Xian and Guilin, China
What else can you say about Xian? You go there to see the Terra Cotta Army…period. The formation of thousands of warriors, horses and chariots that guard the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is truly a world wonder.
Xian, itself, is a busy, industrial, polluted city. You wouldn’t want to live there but it has a fascinating street life. My traveling companions (several from India) were so tired of boring tour group food that we
walked 45 minutes one night to The Indian Restaurant (that’s the name of it) run by some folks from Bangalore. The street scene along the way was almost as tasty as the food.
Guilin, today, lives for tourism. It is a place that the Chinese bureaucracy seems to have gotten right. Guilin boasts a new airport, a fine main road built by the Malaysians and is very clean for China. It even has a few tidy toilets. (It is easy to find a restroom in most of China because you can smell them a block away). The countryside around Guilin is remindful of Bali. No wonder the mountains that line the Li River — with names like Folded Brocade Hill –inspired watercolorists.I once attended a conference at which a Chinese man was the speaker of honor. He looked out into the audience and noticed very few of his race.
“It is unusual for me to be looking at so many ’round eyes’ at once,” he said. “Think about it, if your Adam and Eve would have been Chinese, they would have eaten the snake”.
We didn’t eat snake on our Li River boat trip although we did sample some snake wine…which is supposed to make a man more of a man.
To travel in a tour group in China is like being deployed by the Red Army. Big busses full of tourists, trucks filled with baggage. The “chow” is bland and practically every meal is the same no matter what region you are in…your basic Chop Suey that invariably includes a plate of french fries. Government-managed tourism is a military maneuver with little room for deviation. There are a few good tour guides but many are still of the old guard…scared that breaking the rules for the benefit of the customer will cause them to lose face with their superiors.
Ah, but my friends from New Zealand had the right idea. Traveling independently in China can be a great experience. I spent an evening with mother and daughter. We hired a trishaw instead of following the crowd…talked to people on the street. China has a wonderful variety of cuisines that you will not discover in the tourist mess halls. Traveling about China independently is still not easy, but is doable and can be extremely rewarding. My Kiwi friends took the train on their final leg from Guilin to Hanoi, a grueling 30 hours, they told me, but well worth it even though a train wreck delayed them for hours.