A Travellerspoint blog

March 2015

Great Wall: Mutianyu

Nothing but blue skies!

sunny -2 °C

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Monday, time for the reason most people come to China: Great Wall! Our tour even included breakfast, if we could find Saga hostel again. It had been tricky enough yesterday, but we had it in memory now. We were the first ones there and ordered two American breakfasts. Despite that fact, our food came absolutely last and was a bit cold. We broke down and bought drinks that they failed to include in the 'complimentary but not really you paid for it in the tour price' breakfast.

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Our minivan of tourists drove ten minutes to reach a larger bus full of even more tourists. Unlike what we'd encountered in most of China, the bus was full of nearly forty foreigners. 'The most whities we've seen since leaving Canada,' Ryan proclaimed. Our guide found the number of people quite large as well.

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He gave us some background on the wall itself which spanned from the sea, past mountains and to the desert. Emperor Qin Shi Huan had decided
that they needed a wall to keep the Mongol invaders from pillaging villages. People today recognized his role in unifying China which was a collection of smaller locally governed communities prior to his rule. He unified the people with language and religion. He built the Great Wall to have a physical barrier and keep out the Mongols. But during his era, people were more likely to think of him as a tyrant who enslaved millions, a sizable chunk of the large population, and ran up large expenses building the wall and an elaborate tomb. People at the time had very few provisions as a result.

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Once we arrived at the wall, we opted to pay to take the cable car up as we only had three hours and wanted to make the most of them. Since it was early, the wall wasn't busy at all and the only line came from our busload. We got on our gondola with one other traveller. Mountains rose all around us and the Great Wall soon came into view. We were really there!

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Starting at watchtower 13, we began our journey. The temperature was rather pleasant and the skies were a perfect blue, nearly Asian-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) blue like when the government shut down factories and closed everything when the Western leaders held the conference in Beijing earlier that month. If the trees leaves weren't dead the pictures would have been even more phenomenal.

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The wall was narrower than we imagined, smaller than a lane of traffic. New bricks had been laid to make walking easier. Eventually, the photogenic winding wall became an uphill challenge. A woman along the way had forgotten water. We would have shared if we weren't running on a low supply ourselves.

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We passed the 'No tourists' sign as our guide had instructed. The woman selling snacks there didn't say anything either. There was another vendor past that point anyway so the sign was more of an 'at your own risk thing'. That's what travel insurance is for, just kidding.

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The bricks' placement became sporadic with some sideways, others missing and other parts reclaimed by vegetation. It got easier to walk on soon after and there were always people in front of us which had to be a good sign. We kept walking just past the halfway point time-wise. After a few more pictures, we ventured back.

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We met an American man on the way who was teaching ESL an hour South of Beijing. Monday and Tuesday were his weekend so he was just visiting. He had wanted to teach abroad elsewhere but got quite a few offers from China after uploading his resume. He worked with quite a few Canadians too, mainly from the Maritimes. We ended up chatting about travelling and working abroad the rest of the way back. We made much better time than anticipated.

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Ryan and I explored the other side of the wall on our own, not ready to leave just yet. The wall kept winding and winding. Off in the distance, we could see small watchtowers. It felt like we were in Middle Earth or something like that. The walls themselves had interesting drainage systems running down the sides too.

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Even though the walls were quite high, in the past the Mongols had been able to scale the walls, but getting back with the goods they'd pillaged from the villages was much more challenging, so it served as a deterrent. Guards in the watchtowers also kept the country safe.
China's flaw with the wall had been spreading themselves too thin and not providing supplies to their guards. The Mongol leader, Genghis Khan, bribed the cold, hungry guards, overtook the wall and became the emperor of China.

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Nearly lunch hour, we rode the gondola down and walked to Mr. Yang's restaurant. We joined a table of ten or so other tourists from our bus and waited for plate after plate of food to be placed on the table. There were at least a dozen different dishes and I could even eat half of them. The highlight for me was the spicy cabbage and greens. I hadn't eaten this well with Chinese food in awhile.

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It was nice to actually have a ride back to my friend's neighbourhood, although the walk back from Saga was brutally cold. Ryan and I ventured back to the dumpling place for supper with the translation and Chinese characters for eggplant saved on his phone. We couldn't find the dish in the English menu so we asked for the Chinese. They were quite surprised. We managed to order what we wanted and while it wasn't exactly the same as the dish we had on our first day, it was still delicious and meat-free. The Chinese couple next to us ordered the same thing afterward.

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Posted by Sarah.M 23:32 Archived in China Tagged china great hostel beijing tour wall moutain khan genghis saga mongols Comments (0)

Art and Airplanes in Beijing

sunny -4 °C

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On Saturday, we headed to the National Art Museum. It met my friend's two specifications: indoors and not far from the apartment. We only had to walk ten minutes and it was free to boot if you brought your passport/local ID card. The museum turned out to be quite busy. It featured modern art, sometimes using bold, bright colours, abstract style or portraits of local people. There was a neat red chair sculpture with wooden antlers that my friend wanted for her apartment.

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The next sections featured jade carvings from Chen Lizhong. Some were large pieces and extremely detailed. Others were tiny with the same amount of detail, so small we had no idea how they managed it. Maybe with trained mice. Birds with various beak lengths and lotus leaves on the brink of death were the themes of one artist's collection.

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http://www.namoc.org/en/exhibitions/201410/t20141030_283264.htm

Next, we went upstairs to check out a photography exhibit which featured photographers from all over the world, but a fair chunk from the US. They were part of the Straight Photography movement from 1839-2014. The exhibit featured photographers like Ansel Adams, Kim Weston and many others from similar photography groups. Many had collaborated in the past. Some shots had double exposures to juxtapose different images and others employed Photoshop-like techniques that had inspired the software. The macro flower photography was one of my favourites.

http://www.namoc.org/en/exhibitions/201410/t20141030_283259.htm

On the top floor, a Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, was featured along with his many paintings with a theme of rebuilding the country. It also featured his portraits and large murals. Since it was the weekend, many children were there taking art classes as they sketched away the scenes in Rivera's murals, typically the non-nude ones.

http://www.namoc.org/en/exhibitions/201410/t20141011_283047.htm

We went back down to the first floor to see the exhibits we missed. One Chinese artist, Liu Yunsheng, did portraits of people from Yunnan and Tibet provinces so realistically they looked like photographs. He did very well with expressive eyes and capturing lighting.

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http://www.namoc.org/en/exhibitions/201411/t20141104_283469.htm

For supper, we were pretty starved considering we hardly did breakfast and lunch was a piece of chocolate cake for me, strudel for Ryan and coffee for my friend. The restaurant my friend wanted us to visit didn't open until 5:30 so we found Grandma's Kitchen instead. We sat inside the cozy backpacker joint with a Western themed menu as Christmas music played in the background. The most important part was that it was warm. The food was just alright, but we stayed mainly to enjoy the atmosphere and company.

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Sunday, Ryan and I made our way to the aviation museum bright and early. We rode the subway until the end of line 5 then caught the 643 bus. We even got seats! A couple on the bus chatted with Ryan to help him find our stop and to ask about our trip. They told us we were very brave to get on a bus and not really know where we were going. I wasn't sure if it was bravery, cheapness, the anticipation that there would be friendly, helpful locals to point us in the right direction or a combination of the three that motivated us.

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The walk there was a bit long through a flat open field with harsh winter winds penetrating our fall jackets. Half the exhibits were outdoors. Joy. The first collection had many Soviet designed Chinese MIG fighter jets and other aircraft mostly from the Korean war era. They also had Soviet copies of the American built DC-3's along with a few dozen tail dragger Chinese YAKs and a few rarer tri-gears. It was even possible to sit in the cockpit of a retired MIG or enter the Chairman Mao's personal aircraft, for a fee of course. Surprisingly, you could get as close as you wanted to all of the planes in the outdoor displays.

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After making our way through all of the MIGS outside, we decided to warm up and check out the one of the indoor displays. During the Cold War era, the Chinese had built a large bunker beneath Datangshan mountain to protect their aircraft from enemy bombing raids. Since the airfield was no longer in use, it was turned into part of the museum.

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Inside the very long bunker were aircraft from all over the world and different time periods. Including some aircraft on loan from sharing agreements with other countries. They also had some rotary-wing aircraft including the impressively large Russian Hind-D, a rough looking Chinook and a few old Hueys. They had some World War 2 British trainers and even a DHC-2 Beaver. China's first own designed production aircraft was also on display.

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While viewing a few more MIGS, it was interesting to read descriptions of the Chinese perspective of the Korean war. Their collection featured MIGS that had shot down American-Allied aircraft and were quite proud of their own fighter ace pilots. After seeing most of the aircraft on display, we walked through a few exhibits that were all Chinese with no English translations.

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Entering back into the cold, we made our way to the far end of the outdoor displays and quickly looked at the artillery and old radar/communication sections. Many of the larger aircraft were located at the end as well including a ORBIS flying hospital and an amphibious plane sitting in pond. There was a bomber and some passenger planes as well. With the cold nipping at our cheeks, we decided against touring the larger museum and caught the bus and subway back into Beijing.

My friend had a work supper event so we decided to revisit the hutongs for some Greek food. Again it was pricy but Ryan would have probably given a newborn child for a gyro. His didn't come as expected as the pita was more like a base and the meat built atop like a cheeseless Greek pizza, but he still enjoyed it. My veggie moussaka was tasty but Winnipeg's wide selection of amazing Greek restaurants had spoiled me and made the dish hard to live up to its Canadian counterpart. Ryan's also convinced we needed to visit Greece in our lifetime as he stared at all the photos on the walls.

Posted by Sarah.M 03:49 Archived in China Tagged art china museum national photography mig aviation bomber Comments (0)

Summer Palace

Old and New

sunny -5 °C

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It was less motivating to get out of bed when the weather was chilly. I had come to realize that as Canadians, we were a bit spoiled when it came to dealing with cold weather. Sure, outside it was frigid colder than Mars, the North Pole or wherever, but inside our homes, central heating made us forget the weather unless we looked out the window or needed to leave. In China, we hadn't come across central heating so the chill of winter was always around meaning that you were almost always in a sweater or two. Showering became more infrequent since stepping back out into the chilly non-bathroom was unfavourable. Luckily, my friend had heat lamps in her shower that made the experience better.

We geared up for the day with sweaters, jackets, mitts, hats, scarves. We had a mix of fruit and 7-11 breakfast before using the straightforward subway to get near Summer Palace. At our stop, there were plenty of restaurant chains, although none of them had vegetarian options so we just ended up in Subway. Sometimes we just got sick of trying. We did take advantage of the free refills situation though.

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The walk to Summer Palace was, as per usual, much shorter than described by the taxi drivers' sales pitches. We bought the pricier of the two entrance tickets and wandered into Benevolence and Longevity Hall. There was the standard Chinese architecture we expected along with statues of a lion and dragon.

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Summer Palace served as a home and entertaining area for the royal family. It had commissioned in 1750 by emperor Qianlong. It was damaged during the Second Opium War, then rebuilt and embellished by Empress Dowager Cixi in 1888. She had used funds allocated for the navy to do so. I could see why dynasties went out of style soon afterward.

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Down a path and outside the walls, sat Kunming Lake in the mid-stages of freezing solid. We could see this from our position at the Spring Pavilion. The lake and the hills surrounding it were artificial in the sense that one had been dug and the other formed from the residual earth. Quite an impressive feat, given the immense size. One of the tour guides said that the grounds were eight times bigger than Forbidden City, although that may have been just another sales tactic to promote the usefulness of their services.

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People walked across the lake in the distance despite there being water between the walkway walls and the layer of ice with a mysterious thickness. They must have found a different starting point. Some paddle boats were frozen in the lake as well.

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The leaves had fallen off the trees which was a real shame for the beautiful willows. I supposed winter probably wasn't the optimal time to visit
Summer Palace. We visited a gallery that was mainly closed then went back to the lakeside to make it to the causeway. Designers had tried to replicate the one in West Lake, Hangzhou, but the original was still more impressive. A lot of the temple on the island was closed for the season, but the views of the hills in the distance and pagodas built atop them were impressive. The people walking on the glass-like ice turned out to be locals ice fishing. Quite bold.

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Back at the main Summer Palace area, the tradition of building courtyard after courtyard continued along with the theme of many of the displays being closed. Red coloured the columns while paintings sat right below the curved roof eaves.

We walked down a long corridor to reach the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, a tall tiered temple with a great view of the whole city. It had clusters of stairs to reach the top. On the way down, we saw the Bronze Pavilion which was the only section not destroyed by the Allies during the Second Opium War and by international forces during the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. Many buildings in the palace had been restored to the state it was in today after fires, but looting had claimed many of the treasures.

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Continuing the walk, we passed a large marble boat called Qing Yan Fǎng to reach Suzhou Street, an underwhelming market area by the water. Our all-access admission cards became a bit of a scavenger hunt as we tried to locate and visit them all to make the tickets pay for themselves. Only a few other people descended the stairs to see the few souvenir shops still open and the frozen river.

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The Sumera Tibetan temple at Wanshou Longevity Hill caught our eye. It required a hefty climb to reach the top. Some of the stupas were rounder. One of the temples featured a wall with thousands of hand sized Buddha figures carved in it. We realized as we left, that we really should have took the shortcut from the Temple of Buddhist Virtue earlier to save us doing the climb twice.

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Our final stop, after debating whether to stay and complete our bingo card admission ticket or try to catch a glimpse of Old Summer Palace, was the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. By this time, it was pretty relaxed. The pond in the center and the beautiful willow trees were highlights for me.

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We left Summer Palace, looking for the 33 bus to reach Old Summer Palace. We still had maybe an hour or two of daylight. The bus ride was cheap, once we managed to explain our destination to the driver, only a few stops away. We got dropped at the farther South Entrance, so we paid our admission and sped walked past the beautiful park and ponds.

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With the sun still in the sky, we arrived at the ruins we sought. During the Qian dynasty, Emperor Qianlong built a European style garden in Baroque style with the help of Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione and French missionary Michel Benoist. Construction was completed in 1759. The area featured several pavilions, fountains and even a maze. The buildings incorporated Chinese style in their architecture. In 1860, the Allies also burned and destroyed the grounds. Since many of the pillars and floors were stone, they survived to an extent.

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It was neat to walk the different sites with collapsed and cracked pillars, blocks statues and tiles. The carvings in them still survived. Conservation wasn't at the forefront of the government's mind as all visitors were allowed to walk around and through the ruins, given that they paid the admission fee. Some of the fountains still retained their shapes. There were bronze zodiac animal statues on display too.

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As the sun set, we tackled the maze. The walls were below eye level so we could see most of the layout, but that didn't make it too much easier. A Chinese man helped point out the way to us so we could reach the stone, dome roofed pavilion before complete darkness. We took a few pictures before running back through the park and to the subway.

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We followed directions from the Lama Temple stop to find a hutong area, which was the term for the old alleyway style streets that used to be more dominant in Beijing until urbanization took over. Now they became pieces of protected nostalgic pieces of history and by the looks of this one, a trendy hipster neighbourhood. We found Veggie Table down there, a vegetarian place our guidebook had recommended. The prices were a bit high but I was pretty excited to be able to order essentially anything off the menu. I chose hummus and a chili while Ryan went for a veggie burger. The atmosphere was nice and relaxing, like a trendy bookstore.

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Hutong exploration continued past souvenir shops, trendy bars - even a vampire themed one - and international restaurants including mouth watering Greek food. Ryan's eyes went wide and we agreed to come back to the area. Someone had even built a Christmas tree out of green beer bottles that many stopped to photograph. It felt like Osborne village.

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We came across a paint-your-own-cat store. Ryan was flabbergasted and quite entertained with the idea of people bringing in their cats in on a leash to be commemorated by portraiture. How would they stay still enough? It wasn't until I pointed out the ceramic cats, that he realized the store's true intention. He insisted his idea was better. Perhaps he'll open up a branch in Winnipeg. My initial interpretation of his statement was that people would slap a coat of paint on their poor cats. It's probably good both of us were wrong.

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Posted by Sarah.M 00:56 Archived in China Tagged ruins palace lake china summer beijing fishermen frozen allies boxer rebellion paintcat rebuilt Comments (0)

Tasty Beijing

sunny -3 °C

Trains weren't agreeing with us lately. We were up all night due to another screaming baby, louder than our headphones, that the mother wasn't keen on soothing. The same mother and her mother chatted loudly, far too early in the morning, as if their offspring hadn't kept us up all night. Earplugs would have been an asset, but at least this was our last train in China.

We arrived in Beijing and the station conveniently connected right to the subway so we could follow my friend's directions all the way to her school. We had taught at the same school in Thailand and now she was teaching high school math courses in Beijing. Beijing had a lot of different subway lines to figure out, but compared with other cities we'd visited, they were older, showing more decay, and trains ran less consistent speeds.

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After climbing out of the sheltered underground, we realized the city was actually quite cold. We found our hats and mitts to walk all the way to the school. We found it with its temple-like entrance and many floors. We couldn't go inside because of the security guards, which we knew in advance, so we found the most common place to loiter, McDonalds. Unfortunately their wifi wasn't working, but they didn't care if we stuck around after we bought a pricey breakfast.

People watching there was interesting as people either used the location as a nap center or a place to beat the cold. One woman came in without buying anything, grabbed up some of the used containers and cups that the staff hadn't had a chance to clean yet and set up as if she had eaten there so when the staff did come up to the second floor, they wouldn't kick her out. I understood until the point she pulled out bags of her own food and began to eat. She had the money to eat, but just didn't want to do it elsewhere. Funny world.

We met up with my friend on her lunch break and she brought us to her apartment not far from there. We passed plenty of hotels and restaurants along the way. Ryan found some of the street names like Wangfujing entertaining. On the side streets, upright metal triangles kept anyone but the owner from parking in the designated spots as they needed a key to unlock the metal. Failing to do so would damage the undercarriage of the car. If those triangles broke, then there'd be old broken bicycles locked to a section of the pavement to serve that purpose.

My friend explained that many of Beijing's apartments were quite old, but the interiors would be redone, so while the outside looked run-down, inside it was actually quite nice. Up the stairwell, many advertisers had placed their phone numbers on the walls in standard black paint. We dropped off our stuff and headed out for food.

She knew of a good, cheap local dumplings place with veggie options for me. In the doorway, they had a large vinyl-like door cover to prevent heat from escaping, but it really just made getting the door open and shut a big ordeal. It probably let more cold air in during the process. My friend had a neat app on her phone that allowed her to scan a Chinese menu and the app would translate it into English. We were quite jealous, although it needed a wifi or data connection to work.

We ordered leek and egg dumplings, meat dumplings and an eggplant dish similar to kung-pow. If we'd learned anything about China so far, it was that they really knew how do eggplant just right. This sweet and rich dish was no exception with pieces of diced pepper and onion mixed in. The food was very affordable too.

My friend had to return to work after that so we just lounged around the apartment, not straying too far from her water radiator conveniently located next to our mattress. For supper, we went to another local favourite of hers: the noodle shop. They had homemade noodle soup and could even make one for me with just egg and tomato. We also had kebabs: lamb for them and eggplant for me. Another tasty Beijing meal.

Posted by Sarah.M 20:27 Archived in China Tagged food apartment beijing mcdonalds noodle dumpling Comments (0)

Xi'an's Terracotta army and museum

semi-overcast 5 °C

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Early the next morning, after we enjoyed some tasty and cheap egg and veggie buns from a local street vendor, we headed to the bus station looking for a bus bound for the terracotta warrior archaeological site. Using our trusty student cards, we acquired our discounted tickets and found a tour guide. The Terracotta army was built for the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang in 210-09 B.C. The Emperor believed the army would protect him in the afterlife.

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We started in the largest of 3 pits which were uncovered by farmers in the 1970s while digging for a well. Entering the large warehouse looking building we were confronted by the terracotta warriors. Rows and rows of meticulously crafted soldiers stood in perfect formation just as they would have been placed thousands of years ago. Most of the warriors had been broken and had been pieced backed together not unlike a puzzle. Each face of the warriors was unique, and carefully carved. Apparently when the faces were being made, if someone had not done a good enough job, their own head would be cut off. This was serious business.

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They had different ranked soldiers, archers, and even horses with wagons made of wood that long since rotted away. At the opposite side of the site, they had a reconstruction area where archaeologists were busy working on piecing together more warriors.

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We next went to the 2nd pit. Pit 2 mostly contained infantry and cavalry statues. While significantly smaller than the first, it featured a small museum featuring some interesting pieces and a chance to get up close to some terracotta warriors.

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Our guide quickly moved us through the 3rd pit, the smallest of the burial chambers. Pit 3 was the command centre and mostly had high ranking officials. At the end of our tour, our guide took us to the gift shop where she would receive some kind of bonus or commission for bring us. Slightly annoyed, we looked around and quickly left. Our guide then took us to a jade shop for a 10 minute briefing on the differences between real and fake jade. Clearly not interested we left and were lead to another identical jade shop for the same briefing. This tour guide certainly wasn’t getting a tip.

Included with our ticket to see the terracotta warriors was also a pass to go see Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum where a emperor was buried. Legend had it that it was rigged with booby traps and a river of mercury flowed through it. Also, all of the engineers who built it were buried along with the emperor taking with them the secrets of the mausoleum. The mausoleum had not been excavated but probes had shown a level of mercury in the soil showing some possible truth to the legend. A short bus ride later we arrived and walked along the mausoleum which was packed earth formed into a hill. We walked around the gardens which weren’t very impressive, probably because it was the beginning of December and everything was dead.

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The next day we went the Xi’an provincial museum. After showing our passports and signing in we were given our free tickets. The museum had exhibits from pre-historic beginnings to modern day Xi’an. And of course, there was no escaping some more pottery, ceramics and bronze vessels. They even had some terracotta warriors on display and dioramas of burial sites located around the Xi’an area.

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After the museum and picking up another tasty pomelo fruit, we got ready and dropped our humongous bags off at the train station. We walked around trying to find some food, eventually settling on some flavourless, flat circular bread form a Muslim food cart. We sat and ate in a creepy dark park area across from the McDonalds and train station. We then bordered our last sleeper train to our final destination in China, Beijing.

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Posted by Sarah.M 20:00 Archived in China Tagged museum army xi'an terracotta provincial Comments (0)

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