Leaving Qingdao the dragon bus took us through some of the larger industrial areas in this part of China, and also gave us a view of some of the spectacular construction projects going on . In one case, it was the 38km long bridge spanning a bay.
A comfortable 5 hr ride took us to Qufu and to the birthplace of Confucius and the home of the Confucius family.
Qufu is a fascinating place, It still has the city wall and within it is set up for the large numbers of Asian tourists who come to the home of Confucius. After reading the entry in the lonely planet guide I wasn’t expecting much, but in fact they were wrong . While it is a little touristy, its not expensive and in fact my experiences with the locals were very positive. The temple, residence and tomb were all worth seeing. The hostel was clean and comfortable and if you didn’t feel like venturing out the food was ok.
After we arrived in Qufu, Andy and I decided to go to find some food, the others decided on an early night. Most places were winding down for the night ( and highly uninspiring) and eventually we got in a taxi and asked him where the locals would go at such a late hour. He drove us out of the city walls and to a small local restaurant where we had a delicious meal of various dishes and the small delicious lamb kebabs ( 羊肉串,if you are trying to find it on the menu, just remember the character that looks like a kebab and you are pretty much there).
After Andy and another table exchanged pleasantries, or insults (I couldn’t tell), we joined a group of gentlemen who were making a large collection of empty beer bottles on their table . Andy asked what their job was “beer salesmen !” they replied. Andy asked their religion, ”Muslim” they said . “ but how can you be a Muslim and drink beer?” , perhaps you are modern Muslims ! Andy suggested, they agreed. So we passed the evening generally impressing every one with our foreign ness, which meant having to prove ourselves with beer drinking, learning about the local dishes, disgracing ourselves in a devastating chili eating competition, in which I’m sure my face partially evaporated, and being offered to be provided with a couple of “friends” for the evening, which we kindly declined. I have heard people in Shandong province were the friendliest in China, which I concur with, but this was really above and beyond. But eventually we all had to go home. The leader of the group was finding the important meeting with the foreigners excuse was starting to wear thin with his wife, so we climbed into a taxi and back to the hostel. The next day after touring two of the three Kongs ( Temple and residence) we rode a colourful horse and buggy to the Confucius family cemetary and spent a very pleasant afternoon in the Confucius tomb making charcoal rubbings off the stone carvings. There was a massive gauntlet of souvenir vendors to be run, but fortunately it must have been thee afternoon break as they largely left us alone.
The family graveyard is a very peaceful place, which covers quite a few hectares. Its starting to get crowded and I imagine the threshold to qualify as a descendant is much higher these days, given there must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of direct descendants by now.
Our days at Qufu over, also saying good bye to Shandong province, we boarded the train to Henan province and Zhengzhou, a substantial city inland and a major rail terminus for the transport of goods throughout China, also positioned close to the yellow river and for that reason a relatively wealthy city.
We travelled hard seat( as opposed to soft seat), perhaps once it was wooden benches and chicken crates, but it was really relatively comfortable with well padded seats, if a little crowded. Apart from our trip in the high speed train from Beijing to Qingdao, It was our first encounter with Chinese rail boarding protocol. It goes like this: wait in the waiting room until your train is announced, then Panic. Get into a queue to get out on to the platform and then wait for the train to arrive and wonder what it was all about as boarding the train seemed quite orderly. If you have tickets for seats, then you are entitled to claim them as you may find that people who have standing only tickets might be using them, Its just a matter of politely indicating to them you have booked the seat and could they please shift . You might find hard to to if it is a woman with a baby or an elderly person. But everyone seems to be prepared to make the best of the situation. Take your own snacks to eat. Hot water is provided at the end of the carriage so pot noodles are a good choice. Food is sold on the train in the form of boxed meals but I can’t vouch for the quality. Toilets , hmmm , if you aren’t comfortable squatting over a hole in a fast moving train with all that implies , then travel soft seat. One tourist in Xi’an told us she dropped her ipod down there. Goodbye ipod, unless you really , really want it back for sentimental reasons.
After the train to Zhengzhou, we booked in to a luxury hotel for the night. Next to a large park with trees and a military or police barracks in the centre. I was offered a massage in my room for 100rmb, I regretted not having taken up the offer. An earlier foot massage in Beijing had been very beneficial after the hike over the great wall.
The next day we visited the Zhengzhou museum, a modern building with a large collection of artifacts . Some of the more interesting were the neolithic graves (Zhengzhou has a very ancient history which predates the emperors) and the bronze dings ( pots ), highly intricate and given the delicacy of the bronze casting and the description of technique a staggering achievement for the age . A common error all of us in the group would make was to read the label and see 1500, then realise they meant b.c. so many of the bronze items that looked a couple of hundred years old were in fact more than three thousand years old, quite difficult to grasp at times.
A local guide took us to have lunch in a restaurant where the staff in green uniforms were surrounding and staring at us . It turned out many of them hadn’t seen real live Europeans before! It was a hot noodle soup, utterly delicious and lots of it. Afterwards we bought pineapple from a street vendor outside and sat in the sun on the side of the road to finish lunch. It seems to be of the unique features of the dragon bus that you go to places, even big cities, that really don’t seem to see many people of European descent.
We headed out to a recently established park beside the yellow river. A large statue of two of China’s Emperors loomed over the site, and a larger than life bronze statue stood in a place where Chairman Mao once sat to gaze across the yellow river and the verdant plains beyond. Slightly unnerving in the realist style of bronze sculpture, he sits like a resting giant and wears a long cloth coat ( probably replaced at appropriate intervals) and while I was there had a cigarette burning between his fingers. I couldn’t tell if this was meant to be reverent ( he was famously a chain smoker) or irreverent as another tourist removed the cigarette in disgust. But clearly he receives a lot of attention in the situation.
Another night in Zhengzhou then an early start on a bus out to Shaolin, the site of the famous Kung fu temple, now home to 80,000 students of Kung fu. Now a massive tourist site as well, the temple has been rebuilt and gives Kung fu shows. A most interesting part was the short walk to the Abbott’s pagodas, as small forest of monuments to the leaders of the monastary.
After Shaolin, we headed back on the bus and headed through small villages, fields and small industrial areas to Luoyang.
We stayed in a home stay in an apartment complex close to a dry riverbed and had dinner in a small restaurant nearby. Smoking is permitted in Chinese restaurants and sometimes it seems as if its the last chance the way some Chinese chain smoke at the table. Butts and ash are simply thrown on the floor for the waitress to sweep up. Its perhaps not like that in the main centers and higher end restaurants, but definitely in the local provincial restaurants it seems to be standard practice.
It was enlightening to see the way many Chinese people live, the apartment was relatively spacious and comfortable despite the rundown impression given by the exterior. The others stayed up late to play cards with the host. I think money changed hands, I hope he had some left at the end of the evening. I went to bed earlier as I was fighting off a cold that was getting the better of me.
I would have liked to have spent a little more time exploring the local food markets as it was a real glimpse of a normal provincial town with no specific provision for tourists but we had to get on the bus to get to the Luoyang grottoes, thousands of Bhuddas beside the Luoyang river carved in to stones over many centuries by devoted monks. It was simply extraordinary to see the scale and the detail. Many had been vandalised by invading armies , including the British and French, and the smashed faces (probably hacked off for souvenirs) somehow gave the statues an even more dignified air.
A morning of tramping through the grottoes, with thousands of others, was in fact quite comfortable as the local authorities had built the infrastucture around the grottoes to cope with large numbers so it never really felt crowded. Then back on the train for the final stage of the dragon bus journey from Luoyang to Xi’an. If you don’t know anything about Xi’an it is based more centrally than Beijing and was originally the Capital city of China during the Tang dynasty. The Tang dynasty was the period in China that is widely acknowledged to be the pinnacle of Chinese culture as we know it today. Culture, music and poetry became highly refined over this time . The most significant feature of Xi’an is the city wall, massive and 14 kilometres in circumference. Its a great introduction to Xi’an to hire a bike and ride the circumference, you can see all aspects of a Chinese city for an aerial perspective, and orientate yourself to the area at the same time. The day I rode it was sunny and pleasant, and the smog although present, wasn’t heavy.
Of course if you go to Xi’an you have to go and see the terracotta warriors. But before you get there, almost insignificant compared to the fame the terracotta warriors have received, is the tomb of emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China . Containing his tomb and yet to be opened, the contents are legendary in their opulence, and largely borne out by ground based radar examinations. It also is said to contain many traps and mechanisms that would make it a death trap or any one who planned to enter. So you can’t go in, but you can walk to the top.
The group of us took a day tour out to the warriors, and it was spectacular. Its also a working archaeology site , and it was just as interesting watching the restoration work as it was the warriors themselves. We had the package tour and lunch, which wasn’t bad, although it was my first experience of a large package tour location with thousands of others. I also enjoyed using my limited Chinese haggling with the vendors over souvenirs. Amazing how low the price would drop, I wasn’t going to buy as I didn’t have the space in my too full luggage, but no didn’t seem to be the right answer. I had fun inventing as many reasons as I could.
Another of Xi’an’s highlights was the Muslim quarter, and it really is a must to see, especially at night when it really comes alive. There is a warren of lanes containing restaurants and snack shops, along with souvenir stalls and clothes shops. Because Xi’an was at the end of the silk road there are many Turkish and Arabic influences in the cuisine, with a lot of spice and some dishes resembling eastern European food. Many of the stallholders are Hui people, who look Arab and who are distinctively dressed in Muslim white caps. Also in this area is the great mosque of Xi’an, which is well worth a visit as it is an oasis of calm in the chaotic exterior. Also in this area is the tea house, a government project that is restoring a historic official’s residence. There is also an opportunity to sample a range of teas in one part of the residence. A pleasant way to study the different varieties of tea in China. At this stage I had been a little tired of being harassed by touts and was very wary after an incident in Beijing, and almost missed the residence as the deal coming from the the promoter/guide offered almost sounded too good to be true.
We spent one afternoon outside the city walls at the big wild goose Pagoda which is worth going inside to see the view it offers over Xi’an.). This was the site where the first Buddhist scriptures to come to China were translated into Chinese. Many of the translations still used today. We celebrated a tour group member’s birthday in the park outside, very crowded with regular rounds from the grass police, trying to save the grass from the tens of thousands of people in the park that day. With two small blond children in the group many people were very curious so we drew as many people as some of the other attractions that lined the park. Despite the late winter, the gardens were in full bloom and a pleasant change. Inland China was considerably warmer than the coastal regions at this time of the year (early April). At the rear of the Pagoda is a giant musical fountain, stretching over the area of a couple of football fields a large crowd was enjoying the fountains and dodging the water spray.
Our tour finished here in Xi’an. The Dragon bus tour had been amazing and we were all overwhelmed with the extent and variety of experiences. Seventeen very action packed days and nights.
Time for a short rest in Xi’an and to decide where to go next. had been I spent a couple of days revisiting the Muslim quarter and the Xi’an Museum along with the bell and drum towers. Both worth a look for the ranges of artifacts and also the traditional musical performances on offer.
The hostel was very comfortable and there were often interesting people to talk to. After some debate with others as to my next destination ( the guide said Hanzhou, the locals Suzhou) I booked a sleeper train to Suzhou, sleeping on a train for me an adventure in itself.