Our second week in China started with a high speed train ride. The original plan was to head straight to Xi’An by sleeper train. It turns out however that these can fill up almost a week in advance. Instead we hopped on a high speed train to the ancient city of Pingyao to catch the sleeper train on from there the day after. China’s bullet trains have very clean floors (it’s basically someone’s job to wander around and mop the floor every 5 minutes or so). And aside from that they aren’t slow either, seeming to trundle around at about 240km/h.
The train covered the distance to Pingyao in about 4 hours where we disembarked and followed a French guy onto the bus. As it turned out this French person was staying in the same hostel as us. The hostel owner was very friendly and even met us at the bus stop to guide us to our overnight accommodation, which was pretty decent with the one exception of a distinct lack of air-conditioning…
We spent the evening wandering around the ancient walled city with Gregois, our new French friend, who was a history teacher from Lyon. Although Pingyao has escaped having the buildings inside it’s walls replaced with new tall concrete constructions, seemingly unique in any town of any size, it has suffered from the huge increase in tourism. As a result, every building in all the main streets with interesting architecture are either selling the same selection of food or the same cheaply made tourist tat found everywhere else.
It is still an interesting place and probably even more so if we had paid the through ticket that lets you on the walls and in all the old buildings but only having half a day we didn’t think we’d get the most of a not inconsiderable price tag. So we had another morning wandering round some more of the streets with Gregois before having a bite to eat at a nice little cafe on the corner of the main street with an interesting choice of quote on the wall. Then we said farewell to Gregois and set off to the station to catch our first sleeper train to Xi’An.
The sleeper trains are a great way to get around China if you’re not in a hurry, especially if you get an overnight one. The beds aren’t spacious and are as hard as all the other beds seem to be, but they are cheap and very convenient. The 11 hour trip (the fast trains do it in 4) was mostly spent sleeping with a bit of window watching in the morning and was pretty pleasant and relaxing really. And as well moving us through the country, it saved us a night paying for a hostel too. Can’t complain at that.
We stepped off the train into Xi’An where the temperature was set to reach a toasty 40 degrees. Again were greeted by someone from the hostel to show us the way. After ditching our bags we headed out into the city. Xi’An has a very different feel to Beijing. Despite a similar temperature it was definitely a more pleasant place to be. Everything feels slightly less crowded and unhurried. Most significantly though the level of pollution was much lower and didn’t leave you feeling like you had a layer of grime all over by the end of the day. One other notable feature of Chinese cities it the care-free attitude towards wiring. I would not want to be an electrician here.
Our first target was probably china’s third biggest attraction after the Wall and the Forbidden City. The Terracotta Warriors. A short bus ride out of the city to the site where the warriors were buried dropped us in the standard crowds, definitely getting more used to those now. We bought the tickets and headed through to the pavilions containing the stony faced soldiers, except for the ones missing their heads entirely.
It is definitely worth visiting each excavated pit in reverse order from 3, to 2, to 1. That way each subsequent pit is more impressive than the last. Pit 3 has a small number of well preserved warriors and horses guarding an important general at their centre. Pit 2 is a huge partly excavated site, with not many warriors on show in the pit itself but has a number of exhibits scattered down one side of the viewing gallery. Pit 1 is vast. Vast and impressive. Contained under an arched roof like a great train station are arrays of the clay figures stood waiting for their last order to go to battle. And battle is what we had to do to get to the front of the jostling crowds for the prime view over the assembled pottery battalion. It was worth the struggle though to see that impressive archaeological discovery.
We finished our trip there with a quick visit to the museum, which mostly consisted of some badly lit exhibits and a lot of boards explaining how amazing the museum was. There was also a very good photography exhibition by a Japanese photographer of a number of UNESCO world heritage sites. Basically a catalogue of awesome places to go, though we did notice that it might be hard getting photos that good (and crowd free) any more as most of them were taken in the ’80s. If I manage to get even a couple as good as his this year I’ll be pleased. After oggling the picturesque destinations it was time to get the bus back to Xi’An.
After getting back to the city and meandering by the bell tower and drum tower, which are very similar to their capital counterparts, we made our way into the Muslim Quarter and through the markets there. These were very reminiscent of the souks in Morocco, though less extensive and far easier to navigate through without getting lost. The Great Mosque was our destination and wasn’t at all what we had expected. Aside from the Arabic text in various places it felt remarkably similar to a Buddhist temple.
This probably shouldn’t have been all that surprising given its age and location. but it did have a lot of the common threads found in most religions and their places of worship. The most striking contrast to the Lama Temple in Beijing was the lack of a crowd. The difference this made to the feel of the place was huge. Crowds don’t exactly lend themselves to a feeling of spirituality so the great mosque felt more significant to me.
The next couple of nights were to be spent at the bottom of Hua Shan. One of the five holy Taoist mountains. Getting to our hostel was a little interesting after the bus apparently dropped all its passengers through the doors of a restaurant / hostel where we eventually escaped onto the main street. To find out actual accommodation we had a name and address in Chinese and a point on a map that only had a small fraction of the actual roads on. After spending a while wandering in what we thought was the right way we asked an old woman for directions and after some arm waving and a lot of incomprehensible Chinese, she gestured for us to follow her. So we did and she eventually (at a very gentle pace) led us to a younger woman who took over the task of leading us to our hostel. Or as it turned out, to a different hostel back on the Main Street more or less where we’d started.
The owner of that hostel asked in almost English where we were trying to get to, so we pointed at the name of our hostel and she went away for a while. Shortly after, a man pulled up in a white car and though Google translate asked us to get in. Being a bit wary of getting into a random car with a complete stranger we were reluctant to say the least. Eventually after quite a lot of poorly translated conversation we decided that he probably was from our hostel and that the woman we’d talked to had called him. So in we got and proceded to drive back the way we had just walked, past where we stopped to ask the old lady for directions and pulled up a hundred metres or so further round the corner outside our hostel.
After a decent nights sleep on a fairly comical bed (it had an enormous pale leather headboard and what looked like a nice thick comfortable mattress but actually had a top layer made from a 2cm thick board of wood) we got off to an early start so we could attack the route up the 2160m high mountain without the heat of the sun on us for the ascent. After 4km of gentle gradient up the valley the path took a bit of a turn to the left and a lot of a turn to the up. Hua Shan has very steep sides. And a lot, A LOT, off steps. Some of which if looked at in cross section are Z shaped cut into the rock.
It’s hard to describe how good some of the views are, particularly when you’re there and thoroughly out of breath. We reached the north peak to be greeted by the hordes of local tourists who had taken the lazy (and expensive) way up the cable car. One of them asked if we’d walked up and seemed impressed after asking if we’d taken 6 hours to do it and we replied we’d done it in three. We actually only took about two and a half but were far too tired to try and explain half an hour in Chinese.
All four peaks have breathtaking views, and not just because you have to go up a load more stairs to get to each one. The south peak being the highest of course had the biggest gathering of people because, as we are learning, the rule for local tourists seems to be to follow the guides to the designated important points, take a selfie (occasionally smiling in it) and moving on. So when we arrived at the east peak which wasn’t on the main route to the south peak or either cable car it was pleasantly quiet.
We sat there, undisturbed, for probably a couple of hours before the inevitable happened. We were asked if someone could take a photo with us. This was probably about the fifth or sixth time since getting to the top. And we felt like we were becoming as much of an attraction as the mountain itself. After getting trapped there for a while as subsequent locals saw the photo opportunity we made our escape before we became a permanent feature.
We took the alternative way down beneath the cable car which is apparently called the soldiers path. The scenery this side was no less stunning than the route up had been but as it was steeper and didn’t end up quite as low down we blazed down in just over an hour, only seeing one other person on the route, partly because we weren’t entirely sure when the last bus was and didn’t fancy a 20km walk back from that side. Fortunately we made it in plenty of time bounding down the thousands of steps for a nice air-conditioned bus ride back to the village.
The next day we headed back to Xi’An to spend the day there before our next sleeper train that evening. We decided to go back to the hostel we stayed at on our first night there to see if we could ditch our bags for the day. Thankfully they were very accommodating and even provided us with some chilled water to drink. As we were sat around debating how best to spend the rest of the day without spending too much money or getting roasted in the heat, who should walk past but Gregois who we’d met in Pingyao. We waved him over and had a bit of a chin wag about the past few days and had a couple of games of pool with some other backpackers who had also decided it was far too hot to do much else.
We spent our evening wandering about with Gregois and having dinner with a good view of the city before saying aurevoir for the second time and catching our second sleeper train bound for Zhãngjiãjiè.