Shaanxi's Ponies (or the Curse of the Missing Finger)
Chengdu turned out to be a very pleasant city ... and it's air quality, which seemed pretty poor to us recently arrived from the mountains, is actually very good compared to most Chinese cities. We were strategically sited next to an Indian restaurant which made for a change to the usual diet, and spent two very pleasant days checking out the cities sights. However on our third day we decided to take a day trip to Leshan to have a look at the tallest Buddha in the world (a title only recently acquired thanks to the Taliban in Afghanistan) and suffered our first serious brush with the Chinese Tourist Industry. To say the day was frantic was an understatement - it felt like everyone we met was intent on ripping us off from the (non) ferry operators to the taxi drivers - even the cycle rickshaw drivers wanted 5 times the usual rate. The statue was very impressive, but not at all worth the hassle to get there or the expense. We were braced for more of the same as our next stop was Xi'an - home of the Terracotta Army...
We had booked a train out of Chengdu immediately on our arrival. This is one of the main reasons we have not been using the trains in China rather concentrating on the more convenient buses. You have to book them days in advance if you want to get a seat - or a bed. On the day you can only find standing tickets where you are crammed into the aisle of a hard seat carriage along with about 1000 others! Coupled with the fact that most services run only at night this doesn't suit our style of travel which is more spontaneous, and generally happens during the day. Anne had forced me to book soft sleeper class - the most expensive and luxurious but actually only the equivalent to second class 'Kupe' in the FSU. That said the price wasn't too exorbitant, about 13.00 pounds each for 16 hours in first class (hope your reading this Mr Branson) and we did get to sit in the first class waiting room which made us feel quite special.
The next morning we arrived in Xi'an fresh and rested and more than able to fight off the swarms of touts and chancers hanging around outside the station. We decided to walk a few kilometres into the centre of town rather than stay in the seedy area around the train station. We managed to secure a comfortable room overlooking the drum tower right in the city centre for 15.00 pounds - a bit more than usual but it did have a excellent view - sometimes the smog would clear enough for us to see right across the square!!
We had a day in the city browsing the souvenir stands, checking on the food options (pretty good as long as you avoid the tourist streets), and working out how to get around. We discovered that if you were to walk past all the taxi drivers and tour operators trying to take you out to see the Terracotta Army for 10 or 20 pounds there was a public bus which would take you there for just a few pence.
I have to say that although we were expecting a repeat of Leshan we both found the Terracotta Army to be a fascinating and surprisingly hassle free day out. This was helped by discovering the public bus and by getting there early before the majority of tour groups arrived. For those who don't know, the Terracotta Army is exactly that - a whole army of terracotta warriors buried to guard the tomb of the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang who died in the year 200 BC. The army was discovered by peasants digging for water in 1974 and has now become China's biggest tourist attraction. The pottery soldiers had mostly been smashed, and the roofs of the pits have caved in causing more damage, but many of them have now been pieced back together by archaeologists. It's quite an impressive sight - the Chinese have built huge buildings over the pits to protect against further damage and erosion.
There is more to this complex than has been discovered as yet. The tomb itself is rumoured to contain a vast underground palace with untold treasures, rivers of mercury, and numerous sacrificed servants all booby trapped with automatic crossbows - real Tomb Raider stuff. None of this has been uncovered as yet - all there is to see at the moment is a large artificial hill and the outlines of a few walls - so all of the above is just legend.
However, this being China you can't make any assumptions. Take for example another legend surrounding the temple of Famen Si - about 100km west of Xi'an. There was a legend that the finger of Buddha had been buried under a pagoda at this temple during the Tang dynasty around 1500 years ago. This is a small provincial temple - not at all important and no-one gave it any thought until the pagoda collapsed during a rainstorm in 1980. Underneath there was discovered an underground vault containing many fine gold and silver objects, precious glass and porcelain, and inside eight nested sarcophagi four human finger bones.
We visited the temple and attached museum the following day - I thought that the story was great and was keen to find out more. As anyone who knows Anne will probably know, she is not exactly the worlds most tolerant person when it comes to religious rituals - and to say that she was somewhat condescending as to the origin of these finger bones would be an understatement. I warned her that these objects may possess hidden powers but she scoffed even more.
One the way back - about 20km outside Xi'an we first encountered the curse of the Finger when the bus windscreen shattered. As we were in China, this fact didn't bother the driver too much and after we had picked the glass out of our clothes (and skin!) we just carried on - albeit with the AC on 'very high'!
We were going to attempt to get straight over to Shanghai from Xi'an, but at 23 hours we thought that it was probably too far to go in one hit, and as we aren't exactly pushed for time decided to break the journey around halfway. This enabled us to travel by day - and also to get an experience of the lowest Chinese train class - 'hard seat' in the process. Hard seat isn't actually as bad as it sounds - there is some padding on the seat for a start and the carriage was air conditioned. The main problem is the railways policy of selling tickets to people even after the train is full. These poor people are just crammed into the aisle which makes the whole experience pretty uncomfortable.
After 7 hours (just about long enough for us - although the train was heading for Guangzhou - another 24 hours down the line) we emerged gasping at Zengzhou which is billed as a sort of Chinese Crewe. Actually I have to say that it's probably about 10 times bigger than Crewe, and about 100 times more exciting. We caught a bus straight out to Kaifeng which we had read was a peaceful and relaxing lakeside city. Unfortunately the Curse of the Finger had got there before us and we found the city packed to the brim with Chinese tourists who, it seemed to us, had come for the 'All China Shouting and Horn Blowing Championships'. I've no idea why they were really there, and had no desire to hang around to find out so we moved on early next morning via two buses to a town called Bozhou.
Bozhou turned out to be a really nice (well nice is probably pushing it - friendly more like) place. We were a bit of a novelty here, we were even given a free lunch in one restaurant in exchange for some photo's (I expect we'll be in the local Ni Hao magazine next issue!!). We walked around the park, had a go on an extremely dodgy big wheel (seemed like a good idea before we got on and noticed the welding - or lack of, and the rust running down the tubing when we got to the top) and finished the day at an excellent night food market (avoiding the goats brains and offal) just outside the hotel.
Encouraged by escaping the curse we looked on the map for another similar town for the next night and settled on Bengbu. This turned out to be a much larger and busier place - strangely lacking in hotels. We ended up staying in a 'suite' above a brothel for just over 5.00 pounds (quite comfortable actually). We are now far enough east to encounter some boating activity again, and we had spotted a port area when we had arrived in the town. We decided to go out to buy a bus ticket for the morning, and then get some boating photos. This was when we were hit again by the Curse! Not only was there more than one bus station, but the whole operation seemed to be stitched up by some mafia. By the time we had eventually located the right bus station, and persuaded someone to sell us tickets it was getting dark and so we missed out on any good pics.
Next morning when we got on the bus, the first thing the driver did was try to buy our tickets back off us as he had already sold the seats to someone else. We told him to get lost and he grudgingly took us to Nanjing (not to the bus station though) on the banks of the Yangtze River. This was like entering a new country again - the same as when we entered Tibet earlier. Everything here is clean, tidy and well organised (apart from the air which is still very smoggy). We had decided to miss out on Nanjing and head further east to Wuxi where we are on the banks of the Grand Canal and hope to get to see some boating action!! We arrived here on a modern 8 lane motorway past huge housing developments, with the occasional canal to keep us interested. Wuxi again is a modern city - very clean and tidy with a skyline like a 'mini' Hong Kong.
More Notes from Anne...
First let me say thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes and cards, it was great to hear from you all and Rod was quite jealous as I got more that he did!!
I had a wonderful day out at the Panda Reasearch Centre, the pandas were so adorable and you will be pleased to hear that we have lots of photos! (see left)
We enjoyed our visit to the Tibetan areas very much. I was especially taken by the clothes. The coats were wonderful, lined with yak wool, worn several sizes too big with sleeves that nearly touched the ground. They were wearing them off one shoulder and tied at the waist by a coloured sash, so that they could use the top as a sort of shopping bag... difficult to describe, but we have some pictures.
A promised update on the toilets!...
The Russian trains have an old boiler on each carriage.... and something to get hot water from !!!!, and she locks the loo for most of the journey, so when you did get into it it wasn't too bad. It was a Russian stainless steel tank of a loo, western style BUT when you lift the seat you find it is designed to squat if you prefer, that is if you are nimble enough to jump up there and balance while speeding through Russia !
Chinese toilets have got to be the worst in the world, the public ones being very public indeed !!! In fairness they do seem to be getting the message and as we head east they are improving... a bit!
The one thing that isn't improving as we head east is the air quality, from Xian onwards we have been in a permanent haze and even though the sun is shining it isn't getting through, it makes for some very atmospheric photos, but not so good for the lungs I think.
We are nearly in Shanghai, which means we will have crossed the whole continent by public transport. We are in a canal area now and are starting to see boats again which is great, the one we can see from our hotel window at the moment makes me think that Caspar's cabin was fine after all !!!