It’s true that in travel, just as in life, there is no accounting for taste. Though some travelers have tumbled head over heels for China, our time in China started off about as rocky as we could imagine. Though there had been a few bright spots during our 10 days in the country, there had been enough bad/frustrating/disappointing/exhausting moments that we were seriously considering packing it in and had started contemplating exit strategies. Still, Tony & I are both incredibly stubborn, and neither of us really wanted to give up and write off the whole of China when we knew we had seen such a minuscule smattering of the country. But it was clear that something had to give as there wasn’t any point in continuing on as we had — although both of us believe that challenges and obstacles are often the best motivators to induce change, growth, and greater personal insight, the fact remains that we did also embark on this journey in order to have some fun!
And so far, we really hadn’t been having very much fun in China at all.
We began to wonder if perhaps the original itinerary we had drawn up was not the one that would best allow us to achieve this crazy goal of seeing the world and enjoying ourselves. We had been sticking pretty heavily to cities, and after three strikes on that front, we worried that Xi’an would be more of the same. In a moment of pure desperation, I posted on Thorntree, the Lonely Planet travel forum, relating our tribulations thus far in China, and asking for advice on whether more experienced travelers thought our fortunes would improve given our projected itinerary.
Although we received an alarming number of scathing and hostile responses to our query (a topic for another post, perhaps), the helpful responses seemed unanimous on one score: if we hated Beijing, then we would surely hate Xi’an.
We spent a night agonizing over how much stock to give the words of strangers (we had elicited their advice after all!). In the end, we decided that since one of the things we had really wanted to do in China was see the Terracotta Army, if we left without doing that, we would always regret it. So we decided we would stick to our gameplan and continue on to Xi’an.
Turns out that this was easier said than done. Anyone who has done even minimal research on Pingyao knows that getting there is simple, but getting out is another issue entirely. The city is situated about 12 hours by train from Xi’an, meaning it’s the ideal distance for catching a sleeper train. Unfortunately, as Pingyao is not a major transport hub, it only has a small number of sleeper beds allocated to it, and unless you buy right when they go on sale (about 10 days in advance), they will all likely be sold out. We were not an exception, and although we even asked about catching the train from nearby Taiyuan (a much larger city with more sleepers), it appeared the train was not in our future.
Train travel greatly appeals to us, but we resigned ourselves to taking the bus instead. We wouldn’t get to bundle in a night’s accommodation and we’d lose at least half the day to travel, but them’s the breaks. When we approached the owner of our hotel about whether she could arrange a bus for us the following day, she said it would be no problem and called someone on the phone. She told us the price for the tickets, and when we said that was fine, she then immediately told us that actually there were no buses the following day because it was Sunday, but if we stayed an extra night, we could leave on Monday. This seemed highly suspicious to us, so we told her we’d think about it and then wandered down the street to a hostel with a travel desk. When we asked them about getting to Xi’an tomorrow, they told us it was no problem and sold us two tickets for 136RMB (~$22 USD) per person. This in combination with the fact that when we had arrived at our hotel several hours after check-in opened only to find our room would not be ready for THREE HOURS, plus the fact that our king room was then “upgraded” to two twins only solidified our recent vow to stick to hostels and avoid hotels for the rest of our time in China. However long that would prove to be remained to be seen, but on this we were resolved!
The following morning, we headed to the hostel, where we were loaded into a little dunebuggy of death and ferried to the pick-up point for our bus. To the casual observer, this would appear to be nothing more than the side of a nondescript highway. We were immensely thankful that unlike most of the other foreigners who had been dropped off and left to wait alone, our driver waited with us until, sure enough, a bus destined for Xi’an pulled over just long enough for us all to scramble aboard. We then had six hours to do not much more than cross our fingers and hope that all the effort to get to Xi’an would not be in vain.
The nice thing about first impressions is that they can make a place as easily as they break it. As our bus traveled through the outskirts of Xi’an towards its final stop, we cautiously noted that Xi’an didn’t look half bad. Sure, the streets were crowded, but they were congested with people and traffic rather than garbage, which seemed like a step in the right direction. Exiting the bus and finding workers who greeted us with a smile and helped us figure out which bus to take to reach our hostel was another one. As far as we were concerned, things were off to a marvelous start!
Ostensibly, there is little about Xi’an that would necessarily mark the city as remarkable, as in many ways it has the flavor of a larger North American city. Then again, maybe after 10 days of in-your-face China, this was precisely what we needed. There were plenty of modern buildings, and we appreciated the cosmopolitan vibe that hummed about us as we moved down its large avenues, before ducking off into its colorful, narrow lanes. Unlike the other Chinese cities we had visited, we felt that Xi’an had not succumbed to the hyper-industrialization that had featured so prominently, and we reveled in the fact that for the first time in nearly 2 weeks, we were in a large city that actually felt clean and distinctly not third-world! However, clean should not be misconstrued as sterile, for although Xi’an has a certain Western bent to it, we greatly enjoyed encountering the various historic monuments scattered throughout the city, all of which were excellently restored giving the setting some cultural flare, and gave us hope our trip to see the Terracotta Army would not disappoint. It was truly heartening to visit a place that seemed to have some sense of how to effectively balance the warring demands of the new and the old.
It’s hard to pinpoint what precisely it was about Xi’an that made us feel so comfortable, but the fact remains that it was a place where we felt we could finally draw an unlabored breath, and is one of the few Chinese cities we can say we genuinely liked. Because of our past experiences, we only gave ourselves two days to explore Xi’an, a choice we almost immediately regretted, as we could have quite happily spent double that time exploring. At the very least, we were glad that when it came down to it, we decided to give ourselves the chance to make up our own minds about the city rather than relying too much on other’s opinions. Truth be told, we have no idea why people were so quick to equate Xi’an with Beijing as we felt the two cities could not have been more dissimilar. We certainly learned that having someone who hardly knows you proclaim what you will and will not like (generally basing this solely on their own heavily biased experiences) is a poor substitute for finding out for yourself. In the end, I suppose this is why we are traveling the world rather than simply reading about other people’s adventures from the comfort of our home. While it’s all well and good to incorporate fellow travelers’ tips and ideas into your own travel plans, it’s always important to do your due diligence and make your own choices rather than blindly following others. That’s not just a good rule when it comes to travel, but to life as well!
Tell us, have you ever visited a place others told you you would hate only to be pleasantly surprised instead?