Transsiberian, Day 17: Taking a trip on Diamox to see the terracotta warriors

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

After an unwanted night in Beijing, we wake up at 5:30am in our hostel with a car awaiting us to bring us to the airport so we can finally head off to Xi’an (second time’s a charm!). Calvin said he barely slept last night, waking up every hour checking the clock to be sure we don’t mess up this leg of our journey again.

Thus we arrive in the Beijing airport. What was I thinking, imagining the Moscow airport to be chaos? Oh, no, THIS is chaos.

First, before entering the airport, we go through a security check with metal detectors and scanners. Then, there is just utter madness at the check in desk. There are clusters of people, not lines, at each and every desk. Calvin makes us split up and we all keep an eye on whose cluster moves the fastest. We check in, hiding our bags so they don’t try to weigh them and thus slow us down, and we’re off to security.

This is the most thorough and insane security check I’ve ever had. First of all, the Chinese love to smoke, or they just love bringing lighters to security checks. Or maybe there are just so many security checks that they need to buy lighters all the time. Either way, the Tienanmen Square check had a bucket of them before the machines, and the airport had a plastic bin filled with at least fifty of them before you enter the line.

There are at least six officers per xray machine. All of us are allowed to go through with shoes, but then four of us have to remove them and then re-do the metal detector part. We all get thorough pat-downs and the metal detector wands used on us. They open every single bag that runs through the scanner. Either everything is setting off the scanner, or they just love to be thorough.

They smell every single bottle of liquid in Shanika’s bag of 3oz or less liquids, and decide they just hate Febreze and throw it in a bin behind them. The bin behind them is filled with miniature shampoos and bottles. Usually at security you’ll find the occasional large bottle of shampoo or whatever that someone tried to sneak through. But here was a bin of travel-sized liquids, all with a displeasing scent, apparently.

They go through my bag and take six of my hand warmers. So much for attempting to keep hand warmers out of a landfill by buying reusable ones. Now these will all go in a landfill! They are the ones in a solid state, strangely, but the one I have that is in liquid form is ok to pass? Also, I later discover one they missed, which was also in solid form, but passed the security scan (I will tell you now that my hand warmers continue to go through security just fine for every single leg of the trip except this one. EFF THIS PLACE). They also let Calvin’s camera with shards of glass covering the lens go right on through. Oh, and a nearly full bottle of honey I had in my bag that is well over five ounces. Shanika guesses it may be because the Chinese New Year is coming up and security is extra tight leading up to it. Either way…be consistent.

We are so ready to get out of this place. Calvin just continues grunting “I fucking hate this city.”

We seek out breakfast in the airport and Calvin shoots the idea of McDonald’s down. “I didn’t come all the way to China to eat McDonald’s.” He has a point. We instead go to some more authentic local place and get beef noodles, the way I like to start all of my mornings. Calvin treats us out of guilt (for drinking that one night) yet again, and the bill for our noodles and a couple sandwiches ends up being almost sixty dollars! Calvin’s response? “I fucking hate this city.”

We get on the plane and even though applause at the end of flights isn’t common in this part of the world, Calvin promises he will applaud so loudly when we arrive because he will be so relieved when this whole leg of our trip is over.

We arrive in Xi’an and Calvin and I both slept through the flight. He’s excited we’ve finally arrived. Then he pauses. “We have arrived, right? Because it’s happened to me before where we landed back where we started from due to bad weather. Please tell me we aren’t in Beijing anymore.”

Calvin then hands me the food box from the in-flight breakfast. “You were sleeping. I ate your yogurt.” “Calvin! That is probably the only thing I would have eaten out of that box!” and I was right, he left me with porridge and vegetables. He’s SO the kind of guy in life to take the strawberry yogurt and leave you with the porridge and vegetables. He then spills some of the remaining yogurt on his jacket because…karma.

Calvin gathers his things and converses with a woman in Mandarin before exiting the plane. He later tells me the conversation was that the woman told him to put on a jacket since it’s cold outside, and he angrily responded, “Lady, you have no idea where I’ve BEEN for the last 48 hours!”

John and Estela from YPT (Young Pioneer Tours) meet us at the airport. John is a Brit who has worked for YPT for several years, and Estela is a local who just started working for them.

We drive off to the terracotta warriors. On the van ride there, I realize I left all of my Diamox at home because I’m an idiot, so I have to bum off of either Calvin or Mihaela, who have extra. I am so thankful. Dimox is an altitude sickness medication, and you need to take it 24 hours before your arrival in the high altitude. Since we’ll be in Lhasa, Tibet tomorrow (12000 ft or 3600m in altitude), now is the time to start. It’s essentially a diuretic, because at high altitudes, the pressure of the liquid in your skull increases and you need to decrease fluids, so this helps. Calvin the doctor informs us that it’s not just a discomfort situation, but it is a life or death situation and something to take very seriously.

We drive through downtown Xi’an and it’s lush and beautiful, drastically different from the hazy grey industrial concrete look of Beijing. Here there are bright green bushes lining the streets, and even palm trees every once in a while. There are lots of cranes constructing new apartment buildings, and the whole atmosphere reminds me vaguely of Miami.

I sleep most of the ride to the warriors. We soon arrive, and we get out of the car and are told to take our valuables since the site’s security hasn’t seen a mini van with a tour group before (usually it is larger buses) and they need to examine the vehicle. Sounds about right.

While that happens, we are off! We walk inside after an xray scan of our bags and I walk with Estela to learn a little more about what we are about to see. I learn that the first ever emperor of China was paranoid and wanted to bring a slew of warriors along with him to the afterlife. They’re like his imaginary friends!

There are three massive pits of the archaeological discovery, with pit number one being the most impressive, as it’s the most complete. There are thousands of warriors, all of them facing forward with the exception of the far left and far right columns, which face outward. The warriors are empty-handed, as their tools were made of wood or iron and are placed in another pit for exhibition.

The sheer enormity of the whole thing is impressive in and of itself. The fact that all of the thousands of warriors are unique in their faces (no two are alike) is even more impressive.

Pits two and three are not as exciting, with way less complete warriors and instead more rocks and broken terracotta. They are both still considered "in progress." The only thing exciting about pit two is that there are a couple warriors in glass cases so you can see them much closer up, as well as some of the tools that were excavated from all three pits.

Now the effects of the Diamox are hitting me. Its key symptom is a diuretic, so Mihaela and I are on similar peeing schedules. I feel slightly light headed, but not dizzy, and my hands are lightly shaking. Mihaela mentioned that her feet were tingly and I feel the tingling in my hands, as well as a general lack of circulation making them super cold. The tingling isn’t like pins and needles, but rather like ants crawling if you’ve ever been on an amusement park ride that vibrated a lot and you got off and felt that odd tingling. Also, weirdly, the outside of my mouth is tingly, below my nose to my chin and part of my cheeks. I relay these weird symptoms to the group, throwing in a few fake ones as well. “Did the warriors talk to you too? Or is that the Diamox?” Despite all the symptoms, none of them are too unpleasant. They're just...odd.

We stop by the gift shop and I get some post cards, which strangely say “poet cards” on the backs of every single design. I point it out to Estela and she laughs, then tells the store clerk in Mandarin. The store clerk rushes over and flips them all over, baffled by the printer error. Can’t say it’s the first time I’ve encountered an English spelling error in China.

Estela mentions that there is a museum, but Calvin’s had his share of the terracotta warriors site, and he’s trying to get her to stop talking about the museum lest someone in the group wants to stop. “Don’t poke the bear, Estela.”

After we exit the warriors, Calvin holds the door open to Starbucks for everyone to get their coffee fix. Yes, the same “no McDonald’s” Calvin. I shame him. SHAME!

We go to some fast food place named Weijia per Estela’s recommendation. There is a chopstick sanitizer next to the cashier that ejects chopsticks when they are clean and sanitized. Calvin enjoys pushing them back in and watching them eject again. We order a slew of bottles of mango juice, spicy and regular noodles, bao, flat noodles, and some sticky rice balls filled with dates for dessert, which are wrapped in banana leaves. They are so sticky and messy that gloves are provided to eat them. Yes, you read that right, gloves are provided.

The spiciness of the noodles is different than anything I’ve tried before. Instead of the usual hot burning feeling, it’s a tingly numbing sensation. Calvin explains it’s a different kind of capsaicin and it makes the mouth feel differently. He prefers this since he feels he can eat more spicy food that tastes this way. We don’t finish all the sticky rice balls so we take the banana-leaf-wrapped desserts with us back to the hostel.

We go check into the Shuyuan hostel and have an entire room for our group of six. It’s actually a very cool place with several courtyards and green space between the rooms. We quickly drop our things off and head back down for Estela to take us around town.

Estela currently lives in the outskirts of Xi’an, and this walled area is the downtown. She tells me that rent here is pricey, but not as pricey as in Beijing. According to her, rent in Xi’an going for around $250 USD a month. That is cheap. However, I don’t know what the average worker makes.

I enjoy observing the local fashions. The trend in China appears to be clean lines with some pops of wild accents. I see a girl wearing black loafers that have pearls affixed to the heel. I see another girl wearing a basic denim jacket that is lined with thick pink fur spilling out at the collar. There are lots of basic shapes, not unlike the styles found at Zara.

We first walk to the bell tower, at the exact center of the whole city. Back in its traditional use, it would ring at sunrise. Now it is just a museum and a spot where you can overlook the city. The drum tower, west of the bell tower, used to mark the sunset, but it also is now just an attraction.

We walk from here to the nearby Muslim Quarter, which is an outdoor market near the drum tower. It’s beautiful chaos at night. The street is filled with people waking at a leisurely pace, distracted by the sights, sounds and smells around them. There are bright glowing signs from vendors and restaurants illuminating the crowded pedestrian road. The noise is nearly deafening. There’s the occasional bicycle or moped or rickshaw honking as it zips by. There’s music coming from some restaurant speakers. There are vendors shouting about their foods and wares, there’s an incessant clicking from the wood carvers who make wooden bullfrog toys. I joke that it sounds like a Geiger counter, since any person here at any given moment has to be super radioactive from the six xrays a day diet. There’s the rhythmic pounding from vendors selling nut candy as the candymakers use giant wooden hammers to flatten out the nougat.

The smells change as you walk. There’s a thick fried oil smell throughout the whole market, but as you pass each individual food vendor, you smell sweet (candy) or sour (stinky tofu… that’s what it’s called). As you walk past, vendors carve raw meat from animal carcasses, cook skewers of beef over open coal fires, pour water into a fountain bubbling up behind cups of tea, wave saffron rice sticks in your face and more.

Estela leads us into a restaurant where we order two dishes to try. One is a thick vinegary noodle called liang pi, and the other is a soup that we ripped tiny bits of bread into before they poured in clear noodles and broth called yang rou po mo. Both are delicious, and was cool to have Estela share part of her local culture with us.

John ditched us just before the terracotta warriors this morning but he rejoined us after the market to take us out for drinks. He takes us to a really cool area on DiFuXiang Street lined with bars, illuminated by the signs from each establishment as well as twinkling icicle lights hanging from the trees on the street.

We first go to Beer Storm, where we order hookah (of course). Upstairs you can hear karaoke playing, and the TVs are tuned into some UFC boxing match. The ceiling is draped with international flags. The whole place is very western. John buys us a round of beers.

John originally had wanted to bring us to the bar next door.  He called the owner when he discovered it was closed, so she could open it must for us. It's called 3as4 Bar, and now it's open per John's request.

Inside was a bar geared towards expats with darts, foosball and a pool table, with a British movie playing on the big screen on the left wall. On the right wall, there were piles upon piles of dusty, empty bottles, as well as a collection of creepy dolls. Under the stools lining that wall was a lethargic dog lapping at a water bowl. The street-facing wall with windows held a table with a rabbit cage on top, with two rabbits inside, one black and one white. There are signs throughout in English that give the place a sassy vibe, like the one on the door saying “CLOSE THE FUCKING DOOR.” Another one, just outside, says “NO WIFI. PUT YOUR PHONES AWAY AND TALK TO EACH OTHER.” Samantha, the owner, played for us some Western music, from The Clash to Johnny Cash to New Order.

I become the undefeated foosball champion, with anyone joining my team becoming a co-champion. Mihaela and I make the most dynamic duo, beating everyone, game after game. In darts, John is the best, as I have never played before...yet I still made a 25-point hit right near the center of the board. JC and Calvin play pool and take 1000 years before finishing a game.

John orders us so many drinks here that I lose count, but I deny him all but one, much to his displeasure. He was a fantastic host, but I wasn’t looking to get hammered before my arrival in the high altitudes of Tibet tomorrow.

He walks us home to the hostel and we talk to reception, discovering our sticky rice balls that we left on the counter much earlier today. We shamefully grab them and return to our room for a short night’s rest around 1am.