My last stop on my tour of Northern China was the small town of Xi’an. Of course – small in China is a population of 8 million people. Most people fly from Beijing to Xi’an, however we decided to take another route…the train. When I booked the overnight train to Xi’an, I really didn’t know what to expect. I actually enjoy taking overnight trains – it’s a good way to see a different side of a country, interact with some locals, and see the countryside. The Beijing train station was massive – making Grand Central in NYC seem like a toy railroad set. Luckily our guide, Roseanne, helped my father and I through the maze of the station and confusing overhead boards which only displayed information in Chinese. She took us all the way down to our train and made sure that we were on the right car. Sure – we could have done this ourselves…but my lord, it would have been full of stress and second guessing! She waved goodbye to us and we were off to Xi’an.
Photo: Young boy that loved my camera!
The train was amazing…clean, comfortable, spacious, and modern. It was all about the numbers…it was an 11 hour ride to Xi’an, each car had about 10 sleeping compartments. The sleeper cabins had 4 bunks and each bunk had a little head set and their own individual flat screen TV at the end of the bunk. Each train car had 2 bathrooms on each end (one western, and one squatty potty). Finally, there was 1 attendant per car so help you with anything you needed and to ensure that the car was clean. The linens were clean and comfortable – this train was pristine. This was the first thing that really exceeded my expectations in China – and to top it off it was a bargain. About $60 for a ticket…that was my hotel room for the night and my transportation. I would highly recommend this mode of travel between these two heavily touristed cities.
We met our new tour guide and driver at the train station the next morning after a good, comfortable night’s sleep. We had a free day today and we were looking forward to some down time after our 3 days of hiking. Our hotel was an older, business hotel – but large and very nice. After a lazy morning, we talked to the concierge and got a map of the city – or course it was all in Chinese – so he had to translate for us. There was a large park nearby that we could walk to – so we decided to get out and stretch our legs. As we started walking down the street I had a funny sensation sweep over me. This was really the first time in 5 days that we were really let loose in China with no tour guide/translator or driver – and I felt alive again! In my travels I’m not used to being driven around everywhere and having everything planned out so well. I have become accustomed to spontaneity and freedom in my travels – and I guess I didn’t realize that I was missing that until I set out on the sidewalks of Xi’an. As we walked down the street there was not another Caucasian person within eyesight. This was not a touristed area, it was simply a local neighborhood, finally – I was seeing the real China! We found the park entrance and went in enjoying the brisk fall air and breeze. Once again, visions of pumpkin pie danced in my head – I just couldn’t shake it! The park was large and had a variety of areas. There was an amusement park, a number of pagoda’s and lakes with little paddle boats and plenty of benches and lovely trails. It was full of energy and couples with kids as well as university students and businessmen. Once again – there was not one Caucasian in the park besides us. We walked around and simply observed – my favorite past-time. I had my camera so we were able to capture some nice shots of the picturesque park and lakes. We sat around a pagoda for a while, just watching people coming and going when we noticed a man with a kite. As my eyes followed him, he went to talk to some other older men sitting on a bench. I noticed they were all looking up, so I followed their gaze. Up high in the sky was a small little dot. As my eyes focused in on it I realized the dot was a kite – flying high up in the stratosphere. Photo: Look very closely – you will see two little black dots in the sky…those are kites! I never imagined that kites could even go that high – it looked like it could be in a jet stream it was so high! There wasn’t just one up in the sky, there were about 3 of them – all being controlled by the men on the bench. We sat and watched these men fly their kites with the skill of professionals. More men came to join them and we were able to watch them launch more kites up into the jet stream as if there was no such thing as gravity. They would ask others in the park to hold the kite and then they would run off and get good winds signaling the ‘helper’ to let it go and up it went. My father and I kept getting a little closer to the action. I think my dad secretly wanted to be a ‘helper’ and launch a kite. My father is a retired engineer and all things having to do with physics of course draw him in. The Chinese men were aware of us watching with intent and some of them even tried to strike up a conversation with us…in Mandarin…which quickly deteriorated into charades between us as none of us could communicate with each other!
I went off to take a few more pictures of the park and the lake and left my dad mesmerized by the kites. When I came back 10 minutes later I saw him with the old Chinese guys and they had given him a kite to fly. I have no idea how this exchange happened – more charades no doubt, but it made me very happy. When you travel, you learn how to break down barriers and incorrect stereotypes and it makes you realize that we are all just people trying to get along and find happiness…no matter where you live. I was happy that my father was a part of this process. After an hour we finally moved on from the kites and the skillful men. But this experience had hooked dad. He talked about how he had enough room around his home in South Dakota to fly a kite – so from then on out we were on a mission to get dad outfitted with a kite and reel that would send a kite into the jet stream of South Dakota. We made a few more stops in the park to listen to locals perform music and soak in the non-tourist atmosphere. As we were walking back to our hotel a young girl about 6 yrs old saw us on the street and as she passed us she said “hello”. The first English we had heard from someone in the last 3 hours. The younger generation is learning English in school, and apparently are the only people we could find to communicate with! The afternoon in the park was probably my favorite day that I had in China because I felt like it was the first time that I would get a real feel for China, the people, and their everyday life.
The next day we were back on the tourist trail to see the Terracotta Army – a relatively recent discovery in 1974 dating back 2,000 years. The ‘cliff notes’ to this archeological wonder is that the Terracotta Army was buried with the Emperor of Qin in 210 BC. Their purpose was to help rule another empire with the Emperor in the afterlife. Consequently, they are also sometimes referred to as “Qin’s Armies”. Three pits of soldiers have been discovered all in different forms of disrepair. The thousands of soldiers were buried deep underground in the standing position yet over time they fell over creating a domino effect in many areas. All I could think about as I looked at some of the rubble was the story of Humpty Dumpty! The largest pit was basically covered by a big aircraft hanger where some of the soldiers had been unearthed , some were left buried, and some were in an area in the back where they were being put back together just like Humpty Dumpty. The sites of the soldiers were amazing to see. Each soldier was different and represented an actual man in the army. Each spent years of their lives creating a terracotta army for the Emperor – and were presumably a little bitter about it – therefore when the Emperor died, the peasants actually tried to destroy much of the underground army, but they didn’t succeed. The strangest thing to me about this site – was how in the world it actually stayed a secret for 2,000 years before it was discovered by a local farmer digging a well? I honestly can’t believe that a huge secrete like that wasn’t let out somehow.
We walked around the 3 pits and fought our way through the thousands of tourists all crowding around the same 3 pits and were able to get some photos. I loved the site, however I hated the huge tours bus crowds – it was definitely a test in extreme patience for both my father and I. Make sure you take the time to look at the pictures…I worked hard for those!!
On our way back to Xi’an, my dad found a place to satisfy what had been gnawing at him since the day before. He bought a kite. Now, we just had to find a heavy duty kite reel and long string to launch is into the stratosphere. We decided that our hotel Concierge, Jerry, was so nice and helpful the previous day (plus he spoke very good English!) that we would stop by and see if Jerry knew where we could find the other crucial pieces for our kite. He wasn’t sure exactly where we could find what we needed, but he did direct on a short walk to a local market that sold fishing supplies and many other little things. I asked him to write a note in Chinese for what we were looking for so we could use it to communicate. This is a tactic that I learned while traveling in Asia…when traveling in a country that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, always have them write down what you are looking for as well as your hotel name and directions in their subscript!
So, we took off with a hand drawn map by Jerry, a note that said “We would like to buy a kite reel and string” in Chinese and Jerry’s business card with his mobile number in case no one knew what we were talking about, he said that they could call him and he would explain. Now this was service…I was impressed! We followed the map and I tried to match the Chinese characters that he wrote down for the name of the market to the characters on the outsides of buildings. I felt like I was a part of the Amazing Race, following some cryptic messages! Eventually we came to the right market, and I started going into stores and handing people the piece of paper with the Chinese characters on it. They would read it and know what we meant and they would try to direct us to another store…presumably one that sold kite string! After following some pointing directions from about 5 different people, we came to a man, handed him the note and he smiled …he had what we were looking for! We looked around the market a bit longer and then went back to the hotel to thank Jerry profusely for his help!
Photo: Fish on a skewer…ready for grilling
We completed our time in Xi’an touring the city wall which was completely in tact, going through the Wild Goose Pagoda, and visiting the old Islamic area of town and the town mosque. The town of Xi’an was lovely – I guess I really can’t call it a town – it was larger than Manhattan – but it was rich in history. Dad and I finished our time shopping for souvenirs and enjoying some local street food…my favorite! I was completely surprised by my father’s interest in shopping. This is the man that I would have to go out and do his shopping during December because he hated shopping so much. However – he loved the market – I personally think it was because he loved the process of bargaining. I couldn’t believe some of the deals he bargained down to…a true hard ass. But he always did it in such a way that everyone had fun – even though they would try to tell us that they weren’t making any money on the deal…they’d still always run after us as we left finally agreeing to his price. Finally, we had one last dinner with Rocky and our driver before we got back on the overnight train for Beijing. A feast of meat and beer!
Traveling with my father was rewarding. I’ve never traveled alone with him before – and I don’t know that I will have that many opportunities to do it again. Given the opportunity I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was fun to see his enthusiasm for other cultures, his love of new food, and his energy for travel. For me it was like putting together a puzzle of my psyche and what has driven me to travel the world…a puzzle as confusing at times as the terracotta army was to put back together. It’s funny and a bit scary at times to realize that as we get older we do actually morph into our parents. Hopefully we’ve morphed the things that we’ve liked and admired about them! I believe in this case…I have. I’m sure this winter I will be out in the South Dakota landscape trying to help my dad get that damn Chinese kite in the air…just another new adventure. Beware FAA!!