Friday, August 31, 2012

An army of terracotta warriors!

Nothing can stop me now! All resistance will be crushed! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Well, I have eight of them. Plus a horse. And they don't have weapons. And they're only about 4 inches high. But I'm sure all that can be fixed, what with the wonders of modern technology. What do you mean, that's never going to work...

Right, so, Xi'an. We ventured into smoggy smoggy China a bit after sunset. Took the airport express bus into the city (the airport is actually in a neighboring town.) The old Xi'an city walls (nicely restored) were lit up with colorful lights. Very Christmassy. Or Las Vegassy. Or Disneyish. I guess China can now claim to have invented Disneyland, with the hordes of lifelike statues (never mind that they were hidden for a couple thousand years.) So we got off the bus at the Bell Tower, and within five minutes of map-peering and looking lost, we were accosted by a woman trying to sign us up on a tour. (As it turns out, this was slow and quiet, perhaps due to the late hour: in other cities the touts were out in force and immediately in your face with the brochures and shouted offers.) She said she worked for the airport shuttle company, and that they would give us a free ride to our hotel. So, I agreed and we signed up for a terra cotta warriors tour for the next day. The prices seemed reasonable enough. She wanted cash, of course! It took me awhile to get used to carrying giant wads of cash around all the time. I ended up with the Envelope o'Money, which I took out from my backpack at the end of each day to pay the drivers/tour guides.

So eventually (we could probably have walked there just as quickly if we had known the route) we were delivered to our hotel. Just outside the city wall, it was an even fancier place than the place we stayed at in Beijing (but still no swimming pool). Ah well, we're on vacation, at least the nice hotels make the kids happier. Or so I thought, until we found out that this place charged by the minute for an internet connection! (And there was much gnashing of teeth. Even though youtube is blocked in China. Club Penguin still works.)

The next morning, after another hotel breakfast, the tour guide came by to pick us up. It was just us and an Italian couple in a van. We got to see more of the smog, and more of the construction boom. It was amazing how many highrises we saw being built all around every town or city we visited. Xi'an and Chengdu were also in the process of building subway systems. Happy posters promised how much better life would be when they were done. I can believe it. The subway system in Beijing was really really good, and moved massive massive numbers of people around (and they're still expanding it.)

Our first stop was, of course, the "Terracotta Warrior Factory". They actually make terracotta warriors there, in all different scales. We got to see the ovens. Coal (still glowing)! That impressed the Minecraft players in the family. Naturally we bought some souvenirs. They had all of the usual touristy things besides terracotta-themed items: clothes, jewelry, kites, fans, etc. The lacquered furniture was beautiful. If I had lots of money and a spare palace, it would be just the thing. The guide promised it was cheaper than buying it at the Terra Cotta Warrior museum shop, and it probably was. It was even cheaper than I realized, as I accidentally haggled with the sales people and they offered me discounts. Heh. I'm too used to buying things online these days.

Eventually we reached the TCW site. There was the inevitable tourist village by the gates, and then the inevitable trolley ride to the museum itself.

Overheard in the trolley line (from a Chinese family with kids):

"...so as soon as we got up the mountain, they wanted to go down again! And then all the way down, they just wanted to shop for souvenirs and buy gifts for their friends!"

"...and we wanted to try some of the local food, but when we went out of the hotel, all we could find was fashionable clothes stores and alcohol/smoke shops!"

...So it's not just us, then! (Although the "Oooo! A (white) foreigner! Take a picture with him!" thing we got at the Forbidden City probably doesn't happen to Chinese tourists.)

The museum wasn't that far away. We could have walked (and did walk on the way back), but tourists/kids just love those little trolley rides. Apparently.

The farmer who discovered the Terracotta Army was there in the museum shop signing copies of the official book. There was also a short intro film about the TCW. In English! Must be confusing for the Chinese audience.

So then the guide released us to go look at the pits. Yep. They're pits. Big rectangular holes in the ground, now with buildings constructed around them. A few of the statues are still in place for display. The dirt is a strange (to us, used to a more reddish clay soil) faded yellow color. Each building seems to have a bunch of photo op platforms and alcoves, where you can pay extra for a specially exciting picture of you as a Terracotta Warrior, or standing in front of them, etc., etc.

The TCW were pretty cool, and the place not too crowded. Once in awhile a big tour group rushed by ("Don't try to yield to them! You'll be yielding forever!" admonished one woman. I didn't like stepping into a crowd, but it's the way people have to walk, or drive, in China. Heh.) But it didn't take too long for the kids to get bored, and hot, and we retired for an ice cream/bathroom break.

Lunch was even cheaper than the tour-group-lunches we had in Beijing. You could tell because there was no meat served. And drinks were not included.

After lunch we headed back to our hotel. There was other stuff to see in old town Xi'an, but we were tired/jet-lagged/intimidated by the traffic and didn't venture far from the hotel. We ate dinner at the hotel, having failed our feeble attempts to find anything appealing outside.

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel to walk back to the airport shuttle stop. The most embarrassing bit was when we had to be helped across the street by a nice old lady. Isn't there something backwards in that? Heh. So, since we couldn't walk for more than ten minutes without an ice cream break, we stopped for ice cream. (The free wi-fi was a lie!) More random people approached us, offering tours and rides. We declined, until...

We found the airport shuttle bus full, and the next one not for another half hour. At which point the nice man offering us a ride to the airport right now seemed like a good deal...

...which it was, by our standards. It cost the same as the bus (I could probably have tried to haggle for a lower price, but it was already about 1/5 as much as it cost us to get to the airport from our house in the U.S.!) and was quick and easy. Although there's all these warnings about hiring non-official taxis and so on, we did it a few times during our stay in China and it was fine each time. No one ever tried to cheat us. (I do speak some Mandarin, which probably helps.) Sure, we were overcharged for things (compared to what a local would pay), but we always agreed on prices beforehand and there was no problem getting where we wanted to go. It was definitely worth it for the convenience. Since there were five of us, we didn't fit well into a standard taxi, and the "gypsy" drivers typically had minivans or at least a bigger sedan.

Onwards to Chengdu!

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