Here is why I will always stay at the Lu Dao Bin Guan Hotel whenever I am in Xi’an, and why you probably should, too. I borrowed James’s copy of the Lonely Planet when I was in Pingyao (I could only get the Rough Guide when I was looking in Sri Lanka), found what seemed to be a well-recommended hotel, and phoned ahead to get a booking. The girl asked me what time I was getting in, so they could send someone to pick me up.
Me: “Umm, I’m not sure, I just know the train leaves Pingyao at 5pm, so I think it will be pretty late”.
Her: “What train number is it?”
Her: “OK, that gets to Xi’an at 2.30am, we will be waiting for you.”
Me: “2.30AM??? Are you sure? You will pick me up?”
Her: “Yes, of course”.
And bless their hearts, they were waiting for me at 2.30am, with a little sign saying ’Suzanne’ which probably wasn’t strictly necessary as I was the only person to get off at that station. But still, it was a very welcome sight.
I tiptoed into my dorm room, collapsed into one of the four beds that wasn’t already occupied, and slept the kind of deep sleep that can only come when you have walked a good few miles the day before, had adventures on a train, have been woken up at 2.30am, and are relieved to be where you were meant to be, probably against all the odds.
I woke up late-ish and got chatting to the other two people in my dorm, Phillippa, an English girl (and we both got skittishly excited at hearing another British voice), and Logan, from the States. They’d met in China and had stuck together for a couple of weeks with another couple (hereafter referred to as ‘The Swiss’). I was tempted to take them up on their offer to join them for breakfast, but instead decided to go out to see what Xi’an had to offer.
I liked Xi’an immediately, though it’s hard to put my finger on why. I think it was a combination of a few reasons. Firstly, it has a wall. Gotta love a city with a wall. Chester, York, Hadrians, Xi’an… all charming places. The wall, I think, makes it feel quite cozy and protected, despite the fact that the real city now extends far beyond the walls, and in fact has a population of 8 million. Also, I think because it was a Sunday, there were loads of people about, most of them locals, apparently just out for a walk, seeing and being seen, all dressed up in their Sunday finery. And finally, the food is just ace. I seemed to spend the whole day snacking. For breakfast I had a bun stuffed with pork and a eye-watering amount of green chilli (although it has to be said, I’m displaying many signs of becoming completely immune to the effects of chilli – I’ve heard this is the first step to addiction), then I had a crunchy-coated chicken kebab, then some noodles for lunch, and finally this bizarre fat wobbly lollipop thing, almost semolina-like in texture, served on a stick, cooked with loads of sugar and dried fruit. I have no idea what it was, but it was really scrumptious, and, even better, looked like something you’d get in Willy Wonka’s factory. It’s all dirt cheap as well, I didn’t spend more than 10yuan all day (about 70p).
Although Xi’an has a few famous sights right in the city, I took the executive decision not to visit any of them. I was feeling a bit Pagoda’d out (similar to Temple Overload in India). Instead, I spent a fun afternoon getting deliberately lost in the twisting, turning, meandering streets of the Muslim Quarter, and took a calm rest stop in the haven of the Great Mosque.
That night I feasted yet again, a big group of us went out to the recommended Xi’an Restaurant (imaginative name, eh?), where we took turns ordering food with elaborate names such as ‘Smiling Your Way To Happiness’, ‘Meat Cooked With A Wonderful Flavour’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Sheep Flesh Bunch’ (Lamb kebab). We stuffed ourselves silly and washed it down with plenty of the local beer, for less than two of your English pounds each.
My alarm clock was set for early the next morning, as I was heading out to see the Terracotta Warriors. I had been looking forward to this for ages, as I remember seeing a feature on ‘Blue Peter’ about them many moons ago. Actually, it’s quite scary how much of my basic knowledge of Asia comes from Blue Peter. Did they feature anything else on that programme apart from Asia, Irish Dancing, and how to make that coathanger/orange combination thing at Christmas? (I want to say a kissing ring but I’m just not sure).
On my bus was a French family – the son, about my age, had lived in Asia for a while and also spoke great English – and three other British people, Tim, Catherine, and Catherine’s sister Jane. Our tour guide spoke amazing English, and soon got her money’s worth with plenty of information about Xi’an and what we were going to see. Unfortunately, they almost have an obligation to spin these things out, and the first couple of stops were nondescript – a random museum, and a jade factory, where our group obsinately refused to buy anything, and all declared in a loud voice that they preferred my fake jade bracelet bought in Beijing for 10yuan to the more expensive stuff being hawked at the factory.
The stops got more interesting after that, with a stop at a hot spring that looked for all the world like Bath with Pagodas, and was apparently part of the inspiration for the Summer Palace in Beijing. More interestingly, (to me, at least), I had my first taste of Soy Bean icecream, pea green in colour, and with an…odd… flavour. Sort of sweet mushy beans, but not entirely unpleasant. I think it’s the kind of thing that could prove dangerously addictive.
Our fourth stop was the tomb where the first Emperor is buried, the one who the Terracotta Warriors are guarding. It’s basically just a pyramid-shaped hill – we aren’t allowed inside because of all the mercury buried with him. The story goes that his body is floating round on a mercury lake… now THAT I would like to see. We had to make do with trekking to the top of the hill and enjoying the spectacular views. The warriors were located to the east of us – apparently, more have been discovered to the west.
We had an enforced lunch stop, but I’d been forewarned about the shabby quality of the food, so I shared a picnic outside with Catherine and Jane. It was halfway through this lunch that Catherine realised she’d left her camera in the loos at the tomb. We dragged our tourguide away from her lunch and our driver away from his beer (yes, really), and made a mad dash back along the road. Sadly though, the camera was nowhere to be seen, which put a bit of a dampner on things, especially for poor Catherine, who had been so excited about seeing the warriors.
It was a short walk over to the aircraft-hangar-like buildings where the warriors were stored, but what a sight awaited us. The first hangar, the largest in size, was about the same area as two football pitches (I nearly wrote soccer then, just shows how little contact with Brits I’ve had). It marks the site where, 32 years ago, a local peasant was digging a well in a field, and accidentally stumbled across one of the greatest relics it’s possible to imagine. Thousands and thousands of soldiers, arranged in lines according to rank, guard the tomb of the Emperor. They average 5’10′ on height (1.8m for all you metric lovers), and each have individual features, posture, and hairstyles. There are horses arranged with them, who originally had chariots (now decayed). Despite the discovery being over 30 years ago, only a relative few have been restored completely – basically they were stored under wooden beams that decayed and collapsed, so they were all smashed up and parts of it look like the aftermath of a particularly bloody battle). It takes about one year for a dedicated (and patient, I’ll warrant) team of archaeologists to painstakingly match all the pieces to one soldier and put them together, so to see them all restored is a real wonder. The second hangar is smaller, but contains even more figures – although only part of it has been excavated, as there has been neither the time nor the money to excavate it completely. It’s interesting still seeing it covered over, though. Some particularly important figures have been discovered in pit 2, and these are all on display in glass cases. I know that the Terracotta Warriors are a sight that will stay with me for a long, long time, and are right up there with the Taj Mahal for impressive things I have seen on this trip.
The next impressive thing came after we’d arrived back at the hotel. I had a delicious, huge dinner (sense a theme here in Xi’an?), and was joined by the charming, efficient, and ever-so-busy hotel owner, Jim Beam (I know). As I was on my way back through the lobby, I bumped into a beaming Catherine. Apparently the camera had been handed in at the tomb, and the manager had driven all the way to Xi’an to hand it over to her. He refused any petrol money or even a drink, insisting only that he wanted her to know that there were honest people in China. An impressive end to an impressive day.
Tags: China, Travel