The other warriors of Xi’an

Over the last two decades everyone with any interest in travel has become aware of the terracotta army of Xi’an. It is estimated that about 6000 life-size figures were buried, and about 2000 are on display in various places. What I didn’t realize before going to see them is how difficult the process of unearthing them has been. Below you see a photo of one group which is being slowly disinterred. Some time between their construction in 250 BCE and their discovery in 1974, the roof beams had collapsed and mud flowed into the pits. Today the pits are being dug out very slowly, so that the army is not further damaged while being disinterred.


You can see places where the work has progressed further: a jigsaw of body parts lie together in a jumble, waiting to be pieced together. I guess each figure must lead to the thesis work of an archaeology student doing his doctoral work. When you see the numbers of statues in various stages of being pieced together, you realize that there must be an army of archaeologists at work, along with students and post-doctoral fellows. This must be a really thriving branch of modern Chinese archaeology.


You can see some statues which are almost at the last stages of being pieced together. A careful look reveals the painstaking solution to a massive jigsaw puzzle. I wonder what happens at the last stage, where one goes from this cracked piece of pottery to the lifelike figures which are most familiar to the world at large.


Whatever the process, I think these archaeologists are the new warriors of Xi’an. And they have a task no other army has ever done before: to bring back to life a forgotten and buried army.

China is huge (as I discover again)

Like many Indians, I’m used to spending a day travelling from one city to another: either stuck in traffic getting to the airport and then circling the destination airport because of air traffic, or stuck in an uncomfortable train as it chugs along slowly changing landscapes. As a result, when I visit another country I tend to think of it as relatively small. In Switzerland, you may not want to doze off in a train unless you want to wake up in another country. Japan and Korea are definitely small. Even France and Germany seem small because the trains are fast.

It is when you get to China that the vastness of a foreign country strikes you. Of course you know that China is thrice as large as India. But then (unless you are going to western China) you may look at the map and think that this is not such a long way from Beijing. You will be mistaken.

The Family and I thought we would take a weekend during our time in Beijing to see Xi’an. Our constraints are that we have to be in Beijing for work till late afternoon on Friday and from the morning on Monday. So our first thought was that we could fly. The price structure for flights in China is quite different from that in India. India is a buyer’s market: a two hour’s flight will not cost you much more that INR 6000 or so, often cheaper. In China it will not cost you less than that. It is clearly a seller’s market, with the price going up thrice or more in peak hours! Friday evening out from Beijing and Sunday evening back is clearly the Everest of peak hours.

So we started looking at trains. Beijing to Xi’an by a normal train takes around 12 hours. That is about the distance between Mumbai and Nagpur, which could cost you about INR 1000 or less, in India. In China it costs around thrice as much! And, needless to say, we may not be able to spend 12 hours each way just travelling, unless we do it overnight. Then we would have to take a sleeper, either the "hard sleeper", which is like the Indian III AC (see the picture on the left), or the "soft sleeper", which is similar to one of the European Wagonlit coaches (see the picture on the right). Of course, the prices for these can begin to touch the level of the cheaper flight tickets.

This is China, so there is yet another option, which is to take a high speed G class train. These travel at 300 Km an hour. This would cut the Beijing-Xi’an travel time down to 5 hours. Of course it costs as much as a cheap flight.

Between the prices and the distances, travelling in China is not so easy. Perhaps the average middle class Chinese earns significantly more than a middle class Indian. Or maybe they travel less frequently. I guess I will begin to find out more by this time next week.

Preparing the mind

The first thing I need to check about China is the exchange rate. These days using a quick conversion of INR 10 to RMB 1 is good. This resonates strangely well with the idea one hears now and then: that a new-rupee which is worth INR 10 would be useful (for example, new-rupee coins might become feasible).

Numbeo has a great idea; it puts together the current cost of lots of different things. Interestingly the cost of one kilo of rice is RMB 6.60. Basic mobile tariffs are RMB 0.50 for one minute of voice call. Rice, tomatoes, beer, apples (and yes, even oranges) are priced similar to India; mobile rates, bus tickets, wine and bottled water cost a little more. It seems that China is a little costlier than India. [But see Manon’s cautionary comment below].

Hard beds on chinese trains

How should one travel in China? Google knows all. It directs me to Beijing Travel‘s website, from which I find that one can fly from Beijing to Xian in 2 hours. The flights cost around RMB 750 in the early morning or evening, but climb to RMB 1000 or above during the day. The fast train takes about 5 hours and a 2nd class seat costs RMB 516. If we plan to get away to Xian on a weekend, then flying seems to be the better option. I should cross check this.

Manon has a wonderful blog post about the nitty-gritty of travel by train in China (it is good to know that you need to arrive early to check in your baggage). There are slow night trains, which seem to be roughly like Indian trains in speed. The interiors look like Indian trains as well. I do want to travel by train at least once. With my time constraints, it looks like I can only do the Shanghai-Hangzhou stretch by train. The web site of China train guide informs me that it takes about 2 hours by the slower K train and half as long by the G or D trains. The prices are about RMB 25 (K train), RMB 50 (D train) and RMB 75 (G train).

Beijing-Shanghai bullet train: 2nd class seats

Bejing to Shanghai by bullet train may take about 5 hours zuǒyòu (I’m proud of my first word in Chinese: it means approximately), and costs RMB 555 by 2nd class seater. The price gradation is steep: 1st class seaters on the same stretch cost RMB 933, and you need to pay RMB 1748 for “Business class”! Then there are sleeper trains which take 15 hours and cost RMB 150 zuǒyòu. The “hard sleeper” interiors look like Indian 3-tier coaches. The equivalent of Indian 2-tier coaches are called “soft sleeper”. I guess the names also have something to do with the padding. Beijing-Shanghai flights seem to be comparatively cheaper, ranging from RMB 350 to 800. Flying always seems to be an option.

The land of tea and oranges

I finally proposed, and the answer is yes. The Family loves the idea of a trip to China.

Now the slog begins. We will go to Beijing, so the Forbidden City and the Great Wall are definitely on. We can’t miss Shanghai, after all one of its landmarks is named in Hindi: the Bund. We must see Xian, with its terracotta warriors from the early days of unified China, and its Chinese muslim street food.

On a first trip to China we will probably not try to cram in Xinjiang and Tibet. In any case, Tibet may involve special diffficulties for an Indian. The trouble with pragmatism is that the dream of taking the Beijing-Lhasa train remains a dream.

The rest is hard to decide on. Should we see the limestone mountains and the cormorant fishing in the Li river? The West Lake near Hangzhou sounds really nice, and there seem to be interesting villages to visit nearby. Huangshan, the yellow mountain, sounds attractive; specially since azaleas will bloom there in May. The painted hills of Zangye look beautiful, and Gansu has the added attraction of being on the old Silk route.

How expensive is flying in China? How long do trains take? Can we do all of these? With no knowledge of any Chinese language or dialect and no ability to read the script, can we travel on our own? China has been added to the list of countries for which Indian visas can be obtained electronically, and stamped on arrival. Does that mean a Chinese visa is also simple to get?

Decisions! Decisions!