Sunday, May 13, 2007

Xi'an: Drink Together Historic City Water

We came to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors since I fell asleep during Dennis Low's theatrical production of the same name at The Centre in Vancouver. For some reason, we had been led to believe that Xi'an was a charming historic walled town. But as soon as we arrived at the train station, we realized we were in a very large city; albeit one with a well preserved wall around a small portion of the centre. It also had some interesting English signs. My favourite: drink together historic city water. I knew what they were trying to say.

We stayed just outside the wall at the Xi'an Garden Hotel that had been recommended by the couple we met in Macau. It turned out to be a wonderful choice. The hotel was designed in the 'Tang style', with a number of low rise buildings surrounding a well landscaped pond and garden. It was located in a redeveloping area next to an amazing public plaza and fountain. It was also close to Tang Paradise, Xi'an's newest theme park, celebrating the Tang Dynasty. More about it later.

We were shown to our room, only to learn that it didn't have internet, so they moved us to another room. We then went down for breakfast. I'm ashamed to admit it, but we were delighted to see lots of Caucasians in the hotel. We were able to join up with a small group and set off after breakfast to see the terracotta warriors.

But first was a visit to the Big Goose Pagoda. (Don't ask how it got its name.) Then we were off to a terracotta warrior factory. (I'm not making this up.) Then it was time for lunch, that included one of Sally's favourite's, caramelized potatoes, a local dish. Finally we were off to see the real terracotta warriors.

It was a very impressive presentation with large new structures having been built around the archeological sites. Sitting at a table by the entry to one of the buildings was a small man in dark sunglasses. In front of him was a sign saying 'no pictures please'. It turned out that he was the farmer who discovered the artifacts while digging a well. He often comes by since he can no longer farm his land, and he doesn't have to pay to get in!

We spent the afternoon looking at the various portions of the site, and managed to get back to our hotel without any more tea ceremonies or gift shops. That evening we set off for a walk and made a discovery of our own. About 500 m from the hotel was a large, well equipped tourist centre. We were given some elaborate publications containing all kinds of information about the city and surrounding areas. There was a lot to see, including a water fountain show scheduled for later that evening. It was breathtaking! In some respects I found the performance featuring acres of illuminated fountains, synchronized to classical music, as awe inspiring as the archeological sites. But I would never admit this publicly.

The following morning, we rose early to plan our next few days. We needed to book a flight to India and figure out how best to get back to Hong Kong. We also needed to find out where to rent bicycles for a cycling trip around the city wall; something that had been recommended by our Macau friends.

After two successful train trips in China we were willing to try a third. But when we realized that the train would require two nights on board, the decision was made. We were flying. But I was surprised at the cost of the flights. We had been told it was cheap to fly within China, and yet the flight to Shenzhen, was still $233 US (The flight to Hong Kong was about $450). After some searching, I found a website offering a flight for $169, including a booking fee. But it had to be paid for through Paypal, which meant another 3.5 %. That was fine, but I couldn't get through to the Paypal website. After an hour of trying, I decided this was ridiculous and we should get out and see the city. As we were leaving the hotel, we saw a small travel office in the lobby. Out of interest I went in and asked about flights to Shenzhen. "When do you want to go?" asked the girl behind the desk. "Tomorrow noon," I replied. "$105 cash", she said, and a couple of moments later we had our tickets!

That afternoon we did make it around the wall on bikes. We also found HSBC next door to Maison Mode, an exclusive shopping mall in Xi'an (We also saw one in Beijing). Many of the top international names were there: Mont Blanc, Versace, Burberry's, Gucci, Paul Shark, Hush Puppies (yes, Hush Puppies is a very fashionable clothing line over here!) But there wasn't a customer in the entire complex. We tried to find a directory, and a washroom, but no one spoke English. I saw a nice shirt at Paul Shark’s, but it was 2350 RMB. ($335 US) For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why this project had been built, and for whom it was intended.

Later that afternoon we went to Tang Paradise. I don't know where to start! We arrived at the entry gate but it was closed. However a young girl was selling tickets. "Where do we go in?" Sally gestured. But all the girl did was flash more tickets and repeat the price. We left and eventually found another entrance and some real tickets.

Tang Paradise is a 2 year old theme park. It was built at a cost of over $200 US million. It felt like a cross between an extravagant resort and a partially finished Disneyland.

It included a large theatre where a Vegas style extravaganza plays daily. However, we gave it a pass since the management had given us an orientation package that included an elaborate brochure and a DVD of the production. We also suspected that we wouldn't understand much since we were the only Caucasians in the park.

Dinner was served in a grand banquet hall, and included dishes that a Tang emperor would have been served. But we can't tell you what they were since although each item was identified, the English translation always said "welcome to Tang Paradise". I can tell you about the music, however. It was primarily Andrew Lloyd Weber and Whitney Houston.

What was impressive was the security. Before being allowed to enter the marketplace area, we had to stand before a counter and have our photos taken. Then, when we left, our tickets were swiped and our photos appeared on a monitor. Goodness knows why.

At 8:30, everyone in the park gathered at a large man-made lake for what was billed as the largest and most elaborate water cinema production in the world. And it probably is. It featured animated films projected on screens of water, combined with laser beams, fireworks, and other pyrotechnics. It was quite impressive. After the show, as we left the grounds, we marveled at the magnificent night lighting of the buildings and landscaping. But I couldn't help but think about all the coal fired plants generating the electricity required to keep the place alit.

While i would have liked to have stayed a bit longer in Xi'an and seen some of the sights outside the town, we left the next morning. We were surprised to discover the airport was an hour's drive away. The drive to the airport was like watching a futuristic movie; whole new industrial areas opening up; major new residential complexes with 16 large identical buildings when we might have two. But there were also hundreds of thousands of new trees, some looking quite strange since all the branches had been pruned. En route, I enjoyed some of the bilingual highway signs along the way: don’t drive tiredly; don’t drive drunken; high colisin, keep spacely.

When we arrived at the large modern airport, there were surprisingly few people, and we got through the check-in quickly. As we walked to the gate we congratulated ourselves on having made it. We got to the right airport, on time, and it turned out that the tickets weren't counterfeit!

A final comment on the cost of things. The taxi to the airport took an hour, and the driver had to pay two tolls. Yet the fare was only 100 RMB. Inside the airport, Sally wanted a coffee, and the price...48RMB! It seemed insane.

When we arrived at the departure gates, I was surprised to see a large, busy counter selling… flight insurance. It seemed almost as popular as the lottery ticket vendors we saw lining the roads in Cambodia!

Fortunately we didn't need the insurance. The plane made it to Shenzhen where we immediately found a sign saying “express bus to Hong Kong”. We got the last two seats. At the border we had to get off for Customs, and then got the last two seats on a much larger bus to Hong Kong Island.

We're in Hong Kong for 3 nights, and look forward to being with people who can speak English. But we had an amazing and very worthwhile time in China. We both want to go back, especially to see Beijing after the Olympics. I also want to see if they have fixed up all the awkward English signs.