Friday, 9 September 2011

Beijing to Xi’an and in Between

After speaking with a guide at the hotel I decided to go with the boys on a semi guided tour heading south to Xi’an to eventually see the Terra Cotta Warriors.  Fearon had learned a lot about the history of the Warriors in school last year and we didn’t think we should miss this world wonder.  Leaving the hotel at 5:30, the guide drove us to the Beijing train station.  This, being our first train station experience in China, proved interesting.  In the previous week we had travelled in the subway, on taxis, busses, boats and planes but none of those compared to the train station.  Even though it was so early, it was already chaotic, smelly and packed, outside and in.  We had to go through a number of security checks which each involved sending our bags through a conveyer belt and hoping that we could get through to the other end before someone else had a chance to grab them.  I guess that one of the ways the Chinese have learned to deal with the massive crowds and population throughout most of the country is to shove and push their way ahead. 

Once we got on the train it was actually pretty comfortable.  The trip itself was not picturesque.   I was expecting, when we got out of Beijing, to see lovely villages, rice paddies and hillsides.  Instead, what we saw for at least four hours was factories, cement buildings and non descript places that simply looked grey, all covered in thick smog.  When we transferred trains, the second one was a high speed train that was obviously a lot newer and spotless. The transfer station had huge marble hallways and was much easier to navigate than the station on Beijing.  After about 7 hours of travel we reached the city where we would spend the night, Luoyang City.

At the hotel there was virtually no English understood or spoken.  I was thankful that the guide made this part of the trip with us as this city was certainly not used to tourists.  We went out for dinner at a smoky, dingy restaurant.  The owner informed our guide that we were the first foreigners to be in the restaurant since they opened, 14years ago! The staff stared at us and giggled the whole time we were there.  The kids had been practicing using chopsticks when we were in Beijing so they managed them OK as there was no alternative.  I was looking forward to at least having some amazing food but that was not to be either.  We were all pretty happy when dinner was over.

We got back to the hotel and crashed pretty quickly.  A few hours later, Eric was waking me up claiming to have bites on his legs!  You can likely imagine what my first thoughts were….bed bugs! I didn’t have any bites, I didn’t see any evidence of anything in the beds and the bites looked a lot like mosquito bites so we assumed that is what they were.  We also heard the irritating mosquito buzz coming from somewhere close.  In the bathroom there were loads of tiny little bugs hanging around the ceiling. I had no idea what they might be and knew that there was no one I could ask.  I decided to just get out the bug spray and lather some on.  I dug into the bag and after searching for it, had my first little breakdown of the trip.  I had forgotten the repellent back in our main bag which we had left in Beijing.  I really had no idea, geographically, where we were and all I could imagine was that we would be eaten alive by bugs carrying malaria, dengue fever, or some other tropical disease….and it would all be my fault for forgetting the repellent.  I didn’t sleep at all and as soon as I could in the morning, I managed to get online and gather enough information to reassure myself that we were not in the danger zone as far as bugs were concerned. 

After breakfast we got into a van that would take us to our destinations of the day, the Shiaolin Temple and the Longmen Grottoes.  The temple, the original home Kung Fu, is in the mountains in a very beautiful area.  Unfortunately it was pouring rain and foggy and the limited visibility did not allow us to fully appreciate the views.  The fog, did however, add to the mystique of it all and it was definitely a mystical area and place.  It was pretty cool to be walking around what is considered to be the birthplace of martial arts and what is still the largest kung fu training school in the world.  There were monks and incense burning in every corner and the fact that the place is a huge tourist attraction, did not totally eliminate the spirituality embedded within.  We saw a show put on by some of the students and it was amazing but we could not help but feel a little sad for the children whose lives are spent there. We found a little area with doors opening into where they were living and the quarters make the older cabins at Camp Thunderbird seem like luxury.

We left the temple and made our way over mountain passes to the Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  This site was for me, one of the highlights of China. The pictures really don’t do it justice.  There were over 2300 grottoes (caves in the mountainside) which housed over 100,000 Buddhist statues.  Work began on these in 493 and continued for four centuries! The beauty of the carvings was absolutely amazing and to think that they were done centuries ago, and are still preserved is really mind boggling.  This was truly one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen.  It made the grief of the night before fade away pretty quickly.  

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