Six months in Asia travel blog

Folk House museum in Xi'an

Food street market in Xi'an

Delicious? Probably not.

Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors

Street side soup. Great experience, terrible taste.

The old dwarfed by the new

Longmen caves

Longmen caves

Illuminated caves reflected in the Yi River


The longer I spend in China the more uncertain I am about my reaction to it. Just as I'm getting very impatient with the appallingly rude way people behave on public transport, I then meet some totally charming and friendly people on the train, keen to practise their English and offering me food and snacks. I'm finding the over-exploitation of historical sites annoying, but then the caves at Datong were stunning.

Another example is checking into the hostel here in Kaifeng. It was my first brush with Chinese officialdom. I arrived in the early evening a bit tired and hungry. The guy on reception decided to question why a line had been drawn through my visa assuming it meant it had been cancelled. To me it was quite clear it meant the visa had been activated and there was an entry stamp to prove I hadn't exceeded my 30 days. But that wasn't enough for this guy who insisted on calling the police. When it was established I wasn't illegal, the guy handed back my passport with no apology or even eye contact. Luckily, a Chinese guy also staying in the hostel spoke good English and helped me during this and then suggested we go out and get something to eat. Then this morning as I was stuck inside sheltering from the pouring rain, the staff invited me to share their lunchtime noodles, although the guy from last night still remains unfriendly.

I spent 3 interesting days in Xi'an, an ancient city once the starting point for the Silk Road, now just another modern charmless city, but you can find some history amidst the rapid onslaught of progress. I spent an entire afternoon walking on the city walls and also visited the magnificent Terracotta Warriors, life size statues carved 2000 years ago to accompany the leader, Qin Shi Huang, into the afterlife. Famously, each statue has an individual expression and they are wonderful, but sadly they are housed in a huge hangar and the setting doesn't provide any kind of context. It's just a factory designed to extract money, push tourists in and out and let them take a few photos.

I had some okayish meals in the hostel until the last evening when I ordered chicken and got crunchy chicken feet. I couldn't eat it so I refused to pay. There is a fascinating so called Muslim area, which was great to wander around, particularly the market and to see the produce on display before it is cooked and made inedible. However, I decided to be adventurous and try a soup which according to the Lonely Planet is delicious. What I got was stale pitta bread, a scummy broth, some glass noodles and a few slivers of mutton attached to bone and gristle.

Arriving in Luoyang I found almost nowhere decent to eat and had to resort to two meals in KFC and a pot noodle. The rest of the time I'm surviving on crisps and fruit. In the evening I went to the LP recommended night market but really didn't like the look of most things on offer, certainly not the creatures which looked like prawns but on closer inspection were, I'm pretty sure, cockroaches.

The main reason to visit Luoyang is the Longmen Caves, just on the outskirts of town on the banks of the Yi river, a tributary of the great Yellow River. Like the caves in Datong they were created around 1500 years ago and contain amazing carved statues of Buddhas and other figures. The best decision I made was to go at night and see them illuminated which was a very different experience.

The next day, while waiting for my train, I visited the excellent new museum which houses some wonderful objects, including a lot of pottery. The day was supposedly clear and the sun was trying to shine, but unfortunately, like everywhere I've been in China, there was a fog of pollution hanging over the city which is very depressing. When you travel by train you can see so much of the countryside blighted by industry, huge chimneys belching forth smoke. I don't think I've seen blue sky for the past few weeks. It's always a yellowy grey.

The torrential rain has not let up all day, but I finally decided I had to try and see something of Kaifeng as I'm only here for the day, so, I caught a cab to the old town with the English speaking guy who helped me last night. However, it was raining so hard and I didn't want to get soaked hours before getting on a train with no change of clothes, so we dived into a nearby restaurant and serendipity struck again,

We found ourselves in an old (100 plus years according to the genial owner) family run place right next to the Drum Tower which was protected by the government from developers. It was the kind of restaurant I would never go in alone as there wasn't even a picture menu. There was a lot of unappetising cold meat laid out on the counter, but I asked for some hot food. We had a great dish of aubergines in a spicy sauce and some chicken with peppers and potatoes. By Chinese standards it was very tasty, but I just can't get used to the way they serve meat here, on the bone with skin and everything.

I'm heading to Nanjing on the night train later and then Hangzhou, a lakeside town, which I'm hoping will be nicer than most of the cities I've visited so far. The rain is supposed to end by the beginning of next week so let's hope the pollution also eases and I finally get to see some proper sun and blue skies.



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