August 16-26, 2018
Terracotta Army and panda are the main highlights of Xi’an and Chengdu cities – obviously not the only ones. But the first step was to get there from Mongolia. The way from Ulaanbaatar was quite intense, as well as the journey there. To our luck we caught a train from UB to the border the same evening we arrived from Dalanzadgad by bus (train price 44.400 MNT pp). That means we had just 45 minutes to buy some food and jump onto the train. Next morning we appeared in Zamiin Uud again. We had breakfast there to spend some Tugriks. Which was probably a mistake since many people left then already and we had troubles to find a driver to get us across the border. First, we had to take a short taxi ride to the jeep’s waiting spot next to the border. Then find an available jeep. The fourth driver said yes, but we paid the same price as from China, and we had to pay in Yuan (100 CNY pp). First of all, we expected a lower rate (that’s what the internet said), and we wanted to get rid of Tugriks. Yes, we still have them in our backpack. No, we were not able to exchange them in China. Also, you need to pay 1,000 MNT exit fee at the border. We got to the train station in Erlian pretty fast. But oops, we don’t have enough Yuans to buy a ticket to Xi’an! Luckily, ATM is handily just five blocks away 🙁 So we missed a train to Hohhot and had to wait to the next day morning. However, both trains to Hohhot and then to Xi’an were hard seater (192 CNY pp). Sleeper trains were sold out. It means 24 hours on a hard seat in total, which was a bit torturing. We survived only because the train was half empty during the night and we were able to lie down for a couple of hours. Anyway, the coach was cold and full of smoke from a few considerate guys. As we find out later, smoking in public transport is a national hobby.
Finally, our destination city. After hanging around and figuring how to get to our hotel, we caught a taxi. Apart from the heat, we felt far too tired for public transport. After more than a month of travel, we took five nights asylum of Hilton Garden Inn Hi-Tech Zone in a city outskirt. Real backpackers, huh … 🙂 But it was a very decent hotel with a great breakfast. All for free because I utilised my Hilton Honor points collected in my former job. If you are expecting great details from the city, you don’t find it here. I suffered from heatstroke, and we stayed two days in the hotel and went just to an adjacent shopping mall. Xi’an itself is not so much charismatic anyway. Main highlights are the city walls, but we saw similar in Datong, and even for free. Besides, there was a bunch of tourists (fee 54 CNY).
The must-see is the Terracotta Army. It is crazy to imagine that someone wanted such a vast fake army that no-one should see anyway since it had been buried under the ground. The number of warriors is impressive. The same impressive as a number of Chinese visitors packed in the halls built over the exhibits. Beijing metro system in a peak hour looks half empty in comparison. To get to the army is simple. The bus number 306, which departs on the right side of the city train station (when facing the station) going straight to the place with few stops. You can buy a cheap ticket for 7 CNY on the bus. There were multiple buses per hour. Navigating to the entrance through the massive parking lot is easy. You can explore three halls (pits) with the warriors and a museum with nice (and also unrelated) expositions. We took it easy and spent 3 hours at the site (including hiding from rain). The way back was much more fun since for the bus there was a massive queue. It was both funny and pissing off to see Chinese people trying to skip the line. In the end, it was not so terrible, and after 40 minutes we had our seat. Problem with capacity was because of the traffic and the fact that no standing was allowed on the bus. All in all, it was a good trip, and despite the popularity of the place we did not consider it being a tourist trap or place to skip. Even the price of 150 CNY we found to be reasonable.
Travelling between the two cities gave us a chance to try the Chinese speed trains that are growing throughout the whole country these days. It was not cheap (263 CNY pp), but not overly expensive taking into account the distance and the speed. It is comfy, and we just slightly missed the speed of 300 km/hour.
Chengdu was our favourite city in China, and I wish we could spend more time there. It felt somehow laid back and relaxed compared to other ones. Center is modern and clean, and there are also few great parks and at least one cool museum for free (Chengdu city museum). The best thing to do is to go to one of the parks (we tried People’s) pick any of spacious outdoor teahouses and do nothing. Ordering tea is troubleless even without knowledge of any word in Mandarin. You only pick one kind of tea from the menu and pay directly to the serving lady. 13 Yuan was our cup of tea 😉 Then you will be served a cup with the tea leaves and a big thermos bottle with hot water to fill and refill. People are used to sitting there for hours, drink tea and consume even own snacks and other food.
And yes, panda
It is the pandas who we came to visit. There are multiple places to see them around Chengdu. In the end, we figured out the best is to visit Panda Research Base directly in the city since they have several animals. There is a direct bus from the Panda Avenue metro station. However, we were asked to pay an entrance fee to onboard the bus. It was quite a lot of money. A bit later I got quite scared that this could be just some kind of a scam. Luckily, the barcode worked for the entrance, and we even realised it was cheaper than buying a ticket at the main gate (53 CNY vs 58 CNY). Since nothing can be great forever, due to heat, all pandas (except one for a while) were hidden in pavilions, from which only three were open to see pandas through the glass. First, we went to one of the delivery houses. It seemed that everyone in the city wanted to see this. The queue was incredible, and we did it all just only because we could not see how the line is long. Baby pandas were awesome. Especially the tiny ones. They just lied on a table on their belly and unable or lazy to move. We recognised they are alive only by their occasional hiccuping. We saw one newborn in an incubator as well. A little bit later we realised there is also another delivery house with no queue at all. But whatever. Guides recommend going early to see pandas in action. And they are right, after an early lunch they get lazy and just lie or sit and do absolutely nothing. What a life 🙂