24 - A visit to Spa

I have been saving the exploration of the sights of Xi’an for when visitors arrive and as such have probably been seen as distant, possibly rude and certainly independent of the others. On asking Petal about things I have not been to see, she recommended a visit to the hot springs. Thus it was that on the way to the Terracotta Warriors the chauffeur (¥350 per diem for nice car and driver) stopped and ushered us (myself and guest) across the car park for tickets. It was only when we passed through the gateway that I realised this was not the Terracotta Warriors as arranged. I knew we were in the region, for we had gone the right way, north east, out of town. This was too close to the mountains and behind the gorgeous roofs so stereotypical of the China one expects to see. The hills rose out of the back of the hot spring QingHua estate (for that is where we were) like knees out of the bath. On exploring, we discovered a cable car; mutually encouraging each other to be adventurous and both keen to go upwards after months of flat, we took the cable car up the hill. This took us from 350m to around 550m and certainly up the first really steep part of the hill. We did find a path visible but understood then why the guy selling tickets thought we would not manage the climb, since it was largely under snow. Furthermore, while we found some path, it was not obviously continuing all the way in either direction. At the top of the cable were buildings suitable for tourists and, after exploring a public loo worthy of a medieval castle (slots in stonework, 5 metres at least to the floor below), we went looking for path upwards.

To date, all paths on hillsides are stone and largely staircase. This was no different and we passed 750m before finding another example of wonderful roof-work to admire, and by the look of it, some monk-like materiel and tourist gunk. Fixated on the opportunity to go upwards, we floundered around looking for route and found a footpath, of the sort any hill-using Brit would recognise immediately, wending its way vaguely upwards. This climbed steadily past 900m, level with an observatory, past an odd tower on the lip of the second change of gradient, leaving us on an expanse of elevated ground with scattered peaks, not entirely unlike Dartmoor. Ambient height would be over 900m and all covered in a thin layer of snow. We enjoyed wandering around and agreed that this is actually what the day warranted more than the Warriors, and given enough daylight one could easily fill four to eight hours with walking up here.

So down, fielding concerned call from driver at length of time, and off to the Warriors, (see) well seen in under two hours gate-to-gate, largely because the place was almost empty.

Ah, but the following day was the intended trip to the Spa. The driver for the day was different (and in a regular green cab, not the black limo of the day before) and the direction slightly different. However, in the depths of the suburbs to the north of the city he missed a turn and we spent a happy 40 minutes reviewing an industrial district - and, considering we had been wondering where such things were just the night before, this was perfect. Behind a chemical plant that included fractionating columns and gas storage cylinders was the spa itself. Among the varied structures of the rest of the area, the large expansive structure stood out as dramatically different, yet its lack of height made it look like an odd cousin.

The entrance foyer would grace a hotel; roughly semicircular and two-plus stories with a diameter of at least 20 metres, counters arcing right and left on the curving walls and expansive black leatherette seating in the centre, but with a curious row of office chairs protectively in an arc around this. Under each chair is a pair of plastic sandals of the sort that require a definite shove of the foot to fasten on, mainly pink and blue but also white and beige. The reason becomes clear as a distinct and definite part of the registration process requires the surrender (theft? ransom?) of shoes. These are whisked away – I watched later to see how and where to – and parked behind the less used set of counters. Hotel rooms are above and, oddly, to reach anywhere beyond the foyer one not only needs sandals but must go through the changing rooms, so couples must divide. Since those exits are on opposite sides of the foyer, this inevitably means that one half of any couple, or any fraction of a family, arrives separately at the target door and with no key. Sandals are removed in the changing room at the foot of the stairs. Of course, the changing room has people in various stages of undress, and many more in total undress than I would expect elsewhere. Imagine what you think Sweden would be like - it isn’t, in my experience, but China is. A nice carpet sweeps upstairs in a regular curve to a lounge area incredibly similar to a ferry lounge, those ones with recliners for overnight travelling on the cheap. The rooms mimic the cabins of the same ferry company, keeping the ablutions well away on the far side of the building. It is a pity, really, that the architect didn’t push the shipping image harder.

Downstairs, having decided to sample the waters before dinner, and having done little more than register at this point, I find myself the target for many sets of eyes as I undress. Will I be built the same way? Apparently not: Among the assembled blokes I see only one all stay with better muscle definition, to my mind a sad comment on the people, since I’d be mediocre in a changing room in Britain (ok, they’d be runners, swimmers or squash players, I suppose).

To the waters: the first space is basically an industrial shed with pools and greenery in odd shapes. The first pool is for swimming – or would be if four Chinese women hadn’t decided to stand and chat in the only wet space intended for exercise in the whole room. Explored that, most of which was just a smidgen too hot; a long corridor passing behind the foyer / changing areas led to another shed-like space, slightly different. Behind the whole was a terrace and a mist hung above the small lake outside. Guessing this was then not as cold as the snow-covered ground one (two, actually) followed another, braver or more experienced guest to explore this. The large pool was actually just the right temperature, the same as a swimmers’ pool in Britain, just right for vigorous exercise; an odd shape, in total possibly 50 x 40m. Probably fantastic in the summer on the rare occasions that the numbers are low enough to enjoy it. Which exercise one took, alternating this with the adjacent (hot) outside small pools, small enough for four strangers or eight close friends, of a depth ideal for wallowing.

The second hall included bar (expensive tea, fruit juice, sensibly limiting the unwise alcohol), some strange pools, including one with small fish (to lick one clean?) and there were spaces for sustained body-pounding, cupping, sauna, etc – the things one might explore if sufficiently masochistic. Off this second hall was the cafeteria. As promised by Petal, at some point the poolside began to empty because it was feeding time. Inevitably some small instruction or hint had been missed and the foreigner stands out by being dressed in clothes, where everyone else has found or been presented with a pyjama¹ affair in white with blue trim. The food was reasonable, plentiful and as tasty as ever in China. After a while of reflection I realise that the reactions I am seeing suggest that perhaps European bodies have been here so very rarely that it explains the surreptitious (staff) cameras outside, the stares inside and the surprised reactions from the smalls when one responded to their approach.

Just like a ferry, there are spaces with views, seats and tables and after dinner I find book, seat and beer. Bed is just like a large boat too; too many people being loud, the sound of rushing water everywhere (in the walls, perhaps?). At one point near 0400 there is a disturbance in the lounge area which I guess was someone being moved for snoring. When I got up early for shave and loo I found people sleeping all over the place (again, identical to my cross-channel experiences), including two of the staff asleep on the actual staircase. Going to use the gym, one roused the staff asleep in there, not one of whom had ever realised that not one item of the kit worked. Yeah, not one. And some had been persuaded the night before that I’d want to use the room.

Eventually one gave up on the gym and swam twenty lengths of the rectangular pool first found for that purpose. Leisurely breakfast (found a pyjama suit by asking, but had to chase away the accompanying ‘service’ since I still don’t enjoy an audience within a pace-length, especially when naked), but I am still out of sync because now half of the breakfasters are dressed to go home. It dawns at last that one could have arrived with no kit but a credit card – possibly a pair of trunks is expected but nothing is required more than an ability to pay (or lose one’s shoes thereafter).

On paying the bill—and only after that—my shoes were returned. The taxi driver was the expert in the black limo and it took but 35 minutes to return to Gaoxin. What an adventure.


DJS 20080205

For those trying to remember where Spa is, you are right, it is the site of the Belgian Grand Prix, see http://www.spafrancorchamps.be/

Photos of QingHua added 2010, thanks entirely to the lady with whom the Spa was visited.

See also Terracotta Warriors

1   I note, 20121009, that pyjama, unknown to me as the British spelling (there’s unusual) can be spelled pajama. http://grammarist.com/spelling/pajamas-pyjamas/  The wikipedia entry uses both spellings as if they have subtly different meanings – of which, if true, I would approve. From Urdu & Persian, leg + clothing, pay-jama, so each version threw away a different letter. Sometimes paijama (India, where pajama is the alternative spelling, which is perhaps why I prefer that version)

© David Scoins 2017