Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Luoyang to Xi'an

After a few days relaxing in Pingyao I thought it was about time to get back to another Chinese metropolis. I took the sleeper to Luoyang, which is a convenient stopover on the way to Xi'an. Like Tiayuan there was little  to do in the city centre, however Luoyang has a star attraction just a few kilometres away: the Longmen Grottoes. This is a complex of hundreds of caves, housing over 100,000 Buddhist carvings, cut into the limestone cliffs along the Yi River.

The pictures don't really do it justice. The level of detail and sheer scale of the complex is unbelievable. However, being such a spectacular religious site meant that it was high up the list when the Red Guards came knocking. During the Cultural Revolution (and previous anti-Buddhist movements) many of the statues were systematically defaced (literally) or destroyed entirely - in fact almost every carving in the top picture no longer has facial features - but even this organised destruction hasn't taken away the magic of the place.

After a tiring afternoon of walking around the caves, and a pretty scary taxi ride where I had to wake the driver at every red light, I fancied a good feast. Luoyang has an buzzing night market with everything from noodle dishes to insects on skewers. I tucked into what looked like a spare rib, but on closer inspection turned out to be a chicken's gristly head and neck, which was almost edible. I avoided the fried roaches and larvae and settled for an unadventurous bowl of steaming noodles.

Sitting at the end of the silk road Shaanxi province, Xi'an (in its previous guise of Chang'an) was perfectly positioned as the political capital of China and a major trade hub that rivalled Constantinople at the height of its power. However today there remains very little of this old city - the Daming Palace in the north of the city, which disappointingly didn't make it through the ages intact, was once 4 times bigger than the Forbidden City in Beijing; the old city walls, though fully intact and hugely impressive, are now lost in a sea of modern buildings; and plenty of other Chang'an-era sights have been lost to time and the occasional razing.

Xi'an's remaining sights are spread out, which really highlights the size of the former capital, but the main draw is the site of the Terracotta Warriors around 30km east of the city. Swarms of tourists take the trip out there on expensive organised tours but I decided to take one of the many public buses which make the journey. I was herded onto a bright green minibus daubed with pictures of the warriors, assured that it'd be direct to the gates and feeling happy about my Northern thriftiness. Once the bus was full we set off and, although I was beginning to get used to being the only westerner on public transport, the fellow passengers didn't really look like typical domestic tourists. Sure enough the driver's claims were untrue and people alighted at every stop along the way, leaving me as the sole passenger. A few minutes later the bus pulled into a depot and the driver turned off the engine - stepping out the door he did a double take, said something along the lines of "Oh sh*t, the waiguoren is still on the bus", and ushered me onto another bus in the opposite direction. A few minutes later and I was told to get off at a patchwork of roundabouts in a desolate field. Aside from a few boarded up trinket shops a lonely road sweeper the place looked deserted, like a post-apocalyptic Milton Keynes. Surely a UNESCO heritage site ought to be a little more occupied, but then the main carpark came into view. Throngs of guides swarming around row after row of coaches, distributing a garish rainbow of anoraks to their enthusiastic tourists.

Despite the crowds, the Terracotta Army is an amazing sight. Thousands of soldiers, horses, chariots all standing in formation, designed to protect the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, in the afterlife. Most of the estimated 8000 warriors are still buried in pits nearby. Obviously the scale of the project is beyond belief but what really took my breath away was that each of the soldiers is unique in design, from facial expression and haircut to the folds in his clothing. The attention to detail was so high that the soldier's rank in the army even determined his body shape and age, with the more experienced terracotta officers looking more stocky and gruff, and the archers being more lithe and nimble. An awe-inspiring sight.

Back in Xi'an I headed over to Lao Sun Jia, one of Xi'an's oldest restaurants for some food. In my trip I had to do plenty of character matching, comparing the chinese symbols in the guidebook with those on the restaurant signs, and had very little success. So often I'd try to memorise the symbols with pictures in my head, but when I finally compared "beta-with-a-J, cross-in-a-3-sided-box, pi-bar, duck-in-a-neck-brace" to the sign on the front I'd find even the slightest change of font would scupper it.

By the time I finally found the place I was starving. The waitress sat me on a large table with the only other westerners in the building, obviously herding us all together in order to keep us under control. She handed us menus the size of holy scriptures full of hundreds of dishes. I skipped past the whole battered dog on a bed of lettuce (we're talking Jack Russell size, not Alsatian) and pointed to some more unadventurous dishes.
"You can't have that" the waitress sighed.
"What about the pork"
"No, only soup"
We looked around at the other diners tucking into sizzling plates of meat.
"Only soup?"
"Yes... here's the bread, now tear it into pieces"

Apparently it's a speciality where you can choose the size of the bread pieces that are dropped in your generic soup. Hardly the choice I was expecting when I was handed the menu but we proceeded to diligently tear the bread into small chunks. After 5 minutes the waitress came round, chastised me for the slightly too large bread pieces and sent me back to work. The old Canadian chap to my right looked nervous and frantically tore his into even smaller cubes. He looked rather smug when it was taken away without comment. 1 litre of broth and soggy bread later and I left for the McDonalds next door. No trouble reading that sign...

[I had multiple PC problems over the last week so this blog has been a bit delayed... normal service will resume...]

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