Tuesday, 17 February 2009

None of you are getting a toy soldier. Sorry

So I've recently been beset by the thought that I might be a bad tourist.

Obviously this doesn't particularly bother me (don't worry, this isn't a blog about my feelings, I'm not some sort of girl). But still.

I've just been in Xi'an, which is an awesome town in its own right, but certainly the only reason two thirds of middle England appears to be camped up here at any given time is that Xi'an is the city nearest popular tourist attraction The Terracotta Army.

So anyways, I went to see said Army, and it was good, though I suppose I shared the same sense of anticlimax a lot of people report; it's a stunning spectacle, but at the same time it's neither better or worse than what you expect: it's a very large room filled with two thousand year old clay figurines in various states of disrepair, and I suppose the sheer fact of its existence is the most remarkable thing, not so much the form that existence takes.

Nonetheless, it's kind of mind-blowing regardless, but whatever your feelings it doesn't technically take that long to see, so inevitably there are some shopping opportunities. You can buy:

1) Innumerable replica figurines of the Warriors

2) Stuff made of jade

3) Warriors picturebooks, signed by the peasant who first discovered them (incidentally there are two peasants in two different rooms, who as far as I can tell are purporting to be exactly the same guy. When asked about this hitherto decent English-speaking museum staff appear not to understand the question. Which I found utterly delightful)

Anyway, my tourguide/all staff in the shops genuinely appeared to be confused and maybe a little hurt about the fact I didn't want to buy any of these items, a tactic that induced pretty much everybody else from my hostel who went along to cave in and at least purchase a small trinket. The logic often being 'if they really want to sell me four small replica soldiers for the equivalent of 50p, who am I to turn them down?' And yet turn them down I did. I don't know, for all the shameless cash-ins, blah blah blah, this is the only place in the world where I can get four small replica soldiers for the equivalent of 50p (I mean, have you seen the prices in Games Workshop these days?), would it really have hurt so much to buy something I didn't really think was very nice and had it over to parents at the end of the trip? They'd like the THOUGHT, at least. I dunno, I had a vague moment when it occurred to me I might be doing tourism wrong? I don't even pose in pictures next to noted monuments to prove I was there or whatever. Maybe this is what I SHOULD be doing? Hmm. Actually I did toy with the idea of buying a 4ft soldier as I think that would look quite cool in a house... maybe I should have just gone for it. I could have been like that guy who went round Ireland with a fridge, only way more awesome.

Yeah, arguably travelling on my own makes my mind drift somewhat obtusely.

Anyway, I suppose the Terracotta guides aren't really ones to look for on advice; basically these clay dudes were buried for 2,000 years without anybody having a clue about it, yet the (mostly freelance) individuals showing tourists around all speak with total authority about it, frequently to hilariously contradictory effect; most notably my guide said the human bones found around the Warriors were just from graves that had been dug above it by unsuspecting future generations of peasants (reasonable, you have to admit); my friend's guide claimed with utter certainty that they were the bodies of ALL 700,000 workers involved in the project. Which is, I suppose, the more fun idea.

Anyway, I won't bore you too much more, but for the sake of my own self-aggrandising piece of mind, here are some other things I did in Xi'an.

Xi'an's centre is dominated by its ancient Drum Tower and Bell Towers; short concert demonstrations of said - very old - instruments were on throughout the day; saw them both and they were unexpectedly awesome, primal, booming thuds and tings, vicious bass bells and drums post-rock thunderous one second, springy as a techno beat the next. All conducted by people dressed in mildly twee medieval dress; basically it's China's version of Morris dancing, and it would probably fit in quite well at an ATP.
Had to wait an hour and a half for the bell demonstration, not yet particularly certain it would be any good or not - sundry western tourists went in to look at the tower and left without being arsed to wait for the music, and I was occasionally tempted to join them, but one mantra resoundingly beat through my head: "what would Laura McDermott do?" Probably nota great mantra in EVERY situation, mind.
Also a classic Chinese moment at the drum concert: man waits maybe 45 minutes to get a frontrow seat for the ten minutes of music, gets a phonecall halfway through said music, spends the remainder of the concert shrieking into his phone in a - mercifully futile - attempt to be heard over the cacophony. Nobody apart from me finds this even slightly rude/odd.
I spent most of my evenings getting drunk with a guy from North Carolina called John. He's sort of like a slightly toned down real life version of Earl Hickey, in that he doesn't have a moustache or a criminal record, but he does have a faintly shady past in the US Navy and is a MASSIVE believer in karma - he profited from selling his house just before the entire global economy did its thang and appears to feel terrible about it, for some reason. This was good for anyone in his vicinity, as purchased rounds with almost superhuman alacrity; when I occasionally managed to sidle off and buy one myself he'd (with increasing seriousness) roar "you tryin' to steal mah KARMA!?"
And lastly, a shout out to Xi'an's Muslim quarter, a thoroughly awesome district of town - about two miles of windy streets full of old guys on ancient motor trikes weaving imperiously through what was in principle a pedestrianised area, vendors hawking foodstuffs that seemed to exist only here (you'd be at least mildly surprised at what these guys'n'gals are willing to do with a kiwi fruit), and birdsong everywhere, thanks to the cage on cage stung up as musical ornament. Vibrant old school awesomeness, and thoroughly worth the three mornings of crippling 6am stomach pains that elementary deduction would suggest was the direct result of gorging oneself on said experimental streetfood.

But it's good, and so big you spend a long time gawping at it

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