Xi'an Drum Tower

Travel Update: Xi’an, Day 1

We spent our first day in Xi’an today.

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you about how we got there.

Because flights from Hong Kong to mainland China are treated like international flights, it is much cheaper to fly from the city of Guangzhou, which is in mainland China just across from Hong Kong. As a result, we’d purchased tickets to Guangzhou on the MTR Intercity train. But first we had to get there. This involved hauling ourselves out of bed at 5:00am so that we could catch a bus to take us to our 7:30am train.

Our friendly neighbourhood fish market was just starting to wake up.

We had breakfast at the train station. There was a place called “Maxim’s Express” that served Chinese breakfasts, so we ordered some of those. I got the congee and steamed rice roulade with dried shrimp, whereas Kat got the meal described on the menu as “glutinous rice with assorted meat wrapped in lotus leaves.” She seemed surprised when her meal ended up being exactly as delicious as it sounded.

Kat did not finish her breakfast. I, on the other hand, enjoyed mine greatly.

My food on the left, Kat’s on the right. Note the random chicken wing.

We eventually boarded the train to Guangzhou, which was staffed by immaculately-attired service-people. Hoping to improve on one of the previous days’ debacles, I asked one of the male attendants if I could get his picture. He refused even more enthusiastically than the stewardess on the flight to Hong Kong before. I am beginning to suspect that there is some sort of cultural unease around picture-taking by strangers (or perhaps just by foreigners? I don’t know).

Anyways, soon we were reclining in our first-class seats (which are like economy seats, but with padding!). Some seats were arranged into groups of four that faced each other (instead of pairs arranged into rows). Such seats happen to have convenient tables between them, and it was in two such seats that Kat and I found ourselves sitting.

I should note here that our train car was completely packed, except for two seats. They were the seats across from us. Every other seat was taken. This struck us as unusual. Was this just scheduling happenstance? Had this pair of foreigners been deliberately given extra space as a sign of respect? Mistrust? Whatever the reason, we were grateful for it. I immediately used our exclusive dominion over the central table to set up my laptop and begin typing this missive.

Blogging is thirsty work.

After a few hours we crossed over the Chinese border and arrived in Guangzhou. The customs building was quite nice, but they had a pretty strict no-photos policy, and I did not want to debate the relative merits of open documentation with one of the armed guards. I did get held up very briefly – one of the customs agents acquired my passport and told me to wait in a side area while he took it to the central customs desk. Although slightly disconcerting, nothing came of this and I was eventually waved through with a smile.

Having already caught a bus and a train, we decided to hop on the subway to get to the Guangzhou airport. This took about half an hour, plus a fairly long wait in the ticket line. Apparently the subway is very popular. It is also very cool. The automated ticketing stations dispense little green tokens that have RFID chips (or some similar technology) embedded in them. To get on to the subway you simply touch the token to the top of a turnstile to get through, and upon reaching your destination you put it in a slot in another turnstile to return it. It’s not quite as sophisticated as Hong Kong’s octopus card integration, but it’s still pretty nifty.

Kat demonstrates the finer points of turnstile activation.

We got through the airpot, got held up at security (we had both packed liquid containers that were impermissibly large), and eventually made it in to the airport a few hours ahead of our flight. As we began trudging towards our gate, we got accosted by a man driving a people-porter (or, at least, that’s what I call those ubiquitous airport buggies). Like so many enterprising local businesspeople before him, he had singled out the tourists as easy fares. And man, was he right to do so. The trip from security to our gate was easily over a kilometre, and may have been nearly two. Being already tired from hauling around our bags for the last six hours, we were more than happy to shell out for some convenience.

The shelling out did not stop there. We had plenty of time before our flight left, so we stopped in at a restaurant called “Oak” next to our gate. The menu was all in Chinese, the drinks did not feature prices (at least, not with arabic numerals), and the servers did not speak English. Luckily, every dish had a big photo, so we figured we’d roll with it and just order what looked delicious.

This was only partially a mistake.

I think you will agree that our meal looked delicious

It turns out that, although the entrees were reasonably priced at around ¥35 (between $5 and $6), the drinks were ¥45. This includes water and tea. As a result, our lunch came out to nearly ¥400 (or about $65). To top things off, when we tried to pay with credit the payment device did not ask for a PIN, which lead to the charge being rejected. Due to the language barrier, this lead to a lot of fairly unproductive discussion between all parties.

Eventually our server enlisted the help of a Chinese patron who had been sitting next to her Caucasian husband (and was therefore likely to speak both languages). This very helpful lady sped the process along substantially, but it was still hampered by the fact that some of the adjoining tables appeared to have gotten the gist our conversation and began yelling out advice to our server from all directions. This did not help.

Anyways, we paid and boarded our flight. It was mostly unremarkable. The seats were a little smaller than I was used to, the in-flight meal was average for airline food (and can thus only barely be considered food), and the TVs kept playing clips from National Geographic specials interrupted occasionally for a very patriotic opera-slash-music-video that showcased the various displays of awesomeness that China has to offer.

We arrived in Xi’an, where we were immediately surrounded by taxi drivers asking us where we wanted to go. Some of them also showed as cards with their photos on them, saying “this is me”. I think that these cards were supposed to communicate some sort of official licensing, since I can’t think of any other reason to point this out to potential customers. Regardless, Kat had read in her travel book that it is wiser to avoid these drivers, as they charge higher rates than the regulated drivers who wait in the taxi pool outside the airport. So we went outside, where we were greeted by a giant Pikmin-esque character.

Xi’an is hosting the 2011 Horticultural Exposition. This guy is all over the city.

We found the taxi pool and caught a cab with a somewhat-unsavoury-looking character, but had any fear assuaged by the police officer who was stationed at the pool. With a half-grin that was both wry and knowing, he handed us a card with the cab number and a police telephone number. After receiving a few stern words from the officer, our cabbie loaded up our things and shuttled us off to our hotel.

This is a Chinese toll-booth. Not terrifying at all.

It bears noting that Xi’an is a former imperial capital of China, and as such is very old and very fortified. The core of the city is surrounded by a rather substantial city wall. Just a short distance away from our hotel is the South Gate of the wall, so we took a quick walk there.

Imperial China certainly had class.

This is where we met the first Chinese person not to reject a request for a photo. It helps that posing for photos appears to be his only role.

The actual defence of the walls is left to the gun-toting militia, not pictured.

We’ll be returning to the South Gate on Day 3 to see some reenactments of traditional military drills and perhaps stroll along the wall itself.

By this point we were feeling peckish, so we wandered into the historic bar district. Well, it looked historic – I confess that I may not have conducted much research into the matter.

Xi’an: Come for the terracotta warriors, stay for the bars.

We ended up grabbing some seats at Times Coffee, in large part because their servers snatched us first – each restaurant has a cadre of servers standing out front just waiting to accost any foreigners passing by.

Our server gladly snapped a photo of his catch – er, the diners.

Despite the decidedly English name, they served mostly Asian dishes, so we ordered some of those. We played it pretty safe. Kat got an egg noodle stir-fry, and I got the curry chicken. They were good, and substantially portioned. I also got a delicious milk/yogurt/strawberry drink, whereas Kat ordered the worst wine ever made. The latter is not pictured, because every shot features Kat making a face that might be judged, by some, as less than attractive. This is to say that she’s scrunching her entire face up into an exquisite blend of pain and bitter disappointment. As you can probably tell, I rather enjoy the photos, but I have been enjoined against posting them, on pain of death.

We didn’t even finish our plates, which is not a problem I expected to have in China.

While we were eating, a van loaded with fruit pulled up to the restaurant. Apparently its operators sell produce from door to door, and our little bar was a customer. We got to witness our servers pick over watermelons and whatnot, weighing them on a scale on the ground. It was a little different for us, as customers, to be seeing such transactions, but that is an easy change to acclimatize to.

There was also a surly guy wearing military surplus, not pictured. Just in case.

Finally, as the night wore on, we made our way to one of downtown Xi’an’s big attractions – the Drum Tower.

Unlike a TARDIS, the Drum Tower is much smaller on the inside – only two storeys.

Apparently, back in the day, they beat drums to signal the opening of the city gates and rang bells to signal their closing. A visit to the Bell Tower is slated for tomorrow.

We rented audio tour equipment to learn about the Drum Tower. Spoilers: It is large.
It’s not like you could hear these over all of the honking from Xi’an traffic.
The interior of the Drum Tower was ornately painted.

On the way back to the hotel, we surveyed the wares of the street vendors. A great many of them sell street food, which we resolved to explore tomorrow (at the behest of the little Simon voice at the back of my head).

Kat did buy some walnuts, which are a kind of street food.

After taking a bus, a train, a subway, a plane, and a cab, we were finally in Xi’an. We felt that we’d managed to cram a fair amount of sightseeing into our day even after all our travelling, so we headed back to the hotel with a feeling of accomplishment. Which is good – we need every victory we can get.

Because tomorrow we face the Terracotta Warriors.