Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Soaking Up Culture in Xi'an

I somehow managed to struggle out the door of the hostel in Chengdu at 5am, walking through the rain with a full pack out to the main road and hail a taxi, using charades to let the driver know I needed to get to the airport.  Once I had checked in, I found breakfast at a bafflingly upscale Pizza Hut inside the security gate.  I slept through most of the flight, awakening just before we began our descent into Xi'an.  I found a taxi for what I discovered was a very long drive into the city, having a bit of a challenge finding the hostel since the driver couldn't read the English name or address (again), so he dropped me at what I knew to be the closest metro stop to my final destination.  Thankfully my room was available right when I arrived, and I got settled in fairly quickly to the Green Forest Hostel Xi'an, sitting in the common area which felt like a small cafe, taking most of the day to relax.  

That evening, I mustered up the energy to take the metro to the massive bellower and explore the Muslim quarter of Xi'an.  It was absolutely packed!  People everywhere, bright LED signs all along the road, vendors selling street food and beckoning people to their restaurants.  I tried what I think was mutton on a stick - delicious but very spicy! Continuing down the street, I found a busy stand selling chopped meat inside a little pocket of bread (referred to as a Chinese hamburger).  It was delicious - not spicy, but with a strong flavor that reminded me of the kebabs of Istanbul.  All I was missing was one of those yogurt drinks!  I spotted a lady selling small white cartons, and I took a chance - sure enough, yogurt!  The cold tanginess was a perfect balance to the warm, rich flavors of the sandwich.  

As I continued walking, I spotted men pounding out brittle and putting on a show of pulling taffy, attracting big crowds as they yelled and leaped to throw and twist the taffy.  At one point I bumped into two very young Americans - students from Elon, right outside of Charlotte, North Carolina - who were studying abroad in Beijing.  I walked with them a bit, stopping to share a small plate of dumplings, then wandered a bit more through the narrow streets until they had to meet their group.  Having had my fill of the chaos, I returned to catch the metro home, passing both the drum and the bell towers, now decorated all over with bright LED lights.

I nearly collapsed with exhaustion when I returned to the hostel, resting in the common area before pointing out a small misprint on one of the maps the hostel had given me to the staff (they hadn't noticed the small error since only the English translation was incorrect).  I was immediately rewarded with a free beer, which I didn't really want, but since they opened it and handed it to me, I decided to sit and enjoy it.  I wound up staying up another hour or two, first sitting at the bar talking to the staff member whose name translated to "god of sleep", who was sort of obsessed with the song "Country Roads" and played it on repeat all night.  I introduced him to "Wagon Wheel" for a little variety, so at least there were two songs in the loop!  I also chatted with an Israeli and an Argentinian (who had lived very close to where I had stayed in Buenos Aires) about travel and politics and world events until I finally dragged myself to bed, completely exhausted.

I awoke early the next morning, having booked a trip to see both the Terracotta Warriors and the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi.  Our little group left around 9, driving for quite some time before arriving at a shopping stop first.  We were all a little annoyed to be taken shopping for replicas before seeing the actual warriors (and truly, I might have bought a souvenir if I had visited *after* seeing the site), so we pressed our guide to get moving as quickly as possible.  The rest of the drive took quite a long time again, so it was already noon by the time we made it to the Terracotta Warriors Museum.  Thankfully the entire group was determined to charge ahead and see the museum before having lunch, the plan working to our benefit as many of the large tour groups were leaving the museum just as we were arriving.  

We started off at the first of three pits - excavation sites where the warriors had been found.  Pit 1 was by far the largest, and to walk in and see the sheer magnitude of it was just astounding.  Row after row of completely unique life-sized soldiers - thousands in all - as well as stone horses, faced us as we entered the enclosure.  The sheer volume was absolutely incredible, the quality of the work and the quantity of the soldiers, especially considering that there are probably still so many more out there still undiscovered.

We were given some time to slowly make our way around the enclosure, and I found myself jealous of anyone with a massive zoom lens to see those incredible statues - the unique faces and features - up close.  Towards the front of the room, the rows were mostly intact, the soldiers standing erect.  Towards the middle, many of the rows were completely covered by earth, and there were some areas where handfuls of warriors were being reconstructed, pieced together.  Towards the very back, there were again small groups of warriors fully intact and upright, and we could more easily get a closer look at the features of one cluster in particular, noticing the differences not only in their faces, but also their statures, their hairstyles, their clothing, the positions of their hands, all the way down to the details on their shoes.

The next pit was very small and didn't take long to view, some broken piles of soldiers on one side, and some well-formed on the other, though many were missing their heads.  There was a team of horses and what would have been chariots positioned towards the front, soldiers poised at the ready.

The final pit was large, but mostly still covered up, but the big attraction was a handful of individual well-preserved soldiers under glass to one side of the enclosure.  The first was a kneeling archer, exquisitely detailed, down to the remnants of colorful paint, the tread of his shoe, the braids in his hair, and the watchful gaze on his face.  

Next was a high-ranking officer, a general with head gear tied around his head, robes and armor, multiple ribbons to indicate his rank, and a stoic expression.  

Next was a calvary man leading a horse in full war regalia, saddled, with his forelock brushed back against his ears.  

There was also a middle-ranking officer, with the headgear tied around his head, but lacking the decorative ribbons of the general.  

Towards the back was a standing archer, thin and poised with one arm down as if to hold a tall bow, the other bent and taught.  Finally, there was a small display case of weaponry, including a chrome-plated sword, technology that they note was not invented in the modern era until 1937.  It was a wonderful way to end the experience, I only wished that there were more opportunities to view the soldiers up close, to see their incredible details, not just their vast numbers.

We stopped for a very late lunch, our group seated around a large round table as multiple plates of food were brought out, all delicious, as we hungrily devoured all that we could.  Next we were taken to the actual tomb of Emperor Quinshishuang, aka Emperor Quin.  He was the first emperor of China, uniting numerous individual regions into a single unit.  The western name for the country is likely taken from the character representing his name - Quin, pronounced "chin".  The warriors were all crafted to guard his tomb, an awaiting army for him in the after life.  The actual tomb was a huge pyrimidal-shaped piece of earth that resembled a small mountain from afar.  We couldn't enter the actual tomb, as the levels of mercury in and around it are astonishingly high, as they used the substance to create rivers within the underground world.  Legend has it that the tomb is also guarded by a series of Indiana Jones-esque traps to discourage any would-be graverobbers (and archeaologists!).

We piled back into the van for another incredibly long ride, having been forced to take a detour, and of the group, only myself and one other person were dropped off for the second portion of the tour, the Tomb of Emperor Jingdu, otherwise known as the Hanyangling Museum.  I was joined by Mirai, a student from Tokyo who was half-Turkish and half-Japanese and spoke perfect English, as we were guided through the museum.  We were almost the only people there as it was pretty late in the day, and it was dark and quiet as we descended down into the tomb.  It had a series of trenches full of figures, similar to the previous museum, but on a much smaller scale.  These figures were quite different from the terra-cotta warriors, being only about one meter tall, and while their faces did look unique, the bodies looked like they had been mass-produced from a single mold.  Like giant dolls, they had holes in their torsos where wooden arms had once been attached, and they were originally dressed in silk robes.  Now that the clothing and wood have disintegrated, the rows of naked arm-less figures look a bit creepy!  But Emperor Jingdu did not only have soldiers represented, he also had a wide variety of other members of society and animals, ranging from chickens to goats, piglets, huge pigs, cows, dogs, and horses.  There were also numerous earthenware pots and jars, and I had to chuckle at one sign that translated to "Pottery Barns". 

The following day, I took a relaxing morning, hanging around the hostel for breakfast and lunch doing some research and a bit of writing and laundry.  That afternoon, I met up with Tim, an Australian I had met the night before at the hostel, who would be teaching English in Xi'an for the next few months.  Tim and I walked to the nearby north gate of the city wall and climbed the stairs to the top, then rented a pair of small, single-speed bicycles to journey around the circumference of the wall.  We began cycling around, stopping at the first corner and the next gate we came to on the western side, snapping photos and taking in the city spread out around us and the scenes around us - Chinese rooftops and huge modern buildings, statues in a park below the wall, couples riding on tandem bicycles along the wall, ladies walking with their sun umbrellas, families out for walks.  We paused again at the next corner and the south gate, the sun dipping lower in the sky and our shadows growing longer, and we realized we didn't have a lot of time to return our bikes before they closed just after sunset.  For the next half hour, we pedaled fast and furiously, flying along the cobbled wall, as I paused for one last photo of the sun glowing pink within a break in the clouds, shooting rays in every direction.  

With our bikes successfully returned and our deposit collected and back where we started, we walked around the bottom of the wall a bit, seeking out a park with exercise equipment that is so typical of Asia.  We found just what we were looking for, and we noticed a set of monkey bars were completely empty, so we tried out some pull-ups and swung from rung to rung.  Very soon we were joined by a young boy who went back and forth from bar to bar just as we had.  I hung upside down from one of the bars, and he seemed to think it was the greatest newest trick he had ever seen!  As his mom kept a very close, watchful eye on him, he began trying to hang upside down himself, and soon all three of us were giggling and monkeying around upside down.  We had slowly attracted a small crowd, as fit older men would stop by briefly to show off, knocking out quick sets of strict pull-ups, and children would wander over and stare.  As we left, a large group of children and their moms had gathered, all the kids testing out this new trick that the strange foreigners had been doing.

Starving, we walked to a hot pot restaurant just around the corner from the hostel, selecting a huge bowl full of ingredients that were served back to us in the form of a soup, accompanied by bowls of rice.  We ate a fairly sizable amount, then finally turned back to the hostel, where I began packing and preparing for my departure the next day.  Xi'an had turned out to be a wonderful little place to explore, and I could have probably stayed longer, returning again and again to the Muslim Quarter for that incredible street food and to witness the chaos.  But I had decided on a wildcard destination - Zhangye - a place no one I had met had ever been to, which would turn out to be one of the most bizarre and challenging - yet somehow also beautiful - stops in my entire journey.

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