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[personal profile] marjorieinchina
When I left off, it was Wednesday and we were arriving in Xi'an. (Here is a tiny bit of background info about Xi'an! It used to be the capital, way the heck a long time ago, and there are a lot of old things there! Okay, here is a little bit more background info about Xi'an, with my guidebook at hand so I can be sure I'm not messing things up: Xi'an is very near the capital of the Qin dynasty, which was the first dynasty and only really had one emperor, but since he unified the country and built the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors he gets to be a dynasty all by himself. That was a couple hundred years BC. Xi'an was the capital off and on for the next thousand years. There is, consequently, a lot of really really old stuff in Xi'an, and it's better-preserved than the old stuff in many other cities.)

It's strange to start a day by tumbling off a train into an unfamiliar station instead of, oh, taking a shower and having some tea. But once we found the taxi queue and got to our hotel we did all the usual morning things, and then, fortified with showers and oolong, we Set Out to See Xi'an!

The first thing we went to see was the Daoist temple and the antique market in front of it. I browsed awkwardly in the market while vendors hovered nervously near me, but Andrea and Lindsay both made some nice finds (Lindsay bargained HARD for some things she found--as it turns out, she's quite good at this). Things got intense when we got into the temple, because it was there I learned my destiny!

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See that bell? I hit it with a ¥1 coin. This means I will have a predestined relationship with Daoism. Unfortunately I have no idea what this means, and I really don't know anything about Daosim except that you probably shouldn't learn about it from The Tao of Pooh. I can't even decide whether to spell "Tao" with a T or a D! But the temple was very nice.

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We had lunch at what the guidebook told us was the oldest restaurant in Xi'an, which was in a building that didn't seem old at all. Lunch included eggplant with garlic and yangrou paomo, a soup made with crumbled bits of tough bread and mutton and broth. Any Chinese food that involves bread gains points in my book. The restaurant was pretty close to the bell tower, so we went up the tower--we were on a roll, after all, of climbing everything that presented itself to be climbed. Inside we saw some performers in traditional costume perform "Moli Hua" and "Auld Lang Syne" on replica historical bells. On the balconies there were good views of the city, and we hung over the railings for a while getting in the way of everyone else's pictures. At least we weren't as obnoxious as the couple that kept parking themselves in the best seats or viewing spots just to make out. (Me: "It's like all they ever wanted was to be together at the Bell Tower in Xi'an." Andrea: "We made it, honey! We made it!" In China one gets dangerously used to talking about people who are right there.)

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McDonald's is to the left, but one of the old city gates is front and center here. Every time I take a picture of something very old surrounded by modern business towers I feel like I'm participating in a cliché.

While we were up there we spotted a Starbucks, so when we went down the tower we went over to procure some caffeine. The coffee would have been nicer if not for the man who came to stand by our table and stare at us, silently, for a good ten minutes. Eventually he moved on to stare at some other people. When he started to stare at a dumpster we felt less singled out.

It seemed a good time to check e-mail, so we started looking for an Internet bar. We talked to a lady in a tea shop who pointed the way, and the attempt to follow the way she had pointed took us deep into a market street all the way to the Great Mosque and to the folk house we had been meaning to visit. We put a bookmark in the mosque to visit later but went in to the Folk House for a tour. It's so cool to see historic places that are really old and not reconstructions--I've seen a lot of reconstructions.

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The tour included a tea tasting, which was quite heavenly--I came away with a canister of "Concubine Tea" (don't snicker, it's just black tea with lychee). Then we got a shadow puppet show. Xi'an has a tradition of colorful leather shadow puppets with jointed hips and knees and arms, and the show was way more mobile and lively than the name "shadow puppet show" suggests. It was also totally incomprehensible, except it was clear that there was a guy killing people with a stick. Lots of fun. After we left, we wandered a little more, had dinner at what was more or less a Chinese fast-food place, and returned to the hotel, where we abruptly fell asleep.

When we managed to get moving the next morning, we set out in search of the bus that would take us to the Terracotta Warriors. And we found it, too, though not without help from half a dozen different bystanders. It was worth the search--the bus was much cheaper than a tour, and we got to move at our own pace.

The Terracotta Warriors are surrounded by a white concrete vastness, incredibly bright on a sunny day like this one, populated by lots and lots and lots and lots of stores selling mostly a) overpriced bottled drinks and b) miniature warriors. Andrea said that when she was there a few years ago, none of that was there, but they did have little helicopter-like things people could rent and fly themselves, and she saw someone flying one who crashed and had to be taken to the hospital. So this was an improvement.

There was a museum on the site, which was mildly informative, but there was no question what was the star of the show. Or, rather, stars.

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This one just happened to look like an alien.

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We liked the hat on the guy towards the back of this picture. We were imagining the soldiers conferring with each other what to wear on terracotta day. It's like picture day in high school, except the evidence lasts forever. (If describing ancient warriors like middle-school girls sounds like fun to you, then visit historic China!)

We had lunch at one of the restaurants on the site (I had an "ickle seafood noodle") and then found the bus to go see a drastically less famous site, the Huaqing Hot Springs. There's a palace there, old though heavily reconstructed, that used to be the residence of a concubine who was so beautiful she caused the whole kingdom to fall apart, or something. They had a small museum with such weird English translations it was rather difficult to learn anything. But it was very pretty there, and there was a place where we could pay to sit with our feet in the warm water, which turned out to be, as Lindsay said, "exactly what I was hoping would happen today." We also had some more excellent popsicles and saw where Chiang Kai-Shek had stayed in the 30s, and where "the Xi'an incident shocked the world in 1936." (What this was: Chiang was kidnapped by some of his own officers together with the Communist party, to get the Nationalists and the Communists to join forces in fighting the Japanese. I had to look it up.)

We lingered a bit in the shade before catching the bus back. Once we'd gotten back to Xi'an we had dinner in a cheap, homey place, the kind where they grab a handful of chopsticks out of a cup to put on your table, and spent the evening wandering a nearby shopping mall mostly looking at the English printing on shirts. My favorite said "CAN'T STAND ME NOW! it is expected."

The next day, Friday, was our last in Xi'an, and we used it to do some serious wandering. I could call it exploring, but that would be disingenuous. We basically walked up and down Xi'an's Muslim Quarter and ate as much of the weird street food on offer as we could hold. This included a lot of baked goods made with sesame, some coated with colorful sugary stuff on the outside, and also some dried fruit and probably some other things I'm not remembering; we also stocked up on souvenirs and Chinese stationery and visited the Great Mosque.

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Their minaret is sort of in disguise as a pagoda.

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I've gotten so used to seeing Chinese characters on everything that it was really exciting to see some Arabic script in here.

We weren't allowed inside the prayer hall, but even so it was remarkably clear who was there to look and who was there to pray. Somehow there was more diversity inside the mosque than even in the neighborhood right outside it, including men in starched white caps, family groups in clothes that looked Middle Eastern to me although I couldn't identify them more precisely than that, and at least one woman in a long black robe and veil speaking with an American accent.

We wore ourselves out with walking and arrived at the train station early for our return to Beijing. We were all in the same compartment this time, and the train left a little earlier than the last one had, so we had time to sit up talking about Flight of the Conchords and other important things while the fourth passenger assigned to our compartment, a Chinese guy, hung out awkwardly in the hallway. "You can come in if you want!" we said, but it was hard to tell whether he understood.

In the morning we pulled in to Beijing and repeated the whole start-your-day-in-a-train-station act, checked back in to our Beijing hotel, and went to look for lunch. During our previous stay in Beijing we'd found a Time Out Beijing magazine with a recommendation for a dumpling place called the Filling House. The Internet provided the address, and although addresses in Beijing are not necessarily enough to get you where you're going, we managed to find it in all its garage-like, no-English-menu glory and have some of the best food I've had in China. Major props to Andrea for translating the important parts of the menu and to the waiter for recommending an amazing sprouts-and-coin-shaped-noodles dish.

Then we went to the zoo! Guess what we saw at the zoo?

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You are a good guesser!

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"In order to marry his sweetheart," the signs told us, "a male panda must go through rounds of elimination games."

Apart from the pandas, the zoo had lemurs (as previously noted), a lot of weird-looking birds, and a really depressing big-cat house where the tigers paced or just sat still in little concrete enclosures. American zoos used to be like this, I'm told, so let's just hope the tigers get upgraded someday soon. There were some larger outdoor big-cat enclosures, and we decided to believe the cats get to take turns being out there. There was also a rather provocative wall of signs saying things like "A lion knows its strength is in the pride" or "Bears don't discriminate when their young are female." I saw someone else taking a picture of that one. I'd be curious to find out how that kind of message is received here.

We spent some time in the aquarium, which was significantly newer and seemed better cared for than the, uh, land zoo. By the time we got through the aquarium we were moving pretty slowly and stopping for long breaks whenever we found a place to sit (like the benches where you watch the dolphins, who were not doing a blessed thing at the time we sat there). Somehow we summoned enough energy to brave an insane closing-time subway crowd and go down to the Pearl Market--I only got us a tiny bit lost before we found it. The Pearl Market, like a lot of things named "market" in China, is not a collection of stalls on a street but rather a vast building complex with many, many small vendors inside. In this case they were selling lots of knockoff brand-name goods, silk scarves, and electronics. Lindsay and Andrea bargained hard for some seriously impressive finds and then we skedaddled out of there, stopping on the way back to the train for some very necessary coffee.

We got back to the hotel feeling absolutely beat, but we took a rest and gathered our wits and energy for our last dinner together. We'd decided to splurge for the last night and go for Peking duck at Made in China, one of the restaurants in the Grand Hyatt Beijing. The Hyatt is one of a series of luxury hotels on a major street near Tiananmen Square, and we walked through at least one group of very important-looking men in suits on our way there. The lobby of the Hyatt is tall and glassy and majestic, and my mind boggled a little at the thought that this--this international elegance--is the experience some people have of China (no chickens on the pavement, no hacking sounds from your neighbors...okay, most people who stay in hotels do not have these experiences, but STILL). We had an hour's wait for a table, which allowed us time for some fancy cocktails in the lobby, and when the meal came it was absolutely fantastic. There is a reason Peking duck is world-famous. We were given little pieces of duck skin first; you dip one of these in sugar and then let it melt on your tongue, and it's not quite like anything else. Then there were leg and breast meat to roll up in a pancake with thin slices of vegetables, duck sauce, and mashed garlic. There was also decent foreign white wine, which for me took an already great meal and kicked it up another notch--good white wine is a real treat here. We left feeling extremely content, even when we had to run back to our hotel in the rain.

The next morning it was, unfortunately, time to part ways. We made a last snack run, and then Andrea and Lindsay got in a taxi to the airport. (Spoiler alert: They made it safely back to New York.)

I had about six hours before my own flight, and the smell of breakfast in the hotel lobby was proving irresistible, so the first thing I did was eat some more French toast. Mmm French toast. Then I took the subway to the Lama Temple, a former palace that was converted a few hundred years ago to a Tibetan Buddhist temple. It's built on the scale of a palace, so the grandeur was palpable, but so was the atmosphere of devotion. At the central shrines there were probably equal numbers of tourists and people going down on their knees and laying incense before the statues. (There were signs saying not to actually light any incense because it was a windy day.) At the smaller, side altars, the ratio of worshippers to tourists was so high I felt rather out of place. The shrines are laid out in a progression from front to back, and at the last one there was a massive wooden statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. I snuck forward and peeked out from under the ceiling of the first floor to get a good look at his face.

Two of the buildings are used as exhibit halls for religious statuary. I looked at these statues as museum pieces--they were inside glass cases, after all--but others were there to worship them, most noticeably a group of four women all under 5 feet tall who bowed and put their hands on the glass before all the statues of one particular goddess. There was a god who almost had my name: Mahakala. He looked like he should not be messed with.

I lingered there for a good while before going in search of my last target in Beijing, an international grocery store called Jenny Lou's. Getting there took much longer than I'd anticipated, but I couldn't quite make up my mind to give it up. The store was in an interesting neighborhood--quiet, green, and clearly international, with a surprising number of Russian restaurants. I found what I'd been looking for, a block of Parmesan cheese, and speed-walked back to the train. I stopped only to take this picture, because I couldn't pass it by:

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I don't know what this means. It wasn't even next to a bar.

I made it to the airport barely 45 minutes before my flight, checked in at an otherwise closed counter, got through security, and rushed onto the plane. I spent the short flight relaxing with the novel I'd picked up in Xi'an, while the rest of the passengers jumped out of their seats and took each other's pictures and shouted back and forth to each other. And soon we were back in Quzhou, and I was back at my apartment, and it was time to start teaching again.
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marjorieinchina

July 2010

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