IN THE SPRING OF 1989, while on a month long tour in China, I saw Xi'an for the first time. The memory of its wide sunny streets, low rise buildings, terra-cotta sculpture and people in colorful clothes remained etched in my mind.
Returning to Chiangmai this winter with my husband, Harry, I convinced him and our close friend, Robert, that Xi'an and Luayang were worth visiting. A few years earlier we had enjoyed visiting Kunming the city of eternal spring.
We enlisted the expertise of Mrs. Tassanee Suvanish of Manit Travel. We decided to visit in the week following Chinese New Year. We flew on Bangkok Airways to Xi'an along with arrangements by Pink Rose Holidays to visit Luayang.
We checked out the internet for weather conditions and found out that we should expect snow, rain and some below freezing conditions. Considering that it was -21C in our home city of Toronto, we shrugged off the -2 to -4C and went off to buy some warm jackets at Chiangmai's Vorawote Market.
On the evening of February 14, we took the last Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. There we waited in the Bangkok Airways lounge for our 2.10 am flight to Xi'an. We found ourselves surrounded by a large group of Chinese returning from Haj in Mecca. Proof of the diversity of peoples that I remembered from my previous visit to the area.
At 7.00 am the next morning we landed at the new, modern airport in Xian. Our English speaking guide, Meilin or Lin, and a van driver were waiting for us. We were whisked off to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. On the way, we saw how well laid out modern Xi'an is. Wide roads, orderly vehicle, traffic, tree lined streets, modern large buildings, shops and public transportation. If I were to do this trip again, I would choose to return in the spring to walk the perimeter of the city wall, look at the shops, galleries amid the blossoming trees and flowers.
From there we headed to the Railroad Station to travel by "Soft Seat" to the city of Luayang. The station in Xi'an is, as to be expected in a city of 7 l/2 million, very hectic. After a few misdirections and a number of up and down staircases, we found our track and coach. The conductor showed us to our compartment which contained four berths. The lower ones doubled as seats. At the last minute a lovely, young Chinese woman joined us. Robert, who was still recovering from a cold, hoisted his 6' 1/2" frame to the top of the bunk to relax with a book. Harry and I had interesting conversation with Meilin whose English was excellent. This helped shorten the seemingly long trip. The countryside was very different than we had envisioned. We saw land among hills that looked liked packed clay, gullies with frozen water, snow and fields of winter wheat, fruit trees and vineyards. We passed caves hewn out of hard soil and turned into dwellings. The train went through tunnels and over high trestled bridges. Much of the power is generated from the abundance of coal in this area. We passed small villages but did not see many people up and about.
Our guide, another Lin, and driver were waiting for us at the station. This Lin also spoke English fluently.
Luayang is a city of 1.5 million as compared to more populated Xi'an. It was not a place designed for an empress so the layout is not as imposing. We had come here to see the Buddhist grottoes, the Shaolin temple and to view different scenery. Both of these sights were well worth walking up and down the hundreds of stairs we encountered.
At the Shaolin Temple mount we experienced a very soft, beautiful snowfall. The frosted Pagoda looked magical with the pine trees covered in snow. The pagodas where the Kung Fu master's remains are deposited stood solemnly to remind us of the great history of this place. A superb Kung Fu demonstration was performed by teachers and students.
Our last trip of the day was to the Buddhist Grottoes where we encountered past, present and future representations of Buddhas. The river location makes for a great walking site. After quite a number of stairs, we came to accept that the largest carving of Buddha was taller than 17 meters as announced. We gave up the last climb. No step machine workout can compare to the multitude of steps we ascended and descended. The accompanying scenery more than made up for the effort.
On the last morning in Luayang, we visited the cave dwelling of a 94 year old woman. She and her family were most welcoming. We could feel the serenity of this unusual habitat. That was the reason why, in spite of her age and small feet, from being bound as a child, she did not want to leave the place.
The return trip to Xian was shorter and the station less hectic. This time we found ourselves in a compartment with a couple from Tibet who were returning home from the coast. Now we were five. The conductor was very adamant as he pointed to one of the lowers berths and said, "One, two, three." Robert immediately ignored this directive and heaved himself up to the top bunk. His body acclimatized to living in tropical Chiangmai was ill prepared for the cold weather that Harry and I found cool and fresh.
Our first guide, Lin was waiting for us as we walked out of the station. Robert's mantra at all stops was, "Please ask the driver to put the heat on full blast." (He later conceded that upon returning home to Chiangmai he had played his best golf game.) That night we enjoyed the luxury of a five star hotel.
The next day after walking on the wall near the south gate, we had a fairly long drive to Huaquing Hot Springs where the emperor and his 3000 concubines resided for part of the year to enjoy the thermal waters. There is a larger than life statue of a beautiful sensuous empress who was the emperor's favorite and who occupied most of this time to the dismay of the court. She was apparently ‘rubbed out'. We managed to warm our hands by dunking them in one of the fountains.
On Saturday morning we woke up early to catch the 7.50 am flight to Bangkok. Due to fog in Thailand, the Bangkok Airways flight was delayed. We were sure that we would not be able to connect to our Thai Air flight to Chiangmai. After speaking to the ground crew, they quickly grasped our predicament and made arrangements for us to get of the plane first. Someone from Thai Airways would be waiting to whisk us through Immigration, collect our baggage and board our flight to Chiangmai.
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