25/08/2013 - 03/08/2013
Our first day in Xian passed us by in a whirlwind of chaos; despite being fairly well-rested after our night on a soft-sleeper train we managed to get on a bus going in the wrong direction, and only realised four stops later when we disembarked that we were on the opposite side of town to our hostel. By the time we finally arrived at our hostel, having used our rucksacks as battering rams on the overcrowded bus and scurried across a lawless dual carriageway, almost three hours had passed and we had run out of patience for the day.
After an early night, we set out refreshed to visit the famous Terracotta Warriors. However, after a 90-minute bus ride and a hefty 150RMB entry fee, we were dismayed to find that this may be the most overrated tourist attraction in the world. We had expected atmospheric halls filled with row upon row of soldiers, as all the photos and travel information suggests, but the reality was quite different. Pit Three had only a scattering of broken soldiers and horses, and Pit Two, where the excavation work is apparently still in progress, was literally just a big hole in the ground. I will never understand what everyone was taking photos of. Even Pit One, the most impressive site, has only a few hundred warriors at most, and the building that houses them feels like a school sports hall which, combined with the hordes of tourists, renders the site completely devoid of any atmosphere. While it is undeniable that the Terracotta Army is, on paper, an incredible feat, in practice it doesn't make for an amazing experience.
Our next and last day in Xian was much more positive; we started the day at the beautiful Bell and Drum Towers in the centre of the town, then ventured into the meandering alleyways of the Muslim Quarter, where market sellers offer everything from jewellery and clothing to unrecognisable bowls of food. I sampled some trafitional sweet snacks, shibing (dried persimmon) and fengmi zongzi (pressed rice drizzled in honey dressing and sesame seeds); both were interesting but I must admit I'd prefer a cheesecake any day. The Chinese excel at so many food types, but dessert is not one of them.
Our next stop was Chengdu, where on our first night we had our first experience of Sichuan hotpot, a truly unique dining experience. Upon entering the restaurant, a waitress brought over two bowls filled with a thin but strongly seasoned soup and a giant metal pot of spicy oil, which she placed on the lit hob in the middle of our table. We were then directed to choose our meal from a huge selection of skewered meats and vegetables, and when the pot of oil began to bubble we put our skewers in the pot and cooked them ourselves at the table. When ready, we removed the skewer from the pot, emptied the meat and vegetables off the skewers into the bowl of soup, and dug in. We immediately realised that hotpot is not named so for its temperature; as we ate tears pricked our eyes and our noses began to run, but it is one of the most delicious (and fun!) meals I've had while in China.
The next day we paid a visit to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha, and this time we were not disappointed. The statue is located in a beautiful parkland area beside the river, and before reaching the Buddha we spent an hour climbing the hill and passing several beautiful temples and an old pagoda.
After climbing the hill the Giant Buddha appears unexpectedly; we wandered around a corner from a temple expecting a further walk, and instead found the top of the Buddha's head peeping over a balcony just metres away. The size of the statue cannot really be comprehended until you are standing beside it; its head alone is fifty feet high, eight times my height.
We descended the steep, winding staircase down the side of the cliff to stand in the shadow of the Buddha and...just gawp. The statue is not only huge but strangely beautiful; over the 1200 years since it was built the colours in the stone have altered and moss has spread across the rock, but this only serves to make it more a part of the mountain. The Buddha was originally decorated with jewels, and one can only imagine how stunning it was in its youth. Standing at the foot of the statue is also where you get the best sense of its size; you only have to stand next to its huge toes to feel like an ant in comparison.
Next we journeyed to Dali, and what a journey it was! Our adventure began on an 11-hour hard sleeper train to Panzhihua; the difference between hard and soft sleepers being that hard sleepers are cheaper, have six beds per unit instead of four, and no cabin door. Because the middle and top bunks are so close together it's impossible to sit up on them, the bottom bunks are treated as public domain until everyone decides to go to sleep. So it was that we boarded the train to find my bunk already dominated by a young Chinese couple, their baby, and all their possessions. However the husband did help me haul my rucksack up onto the luggage racks, and after some shifting around we all had a seat. They didn't speak a word of English, and I not a word of Chinese, but the man seemed to delight in chatting away to me, then laughing at the look of blank incomprehension on my face. Even his baby had a chuckle. However later in the evening they gave me a plum and a nectarine from their fruit stash, which I think means I was accepted.
When I woke up at 5am they were gone, and John and I dragged our tired bodies off the train and onto a bus to Panzhihua Coach Station to buy our tickets to Dali. After a two-hour wait the ticket office opened, and a few hours later we were on the most rickety bus in the world, bouncing along half-built roads out of Panzhihua. A 9-hour journey and a rickshaw ride to Dali Old Town later we finally arrived at our hostel, 26 hours after we had left Chengdu. I know the saying, but sometimes it really is the destination...
Dali's old town is famous as the ultimate backpacker hangout in China, the kind of place where people get sucked in to the laid-back atmosphere and never leave, and we could see why. The walled town is packed with tourists, but it is also filled with temples, quaint little cafes and shops selling brightly-coloured jewellery and good coffee.
We spent the day wandering around the streets, but the main spectacle was the annual Torch Festival that happened to coincide with our visit. As the sun went down, people began to hang wooden/straw torches from their houses and in the streets, and by the time we left the restaurant where we had dinner half the town seemed to be ablaze, and a few people even pretended to set us on fire (I choose to believe they were pretending, but the flames did get a little too close for comfort). It is a very Asian mentality that allows a town full of people (including children) to run amok around a city lighting things on fire - while drinking - with very little concern for safety, but as we wandered around we realised that everyone was having fun, nobody was ablaze, and even the firemen parked in the truck on one corner didn't seem remotely concerned. British 'health and safety' nuts should take note.
It wasn't easy, but after two days we shook off the 'Dali effect' and boarded a coach to our next destination. The days move on, and so do we...