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Thursday, April 11, 2024

The China Trip: Xi'An

The flight time between Singapore and Xi'An is about 5.5 hours, still bearable for me to fly on Scoot. Weather in April could still be fairly cold at night, so some of us wore jackets the moment we landed in Xi'An after midnight. The airport is old, the immigration queue was quite long and we still had to fill in the form manually before we had our passport stamped. 

Supper at Xi'An Airport.

The first thing we did was having supper. Mine was a bowl of cold kway teow, a local delicacy that tasted fine. Soon after that, we made our way to hotel by taking three cabs. Note that the taxi trunk is rather small here, so big luggages couldn't fit in. As a result, one was sitting on front seat like a passenger, hehe.

Fairfield Hotel booked by Andiyanto was nice. It sported a modern design and, most importantly, the water was hot enough for showering in cold weather. Beiyuan Metro Station was about 12 minutes away from our hotel and our first destination for our first morning in Xi'An was the Bell Tower. The admission tickets were cheaper if purchased together with the Drum Tower, so we did exactly that using Alipay.

With Gunawan at Fairfield Hotel. 
Photo by Surianto.

Talk about Alipay, it's crazy how things changed. When I visited China with my wife in 2018, cash and credit cards were still widely accepted. Six years later, Alipay and WeChat Pay are the way to go. Cash is still usable, but you can sense that people are accepting cash reluctantly as if it's a source of inconvenience. It's either scanning or being scanned now, and it works like a charm. 

Transactions are very much seamless, but they aren't without problems. China's domestic market must be so big and self-sustainable that foreigner's needs seemed to be treated like an afterthought. We struggled ordering Luckin Coffee and Taco Bell because they had to be ordered from the app. You use Alipay, scan the QR code and only God knows what will happen next.

The high school friends at the Bell Tower in China!

Back to Bell Tower, most of the notes were written in Chinese. Apart from feeling the ancient Chinese atmosphere, it was hard to appreciate the history as most of us didn't understand Chinese. We stayed mostly for photo taking, then moved on to the next destination. There were shops along the way. The ladies and Captain would check them out passionately, so it took us a while to gather and enter the Drum Tower. Those who waited ended up eating the cuttlefish and mutton skewers instead.

Andiyanto and Gunawan in Hui Muslim Quarter. 

As the second of two similar attractions, Drum Tower lacked the element of surprise. We didn't stayed long there. Right next to it was Hui Muslim Quarter. As it offered varieties of snacks and food, we spent more time exploring the street. As a matter of fact, we walked to and fro multiple times! We returned one last time to visit Gao's Grand Courtyard, which wasn't as grand as advertised, then walked back to the metro station and headed to the City Wall. 

It was a city fortified by the wall, all right. It is 14 KM long and upon knowing this, we agreed that we should look for the nearest exit, haha. Once we were outside, I fired up the map to check our location. But between the unreliable Google Maps and Amap that has everything written in Chinese, I couldn't quite figure out where the nearest metro station was, so we walked back to where we came from. 

Our mala flavoured dinner. 

We stopped a while for a good mala flavoured dinner, then resumed our journey and walked on the side of the canals to Yongningmen Station. Prior to entering the pathway, we saw the sign saying that the opening hours was up until 7pm only, but we simply ignored it, thinking that it wasn't to be taken seriously. Much to our surprise, the fence was really locked, so we had to climb over it like some unruly locals. It was our second time in a day, haha. As we left, the City Wall lighted up, giving us a lasting majestic impression from afar. 

Along the canals.
Photo by Andiyanto. 

The next day, we went to the Terracotta Army. We alighted at Banpo Metro Station at first, but it happened to be a wrong move. We hopped on to the metro again and dropped off at Fangzhicheng this time. The attraction counter was right there. After a quick ticket purchase, we followed the guide's flag to the shuttle bus and off we went for our destination of the day.

When we arrived, I was immediately reminded again with one thing that isn't seen elsewhere: the fact that China is indeed colossal and spacious. I don't recall seeing a bigger crowd queuing to enter an attraction before. My poor friend Jimmy happened to post a picture of people lining up to enter Malaysia at the same time, but it was so dwarfed in comparison that his photo felt almost like a joke.

Visiting Pit 1. 

But funny that the Pit 1 of the Terracotta Army wasn't as big as what many of us had in mind. It was like Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The actual size was smaller than one would have imagined. And after Pit 1, the other two pits looked unimpressive. We left around 2pm and had two rounds of late lunches: first we had the noodles, then we immediately went for McD

Eating hotpot.
Photo by Andiyanto.

We walked around and browsed the shops in the area until late in the afternoon, then we returned to Fangzhicheng. Earlier today, we passed by a shopping mall while heading to the bus, so we intended to explore and have our dinner there. As we split into two groups, I had hotpot with Andy and Ezra. Our Captain, who was already sick of mala, was happy with steamed egg for dinner. Before we left the mall, he aptly summed up another thing about China: the pungent smell of urine stank to high heavens, just like the wasabi going up the nose, haha. 

Captain China and his steamed egg.

The last day in Xi'An started at the Xi'An North Railway Station. We bought the tickets to Chengdu at the counter and apparently nine passports from two different countries were quite overwhelming that the officer chased away the rest of the people in the queue and closed the counter to serve us only. 

Our outdoor lunch. 
Photo by Gunawan.

From there, we went to Daming Palace. We had hotpot and BBQ for our lunch. It was unplanned, but turned out to be really nice. It's not everyday we could have an outdoor lunch together in China. But other than that, the park and the museum were quite a letdown, so we moved on to the next destination.

The Temple of Eight Immortals isn't exactly near to the metro station, so we had to walk and Google Maps brought us to the middle of nowhere. I was forced to use Amap and I slowly got the hang of it. Apart from the fact that you have to use Chinese, the map is pretty accurate and unlike Google Maps, the metro stations can be seen on Amap, too. 

Lawrence at Temple of Eight Immortals. 

The temple itself is quite old, but well maintained. Some who believed in Taoism paid their respect. After a glimpse of the Eight Immortals, we continued our journey from Changlemen to Datang Furongyuan Metro Station. There was a shopping mall across the street and we had a quick bite there, then entered the Tang Paradise.

The Paradise's main attraction was an enormous palace by the side of the river. It was so grand and nicely lit, a splendor of China, one that we would fondly remember about Xi'An. How do I know that? Because we walked out in awe and even though Giant Wild Goose Pagoda already closed by the time we got there, we could simply conclude that the Tang Paradise was a fitting end for our time in Xi'An...

At Tang Paradise.
Photo by Gunawan. 

PS: I love the picture taken by Surianto at the Tang Paradise. It captured the moment perfectly. Here were two strangers, Ezra and Angela, who never knew each other before they met in Xi'An. Even though life would bring them apart again very soon and probably for the rest of their lives, they could always look back one day and remember this very moment, that once upon a time when they were young, there was this moment of togetherness in Xi'An. It was a beautiful moment that was liberated and immortalized by Surianto from the time that only moves forward. I told him that I would call the picture we will always have Xi'An...

We will always have Xi'An. A photo by Surianto. 

Liburan ke Cina: Xi'An

Penerbangan dari Singapura ke Xi'An berdurasi sekitar 5,5 jam. Terasa lumayan bila ditempuh dengan maskapai Scoot. Cuaca di bulan April cukup dingin di malam hari, jadi beberapa di antara kita pun mengenakan jaket saat mendarat di Xi'an di tengah malam. Bandaranya sudah tua, antrian imigrasi cukup panjang dan kita masih harus mengisi formulir kedatangan sebelum paspor dicap. 

Santap malam di Bandara Xi'An.

Kita makan malam setelah melewati imigrasi. Yang saya pesan adalah semangkuk kwetiau dingin, menu lokal yang ternyata cukup enak. Setelah itu, kita menuju hotel dengan tiga taksi. Perlu diketahui bahwa bagasi taksi di Cina sangat sempit sehingga koper besar pun tidak bisa masuk. Alhasil, koper Angela duduk seperti penumpang di kursi depan, hehe. 

Fairfield Hotel yang dipesan Andiyanto tergolong bagus. Desainnya modern dan lebih penting lagi, air panasnya berfungsi dengan baik di kala mandi. Setelah berisitirahat, kita menuju ke stasiun Metro Beiyuan berjarak kira-kira 12 menit jauhnya dari hotel. Destinasi kita di pagi pertama di Xi'An adalah Menara Bell. Tiket masuknya lebih murah bila dibeli bersama Menara Drum, jadi kita pun beli sepaket dengan menggunakan Alipay. 

Bersama Gunawan di Fairfield Hotel.
Photo oleh Surianto.

Bicara tentang Alipay, perubahan di Cina sungguh pesat. Ketika saya ke Cina bersama istri di tahun 2018, uang kontan dan kartu kredit masih dipergunakan secara luas. Enam tahun kemudian, Alipay dan WeChat Pay adalah sarana pembayaran utama. Uang tunai masih bisa dipergunakan, tapi ada kesan bahwa orang Cina agak enggan menerima karena tidak praktis. Sekarang caranya adalah memindai atau dipindai dan semuanya pun berjalan lancar. 

Transaksi dengan cara ini bukanlah tanpa masalah. Pangsa pasar domestik di Cina sangatlah besar sehingga kebutuhan turis asing tak ubahnya seperti prioritas kedua. Kita mengalami kesulitan memesan Luckin Coffee dan Taco Bell karena harus dipesan dari aplikasi. Alipay digunakan untuk memindai kode QR dan apa yang terjadi selanjutnya tidak bisa kita prediksi. 

Bersama teman-teman SMA di Menara Bel.

Kembali ke Menara Bel, hampir semua penjelasan ditulis dalam bahasa Mandarin. Selain atmosfir Cina kuno yang masih terasa, sukar bagi kita yang tidak mengerti Mandarin untuk memahami sejarahnya. Kita hanya melihat-lihat dan berfoto, lalu beranjak ke destinasi berikutnya. Ada banyak toko di sepanjang jalan. Para wanita dan Kapten pun masuk dan melihat apa yang kiranya bisa dibeli, jadi butuh waktu bagi kita untuk berkumpul lagi dan mengunjungi Menara Drum bersama. Yang menunggu pun akhirnya makan sate sotong dan kambing dulu.

Andiyanto dan Gunawan di Daerah Muslim Hui. 

Sebagai tempat tujuan kedua dari atraksi yang hampir serupa, Menara Drum tak lagi menarik setelah kita melihat Menara Bel. Kita tidak lama di sana. Tepat di sampingnya adalah Daerah Muslim Hui. Tempat ini menawarkan aneka makanan dan jajanan, jadi kita bolak-balik di sana. Kali terakhir kita berjalan ke ujung adalah untuk mengunjungi Rumah Keluarga Gao yang tidak terlihat sebagus promosinya. Selanjutnya kita kembali ke stasiun metro dan menuju ke Benteng Kota. 

Sesuai namanya, kota ini dibentengi dengan tembok tebal sepanjang 14 KM. Setelah mengetahui hal ini, kita langsung mencari tempat keluar terdekat, haha. Sesudah berada di luar, saya mencari tahu lokasi keberadaan kita, namun Google Maps tidak bisa diandalkan dan Amap hanya memiliki bahasa Mandarin, jadi saya tidak tahu di mana posisi stasiun metro terdekat. Akhirnya kita berjalan kembali ke arah semula. 

Makan malam berbumbu mala.

Kita sempat berhenti sejenak untuk makan menu berbumbu mala, lalu meneruskan perjalanan melalui tepi kanal menuju Stasiun Yongningmen. Sebelum memasuki tepi kanal, sempat terlihat papan pengumuman bahwa akses hanya sampai jam tujuh malam. Karena kita berada di Cina yang terkesan santai, kita abaikan petunjuk tersebut. Sampai di ujung jalan, ternyata pagarnya dikunci tepat waktu! Kita akhirnya memanjat pagar untuk kedua kalinya di hari yang sama, trik yang kita pelajari dari orang lokal sewaktu berada di Menara Drum, haha. Saat kita menjauh, Benteng Kota menyala terang di malam hari, memberikan kesan megah dari kejauhan. 

Di sepanjang kanal.
Foto oleh Andiyanto.

Di hari berikutnya, kita berangkat ke Museum Pasukan Tanah Liat. Awalnya kita turun di Stasiun Banpo, tapi kembali lagi ke metro setelah menyadari rumitnya naik bis kota. Kali ini kita turun di Fangzhicheng. Loket atraksi tepat berada di sana. Setelah membeli tiket bis, kita mengikuti bendera pemandu menuju bis pariwisata. 

Saat tiba di Museum Pasukan Tanah Liat, saya jadi ingat lagi dengan satu hal yang tidak terlihat di negara lain: fakta bahwa Cina itu luas dan kolosal. Rasanya saya tidak pernah melihat antrian seramai itu. Di saat yang sama, teman saya Jimmy kebetulan mengunggah foto antrian di perbatasan Malaysia, tapi fotonya jadi terlihat seperti lelucon. 

Di Lokasi 1 Pasukan Tanah Liat.

Tapi lucu juga rasanya bahwa Lokasi 1 dari Pasukan Tanah Liat ternyata tidak seluas yang kita bayangkan. Kesannya mirip Mona Lisa di Museum Louvre. Ukuran sebenarnya lebih kecil dari imajinasi kita. Setelah Lokasi 1, dua lokasi berikutnya terasa kurang menarik. Kita meninggalkan museum sekita jam dua sore dan mencari makan siang. Menu pertama adalah mie lokal yang kemudian segera disusul dengan burger Mcd

Makan sabu-sabu.
Foto oleh Andiyanto.

Kita berjalan di kawasan museum sampai hari menjelang senja karena banyak yang bisa dilihat dan dibeli di sana, lalu kembali ke Fangzhicheng. Sewaktu berjalan menuju bis di pagi hari, kita melewati mal, jadi kini kita ingin menjajaki dan makan malam di sana. Rombongan sempat terpisah menjadi dua grup, jadi saya, Andi dan Ezra makan sabu-sabu. Kapten Gunawan yang sudah muak dengan rasa mala sangat senang bisa menyantap telur kukus. Sebelum kita meninggalkan mal, Kapten berkomentar satu hal tentang Cina: bau kencing di WC sungguh menyengat di hidung, rasanya persis seperti saat memakan wasabi, haha. 

Kapten Cina dan telur kukus.

Hari terakhir di Xi'An dimulai dari Xi'An North Railway Station. Kita membeli tiket ke Chengdu di loket dan ternyata sembilan paspor dari dua negara sepertinya membuat petugas stres dan gusar. Dia langsung membubarkan antrian di belakang kita dan menutup tirai loket untuk fokus ke pesanan kita saja, hehe. 

Makan siang di tempat terbuka.
Foto oleh Gunawan.

Dari stasiun, kita ke Istana Daming. Di taman, kita menyantap sabu-sabu dan BBQ. Ini tidak termasuk dalam rencana perjalanan, tapi tetap berkesan. Tidak setiap hari kita bisa bersantai di Cina dan pesta di taman bersama teman-teman. Akan tetapi taman dan museum Daming tidaklah begitu mengesankan sehingga kita pun bergegas ke destinasi berikutnya. 

Kuil Delapan Dewa tidaklah dekat dengan stasiun Metro, jadi kita harus berjalan dan Google Maps membuat kita tersesat. Saya terpaksa menggunakan Amap dan perlahan-lahan saya mulai mengerti cara menggunakannya. Sebenarnya Amap cukup akurat dan stasiun metro pun terlihat di peta. Kuncinya adalah mencari lokasi dalam bahasa Mandarin. 

Lawrence di Kuil Delapan Dewa.

Kuil ini sendiri sudah sangat tua, tapi cukup terawat. Mereka yang percaya Taoisme pun berdoa. Setelah melihat Delapan Dewa secara sekilas, kita lanjut berjalan dari Changlemen ke Stasiun Datang Furongyuan. Ada mal di seberang jalan dan kita pun bersantap di sini, lalu masuk ke Tang Paradise.

Atraksi utama dari Tang Paradise adalah istana raksasa di tepi sungai. Rancangannya sungguh menakjubkan dan bercahaya pula di malam hari. Benar-benar menunjukkan keindahan budaya Cina dan meninggalkan kesan yang mendalam tentang Xi'An. Bagaimana saya bisa tahu? Ini karena kita keluar dari Tang Paradise dengan perasaan puas. Meski Pagoda Angsa Besar sudah tutup saat kita tiba di lokasi, kita masih berpendapat bahwa Tang Paradise adalah akhir yang mengesankan dari petualangan kita di Xi'An... 

Di Tang Paradise.

Catatan kaki: saya suka foto yang diambil oleh Surianto di Tang Paradise. Fotonya berhasil mengabadikan sebuah momen dengan sempurna. Dua insan muda yang asing satu sama lain ini bertemu di Xi'An dan walau perjalanan hidup akan memisahkan mereka lagi, mungkin untuk selamanya, mereka bisa melihat kembali suatu hari nanti dan mengenang bahwa suatu ketika di kala mereka masih muda, ada masa kebersamaan di kota Xi'An. Momen yang indah ini berhasil dibebaskan dan diabadikan oleh Surianto dari belenggu waktu yang terus bergerak maju. Di malam itu juga saya katakan pada teman saya ini bahwa fotonya akan saya beri nama we will always have Xi'An...

We will always have Xi'An, sebuah karya Surianto.

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