (I may be exaggerating slightly, but I now fully understand why its not advised to fly in this condition) which left me partially deaf for a few hours until I used an apparently hilarious combination of charades and diagrammatic drawings to pick up something I hoped was the equivalent of Sudafed. The directions that our hotel was the third street to the left from the station were technically correct, but didn't include that between each 'street' were a labyrinth of alleys and laneways, and it was actually a 15 minute drive. We didn't figure this out immediately because we were clearly grossly misprouncing everything and no one read English script, which our directions and map were exclusively supplied in. Of the cast of hundreds who assembled to assist us, a guy who whipped out his mobile phone and called our hostel seemed most likely to get us out of the 1000% humidity quickly, so we vastly overpaid him to drive his motorised rickshaw like a maniac with our bags loosely attached to the roofrack with what might have been his shoelace. The pollution was literally shocking and although the hostel was palacial in comparison to the sweat-box in Tokyo, I couldn't shake the feeling I was an unwelcome alien in China. The first day was a seven hour haggle-fest at Yashow market where we managed to pick up all the warm gear we needed and some other bits and pieces, mostly thanks to Kat's bargaining savvy (I still felt like my head was full of pea-soup and was freaking out a bit at the number of strangers touching me).
That night we hopped straight on a train to Xian. Entering the train station it was suddenly apparent how incredibly populated China actually is - forget about personal space, orderly queuing or expelling bodily fluids in private - everyone was going hell for leather to get to the front of the line and sparing no one in the process. Our two fellow cabin mates seemed stormily underwhelmed at the prospect of sharing a 2 square meter box with us for the next 12 hours - dark looks and much huffing ensued, which turned out to be entirely unfair as one of them snored like a wild boar with a megaphone all night. In the morning, the loudspeaker announced "good morning ladies and gentle men, I will now play this sweet music for you, wish you could have a relaxed and cheerful mood". Chinese pop didn't make me particularly relaxed or cheerful, but it was a good lead up to the 24 hours of bedlam awaiting us in Xian.
We were spewed out into a smog unbelievably thicker than Beijing that stung my eyes and throat. We spend about an hour getting food, money and our bearings before we decided to hoof it on a local bus to see the Terricotta Warriors. The 40 minute direct route (1.5 hours through urban and rural slums, with an accidental detour via what would have been a carpark if it was built, but instead was a quagmire of glunk that constantly threatened to bog us). The visibility was so poor I didn't realise we were travelling along the foot of a mountain til I noticed a faint outline in the greyness (I also mistook the sun for the moon...).
The warriors themselves were amazing - an incredibly feat of human endurace (as all of China now seemed to me) but the markets at the entrance were again a gauntlet of hawkers selling all sorts of weird things (wolf skin carpet? fox head hat?). We flew back to Beijing at the crack of dawn in the pouring rain, and after a succession of small incidents where our presence as tourists was obviously not welcomed, it was almost a relief.

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