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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Little Trouble In Big China

It turns out that the Red Pandas win hands down in the wrestling match due to the B&W ones being too lazy to show up for the competition! In fact they're so darn lazy that they spend over 23 and a half hours a day eating and sleeping, only managing half an hour for 'play'.

The sad thing is though that they've pretty much evolved into an evolutionary cul-de-sac; needing to consume such massive amounts of low energy food (bamboo) that they can not spare the energy to move let alone mate. Leaving the sanctuary that afternoon you couldn't help but feel that the world will be lucky to still have the B&W beasties roaming about in one or two hundred years.

With our panda check box filled in we moved along to Xi'an and Jim Beam's hostel. Unfortunately complementary bottles of his namesake weren't available on demand - baah! But he did manage to organise a handy trip to see all the sites around the locale including The Warriors.

The Warriors, as it turned out was not the tribute to the late Seventies New York gangland movie I had expected, but rather an amazing collection of Terracotta ones!

The site is divided into three major finds; the smallest of which holds about 40 clay figures and the largest containing several thousand. On entering Site 1, the largest, you are confronted with row upon row of uniquely carved terracotta people, interspersed with horses and chariots.

Unfortunately many of the delicate models were damaged ages ago when the wooden roof that originally encased the structure collapsed. In fact only the first seven or eight rows or warriors are untouched by the passage of time. Although it has to be said that the partially eroded ones are almost funkier as they have a 'Jason and the Argonauts' Ray Harryhousen feel to them!

Our next stop was a wee town called Han Shan which is home to a fantastic mountain top temple which is reached by a twisting, turning trail leading up through a valley to the final run of dangerously steep steps! And I do mean steep! Maybe an incline of 80 degrees or so! Luckily there's a metal chain that runs the length of the summit staircase and there's a steady stream of people coming behind you to break your fall!

On the way to the top we passed many elderly men hauling massive loads of refreshments to the vendors at the peak, maybe eight or nine 24 packs of 500 ml bottles arranged over their shoulders in a barbell fashion with a piece of wood. It made me feel a little wussy complaining about my wee backpack! The route to the top is really incredible as you pass umpteen houses carved into the rockface (how deep, I'm not sure) and ancient steps etched into the cliffside. A job for Chuck Norris if ever there was one!

Another sixteen hour train journey and we arrived in Ping Yao - in complete darkness! This ancient walled city has evidently decided to keep it very old school and has opted against street lights. 12:30 at night and we were finding our way to a hostel for the night by touch alone.

The wee city is great though, the perimeter of the enclosed section is only about six kilometres and we rambled around the base of the wall in a hour or two. Unfortunately the wall is being renovated at the moment and you can't walk around it, but you can still pop up on top and see some of the nasty defensive weapons they used to keep Vikings and other raiders at bay.

It's the first city that really feels 'Chinese' or at least the image of China that you're sold at home. Very narrow streets, with vendors selling all kinds of weird and wonderful things along them. There are also tens of old houses, temples and museums to visit. If you're after the China you see in school books and old television programmes then this is the place for you!

So after the quiet, quintessentially Chinese city of Ping Yao it was on to the sprawling Megapolis of Beijing. The rate of development in the heart of China is truly staggering with tales of entire areas of the city being completely demolished and rebuilt year on year.

The first thing that you notice, as was the case with all of the other 'small' (4 million+) cities we'd visited, is how amazingly 'western' it is. Everything that you would expect to find in any European or American city is there: McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC ... there's even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City!

It's the one thing that has been a little surprising, although maybe it was just silly to think that a massive power like China would somehow resist the lure of free market capitalism - but they certainly have embraced it! The most shocking thing being Mao's mausoleum: once you pass through the chamber containing his body you emerge into one of the tackiest shops I've ever seen. And although I reckoned that Mao would be turning in his grave if he could see this - he clearly wasn't.

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