We were trying to be as independent as we could be in a strange city where we can't read most of the signs and can only speak a few dozen words and phrases. Out of stubborn pride I suppose -- well, not just pride (and boy, our conviction that we could hit the ground and find our way around took quite a beating,) but a desire for thrift. P.J. O'Rourke said that the mark of an advanced civilization is how quickly it can suck the money out of your wallet. Xi'an certainly passes this test. So I thought I'd share some detail about what we experienced and learned.
The Xi'an airport was easy to negotiate. We had no trouble finding the airporter bus and getting a ticket downtown. We had found a good hotel (Ibis) at a reasonable price in a good location and savvy locals (like us) know how to bypass the larger flashy restaurants on the main streets, for the neighborhood noodle house, or even get a tasty breakfast egg pancake from the street vendors.
However, I'm facing the sad realization that at our age and condition, we can't go wandering around in the muggy summer heat for any length of time before we need a) rest, b) a cold drink, c) a bathroom. Because this is the case, spending an hour or more walking in the wrong direction, as opposed to shelling over some money to a taxi driver, might not be the best strategy for us, because we're already worn out by the time we've found the Interesting Thing we were trying to find. And to reach the Interesting Thing we have to climb several flights of steps. For example, notice the name of the Bell Tower. It's a Tower.
And we're not tourists, we're locals! We just happen to be locals who can't speak or read Chinese. For example, when we asked about the Terra Cotta Warriors, we were told that a driver, guide, lunch and entry to the exhibit would cost 1,000 RMB (or over $200 Canadian). But thanks to our Lonely Planet book, we learned that we could catch a bus from the bus station to see the Terra Cotta Warriors for just 8 RMB apiece. Entry to the site is 150 RMB per person. So we saved a lot of money by going to see the Terra Cotta Warriors like the locals do. The bus ride itself was entertaining because it's a private company, with a fleet of buses with a driver and conductress intent on filling every seat and the aisle with Terra-Cotta bound tourists. Our bus driver was more than usually aggressive and um, lively. In fact they also made some extra money by stopping at bus stops along the way and picking up ordinary commuters headed for the suburb where the T-C Warriors are. Unregulated capitalism like this sprouts up everywhere in China.
Once on the site, we leaned that there are volunteer student guides who offer guide services in a variety of languages, if you happen to have a question. There is plenty of explanatory signage and it's all there in front of you, in enormous airplane hanger type buildings. You can see the different stages of the excavation and there is even a station where you can see the fragments getting put back together, although no-one was working there on the day of our visit.
In fact, most of the site is still not excavated but you can see plenty of the famous warriors, up close and personal. And we were up close and personal with massive amounts of tourists, mostly Chinese. That's not a dig -- I'm always happy when I see proofs of a rising Chinese middle class. An architect can come here with his family and contemplate the tomb of a king who had all his architects slaughtered, so the story goes, and reflect on the progress made by his profession. There are children here on school field trips whose own parents and grandparents couldn't afford to go to school and had to work in the fields as children. It was in fact some farmers who discovered this site, while drilling into the ground for a well. If we had a guide, I would have asked -- so what happened to the farmers and their village? What kind of compensation did they get? But I doubt I'd get an answer to that one.