China Part Five: Xi’an

In 1974, a farmer in the Lintong District, Shaanxi province near the city of Xi’an decided to dig a new well. Wells are pretty deep, so he goes down a bit of a way, and finds himself a relic that had been missing for almost 2,200 years.

The Terracotta Soldiers, or the Terracotta Army, were created as funerary art for the emperor Qin Shi Huang. They were intended to protect him in the afterlife. In the tradition of “overkill is underrated”, the Emperor went to the great beyond protected by over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 calvary horses. Though the soldiers were broken into several pieces, the archeologists have been able to reassemble thousands of the soldiers over the years, making Xi’an one of the great tourist traps of China with thousands of visitors daily.

For his troubles, the farmer was paid 40 yuan (around $4), and moved to another farm. Though today you can find him signing books in the gift store.
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Seeing the archeological site takes about three hours. You can get a shuttle from the parking lot to the complex, which takes about five minutes. It’s one-way though – in order to leave you have to walk through 20 minutes of gift shops and junk stores with people constantly hawking absolute crap at you from all angles. This wasn’t atypical of our Chinese experience – all of our stops were filled with the hawkers.

After the Terracotta Army (and its accompanying hawkers), there isn’t a whole lot left to Xi’an, except for maybe 50,000 empty apartments. For some reason, the Chinese government has taken it upon itself to build row upon row upon row of apartment building outside every major, semi-major and backwater burg in the country. Coming into the city from the airport, we saw at least 50 high-rise apartment buildings that were completely unoccupied. Figuring 20 floors with 50 units per floor…you do the math.

Anyway, we had a free afternoon. So before hitting up an 18 course dumpling dinner, we checked out some of the city sites.

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After 42 hours in Xi’an, we were heading to Beijing.

It started in the car. Our guide, let’s call him Barry, was pissed because we wouldn’t allow him to take our bags in a separate van, thus crowding all seven of us into a relatively small space with 18 days worth of luggage. He picked up one of our bags, and made a big show about how heavy it was. What follows is a rough paraphrase of our conversation.

Barry: “These bags are overweight.”
Me: “It’s cool; we’ll pay the fees.”
Barry: “Oh, no fees at the Xi’an airport.”
Me: “What do you mean, no fees?”
Barry: “Only 20 kilos per bag.”
Me: “So what happens after that?”
Barry: “That’s it. But don’t worry. I’ll call my friend. He’ll take us to the group check-in.”

So look, I’ve flown a few (thousand) times. I’ve flown on six contents. I’ve led groups of 30 or more through airports. At this point, I’ve taken a few flights within China. There’s two things I’ve never heard of: (1) A group check-in and (2) An airport (not an airLINE) that limits luggage without any fees. And I know for a fact that the Chinese airlines limit your bags to 22 kilos, not 20.

On this ominous note, we offloaded at the airport. Bags in tow, Barry led us directly past the airline check-in counter, and on a forced march throughout the entire terminal. At one point, we literally stopped next to an ATM and stood there for about five minutes waiting for Barry’s “friend”. I asked Barry again what we were doing – again, he told us about the mythical “group check-in” and assured us that this happened all the time. I asked him where the group check-in was located – he didn’t know.

At this point, I grabbed my stuff, turned around, and walked back to the airline checkin counter. Barry followed, acting completely confused. I told him we’d take our chances with the “regular” check-in desk, then just stared at him until he shut up. When we were close to the front, Barry’s friend made his appearance. At least a year away from his first shave, this kid wore baggy jeans, a dirty t-shirt complete with bed-head and NO AIRPORT ID. At this point, Barry tried to grab our bags and pull us out of line. I just starred. The friend vanished.

Finally we reached the check-in desk, and the very first thing I did was dropped our heaviest bag (not the one Barry had picked out, BTW) right onto the scale. It registered 23.2 kilos – over the limit no matter who was right. The clerk didn’t bat an eye – even when Barry pressed the scale down and artificially added nearly 3 kilos to the total. With the scale now topping 25, the bag was sent on to security, along with all of our other bags. No problem.

I wondered then, and still wonder now, how many people fell for Barry’s scam. You can see how this works. He brings the luggage in a separate car, telling you he’ll take care of the bags. Right as you’re going to go through security, Barry runs up to you, ashen face, and tells you your bags are overweight and the airport (again, not the airline) won’t allow the bags on the plane. But, Barry’s friend can take care of you…if you “take care of” him. Cash changes hands, all of a sudden you’ve bribed an airport official…and who knows what happens next.

Another traveler’s rule folks: never, ever let anyone separate you from your luggage. And try not to bribe anyone.

Back on Thursday with the final China blog: Beijing. The Great Wall. The Forbidden City. And a fuckload of traffic.