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Week of October 11th: Warrior Travel

Today is the 28th and I am finally blogging again. The last two and half weeks have been very busy, plus the temperature has dropped way down and we still don’t have heat in our rooms, so life has been train/eat/hide under our covers to keep warm….Never mind….Let me bring all you travel fans up to date on life in China!

The 12th till the 15th Kailin and I went with 6 other students to Xian. We left on the first bus down the mountain and meant our drivers at 8 AM. Our plan for the day was a nice long 5 hour nap, then taking in the wonders of Xian and eating a great German meal. The universe had other ideas and our adventure began much sooner than expected. We all piled into the 2 sedans and immediately the drivers went past the on ramp to the highway. When we inquired about this, they said the tunnels were being worked on and the road was closed, so we would have to take the old route through the mountains to get there, and that it would take us about an hour longer….famous last words!!!

Things they forgot to mention: through the mountains means roads with constant hairpins bends, which they enjoy taking as fast as possible; villages with farm animals and peasants in the road (no they don’t move, our drivers just honk then go through or around, at one point we nearly ran over a little boy); pavement in varying states of dis-repair (we are talking potholes that swallow tractors, never mind cars); this road goes right by a main quarry, where they are blasting bringing down parts of the mountain onto the road at somewhat regularly intervals; quarry trucks going down the road with rocks periodically dropping off the back of them and down onto anything nearby. Somewhere I surrounded our cars with light and just turned it all over to the Gods, and I do mean all the Gods!

Now for things they didn’t know: there has been bad flooding all over China and the road they had planned was washed out, so 6+ hours in our road abruptly ended. What this meant for us: going back the way we had come for a good 20Km, taking another road that a local farmer said would get us back to the highway in another 20Km, then 40 Km later realizing we are lost even while constantly asking for directions, watching the pavement end in a gravel road and then that road end in a dirt road, then being told to ford the water 3 times (in sedans) to find the road that would take us to the road that would deliver us back to civilization, but after several rock bed water crossings, the road (a very loose definition) dead ended at a brick making kiln! OH! MY! There we meant a very unhappy brick maker. What are you fools doing here is the same in every language! Now here is the best part….our driver has a Sat Nav that he has forgotten he could use. 20 minutes later, after we figure out how to use his Sat Nav, we are on our way again. Did I mention that young, hungry guys find it very difficult to stay calm in these situations, but 14 yr. old girls do just fine. Also, the countryside was stunningly beautiful. Oxen plowing fields in valleys of gorgeous green mountains covered in tea.

You’ll never guess how far we are from the highway…yea…20Km. We ford back through the water ways and eventually find the road we missed and are on our way….almost! The road we get onto hugs the side of the mountain and the further we go the less there is of it. It has been washed away, but does this stop our drivers (in sedans)? Nope! We just keep driving more and more on the other side of the road, until there is only the other side of the road, then there is only the hard shoulder of the other side of the road, then along comes a huge truck from the opposite direction, also apparently oblivious to the fact that there is no actual road and that the drop off is hundreds of feet! At this point both our drivers pull at full speed right toward that drop off, slam on their brakes a stop within an inch of going over. We all nearly had heart failure. Kailin screamed and collapsed into my lap. The truck missed us by less than a centimeter never even slowing down. Even our harden UK and Irish lads wanted to kiss the ground. Our drivers just laughed and said the highway was close, which, amazingly, this time was true. In 10 more minutes we found it. Fortunately we were past the road closure, but we were still 3 hours from Xian.  We were very glad to see a proper road none the less. We were also starving, so we stopped at the Chinese equivalent of a road side service center and found fantastic Muslim food. China’s back roads may leave a lot to be desired, but even their roadside food is better than America’s fast food fantasy lands.

I know you are thinking everything must go fine now, but alas, we managed to Xian in rush hour traffic, with 2 drivers that had never been there before, and Xian in the middle of major road reconstruction and the building of an underground system. It took us 2 hours from the edge to the city to our hotel. Our 5 hours journey turned into 12. We were all exhausted, including our drivers. They learned many important lessons, as did we. We did manage to change our dinner reservations to 9:30 PM, and we had a fantastic dinner at Paulaner’s Brewhause. (We took a cab there) You never saw people so glad to be at a nice restaurant with real food.

The next day we got up refreshed, though I’m sure I have a few more grey hairs. Our hotel rooms were great. We stayed at Jin Jiang Inn. Kailin and I have decided this hotel chain will be ours whenever we travel in China. Only $20/night and breakfast is $2 and very good. They even serve homemade soy milk.

Turns out that travel around Xian under construction made hash of our tour schedule. We went to the Muslim the quarter the next day, but had very little time there. We did see the Great Mosque, and I paid way too much for a couple of beautiful shirts and postcards at the market. It is an amazing area. It is like stepping out of China and into Turkey or somewhere else in the Middle East.

The Great Mosque was set up in the Tang Dynasty some 1250 years ago, and has been added onto through all of this time by each succeeding government. It covers 13,000 square meters and even today continues to be a working mosque used by locals and a million+ pilgrims per year, plus tourist. It is an amazing example of the combining to two great races. Within the hall of worship the entire Koran is carved into 600 wooden boards in both Chinese and Arabic.  The architecture throughout reflects both worlds. All this said the most wonderful thing at the Mosque were the cats. I have been too many Mosques in many parts of the world and they always have mosque cats, but these were the most beautiful I have seen.

We also saw the Bell and Drum towers this morning. They were used in the past as time markers. Strike the Bell in the morning and the Drums in the evening. Now they are historic landmarks.

Later this day went for bike ride around top of the wall of the inner city. It was a great way to see the city, the weather made it less spectacular that it might have been, and the level of construction in the city became very clear. They are overhauling the whole place. This wall is 1400 years old and is the best preserved city wall in the world. It took us 2 hours and 2 bike crashes (on Kailin’s part) to get around. I have to hand it to her….she never gave up and she got up and carried on in spite of bruises and abrasions. Her second crash was really spectacular and every Chinese male within view rushed to her side in seconds!!! They were there even before I could get there. Then they all wanted pictures with the “brave” girl and followed us to make sure we got on OK. One guy stuck with us almost all the rest of the way. He was sweet and later emailed the picture he took to me. I have to say it was a lot harder ride then I imagined and we were both exhausted by the time we were done. The only solution to this level of fatigue was Hagen Das ice cream, which Kailin had been looking forward to all day.

The next day we skipped the Museum in favor of shopping which turn into Kailin and I spending much of the day in cabs and on foot looking for a store that no longer existed and store that was actually a company that was nothing like its name implied. The day was not a total loss. We had dumplings at De Fa Chang, the most famous dumpling restaurant in China. Xian, home of eleven dynasties, is also the birthplace of Chinese dumplings. Here is the story of the dumplings humble beginnings:

Long ago during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) a doctor named Zhang Zhong Jing travelled back to his hometown in the county of Nan Yang (where Xian now is). He found the people were suffering from an outbreak of typhoid and dying from hunger and cold. In fact the weather was so cold that many had frostbitten ears to add to their troubles. The kindly doctor set about concocting a mixture of mutton, cayenne and a special medicine that he wrapped in a piece of ear-shaped dough. The dumplings he created were fed to the starving people and by New Year’s Eve, not only were they saved from the typhoid epidemic but also their frost bitten ears were healed. The doctor’s fame became legendary and thus the dumpling became a favorite addition to the Chinese diet.

To say the dumpling is a favorite part of the Chinese diet is an understatement. It is pervasive. It has become a culinary art form as well as an everyday staple. Dumplings come with everything imaginable in them and in every shape and color. We ate chicken shaped dumplings with chicken in them, frog shaped dumplings with I was afraid to ask what in them, we had little dumplings and big dumplings, we ate good fortune dumplings, and dessert dumplings, steamed dumplings, soup dumplings, fried dumplings and dumplings that defied description.  We ate dumplings with hundreds of other people who were all eating dumplings, being prepared by 2 lines of 25 dumpling makers, all making dumplings at a speed that would make Dr. Seuss proud. It was a great meal and a wonderful experience.

Stuffed to our ears with dumplings we all piled back in our sedans and headed for our next hotel and the Aegean Hot Springs we were going to visit first. We were missing the three boys that started out with us, as they had opted out in favor of girls and partying. Their losses, as the hot springs were the best part of the trip, and since they weren’t along we just ended up staying at the Aegean Hotel. It was fated, they had 2 rooms left and we took them rather than drive all the way back into the city that night, only to drive back out the next morning.

Imagine a cool night, with a trail lit by paper lanterns, fluffy white robes, slippers, and water being brought to you all the time, as you soak your way through 27 pools filled with natural hot water, each pool accented with a different theme and healing addition. There was the rose pool, the aloe vera pool, the herbal pool, the ginger pool, the water massage pool, and so on and so on…..until all thought and fatigue and tightness just drifted away. Then there were hot showers, and real chocolates that Christy brought and a soft bed.

Next morning, bright and early we headed to see the Terra-Cotta Warrior Mausoleum, 2200 years old, the 8th Wonder of the World and listed as a World Heritage Site. Emperor Qin Shih Huang, came to power at age 13, that same year he began work on his own mausoleum, and continued it throughout his reign despite his belief and constant search for the fountain of youth and everlasting life.

Within the first 25 years of his rule he managed to subjugate all of China becoming the first Emperor of a unified China. He brought national road works, utilities, and standardized all measurements, writing and language in China, but his rule was marred by his ruthlessness. For example, he also burned all books and often people that didn’t agree with his beliefs. However, it was the building of the Great Wall of China, and all those that lost their lives in this endeavor that finally pushed the people over the edge and brought down his popularity. He died in his forties on a trip pursuing of the Elixir of Life. It is now believed he died of mercury poisoning as he believed it to have magical properties and drank it often. His death was hidden by his entourage and a puppet prince was put in his place. China soon disintegrated into clan based chaos again, but the concept of unity had been birthed.

The Terra-Cotta Warrior Mausoleum was never mentioned ever, and was only discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well. As a matter of fact, you can meet this farmer, and hear him tell his story. We didn’t as it was in Chinese. Whatever Qin Shih Huang may or may not have been, he was powerful. Imagine conquering all of China, building the Great Wall and building an underground army of 8000+ life size soldiers, plus cavalry with full chariot divisions, archers, officers, and all the things necessary for the afterlife, including flocks of birds. The dig is ongoing and will be for years to come as the area covered is vast. Qin Shih Huang’s actual tomb has yet to be excavated. Records uncovered claim that it took 700,000 laborers 36 years to create the tomb and that the Emperor was laid to rest in a lake of mercury. This last bit was thought to be myth, as how would they have made a lake of mercury in that time, but recent testing of the soil around his tomb has revealed incredibly high levels of mercury; so high that all future work in the area has been stopped until science can come up with a way to protect workers.

It really is stunning to see. It is unlike any other museum, as it is a work in progress, housed under giant airplane hangars.  Coming early was perfect, as we finished just as the crowds started to arrive. We headed back to Wu Dang happy, and well fed with many western food meals under our belts. Positive that our trip home would be uneventful as the highway was now open. For our cars part this was true apart from our driver’s tendency to fall asleep. We solved this be constantly talking to him. The other driver however, decided to save money, by getting off the freeway at Shi Yan to avoid the toll booth. This ended in their car getting lost and ending up at a quarry. Mike and Cabrini made their driver call ours, who promptly yelled at him for being stupid. In the end, they arrived back at Wu Dang only 20 minutes or so after us, but Mike and Cabrini were not happy! All in all we had a good time, but were glad to see our school. There was bit too much off-roading for our taste! Next time we hire Range Rovers!