Xi’an is home to the Terracotta Army.
Chengdu has a well-established panda breeding center.
By now I was practising my Mandarin Chinese whenever I could. Numbers proved to be just as useful as expected: listening out for flight announcements at airports, asking about hotel rooms, prices for items that I wanted to buy (drinks usually).
I was also interested in trying to increase the number of Chinese characters that I could recognise. Unlike Western languages Chinese uses a series of several thousand individual characters, one for each spoken syllable. Before my trip I probably only knew around 20-30 characters and that included the numbers 1-10.
Street signs proved useful. Many signs included the name and then a character at either end to indicate whether the street was orientated north-south (běi 北 – nán 南) or east-west (dōng 东 – xī 西). Some streets even included one of these cardinal directions in the name itself: for example ‘upper north road’ would be something like ‘shàng běi lù’ 上北路.
So the last character in a street name was often 路 ‘lù’ road and then it was just a case of picking apart the other characters. Other common characters included ‘middle’ or ‘zhōng’ 中 (recognisable from the word for ‘China / Middle Kingdom’ 中国 ‘zhōng guó’) as well as ‘upper’ 上 ‘shàng’ (the same ‘shang’ as in Shanghai) and ‘lower’ 下 ‘xià’. This last character looks notably similar to ‘no/not’ 不 ‘bù’.
I was also a little confused at one point about the similarity between dōng 东 east and chē 车 vehicle (I was wondering why so many of the street signs included the word for vehicle when it was actually ‘east’). This similarity in characters was confusing at first, but it has started to become useful as I’ve started to remember groups of characters that look similar to one another (if that makes sense?).
I was also interested in the characters for north 北 ‘běi’ and south 南 ‘nán’ as the kung fu style that I practise is called ‘Nam Pai Chuan‘ using the characters 南北拳 which translates to ‘nán běi quán’ in Mandarin Chinese or ‘south north fist’.
It’s also interesting to pick apart various place names. Beijing 北京 (notice 北 ‘běi’ again) means ‘north capital’. Xi’an 西安 means ‘west’ 西 ‘xī’ and ‘peaceful’ 安 ‘ān’. Xi’an might be located in the centre of China but I guess it’s west of the capital.
Anyway, on with the tour…
Day 5: Xi’an
Today we visited the dig site of the famous Terracotta Army. This archaeological site was only uncovered fairly recently, in 1974, by a group of farmers digging for a new well. As soon as they found fragments of what would eventually be identified as circa 200 BC terracotta sculptures they immediately filled up the hole again in case they got into trouble. It was only when one of the older farmers, a Mr Yang, took charge that the decision was made to inform the authorities.
The scale of the place was quite incredible. It’s estimated that there are over 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses and every single one of these is individually crafted — no two warriors are alike.
What is even stranger is that all of the sculptures were smashed before the whole site was buried and no one knows why.
It’s interesting to note that although we’re familiar with images of the warriors in their ‘raw’ terracotta state the figures were all originally painted in the most intricate detail. One theory is that the sculptures were all destroyed during a peasant uprising against the Emperor. I can just imagine the reaction of superstitious peasants on finding rows and rows of these warriors all standing in perfect formation ready to come alive at the Emperor’s command.
The people in Xi’an were extremely friendly and fascinated by us, especially our sons, and we were often approached with polite requests for photos. All good fun. Lots of smiles all round! After leaving the terracotta army dig site we headed back into the city and spent the afternoon cycling around the top of the old city walls.
The evening featured a large number of dumplings. This is just one of many steamers that we went through…
And snow beer!
Day 6: Xi’an to Chengdu
We were very lucky with the weather throughout the tour. Beijing was strangely warm and sunny for the time of year — we even managed to pick up a touch of mild sunburn there. Xi’an is apparently usually quite dry but it was raining on our last day. Luckily we were flying out anyway so it didn’t matter. With an hour to kill before our transfer to the airport we went for a short soggy walk outside the hotel.
Day 7: Chengdu
Chengdu turned out to be our favourite location for the entire tour. Everything about the place just seemed perfect. The hotel was the best we encountered during the whole trip, the people were again extremely friendly, and even more inquisitive about us and the children. The whole place felt a lot less hectic than Shanghai or Hong Kong would later prove.
I need to come back here one day.
Chengdu is perhaps a less historically rich location than either Beijing or Xi’an, but it felt rather more genuine, less influenced by Western culture. This is perhaps because it’s tucked away to the west within China, away from the more travelled routes.
I think it also probably helped that we saw some greenery at the panda center. Perhaps we were all just starting to miss soggy Standish.
I was a little nervous about the living conditions that we might find at the panda center. I saw a panda at a zoo in Guangzhou during my last trip to China and the conditions back there were less than perfect. I’m happy to say that Chengdu was a completely different experience. The pandas were surrounded in dense foliage. They were obviously very happy and well looked-after.
The baby pandas were cute of course.
If a little clumsy…
But I’m afraid I think I prefer red pandas.
Interesting to note that the Chinese word for ‘red panda’ doesn’t include the character for ‘red’ 红 ‘hóng’. ‘Red panda’ is just a Western phrase. The Chinese phrase is ‘xiǎo xióng māo’ 小熊猫 which means ‘small panda’. And in fact ‘xióng māo’ 熊猫 actually means ‘bear cat’. The phrase for a normal (giant) panda is either just ‘xióng māo’ 熊猫 ‘bear cat’ or ‘dà xióng māo’ 大熊猫 ‘large bear cat’.
We spent that afternoon at a local people’s park where we had the chance to rest at a teahouse. During our walk in the park I noticed some strange signs hanging in the bushes. From the few Chinese characters that I could understand each sign seemed to indicate a name, age, weight and some other details, something like a lonely hearts advert. I checked with our guide Anna and she explained that this was in fact the case, though these were actually placed by parents on behalf of their children — worried parents concerned that their children remained unmarried after a certain age, usually around thirty.
That evening we decided to pop along to the local Pizza Hut in town with another family from the tour group. We each grabbed a taxi and headed off but the other family never arrived! It turned out that something got lost in translation with their driver and they ended up on the other side of town. Oh dear. Well we waited around then headed inside. Turns out that Chengdu Pizza Hut pizza tastes identical to UK Pizza Hut pizza.
Chengdu was a great place for practising my Mandarin Chinese as there were less English speakers there than in other cities such as Beijing. I had a Chinese translation app (Hanping Pro) running on my android phone which proved invaluable when ordering our pizza.
Our waitress had something along the lines of ‘mei you’ (‘not have’) but I couldn’t work out a third syllable that she used. I asked her to write on my phone using the Chinese character recognition. She seemed surprised at first, but it worked really well and it turned out she was just saying ‘mei you le’ (which still means ‘not have’). She was simply indicating one of the pizzas on the menu and explaining that they didn’t have that one available. We ordered another one instead.
Day 8: Chengdu to Shanghai
We would have happily stayed in Chengdu for at least another day or two or perhaps even longer, but we had an early morning flight to the next stop on our itinerary: Shanghai.
Thanks again to our guides for this leg of the journey: Anna in Chengdu and the incredibly funny Alice (Huang Li-Yen) in Xi’an.