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Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Month In China! The Bullet Train to Xi'An, Warriors and Cave-Dwellers!

Tea with the last Cave-Dwellers of Xi'An
A Terracotta Warrior and his trusty steed...

Our month in China started in Shanghai, and then took us to Beijing. From Beijing we took a Deluxe Sleeper on the night trip up north to Harbin to see the Ice Festival and other sites. From Harbin we took a night train from the back down to Beijing, followed by a Bullet Train to Xi'An the following morning.  Like almost all our train tickets for this trip, we booked them thru the wonderful gals at China-DIY-Travel, but they couldn't get us the sleeper we wanted on the night train, and so we wound up with "First Class Seats". While it wasn't perfect, I must say that the seats were Much better than United's: there was sufficient leg room so your feet didn't go numb, and the seats actually reclined. We stowed our bags, inflated our pillows, and pulled our coats over our heads... I managed to sleep for most of the trip to Beijing, but Dan, sadly, didn't. :-( The biggest fiasco was at 3am at the Beijing Main Train Station (again), where I agreed to pay a Red Cap 100 RMB ($12) to get us and our luggage into a taxi- but which then became an endless sign-language argument, as he wanted me to pay him in advance so he could dump us, and I refused to pay him until our suitcases were actually IN a taxi. (Momma didn't make a Total eejit. LOL) As there was no Taxi Station to be found, we then, and against our better judgement, made an agreement with one of the "gypsy cab drivers" who pursued us across the station's plaza. The deal was for a ride to the Beijing Xi Station on the meter, and we finally got everything loaded into his friend's black "Didi Car", aka China's Uber- which was totally stuck in traffic and not moving. But as soon as we closed the doors, the BS about the price started. He wouldn't turn on the meter, and he now wanted 300 RMB. This became a Huge argument, with the opening and slamming of car doors, and we finally wound up getting out, unloading all our luggage, and then ferrying it ourselves up the road to a real taxi- who wanted 200 RMB- which we accepted. An honest and honorable man, he zipped us past the still-stuck-in-traffic Didi Car From Hell, and blessedly dropped us off walking distance from the actual entrance of the correct Beijing station- which had the great, big electric yellow word "Entrance" emblazoned over the door, thank goodness! We managed to navigate security, ticketing, and the escalators, and when we finally got into the huge, airport-like station, two Very nice Chinese Army soldiers escorted us to the proper gate- one even towed my bag! :-)  Dan went off to get us coffees and McDonald's munchies, a young man gave Dan his seat, and we watched the "line" grow sideways as the "mild chaos" of people jostling to get to the front of the line started- an hour early.
Mickey D's at the station!
The second the gate was opened, however, the slightly less-than-mild chaos started, but we managed to get down the escalator with our luggage, get it all into our "First Class" car, and find our seats- and these were truly First Class. This was the new Bullet Train to Xi'An that had just come on line, and there were only a few people in the car. We shared a lovely stewardess with the Business Class compartment, enjoying complimentary fresh tea, a snack box, and bottled water.  I will say it again: China does train travel right!
First Class all the way!
Bullet Train
Bullet Train
Our lovely Bullet Train stewardess
Our snack box and teas...

Watching China fly by on the Bullet Train...
Bullet Train in a station on the way to Xi'An

The Very helpful stewardess made some six phone calls trying to reach the Hilton Xi'An, and using her translation app was able to write the address of the Hilton Xi'An for us in Chinese to show to a cab driver. The Xi'an Bei train station was calm and easy to navigate, and even had an elevator we could use, and we got a legit, metered taxi (with a Nice driver, who used his app to point out the Old City Wall and welcome us to Xi'An) super-fast. It was quite a long ride to our hotel, but the cost was only 50 RMB (less than $10), inc. a small tip. We parked ourselves in our lovely upgraded Executive Floor room in the Hilton Xi'An, happily and directly across from the Executive Lounge, enjoyed our Third Second Honeymoon Towel Swans, soaked in the gloriously hot tub, luxuriated in our fancy Crabtree and Evelyn toiletries, and wrapped ourselves in fluffy robes! Lovin' us some Hilton Honors! The Hilton Xi'An is in a great location, too, within the ancient city walls, and the area around the hotel is nice to stroll around, with a plethora of interesting shops, galleries, and restaurants- and a great massage place, as it turned out...
Honeymooner Dan and our Towel Swans!

We had a lovely first evening in Xi'An seeing the Tang Dynasty Show,  and having a Dumpling Banquet, to be covered in my next post, which is all about "foodie" Xi'An, and several yummy things we did there!
The next day we had a truly excellent and unique tour with Jasmine of  Travel Xian Guide, that not only included the famed Terracotta Warriors, but a visit to meet the last Cave-Dwellers in the area, a walk on the crenelated ancient city wall of Xi'An, and a stroll through the Muslim Food Street and Market to the Great Mosque! I booked this tour, called "Xian, Terra Cotta , Cave Dweller and City Tour" on Viator, as well, as I couldn't find the name of the tour company until after I had booked! I looked at Every tour of Xi'an, and I was drawn to this one as it was the ONLY one I could find that included visiting the last "Cave Dwellers", an opportunity that was obviously something very special, and unique to Xi'An. Our short time with the Terracotta Warriors, like our short time at The Great Wall, was amazing, and went way too fast! When you dream of seeing things like this for 40+ years, having read about them in magazines such as National Geographic since you were a teen, you want to spend all day with them! And an hour or two, seeing them by squeezing though a mass of Chinese tourists, goes So fast, and then: poof!- it's over! :-( We visited the three (of 400) "pits" of life-size Terracotta Warriors that are open to the public, and saw some of the new restoration work that has been done in the last 3 years, as well as the 1/2 life-size bronze chariots discovered near the Emperor's actual (non-excavated) tomb...
Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors

A Terracotta Warrior under restoration

Warriors need horses...

Dan, explaining military logistics...

The Emperor's Chariot

There are some 72 tombs of other Emperors in the area, as well- much of what exists under the soil of Xi'An is apparently still unearthed! (Jasmine told us of another tomb museum that we badly wanted to visit- it includes smaller "nude" terracotta figures that are quite different from the famed Terracotta Warriors- but we didn't have the time to go... so we Have to go back!) It's VERY hard to get your head around the almost unimaginably epic scale of what exists underground in Xi'An- not to mention what this obviously insane emperor spent 38 years of his short life  (since the age of 13!) creating- by having thousands of his subjects literally slave and die to create it. (On the other hand, he had his artisans create these thousands of signed clay soldiers, acrobats, etc. instead of having his entire army and everyone else murdered and buried with him, which made him MUCH more civilized than his predecessors. On the other hand, his dynasty was overthrown four years after his death by a very angry populous, so apparently he wasn't Quite civilized enough. LOL) 90% of the Terracotta Warriors literally haven't even been dug up yet- the unearthing and restoration of the Terracotta Warriors alone (not to mention the rest of the area) will be the life's work for 1000s of archaeologists for 100+ years... The most incredible thing to me were the individual faces of the life-size terracotta soldiers; although they were cast, each face was then hand-carved into a unique individual- they are very real people, real enlisted soldiers and officers, each with different expressions (happy, stoic, pompous, self-confident, etc.), of different ages (young and smooth-skinned, old, weathered, and lined...), and with different body shapes and body-language, and many still bear traces of the original paints that made them even more life-like... It was also Really Cool that Army Dan got "into" it, and was able to explain the military logistics of the way in which the warriors were grouped to Jasmine... We walked out of the Terracotta Warrior Museum grounds thru another "Food Street" and shopping market,  where all the food looked SO delicious that I wanted to try Everything! I only got to sample the local fried persimmon pastries (basically a Chinese zeppole LOL), and a pomegranate drink- which was, sadly, a lot less exciting than I had expected/hoped. LOL
I wish I'd had time to do this!

Jasmine was a charming and well-spoken guide, and very knowledgeable, and she, like our other guides, took us for a delicious lunch (included in the tour price) at a local "Chinese-only" neighborhood restaurant we Never would have known to go to, and where she ordered us yet another epic feast, including a wonderfully flavorful soup of thinly sliced beef, glass noodles, thread mushrooms, the "black fungus" I adore, and red and green hot peppers, seasoned with little branches of my fave, mouth-numbing, green Sichuan Peppercorns! We also enjoyed a delicious, spicy, stir-fry dish of beef with crisp, green banana peppers, yummy fermented black beans, and dried and fresh red chilies, and that spicy, hot cabbage dish that both Dan and I had grown to love! 
Jasmine helping to serve us soup!

YUM! Hot and spicy cabbage!

YUM! Beef and peppers!

After lunch we went to meet the older couple (our age, LOL: the husband is 68, and younger than Dan!), whose home is the last, functional, 200+ year old Cave House in the area- which may  soon be demolished, as the government, sadly, sees no value in it... Their cave dwelling is literally an earthwork built under fields of terraced hillside winter wheat, and they have a small kitchen, a sweet potato cellar with a rope pulley, a courtyard where we enjoyed tea with them, dovecots in the walls, and a spanking new PortaPotty and shower- for their Airbnb guests! They are renting two of their three bedrooms- with whitewashed walls, storage rooms,  and super-cool, coal-heated ceramic beds- on Airbnb through a French woman they have just learned is underpaying them. LOL
The Cave Dwellings of Xi'An
Dan and I both thought their guest rooms were great, and we'd be delighted to return and stay there for a few days, using it as a base from which to explore Xi'An!

At the "Cave Dwelling" in Xi'An

Jasmine, showing us one of the "Cave Dwelling" guest rooms...

A Very cool coal-heated bed!

Having tea in the courtyard with the last of Xi'An's Cave Dwellers!

Chef Dan in the Cave Kitchen!

Old meets new at the last Cave Dwelling of Xi'An!
After seeing their guest rooms, we sat in their courtyard and had tea, tangerines, and pumpkin seeds with them, enjoying a very interesting conversation, via Jasmine, whose grandmother lived in a similar such cave dwelling, and who speaks the Xi'An dialect, which is heavy on Hebrew-sounding gutturals! The couple said that although things aren't perfect now, they're a Heck of lot better than 20 years ago, when they were forced to give most of their winter wheat crop to the government, irregardless of whether it left them enough to eat. Now they still farm a bit of winter wheat above the house, and are trying to figure out how to keep the government from demolishing their historic cave home so they can retain their little tourism business in their old age, remain a bit better off than their neighbors, and not become a burden on their daughter. Contrary to Bernie Sander's belief, there is no "social safety net" in China for the elderly (unless you consider 300 RMB a month (less than $50) a safety net), and modern Chinese society has reverted to the ancient Chinese custom of "filial piety", where children take care of their elderly parents lest they be socially shunned.  Hey- whatever works... 
Farming above the Cave Dwellings of Xi'An
We were then driven in our totally fab (and huge) Chinese SUV to the ancient, crenelated wall of Xi'An, which is a triple-gated wall, and we walked up and on it! It's super-wide, and lots of folks were enjoying riding bicycles and bicycles-built-for-two around it, or buying snacks at the Ancient Wall Convenience Store LOL, as we strolled a bit of it, looking down on the city, the water-filled moat, and topiary gardens. Our hotel (the Hilton Xi'An) is inside the wall, which is really cool, and as we saw later (see my next post in Xi'An...), exactly at 6pm (like, apparently the rest of China LOL) the wall and its watchtowers are lit up with fairy lights and neon... 
Dan, at the Old City wall of Xi'An

Up on the Old City Wall of Xi'An
Walking- and bicycling- on the Old City Wall of Xi'An

Xi'An has a large and historic Muslim population, dating back some 1300 years to its acceptance and protection by the emperor of the time- and the Muslim men's intermarriage with Chinese women- and our final stop of the day was a walk through Xi'An's famous Muslim Street Food Market- which was packed with thousands of non-Muslim Chinese enjoying obviously delicious street foods- everything from lamb, octopus, and quail eggs on-a-stick (yes, that can be done- see the photo below!), to dates, jujubes, and figs, to hot nuts, lamb soup, giant round breads dusted with spices, sweet potato noodles, and sesame candy- to the Great Mosque...
On the Muslim Food Street...
On the Muslim Food Street
The Entrance to the Muslim Food Street...


Dan steps out of the way...

Quail eggs-on-a-stick!

Meat!On the Muslim Food Street

YUM! Delicious street food on the Muslim Food Street

Breads- just like "Armenian Pizza" in Israel!
Hot nuts!

On the Muslim Food Street
The market was a lot of fun, much like the Arab Market in Jerusalem used to be, full of designer knock-offs and bizarre tee shirts, such as the "Oba Mao" one with Obama in a Che Guevara beret- which, we were told by locals, no Chinese person would dare wear, fearing arrest!
You can't make this stuff up, kids...
There are no words... LOL
The Great Mosque and its grounds were quite interesting, as the architecture is totally Chinese, with pagoda-topped buildings, turquoise Chinese roof tiles, and carved dragons indicating the Emperor's approval... As we were leaving, several Muslims arrived to pray in the mosque building, which had a sign barring admittance to non-Muslims... 
Dan, at the entrance to the Great Mosque of Xi'An

At the Great Mosque of Xi'An

No Muslims Allowed...

Jasmine and Dan, at the Great Mosque of Xi'An

Spring has spring in Xi'An- finally!

Dan, being photographed with a happy baby!

 On our way out, we stopped in the Market to buy some mild, hand-rolled filter cigarettes in a "collectable tin" festooned with a photo of a smoking Mao, much to the amusement of Jasmine. LOL
Hand-rolled cigarettes, and collective tins...
Smokin! We bad!

Thanks to our wonderful Hilton Xi'An Concierge, Jones Zhou, we not only got one giant 17kg suitcase full of winter clothes sent to the Radisson Blu in Shanghai for $50 via DHL (to be held for us until our arrival the last day of our trip), Dan sent his dress shoes to be re-heeled for $10, and we went to Back-Arm-Leg-Foot Massage and Pedicure Heaven for a total of $30, with an additional $20 for herbal foot and nail lotions to take home- about 1/4 of what something probably not half as good would have cost us at the hotel! We had a fun "mini-adventure" finding it, too; following Mr. Zhou's directions, we walked up the street from the hotel and turned the corner, and comparing the Chinese pictograms on storefront signs with what Mr. Zhou had written on the Hilton business card, we actually managed to find the place- and the gals came out to greet us! Those glorious massages and fabulous pedicures put a relaxed and happy look on Dan's face for the first time in YEARS... it was SO great that I wanted to take at least one of the gals back to the Elkhorn Inn and house her for life. :-)
Elisse, in Massage Ecstasy!

Happy Dan!
Elisse in Herbal-Foot-Soak Pedicure Nirvana!

Happy Dan!
Happy Dan!


Happy Dan!!

Add caption
Things that make me laugh...

We then strolled around the area, peeking into the shops and art galleries,  and Dan joined the locals playing on the exercise pulley! We had a very nice "Western" lunch of steak and lamb chops, veggies, a bowl of corn soup, and garlic toast, at a cute, chic little wine-bar restaurant run by a Taiwanese expat. We then went back to the hotel, packed up our suitcase and handed it over to Mr. Zhou, and Dan picked up his newly re-heeled dress shoes! What great service! We LOVED our stay at the Hilton Xi'An!
Next up: Xi'An: The Tang Dynasty Show and Foodie Fun!