(See, I told you I was having trouble thinking of an X. Blame B3TA's Rob Manuel and his Buffy Swearing Keyboard for the inspiration.)
I've been back in China for nearly a week now, and things I'd forgotten since my last visit 16 years ago are just starting to come back to me now. Things like how the Chinese, for all their loveliness in so many other areas, are quite simply the worst drivers I've encountered anywhere in the world. (And I've been to Italy.) Or the endless palaver of getting travellers' cheques cashed here - though thankfully, several Chinese banks have Cirrus network ATMs now. Or, most of all, the way that as a foreigner, you're simultaneously the most visible and least visible person in town. People will either stare at you or greet you warmly in the street, but when you're in a queue they'll barge right through you as if you're not there.
This last point came to mind at either end of our overnight sleeper train journey from Beijing to Xi'an. (Like a log, since you ask.) On our departure, we had to battle our way through a minor encampment of people apparently living on the station forecourt. The scene on our arrival was chaotic in a different way, with hordes outside Xi'an station either waving namecards because they were waiting for you, or carrying tourist maps because they were looking to sell them to you.
Happily, Tracey was one of the former. Our local guide for Xi'an had a strong knowledge of history and a cracking selection of anecdotes. She got us all on her side straight away with the story of how she chose her English name: she thought Tracey sounded nice, and its syllables were equally straightforward for both Chinese and English speakers to say. However, she nearly changed her mind a couple of years ago after an English tour party told her that "Tracey is a bad name in London."
Xi'an's a city with centuries of history behind it. Currently, it's also a building site, as it's all being dug up for the construction of a new subway network. Our hotel for this short stay - the City Hotel Xi'an - was conveniently central, and served a smashing buffet breakfast into the bargain. (If you had to find a fault with them, it would be their belief that three sheets of toilet paper is all the human arse needs to get through the day.) The central part of the city can easily be covered on foot from the City Hotel, and it's hard to get lost because that centre is surrounded by 14km of city wall, the longest unbroken one in China. Some of the more energetic members of our tour group took bike rides all the way round the top of the wall, but The Belated Birthday Girl and I were happy to make do with a quiet stroll along a small section and back again.
All the history in Xi'an is well and good, but it does mean that quite a bit of the city hasn't changed all that much since I was last here in 1993. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is still big and wild: the Muslim Quarter remains an oasis of calm in the middle of a frenzied market area. And if my 1993 video of it is anything to go by, the Tang Dynasty Show is much as it always was, albeit with a few minor tweaks. Preceded by a scrummy 20-course dumpling banquet (at least in the package we paid for), the show itself is an hour of Westerner-friendly music and dance from the Tang Dynasty period. The set designs have got a little more Pierre et Gilles since 1993, somehow making gaudy pastels a valid colour combination: but it's still all fun to listen to and look at, even if (like us) you appear to be sharing a table with a triad member who's conducting dodgy deals on his phone all through the quiet numbers.
The Chinese people may change - Tracey had a lovely story about how their dream has evolved from watch/radio/bike in the 1970s, via fridge/washer/TV in the 80s, to today's wishlist of car/apartment/passport - but they always keep a strong sense of their history. Which is probably why Xi'an's biggest draw, the Terracotta Warriors, still has such an appeal. Surprisingly, this is one of the few things that has changed dramatically since my last visit. Back in 1993, they'd discovered one major batch of warriors, and still weren't quite sure how safe they were: so all photography was banned, except for an overlit hall featuring half a dozen dispensible warriors in glass cases.
Today, it's all very different. There are now three halls of excavated warriors in total, and you can take as many pictures as you like as long as you don't use a flash or tripod. (Inevitably, you still get a couple of dickheads who will insist on using both.) There's also a separate exhibition of replica chariots, and a cheesy old film documenting the history (also available to buy on DVD), but the warriors are the only real reason for being there. As was the case in 1993, our visit was preceded by a call to a factory that makes replica terracotta warriors - a David Beckham warrior was being sculpted there at the time, apparently commissioned by a football club and not by his missus like you'd think. There were some concerns that seeing the replicas first would detract from the real thing: but trust me, the real thing is too good for that even to be a possibility.
The terracotta warriors are a major tourist attraction, so you've got to fight through several hundred yards of stalls and vendors on the way out, each with their distinctive cry of "hello, [insert name of product here]". (Best one I've heard so far this holiday was an old gran calling "hello, peach." You're not my type, darlin'.) And yet our tour guide D managed to top one of the acknowledged wonders of the tourist world shortly after our visit, with an excursion added at the last minute to fill a few hours between the Warriors and the plane out.
The Han Yang Ling Museum is an imperial burial place along the same lines of the Terracotta Warriors, but one that somehow hasn't made it into the guidebooks. Again, the tombs have been filled with terracotta figures, these ones smaller than life size. They were originally dressed in silks and given carved wooden arms: two thousand years has made them all naked and stumpy, but otherwise intact. They're also accompanied by a whole array of clay animals, not just the horses you get with the Warriors.
Where the Han Yang Ling Museum really scores is with its excavation hall: it has a glass ceiling, which you can walk over and look down directly at where the figures were found. It's a fabulous perspective that gives you something the more famous tombs can't. A fun hologram history show wraps it all up at the end, even if the headphone translation doesn't always work. It's a perfect companion to the Terracotta Warriors, and all the better for only a few people apparently knowing about it. Um, maybe you should just forget I said all that.
We only spent a day and a half in Xi'an, but you can see we covered all the tourist bases with ruthless efficiency. The one bit of weirdness came on the bus back from the Tang Dynasty show, which we had to share with another Explore tour group. They were doing a China tour in the exact opposite direction to us, and Xi'an was where we met in the middle - they were asking us what the overnight sleeper train would be like, as that was their next port of call. It was a bit like being in a science fiction film and bumping into a parallel universe version of ourselves. Still, we won't be seeing them again. Or will we?