Vacation: ShaoLin and Xi’An

Happy Dragon Boat Festival! It’s a Chinese National Holiday and instead of sitting around in Beijing relaxing I decided to get out of the city and do something. So I asked around, and the roommate of a coworker, Carmen, was taking a trip to ShaoLin and Xi’An and was happy to have someone tag along.

First a little background: Dragon Boat Festival is a national holiday in China that celebrates the spring ritual of racing boats that are decorated like Chinese dragons.The festival occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunisolar Chinese calendar and entitles Chinese across the nation to three days vacation, sending flocks of locals traveling. In typical Chinese fashion the work week schedule is rearranged to give people lots of time off. This year the festival fell on Wednesday June 13, so everyone had to work or attend school on Saturday and Sunday in order to take Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off. A three-day weekend after a seven-day work week doesn’t really make sense to me, but it’s China. This strange rescheduling affects the Disney English teaching schedule as well. We got Saturday and Sunday off, a rare treat. It was a simple matter to have someone cover my weekday classes, and voila! I had Tuesday June 5 through Sunday June 9 all to myself.

Coordinating with Carmen was fairly simple. The woman is a force of nature when it comes to organizing cheap travel. Carmen did it all: bought my train tickets for me for a total of 850 RMB ($140) and organized hostel stays for less than 250 RMB ($40).

Day 0: 4 June 2013 – Beijing

I spent my day packing and repacking (I still managed to overpack) and obsessing over what to bring. We met at Beijing West Railway Station and caught the 10:30 overnight train from Beijing to ZhengZhou in Henan province, arriving around 6 in the morning. We both had hard sleepers and did our best to sleep as much as possible. My five bunk mates were the loudest snorers I think I have ever encountered. When one would fade out, another would join in. It would have been funny if I wasn’t trying so hard to sleep!

Day 1: 5 June 2013 – ZhengZhou and DengFeng

From the ZhengZhou bus station we took a two-hour bus to the town of DengFeng. After settling in at our hostel, the Deng Feng Shaolin Temple Traveler Hostel, Carmen and I set out to explore the town and its sights. DengFeng is a small town nestled at the foot of the sacred Daoist peak Song Shan and is close to the famous ShaoLin Temple. The Shaolin Temple was founded in the 5th century AD and is famous for being the birth place of Chinese martial arts. In 527 AD, an Indian monk by the name of Bhodidharma or Batuo devised a system of exercises that eventually became shaolin quan, or Shaolin Boxing.

We spent close to five hours exploring the Temple grounds, the Pagoda Forest, taking in a martial arts show, and enjoying the peace of the area. Now most temples in China are very similar, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Shaolin was nice because it is still an active monastery and there are monks and young novices wandering about the grounds going about their business. The Pagoda Forest, essentially a large graveyard, is pretty and makes for nice photos. The martial arts show was to be expected; audience participation, displays of strength, flexibility, and skill by serious-faced young men. We even got a chance to take an hour-long Kung Fu class from a bona fide Shaolin Martial Arts master. Carmen and I were sore for at least three days after that, but how many can say that they took Kung Fu lessons in the temple where it was invented?! As we were leaving the temple we got to see thousands of school-age boys marching and running towards the academy/school for their evening workouts and meal.

Day 2: 6 June 2013 – DengFeng

Our second day in DengFeng was a little bit of a let down. The weather was not cooperating, everything was surrounded in a heavy mist/fog/haze. If we didn’t already know, it might have been impossible to tell that we were in a mountainous area. There’s not really much about the town besides the temple and a few other sights. We set out to view the Academy and the Songyue Pagoda at the center of heaven and earth. (Such a nice name, isn’t it?) The Academy turned out to not be worth it, so we caught a ride on a rickety pickup-tricycle to the Pagoda near the top of Song Shan mountain.

The Pagoda is nice, supposedly one of the few remaining solid brick pagodas in existence. But after a few pictures you realize that it’s just a tall octagonal building in the middle of nowhere. On our way down the steps we encountered a group of Chinese tourists. Several men and women in their mid-40s to mid-50s were very interested in Carmen and I, but spoke little English. The local tour guides seemed very interested in making sure this particular group (who were being filmed by a woman with a very professional-looking video camera) had all the information they could ever want about the Pagoda. Carmen and I were asked to pose for photos, as happens quite a lot when you’re one of only a few foreigners in an area. Carmen and I left the experience wondering if that group of tourists were more than just a group of old friends. Perhaps they were government officials? Retired movie stars? Who knows…

Carmen found a shortcut hike up the mountain that took us to the next sight, the FaWang Temple. This was my favorite sight of our time in DengFeng. The temple is an active monastery where students may study various forms of martial arts. While there we saw dozens of orange-clad students training with a variety of weapons. There were even a handful of foreigners (and a woman or two) practicing their kung fu as we tourists intruded on their peace and quiet.

After the temple and lunch in DengFeng Carmen wanted to hike around the mountain and see a waterfall that was advertised on a tourism map we’d acquired in the hostel. I’d already had my fill of hiking for a while, so I headed back to the hostel to nap and to secretly practice some of the kung fu we’d learned the day before.

An early night watching a movie in the Hostel reception room (there’s really no night life to speak of in DengFeng) completed our time in DengFeng.

Day 3: 7 June 2013 DengFeng to Xi’An

We got a very early start on Friday due to our need to catch the 11:45 high-speed train from ZhengZhou to Xi’An. A bus from DengFeng to ZhengZhou at 8:10 am, and then two hours later we caught a local bus to the ZhengZhou high-speed train station. Turns out that our timing was a little off though, and we had to hop off the bus and into a cab. We told the driver to step on it, and ran all the way through the train station to our platform. We were devastated when we saw that the platform was empty on one side, and the doors of the train on the other were already closed. It took us a moment to realize that the train on the right wasn’t our train, and that the reason that the platform on the left was empty was because the train hadn’t arrived yet. We had arrived with mere moments to spare! Carmen and I were elated; missing our connecting train would be a huge hassle, and tickets for the next one could be quite expensive. The high speed train looks and feels a lot like an airplane on the inside, I highly recommend it as a way to travel in China.

Xi’An is beautiful! The whole city, particularly inside the ancient city walls looks like what I imagined China and Beijing would be like. The marriage of old and new architecture is artfully done, incorporating glass-and-steel with peaked roofs and red lanterns. Those who go to the city just for the Terracotta Warriors are missing out on so much more that the city has to offer. We checked in at the Han Tang Inn Hostel located near the Bell Tower in the center of Xi’An and met up with a few locals to go exploring.

The bell and drum towers of Xi’An are very similar to the ones in Beijing and at night are beautifully lit. The Muslim Quarter, behind the Drum Tower is particularly intriguing. Cherie and her friend Dharma lead Carmen and I through the area, and we essentially ate our way around, stopping to try delicacies and treats that caught our fancy.

Cherie and Dharma took us to see the Great Wild Goose Pagoda south of the city walls and the fountain water show. I wasn’t really interested in the Pagoda, having seen one the day before, but the area was nice. The fountain is humongous and set in a large public park that encourages locals and tourists alike to relax and enjoy a beautiful summer evening. We stopped to take some pictures, and got waylaid into taking pictures with at least a dozen other Chinese tourists. It’s funny how many people try to sneak photos. I honestly don’t mind posing for photos with strangers, it makes me feel like I’m famous, just please ask. At the Wild Goose Pagoda however, it got a little ridiculous. We posed for what felt like twenty minutes, occasionally pausing to say “Didn’t you already get a picture?” The response was always something along the lines of “Just one more with this camera/this angle/this hat/both of us…” After a while I got bored and my cheeks hurt from smiling so I started to make silly faces. People will have some interesting photos to share. Which begs the question, what exactly do these people do with these photos of strangers?

The 9 o’clock water show was nice, but our position made it impossible to hear the music. Ten minutes was just as good as thirty, so we caught a cab back to the hostel. At the hostel we met all sorts of interesting people. Some were English teachers like us from smaller cities in China, others were taking a break between high school and university, one or two were doing a tour of Asia on a shoestring budget.

Day 4: 8 June 2013 – Xi’An

Carmen and I booked seats for the hostel’s advertised tour of the Terracotta Warriors for about 268 RMB ($44). 21 people set out from at least three hostels to explore one of the great wonders of the world. I highly recommend going with an organized tour, or at least booking a tour guide. China is famous for their blunt, simple descriptions of things in museums that don’t really give much information to the viewer. A tour guide will be able to tell you the things you want to know. For example, I learned that a few of the terracotta warriors have names carved onto the backs of their legs, done by one of the thousands of workers that created them.

If you’re going to tour the terracotta warriors, do it backwards. Start with Emperor Qin Xi’s tomb, which is still closed due to high levels of poisonous mercury. It’s essentially a manmade hill covered in trees and brush; not at all exciting. Then head to Pit 2 where you can the rows of broken pottery and evidence of fires and earthquakes that destroyed the statues to begin with. Pit 3 was never completed due to the emperor’s untimely death, and contains unfinished warriors and horses. Pit 1 is the most impressive and famous of the three, and it’s a great idea to start in the back and work your way forward. The pit includes 2,000 reassembled warriors with an estimated 6,000 more to go.

I brought along a copy of a National Geographic magazine (June 2012) with an article on the original colors of the Terracotta Warriors. It’s what inspired me to go to Xi’An in the first place, and so I posed for pictures holding the magazine. Cheesy, huh? Totally worth it!

While we were there we discovered that the peasant who had discovered the tomb (he had been digging a well in 1974) was at the gift shop and signing books. The man is famous in China, and very happy despite the fact that he only got 10 RMB for his discovery. It was quite a lot of money in 1974, but still! The whole town was relocated a few kilometers away and excavation began.

On the way back to town it started to rain, and it didn’t stop for the rest of the trip. But I’m from Seattle; I love the rain!

That evening we stayed in at the hostel enjoying drinking games (my team came in third in the tabasco-laced beer challenge) and good conversation. After a while one of the bartenders invited us to come with him to see the night life in some of the other hostels of Xi’An. We tromped out in the rain and had a fabulous evening.

Day 5: 9 June 2013 – Xi’An

Our last day was clogged with rain, and I struggled with the desire to do so much with not enough time. Eventually I decided to take a tour of Emperor Jingdi’s tomb, while Carmen went to the Shaanxi History Museum.

Emperor Jingdi’s tomb was discovered in 1996 and is being slowly excavated in a very careful manner. Honestly, I thought the terracotta warriors would be more like Jingdi’s tomb. [The terracotta warriors are enclosed in huge concrete buildings, yes; but they are very accessible to anyone with 150 RMB ($25) for a ticket. One could toss trash into any of the pits with ease. Thankfully no one seems inclined to do so.] The tomb of Emperor Jingdi’s is enclosed in glass, and very poorly lit, so as not to damage the artifacts. Included in his tomb are thousands of small terracotta figurines standing a few feet tall. They are now mostly naked, armless figures their clothes and wooden arms having rotted away centuries ago and include warriors, musicians, concubines, and eunuchs. The pits also have thousands of clay pots, and even terracotta animals; food for the afterlife? The museum attached to the tomb is nice to see, though it’s descriptions of artifacts are typically brief and blunt.

After the tour I had only a few minutes for lunch before Carmen and I were due to leave for the train station. Since it was Sunday night, the night before a national three-day holiday, the train station was mobbed with people. That didn’t stop me from meeting a young man from Tacoma on his way to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin temple. It’s a small world after all…

When Carmen booked our seats on the train home there weren’t enough hard sleepers (6 to a ‘cabin’) for me, so I splurged for a soft sleeper (4 to a cabin). Best decision ever. The beds aren’t any softer, but there is a lot more privacy. There’s a door to shut out the noise of the hallway, and only three other people to argue with about the amount of light/noise in the cabin.

Day 6: 10 June 2013 – Beijing

The 12 hour train ride back was pleasant enough, but navigating Beijing at 6 in the morning is not a fun way to end a vacation. I made it home in one piece, grabbed a quick shower and a nap then headed to work to teach for the rest of the day.

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If I could do it all again I would spend one night in DengFeng and three in Xi’An. Both sights are lovely, but more time is needed in Xi’An than at the Shaolin Temple area. I am extremely grateful to Carmen, who not only let me tag along, but went to lots of trouble to get my train tickets. She took care of all navigation and accommodation letting me know what bus, train, or taxi to take and what hostel to rest my head in. Most of all, Carmen showed me that traveling solo in China really wouldn’t be that difficult, and could really be quite fun!

Until the next adventure!

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  1. Pingback: Change is in the air | A Broad's View

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