Hand on heart, if there’s one thing I can say I hate with 100% certainty, it’s Chinese train stations. I swear, if you sent all the rapists and paedophiles to a Chinese train station for a week, they would never re-offend for fear of similar of a similar retribution.
Even in Chengdu, a place regularly frequented by tourists and independent travellers, I had to face the unenviable task of fighting elbows with elbows to make my way in to the waiting hall. Here I immediately became the number one source of amusement for other commuters . Migrant workers, returning home to their families for the Spring Festival period, sat next to me. Picking their noses, they played with their newly acquired booger like a toddler. Once bored of this act, they blatantly stared at me, as if I was a million dollar painting in an art exhibit, a price tag they could never justify. When I made eye contact, gummy smiles were exposed, full of stained and eroded stubs.
Youngsters with ‘trendy’ bouffant hairstyles , so big they could topple their owner in a second if their heads tilted too far, soon realised I would make the perfect candidate for their entertainment. In their best English, they shouted;
"If I have a face like yours I will kill myself."
Pretending not to hear the insult, they continued louder and more abusive. There’s not a lot one tourist can do in a waiting hall of five hundred Chinese people. With their train departing they gave it one last shot to gain the angry reaction they wanted:
"F*ck you, fat sh*t short man."
I’ve been called numerous slurs in my time, but few have given way to spontaneous chuckles as this one did. Making eye contact with these verbal offenders, with their garish coloured jeans and dangling fake diamond earrings, I shook my head in shame that it would probably be these people running the world in my lifetime.
The journey from Chengdu to Xian had the potential to be as harsh as a first date with a vegetarian in a steak house. Thirteen hours might not sound a lot. But only having standing tickets, I would have to put in the elbowing performance of my lifetime to reach the carriage before anyone else, in the hope there were some unreserved vacant seats. A long night of constant standing and no sleep could still be on the cards even if I was the first on the train.
Getting near the front of the queue, I realised it would be a direct run-off against the same migrant workers that had been so keen to stare earlier. Carrying bags bigger than their frail bodies, containing enough pot noodles to survive on for several years, they were no match for my nimble legs. Reaching the carriage first, I snapped up the only two unreserved seats for my wife and I. After scoffing a never-ending supply of alcoholic chocolates offered by a polite student sitting opposite me, and nervously watching his intoxicated friend continually stab an uneaten sausage with his penknife, I fell in to an accomplished sleep.
Xian, one of the four great ancient capitals of China, and one of only a handful to retain its entire city wall, is famous throughout the world for one thing: The Army of Terracotta Soldiers. Coming to China and failing to see this or the Great Wall, is like going to Thailand or India and only eating western food; a travesty. With such a billing of being one of the wonders of the world, I never expected these high expectations to fall so flat.
After ignoring the forceful tour guides fighting for my business (who didn’t take too kindly my words of using Wikipedia instead of their highly inflated services) I entered the first of three exhibit halls, hoping the first glimpse of these warriors would be as enlightening as seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary. When you look at photos of the Terracotta Soldiers and read there are 6,000 of these figures, horses and chariots located here, my first impressions were a little negative. The world’s most disappointing army wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
Most of these soldiers still remain hidden under soil, waiting to be excavated, even thirty years after their initial find. Those that have been excavated, were found in numerous pieces, making quite possibly the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle. Only a few hundred have been glued together in enough pieces to make them truly recognisable, and it’s only these you will ever see promoted through photos. Interestingly though each soldier is different, with unique facial features and all were originally painted, like the marble statues in art museums. I never even contemplated these looked so bland because the paint had worn off!
Once you see the few hundred complete statues, it makes the rest of the exhibit, little more than mounds of earth, almost pointless. It’s almost as if the Chinese government has done enough to bring the tourists in, and realise they don’t have to waste valuable resources excavating more to enhance the attraction and visitor’s experience. Some local tourists seem to have had the same feeling, spending more time taking photos of my wife and I and following us around the exhibits than enjoying the world-renowned soldiers. Acknowledging their antics only seemed to encourage them more. Before we knew it, we were being forced into a number of obligatory peace sign poses.
Taking in Xian’s city wall (where entrances located on unpedestrianised highway roundabouts meant taking your life in your own hands to enter) and enjoying a few too many lamb kebab and freshly baked flat bread meals in the city’s frantically paced Muslim quarter, my wife and I were left with far more free time than we were expecting.
Surprised by this, we did something we have done little of since leaving our teaching posts in Benxi. We frequented bars and drank alcohol. Watching numerous Westerners rely on the "I’m ugly but I’m foreign," technique to attract local prey, I realised it had been a ridiculously long time since my wife and I had visited a bar without other company. It felt like we were dating again. After buying her favourite tipple, a pint of Hoegarden, a move that cost more than a nights accommodation, we sipped our pints a lot slower than usual. Deciding not to waste more of our tiny budget on overpriced beverages, we were ready to move on to our next destinations: Nanjing and Shanghai.