Xi’an: Not Before my Pomegranate Juice

One of Xi’an’s seasonal products is pomegranate juice. Tom told us this during his introductory speech about Xi’an. It vied to be capital of the entire country, it has several rivers running through it, and it is known for its pomegranate juice. I’m not sure why, but the idea of a glass of pomegranate juice sounded so enticing at that moment, that I decided I would not leave Xi’an without sampling it. Beijing was pushing peaches. Xi’an was proud of its pomegranates.

(By this point, you should want pomegranate juice too – goodness knows I’ve typed the word enough times to be beyond subliminal. This is outré of me.)

So my quest, small as it was, was to obtain some of said juice. I would even risk taking it with ice, because it sounded so damn refreshing. Our second day in Xi’an – our second morning that is – included visiting the Mosque in the Muslim Quarter, and the city walls. Xi’an is close to the Uyghur autonomous region, another area of China with a distinctly non-Han ethnic majority which was never the less absorbed into the greater country. There has been some friction since then, though certainly not as famous at Tibet’s.

The Muslim Quarter was vibrant and loud. Music blared from windows, and the taffy shops had the mallets out. I’ve seen taffy pullers and taffy machines, but never two men with giant wooden hammers beating the ever-loving fun out of taffy. There are lamb kebabs and giant flat disks of unleavened bread with sesame seeds. And pomegranate juice. Tom assures me that I can get some on the way back.

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Once off the main street things grow far more subdued. The change is so abrupt I have a fleeting feeling of being led astray, compounded by the fact that we turn off to walk down an empty alleyway. It’s interesting, the influence of words and rumor. I’d been reading and hearing about attacks in the region (as well as in Sichuan), about the anger of the Uyghur Muslims. The Chinese newspapers at once minimalized the violence, and emphasized that the attackers were Muslim and that was probably why they were violent. And my initial nervousness in the alley stemmed in part from being bombarded with negative imagery and stereotypes. Never mind that the justice system is so strict and unyielding that violence towards a Westerner is unheard of. It’s difficult to be told something over and over and not have it influence you.

The Mosque is beautiful, with teal rooftops and scroll work. Much of the mosque is antique, preserved throughout the years by meticulous care. I liked seeing the Arabic script with the Chinese characters – two languages I don’t know together. Makes me feel hopeful, because there is so much that I could learn.

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On the way out, I see a set of small kites I want to buy. Earlier, in Beijing, I had passed on some tissue paper kites, and it was eating at me because they had been very pretty, very cheap kites. The timing had been wrong. This time, even though we were on a schedule, I stopped to buy some. I haggled the fastest I’ve ever haggled:

Me: I like these kites.
Man: Yes. You want two?
Me: No, just one. How much?
Man: Fifty.
Me: Ha! No. Fifteen.
Man: Thirty.
Me: I have to go. Twenty.
Man: Ok.

Ted was impressed by this, as normally kites are, in fact, thirty. BOOM. He also feels compelled to hurry us along, as my two-minute haggling, and Dad’s desire to stop and admire all the eclectic shops. I stop him, and remind him I would like a pomegranate juice. He assures me I’ll get it. We keep walking, discussing the local food and drink. All the way back to the entrance of the Muslim District, and I’m juiceless. This will not stand. I giggle and make a joke of being insistent. Underneath my giggles, though, I am iron about this juice thing. I will get that garnet-colored juice of the underworld, or I will not budge.

I don’t regret my insistence. The glass of juice is tart and sweet and wonderful, like ambrosia. Content, I pile back into the crazy white van.

Dad does not want to climb the old City Walls, and I do not blame him. It’s hot again, and it’s noon, but we paid to see the damn walls, so I am climbing the damn walls. I have my juice – what’s fifty more stairs? These are city walls in the traditional sense – great thick ramparts in a square around the old city. They have an annual marathon, or at least a half-marathon, on the wall. Ted suggests that if I come back to teach in Chengdu, I should go to Xi’an in April and do the race. I agree to do so, and I mean it. Though it had an unforgiving climate, I really enjoyed Xi’an, and would like to see more of what the city has to offer.

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Ted takes us to the train station four hours early and unceremoniously drops us off. This is my complaint about the tour overall – there’s a certain feeling of being unloaded as quickly as possible. It happened in Beijing, and it’s happening here. CITS tours manages to make me feel like a cash cow in the most unattractive way – get rid of me once the “official” stops are done, and don’t forget to request a tip.

Back on the train, speeding back to Beijing. I demanded a car to get us to the hotel before we departed for Xi’an. Joe said that our tour technically ended once we got on the train back to Beijing, leaving us on our own to make it back to the hotel. I argued that according to the official itinerary on the website, transportation back to an airport was included, so why not a hotel? After some admittedly Western obstinacy on the subject, I got a car and I got it without additional charge.

We leave day after tomorrow. I am starting to feel excited by the prospect of going home.

Night on the Xi'an Promenade near our hotel.

Night on the Xi’an Promenade near our hotel.

Xi’an: Chain Whips and Warriors

The night we arrive I have too much energy to go to bed early, so I take a walk. While we drove into town I made mental markers of where I wanted to go, and so it’s a fun game in the twilight hours. This ties back to my post on getting lost.  Can I flip the map and backtrack to the neon lights and statues I saw earlier? T

I can. The city, which seemed sort of dead during the heat of the day, comes alive at night. People spill into the parks and streets, and I walk the considerable length of a park, which starts at the Wild Goose Pagoda and ends at a mall and a giant collection of statues celebrating the Tang Dynasty (I believe it’s the Tangs) in a plaza lit by giant LED columns. To be clear: this was one of many such statue collections. The half-mile or so of walking has multiple monuments. There are scholars being inspired by a fountain, generals on horseback, lots of musicians and on-lookers. It’s like seeing a parade, frozen in metal.

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Outside the Wild Goose Pagoda, there are dancers and street merchants selling mini terra cotta warriors, fans, statues – just about every knick-knack you could want to buy, and buy incredible cheap. I pick up a giant fan (it’s still quite warm) for less than two dollars, and keep walking. There are men, sweating and shirtless, cracking whips in one of the side plazas. Upon observation, I realize they’re not bullwhips, but chain whips – a length of wood, a length of chain, and then the actual woven whip at the end of the chain. In order to get the proper speed and form, the men have to gain momentum through three point spins, getting the chain swinging around with enough force to move the leather. It’s quite a sight. It’s late when I return to my hotel room, feeling much more ready for sleep.

The next day we have a late start. I get the distinct impression that there is not really as much to do in Xi’an, since the schedule is so loose. We’ll see the wild goose pagoda, the terra cotta warriors, and in the evening the Tang Dynasty Dumpling show. Tomorrow it’s the Muslim Quarter, the city walls, and that’s it.

We walk to the Wild Goose Pagoda. Our guide – who took the English name Tom – tells us of the Buddha and of the monks who lived in the temple. They were hungry, and in desperation prayed for deliverance. At that moment, a flock of geese flew overhead. So the pagoda was named – a very tall, yet squat, brick structure surrounded by temples and jade carvings.

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Tom is young. He makes me smile because he delivers his information like Siri, and actually chastises Dad for stepping over the threshold of the temple on the wrong foot (the left foot). Realizing that he probably made a mistake in correcting the paying customer, he tries to turn his rebuke into a joke, and fails miserably. Dad is having too much fun to get upset, and like I said I was amused. Tom is clearly afraid of us – especially me. When he found out I’ve been living in China, he acts as though I’m going to reveal all the secrets of their tourism economy. There is some truth in this – I know when we’re being fleeced, and I know where we’ll be forced to go for said fleecing.

The fleecing arrives at the terra cotta “workshop,” where we watch artisans “make” all the warriors which are sold in their store. I’m sure this empty workshop also hums along at some point or another…no I don’t. I bet those statues never move, because when would I come back to check? Those ovens are probably never heated, and have been packed with the same thousand tiny torsos for months. And even if I believed that you made all your terra cotta warriors by hand, I know you didn’t have a part in the furniture, rugs, porcelain, jade, nor any other thing also featured in your store.

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You are fooling no one!

You are fooling no one!

But kudos to your persistence – you almost got Dad to pay $1000 for a terra cotta head. Not a full warrior – no, you charged just as much for the detachable head, which Dad thought might look cool on over our fireplace. I might be crippling your economy with my “insider” knowledge, but then you should have gotten that from Ted, who gets a kickback from your sales.

Sorry, but I get really irritated when I feel like I’m being taken advantage of because I’m a westerner and therefore must be rich. Nope.

Ted is a bit disappointed that we bought nothing, but we press on to the tomb of the Terra Cotta Warriors. Our driver reminds me of Chengdu drivers – he is less civilized in his turning radius than a Beijing taxi driver. He breaks at the last minute, cuts out semi trucks, and generally goes as fast as he can. It’s blazingly hot outside now, and even after a small repast at the site, we’re starting to flag. They’ve redesigned the museum so that it is not accessible by walking (or it’s not easily accessible). Instead you must pay to take a small golf cart. We stand in line, sweating, pressed up in the now familiar mob of bodies. They all brought umbrellas to combat the sun – they almost create their own giant awning.

I ask Ted (who meets us at the end of the ride), why we could not walk, and why we can’t walk back.

“It seems that you would want to ride back, after walking through the museum.”

“There is a cultural village. Very traditional. Good for shopping. Everyone wants to see that!” Ted says. I sigh inwardly. “Cultural Village” is code in China for “Strip Mall.” They’ve designed the park in such a way that they drive you far away from the entry point on purpose, so that you have to walk back through their stores. In essence, they’re trying to force shopping.

I did not really know what to expect when I saw the rows of warriors. My Uncle told me that they were not to be missed, that they were a true marvel. The terra cotta warriors were one of the top attractions in all of China, I read, and one of the greatest archeological finds of, if not the second half, then the whole of the twentieth century.

There were a lot of them, to be sure.

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It’s the details which I think actually impressed me. The idea of a different face model for each figure. That the emperor laced the ground with mercury because he thought it would protect him in the afterlife. There is so much mercury in the ground around Xi’an that they don’t know how to excavate the tombs safely. And then, much like the Great Wall there’s just the sheer scope of it all. Thousands of statues, with ranks and roles – it’s like a child laying out a plastic army, except everything is life-sized.

But you can’t go near the statues. You walk around and above them. There aren’t as many unearthed as I thought there would be – the photos made it seem like there are rows upon rows of pristine figures to admire. This is not the case. There are lots of figures, yes, but most are in pieces and in piles, waiting to be sorted and rebuilt by the archeological teams. The next building, which houses the horses and generals, is actually a series of empty trenches. Everything is underneath the dirt, revealed by sonar and such. There are perhaps two full chariot teams.

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It would be incorrect to say I felt let down by the warriors. I liked seeing them, and they are impressive. But given the sheer hype of the place, I thought I’d see more figures and fewer theoretical ones. It seemed there were whole buildings dedicated to implication. Underneath those mounds there are countless more figures, but….

It’s still a great story. A farmer in the 1960s is digging a well and finds this great forgotten tomb. He decides to say nothing because he doesn’t want the government to arrest him for digging a well wrong. His neighbors report it for him (or report him – hard to say). That man now lives in an air-conditioned hut at the museum site. For the past thirty years or so all he has to do is autograph a book with his face in it. He’s met presidents and dignitaries and has never had to plant a thing, other than his butt in a chair.

That night we go to the Tang Dumpling show – the most famous show in all of Xi’an! After several failed attempts (I scared the waitress by asking too many questions, poor thing), we get twenty different kinds of dumplings! Dumplings shaped like koi! Dumplings with shrimp! Dumplings with mushrooms! Dumplings for everyone! They were decent dumplings, made better by my knowledge of how to make a delectable dipping sauce.

The show… ok, I always get embarrassed at cultural shows. I went to one in Morocco that wound up being belly dancing to techno music at a glorified strip club, and ever since then I’ve felt guilt for what we make other cultures go through to entertain us. This one was not nearly so rough as that – this was a song and dance show, heavy on the dance. It was a serviceable lacquer-job show of what I’m sure are venerable traditions – like a show at Dollywood. I do theater – I’d take the steady paycheck too.

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I’ve waxed long about our first and only full day in Xi’an – there was a lot to take in. I really felt a connection to the city, more than I have in other places in China. There was a vivacity, an energy which seemed youthful, that was great to find in one of the oldest cities in all of China. Tomorrow we go to the Muslim Quarter and then back to Beijing. The trip is ending.

Trains and Tumbleweeds

I love high-speed rail.

 I’ve been on high-speed trains in Europe, and now in China. It’s a great concept – on par with traveling by plane, except without the anxiety of flying. I wish the United States would stop being so stuck up about rail and just build it (think of the job creation!)

Our train goes from Beijing to Xi’an. It’s roughly five hours, but it provides a chance to see the transition in geography. That’s why we’re not flying – above the land transforms quickly, but by train you can see the geography unfold at a more gradual pace. The forests give way to scrub brush, lush farmland gives way to drier climes and drier heats. The farmland reminds me of home a little bit – seeing corn is a welcome sight. The patches of farmland are smaller than in the Midwest, and I see more people working by hand.

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What is not like home is the construction. There is nonstop construction the entire way from Beijing to Xi’an. Specifically, housing complexes.

“It just goes on and on,” Dad comments at one point. What I feel words don’t quite describe is the sheer strangeness of these projects. There aren’t many big cities as we travel along, yet in the distance of the countryside there are fifteen to twenty apartment complexes just sitting there. And ten minutes later there are another ten or fifteen, and so on and so on.

China has a massive population compared to the rest of the world, but they don’t need this. I saw similar things in Chengdu – massive construction projects. What I remember is how empty they were. At least a dozen giant structures devoid of people, and that’s just in one portion of the city. Bill told me that people would move in eventually, that the rooms were spoken for.

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That sounds well and good, but they’re still building them. Empty buildings unclaimed, unused, unpopulated. And now, on the way to Xi’an, I see more of them. The International Relations scholar in me is concerned on an economical level. It’s clear that the construction is fueling China’s economy, but no one is using the construction. So if no one moves in, how do the companies make a profit and/or pay off the costs of construction? And if the government is funding all this, then it is borrowing against nothing, building just to build, and eventually this will collapse around them.

(Sixty Minutes did a segment on this recently. VICE did a segment on it in their previous season. I recommend looking at both of them, to get a better idea of the scope of what I am trying – and failing – to describe.)

China’s Real Estate Bubble 

Modern ghost towns, and the populated ones too, fly by on the high speed rail.

We arrive in Xi’an at sunset. The heat is strong and unrelenting. It almost reminds me of my brief times in the Middle East, in Jordan and Egypt. Heat which sits on your shoulders and settles in each of your skin cells. The new parts of the city are empty – massive highways devoid of vehicles, and dozens of empty apartment complexes. I would come to see that most people live in another part of the city, however as a first impression it all seemed like a creepy lie. I expected to see tumbleweeds and vultures circling ahead.

 

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In Xi’an we will see the terra cotta warriors, and other wonders of this former capital city.

 

Ok, I’m going to take a moment to give a snobby, probably inappropriate whiny moment. Forgive me for this, as I know that I have plenty of privileges. Here goes – for the amount of money I spend on the tour in total, I expected a first class train ticket. Instead, we got second class. Smaller seats, more seats, and less pleasant climate control. Having travelled from Shanghai to Hangzhou by first class, I have to advocate for spending more for the upgrade. It is nicer, the seats are more comfortable.