Thursday, October 5, 2006

Channel to China! -- Xi'an

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The Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an. Click on the photo to see the full album.

I heard bad things about Xi'an, so I made my visit short. Just three nights. I was hoping that my friends were wrong.

Unfortunately, they weren't. Xi'an is an ugly industrial city, especially in the surrounding outskirts. As I rode into town on a bus, I saw demolished buildings, huge trucks hauling construction materials, and miserable weather.

Things improved at the border. Xi'an has a well-preserved city wall that encloses the city center. After Beijing and Shanghai, Chinese cities are all starting to look the same. I keep seeing the same big billboards and department stores everywhere. That's what happens with central government planning. I've heard Hong Kong has been the prototype for the modern cities springing up all over China.

I stayed at the Han Tang Inn. Big mistake! The outside looked nice enough, but the inside might as well have been a condemned building. Graffiti lined the walls, empty beer bottles littered the stair landings, and the concrete floors were dirty.

I took one look at the grim bunker that was supposed to be my dorm room and immediately switched to a private double room. I should have changed hostels altogether, but I was too lazy to find another one. The room was a little nicer. But the bathroom wasn't much of an improvement. There was no curtain to separate the shower from the toilet, so water would splash everywhere. When I flushed the toilet, water leaked out from the base of the bowl. Totally disgusting.

Going to the Terracotta Warriors lifted my spirits. In Beijing, an Australian backpacker told me it was better to go there by public bus instead of taking a tour. If I took a tour, I'd get up way early in the morning, be led to one tourist trap after another, and get only a little time with the Warriors.

The best way to see the Warriors is to take the green 306 bus. It picks up passengers across the street in front of Xi'an train station, near a China Post office. Costs 7 RMB for a one-way ticket and takes about 1.5 hours to get there. It's always cool when you can dodge the tourist vortex and bask in local culture on the cheap.

I met Sophie my last night at the hostel. She worked there part-time while studying to become an English teacher. When she talked about her aspirations, I was struck by how similar they were to Americans. She wanted to move to Beijing or Shanghai to find a better life. Going to the big city to make your dreams come true; that's a story everone can relate to. I guess the Chinese aren't always so different from us.

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