I elected to go to Xi’an after Lijiang. The guidebooks state it as the start of the Silk Road, so I was all for an ancient city full of spice and fabric. Well, it had some of that. Xi’an is full of ancient buildings, but there is nothing inside of them. Similar to the walls which ring the inner city, there is just a tantalizing taste of what used to be, but no substance inside.
I took the night train from Lijiang to Kunming, my least favorite city in China. I decided to take the bus to the only place I knew how to get to from the train station: The Hump Kunming. I camped there all day, paying 3 RMB to hold my pack, and another 5 to take a shower. I also bought a coffee, so I wouldn’t look like a freeloader.
At 7pm, I took a 2-day train from Kunming to Xi’an. In total, it cost about $80 to go from Lijiang to Xi’an, a distance of 1,600 km. Top bunk. This means you can’t sit up for 36 hours, unless you clamber down and huddle up near the window in one of the fold-down chairs. However, these are usually all occupied. All day long. I had brought way too many snacks, so I just settled in like a squirrel in it’s hole and ate snacks the whole way.
In Lijiang, I had finally given in and purchased a cross-stitch kit. These are highly popular across Asia, and come with a printed fabric pattern and your string; mine cost about $3. However, I came to the painful realization on the train that one does not cross stitch with a doubled thread, but with A untied thread. So i had to shred the hell out of my pattern, ripping out the threads, to start all over. Then I ran out of that color. I’m looking on it now as a sort of Fatalist art piece, however much gets finished is how it was meant to be.
The train pulled into Xi’an around 7 in the morning, and I had already set up my homestay, but I couldn’t find her when I got out of the station. I once again begged a phone from some young girls and called, whereupon Wendy showed up to conduct me to her home.
Wendy was 4-months pregnant, and had moved home with her parents. Her husband owned a hostel in Xi’an, but was traveling on business, and her father worked in another town, so it was rather a like a halfway home, especially when the second couchsurfer arrived–another girl. Her mother offered me some corn porridge (soupy grits, as I call them) and “Chinese bread” (a plain fried bread, similar to topinka in the Czech Republic). I knocked out on the couch for awhile, then, in the afternoon we decided to visit the regional museum.
Entry was free, but we had to wait in line. A little girl had been dogging me since the bus, and was the first Chinese child who wasn’t innately terrified of me. She was very sweet and friendly, and must have gone to an international school, as she was already speaking English. Throughout Xi’an, I met a couple more children who, it seemed to me, must have Western teachers, as they eagerly approached me and spoke in English–in direct contrast to every other Chinese child.
Inside the museum, the displays proceeded chronologically, with about a hundred wine-heating tripods in the material of your choice. There was also a small exposition on the terra cotta warriors. I thought the second floor much more interesting, when we had proceeded to ceramic works and glazing techniques. A tri-color glaze is endemic to Xi’an pottery–jade, burnt umber, and white (for your edification). Wendy found a display of found pottery which was said to have been found in an ancestral Lu burial plot. “That’s my family name!” she said, “We must be related!”
After the museum, Wendy went home and I went to the Muslim Quarter. It was Moderately jammed with people. Every few feet, the same display: either people making candy by hitting it with hammers, or pulling long, taffy-like wads from a pole, or frying potatoes in a large skillet, grilling small skewers, or making cakes. I wandered through the crowd looking around, but all the shops seemed the same. Lijiang deja vu.
I wandered down a little alley, and discussed pricing over many a small item, but bought nothing. Eventually, I wandered into a little store specializing in cut paper and haggled my way into 4 designs at about $1.50 each. It still seemed like too much, but haggling gets old so fast, especially when you’re expected to do it for figuratively every purchase, including lodgings.
On my way to the #37 bus station near the bell tower, I walked down an alley filled with little shops filled with cheap, cute clothes. I couldn’t resist. The lacy, pastel, neon miasma drew me in like a bug-zapper to moths. The prices weren’t nearly so cheap as Thailand, where you can have the same outfit for much less, but I was happy to have a couple first-hand buys for cheap, around 19 RMB per article ($3). The whole area was a gigantic shopping pit.
Figuratively. There are stairs leading down to a Wal-Mart (they’re all over China), but no Wal-Mart in sight, just row upon row of dinky little clothing shoppe. Very similar to the Thai night markets. All selling the same or similar things, can’t try them on, but prices are rock bottom.
Chinese Wal-Mart is just the same as in America, including Equate brand cheap-o products. For me, the Most Unexceptional part was discount Hershey products, like Cookies n Creme bars–my favorite chocolate candy. Actually, I would recommend going here, because things are very cheap, and the attendants are actually nice, compared to every other Chinese supermarket.
Eventually I took the bus home, but didn’t know which way to walk at the stop. I walked first one way, then the other, then stopped into some big, brightly lit building to ask the door attendant, who wasn’t there. I waited, and waited, and eventually started to unlock the cell phone sitting on the desk, having decided that it would either make someone appear, or I could just use it. Worked like a charm, a girl came running up and let me dial Wendy on the landline. But Wendy didn’t answer. So, I kept walking.
By luck, I had walked in the right way, and turned down the right alley, and ended up at home (thank you, photographic memory).
The next day Wendy suggested I visit the city wall and the calligraphy street. Sounds good to me! I took the bus and 1, 2, 3 I was there! You have to pay to go mess around inside the city wall, but I looked from afar. Wendy says you can also rent bicycles and pedal along the top of the wall, which extends 13km around the city. I did not do this, however, ha. I proceeded to Shu Yua Men street and started wandering. The whole street is filled with little wooden carts selling calligraphy paraphernalia and stamps.
Do you know about Chinese stamps? In old times, and maybe today, important persons had a little stamp cut with their surname characters. This stamp is plunked in a little dish of red paint and printed upon all documents requiring their mark, read: wills, contracts, paintings, poems… The coolest thing we saw in the regional museum was an 8-sided stamp, because the person had so many titles. What a gangster!
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve always been a bit of a calligraphy nerd. So I couldn’t resist getting a couple more brushes (I already had one from Viet Nam) and an ink stick. However, when I returned home, I found to my dismay that ink sticks really don’t work well without grinding stones (which I did NOT want to carry), and that weak ink doesn’t show up at all. I was sorely disappointed, until Wendy asked why I didn’t get one of the sheets of practice paper you can write on with water.
These sheets are the dopinest. They come in an assortment of styles, some with outlines to help you form strokes and characters, some with just boxes to facilitate proper character formation. When you put water on them, it shows up black as ink until it dries. What a fun toy! However, I hadn’t bought one. What I had bought was two thin books on calligraphic art–look forward to future masterpieces, everyone! And I had peered into many and many a calligraphic atelier, becoming much inspired. I highly recommend visiting this little area.
The next day I had resolved to just lurk around home. However, Wendy and the other couchsurfer, Lynn, were going to go back to the calligraphy street. I supposed I could go again. I first posted a package of souvenirs at the post office near the Bell Tower (this was figuratively my only point of reference in all Xi’an. You can find most things within walking distance of this monolith).
Oh, the postal service in China is also a bank. Don’t be fooled! It really is a post office. The signs are green with yellow lettering and a character that to me looks like a kite. Yes, my Chinese reading is progressing admirably, thank you.
Anyhow, I went to meet up with Wendy and Lynn and wandered for an hour or so around the calligraphy street. That area is tiny, I don’t know how we kept missing each other. Finally, I borrowed a phone from a group of dudes and called Wendy, who answered this time. Upon leaving, I suggested we go to a cafe I went to the day before (I forgot to tell you) called Caffe Bene.
Apparently it’s a Korean coffee chain; I couldn’t afford any drinks, and so bought some gelato instead (imagine gelato being more affordable than a simple coffee!) Anyhow, it’s starts on the 5th floor of an 8-story building that also houses a dance club and a spa (I looked on all the floors). You should go! It’s a very fun place, and is actually less expensive than many other Chinese cafes.
After the cafe, we went to dinner at a place with endless rice and salad, as assured us by Wendy. Of course we agreed. We ordered three dishes, and were served many little bowls of snacks: watermelon, tasty crunchies, cabbage with thousand island, and a few other things. We were also provended endless sour plum drink, which is not only not sour, but is incredibly delicious as well. There was fried and white rice, and at the salad bar was just more of the same snackies we already had, plus some other distinctly Chinese offerings, such as medicinal jello, made from a tea-like herb. I believe it was the same herb used in the Vietnamese “cooling” drink.
The next day I elected to finally go to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, although I’ll have you know I was completely against the idea. It was easy enough to get there, and a nice man lent me the extra 1 RMB for the bus. It took about an hour and a half to get all the way out there, and I was let off in the middle of a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. The parking lot was the bus drop off, not the Terra Cotta Warriors place. I don’t even know the name of where they are, haha. I drew a nice, quick picture of a warrior, and started walking around pointing and asking.
I was quite lucky, and the next place over was actually the entrance. However, I had to traipse through a giant parking lot and up and up and around and here and there and I got to the entry gates finally, to be told that I had to buy a ticket elsewhere. “Where?” I asked. I was pointed around the corner. It was not around the corner. I trailed a herd of boys who were leaving and asked if they could show me the ticket counter.
Naturally it was on the far, far right of the parking lot, completely tucked away and out of view. Then people kept trying to get me to hire a tour guide. “I can barely afford this ticket!” I expostulated, completely out of patience. The ticket cost 150 RMB, that’s about $25. That’s a lot, when you’re traveling on a budget.
Then I had to trudge back up the hill to the entrance, and after entering, found myself in the middle of a pine meadow. The museum/dig pits are about a quarter mile away. It’s a pleasant walk, and tends to disperse the tour groups a bit. Then I arrived at a large, paved plaza with three large buildings perched upon it in varying styles. I just entered the first one I found. It looked like a museum, and did indeed have exhibits, showing some of the artifacts found in the pits, along with a description of where they were found and what they were used for. Such as they horrifying news that a bunch of horses were essentially blocked into a standing position with food in front of them that they couldn’t reach.
The next structure was the actual dig pit, and although it had a decidedly alien feel from the enormity of the area enclosed within a type of hangar, the “awe of history” sensation was rather diminished. The promenade was at least ten feet above the pits, and in many places much more, so you’re much removed from the actual sculpture, and the Most Unexceptional you can see is what looks like a rolling, furrowed field, scattered with pottery fragments.
Coming out through the other end, one finds oneself in a giant garden. It’s a lovely, lovely place to walk around; trees, grass, and flower plots mingle and provide shade in the heat of the day. Parallel to the horticulture is a third edifice. This one has the Most Unexceptional views of the warriors, but they’re still down in pits much below the promenade, which is also mobbed by tour groups. At the far end, a group of soldiers are arrayed on an almost level platform and with a good zoom one can almost get a clear view of the faces of some of the warriors.
I was determined to make the most of my $25 ticket, so I lurked around for a good three hours. Then I couldn’t take it anymore and walked back to the bus. On the way back, the bus driver spoke much better English and tried to find out where I was going. Obviously, I didn’t know. Then she told me it was 5-8RMB to get back to Xi’an. “Why was it 2RMB going this morning,” I asked, but she had no answer for me. Remembering the long ride there, I settled in with my Kindle. And missed my stop. I ended up riding it to the end of the line, then wandering around trying to call Wendy and/or find the bus route to the Bell Tower (I can get home from there, remember).
Eventually, a couple young ladies in a big hotel gave me explicit directions, and I made it back. But I did not feel my day merited the price tag it had cost.
Wendy had taken us to a great “fast-food” restaurant across the street, and I found myself eating there almost once a day. It featured several types of Xi’an cold noodles, some spicy, some extra-spicy, all really, really oily and delicious for about $1. They also offer a Chinese street food favorite, 肉夹馍, rou jia mo, a type of fatty stewed-pork meat sandwich. It’s just meat stuffed into a type of flatbread, but on the street you can find them mixed with peppers and drenched in juice.
Wendy also took us to a local eatery for a breakfast favorite: Tofu Brain. Doufunao is quick-made tofu served in a savory broth in the North, and a sweet broth in the South. You can add my favorite little fried-dough clumps and have yourself a delicious breakfast. On the street you can find vegetable omelette wraps and other fried tasties everywhere, as well as the ubiquitous noodle soup.
Xi’an is an easy place to get around in, and there is a lot to see, but try to stick to the free entry locales; the paid-entry places don’t seem to merit their cost. It’s quite large, but the bus system is easy to use and runs fairly late (some run till midnight). People are sucked into their tablets and phones, and I kept running into the back of short Chinese who would stop in front of me, but below my sightline.
When you make Chinese friends, they’re warm, helpful, and intelligent. Chinese people you don’t know in public are usually laughing at you, or trying to take your picture. They won’t give you a seat on the metro or bus, even if you’re laden with bags and sacks, something I have a real problem with. Lynn explained it thusly, “My mother told me when I was about twelve, ‘You need to take care of yourself. It’s most important for you to get what you want, don’t let other people take it first.'” This is definitely a Chinese sentiment.