Shānxi, Shaanxi and Hénán
Smack in the middle of eastern China, Shānxi and Shaanxi are neighbouring provinces, and it would seem, very ancient parts of China. Hénán borders both provinces to the south east, and is equally ancient and filled with history.
The most famous sight around here, is the Terracotta warriors (Shaanxi, near Xi’an), standing guard over China’s first emperor (Qin Shi Huang, who lived around 220 BC).
But, as amazing as it was supposed to be, the fascinating thing about the warriors, are the facts about them. Thousands of clay soldiers, forgotten for 2000+ years, rediscovered by chance in 1974, well preserved. Actually seeing the soldiers, is less exciting. It’s a huge dugout pit, with rows of soldiers. I may be downplaying it a bit, it just really wasn’t all that.
Continuing down the path of old China, is Pingyao, actually our first stop after Beijing. Its main claim to fame, is that it has the best preserved wall and old city, in all of China. And it is both pretty and authentic, the stoneslabs underbeath the main gares all have deep furrows, fron hundreds of years worth of carts rolling through. In the center, you’ll find no modern looking buildings, just old houses, ranging from the newly constructed traditional houses, to the ones falling apart.
This does mean, that the city is, not crowded, but there is a fair amount of tourists; but do as Mette and I did, arrive early (it wasn’t exactly volountary, the train arrived)! , and watch the city wake up. It’s both more charming, you feel alone in a Chinese world and you have the place to yourself. Be wary of arriving on a train where you don’t get to sleep, we arrived knackered, and had to bargain for a cheap bed in a hostel, just for a few hours, as we were staggering around the city, struggling to stay awake.
Our first real stop on the trip (we didn’t overnight in Pingyao), was Xi’an, where Mette had her first taste of CouchSurfing, and we both slept on beds that felt like wooden boards, with pillows that were ricesacks covered in bamboo. Am I joking? No. Was it uncomfortable? Oh, you bet. Our host was very nice though, Kay Wang, a police detective, with a great taste in movies.
Xi’an is a great place though, we had dinner in the muslim quarter, a portion of inner Xi’an (meaning inside the gates), dominated by the Hui muslim ethnic group, serving up delicious food normally found in muslim countries (such as kebab), and offereng visits to the great mosque, my favourite place in Xi’an (more so than the Terracotta warriors).
It’s a beautiful building complex, almost free from tourists and terrible touristy gimmicks (like christmas lights on the buildings), with a wonderful sense of the place being alive (it’s an active mosque, and we visited during the call to prayer).
The muslim quarter is very alive and real, and doesn’t cater much to tourists. Sure there are a few souvenir shops, especially near the mosque, but apart from that, nothing is in English and nobody speaks English, if you want to communicate, it’s in Chinese or gesticulating… That, or just standing around looking dumbfounded, as many foreigners seem to do.
One other standout experience, was when we tried to get a cheap moped taxi to the train station, a police car rolled by. Apparently, and I’m guessing, foreigners aren’t allowed to take them. The guy we were “talking” to panicked, and tried to escape, but to use. While we got away (foreigners are privileged), he was in for trouble, with policemen shouting at him (they quickly caught up).
Speaking of not catering to tourists, we spent four full days in Hénán, and all we saw of foreigners, were three fat English ladies at a night market, and a few more at the Longmen caves.
We stayed with the lovely Qi Wen (who lives in Kaifeng) and her husband (as well as a CouchSurfer who had stayed for a month, trying to make a living there). Our trip there, had been exhausting, as per the usual. All we could get, was a hardsleeper and a standing ticket (oh yeah). So while Mette got a sleeper, I went and sat in the dining car; we instantly got Chinese company. Mette had a flock of four boys swarming around her (whi spoke English), she wasn’t even allowed to to throw out her waste, they fought to do it for her. And I had company from a Chinese girl, who wanted to learn more about the West, and I wanted to learn about where she was from, as it was a remote region, where I wouldn’t be going.
So following our long night (with hardly any sleep), we crashed all day long, and eventually went out for a ticket to Shanghai, but guess what, hardseats only (will it become a recurring theme?). The walk there was nice, we went off the lovely route our host drew for us, and watched local people play Mahjong (and were given seats to watch), wandered in small backstreet alleys and tried to stay awake.
The second day was described here: http://twaize.net/post/30863721463/first-mishap
Not only could we get nothing but hard seats, we also couldn’t get anything on the day we wanted, so we were forced to spend an extra day in Hénán. Due to the shortcomings of yesterday, we made an extra effort for today, and went to see the Longmen caves, Buddha statues carved into rock, over a stretch of about one kilometre, following a river; all done between 1500 and 1200 years ago, both massive statues in halls, as well as smaller statues, right down to walls filled with tiny carvings of Buddha.
While not as old, or famous as the Terracotta warriors, I found it far more impressive; solid rock carvings, instead of clay, that had been here for 1500 years, stood the test of time, weather, Western museums and the cultural revolution, never lost or forgotten; several caves still have visible paint, beauiful details saved from the weather by being carved in a carved cave, the ever benign face of Buddha and the beautiful artistry, all make this my favourite visit in Hénán.
(Take a look at the pictures in the above link, the caves are beautiful).