After all the China posts, we move on – this post is about a different wall. In commemoration of the Berlin Wall’s 50th year, Two Vacations A Year drops in the German capital to provide mini-itineraries and things to do on a short trip. I was in Berlin for a weekend only, and was fully aware that the city is one of the most electric parts of Europe that I will not be able to give it justice if I try to fit in everything on a short trip. Top 3 priorities for my Berlin visit: avant-garde architecture, all-night parties, and a trip to the Berlin Wall.
Whilst pieces of the wall remain scattered around the city, I’d recommend heading over to east side Berlin to view a 1.3 km remnant of the wall that was transformed into one of the world’s largest open-air art gallery. The East Side Gallery features a collection of murals from over 100 artists painted on the wall. They represent a varied set of perspective to reflect the sentiments from the Berlin Wall era, from construction, to operation, and finally its dismantling.
Not only wall-related graffiti can be seen, but other political themes during the 60s are on display as well. Including the popular Bruderkruss, from the popular photograph communist leaders Brezhnev and Honecker kissing to celebrate the 30 years of the German Democratic Republic.
The people of Berlin have requested to respect the murals, its 2009 restoration was not only to renew the artworks from damage caused by the elements, but also from rampant vandalism.
End your trip by heading out to Karl Marx Allee, a couple of blocks east of Muhlenstrasse to see what the proletariat buildings from Communist Germany look like. Wide avenues, with quiet traffic, and a more tempered atmosphere for Berlin. More blast from the past? Take a ride at their subway, its architecture and detailing mirror the styles of the buildings that surround it.
To be honest, the main reason I ended up choosing Xian was to visit the Terracotta Army and climb Mount Huangshan, one of China’s holiest mountains. However, this trip was meant to be completed within three days, so I had to forgo the ascent. Next time. If you’re heading to Xian you’re probably off to see the army anyway.
The actual terracotta Army dig site isn’t in the city proper – take the buses right outside Xian train station (Xian huoche zhan). Travel time is a 80 minutes. Warning – if you’re heading to the Terracotta army, make sure you get off at the last stop (marked by a market and lots of souvenir shops). Additional warning – the ticket office is a good kilometer’s walk from the actual exhibition area. Don’t worry, there are plenty of shops to distract you along the way.
The army was constructed on the belief that the emperor needed protection after his death. From the looks of it, Emperor Qin made a lot of enemies to warrant that many bodyguards. A lot of enemies. There are archers, footmen, chariot drivers, infantry officers…sure tyrants and dictators back in the day were pretty bad ass, but Mr Q really pissed off a lot of people. I wonder if they have a diplomatic corps buried somewhere there as well…
Each warrior is uniquely detailed, so it is impressive how much time was spent in creating this army. And when you consider that there are three viewing pits, the largest at the size of an aircraft hangar, you wonder how much time was actually needed to do this. But then again, these are the same people who did the Great Wall, so in perspective, creating the army was considered as a ‘hobby’. Excavation is still ongoing in various parts of the complex, so it is possible that in the future more viewing pits will be constructed and opened.
For a bit of fun, there’s a facility you can use to get a Terracotta Warrior in your own likeness. I knew this yoohoo looked a bit too familiar…
All in all a good day – there’s not a lot to do at the Terracotta Army, look at several holes in the ground, pick up a few souvenirs, that’s it. Whole deal should take you 4 hours tops, including the travel time, so there’s enough room to mish-mash the things you want to do in your Xian itinerary (see previous posts!).
If you had only one night to spend in Xian, I would ask you to skip the fancy Chinese restaurants with their elaborate lauriats and cultural shows. Instead, I invite you to have a bowl of piping hot noodles at your neighbourhood shop, plop onto a low stool with a couple of skewers lamb, beef and chicken, and down them all with the mighty bai ju.
Take time out to say hi to your neighbouring table – they most probably won’t speak a word of English, but they’re usually friendly to visitors. There’s also this drinking game you can play – the name escapes me but it involves dice shaking followed by swills of drinking. It’s educational too, see how far you can go and say numbers in Mandarin.
And if you can do it right near the city center where the Bell and Drum Towers are in view, that would be just plain awesome. The Bell Tower rang at dawn, signalising the opening of the city walls, and the Drum Tower beat at sunset to indicate their closing. You can start the evenings with beating drums, and enjoy the night with bai ju and games while waiting for the Bell Tower to signal the start of a new day.
For this blog’s first destination, I sneaked out this summer with a trip to China. This little venture would be manageable for a 3-day visit, packing in all the important sights, and a quick hop to the Terracotta Army. Will talk about the that on the next article. Instead, this post is all about Xian and the city center.
My other previous trips to China were limited to the major cities and their nearby places; this was the first time I was heading into the “main” mainland. So, after 12 hours on a hard seat on the train to Shaanxi province, I was in Xian. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad – the hard seat wasn’t a plank of wood, my two other seatmates weren’t bobbing their heads sideways while drooling. Looks like I set my expectations too low. If you’re taking the plane to Xian Xianyang airport (airport code XIY), get ready for a long drive into town.
As you exit Xian train station, you will be greeted by the city center’s main draw – its walls. The train tracks run along the northern wall and offer a glimpse of what activities you can do in town. Not to be missed is to bike along the walls. The whole loop will take about an hour and a half – but surely you can have it a more leisurely pace. If you time the visit to the walls properly, you can get to see the changing of the guards in elaborate costumes – just like watching the terracotta army in real life.
Xian is also the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road and serves as the intersection of Chinese and Muslim culture. The Great Mosque isn’t all that great to be honest, but take time out to marvel at how the minarets were blended with the pagodas in this very distinct architecture. As with most fusion results – the proof is in the pudding, or food. Take a walk around the Muslim Quarter and have the finest skewers of lamb, goat and beef wonderfully peppered with cumin to go along with your flat bread. Yum!
Now I’m hungry – looks like I have to continue this post on Xian on the next article.