Toilet star rating = +5 to -5 stars
The train from Datong to Xian was supposed to take 14 hours, but sometime in the early morning hours the train was stopped on a siding for at least two hours. Instead of arriving at 8.30am we didn't get in until nearly 11. Xian train station is right in front of the northern gateway of the city and it's the first thing you see. The walls, the only completely intact circuit in China, are absolutely huge and put to shame the castles and fortifications of Europe. We were surprised to see a man standing in the massive crowd outside the station holding a sign with our name. We hadn't requested anyone to meet us. It turned out to be a CITS travel agent that Mr Gao had tipped off. At any rate, we followed him as he led us to the 7 Sages Hostel, just a few streets south of the train station. 7 Sages advertises itself as one of the ten most spectacular hostels in the world. We laughed when we read that as the Chinese do have a tedency to exaggerate. Every temple, shop or scenic feature is described in the most elaborate terms ("Do Not Step upon the Luxuriant Fields", ie, grass). In this case it proved not to be an exaggeration. 7 Sages is set in a Ming era complex which was once used as a revolutionary army barracks and a school, was absolutely wonderful. All the staff were friendly and exceptionally helpful.
The presence of the travel agent however did cause some concern at the hostel, who wanted him to leave while he was politely insisting that we follow him to his shop to organise our travel. A few stern words in Chinese were exchanged so we decided we'd check into our room and freshen up and leave them to it. We were quite shocked when we came back over an hour later and the agent was still there waiting for us to go with him. We finally managed to shake him off by going to lunch.
The heart of the old city is marked by the Bell Tower, a massive gateway from which bells were rung in the morning to mark the start of the day. It now sits in the centre of a traffic roundabout. Just to the west is the slightly smaller Drum Tower, from which drums were beaten to mark the end of the day. West of the Drum tower is the Muslim Quarter and to the south is the Southern Gate, the ceremonial gate of the city. All of these buildings are enormous and impressive because Xian was once the capital of China. Xi'an itself means West Capital (or literally 'Peace.' Beijing means North Capital and Nanjing means South Capital). We opted visit the Southern Gate and Xian's massive walls. We'd seen heaps of castles and city walls in Europe of course but Xian's walls were on a whole other scale. The top had been built wide enough for eight chariots to be driven side by side. Little electric gold buggies now take tourists for rides around the walls. We walked along for a bit before deciding this was a bit insane and decided to hire a bicycle. It only cost 20 yuan per person (maybe $5?). After an hours riding we'd only covered about one eighth of the whole circuit.
From the Gate we wandered through a cultural market area filled mostly with paintings and artwork supplies. We didn't make it over to the Muslim Quarter though as we intended to head out to the Large Wild Goose Pagoda just out of the old city to see the fountain show that evening and we were beginning to feel the affects of a lack of really restful sleep over the past two nights. A quick power nap back at the hostel was called for.
When we arrived the girl on reception grabbed us and advised that we had an opportunity to visit an animal rescue centre the next day to see some pandas. The rescue centre was officially closed but they had obtained permission for a private visit. Would we like to go? I was a little dubious as China has a bad reputation as far a zoos go and besides, we'd just paid for a half day tour of the Terracotta Warriors for that very day. The girl said not to worry, they could rearrange the Terracotta Warrior tour. There would be four of us at a cost of 200 yuan each - 100 each for the driver and 100 for the entry. It was a good price. We said we'd have to think about it and left it at that, but the long and short of it was we eventually decided to visit the pandas. It would mean rearranging our plans for the next leg of our trip, but that was scarcely an issue as we didn't really know what we planned to do next anyway! As we needed to be up by 6am we had a quiet night that night.
The next morning we up and on our way towards the Qinling Mountains. As it was Saturday and early the traffic wasn't so bad so we made good progress and arrived at the animal rescue centre around 9am. The old town around the centre was in the process of being redeveloped so the bulldozers had been in. It looked like a war zone. The rescue centre looked pretty run down too. Aparently it was officially closed for redevelopment until June 2011 but they let us in. We passed by a cage filled with blue faced monkeys, red pandas, various types of deer and a leopard. The enclosures weren't any different to those you'd find in any western zoo, but the facilities were in poor condition and the grounds were overgrown. In a large open air enclosure we were delighted to see five baby pandas. They had just been fed and were pretty excitable, running about and wrestling with each other. They look exactly like teddy bears. We all took a ridiculous amount of photos. One panda is an albino. We stayed about an hour and a half before heading back to town.
We were surprised to find traffic in Xian was at a standstill and we crawled along at little more than walking pace. We decided to jump out near the Muslim Quarter and explore and left the driver to take the others back to the hostel. Muslim traders arrived in Xian in the 7th century and have maintained a presence here ever since. The Great Mosque is one of the oldest and largest in China. It doesn't look like a mosque though, being very Chinese in style. It was a pleasant and leafy retreat in the middle of the city.
Around the mosque is the bazaar, now a bustling tourist market. The target audience for all this stuff though is Chinese tourists, who make up by far the largest proportion of tourists in the country. Once the Chinese used to restrict travel for their citizens, now they encourage mass tourism and consumption that stimulates.
We stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant with no English menu (but pictures) and using charades ordered possibly the best meal we've had in China. Chicken in black bean (but it was red) and some noodle dish.
The traffic hadn't let up so we walked back to our hostel. The girl on the desk grabbed us a again and said maybe it wasn't a good idea to go out tonight because there was a parade. We both thought, "hey, a parade. Sounds great! Where?" She tried to explain discretely. "It is the students. They are wanting the government to do something about the Japanese." Ahh, we realised. It was a protest march. There are a tiny bunch of islands in the ocean between Japan, Korea and China called the Spratleys (western name - each country has its own name for them). They are uninhabited, occasionally visited by fishermen, and are all claimed by Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Of course, while they were all just a bunch of rocks, no one in this dispute really gave two hoots about them, but... in the last few years exploratory drilling has revealed they are sitting on an enormous oil field. Now everyone is seriously interested in them. Japan sparked an international incident recently when one of its warships fired on and sunk a Chinese fishing boat in the area. China demanded an apology and Japan refused. The attrocities committed by the Japanese during their occupation of China are still a very living issue in China, especially as Japan still refuses to apologise for its actions then. All across the country student demonstrations were held to demand the government to take tougher action against Japan. Apparently a Japanese shop and some Japanese cars were burnt during the demonstration.
But we didn't let that stop us. We set off by an alternative route to the Goose Pagoda. We attempted to take a trike-taxi (as all the buses were stopped and cars were banked up) but the driver kept changing his price on us. It must have been a good night for the trike-taxi guys! We jumped out and decided to walk. We thought we'd negotiate with another driver but none came past. In the end we walked for one and half hours and got to the Pagoda in time to see the last five minutes. Damn! We assumed by now the demonstration would be over and could catch a taxi, but we were wrong. As we waited in a queue the road ahead cleared and the queue disolved around us. Up ahead we saw the marchers coming straight at us, waving their banners and shouting slogans. Oh no! A trike-taxi pulled over near us and we rushed over. He asked 50 yuan to take us back to the city (crazy overpriced) but we said yes! It was an auspicious night for him!! Just as the police arrived to wave us away he spun the trike around and took us on a wild ride back to Bell Tower. It was crazy fun as he weaved around traffic and pedestrians, up curbs, on footpaths. At the walls of the city we encountered a second march but he just drove straight through it, forcing the marchers aside. What a ride.
We settled down in Bar Street and had a few drinks. It was pretty mellow. About 11pm we started walking back towards the hostel. We passed the Song & Song nightclub and decided to pop in. It was fantastic. Nightclubs are very different in China and everyone is assigned a table. We were the only westerners in the place. We were about to order drink when two Heineken were deposited on our table. They'd been sent over by table behind us. There was lots of "Welcome to China!" an toasting done. And so it went. As soon as we'd finish a drink, another round would arrive and someone would be clinking glasses and "cheers!" It was a great night.