The Start of Our Trans-Mongolian Adventure!!!!

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We were both so excited on our last night in Beijing that we barely slept, knowing that the next day would start the first leg of our mammoth trek overland by train from China to Russia, through inner Mongolia (a semi-autonomous, traditionally nomadic, region of China), the Gobi Desert, the endless rolling grasslands of Mongolia (the country) and the Taiga of Siberia. There is something deeply romantic about train travel, and while so far our experience with Chinese trains had been a mixed bag, we were stoked at the idea of almost a week on board.

I had also forked out for ‘first class’ which means we would have a compartment to ourselves. While back in the day I travelled second or even third class in Russia and China and revelled in the social aspect of that – sharing vodka and cabbage cakes in Russia, and Tsingtao beer and noodles in China – this time I am older, have a child, and value my privacy more than making new friends I can’t communicate with apart from in the universal language of alcohol and food.

It was an early start on day one, and we shared a taxi with a couple heading to the train station amid the torrential rain. The taxi dropped us across the (6 lane) road from the station, so we had to haul our bags up the steps and across the pedestrian bridge in pouring rain, then muddle through the usual confusion about how exactly to get into the station, then clear security before entering the chaos that is Beijing (main) railway station. I think there are five stations in Beijing – Beijing North, Beijing South, Beijing West and (maybe?) Beijing East, but our tickets just said ‘Beijing Railway station’, which is not any of those but the ‘main’ station, but if you say ‘main’ station to anyone they will look confused then say ‘ah, you mean Beijing railway station’…

OK. We were in the right place so all was good.

Lauren went off to buy water, while I triple-checked the details on our tickets, and then suddenly there was a surge of people (I didn’t hear any announcement or see any staff, but everyone else seemed to know now was the time to queue) and we were carried along into a queue that led to (yet more) security and then the platform.

We easily found our compartment, and after dumping our bags headed back out to the platform for photos and to inspect the train that would be our home for 24 hours before a few days in Mongolia. We still had almost half an hour before departure, so we walked the length of the 16 carriages, enjoying the atmosphere of panic tinged with emotion as people rushed on board, waved to family, struggled with enormous bags, tried to find their places and chased after toddlers.

Our very swish compartment consisted of bunk beds plus an armchair and a tiny bathroom with our own toilet and shower. This was incredible luxury after our previous experiences. The toilet was also spotless and there was even paper and soap!!!!

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Soon enough we were underway – dead on time – and rolled through endless suburbs of Beijing before emerging into the countryside. We played Machi Koro (a game we’d be given by friends in the US) as the scenery unfolded – first mountains and then agricultural land dotted with grim looking villages of uniform housing blocks and not much else.

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For dinner, we braved the dining car, which had velvet covered seats and a kitchen set up with a series of gas rings and a chef juggling woks. We had a delicious meal of pork with peppers and a kind of sweet and sour pork dish, plus of course mifan (rice) which was the first word Lauren learned in Chinese. I treated myself to a beer and we hung out there for a while, until there was pressure for seats. As we made our way back to the compartment, we caught a spectacular sunset over the emptiness of Inner Mongolia. .

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That night we arrived at the border at around 10.30pm. We knew that the border crossing would be long and tedious – not only because of the formalities of immigration and customs, but because the gauge of the rails is different in China and Mongolia, meaning the wheels needed to be swapped.

Exiting China was relatively simple, if long. We could choose to spend the time in the station, or on the train, but as it was scheduled to be hours, we decided on the latter. This despite the fact that the toilets are locked for the whole time. They came round and inspected our passports and visas, carefully scrutinising our faces to see if they matched, then took them away for hours. Then customs came round, and poked desultorily around the compartment. Clearly we didn’t look like prime suspects for smuggling.

The train was then rolled into a huge shed. There was much jolting (sometimes violent enough to knock you off your feet) and back and forth which I assume was the removing of the dining car (when we tried to find it the next day it had gone) and possibly some other carriages. Then, we heard a hydraulic buzzing sound, and realised we were being lifted ever so slowly up in the air. It was pretty cool, and very smooth. We went to the end of the carriage and could see we had been separated from the next carriage, which was also being lifted up. Once all carriages were a good 2 metres in the air, held by sturdy metal hoists, the old wheels were rolled all the way under the train and out the end. Next, we watched as the new wheels were passed under us, until every carriage had a set. Then, they lowered us onto these wheels, and there was much bashing as I presume the wheels were attached. Finally, some safety guys came round and tested every wheel.

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Cue much more jolting and back and forth as everything was connected back together again, and eventually we backed up all the way to the station again, where those who had spent the time at the station were permitted to re-board, and someone came round to return our now stamped passports. Yay, we were out of China.

Next, we chugged along through no mans land (it was now about 1am) and Lauren went to bed. I figured they could look at her face sleeping just as well as awake, and she was fading after the excitement of the wheel change. I would have happily nodded off myself, but needed to stay awake for the border formalities on the Mongolian side.

These were straightforward, but again lengthy. Passports were taken away, a torch shone in the now-sleeping Lauren’s face, and customs lifted up my bed to check for contraband but didn’t bother with Lauren’s so as not to disturb her. Top tip for smugglers – borrow a kid.

After a seemingly interminable wait, we were finally allowed to close our doors and sleep around 3am, and the train left the border just before 4, when I finally fell asleep.

An hour and a half later I woke again, needing the loo, and caught the wonderful sight of the sun rising above the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. Exhausted as I was, I watched for a few minutes as the sand turned a beautiful golden colour, before once more collapsing into bed, this time for a good few hours.

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I woke to find Lauren eating breakfast and taking pictures of the desert.

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The desert eventually gave way to the rolling grasslands one imagines when thinking of Mongolia, with herds of horses and cows roaming and the odd Ger dotting the hillsides. The few stations and indeed towns we saw had more colour and beauty to them than the grim monstrosities in China.

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The train was scheduled to arrive in Ulaan Bataar around 2.30pm, and we were being met by friends with whom we would be staying. The plan was to go straight out into the countryside and spend the night out in the grasslands, in a traditional Ger. We decided to get a decent lunch before this, not knowing what dinner would be like (we hadn’t heard great things about Mongolian food).  Heading in the direction of the dining car – which had been adjacent to ours – we discovered it had gone. Eventually we found the new, Mongolian one – an ornate affair with polished carved wood seats and decorations, and sat down to wait for a menu.

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I caught the waiter’s eye, but he seemed busy and it wasn’t like we were in a rush, so we waited about 20 minutes. He then came over and told us ‘closed’ ‘sorry, closed’ and urged us to leave!!! We had arrived at 12.30, it was now 12.50, and lunch was supposed to be served until 13.30….  he wasn’t for changing his mind though, so with no ability to communicate in Mongolian, we did as we were told and left!

A miserable lunch of a shared pot noodle and some walnuts and seaweed followed.

China Reflections

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There was so much more we could have done in China and I would have liked to have stayed longer. For all its frustrations, China is a fascinating country with its own unique culture and way of looking at things. It challenges you to re-examine what you take from granted as ‘how things are done’ perhaps more than anywhere else in the world. I find it gruelling but incredibly interesting from a sociological point of view. Of course, there is much to dislike from a western standpoint, and the human rights situation is abhorrent. But with such a huge population and the deep psychological trauma of mass starvation within living history, plus hundreds of years of trying to keep the country together, it feels almost like the population as a whole has decided that it is willing to sacrifice freedom for stability.

Indeed, students of mine 14 years ago when I taught English for 6 months, told me that this is all tied up with Confucian approach to discipline and respect for hierarchy and sacrifice of the individual good for the collective. Not sure how true this is, and whether your average Chinese youth if given the choice would choose this way of living, but there you go. They aren’t given the choice.

Beijing, more than any other Chinese city I’ve been to, seems built to intimidate. The architecture itself seems deliberately massive and imposing. The roads are wide, the buildings tall and long and quite bare, open spaces enormous. Maybe I am projecting, but it feels like the city itself is designed to make sure you know your (lowly) place and that you, as an individual, are not important.

What could I possibly know after less than 3 weeks in the country, especially such a huge, varied and complex country where I don’t even speak the language. But it seems to me that the Chinese people have (in large part) been fobbed off with the latest brands and western goods (also, helpfully allowing the Chinese government to create a massive trade surplus with the west and stockpile dollars) giving a veneer of ‘freedom’ while real state control remains firmly in place. Walking down Beijing’s main shopping street there is every western brand available. People are better dressed and more fashionable (in the big cities, those with money) than in Paris or London or New York. There are Range Rovers and sports cars everywhere. A woman can dress in Gucci, drive a Porsche and carry the latest iphone. But the state still dictates how many children she can have, and when, and still blocks her access to most of the internet. It feels like the party has gone “hey, look, you can have all this lovely shiny stuff” and distracted those possibly most likely to rebel (young, urban, earning well) from demanding more than ‘stuff’. The buying frenzy seems strangely joyless… people are buying thousand dollar dresses with the same grim determination they elbow themselves onto the metro.

The conformism, the lack of outward displays of emotion, the seeming self-absorption, the feeling that the whole country is built for crowd control. I can’t say I like it, but I do find it fascinating.  Maybe if I stayed longer I would see beneath this façade…. Or I’d get arrested!

Perhaps luckily, we are now under time pressure to get to Europe for the start of Lauren’s school year, so after Beijing we jumped on the train for the first leg of our mammoth train journey to Moscow.

The Great Wall

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One of the key things Lauren wanted to do in China was, of course, visit the great wall. I had visited years before, when in China teaching English, but was more than happy to go again. There are various options for visiting from Beijing – the closest parts can be accessed by public transport and get ridiculously busy. This is also the Chinese summer holiday period, so I decided we would book a tour that could take us further out and get us there early. While it’s almost impossible to escape the crowds in China, I did want to at least be able to walk along the wall for a while in relative peace.

Another reason for choosing the part of the wall that we did is that it has a ski lift up to the top of the mountain, so you can concentrate on walking along the very steep great wall itself, and, best of all, a ‘toboggan ride’ down. The wall runs along the tops of mountain ridges, and I saw no need to exhaust ourselves on the way up and down if there were fun ways to get there instead.

We set off early in a minibus with a bunch of other tourists – a Dutch family with teenage girls, a couple from the US, a Spanish speaking couple and some young Chinese guys.

Once there we all split up. Lauren and I headed straight for the ski lift, which was great fun, if a little scary. Lauren freaked out about getting in while it was moving, but once safely in proceeded to shriek and squeal and say how amazing it was, while jiggling up and down in her seat. I just hung on and tried not to look down on the forest canopy below, telling her through gritted teeth to sit bloody still!!!

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Up…………

We decided to do the ‘arduous’ trek to a watchtower beyond which the wall had not been maintained. It was very arduous. Not that far really, but so steep that at times we were using our hands, and the relentless sun and almost 100 percent humidity was a killer. By the time we finally reached the last watchtower, I could wring the sweat out of my top, our eyes were stinging from the combination of suncream and sweat flooding them, and our knees were shaking. It was worth it though, if only to get away from the crowds who gave up halfway, and for the spectacular views over the surrounding mountains. It was a bit hazy (hence the humidity) but still, you could imagine being an ancient Chinese warrior looking out for barbarians coming from the North. Well, Lauren could. I just sat in the shade of the watchtower and tried to get my breath, sucking on a water bottle.

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Once somewhat recovered, we headed back – the steep steps almost as challenging on the way down as on the way up – and queued up for our ‘toboggan’ ride. This was really a small plastic cart with wheels, that ran down a metal slide, twisting and turning as it headed down the mountain. It felt very unstable, despite a rudimentary brake you could apply, and there were guys at most bends shouting at you to go faster or slow down. In Chinese, so I never knew which…..

There had been signs all over saying children ten and under had to be accompanied by an adult on a double cart, then when we arrived at the front of the queue, the guy just motioned Lauren into a cart and she was off, without a backward glance. After a moment’s hesitation I jumped in a cart and tried to catch up, but apart from the odd glimpse of her below me or the occasional ‘wheeeeeee….’ heard through the trees, that was it until we reached the bottom. The ride lasted about ten minutes, Lauren loved it, but I was just grateful to reach the end in one piece. There was no way I was taking pictures while I went, so we forked out for a picture at the booth at the end, so this is a picture of a picture….

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Once down, we treated ourselves to a stupidly expensive ice cream, then wandered among the stands buying our China ‘swag’ (we try to get a pin, a postcard and a magnet in each country) then reconvened with the group for a ‘traditional chinese meal’ at a local restaurant. This was most definitely a westerner-friendly Chinese ‘traditional’ meal though, with all dishes containing identifiable meat and vegetables, and no innards, insects or full chillies. Bland but tasty.

And that effectively concluded our time in Beijing, and in fact in China.

Acrobatics

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We have just come back from an incredible acrobatic show. Although to call it an acrobatic show is to suggest it was just circus tricks when this was in fact a dramatic, highly choreographed, highly professional show. All the beauty, colour, grace, joy, emotion and passion that seems missing from everyday life in China was up there on stage, and it felt like a release from a rather dour and grim Beijing.

I was really keen to take Lauren to a traditional acrobatic show, but unfortunately most of the more ’traditional’ ones had live animal acts, which we refuse to support. However, after a bit of research we decided to go to the Chao Yang theatre which had an animal-free acrobatic show.

It was absolutely incredible.

Not just the feats of strength, balance and group coordination – cartwheels on a tightrope, running around the outside of an enormous ‘hamster wheel’ 15 metres off the ground, without a rope and blindfolded, 12 girls on one bike cycling around the stage in various positions, gut wrenching contortionists, ten motorbikes zooming around a tiny contained space etc – but the graceful dancing, and the expression of emotion on stage. There was a story of sorts, which we didn’t really follow, but that in no way detracted from a brilliant experience.

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A fabulous afternoon, all the better for having been spent in the luxury of front row seats in an air-conditioned theatre out of the heat.

Beijing: Tienanmen and the Forbidden City (Take 2)

Not sure why my last post didn’t save.

Anyway, trying again…

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Thankfully the train from Xian to Beijing was relatively quiet, calm and peaceful. We shared a compartment with a couple from New Zealand, and for some reason the chaos of previous journeys was entirely absent – people got on, shut their doors and went to sleep.

Arriving bleary eyed in a new city and navigating the public transport system is always a challenge, but we worked the metro out and were at our guesthouse by 8am. They very obligingly gave us breakfast and let us into our room by ten. They also booked us tickets for the Forbidden City, and after a shower and short rest, we hit the metro again, this time in the direction of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Security in Beijing – and everywhere else we visited in China – was extremely tight – bag checks at every metro and train station, and even to enter Tiananmen Square. There were (of course) massive queues to get through the bag check and into the square, but we patiently joined the line and shuffled forward with the thousands of Chinese tourists and the odd foreigner.

I had briefed Lauren on the (infamous) history of the square beforehand, and shown her footage of the students facing off against the tanks, and of the famous ‘tank man’, who stood in front of the tanks and berated them, shopping bags in hand. Its all on youtube these days. Well, for those of us outside China or with a VPN. It amazes me how the Chinese government manages to maintain a complete media blackout about the events, and seem more and more paranoid about information getting out. 14 years ago it was incredible how they managed to keep a lid on it. These days, with so much social media and greater access to the West, its incredibly impressive and scary. According to Hong Kong media, pro democracy campaigners are forced to go on ‘vacation’ for the week before and after the anniversary, and the families of those who died are routinely harassed by police to this day. Local messaging app wechat blocks transfers of amounts of Yuan that could commemorate the events – so 64.89 or 89.64 for example (for 4th June, 1989).

Many years ago I was in China, teaching English on the anniversary. It was a rainy day and only one of my adult students turned up for the ‘conversation class’ at lunchtime. She immediately asked me if I knew the significance of the date, and I rather hesitantly acknowledged that I did. She then admitted she had been at the protests, as she was a student at the time. I was fascinated and should probably not have written all the vocab she needed up on the blackboard. When another student – this time 16, and as it turned out the daughter of an army officer – turned up late, I remember my board having the word ‘massacre’, ‘protest’, ‘tank’ and ‘democracy’ boldly written up.

Oops.

I got into a teeny bit of trouble for that.

So for now, Lauren and I did little more than acknowledge that this indeed was where such horrific events happened, and moved on to the safer territory of the ancient past, with a visit to the Forbidden City, home to a number of Emperors and Empresses in pre-communist days. Not that they dealt with protesters any more humanely….

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The buildings in the Forbidden City are huge, with vast open spaces of paved courtyards baking in the heat. We stuck to the edges trying to find some respite from the relentless sun and took a pragmatic approach to the visit – it would take all day to see all the Forbidden City has to offer (I know, I spent a day here years ago), but with the heat and the crowds we cherry picked what we really wanted to see, including the main outer courtyards where audiences would be held and business conducted, a few of the inner courtyards, the gardens and the treasury. The last was full of imperial ornaments, jewels and the accoutrements of royal life, and was thankfully inside away from the scorching sun.

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After about three hours we had seen what we wanted to and emerged at the north side (you enter in the south and exit in the north). Bizarrely for one of the most visited sites in China, it was impossible to hail a taxi close to the exit, the buses were too full to take new passengers, and we were a kilometre and a half from the nearest metro. In the end we decided to walk to the metro, stopping en route for cold water and trying our best to find shade. Beijing in summer is not for the fainthearted, and Lauren did a great job of persevering despite being hot and tired. We treated ourselves to non-chinese food for lunch (we really enjoyed a lot of the food but there is always a certain amount of stress as we never really know what we are ordering or eating, and it does get a bit much every day) and then holed up at the guest house and played board games the rest of the day.

The Terracotta Warriors

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The main reason for our trek inland to Xi’an was to see the famous terracotta warriors. Discovered (so the story goes) by a group of farmers in the 70s, the around 7000 life size terracotta sculptures were buried with emperor Qin Shi Huang around 210 b.c. so that they could protect him in the afterlife. Ancient documents suggest that this was a compromise as he originally wanted to take his actual army with him!

Each warrior has different facial features, and there are all sorts of different ranks and types of soldier – infantrymen, cavalrymen, archers, charioteers with their horses. Originally they were all painted and must have been an incredible sight. The paint however dissolves on contact with air, which is one reason only a few thousand have been uncovered – UK and German teams have been collaborating with Chinese scientists trying to come up with a way of preserving the paint.

Only one of the thousands was found a hundred percent intact – the vast majority were found more or less broken up, and a team or archaeologists works round the clock digging up and piecing together fragments. So what you see is restored/reconstructed figures, which in no way detracts from how impressive the terracotta army is, and photos cannot portray just how huge the site is, and how eerie it is to be facing thousands of these figures.

Whether or not it did the emperor any good in the afterlife, it has certainly contributed to the economy of the province and indeed the country, being one of the main tourist sites in China. Millions of tourists visit each year, and it felt like most went on the same day as us.

Knowing that it would get crowded and hot, we got up at 6.30, and were at the bus station for the first bus at 7.30, which got us there just as the gates opened at 08.30. Nonetheless, not one of the following photos were taken without recourse to elbows and firmly standing my ground amongst the crowds of mainly Chinese tourists.

There are three pits, the first is the most impressive and mainly populated with infantrymen, who have been placed in rows as they were back in old Qin Shi’s day. There is another pit mainly of archers and chariots, and then another where they have left the pieces much as they are uncovered, to show the state they are found in before the painstaking work of piecing them together.

Lauren is still learning that its OK to barge and push if others are doing so, but she is getting better – I saw her getting frustrated by being constantly elbowed out of the way and start to stand up for herself more. By 11 though we had seen enough and had enough of the crowds. The warriors are truly impressive, and worth seeing as while you can read about them, its hard to wrap your head round these being over 2000 years old, and on such a scale. It was also interesting to see some of the weapons, which had been plated with chrome, a technique not ‘discovered’ in Europe until the 1950’s.

We rewarded ourselves for an efficient and well planned visit, getting out as the tour guides (often numbering close to 100 people) streamed in, and took refuge in the air-conditioning of a café before heading back to Xi’an, for an afternoon of board games, rehydrating and nursing our bruises.

Xi’an

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After our last experience on an overnight train, I was slightly dreading the night train from Shanghai to Xian. Thankfully, we had one top and one bottom bunk so I could claim half the downstairs. The noise was nowhere near as bad, and while there were still screaming kids running up and down the corridors in the evening and again from 6am, our compartment was shared by a quiet guy and his 5-year-old son, who was reasonably well behaved. Despite sharing about 10 common words, Lauren and the boy spent most of the evening playing together, allowing the adults to shut the compartment door and retreat into books.

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I must say, whether it is a result of the one child policy (‘little emperor syndrome’), china’s new-found wealth or a simple cultural acceptance of noise and chaos, we have found children here to be spoilt brats and adults immensely tolerant of what we would consider bad behaviour. We have seen repeated instances of children running around and screaming, climbing on things with their shoes on, wrestling in public places, spitting at each other, not vacating seats for elderly people on the metro, and just generally being obnoxious. Obviously, we have seen a miniscule proportion of Chinese children – and all in urban settings – but we have both been quite shocked by the tolerance shown by adults to all this – what happened to China’s famous respect for elders?

Anyway, we made it to Xian reasonably well rested, and after a blissfully long and warm shower at the hostel, headed out to explore the city.

The heat and humidity were a constant, and we regularly dodged into cafés and stores to cool down. We headed to the twin towers of the city, which was China’s capital under a number of dynasties, and is considered the ‘start’ (or end, depending on your perspective) of the silk road. It is surrounded by some pretty impressive city walls, that have been extensively restored. The Drum tower functioned as a way to keep time, and the Bell tower to warn against invaders. We vetoed climbing them due to the heat and crowds and instead admired them from across the road then headed to the ‘muslim quarter’ where the best food was rumoured to be found.

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The Bell Tower
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The Drum Tower

Well, we certainly found some weird and wonderful dishes. First off we had some delicious but very spicy noodles – covered with a mixture of chilli, sesame sauce (a bit like tahini), soy and sesame seeds, topped off with a few handfuls of shredded cucumber, they brought all sorts of sensations to ones mouth – sweet and bitter, crunch and silky-smooth, cool and hot-hot-hot. Yummy.

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For dessert it could only be the multicoloured balls of something sweet dipped in liquid nitrogen, so that when you crunched into them they released ‘smoke’ from your nostrils and mouth. Great fun, although it took my tongue a good 24 hours to recover.

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We also tried all sorts of samples, often pressed into Lauren’s hands by stall holders. We managed to avoid some of the more exotic offerings, and Lauren bailed on trying Durian…. .

I was done, but Lauren finished off with a local version of crisps – on a very sharp stick that made eating them without poking your eye out a challenge.

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We headed back to the hostel quite early, tired after the overnight train and keen to get a decent night before our day with the terracotta warriors, the main purpose of our visit to Xi’an.