Left To Our Own Devices

1st & 2nd Sept 2017

Bell Tower by night...And so, our detour to Yunnan, the second phase of our trip is done. We head on feeling that there is more of Yunnan that we would have liked to have seen – both north to Shangri-La and south to the rice terraces and hills near the border with Laos. Although Teddy had his foibles, he looked after us well and we’ve had a great time. Also, as we are about to find out, we could have done a lot worse for a guide.

...and by dayThe transfer to Xi’an was straightforward and, although £6 for a coffee at the airport was eye-watering, we couldn’t complain about the China Eastern flight – modern plane, punctual, decent treatment by staff and food no worse than normal airline fare. This is just as well as we have a couple more flights with China Eastern this trip. We had been expecting to make our own way from the airport to our hotel and had researched the shuttle buses. So, it was a pleasant surprise to see someone with our names on a card as we walk out of baggage reclaim and into the terminal concourse. Thank you Wild Frontiers and Laura (our leader on the up coming tour).

Eyes peeled for colourful doorwaysOn our way to the hotel, Chris (with the sign) tells us a little about Xi’an and its province. Xi’an (or Chang’an as it used to be called) was at one time the capital of China. He is a little over enthusiastic about the merits of a (Dalai) Lama temple near our hotel. He does, however, offer to take us into the city in the evening to his favourite dumpling restaurant this evening, so we give him the benefit of the doubt (for now).

Tums ready for street foodIt turns out that there are two others from our trip who have also arrived a day early (and have similarly had the hard sell on the Lama temple and the dumpling restaurant). So, that evening, we all meet up in the hotel lobby and Chris guides us on to the (public) bus into town. Usually, we’re able to pick up how to use public transport after being shown once by a local, but Chris used a payment card and wasn’t very clear as to whether we could pay cash to the driver (or even how to read the route maps). Fortunately, we later found the metro to be much more straightforward.

Dumplings then!Chris takes us to his ‘favourite’ dumpling restaurant which is right by the Bell Tower (i.e. in the centre of town). He recommends a set menu which he says is a reasonable cost, but at 168RMB (£20) each, it is easily the most expensive meal we’ve had since leaving home. Our suspicions are further aroused when Chris sat being plied with free food. I wonder if this is why it is his favourite restaurant. Still, there were a lot of dumplings and each time we’d get close to clearing a dish, more dumplings would arrive – each one different from the others in colour or filling or shape. Most were very tasty.

At least it wasn't chicken claws and duck beaks!We were slightly surprised when at the end of the meal, Chris said “OK, you can make your own way back. The metro station is over there.” At least it gave us a chance to get some photos of Bell Tower and Drum tower lit up at night. Fortunately, one of the others had already used the metro earlier in the day and so knew the principles of what we needed to do. Also, the ticket machines could be set to English (well, Chinglish) and we were able get our tickets and find our way to the station by the hotel. Given how many countries we have used public transport in, there should not be any surprise.

Xi'an city wall and moatOne of our priorities for Xi’an is to get our laundry done – there was no opportunity last week and once we start our Silk Road trip in earnest there are a string of hotels where we only stay for one night. The hotel appears to be in the sort of district that would be home to a laundrette or two and both Google & Bing maps mark a handful on nearby streets and so off we head. After all of the jokes about Chinese laundries, would you believe that they don’t seem to exist? We couldn’t spot any – even in the locations suggested by the internet or the hotel’s concierge. Hmm. Well, the only thing for it is to take advantage of the washing line in the bathroom and do a hand wash. It certainly isn’t all glamour whilst travelling (more on this later)!

Entrance to the Lama TempleWith our smalls washed and not needing to meet up with our tour leader and the rest of the group until 3pm, we head off to explore the city. Our original plan is to walk (or cycle) along the top of the city wall – as the wall is 14km in circumference, even Janet & I are not going to try to walk all of it (probably). But we don’t even get to try as when we get to the nearest of the big gates through the wall, there is no way up. Whilst we can see flights of stairs, the entrances are barred and locked and neither can we see anyone else up there. Hmm (again)!

Restoring the templeWhat we do see though, are signs to the Guangren Lama Temple that Chris mentioned so frequently yesterday. So off we trot. Score one for Chris (though he is still not forgiven for stitching us up on the dumpling restaurant and abandoning us in town). Within the temple complex, there are multiple pavilions / pagodas split over 3 courtyards each ornately decorated and with large statues. We don’t have Teddy to tell us which god each represents, but we do remember his instructions to walk round the courtyards clockwise.

Many ornate statues in the templeThe temple dates back to the 18th century and signs tell us that within the large grounds, there are 8 treasures and 6 rare trees. We didn’t attempt to count any of these but we did enjoy just wandering around in the relative quiet and admiring the architecture and the statues. The temple is clearly in the process of being restored with painters working away on several of the pagodas, bringing out the colours and the detail in some of the panels. At one point, there is a warning call from above our heads as we stand in a doorway. We look up to see that we are in danger of having paint drip on our heads.

Ping pong in the parkOutside of the wall – between wall and moat is a ribbon of public park and we wander down that, pausing occasionally for a spot of people watching. This makes a change from everyone gawping at us! At the North Gate, it is still not obvious as to how to get to the top of the wall – though we can now see a few people up there. And so we decide on a change of tack and catch the metro (now that we’re experts) across the city to the South Gate. Here there is a ‘scenic spot’ (park) to appreciate the wall complete with a (presumably reconstructed) drawbridge to get across the moat and access the top of the wall. The only downside is that there is a charge to get into the park and onto the wall. At least that explains why we struggled to get up there. We should be going on the wall as part of our group trip and so we decide to head on in search of lunch.

Entrance to the South GateThis will be the Drum Tower, thenOur plan for lunch is to grab a snack from a street food vendor. However, this comes unstuck when – for practically the first time in China – there isn’t a food stall to be seen. How did they all just disappear? We’re on our own for the first time and so we stopped in a KFC rather than have to work out the menu in a Chinese restaurant. Not glamorous, but at least we got some French Fries. Later on, we learn that we were within 100m of the main street food road in Xi’an.

Psychadelic ceiling in the Bell TowerWe’re now back in the centre of town, exactly where we were last night and so right by the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. We can’t remember if they are on the itinerary for the tour, but as they are right here and only 50RMB for both, we decide to go in. The two buildings are separated by about 400m and date back to the time of the city walls (14th Century). Obviously, one houses (big) bells and other drums. This is a tradition in China and both are used to mark the passage of time (and to signal the opening and closing of the gates) – the bells sounded in the morning and the drums in the afternoon.

At least he found some road spaceBy now its time to get back to the hotel and meet up with our group. There are nine of us plus Laura, the tour lead and we’ll also have a local guide in each city / region we visit. Our first activity is a walk into the Muslim quarter which backs on to our hotel. As soon as we turn off the main road, the density of traffic shoots up to the extent that it is a wonder that the cars and scooters make any progress at all. With street vendors then camped on what little pavement there is pedestrians really have to keep their wits about them. Here’s where it would be handy to be one of those Buddhist gods with 10,000 eyes.

Plenty of food choiceWe poke our noses in on a couple of mosques as we wander but if it wasn’t for the green coloured domes with golden crescent moons we wouldn’t have known them to be mosques. They are certainly very different from the beautiful mosaics that we saw in Samarkand and Bukhara. We do, however, find bread for sale on some of the street stalls. Very prosaic but this is the first time we’ve seen handmade bread in China – and, presumably, this is down to the Muslim influence. There’s all sorts of food available from the stalls that line the road – where were these guys when we needed them at lunchtime. Being in a group, we can buy 2 or 3 different things and share them around.

Tomorrow our Taklamakan Adventure kicks off properly. If this evening is anything to go by, its going to be good. Bring it on!

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