Saturday 8 August – Shuyuan Hostel, Xi’an

The train pulled into Xi’an station just after 5.30am and trying to get a taxi was an experience I don’t want repeat. Several taxi-drivers refused me when I pointed to the hostel in Frommer’s guide where it is helpfully written in Chinese characters – possibly it was too far and they wouldn’t get a return fare at that time of the morning – but eventually one agreed and deposited me near the South Gate of the city and gesticulated for me to go down a small, deserted, ancient street.

Not much fun lugging my gear up and down the street trying to find someone who could read a map or had any idea what I wanted. But eventually, after having been directed to two other hostels, I found the right one and after checking in, entered a pitch black four-bed dorm room, locating the one free lower bunk by the light from the corridor. I rested until about 8.30 but I don’t really think you could call it sleep.

The hostel doesn’t live up to its description of being “a magnificent restored courtyard residence” despite having three internal courtyards which would have been open to the sky in former times. It’s much more compact than I had envisaged and the lack of light in the room would be completely intolerable if it weren’t for the various communal areas. I’m currently sitting in the reception area which has a few comfy chairs and a sofa and is the only room outside the bedrooms with air conditioning. It’s a really busy area as the through-flow of people is almost constant.

Security is quite good, with each room accessed by an electronic key and touchpad, the same as in many hotels. The computer system, however, is a little over-zealous cancelling the key on an almost daily basis, requiring a trip down to reception for re-programming. There’s a very busy café area run by a small team of young, friendly Chinese. They’ve just implemented a new system, giving numbered tokens for each order, after near chaos earlier when they lost several people’s breakfast order and one poor girl kept coming out every few minutes trying to reconcile an American Breakfast with its rightful owner.

I’m quite amazed by how many people smoke here. I’d got used to the non-smoking culture in Britain and it’s hard not to balk at the constant drift of cigarette smoke while eating breakfast

Yesterday I wandered the Muslim quarter with its many food stalls down tiny side-streets, then took the bus down to Xi’an Museum which has an amazing collection of exquisitely crafted artefacts dating back 3-5,000 BC. But it was touch and go getting in. The guide-book said nothing about there being a quota of daily tickets which, once reached, results in barred entry. There was an interesting family in front of me – a white American and his seemingly African wife and their two young girls who all live in Hong Kong. He spoke fluent Mandarin and had quite an in-depth discussion with one of the guards barring our entry. Apparently, they were waiting for the disappointed crowd to disperse – so I simply stayed put, and sure enough we were shortly waived through. Not very fair, as we obviously received preferential treatment as foreigners – but neither of us wanted to return another day.

Once inside I was also refused an audio guide as apparently there was only 1 ½ hrs left to tour the exhibits and the guide takes 3 hours! No amount of saying I could skip sections made any difference. There was not enough time, so that was that. Not very empowering, but so much of it here seems to be like that – officials making decisions and people having to go along with it with no recourse whatsoever – unless of course you have influence of one sort or another.

I made my way to the Terracotta Warriors today, having decided not to go on an organised trip or with a guide. I enjoyed the freedom it gave me to wander at will, choosing the smaller, Pit 3 to start and building up to Pit 1 where hundreds of the terracotta figures have been restored. The exaction is housed in a massive structure, the roof of which spans hundreds of feet and feels like a giant aircraft hanger.

It was quite difficult to focus on the “being” and not get distracted by the noise and constant jostling of the Chinese to take photos of themselves in front of the exhibits. I found the contrast between the exquisite workmanship achieved so many years ago in such a different culture, and the engineering of the exhibition hall fascinating. These artefacts had been carefully created and buried, then smashed and virtually destroyed by a combination of natural events and brutal aggression – and here they were being restored for all the world to see.

Their significance, the power of the Emperor that they represented all those many years ago having long been lost. It reminded me of the defacing of the features of the carvings and plaster reliefs I saw in the temples Egypt, where people believed that if the figures were unrecognisable, they could not be transported into the after-life, thereby destroying the deposed ruler or enemy’s attempts at immortality.

And these wilful acts of destruction of other cultures or religions continues today – the recent blowing up of statues by the Taliban, and targeting of Mosques or Churches…

Why is it so hard for people to learn to respect difference rather than fear it?

Thursday 6 August on the way to Shaanxi Province

Almost an hour into the train journey from Guangyuan to Xi’an and at 8pm the light is fading fast. I’m sharing the compartment with a woman of Chinese decent and her two small children, who were born in the States and live in Pasedena. She teaches Finance at Cal State Northridge which is just up the road from where I used to live in about 1988.

They were visiting relatives in Guangyuan and Xi’an and the children were quite confused about how many uncles and aunts they have in China as “back home” they only have one or two relatives. They are very excitable, leaping from bunk to bunk and I’m not sure how much sleep I will get during the 10 ½ hour journey in this small, four berth compartment. However, it is really nice to be able to have a decent conversation in English.

People are very curious that both the children are hers, as she’s Chinese and there is such a strong stigma to having more than one child. This control is exerted through social, cultural and economic pressure –

This railway was a great feat of engineering, taking many years to bore the countless long tunnels through the mountains – and if there was spectacular blasts of scenery we certainly weren’t able to see them travelling at night.

All the rooms at Xi’an Shuyuan Qingnian Lushe, the youth hostel I very much want to stay at, are fully booked except for the dorms – so that will be another interesting experience after the series of hotels. It sounds as though it really caters for the international travelling community, is well placed within the City, and runs economical tours to the main sights. Frommer’s : A magnificent restored courtyard residence, it formerly housed the Xianyang County government, was recently extensively renovated, has English speaking staff and offers impartial and useful information – plus free internet access.”

Yesterday afternoon we met the County Politician at one of the Kiwi experimental orchards and I carefully positioned myself close to him and nodded enthusiastically. Just getting him and his cavalcade to come out was a coup so I really hope I’ve helped their cause. It all took about 20 minutes, then we went back to the hotel for a rest – translated as time for a shower, change to a skirt and wash out my day-clothes.

Each day we’ve tried a new restaurant and this, our last evening together, was a Sichuan-style BBQ. Brightly coloured tables with a couple of grills each and a very poor extraction system… We were provided with plastic bib-aprons so I knew it might be a messy affair. The dishes of food came thick and fast, mostly different kinds of unrecognisable meat, some fungi and a few veg. We even indulged in a bottle of red which was just about passable and was probably quite expensive. Good wine is not a speciality of China.