Friday, 18 January 2013

Seeing Xi'an

I was skeptical at first. Was there really much to see in Xi’an aside from the warriors?

After a lovely day wandering through the core of the old city (within the walls erected thousands of years ago), the answer is yes, It’s a great place to spend a low-key day.

I arrived by high-speed train from Beijing on Sunday evening, and the huge railway station was almost empty. No one to ask about the distance to the hotel. A taxi driver approached me, and I agreed to his price for a ride, once we were able to communicate about where I wanted to go. I hauled out the tour guide and showed him the Chinese characters, and he called over another guy who knew a bit of English. The second man put on his glasses so he could read the name of the hotel and try to communicate it. When they had agreed, my driver phoned the hotel, which was actually next to my hotel, and handed me the phone. I asked the woman on the other end to explain that her hotel was right near mine, and she did. That settled, we set off through crazy traffic.

China has moved into the automobile age, but the rules of the road are sketchy and there are bicycles and motorized cabs to contend with. It’s not a smooth ebb and flow and it’s amazing to watch. Luckily, everyone seems to keep an eye out for pedestrians! During rush hour, there are traffic wardens at busy intersections, wearing fluorescent vests and holding back turning cars so people can cross. Wild!

Once I left the hotel in the morning, I headed to the Muslim quarter. The Hui Muslims have lived in Xi’an for about 13 centuries, and many of them live, work and pray in the quarter.( Unlike their Uighur brethren elsewhere in China, the Hui speak Chinese, and as far as I know, don’t face (open) discrimination.)

What a happening place! I felt as if I were back in Hong Kong at a street market. The small shops all have employees out front cooking or displaying wares, and the streets are narrow, but shared with bicycles, motorized cabs and motorcycles pulling wagons. Horns blare and pedestrians move out of the way for fear of getting mowed down.

The Hui men wear white caps and some of the women wear veils or veils covering hats. They have white skin and rosy cheeks, with round faces – a distinctive look.

I wandered the streets, amazed by the variety of food on offer. There were kebabs made of lamb and beef, and some with chicken that was cut in rings, not cubes. There were various flatbreads and various fried patties filled with mixtures of meat and vegetables – yum. I tried something that was an small, fried orange disk and it was sweet – it turned out to be a delicious persimmon cake. I also tried a cube of something I thought might be halvah, but it was a bean paste. Not quite as yummy.

People were sitting at outdoor tables on one of the wider streets eating the traditional soup: yangrou paomo, a mutton broth with translucent noodles into which one crumbles round disks of bread. I tried it for dinner in the evening – and the quarter was still hopping! I went into a restaurant and the woman at the till sat me with a couple who didn’t speak any English, but tried to show me the ropes anyway. They were darling, and I followed their lead by adding some hot pepper sauce to the soup.( I’m getting better at the hot stuff!) The owner also treated me to a dish of pickled garlic, which was yummy, too, and no one would led me leave a tip. Needless to say, there were many thank-yous on my part!

I indulged in a massage for my weary body in the afternoon and felt revived afterward. I decided to walk the old city wall, starting at the South Gate. It gives a view of the old part of the city and the new, which is largely skyscrapers and wide streets. The city apparently had a population of 1 million in the 1980s, all living inside the walls. Today, the population is 10 million and the city sprawls far beyond its earlier limits.

 I walked on the wall, which was wide enough to fit six carriages side-by-side, and came across two young women cycling along. They stopped to talk with me briefly, and were excited to learn that I was Canadian. They were shy and rode off, but kept catching up to me. I asked to take their picture, which must have reassured them, because they then rode alongside me until I left the wall, telling me about their studies and one’s desire to study in England after university. She was soooo excited to meet me: her second foreigner! Imagine never coming across anyone other than your fellow Chinese. After living in large, cosmopolitan cities, it seems unreal.

I also learned from the signs that rooflines, like headgear, were a sign of status and hierarchy. Only the emperor could have a Wudian roof, but the roofs on the gates of the Xi’an wall were only a step below in status. Very cool.

Speaking of cool, people here thought it was cold, but wow, after Beijing’s 10 below and the chill on the Great Wall, 2C is almost summery! And I’m certainly prepared now, clothingwise. Perfect temperature for walking – although I believe the hazy sky wasn’t doing my lungs any good. It’s pollution, alas: a combination of coal-burning power plants, vehicle exhaust and charcoal used for heating and cooking. I wonder about the impact on life expectancy.

Today was terracotta warrior day! I had a restless night, too excited to sleep well.

My guide, Bryan (Chen), met me in the lobby and we hopped into Mr. Wong’s car and headed to the outskirts of the city. Bryan has been leading tours for a number of years and he knows the ins and outs. We arrived before the bus tours so we could get a close-up look without much in the way of crowds. Apparently, in summer, you’re lucky to get a glimpse or two of the display area, but winter is much saner. I was able to linger, move around and take all the photos I wanted.

The warriors are amazing! They are a bit larger than life so as to impress at a distance, and not one of the approximately 2,000 on display is identical. There are soldiers of all ranks – and file – dressed in clothing appropriate to their ranks and missions. Shoes vary, headdresses vary, hairstyles vary, armour varies ... and that’s even without looking at facial features and moustaches.

The site of them en masse is awe-inspiring, and it’s also exciting to see the area where the archeologists are piecing together more of them. There are a number of pits at the site yet to be unearthed. It’s slow, painstaking work, but the result is stunning.

Bryan tells me the warriors were built by hand, using coiling and done in parts, which would be fired separately and then put together. The detail is marvelous – each plate of armour is distinct, and strands of hair are clear, too. Wow! I would have liked to climb into the pit and chat with them face to face, but alas, it isn’t allowed. Thank heavens for telephoto lenses.

Although the warriors were the true highlight of the day, we also visited an ancient village site in Xi’an that dates back 6,000 years. Archaeologists are still working on it, but it was a matriarchal society and it was fascinating to see the places where the shelters stood and to realize how advanced the people were so far back in history. Fishing, hunting, sewing, creating pots ... no problem.

Our final stop was the Big Goose Pagoda, dedicated to a Chinese scholar who travelled to India on foot thousands of years ago and returned with an impressive depth of knowledge of Buddhism. His trip and his writings are renowned and revered, and the pagoda is where he worked on translations of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese.

As we entered, there was some fanfare for a Buddhist monk who was visiting. An added treat.

So, Xi’an turned out to be a treat, and having a guide added some depth to my understanding of the area. Tomorrow, it’s off to Shanghai and a very different experience.

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