We’ve fast-tracked from Pingyao to Xi’an, justifying another public transport adventure (or nightmare if you ask Justin) so we can avoid another week through China’s relentless industrial belt. The cycling would have been easy enough, but I asked for a get out of jail free card, sick of the constant rumble of trucks, the layer of grit coating my exposed skin and the low hanging smog leaving no view outside hazy outlines of factories and empty riverbeds.
After a few false starts we finally handed our bicycles over to the railway luggage depot in Pingyao, hauled excessively heavy cheap plastic hold-alls with everything else onto a train and stuffed ourselves into an already packed carriage in the now familiar routine of night trains.
I’m fast developing a love hate relationship with China’s big cities and with a population of eight million people, Xi’an is a point in case. Our train deposits us just outside Xi’an’s historic city walls which are hectic, noisy and crowded already at 7am. Justin claims our bicycles, reattaches the pedals and we load them for a short ride to the nearest hostel. Inside the walls, the central city feels alive compared to Pingyao’s souvenir-lined old-city and like all big cities I want weeks to explore it all.
Its sweltering hot and we take to buses, touring the city with the aid of notes of cryptic Chinese characters and route numbers in a mission to find something to replace my worn out SPD cycling shoes. North of the gates we find the most well stocked cycling shop we’ve seen since Istanbul, and due south we’re led to a mall of shops circling a stadium (Boys to Men playing that evening no less), with enough outdoor suppliers to kit out a city of Everest climbers. While we do manage to locate the city’s Decathlon store after seeing an advert on the back of another bus, the shoe hunt is unsuccessful, we’re hot and tired and overwhelmed by the number of shops we’ve been into.
The next day we take an early morning bus ride out to the suburbs to look for the terracotta warriors, an epic clay army which was buried with China’s first emperor. Its a truly vast site, made more impressive by the large hanger which covers it and the few archaeologists slowly sifting through the ruins and piecing together broken bodies. We’re absorbed by the information in the attached exhibition centre showing the other sites that were found including trenches of birds and horses buried alive. The press of tourists only becomes unbearable in a small room showcasing some replicas of bronze carriages found.
While we are in any big city, sustenance is found on the streets. Here during the day we snack on balls of steamed baozi with mysterious fillings sold from huge stacks of bamboo steamers. In the evenings we select our meals from the street vendors and sit at communal benches in the cooler air. We also make a point of trying a local speciality which involves the diner shredding bread into tiny pieces before lamb broth is poured over it. Justin deems this is not worth the effort after watching Emma laboriously work on a single portion.
The same evening we walk the wide city walls from south to north and before long we’ve got the place and its relative peace to ourselves. As the night darkens Chinese lanterns are switched on and gaudy lights line the temples. We can hear strains of music coming from the parks below where musicians are playing to small evening audiences and beyond them the lights of thousands of high rise buildings. I can’t help but think even the night sky is murky and wonder if anything has been built high enough to get above the smog.
Despite six days off the bike between Pingyao and Xi’an we’re not well rested as we cycle out of the city walls on the way to Chengdu. Its early morning and we are sharing the noisy commute of thousands. Despite traffic lights and policemen, city cycling is without rules here and the ride is exhilarating and crazy but somehow works. I watch people dressed smartly on their way to office jobs and for a minute I think maybe I could join them too.
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route map for this post
The map below shows the waypoints for this blog post. To view the details of our trip to date take a look at our complete route map.