We reach Xian
Getting the train at Bejing West Station was chaotic enough, but that was nothing compared to the experience that greets us at Xian Station. As we step off the train onto the platform we are greeted by a young man. We get the usual patter “ Where are you from?”, “Have you a hotel?”, “Where are you staying?” “You need a car?” And on and on and on. Polite dismissals get us nowhere. He is ultra-persistent. He follows us out of the station to watch us deal with the bedlam that is getting a taxi in Xian. There is no queue, as there was in Beijing. No organisation, as there was there. There is a free-for-all. Even when we get the attention of a taxi driver, we have problems. Nobody wants to take us to the hotel. It is too close and not worth their while. To escape the madness and our persistent friend, we decide to leave the station and try our luck in the streets outside. We are generally ignored until at last one driver strikes a deal. He holds up four fingers: forty Yuan. I agree. This is about £4, and probably four times the usual fare but to us, its well worth it.
When we get to the hotel, it is a haven of peace and tranquillity – and luxury. Once again we are upgraded for free, one of the benefits of travelling off-season. We breakfast before launching ourselves on Xian. Xian is famous for its Bell and Drum towers, its Muslim Quarter and its huge city walls. But people don't come to the city to see them. They come to see the Terracotta Warriors. Monica asks the concierge about tours. This is the start of a heavy sales pitch. In essence, the hotel offers one for about £80. You get your own driver and guide. We say we'll think about it.
Having seen enough of Jade factories, and Herbal Medicine Centres to last a lifetime, we are keen on a more do-it-yourself method. Monica consults a Canadian couple at the next breakfast table. Their approach has been to hire a taxi for the day: they struck a deal for about £40. They have a baby and so need to be flexible. We later find out from the Tourist Information Centre that a local bus runs from the station, the scene of this morning's misery, directly to the site. We decide to take the bus tomorrow.
The Bell Tower stands at the centre of a crossroads in the heart of Xian. It was originally built in 1384, rebuilt a couple of hundred years later, and restored in 1739. This is the version we visit. When you buy a ticket – for a reduced fee you can also see the Drum Tower which is about three hundred yards away. In the Bell Tower there is an exhibition of bells, great and small. We are just in time to observe two photo-shy Chinese dressed as warriors banging the giant bell on the lower terrace.
The Drum Tower has a collection of drums. On the eastern side there is a long row of drums that used to be banged at dusk, a complement to the bell in the Bell Tower that was rung at dawn. These various sounds indicated to people that the city gates should be closed or opened, or they should be in bed etc. This was in the era before mobile phones.
After the excitment of the musical towers, we head south to see the Small Goose Pagoda - we were in the neighbourhood, picking up rail tickets for the next stage in our journey. The pagoda closes on Tuesdays so we have to settle for looking at the outside from a small adjacent park. It's too far away to distinguish much detail, but we're close enough to take a blurry photograph.
When we get back, I phone our next hotel to arrange a pickup. They ask which flight we're on. I explain we're coming by train. There's a silence at the other end of the line as this news is digested. I get the impression that they've never picked up any customer from the station before. There are no first class compartments on the thirty hour journey from Xian and Guilin. This could be interesting.