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30,000 Steps in Xi’an

“A day and a half is plenty.”

“There’s not much more than the terracotta warriors.”

“We got bored on our second day.”

Seriously, when am I going to stop listening to travel reviews from other people?  These were real quotes from real Westerners I’ve met in person who’ve been to Xi’an.  Hearing the way they talked, I budgeted one day to see the terracotta army and one day to see the town.  Wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong.  Now, I realize that we move slower than most, owing to a toddler and his slow eating, slow walking, ad lots-of-napping lifestyle.  But still, I turned our day into a Xi’an Death March in order to see as much as I could, and I didn’t see it all.  Mary and Joel were good sports.

In the morning, we all headed to the Great Mosque.  Yeah, that’s right.  Xi’an has a significant Muslim population mostly Hui people.    First built in 742, this is the oldest mosque in China, but most (everything?) visible today was built later.  It’s a funky blend of architecture, looking far more Chinese than Arabic.  (Not a single dome in the entire structure.)

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The roof of the mosque is distinctly un-domed.
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The plaque says “one god.”
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Hui men often wear these brimless caps.

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Mary was impressed, but she wanted to see something Buddhist.  We’re in China, after all.  So we walked to the nearest temple on the map.  It turned out to be something different altogether.  It was a City God Temple.  Just like ancient Romans, Chinese culture believed that cities had guardian deities.  Just outside was a small Daoist temple.  Joel gave Mary a quick review of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.

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At the City God temple.
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Little interpreter.

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In the gift shop.
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A very Daoist trash can.
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The street leading to the temple was filled with small shops selling souvenirs, religious items, and household goods.
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Fake money for sale–to be burned in honor of your ancestors.
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Joel and Mary thought the juxtaposition here was pretty funny.
Big yawn.
Big yawn.

Simon was past naptime, so Joel volunteered to grab a street food lunch for the guys and head back to the hotel.  Mary and I would keep exploring.  We headed for the Bell Tower.  The Bell Tower is the symbol of Xi’an.  Like the one we saw in Beijing, it was used for centuries to measure time in a world before iPhones.  A unique modern twist is that it sits in the center of a massive roundabout.  The roundabout haters of Saint Peter would totally freak out over this thing.  On the other hand, I have a new idea for the city’s Pearly Gates…

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View of the roundabout from the Bell Tower.

Mary still wanted to see a real Buddhist temple.  There’s a monastery in the northwest corner of the Xi’an city wall.  We decided to walk there.  It didn’t look so far on the map!  It was a pleasant walk down tree-lined streets, which definitely helped mitigate the heat.  It didn’t hurt that we had beautiful blue skies all day, too.

Finally!  A Tibetan Buddhist monastery (aka lamasery).  We only saw one monk, but he was there.  It was real.

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By this time, we were really tired.  A cab ride took us back to the hostel, where we found the guys still napping.  We ate lunch in the hostel restaurant and relaxed in the quiet, air-conditioned space.

By now it was mid-afternoon and I still had one major item on my XI’an bucket list: a bicycle ride around the top of the Xi’an city wall.  Xi’an is a truly ancient city.  It goes back more than 3,100 years and was the capital to no less than 13 dynasties.  The existing wall was started in 1364, expanding upon earlier fortifications.  While many Chinese cities of that era had city walls, most have not survived.  Weather, hostile armies, or enterprising recyclers have dismantled many walls.  Xi’an’s wall is widely recognized as the best preserved wall in all of China.

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Climbing to the top of the Xi’an city wall.
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A southern gate tower.


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Defending the city.

The top of the wall creates a traffic-free bicycle path with fabulous views of the old city.  We were running a bit behind schedule, so we ended up renting the bicycles a bit later than planned.  It worked out perfectly.  We bicycled counterclockwise as the sun set.

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By the end of the 8.5 mile loop, we were exhausted and it was dark.  And–let’s admit it–our butts were sore.  The stonework floor of the wall is a bit bumpy and even the nice mountain bikes we rented couldn’t fully protect us.  We took a taxi home and called it quits.  According to my Fitbit, we walked 34,607 steps, or about 15 miles.  And I still wasn’t bored with Xi’an.


Susie and Mary, on the Road Again

In the summer of ’99, Mary Thompson and I went on our first real roadtrip.  We traveled from Gainesville, Florida to San Antonio, El Paso, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon before heading all the way back to North Carolina and then home.  It was a magical trip.  A couple of weeks and thousands of miles in the hot summer sun with two roommates who somehow managed to not get seriously lost or have a single argument the whole way.  Mary and I just make good travel companions, I guess.

Susie and Mary, Grand Canyon, August 1999.

We decided to see if that’s still holds true, 15 years and half a world away.  Mary arrived in Zhuhai on June 8 and after a few days at our home, we set off on our big adventure.  Unlike the first trip, we have a few more traveling companions (Joel and Simon).

Having no car at our disposal, this road trip features an abundance of alternative transportation methods.  We started out on the bullet train from Tangjia to Guangzhou, and then transferred from Guangzhou South station to Guangzhou Central Railway Station via subway.  Then the cool part: an overnight sleeper train.  Joel and I had traveled by sleeper train in India, but this was our first experience in China.  It was wonderful.  We left Guangzhou at about 7:30 at night and arrived in Guilin early the next morning.  We had decided to book a berth for Simon so that the four of us had a room all to ourselves, which was very comfortable.  Simon even made friends with the family next door.  Their little boy was just a few months older than him.

In the train car.
In the train car.
Simon’s sleeping arrangement on the train.
“We’re on a train!!!!!”

From Guilin, it was a 90 minute bus ride to Yangshuo and then, finally, a brief taxi ride to our hotel, the Li River Retreat.  Readers abroad might be wondering, “Why Guilin?  Never heard of it.”  But you know it, even if you don’t know it’s name.  It’s the place in all those Chinese paintings.

Gao Kegong, b.1248 d. 1310. “Hill Growing to Green and White Clouds.” Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Thanks to amazing karst geology, this is one of the most amazing, unique, awe-inspiring landscapes in the world.  You could easily imagine yourself to be on a foreign planet.  The peaks pop out of the ground as tall, conical pillars dotting the landscape.


We are staying in the Li River Retreat, which is just 2km out of touristy Yangshuo with a view of the Li River and karst hills.  The rooms are pretty nice.

Li River Retreat


But we’re staying here for the view.  Here, take a look out our bedroom window.


We checked in and chilled out.  After all that travel, we were content to just sit on the balcony and enjoy the view.



Joel picked up a book from the lobby bookshelf.  It was a quick read.


We finally gathered the energy to move into Yangshuo for dinner at a vegetarian place called Pure Lotus.  Afterwards, we roamed the streets for a little while.

Hanging out at the ice cream shop.
Simon picks out some wax berries, a new favorite.
Famous Guilin chilies.
Downtown Yangshuo.

The next day, we took a bamboo raft trip down the river.  This is a very popular, very touristy thing to do while in Yangshuo but it was completely worth it.  Mary and I shared one raft while Joel and Simon rode in another.  Each raft had a boatman who steered us with a long pole.  The two-hour trip was a leisurely way to take in the scenery and I only wished for a cold, fruity drink to complete the experience.






Eventually, Simon tired of his dad’s company.  The boatmen pulled up next to one another and Joel handed him off to us.



Once the raft ride was over, we were met by our guide.  The rafts get hauled back to the starting point by truck, but we were going on a bike ride.




We biked for a couple of miles.  The scenery was stunning–massive karst peaks surrounding us, with farm fields in the foreground.




At one point, we came upon a rice paddy that was still being planted. The workers were away on a lunch break.  Our guide, Anna, asked if anybody wanted to learn how to plant rice.  “Sure!” I said.  But Mary and Joel were less enthused and offered to hang back with Simon.  Anna led me into the field and we peeled off our socks and shoes.  “Won’t they be upset that were disturbing their field?”

“Why?!  We are doing their work for them.  They will be surprised and happy when they come back!”


So, here are my impressions of planting rice.  While it is pleasant enough in the short-term, the constant bending and repetitive motions would eventually take a toll on your back.  The water is about five inches deep and steamy hot.  Hotter than bath water–more like a hot tub.  And it’s well fertilized by the cattle in the region.  Let’s not dwell upon the components of that mud that was squishing up between my toes.

Anna grabbed a clump of rice shoots in her left hand.  She instructed me to use my thumb to separate one at a time, which I should transfer to my right hand and poke into the mud.  Sounds simple enough, but the roots and shoots kept tangling for me.  Obviously, if you going to grow enough rice to feed the most populous country in the world, you’re going to have to be faster.  I poked and prodded like the novice I was.


Until Anna encouraged me to work faster, or the leeches would grab me and start sucking my blood.  That’s just the kind of encouragement I needed to pick up the pace.


We finished our bundles and I took a long view of the field.  To my left, the neatly planted rows done by the local farmers.  To the right, the haphazard rows that I managed to plant.  It was quite an eye-opening reminder of the sheer physical exertion of agriculture.


As we cycled on, we saw fishermen in the river and family gravesites.


Our will to stop and admire sights was fast diminishing, though.  It was early afternoon and about 95 degrees out.  The sun was burning bright and hot and we were hungry.




Anna led us to a little lunch spot accurately called the Secret Garden. After filling up, we returned our bicycles and took a taxi back to the hotel.  Simon went down for a nap and we boasted of our plans to process photos, write blog posts, and read up on tomorrow’s activities.  In truth, we were exhausted and accomplished little more than showers and naps.  Tomorrow would be another full day and we needed our rest.


Of Bicycles and Buffalo (A Morning on Qiao Island)

This morning, we decided to get outdoors early in an attempt to beat the heat.  We had a lovely morning on Qiao Island, but if the truth must be told, I think the heat beat us.  The high today was 92*F and the heat index got up to 115*F.  Good thing we went out early.

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We took the #85 bus from Tangjia onto Qiao Island and hopped off by a roadside bike rental stand.  The sign by the road says bikes are 10 yuan for a day.  The woman at the shop insisted they were 15.  Perhaps they cost extra because Joel’s was a mountain bike (multiple gears, oooh) and mine had a child seat.  Or maybe they were extra because we’re foreigners.  Whatever the case, we made our payment and were pedaling by 9:00.

Qiao Island is still quite undeveloped.  There are lots of wetlands, fish farms, and patchy little farms with shacks nearby.  Are the shacks living quarters?  Or just a shady spot for workers to hide from the heat?  I don’t know.

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Typical roadside attractions.

Our path started out paved but turned to a dirt road soon enough.  Dirt.  Mud.  Whatever.

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The path we chose went up a steep hill.  We gamely tried to pedal it, but it was no use.  We wound up pushing our bikes most of the way up, only to ride down the other side at white-knuckled speed with brakes that don’t really work.  Oh yeah, and I’ve got a kidster with no helmet on the back of my bike.  No biggie.

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After a while, we came upon a big pasture with water buffalo in it.  I confess, these are the first water buffalo I’ve seen in China.  On previous visits to Qiao, we’d noticed other signs of their presence, but this was the first I’d caught glimpse of them.

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They’re big and their horns are quite impressive.  I remarked to Joel that I was quite happy to have a tall barbed wire fence between me and them.  We paused for a photo break and to let Simon “oooh” and “wow” at the hoofstock.


“Nope, Simon, they’re not puppies.”



“No, sorry, kiddo…”

We started pedaling again.  The buffalo were walking at the same pace as us, just on the other side of the fence.  And then, all of a sudden, they stepped through a hole in the fence and wandered right into our path.  Oops.  So much for the security of barbed wire!

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Fortunately, they weren’t interested in us.  The lead buffalo had his sight set on a pond on the opposite side of the road.

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Pool party!

In they climbed, one by one, until nothing was visible but a bunch of heads and horns.

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They don’t call us “water buffalo” for nothing.

Had we bicycled by just ten minutes later, we might have crossed right by that pool without ever even noticing the dozen buffalo chilling within!

We turned back, as I was still a little nervous about the general proximity.  Perhaps if I didn’t have Simon, or the roads were solid enough that I could have pedaled faster, I’d have felt more comfortable.  We biked back into Qiao Village.  A lot of the homes here are in rough shape.  Actually, to be blunt, they look like they’ve been bombed out.  I wish I knew what was going on.

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Realtor says, “Panoramic views! Natural air conditioning!”

And yet despite the generally dilapidated, abandoned feel of the neighborhoods, there are tidy, healthy vegetable gardens in many of the courtyards.  Somebody still lives here, and they have green thumbs.

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Peas, corn, bananas, and more.

We were hot and tired.  Simon wasn’t the only one who needed a nap.  We returned our bikes and hopped on a bus home; back by noon.  We were thirsty, hungry, and very, very sweaty–and we’d earned our right to laze about in the air conditioning for the rest of the hot afternoon.