Friday, January 27, 2012

Winter Break 2011-2012: Xi'an


Thirty-nine days. This is the length of time between the end of the first semester and the beginning of the second at Beijing World Youth Academy during the 2011-2012 school year. It is a time when anarchy is wreaked on the world as the teachers at the school are set loose to do as they please.

Thirty-nine days. It is a long time. Much too long to sit around in one city, or perhaps even in one country. Especially considering how many cities and countries still lie unprovoked, unmolested. The reader undoubtedly knows where this is going.

Thirty-nine days. How much could get done? Seen? Experienced? Demolished? A series of posts on this blog, slyly entitled “Winter Break 2011-2012,” will take a detailed look at just what exactly was done, seen, experienced, and demolished between December 22, 2011, and January 29, 2012. Boom.

Winter Break 2011-2012: Xi'an

School let out after a spectacular December Talent Show on December 21st, a Wednesday. Between then and December 27, a Tuesday, I did not lie around as idly as I would have liked, but I did enjoy a chilly trip to Beihai Park, Xishiku Church, and Annie’s with Ramon and Nallely, a Christmas pizza with Dawna (she didn’t know it was Christmas pizza, but it was), a Christmas Skype party with my family and its cats in Iowa, a Christmas service at BICF, a Christmas dinner with the aforementioned R & N and another family we know from BWYA, a birthday dinner with the aforementioned R & N and another family we know from BWYA, and the completion of a host of blog posts – some of them Christmassy - that had weighed down on me like too much syrup on an Ego waffle. Mmm!

All of it done in Beijing. But that part of the break came to a screeching halt on December 27, when a plane took me from Beijing to Xi’an in the center of the People’s Republic of China.

So. Xi'an's got about eight million folks milling about it. It's an alarmingly old city; it was quite near the original capital of China when it was first unified sometime in the third century B.C. There are quite a few interesting historical facts and sites about the city, most of which I hoped to investigate: the city wall from the 14th century that surrounds fourteen square kilometers of the city's center, some pagodas, the tombs of China's first emperor and a wide variety of other important dead people, and obviously the Terracotta Warriors, among other things.

And I rolled in that night, situated myself at the hospitable but chilly Shuyuan International Youth Hostel, and prepared to support the tourism industry in Xi’an for the next five days. On Day the First I struck out on foot to march the three miles to the Big Goose Pagoda south of the city’s center. This mother was originally put up at some point in the 7th century A.D. but fell apart inexplicably (just like the $1.50 belt I bought before the trip) fifty years later and was rebuilt in 704. The pagoda was surrounded by all many of other architectural attraction:

Having seen all this, I climbed the big ol’ pagoda and confirmed that which I’d suspected from the moment I set foot in the city: it was as polluted as Beijing, which is saying that someone is as unkempt as Mike Moravec. Behold; the view from the top:

Disappointing, but not the end of the world. I descended, scooted through a statue forest, grabbed a 5 元 noodle lunch, and headed west for the next destination.

Most cities foolishly limit themselves to one Wild Goose Pagoda, or, if they’re liberal, one Wild Goose Pagoda and a Wild Duck Pagoda, or a maybe a Wild Swan Pagoda or something. Not Xi’an. Another three miles from the Big Goose Pagoda lies the Small Goose Pagoda, and I went there. Much quieter it was, with a more reflective surrounding complex and a cooler but still fairly restricted view from the top.

Surrounding complex:

Cooler but still fairly restricted view from the top:

Then I headed back toward the city center, to this road named Culture Street on the map I had. It was much like Insadong or any other souvenir boulevard; store after store selling the same li’l touristy knick knacks. The dominating product here, as expected, was little warrior figurines in the Terracotta style.

After meandering past all the culture on that street, I waltzed into the Forest of Stone Tablets. Is that not a sweet name for an exhibition? I think yes. There were three parts to this so-called forest. The first, a sculpture museum, was the most interesting. There was no deception in the name; there were simply many, many statues and carvings of different deities and authoritative figures. There was even one of George Brushaber. I thought the whole thang was pretty well done.

Then came these tablets with poetry on them. There were seven different rooms of them; the poems were not translated, but some had names that suggested interesting content. Being a teacher of literature, I appreciated that these stone slabs were here, but being able to read about fifteen Chinese characters, I could not truly enjoy the poems.

The third section was more sculpture-based stuff; it appeared to revolve around animals and some dude’s mausoleum. It was better than the poetry section but not as cool as the first statue sanctum. There were lots of identifiable animal statues, such as dogs and lions, but there were also some complete mysteries; even the labels on the figures only read “Beast.” Who knows. Maybe they meant this Beast. Or this one. Or this.

After completing this section, I realized that the soles of my shoes, my socks, and the skin on the bottom of my feet had all worn away because I’d walked at least 300,000 miles on this first day, and it wasn’t even dark yet. Dang. I dragged myself back to the hostel, where some energetic Chinese woman helped me commit to a tour of the Terracotta Warrior Museum that ran from the hostel the next day. Then I went out and grabbed some spicy rice and tofu dish before heading for bed, thus bringing the total amount of money I spent on food that day to 18 元, which is less than $3, which is an incredibly low amount of money to keep oneself amply fed on. Sadly, the bill for all the goose and stone attractions canceled out whatever I’d saved.

Day the Second began at 9 a.m. when four other hostel dwellers and I boarded a crappy little bus bound for some spot 30 kilometers or so east of Xi’an, where in 1974 some farmers digging a well found the Terracotta Warriors. We picked up another batch of tourists before exiting the fogginess of the city.

The warriors were stuck in this huge underground compound by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, at some point in the third century. There were allegedly 700,000 workers involved in the construction of the warriors and the underground complex, which wasn't even his tomb; his tomb was nearby but is an entirely different structure altogether, one filled with concubines, family members, and a bunch of the workers, who were put in there so that no one would know where the tomb was located (avoid ever signing a contract with that sort of requirement involved). We tourists wondered what happened to the people who put the workers and family inside the tomb; were they killed in turn, also, so that they wouldn't know where the tomb was? Who knows. Everything eventually caved in after the eleven-year construction, some pillagers tampered with it at some point, and then I guess no one knew about it until those dudes found it thirty-five years ago. We figured the guys who discovered the army probably lived a pretty cush life, but our tour guide said the government paid the farmers 10 元 for the land and called it good.

I thought that I could just zone out and look out the window on the 1.5-hour trip to the museum site, but that was a silly idea. The tour guide was the aforementioned energetic Chinese woman from the hostel; her Chinese name was Jiajia, and she mentioned that her English name was thus Lady Jiajia. Anyway, she launched into an expected historical briefing on the warriors, which I sort of listened to, but when she got done, Lady Jiajia began quizzing our group on all she’d just spoken of. Sadly, she would not stand for the silence we answered her with, so she called me out; “Reuben, what are the four types of warriors in the museum?” No clue. The rest of the day I was under assault. If it was time for the group to move on, she told me, “Reuben! Come!” If she needed a prop to demonstrate some structural element of the warriors' tomb, it was done using my hands as props. If she needed someone to hold up her tour flower (you know how some tour guides fly flags to guide their patrons? She had a big stuffed flower.), I toted that thing.

Anyway, after getting jarred and embarrassed during the Q&A session on the bus, I grew restless and started talking to another loner on the tour, Tom, who happened to be from Duluth and who happened to be teaching in Ulsan, South Korea. Three cheers for common ground! He’d also been in my eight-person hostel room the night before. Anyway we were picture/twenty-something buddies for the tour, which was a good break from the solitude of the prior day.

Our bus arrived at the museum complex, and we first went to the tomb of this emperor who had all the Terracotta Warrior madness constructed: Emperor Qin Shi Huang. He put himself in his current place by consuming mercury, thinking that it would give him eternal life (aren’t you glad science has evolved since then?), but as a consequence, the big hill that is his grave is also loaded with that fatal substance, as well as possibly being full of treasures. No one has had the courage or technology to go in after it yet, but Lady Jiajia said to come back in forty years when it was safe.

Then it was on to the excavation sites of the actual warriors. Once inside, there is a gift shop, a film room, and three pits. Lady Jiajia strategically took us first to Pit 2, which I actually found the most impressive, then to 3, and then to 1.

Pit 2 is enormous and ongoing; apparently the tourism happens during the day and the work gets done at night. Basically the pit is what was dug and filled with warriors and then covered with roofing to form the mongo underground area full of not-real soldiers. Eventually it caved in and lay hidden for quite a spell.

If you look closely at the lower left corner of this photo, you can view Lady Jiajia, looking efficient insane.

According to her, there have only been five (I think five, I wasn't really listening) complete warriors extracted from Pit 2. Here are four of them. The fifth escaped me, apparently. If it even exists.

We went to Pit 1 next. It was super similar to Pit 2 but much, much smaller. And there was a place to get your face personalized as a warrior.

Pit 3 was last; this is the one that is generally what one would see were one to Google “Terracotta Warriors.” The building was big and felt like a sci-fi movie. The warriors were there, in all their glory, and they were well-guarded. There’s not much else to tell.

Then we schmoozed through the gift shop and watched a cheesy film about the warriors, events that were followed by lunch and a ride back to the hostel. Sadly, Tom was leaving that evening and not staying longer, so he headed for the train station and I returned to riding solo. At least until I tried to go to bed that evening, when I was joined in my room by two Chinese dudes who loved their phones so, so, so much, even at 11:30 p.m. Swing.

Day the Third was a mystery at its outset. There were many lesser known and spread out attractions worth checking out all across the city, but the question was: which to attack and which to leave by the wayside? I’d made up my mind to check out the wall that surrounded the city center, but on my way out I ran into two other travelers of sorts and invited myself onto their trip to the Shaanxi Museuem, which I’d passed during my journey to the Wild Goose Pagoda on the first day. The dude was from Sweden and the lady was from Shanghai, and I am pretty sure that they were not dating, or I’d not have thrown myself into the mix quite so readily. The main thing was that they were fun! And so off we went to the museum.

Let’s be honest; museums, especially history ones, can blow. Rows and rows of clay pots? Kill me. I liked this museum, though, even though it did have clay pots. Maybe it was because the girl from Shanghai actually knew some of the history and explained it a bit better. For instance, she told us that the 6th century Tang people actually liked their women a big larger. Now I know that about the ol’ place. Xi’an is also at the center of China, so while it has a lot of stylistic similarities to things in Beijing and other areas further east, there is a plenty of influence from further west. How do I know this? There were lots of camels at the museum.

And other stuff.

And if camels weren’t enough to tip a brother off as to the Middle Eastern feel to certain places and exhibits, the Muslim Quarter surely did. After we went through everything in the museum, we headed to the Muslim Quarter for lunch. Excellent fried rice, some chuarn, and wou la tang, which, if I got the name right (not likely), is like thick Coca Cola without the carbination.

Then we walked back to the hostel, because they also had to leave by 3, leaving me again alone. Which allowed me to pursue one spot in the city to which I figured no one would want to accompany me: the beginning point of the Silk Road. I am glad no one was with me, too, because after no taxis emerged, I ended up on the back of some Chinese dude’s moped flying through the outskirts of town. He didn’t know where the place was, either; we even passed it and he had to double back. I don’t know if the dude was a moped taxi or even a person whose occupation is to give rides to people; he may have just seen me trying to negotiate with one of the tri-ped drivers and thought, “I’m not doing anything productive right now; if this stupid-hat-wearin’ waiguoren will pay me to take him somewhere, I’m down.” And I did pay him, and he did take me. Done deal.

I realize that these big statues were probably not where people gathered and decided, “Alright, sons, this is where the Silk Road starts. Count it!” But I like to think that this street was once of more importance than it is now.

Here are more camels commemorating the origin of the northern route of the Silk Road in Xi’an at large.

I scooted back to the city’s center soon after that to hang out with this Chinese couch surfin’ couple who took me on a delicious tour of food through the previously-enjoyed Muslim Quarter. First we had dumplings and this sandwich deal that was like a pulled pork sandwich, except that it was…let’s see…forty-five times better. Then we had some sweet (literally) cookies on the street, and then rou jia mo, which is this porridge composed of bread and lamb, and then some cold noodles. It. Was. Delicious. And cool to spend some time with some locals.

Day the Fourth saw the accomplishment of an important goal I had on the trip: walk the city wall. I went up to the top of the wall at the south gate, headed east, and didn’t stop until I’d gone the entire freakin’ 13.7 kilometers (that's 8.5 miles, people). Except for when I had to relieve myself of the previous evening’s food and a couple pages of notebook paper in an inadequately-supplied bathroom on the wall. Other notes: a) there were some mad Chinese New Year decorations going up on the top of the wall b) there was basically no one else up on the wall c) it was very smoggy again d) I wish I could have rented a bike and done this route…in the spring.

Break: the wall was originally put up in 194 B.C., although it took four years to build. This first wall was a lot huger. Then the Ming Dynasty built a new wall in 1370 because the old one didn't meet the requirements of the city's fire chief. Thus, the new, smaller one.

I did make it, though. Boo-yah. After descending and take a quick breather at the hostel, I made for my next destination: the Great Mosque, another indicator of Middle Eastern influence. It surely did not look like what the mosques I had seen previously looked like; if I didn’t know better, or if there hadn’t been Arabic everywhere, or if the prayer hall hadn’t occupied the west end of the mosque, I’d have assumed I was just in another temple in Beijing.

I perused around, trying to be quiet and to not look American and to catch the eye of any of the many cats that were also perusing the area. It was a pretty chill place, although as 5 o’clock grew nearer and nearer, more and more people starting showing up to pray, so, when the call to prayer sounded out, I decided it was time to beat it.

Back to the hostel, then to meet up with more couch surfers, a native Xi’an woman and a dude from Australia who was studying in the city. We (read: I) gorged ourselves on hot pot and then relocated to some crappy bar to see in the new year. I ruminated on the irony of this, since my New Year’s resolution is to not drink any beer in 2012, and at 12:05 we parted ways. Not as cool as last year, when my mom and I went with Dawna, Jordan, and Gordon sisters to Jong-ro to see a huge bell get rung, nor was it as cool as the year before, when I watched fireworks turn the city of Manila into a missile testing zone with the Caldwells, nor was it as cool as the years before that at Wade and Justin’s cabin up in the woods of northern Wisconsin, playing hockey and charades and enjoying the best people in the world. But it wasn’t bad.

Day the Fifth, my last day in Xi’an, was the most polluted of them all. You couldn’t see jack, and every smart person in the city marked himself or herself by wearing a face mask. It was super gross. But, since I live in Beijing, I was not fazed. I headed over to the Bell Tower, which my Lonely Planet proclaimed to be Xi’an’s most easily recognized landmark (see night shot below). It sits in the middle of the city, large and intimidating, but when I was there, the hoss was completely inaccessible due to some sort of construction. Thus, I never went into Xi’an’s most recognizable landmark, nor did I feel particularly inclined to venture up its sister attraction, the Drum Tower, a few blocks away. They seemed pretty predictable, sittin’ there in the center around the glitz and glamor of the surrounding malls and lights. I’d seen enough of ‘em, so I didn't fret.

Instead! I headed out to the Tang Paradise, which was way out past the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The subway was my transport; it was quite nice, and I felt pretty sweet getting my ticket successfully next to a crew of locals who were perplexed as to how to obtain theirs. The subway is new to Xi’an, it seems. The Lonely Planet doesn’t even have it listed. Boom.

Tang Dynasty! They built a paradise! I went there! It was incredibly foggy there, as well, which was pretty annoying most of the time but also created a somewhat mysterious atmosphere. Nonetheless, I think the place would be way cooler in the spring.

My favorite spot was the Valley of the Poets. Again, I could not understand any of what was written, but I liked the setup and the care given to the great literary minds of the past.

As I got to the enormous structure that lay not quite hidden in the smog on the south shore of the joint, a big dance show started. Some of it was cheesy and not worth describing, some was what one would expect in China – dragon costumes and such, and some was pretty cool, like this herd of young boys performing martial arts moves. It was sweet. The climax was a dance sequence by a bunch of kids dressed up as Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Na'vi, Shrek, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the killer from “Scream,” and some other costumes I could not recognize.

The show ended, and I went onward, slowly making my way back to the hostel, stopping only to make completely sure that the Bell Tower was not available for examination. Around 7 I met up with one last couch surfer for one last trip to the Muslim Quarter for one more meal there. Baozi. So good. And good company, too. No couch surfing hosting, but plenty of people willing to hang out in Xi’an.

The next morning I got up at 4:45 a.m., took a bus to the airport, and flew away to Bangkok, to meet up with Mr. David Emmert, and to experience the next leg of the journey. I enjoyed Xi’an, I guess. I’d planned five days with the hopes of getting out of the city and climbing Huashan, which lies a few hours away, but upon further investigation, scaling that peak was an impossible task at that time of year. Which means, perhaps, a return trip to that part of the world.

I can’t say I liked everything about Xi’an, though. It is a super old city, but commercialism and tourist crap has taken over the middle parts, so there is a nasty contrast between the center of the city and the more normal, less ritzy outer parts. The encroachment of Western civilization. Hmm.

The stay in the hostel was a key component of my time there, a trend that continued throughout the winter holiday trek. I went in preferring to crash with couch surfers, but everyone was traveling or booked, and I went to Shuyuan not knowing what to expect. There were people to hang out with there, and it proved to be a great base for travelers, as the hostel offered tours, transportation options, and contacts to so many different places and activities. And it was cheap (40 元 a night…about $6 or $7).

A good start to the trip, but I was super ready to collaborate with Dave in Bangkok by the time I had to leave Xi'an. Traveling alone…another issue for discussion and processing.

To be continued...