We arrived on the overnight train in Xi’an and were greeted by a very non-Dragon Trip looking man (in that instead of wearing the official Dragon Trip shirt like the rest of our guides, he had a piece of paper with “Dragon Trip” written on it). He was also not nearly as chatty as our other guides. After some inquiries with the head office by the more concerned/proactive members of our group, it was revealed that the usual guide had some sort of family emergency, so this was a last minute replacement. Once we were all satisfied that we were not about to be kidnapped, we followed him on a tour of downtown Xi’an.
The Muslim Quarter and Some Big Towers
Within the city walls are two big towers, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower.
Between these is the Muslim Quarter, a series of streets filled with Muslim stores and stalls selling very exciting food, including fried crustaceans on sticks and these huge round flatbreads.
The next day we were up early to see the Terracotta Warriors! The head office must have noticed our hesitation about the last guide, because we had a different, more talkative one today. Weirdly he had at the same name, Joy, as the last guy though. Anyways, this new guide cracked me up because he kept telling us to “be like sticky rice” whenever he wanted us to stay together, and to be like “broken noodles” when it was okay to do things on our own. He also congratulated us on a job well done every time we managed to not get lost or separated from the group on the way from point A to B. You would think that this would be a given for a group of grown adults, until you remember Steven, who we had to wait for for 20 minutes when trying to leave in the morning.
Anyways, once we were all together, we took the bus out to see the Terracotta Warriors. They are part of an enormous necropolis and built in order to house and protect Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, in his afterlife. They were discovered in the 70’s by some farmers and are still be excavated today. In order to protect the excavations, they have built giant sheds covering the four excavation pits. Once inside, in typical Chinese fashion, you have to worm your way through the crowds to the railing so you can see stuff. In the back of the main shed there is a spot where you can see all the warriors that are being restored. They said it will take a couple more decades before everything is complete, as there are thousands and thousands of warriors. The warriors are all life-sized with individual faces, depicted in uniforms representing all the different army ranks. They are also some terracotta horses and chariots.
The warriors are guarding a huge, hermetically sealed football field-sized tomb that hasn’t been excavated yet. It’s reputed to contain a whole underground palace surrounded by rivers of mercury and lots of precious metals. The government has decided not to open the tomb until they have sufficient technology/a plan to prevent it all from decaying. I guess the terracotta warriors were originally painted, but exposing them to air caused the paint to flake off in a matter of seconds. So they are trying to avoid that happening with the rest of the necropolis.
The City Walls
Once back in town we went for an afternoon bike ride along the top of the city walls. It’s about 13 km all the way around and you can look over all the cute rooftops.
We rewarded ourselves afterwards with a trip to Caffe Bene, our first visit since kung fu school!
Next it was onto Dengfu, which is a teeny tiny village we were staying in because it’s close to the Shaolin Temple. There were a whole bunch of Steven-related mishaps along the way. First he wasn’t ready in time and we had to usher him from the hostel all flustered. Then he was in such a state that he somehow lost his bus ticket during the five minute walk from our mini-bus into the main bus station. He had to buy a new one and blamed us for rushing him. Then the bus almost left without him because he thought it would be a good idea to board, then leave to go to the washroom 5 minutes before departure time. Fortunately we all made it to Dengfu in the end. There is nothing really in Dengfu, but the guesthouse made us huge amazing meals. Our guide here was the very adorable Vicky, who was basically a ninja. This was her first time guiding by herself, so she was super enthused. Less enthused to be dealing with Steven, who she had been warned about by the other guides.
Kung Fu School
We prepared for the Shaolin Temple by visiting a local Shaolin school the night before, where the students performed for us. Nothing like watching tiny children do no-hand cartwheels to make you feel bad about your own skills haha.
They also did some pretty crazy weapons forms and hard Qi-gong demonstrations. The shifu demonstrated some of their training methods, which involved doing the forms using crazy heavy weights.
After the demonstration we had a short kung fu lesson of our own. Interestingly it was taught by a New Yorker named Chris, who I guess is the resident shifu for foreigners. I don’t think there is any form you can learn in an hour, but it was fun to refresh our skills anyways.
Dharma Cave and the Shaolin Temple
We started off our visit to the Shaolin Temple the next day with a hike up to Dharma Cave, the birthplace of kung fu. In a nutshell, Bodhidharma was an Indian Buddhist monk who mediated in a cave in the mountains for nine years. Then he came down and decided the Shaolin monks weren’t in very good shape, so he taught them a physical training regime that eventually became Shaolin kung fu. Apparently he also had a disciple that cut off his own arm to prove his dedication. Anyways, the story may be a legend but you can still climb up the mountain and see the supposed cave where he meditated.
Back in the main compound we took a walk around to visit some of the monasteries and temples. The main one of course is the Shaolin Temple, where Chris was very excited because here you can see the depressions in the stone floors made from monks practicing the same forms in the same spot over the years. Though it’s now a giant tourist attraction, the complex is still a working Shaolin buddhist monastery, so there were also swarms of (very disciplined) young students walking about.
We capped off our visit to the temple by watching a Shaolin performance. It’s super popular, but Vicky used her ninja skills to sneak us into the auditorium before the doors opened, so we got first choice of the seats. The show was similar to what we saw at the kung fu school, but on a more spectacular scale. Personally I thought the best part was when they brought random middle-aged gentlemen from the audience onto the stage and had them try to mimic really hard forms.
Then it was back to Beijing, our final stop! Vicky somehow managed to make it all the way onto the train with us to see us off, which was quite the feat considering there are about 3 check stops along the way. She is so tiny she managed to hide behind our huge backpacks to get past the security people. We were sad to say goodbye to her. She had managed to successfully wrangle Steven the whole time!