adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Xi'an sights, part 1

Xi'an has a history of over three thousand years and was the capital of China from ancient times until the end of the Tang dynasty, but you couldn't tell just by looking. With a population of over 8 million, it's one of the most developed cities in western China; all the same, compared to bigger cities, the pace is a bit slower, the traffic is lighter, and the city is a bit easier to get to know. There's plans for a subway, but for now the best way around the city is by bus - unlike bigger cities, you can usually get anywhere you want to go without needing to switch buses.

What's there to see around Xi'an?

Terracotta warriors(兵马俑) - the main reason everyone gets to Xi'an, it's an impressive archaeological site, but don't have too high expectations. As of yet, most of the soldiers lie in a big heap of broken pieces, just as discovered, and are awaiting the painstaking process of reconstruction. Still, it gives you a good sense of how much effort it took the excavate the site, and the heaps of statue pieces really make you appreciate each fully-reconstructed warrior.

To get there: east of the train station, there's a big parking lot with fancy air-conditioned buses. Almost every one of them is heading to the site; you can't miss it. Take the same buses back. The trip takes about one hour; along the way, there's also the Hua Qing hot springs(famous as the place where the imperial concubine Yang Guifei bathed) and the tombs of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China(which have not been excavated yet).

Tickets are a whopping 100 yuan each, although you can get half-price with a Chinese student ID(like at most places).

Chinese history textbook coverboy.

More to come later...

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Thursday, July 19, 2007


Xi'an for two: 40 kuai a day

You can eat very well on very little in China. I always thought "40 dollars a day" was a lot of money to be spending on just one person's food; here in Xi'an, a bustling city of over 8 million people, two can eat well on just 40 Chinese yuan a day(about 5 US dollars). But how?

Steaming hot buns and seaweed soup

Start off the day with one long(笼, basket) of baozi(包子, buns) and two bowls of zicaitang(紫菜汤, seaweed soup)- shouldn't cost more than 3 kuai altogether at most holes in the wall selling buns.

Biang Biang noodles

For lunch, have a delicious bowl of biang biang mian, a Shaanxi specialty famous for the complicated character used to write its name(see the photo for how to write it). Apart from the character, Biang Biang noodles are famous for their width, length, and bouncy texture. Some would consider this one of Shaanxi's eight great wonders (八大怪). 4 kuai a bowl in most places; that comes out to 8 kuai.

Cross the bridge noodles

Having spent a total of 11 kuai so far, treat yourself to a nice dinner for two. You could try cross-the-bridge noodles(过桥米线), a specialty from Yunnan province. You get a big bowl of rice noodles in a hot broth and lots of small dishes of meat and vegetables, which are instantly cooked once you put them in the broth. The amount of dishes you get depends on how much you pay - the ones in the photo are only 10 kuai per set(the one for 40 kuai comes with literally dozens of dishes!)

Bingzhou - "ice porridge"

With 9 kuai left, you have just about enough to cool off with two bowls of bingzhou(冰粥), also called bingshan(冰山) - a treat of shaved ice, fruit syrup, and lots of assorted fruits and berries(5 kuai per bowl). You can usually find this treat in any one of the many bakeries around town - 好利来(Holiland) and 米旗(Maky Bakery) come to mind as the most common chains.

And there you have it - a day's meal for two on just 40 kuai(5 dollars). Enjoy!

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Sangke Grasslands and Maiji mountain(part 3/3 of the Gansu trip)

Apologies that I haven't posted in a long time - posting blogs with a lot of photos takes a really long time, especially with the internet connections here, so I'm often too lazy to do it.

The next morning, we headed up to the Sangke grasslands, taking a minibus driver after the girl at the reception desk told us there was no public transportation. Enjoying the driver's rendition of Celine Dion's greatest hits, we passed by a large children's parade(it was June 1st, Children's day) and a beautiful clear lake.

The scenery was really amazing - blue sky and vast grasslands with mountains in the distance. A few far-off huts and tents among the grasslands made for an idyllic scene. The driver asked if we would like him to take us to visit a Tibetan nomad family. Compared with the typical tourist town we were headed to, it seemed a lot more fun, so we decided to give it a try for once. We went off the main road, towards those far-off huts, scattering herds of yaks along the winding dirt road.

We parked in front of a small house, and an older Tibetan lady came out and welcomed us in, having us sit on a raised area next to the stove and serving us milk tea. There was a big platter of yak butter and sugar that we were supposed to mix in with the milk tea to taste; it wasn't too bad, actually. She also brought out some tsampa, which was a lot better than at the Nomad restaurant.

The house we visited.

After eating, we took a short horse ride. The scenery is hard for me to describe in words - open sky, rolling green hills, little flocks of sheep on the hillside, the horse drinking from a small stream... Coming back from our horse ride, we decided to take leave of our hosts and go out hiking. At this point, our driver started going off about the danger of wild dogs and that we should just come back with him. I think he was just worried that we would hit the road and go back with another driver - we'd had the same disagreement before when I mentioned walking back to town. Despite the driver's pleas, I was not going all the way to a grassland without doing some hiking, so off we went.

The driver walked with us for a little while, but gave up and mentioned he would be waiting in the car. Finally, we had some peace and quiet in the grasslands! We walked for a while up and down little paths, past flocks of sheep and herds of yaks, past the little stream. We noticed a little settlement in the distance and decided to walk towards it - it turned out not to be too far away after all.

A baby yak.

Walking towards a little settlement.

As we neared the settlement, a dog started barking at us. We froze and started to head back, but then noticed a Tibetan lady came out of the house and yelled something at the dog, who stopped barking and lied down obediently. We couldn't really communicate, but after some grinning, hand waving, and pointing, we understood she was inviting us inside.

A little lamb greeted us as we walked inside the house (which looked quite similar to the house we'd been in before). Sitting up next to the stove, we had some milk tea and tsampa, which we ate by pouring milk tea over, mixing, and drinking it. A friendly-looking older man came in, and a boy drove up on a motorcycle. Sipping milk tea, down the hillside we noticed the driver, who looked like he'd had a good workout walking all that way. Sitting for a while, with the driver translating from Tibetan to Chinese, we talked a bit with our hosts, then said goodbye and headed back to town.

Curious lamb

Our friendly Tibetan hosts.

We were just in time to eat a bowl of delicious 牛肉炒面片(niurou chaomianpian, noodle slices with beef) at a Hui restaurant and get on the bus back to Lanzhou, where we stayed a night and had dinner at a Korean barbecue(I know niuroumian is the thing to eat there, but we were fed up with it by then). From Lanzhou, we took a bus to Tianshui, which took about 6 hours.

Lanzhou night market.

Nothing like a good old fashioned Korean BBQ!

Lonely Planet mentions that there is no public transportation up to Maiji Shan, but soon after arriving, we saw that bus route 30 across from the bus station goes up to Maiji Shan(much to the dismay of the taxi driver trying to get us to go with him).

Scenery on the bus to Tianshui. The window was smeared, and taking pics from buses/trains is always a hit and miss type thing, but at least you can get an idea of what it looked like.

The main attraction of the Maiji Shan area is the massive rock formation covered with thousands of Buddhist carvings dating back to the 4th century AD, accessed by catwalks and stairways built all around the cliff face. It's fun to climb up the stairs and wander around the scaffolding, and the carvings are truly amazing.

Strangely shaped mountains at Maijishan.

Coming back from Maiji shan, we tried to arrange transportation back to Xi'an the next day; we took the only train option, which was hard sleeper during the afternoon, only for 4 hours. After staying the night in a cheap but crappy hotel, the next morning we visited the Fuxi temple and the Yuquan Taoist complex, both fairly interesting, although temples do get a bit tiring to visit.

Fuxi temple. Fuxi is (one of) the mythical progenitors of the Chinese civilization. He's credited with inventing the bagua(those combinations of broken lines) and agriculture, among other things.

Taoist complex...

Featuring old men dressed up like Taoists!

I had more opportunities to take pics of the amazing Gansu scenery on the train back to Xi'an. It was a great trip for only three days, and went pretty smoothly. There's still so much of Gansu we haven't seen, but hopefully we'll see some more of it in our travels later on.

I'm leaving for Henan province tomorrow(July 5th), so there won't be any updates for a few days. Keep posted, though!

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