Xi'an: Friday October 5 - Monday October 8, 2007.
10.05.2007 - 10.08.2007
Because of the week-long national holiday, there were absolutely no trains available to go to Xi'an from Beijing, so we had to fly. Poor us, we had to do something convenient for once. It was a nice treat, but I'll be sure not to get used to it. We arrived in Xi'an Friday morning. Xi'an is a city that is about 5,000,000 strong, though much more well known than Datong. It served as the Chinese capitol for about 2,000 years, spanning several dynasties until 1000 AD, and is the beginning of the Silk Road. It is also a major hub on the backpacker/tourist track. Not unlike many other cities in China, Xi'an is a walled city. The first wall was originally built 3,000 years ago (according to our tour guide), though the most current structure was rebuilt about 600 years ago. It is 12 meters high and covers a distance of almost 14km. It is quite impressive, and really does provide a substantial barrier between inside and out (or downtown and the suburbs, as our tour guide referred to them).
We spent one afternoon circling the city wall on bicycles, which was a lot harder than it looked a) because the bikes were not in top shape and b) because the top of the wall did not provide the smoothest ride and had many small "hills" to overtake. One of them looked more harmless than it actually was because I thought I could ride up it, then found myself sliding backwards, and then fell off my bike. I have the bruise to prove it, but hopefully only a temporary souvenir. Here is the view of the wall from one of the four towers, or gates, within the wall. There are only four entrances into the center of the city, through either the North, South, East or West gate.
Walking around Xi'an, I was immediately surprised by how it seemed to be more posh and upscale than Beijing, though that may be just because I didn't see the really upscale parts of Beijing. There seems to be tons of shopping and the streets are lined with all the same designer stores you'd see in NYC, no doubt selling goods for equally exorbitant sums. There was a permanent haze here as well, and it rained 2 out of the 3 days we were there. At one point we were walking around and it wasn't raining, but it was hazy, and I could look directly at the sun because the haze was so thick. It just looked like a fuzzy bonnebell cheese ball (without the red wax cover), and there was no variation throughout the rest of the sky. It was also really cold, and I was wishing I hadn't shipped home my long underwear after leaving Australia. Luckily, we stayed in a nice, large, well-known hostel that catered to foreigners and Chinese alike. It had a large cafe in the back, which served some western comfort foods, and we were glad to have those on the rainy nights when it was too wet and cold to go our exploring. It was not the weekend to be staying in a cramped hostel with only chicken feet on the room service menu. We also met other travelers and made some friends. Some we hope to meet again later, and others we have already run into again. It's certainly true that you do see the same people over and over again, all over the world. Strange.
I am constantly impressed by the Chinese obsession with lights. Everything is lit up here at night. If they can adhere a bulb to it, they do. And if it blinks, spins, or flashes in multiple colors, even better. This is a very popular advertising tool, so I think each store feels that they must have MORE lights than the next. This is the South gate at night:
Another popular thing here is blaring advertisements into the street via megaphone. Smog is not the only form of pollution in China. And the Mandarin language is not exactly easy on the ears either. You could walk down a street and each of the 20 stalls selling the same knick knacks and trinkets will have a megaphone recorder sitting out front with the same message on repeat... it's maddening. Maybe it actually does attract patronage, I don't know, though I haven't seen many foreigners (or locals, for that matter) racing to buy another plastic watch with Mao on it (although Ellen did buy one). And crossing the street here is just as perilous as anywhere else, as I'm sure I've previously indicated. Here's a video clip to give you an idea of what it felt like dodging traffic in Xi'an:
Yes, I survived.
We spent one night in Xi'an walking around the Muslim Quarter, a small neigborhood within the walls, where they have a night market with food and shopping stalls and, of course, lights. It's very cozy and easy to get lost in the maze. Here is a shot of some of our friends wandering around.
We sampled foods. There are no shortage of sweets on the street (which is probably why I'm not losing any weight like I thought I would) and they heavily use cumin in their savory dishes in this area, which I found interesting as I associate cumin with latin cuisine.
Our sight seeing in Xi'an consisted of a tour to see the Terracotta Warriors, a site only recently discovered by a peasant farmer who happened to be digging in his land. He found a head of one of the warriors and then, because of local superstitions, was sent into exile. I believe this was in 1974. Once the full army was uncovered, though, and the significance was realized, he was brought back and probably lives a rather nice life now. The army was built by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 246 BC, beginning his reign at age 13, and was to have the purpose of guarding his tomb after death. There are between 6,000 and 8,000 warriors (depending on the source), though only about 2,000 are currently on display for the public. The tombs, having only recently been discovered, are still being unearthed and renovated as they were raided and burned by another since their construction. That's a lot of soldiers. One other interesting fact is that each warrior is unique. I can vouch for this because some of them definitely looked a little odd. I think they were running out of faces/expressions/body types.
Our tour guide was interesting to talk to, she wanted to ask questions about the USA and I wanted to ask questions about China. I tried to ask her about the healthcare here, and what she has access to, but the language barrier was too difficult. She did say that it is usually necessary to have gone to university in order to get a decent job here (decent meaning with the government), though there is very little government support for funding the education, and parents are expected to pay for it. I asked her about unemployment, and she guessed that about 50% of the population here has a job that can sustain them. What her definition of "sustain" is, I don't know. I also asked her if women are expected to perform the same jobs as men, and she said that they can and do, though it is very difficult and rare. When I asked her about the military, she said women can be involved for singing and dancing, but not to train for or engage in combat. Then she proceeded to ask me what cosmetic lines I thought were the best and what should she buy?