Xi’an: Day 1
I’m currently smack in the middle of my 9-hour train ride from Xi’an to Lanzhou, so I figured I’d kill some time and relay some of my experiences since landing in China on Sunday. Most of you will probably not read all of this, but it gives me a chance to record some of what has happened. I’ve been staring out the window since the train left, and my neck could use a break, so typing seems like a good alternative. Right now, we’re travelling through a mountainous region, with terraced farmland, and incredibly steep slopes. Every 30 seconds, we pass through a tunnel, so it seems like we’re spending more time underground than on the surface.
I just observed a group of conductors getting in a squirt-gun fight with a few little kids. I quickly snapped one photo without them noticing. I got greedy, and tried to get another one. One of the conductors noticed, and quickly put an end to the fun. He made me delete both of the photos, and the other conductors came over to make sure that they were deleted. They each scrolled through all the images on the camera to be sure. I’m really kicking myself for going for the second photo because the first one was great. It perfectly captured the glee on the middle-aged man’s face as he delightedly squeezed the trigger at the kid’s face. I killed the mood, though, because they all lost their smiles as soon as I was discovered, and the fun was over.
Since I was held over in Beijing on Sunday night, I was just able to catch the sunrise over my hotel parking lot before catching my early flight to Xi’an. I took a cab from the airport directly to my hotel, and It felt good to lay down on the bed for a moment, but I forced myself up to see the city. I only had a couple of days there, so I wanted to make the most of every moment.
Xi’an is a small village of 3 million inhabitants. This means that it would be the third largest city in the US, ahead of Chicago. It was the first capital of the Chinese empire, and was founded some 2200 years ago. At its height, it was the most populous, and advanced city in the world, reaching a population of 1.8 million that dwarfed Rome, and the other capitals of Europe. It was the starting point (or end point, depending on the direction of travel) of the ancient Silk Road, and I thought that made it a fitting place to start my journey.
My first encounter with Chinese bureaucracy took place as I attempted to exchange some travelers’ checks at the Bank of China. I waited patiently on a bench for the foreign exchange window to open. A middle aged man was in the process of taking out American dollars, and it seemed like there was a lot of paperwork to go through. When, 30 minutes later, they finally started counting out the man’s cash, I was amazed to see how much he had withdrawn. The clerk counted the bills out slowly about five times. In total, there were 175 100-dollar bills, more cash than I think I’ve ever seen in one place. After the man counted it himself three more times, it was my turn at the window, for what I assumed would be a quick transaction.
I slid my checks under the glass, and the clerk pulled out a stack of paperwork. He had about twelve different stamps in front of them, and he began furiously pounding them first in red ink, and then on the various sheets. Maybe he was pounding the stamps so hard so that the impressions would show up through the layers of carbon paper, but it seemed to me that he was pounding hard enough for the seals to be permanently imprinted on the desk below. It took about fifteen minutes for him to get through the stack of paper, and then he handed them for me for signatures. Each of the sheets required two to three signatures, and he had to point to each spot individually. Then, he took the paperwork and the checks to the manager, who looked them over, and also pulled out a stamp with which he pounded on the sheets with the same vigor as the clerk. When the clerk returned, he handed me some more papers to sign, and he began counting out the money, which he did three times before putting it in the money counter. He put the cash aside, and double-checked the quantity of checks. I had only handed him five, but he counted them again twice. Finally, thirty minutes later, he slid the cash under the glass, and I was on my way.
I next made a leisurely walk towards Xi’an’s two historic towers, the Bell Tower, and the Drum Tower. Containing the instruments that their names imply, the sit opposite one another in a large open square. The Bell tower, however, is now in the center of a huge traffic circle. Both towers look like what you would expect from traditional Chinese architecture – flying eaves, etc. The two towers were once used to signal morning and night, and the bell was rung in the morning, while the drums were banged at night – sort of a Chinese version of a bugle call and Taps. Now, bell and drum performances are held every hour, to the delight of tourists.
I made my way through the underground tunnel to the Bell Tower, and paid the 40 RMB admission price for both towers. The entrance was located past an alley of souvenir shops. I ascended to the top, stopping to walk around, and take in the view from each level. The tower felt much like an island, with traffic whizzing by all around, and with bright shopping complexes surrounding the circle. The towers seem divorced of their surroundings, their sole purpose now as fetish objects for tourists. The descriptive placards emphasize how important the towers are to cultural history, even saying “these are very important to Chinese cultural history.” The Chinese tourist read the signs and have their pictures taken in front of them as a way of saying that they’ve been to this historic landmark. In a country in which traditional culture was forcibly expunged over a period of forty years, the locals seem to approach the landmarks with the same distance as the foreigners.
I took a break, and sat down in the shade on the lower level of the tower to sketch the view across to the Drum tower. Before long, I looked around to see that I had attracted a small crowd of twenty people, all intently looking over my shoulder. Parents began taking photos of their children standing next to the blond man intently sketching. Feeling very self-conscious, I hurried to finish the sketch before a riot ensued over which family could get the closest look or the best photo. Much to my admirers’ dismay, I packed up, and headed back to the tunnel below the roadway.
I mosied over to the Drum Tower to get my money’s worth, and found that a drum performance was going on. A capacity crowd was stuffed into the main room to watch teenagers perform incredibly complex drum sequences in unison. It was incredibly impressive, but it left me with the same uncomfortable feeling that I had after watching the Olympic opening ceremonies. There’s something about the emphasis on large groups of people performing the same movements at the same time that I find a little off-putting.
My next stop was the Muslim Quarter, which is just north of the Drum Tower. It consists of a network of narrow streets, lined with shops and restaurants that spill out onto the pavement. The orientation of restaurants is the exact opposite of typical American or European restaurants. Rather than stuffing the kitchens in the back, they are put on display in the front of the restaurant, or right on the street. All cooking is done in plain view, often on open fires or charcoal stoves. The food itself, cooking away, and releasing its incredible aromas, becomes the best advertisement for each restaurant. I didn’t linger for a snack, though, because my plan was to visit the Great Mosque, and come back to the quarter the next day.
The Mosque is buried deep in the middle of a large block, and is only accessed through a narrow alleyway. It is nothing like what you would expect from a mosque, and looks much more like a Buddhist temple. It consists of a series four of courtyards, separated by high walls, and each connected by an ornate gate. In the center of each courtyard is a freestanding gate or pagoda. The large prayer hall is at the point farthest removed from the street, at the far side of the fourth courtyard. The processional nature of these spaces is astounding, and each layer of gate and courtyard serves to remove the visitor an extra layer from the hubbub of the surrounding neighborhood. By the time I reached the prayer hall, I felt like I had been transported to a completely different place, a spell only broken by the sudden appearance of a large group of Swedish tourists.
The Muslim Quarter and the Great Mosque are part of what intrigued me about Xi’an before coming here. The minority Muslim residents are descendents from the original Silk Road traders who set up shop here and eventually mixed with the local population. The Silk Road ancestors’ influence over the city is still felt. The city, while decidedly Chinese, is ever-so-slightly pulled in the direction of Central Asia. This is clearly shown in the food, the bustling exchanges of the Muslim Quarter, and the architecture. The mosque, which looks nothing like a mosque, is a perfect example of this. I’m hoping to trace some of these influences a little more deeply as my trip progresses.
Upon leaving the mosque, I headed to the South Gate of the Xi’an city walls. The walls enclose the center of the city in a large rectangle with a perimeter of 14 km. While incredibly impressive, I wasn’t quite sure what to do once I had ascended to the top. The sun was beating down, and the only places to get shade were the guard towers, which are dispersed about 200-400 yards apart from each other. There is a bike rental shop near the south gate, and many people take the opportunity to loop the city on two wheels. I decided against it, however, because it was getting a little too late for it. I think that I would have enjoyed the walls much more if it had not been for the blaring traditional music that was blasted from every other light pole. It’s as though the authorities thought that people would not understand that this is an important cultural and historic landmark without some auditory clue. The traditional architecture was not enough.
Making my way down from the wall, I headed towards a street filled with restaurants, and sought dinner with a ravishing appetite that I had built up over the course of the day. I found a noodle restaurant that was recommended in my guidebook, and ordered the recommended dish – a 3.8m-long noodle with two soup accompaniments. The dish was good, but I noticed that no one else in the restaurant was eating it, and their dishes all looked better. I made a vow not to order what my guidebook says again. I was still a little hungry when I left, so I walked outside and strolled down the busy, narrow street on which the restaurant was located, hoping to find a good snack. Small restaurants spilled out onto the street on both sides, and vendors set up small charcoal fires on which they were roasting spicy skewers. While the Muslim Quarter is becoming a bit of a tourist attraction, this area had a similar vibrancy without the proximity to the main attractions. As I moved down the street, inching towards my hotel, I finally found what I was looking for: some kind of snack on a stick that was completely unrecognizable. I have no idea what it was that I ate, but it was spicy, and exactly what I needed to top off my meal. I headed back to my hotel for a much needed rest.
Xi’an: Day 2
I realize that my description for Day 1 was incredibly long-winded, so I’m going to turn over a new leaf, and try to keep this one shorter.
I began my second day by attempting to book my ticket on the next day’s train to Lanzhou. To my complete surprise, I was able to communicate which train I hoped to take to a guy behind dark glass who spoke no English. Of course, I later went back to the hotel to have the people at the desk tell me if I got the right ticket.
My plan for the day was to see the famous Terracotta Warriors. Before I could make the journey there, though, I had to get some sustenance, so I headed back to the Muslim Quarter, and found what looked to be one of the more popular places. I went in, and conveyed with hand gestures that I wanted what everyone else was having. I was handed a bowl with two dense, flat rolls. Having no idea what to do, I sat down, and waited, assuming that my dish would be brought out to me when ready, and that these rolls would make a decent, if somewhat chewy, side dish. The proprietress soon came around, and showed me that I was supposed to be peeling the rolls apart, and breaking them into tiny bits. I looked around and saw that everyone else was doing this, breaking the rolls into rice-sized pieces. It took about ten minutes for me to accomplish this task, and it occurred to me that this was a pretty good system. Everyone broke down their rolls into the sized pieces that they wanted for their dish, and when the consistency was to their liking, they handed their bowl of bits back to the waitress, and she took it to the kitchen. About 15 minutes after handing the bowl to my waitress, she brought it back with broth, meat, noodles, mushrooms, and tofu. The combination was delicious, and the broken up roll ended up having the texture and consistency of al dente noodles, or dumpling dough.
My guidebook told me to take a green bus from the train station to the Terracotta Warriors, about an hour outside the city. I hopped on a bus that had the destination written on the front, and headed out to the countryside. The bus finally pulled to a stop at what I assumed was the museum. I got off the bus, and looked around. Some fellow passengers looked at me strangely, and then pointed in the direction from which the bus had just come. Evidently, I had missed the stop, and I had no idea how far past it I had gone. The heat was oppressive, and I began walking back in the direction from which we had come, through open, shade-less farmland. Every once in a while, I would come across someone on the road, and show them a picture of the warriors in my guidebook. The kept pointing the same way. About a mile and a half later, I finally reached the parking lot to the museum, completely drenched in sweat.
The parking lot was filled with tour buses, and I wondered why my bus had not bothered to stop here. The whole place had a roadside attraction feel. The entrance to the huge complex was marked by a KFC. I headed towards the ticket booth, and was immediately accosted by a tour guide. “Hello, sir. Do you need a tour guide?” I politely responded that I wasn’t interested, and that I just wanted to see what I had been told was the eighth wonder of the world. She persisted, telling me that I would need to have a guide, or everything would be lost on me. I would just walk through and understand nothing of what I had seen. If she were my tour guide, I would understand everything. We would spend two hours, and I would go home to the US completely enlightened. I kept telling her that I did not want a guide, but she kept insisting that I needed one. She followed me to the ticket counter, and once I had my ticket, I started to walk away. She followed, not giving up. As I finally turned to her, and firmly said that I would not be needing a guide, she became somewhat angry. She insisted that even Chinese tourists had guides, that EVERYONE has a guide. As I walked away from her, she shouted after me in a last ditch effort, “Everyone else has a guide! You will be so embarrassed!” I was not.
The actual museum is only accessed after a fifteen minute walk up a hill through a souvenir gauntlet. The whole procession imbues the experience with all of the reverence of seeing the world’s largest ball of yarn, and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip, maybe because I had heard such great things about it. But, fighting through the crowds in the stifling heat, and fending off the souvenir hawkers left me jaded. I was impressed by the intricacy with which each warrior was made, and their individual characteristics, but I just couldn’t understand calling them the “eighth wonder of the world.” Perhaps I’m innately more impressed with seeing architectural wonders, but if I had it to do over again, I would not have gone through the ordeal to make it there, or paid the shocking 110 RMB price to see them. On the bus ride back to town, two Scottish tourists sitting behind me were talking about what they had seen. “What did you think?” one of them asked. “Well, I can cross it off my bucket list,” the other one replied. It seems to me that this is the sentiment most closely associated with these kinds of attractions. We’ve heard they’re great, so we go to lengths to see them, we have our pictures taken in front of them, and then we can tell everyone else that we were there, but beyond that, they will never live up to the hype.
I finished my day by walking from the train station back to the Muslim Quarter for dinner. On the way, I strolled through vibrant streets, crowded with people enjoying the evening, sitting outside having dinner with their neighbors. Living takes place on the street here. It is where people meet friends, play games, cook, eat, and catch up on the day’s news. Streets like these are the great urban inventions. Walking around, it occurred to me that this atmosphere is what I came here to see, not some culturally neutered tourist attractions. I’m not sure where else this trip will take me, but I think this may be an important lesson to keep in mind as I move along.