Shaanxi Adventures, Day 5

Waking up in luxury, I decided to rest most of the day and make plans.  Most importantly, I’d run out of clean clothes and needed to wash a few things before I could go anywhere.  By late afternoon I’d had a chance to rest and I had some clean togs to wear – I was ready to hit the town.  By then, I’d found out the bad news that there were no tickets for the next day to see the Terra Cotta warriors.  I’ve been very anxious to see them – they were my main reason for coming to XiAn.  But no matter, there are plenty of other things to see and experience here.  And eat.

So I ventured out into the pre-evening with a successful taxi ride (no drama!) to Muslim Food Street.  I hadn’t done any research into this place before I arrived, so I had no idea what I was in for.   Turns out I was in for rather a lot.  From entry to exit, my fitness tracker counter almost 4 miles, and all of it was pushing through VERY crowded streets.  Food ‘street’ is really more of a walking food district, and it was packed to the gills with people.  

XiAn’s most famous food is Biang Biang Mian.  I’ve become a big fan of the belt noodles, served with oil and meat, from a restaurant near my work in Beijing.  I was excited to come here to the origin of the famous dish and eat the food represented by the most complex Chinese character (shown below).

Biang (regular script).svg

I picked a restaurant because of the presence of a large ‘biang’ character on the sign out front.  The restaurant was greasy, crowded, and high-paced.  The food was relatively expensive, but I was happy to pay the price.  This was clearly a restaurant made for tourists.  No matter – I ordered the Biang Biang Mian with beef and waited for my order.  I took the only open table in the restaurant, sitting next to a large family who was clearly visiting elsewhere on a family vacation.  They were thrilled to meet me, and we struck up the normal conversation: Which country are you from? Can you speak Chinese? Ah, your Chinese is so good! (There are a good many taxi drivers who would disagree with you, I thought.)  Can we take a picture with you and our children?  I happily engaged this family, continuing my one-man mission to spread friendship between the people of China and the people of the United States.

This conversation would repeat so many times in subsequent days that I’ll create a separate  blog post to cover it.

One of the brilliant things I saw, both in PingYao and XiAn, was foot massage stores in the middle of these high-traffic tourist areas.  China is great for massage in general, it being a part of general health maintenance in Chinese medicine.  But the particular placement of these stores was genius – every tourist area in the world should incorporate this.  Disney, please consider it!

After eating, I continued walking down the street until I saw a massive dragon emerging from the mist, and heard the sound of drums banging.  I bravely walked toward the monster’s jaws, then disappeared under them into the mist.  I was in a cave, with light down a short tunnel.  I followed the light and found an empress sitting on her throne, her imperious gaze looking out over shoppers, selecting jewelry and knick-knacks.  I’d just found one of the world’s coolest store entrances, but the end of the journey left me feeling a bit like Ralphie from A Christmas Story when he decoded his message from the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society: “Drink More Ovaltine? A crummy commercial?” I passed up the opportunity to buy some beautiful hand-hammered travel mugs and wandered out of the store and into the street, where the fading light of day was being replaced by the glitzy, commercial light of neon signs.  Further down the street I would find several more such store entrances.  I wondered which one was first, and how they’d felt when others had imitated their success.

I bought an ice cream, which turned out to be based on coconut milk, and delicious.  I meandered around the corner into a less-crowded side street to eat it and accidentally set up my own photo booth.  Freed from the press of the crowds and more visible standing alone, I attracted a line of mothers, bringing me their children for photos and to show off their English skills.  I had to work to maintain my smile – I wanted to be eating that delicious coconut ice cream.  But when duty calls, it doesn’t wait.  

Finishing the photo line, I made a quick departure further down the side street to a less-visible place, where I attracted the other kind of insta-friend: young or middle aged men who wanted to share a cigarette and chat.  Silently thankful for my foolish youthful experimentation with cigarettes, I accepted.  Chinese cigarettes (or at least the kind I’ve been offered) are very thin, sweet, and burn quickly.  This makes for mercifully brief smoking experiences and concomitantly brief conversations.

As I was finishing both, I looked up and noticed where I was: standing in front of the local ministry of justice building.  I also saw a rather serious-looking man staring hard at me, probably wondering why I was  there with a camera.  As I quickly made my exit, I saw him urgently ushing people into the building.  I’m not sure what was happening there; once again I find myself with more questions than answers.  In that moment I realized again my ignorance of this society, and the years it could take to penetrate the bamboo curtain of language and culture to build true mutual understanding.

My wandering continued, and I resolved to walk this district until I came to its end.  I took photos, focusing largely on people.  People working are especially interesting to me during this type of observation, and it probably shows in the picutres I chose to make.  Also, they’re often standing in one place, and frequently in pools of good light.  Patience is required is to wait for a gesture that typifies their skill, activity, or character.

As I explored the extent of the district, I noticed a change in the place’s character.  It became more local and less touristy, and very slightly less crowded.  Finally, a street dumped me out on a main thoroughfare.  I was out of the walking streets and back into the modern city.  I decided to walk the 45 minutes back to my hotel and call it a night.

*Linguistic note: The name of the city XiAn is often spelled with an apostrophe between the first set of two letters and the second set (Xi’An).  This is a concession to clarify in Pinyin and Roman characters; in Chinese, the word is a clean two character set, one for Xi and one for An.  The confusion arises from the fact that there are also a few characters with the sound xian, pronounced as a single syllable.  I’ve chosen to render it XiAn, with capitals representing where the second character pronunciation starts.  I’ve chosen this because other Chinese words don’t often rely on the apostrophe to make the Pinyin work – it seems more respectful to the language.

Shanxi/Shaanxi Adventures: Day 4

*Note on the title: On this day I traveled from PingYao, in Shanxi province, to Xi’An, in Shaanxi province. The naming might seem confusing to U.S. readers, but I’ll remind you that we have a bunch of North/South paired states in the U.S., which might be just as confusing for travelers from elsewhere.

I was tired this morning when leaving PingYao.  I decided to rest and not see any more tourist destinations.  I missed my train by a few minutes, which I assumed would be no big deal, because the train schedule listed another train every hour for the rest of the day.  What I hadn’t reckoned on is that those trains might be sold out.  And, in fact, they were.  So, in a grumpy mood, I booked a train ticket for four hours later.

That is when he approached me.  He had extremely rotten teeth and a completely unselfconscious smile.  I greeted him, as I do everyone who approaches me, with my friendliest smile and a greeting in Chinese.  He is from Chengdu.  He welcomed me to China and strongly recommended that I come to Chengdu.  He said a good many other things, and I didn’t understand any of them, except for a reference to  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  It made me supremely uncomfortable that this conversation had veered into the politics of the bilateral relationship, and that I only understood snippets of what was being said.  I felt that even polite head-nodding and agreement were likely to have me inadvertantly taking a position that I shouldn’t be taking.  I tried to quickly exit, which was no small feat.

I left the train station with four hours to kill and no desire to revisit the PingYao old city.  I’d made a clear part with her, and didn’t want to have to do so again.  Plus, the taxi ride out and back is a little long and more than a little uncertain.  So I grabbed my luggage and tried to get a taxi to the ShuangLin Temple, which was fairly close to the high speed rail station.  This turned out to be harder than anticipated.  I didn’t want to get a ride from the line of vultures out in front of the train station.  As the only foreigner for many kilometers around, they literally got into arguments with each other over who could take this fare.  It had happened several times before that taxi drivers turn off their meters halfway through the trip, then make up an arbitrary fare upon arrival.  I wanted the comfort of a ride-sharing app, like Didi (China’s Uber) or AliPay or Baidu Maps (China’s Google Maps) or GaoDe.  Unfortunately, this pitted me against my old nemesis, the Chinese taxi driver at the other end of the phone line.  Several called, and again I went through the same dance.  “I’m a foreigner, can you speak slowly? …  I’m sorry, I don’t understand.  … This is embarassing, but I don’t know what you’re saying ….” until they finally just cancel the ride.  After 30 minutes of trying, I finally found a driver willing to take me without a long phone call, and made the 5 or 6-minute trip to the ShuangLin Temple.

The temple itself was a nice experience.  But I was feeling grumpy for having missed my train, tired of being outside in the bitter cold  weather, put out at having to carry my luggage with me, and sore from all the walking.  And I had a caffeine headache from not being able to find any tea or coffee that day.  I decided not to go through the hassle of taking out my camera out to take pictures.   Whether to take pictures turned out to be a more complicated decision than expected.  This temple and its many colorful statues represent centuries of religious art, and they’re really a sight to behold.  I especially appreciated the 3-dimensional nature of many of the displays, with not only 3-dimensional figured on a flat background, but scenes that wrap around on the wall and protrude far out in front of the background plane.  The variety of sculptural styles seen through the ages was impressive.  But every scene bore a sign: No Photos.  I suspect that this really means, “No flash photography”.  The introduction of flashed light could damage the ancient artwork.  Now, I DON’T use flash.  I haven’t done so, apart from portrait lighting, since I took my first photojournalism class at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) 20 years ago.  And there were plenty of other people taking pictures – no one else seemed to heed the signs.  But still, as the only foreigner in a place of religious worship, I didn’t feel right disregarding that particular rule.  Or maybe I was just trying to justify to myself not having to pull my camera out in the freezing cold.

Aside from all the other people taking pictures despite the signs, a drone also hovered over the temple for most of my visit.  Outside of the Beijing area, I haven’t seen any signs prohibiting drones here.  And I’ve seen many of them flying around tourist sites in Harbin, PingYao, and Meng Shan.  Someone is getting fantastic footage in these relatively early days of drone photography.  I predict that drones will become a nuisance as they catch on, and these places will need to regulate their use, as many other places in the world already have (I’m looking at you, U.S. National Park system!).  But for now, I regretted leaving my drone at home.

I was walking along the wall of the temple, trying to kill time, when who should approach me?  The guy from Chengdu.  Not he was pointing me out to other people.  I think he told me that he had followed me from the train station to Shuanglin Temple.  I’m not sure how he got there, but he’s almost certainly better with taxis than I am.  But another  extended, uncomfortable conversation ensued. This timeit  inlcuded the bystanders he’d roped in to take our pictures.  But the bystanders gave me some hope – I could read in their body language that this guy was also making them feel awkward.  With their help, I ended the conversation and walked away this time escaping awkwardness with suitcase-banging trip through the narrow door that leads to the restrooms.

Getting back to the high-speed rail station was another adventure, and it went about like you’d expect: me unable to get a taxi, waiting 25 minutes for a bus that ended up not going where I needed to go, and finally finding a taxi driver at the last minute.  By this time I was so relieved to get a ride that I didn’t even care that he turned off the meter and overcharged me.

I sat in the train station for the next few hours, journaling and watching the crowds.  It was easy to see why the few trains I had wanted to book were sold out: the train station was packed.  It seems that many people are returning home after visiting family during the Spring Festival.  Every once in while I’d look up from my computer to find someone, sitting a few rows away, staring at me.  I always smiled and nodded.

When it was finally time to board the train, I thought I’d settle in for 3 hours of rest and enjoying the Chinese countryside.  I was wrong.  When I got onto the train, someone was sitting in my assigned seat.  No problem, I thought.  There are plenty of extra seats on the train.  I’d just occupy one of those.  I was only right for a little while.  As we stopped as successive stations, more and more people got onto the train.  Again and again, I was sitting in someone else’s assigned seat.  Finally, all the seats on the train were taken.  At long last, I had to return to my assigned seat and compel the guy sitting in it to move so I could sit down.  He was surprisingly cool about it.  I’m not sure where he went, but I spent the rest of the journey sitting next to his girlfriend while she took selfies and posted them on social media.  I’m not clear as to whether I showed up in any of the selfies, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Hitting XiAn was shocking – a journey that only lasted three hours but moved me decades into the future to a cosmopolitan city.  It felt like going from Winterset, Iowa to New York City.  I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the change.  I was still wearing my snow clothes to keep warm and ratty old running shoes dusty with PingYao’s history.  The people around me were wearing fashionable suits and all seemed to be on the way to Martini bars.  Getting a taxi for the 50-minute ride across town to my hotel was easy, and the driver didn’t seem eager to debate me or attempt to teach me Chinese by brute force.  As we drove, I stared out the windows in mild shock.  There didn’t seem to be an inexplicable construction boom on our route – everything here seemed to have been built, established, and decorated with lots of big city lights.  I couldn’t believe the size of the city – in only a few days I’d habituated to (relatively) smaller towns.

When I arrived at the Sofitel, the contrast couldn’t have been greater.  I was upraded to a suite on check-in and walked my dusty sneakers into the warm embrace of big-city luxury.  I put on one of the (4!) robes in my room and sat down to reflect.  It occured to me that this contrast between places is a feature of China.  Like every country, China isn’t one thing: it contains worlds; people whose lives are so disparate and diverse that they can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in the other’s shoes.

For tonight, though, I fired up the food delivery apps and tried to order a pizza (which was terrible) and a beer (which was great).  I have two more days in XiAn, but I’m feeling the need to rest a bit.