Day 22 - Xi'an Departure

Our Hotel Room

Thought you may be interested in some pictures from our hotel room in Xi'an…

Out the Window

Hum, not so good a few out the window, what of the room itself?

Mother's Unmade Bed

Ah, hum…Mother refuses to take pictures of the room. Not the best hotel that we have stayed in…

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

We are sharing our train cabin this time on our way to Shanghai. Last time we had it to ourselves but this time there is a chatty young British gentleman who happens to work in IT (so I can talk to him about various things) and a shy older Chinese lady. When we entered the cabin she was being comforted by someone we presume to be her son. Mother is sleeping on the lower bunk opposite to reassure her while us guys are up here near the roof. I hope we do not scare her at all. I think we are all fairly friendly…

We really did not do Xi'an justice. In and out after only a day. Considering the distances we have travelled (and another 756 miles from Xi'an to Shanghai now…) it is a bit unfair really. I think we gave it a good shot though. I am not sure exactly how much more time we could spend looking at things in Xi'an. Certainly our guide was determined to make sure we saw everything on the itinerary when she met us at the hotel in the morning.

Breakfast was included with the hotel in the restaurant. It was another buffet serving a few Chinese dishes but mostly western. It was very busy and we were a bit self-conscious when they put the western tourists (such as ourselves) in a separate area and gave us much better service. I am not too impressed with this hotel at all really. Getting home last night I had one of the few security scares I have ever had here when I realised that the window was not locked (I immediately locked it). I guess I am not all that comfortable here. Perhaps it is just as well it was only for one night. Looking at some of the other hotels in the city (and outside of the city walls) there are a lot more nicer places to stay in. Mind you, with the package deal we could not be picky and as I said: Only one night.

Walking to the Drum Tower

The walk to the drum tower was quite entertaining. Leaving the hotel we walked down the narrow alleyway (any taxi that picks us up or drops us off needs to reverse in at least one of the directions since they cannot turn around what with the cars parked on the one side anyway). Opposite there is a small alley with a few fruit sellers that we did not really have a chance to try (have I mentioned the pomegranates we picked up yesterday are very good – despite being told by Jacky in Beijing that it was a bit early in the season…?). Leaving the alley the main street is very busy both on the sidewalk and in the street itself. A short walk and we came to a pedestrian underpass that we used to cross under the street that runs through the middle of the street east to west and come out in a shopping concourse (Starbucks, for example) just a short walk from the tower. The drum tower and the bell tower look remarkably similar with the bell tower in the middle of the city (at the busy roundabout where the two main roads meet) and the drum tower just a short distance to the west. They are both multi-tier buildings with the traditional Chinese tile roofs, stone and wood exteriors (with the wood painted very ornately). To get into the buildings themselves you have to climb up a few stories of stone steps from the street level (paying, of course, the toll-keeper). These buildings were indeed used for the housing the instruments they are named after. The drums and bells were used to mark time but also rang out in times of emergency. At the centre of the city their voices would have been heard from quite some distance away.

The drum tower has a small museum devoted to drums on the main floor. The walkway around the floor has a series of drums devoted to the 24 “solar terms” (a kind of ancient weather calendar) and a big drum which is, supposedly, the largest in the world. Mother insisting on having her picture taken beside said drum we climbed up to the first (second) floor to have a look around the city.

Mother and the Drum

The views are quite amazing and we laughed at the sight of many small hanging objects in the trees and on the buildings all around. Looking further we saw a couple of men selling small kites at the ends of long strings. Obviously they have been doing this for a long time as the buildings and trees attest to their not-entirely successful efforts to keep the kites in the air. Here we were thinking that it was just decoration…

Looking around there is not a lot to see. A number of buildings, none of which appear to be taller than 10 stories. The place has a distinctive communist feel to it (with a few capitalist touches such as the Starbucks…) and is not exactly festooned with ornamentation (other than the structure we were standing in). The traffic is quite busy on these main streets through the city and the smog is everywhere (sorry…), even here.

The upper floor also has a shop. This was to be a pattern repeated throughout the old buildings we visited in Xi'an. This shop is set up as a bit of a museum with a number of shadow puppets displayed throughout (along with dark wooden furniture – for sale, obviously). There was a painter also doing a bit of painting as well. Probably the pleasant of the tourist traps we have visited on this trip.

Another musical interlude. We had noticed a show was only a few minutes away from starting in the drum museum when we first arrived so we now insisted that the guide let us watch. It was an interesting 15 minutes where the drummers demonstrated their art with several of the instruments on display on the small stage at one end of the room. They were quite enjoyable. I am really appreciating the many opportunities we have had to enjoy some of the old music we have enjoyed on this trip. It does bring the culture to life for me in a much more real way then reading things in a museum.


Our guide left us at this point to let us wander. We had noticed some interesting things to the north of the tower. One was a covered market and the other was an interesting street. Most of the streets around Xi'an are quite commercial and fairly bland but this street is lined with large trees that almost obscure the rows of small, intriguing shops. Our guide informed us that this is the Muslim quarter of the city. To us, this looked far more interesting than the sterile buildings all around us so we proceeded to investigate.

The market was largely untouched by tourists so we were actually left alone (until we approached any souvenir stand…) amongst the rows of stalls. It was a bit of a mixture of products: Dried fruits, vegetables, meat, handy-crafts, (the aforementioned) souvenirs (including dolls, jade, silk, etc, etc), as well as the more mundane household supplies (toilet paper, skin cream, etc). Basically, a normal street market you can still find pretty much anywhere in the world. The many different colours of cloth covering the stalls created a shadowy area away from the hot sun as we wandered up and down the aisles.

Entering the street there are a number of interesting shops. Most of them are selling food on the street. Would that we had come here last night! Various skewers of meat as well as dumplings and the like make this a very interesting area to me. We were not the only tourists here but there were far more local people around which is important to us – We were seeing something of the real city instead of the touristy bits.

Bell Tower

But, we are tourists. Heading back to where we passed under the street we had a drink at the Starbucks. Coffee shops appear to be a good choice for us as they provide mother with coffee but they also generally have other drinks on offer that I can drink that are not soft-drinks. I do not drink coffee and only rarely drink tea (basically, if it is Chinese or Japanese) so a break from normal soft-drinks is always appreciated. We sat out on the open square beside the store as I sipped my fruit slush drink (sadly, not a Slurpee…) and watched the world go by for a few minutes. Many people looking determined to be somewhere else as well as the meanderers. I spent a few minutes watching a photographer posing a model on some steps leading up to the street level with the bell tower behind. The man holding the reflector having a bit of problem with the glaring sun and heat.

Passing beneath the road once again we stopped by the post office. Another communist institution as mother picked up her post card stamps and I picked up a few stamps (etc) for my collection (insert stamp/coin collector joke here…sigh…done, are we?…right, shall I continue?…).

Heading into the middle of the subterranean warren we climbed up into the middle of the cities middle roundabout – the site of the bell tower. This was not quite as interesting as the drum tower in that it was mostly about shops but the views are quite a lot better as you can look down the full length of the four streets leading out in each of the compass directions to see the city walls in the (near) distance. Mother and I spent quite some time watching the traffic police directing traffic but, more often, scolding pedestrians who were trying to walk across the streets (evidently they are supposed to use the underground tunnels or the street lights a few blocks away). It was amusing to see some of the people carrying their wares on ancient bicycles attempting to negotiate the heavy traffic of the roundabout and wobbling quite a bit as they tried to avoid the remonstrations of the policeman directing them off to the side. It was a bit like a comedy routine and occupied us for quite a few minutes.

Traffic in Xi'an (SW)

We neglected to ring the bell they had on display on the main level as they wanted to charge us to do so (for some reason). According to what I have read this is not one of the original bells anyway.

Descending once again into the labyrinth we passed by the tourist stalls lining the tunnel to the tower and proceeded around the circle a bit further to visit the Century Ginwa Shopping Mall which is supposed to be one of the biggest in the area. It had been pointed out at our Feng Shui “class” yesterday that this building was quite good as far as the art is concerned – Running water (a fountain) in front with no direct entrance into the building (therefore, the good energies can remain inside and the fountain washes away the bad energies) along with “mountains” behind (in this case, mountain shaped features on the top). Despite the name “Shopping Mall” this is effectively a single, very large, department store. Each level has a number of departments that you can visit (some are specific brands but most are things like “cameras”, “ladies fashions”, etc). The middle of the store has a large central circular atrium.

Central Atrium

A display of moon cakes on the bottom floor of the atrium looked interesting so we did the round-and-round dance to descend on the escalators. The mid-autumn festival is coming soon where moon cakes are traditionally given as gifts and here there were several very large moon cakes on display – about 1 m in diameter! Oh, what are they? Well, they are a round pastry cake with a bean filling. Often there are also nuts or (cooked) egg yokes inside as well. They are quite tasty.

Mooncakes (SW)

Beside the Big Mooncakes (SW)

Having whetted our appetite we then made the long (dizzying) trek up to the top floor where the food court was situated. Really amazing. Probably one of the best food courts I have ever been in. There are a series of stalls selling various specialities. For example, one at the very beginning had local specialities, the one next to it had dumplings and other stalls sell Italian food and grilled meats. I was in heaven. It was a lot like what you would expect to see being sold by a street vendor but in a much more condensed environment. Looking at what was on offered a store employee came over to us to help us out – He directed us to purchase a “stored value” electronic card that we then swiped at each stall as a purchase was made. Interesting – It does save the staff from having to deal with money. Mother and I made our selection and took our trays to a table to eat.

Food Court (SW)

We wandered around for only a few more minutes in the air-conditioned comfort of the store before making our dizzy way back down the escalators to exit onto the street. Heading south we wanted to have a look at the city walls in a bit more detail. Walking down Nan Da Street there are many shops that would not surprise you – The big brand names we see in the west all over the place. KFC, Starbucks, McDonalds as well as the fashion labels – Prada, Dior, etc. We chanced the traffic and crossed to the south tower (no underpass here) – Pedestrians appear to take the same chances here with the traffic as they do in Beijing and the traffic still seems to flow around them. Just as well would not want to flow (or crunch as the case may be) under it…

Yongning Palace Hotel Near the South Gate

The walls are really interesting. They are so wide.

City Walls at the South Gate

Here just west along the top of the wall from the south gate you can rent bicycles (including tandems) and further on you can hire a rickshaw to take you part way along the wall. We headed west. The top of the wall we walked along is made of brick but is actually not in very good shape in parts which would make a bicycle or other wheeled vehicle a bit tricky. The wall is so high in the air we are able to look out over the city. It is as if we are intruders in people's daily lives as we stop to listen to a small group of older people under a tree in a park playing instruments with a small group of admirers standing around. Very peaceful.

Musicians Under a Tree (SW)

Continuing along it is surprising to see the new buildings with the ancient roofs some of them with what appears to be a common style of solar energy unit (I believe for hot water). Leaving the tower behind you also leave the tourists back behind as well. In the tower itself we were quite astounded to see a tourist get onto a stage where two young ladies were performing on classical stringed instruments to stand behind them (and actually put his arms around them) for his wife to take his picture! Incredibly rude we thought. We were content to just enjoy the music.

View of Houses within the Walls

Along the wall there are periodic buildings that obviously used to be watchtowers. Now they are shops renting bicycles or toilet facilities. Visiting one of the toilets on urgent business I noted that they were extremely clean. Most of the toilets here have an attendant that keeps them clean always in attendance. Even here on the wall quite some distance from the tourists was a gentleman off to the side with his broom. The facilities, if you must know, are traditional western ones (with seats) but mother assures me that many of the ladies are of the squat-type. Luckily I have not yet had to experience such things (having a particularly robust bladder).

City Walls

We never made it to the southwest tower. It was very hot and it is quite a long walk. We gave up at the last watchtower before and turned around to return to where we had started at the south gate. A small excursion around to the south of the gate we were rewarded with a visit to the gate-house itself which is now, surprise, surprise, largely a shop selling souvenirs (though a few signs on some old machinery points out the workings of the draw-bridge). Looking out of the south window was a view the defenders would have been horrified to see – Traffic streaming in and out of the city and invading modern buildings all around. Aside: A bit much? Nah, I think it makes sense…

We returned towards the hotel having a short stop at another coffee shop (in this heat it is essential to keep drinking and, of course, to take it easy – We are carrying bottled water with us every day). I had a bit of entertainment with the ladies at the cash register before walking away with a fruit juice for my mother and myself. We enjoyed the air-conditioned comfort for a few minutes before returning to the hotel where we caught a taxi to the train station. This hotel, and the others we have stayed at in China, have cards that list specific destinations around the area that tourists might want to go to in English and Chinese. You show these cards to the taxi driver and they will take you there. The system works quite well and got us to the train station well ahead of our departure time (the taxi charged by distance, again, just like in Beijing – very good considering the traffic!). The train station was quite chaotic again with the taxi driver stuck trying to get anywhere near the entrance so we hopped out and dragged our increasingly heavy luggage to the entrance where it was scanned by an x-ray machine.

Train Station

We are getting better at catching the trains, I feel. This time we knew that as we had more expensive tickets we were eligible to sit in the “Soft Sleeper Waiting Area” which is nicer waiting area than the one for other passengers. It is air conditioned and even has spring water available for passengers. The comfortable seats were much appreciated after our long day – Relaxing for 45 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave. The two small rooms filled up quickly as our boarding time approached. Leaving by a door opposite to the one we entered in we were directly on the platform and walked straight onto our train which is much the same as the one from Beijing.

This cabin does not have it's own toilets so we have to use the one at the end of the car which is a bit scary. Trying to use it without stepping in the liquid (one would hope it is water) all on the floor is tricky. The same thing goes for the room with three sinks – Trying to use one of these without stepping in the liquid throughout is quite impossible. I miss our toilet. In our room there is actually quite a lot of space (considering the size of the thing). Above the door and, therefore, above the hallway is a space where we are able to stash our luggage (well, us two guys on the top bunk) so that leaves the ground for the two ladies to use. I do hope that the television screen above the door goes out before we try to sleep as it's garish American blockbusters are a bit wearing.

Not much to see out of the windows as we leave Xi'an. It is already night, about 19:35 when we leave. The occasional light flicks by the window but here on the top bunk not much is visible. More than 12 hours to go until we arrive. The dinner once again was delivered by a lady wheeling a cart down the hallway – Chicken and rice in a Styrofoam container. Everyone had one – What else could we eat? I was not going to try the dining car…

Day 23 - Shanghai Arrival