Sadly my fatigue from the day was not enough to make me sleep through the night. Before lights-out at 10pm there was the singsong chants of train staff advertising refreshments as they passed through the carriage. There was also the chap in the bunk opposite humming loudly along to Celine Dion on his headphones. After lights-out, I slept in roughly three-hour slots with much tossing and turning in between times. This meant I was up around 6am so I rehydrated one of our noodle pots from the water boiler provided at the end of the carriage and had some breakfast.
As the carriage began to stir, the passageway got livelier. I got chatting to a guy from our compartment whose name I never learned, but turned out to be a computer science student from Hubai returning to university in Xi’an. He was happy to practice his English and hear about where I had travelled and how our group had got together. In return he told me about his hometown and his aspirations after university (he wants to work for one of the Chinese Paypal equivalents.)
As we approached Xi’an though he went for breakfast and I went to the communal wash area to get cleaned up. Having slept in the clothes I’d sweated my way around Xitang in, I was ready for a wash and a fresh t-shirt. Between the grubbiness of the communal sinks and the inevitable splash-risks of squat toilets, I really wished I’d thought to bring the complimentary slippers from the hotel!
As Leo McGarry once noted on The West Wing, a fresh shirt, while good, does not have magical restorative powers if you haven’t slept well the night before. I hadn’t slept well and took a headache and general grumpiness with me into the day. The central Xi’an train station is just opposite the north city wall. The bus station is on the other side of the wall so, between the two, there’s quite lively foot traffic. We had to walk from the one to the other to pick up our mini-coach to the hotel.
There was a bit of grumbling at check-in when the group’s only unmarried couple got the choice of a double or a twin room, but the two married (but same-sex) couples did not and were given twins. Our accommodation, the grandly named Air China Union Alliance Atravis Executive Hotel, has definitely seen better days. While the door locks and corridor lighting are proximity activated, the décor feels 1950’s, all beige, brown and yellow. While the rooms are spacious, the furniture is extremely worn and the fabrics and carpets so, SO need a wash! Still, the bed linen appeared clean. We dumped our luggage, showered and met the group again for a short trek down to the local Youth Hostel for brunch.
After consuming a noble attempt at an English breakfast, we set off for a short walking tour of Xi’an. Neil and Arpie cried-off as they wanted a quiet afternoon. I almost did too, but was intrigued by the sound of the Moslem quarter, so stuck with the tour. I should probably have gone for a nap, as it turned out to be none of the narrow, winding streets I’d expected. Instead it was a big, wide street market with five or six types of stall endlessly repeated. That said, we discovered a very tasty nut-brittle which was far less syrupy-sweet than the equivalent in the UK. We bought a cake of it for snacking on along the way.
After the walking tour, we took a public bus out to the Xi’an Huiling School, a project for people with learning difficulties, helping them function in the community. Given my mood, I stayed very much in the background but the rest of the group seemed to enjoy themselves playing games and painting with the students.
Two of the artworks for sale depicted the Monkey King and a pig-headed guy. This got some of us talking about the legends of the Monkey King and whether anyone remembered the TV series Monkey from years ago. It turned out no-one did, and I had to check IMDB to be sure I’d remembered it correctly. I had. Monkey essentially told the tale of the Great Journey. One of the fond memories of my childhood. Apparently the legendary journey set out from the Big Goose Pagoda here in Xi’an, which was the capital at the time.
After a nap and another shower, we reconvened with the group for our evening excursion for a dumpling banquet and show. The dumplings were quite artistic, with the chef styling them into animal faces or tortoise shells. The (not-included) beer was definitely priced for the tourists though at ¥20 (£2) per bottle. After consuming more dumplings than should be humanly possible (Andrew is a human garbage disposal) we headed down into the theatre to a front-row table for the Tang Dynasty Show.
It proved to be better attended than the Shanghai Acrobatic Show (the venue was full) and it was equally well produced with sumptuous costumes, traditional instruments and lots of delicate ladies dancing in flowing dresses. A very pleasant romp through this era of Chinese culture.