Three cities in China: Xi’an (Part 2)


This is part two of Three Cities in China: Xi’an

Beijing  Xi’an   Shanghai

February 25, 2011 Flying from Beijing to Xi’an, the old capital

This is breakfast in China, baked beans and corn on the cob
This is breakfast in China, baked beans and corn on the cob

We have to leave the Beijing hotel at 5:30a to catch our flight to Xi’an (pronounced: She Ann) the original capital of the first united China. This began the Qin (pronounced: Chin) Dynasty 221BCE and lasted just 23 years. China gets its name from this period and the first ruler was Qin Shi Huangdi. The name of this city mean peaceful western city–Xi means “west” and An means “peace.” This is also the official beginning spot for the Silk Road, which started here in 206BCE and continued for centuries. I find this thrilling since I’ve seen the Silk Road in Turkey as well.

The city gate of Xi'an--they were still celebrating Chinese New Year
The city gate of Xi’an–they were still celebrating Chinese New Year

We are greeted by our new city guide, Ivy, who gives us some history of this area. The Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) was the most prosperous and this was the historical high point of Xi’an. During that era tea, silk and calligraphy were introduced and China was the most powerful country in the world. Japanese learned and developed their written language during this time after sending emissaries to China to learn. Ivy says she can understand some Japanese characters though not the spoken words. She also mentions that fat women were considered beautiful at the time, which makes me very happy! After the Tang Dynasty, the capital was moved capital to Beijing. Xi’an still has all of its original city walls and moat. Inside the walls is the downtown area and the business area and she says that few people live here. I saw hundreds of people and apartments so I doubt this information. I would say that few wealthy people live here.

Xi’an is a very old city and it is difficult to dig without running into one of the 8000 mausoleums and burial mounds. The city only has a single subway line, completed recently because of all burial mounds were found along the way. Took 10 yrs. to build an 8 mile stretch of line. Second ring road took 20 yrs to complete. Because of this the busses are too full. Ivy refers to her commute into work as like a BMW–bus, metro, walk.

Coal fired plants--one of the reasons Xi'san is so dirty
Coal fired plants–one of the reasons Xi’san is so dirty

Xi’an is a dark, dusty city. It is the first time my weather report on my phone says “dreary” and it is the only apt word to describe the area. It is winter and so bound to be darker. But everything is dirty and dusty due to air pollution and the sands of the dry country nearby. Cars that sit for an afternoon must have their windows washed before you can see to drive. My photos make it look much cleaner than it is.

The Muslim Quarter
The Muslim Quarter, buchering on the street

The area behind the hotel is the Muslim Quarter, called Hui (pronounced: Hway) here. The term “Hui people” refers to one of the officially recognized 56 ethnic groups into which Chinese citizens are classified. They include all historic communities in People’s Republic of China and are descended from foreigners who mostly came by way of the Silk Road. They simply look Chinese to me, not Middle Eastern. Ivy refers to them as descendants of Genghis Kan, though that is not what Wikipedia says. The men wear a white cap, few of the women wear headscarves. Those who do wear head covering have hair sticking out. They follow Islamic dietary laws and reject the consumption of pork, the most common meat consumed in China. They have developed an Islamic Chinese cuisine and special Chinese martial arts. It is odd enough to see Chinese script everywhere I look, but to see Arabic script is jarring and unexpected. About half my photos this day are of the Hui Quarter. There are narrow streets, a virtual rabbit warren. It looks like most of the living quarters have no running water. People are not clean and I expect the area smells in summer.

Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi  (Shan ZEE) province and one of the oldest in China, with more than 3,100 years of recorded history. The city was known as Chang’an before the Ming Dynasty and is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. Shaanxi Province borders Mongolia in north and Tibet in east. It contains the Yellow River, considered the mother river of China.

Ivy tells us that her city loves spicy foods and if you visit someone’s home they may serve you dried chilies as a snack food. Wide noodles are native to area and she says that dumplings were started here. I have no idea if this is a Chinese phrase, but wherever any of your guides refer to the restroom they call it the Happy Room.

The Brave New World Hotel, Xi'an, China
The Brave New World Hotel, Xi’an, China

To get to our hotel we drive through the West wall and see the moat around the city. We see the local museum which has more English than I expected. There are treasures from the Han (206BCE-220AD) and Tang Dynasties.

Before dinner, after checking into the Brave New World Hotel, I go for a walk. Walked to western wall. There is a stairway up to the top, but it is chained off. I get more odd stares from the locals than in Beijing. A few people said “hello” their only English word, I am sure. Two school boys giggle as I respond to them. There are many street food venders and the ones near the hotel don’t look too bad. The ones in the Muslim quarter look deadly, however. There are old men playing a board game similar to checkers, though it seems to take more than 2 players. They are so serious and animated that they don’t notice me. Everyone else does. A few of the street food vendors have set up plastic chairs or buckets to sit on. These are dirty places and I wonder if they have ever been cleaned? Narrow streets make it difficult to walk. If there are sidewalks they are crowded with venders or parked cars and bicycles. Mostly there are no sidewalks and cars can only pass at an intersection. There is much horn honking and some yelling.

This man was practising his caligraphy on the street
This man was practising his caligraphy on the street with a mop and a bucket of water.

I am back to the hotel in time for our dumpling dinner—located in a “famous” restaurant in the center of town. On the downtown square are the original Drum Tower and Bell Tower. We are told that the Bell was rung in the morning and the Drum beaten at night. Dawn to Dusk in Chinese is “bell to drum.”

These are all dumplings!
These are all dumplings!
the drum tower, Xi'an
The drum tower,central city of Xi’an, China

The Dumpling dinner is more interesting that tasty. Virtually every course is dumplings, about 17 of them. Only one, the duck, was really good. The rest were just OK, but I was there, so I had to try them all. After, a couple people decide they have to have ice cream. We pay $5 a scoop for Hagen Daas. I do miss sweets, as there are few found here. Fresh fruit ends most meals. And there is no chocolate!

February 26 The Terra Cotta Warriors

It is Sunday morning and we are going straight to the park after breakfast. It’s a dreary day in Xi’an. Every day is because the sky seems filled with dust constantly.  My skins feels scratchy with dirt particles. Their electricity comes mainly from coal and it really shows. But there is also the fine yellow dust from the dry lands nearby, the Mongolian plain. I would be depressed if I lived here long.

Dancing in the park
Dancing in the park
Tai Chi
Tai Chi
paddle dancing
paddle dancing

The visit to the Xing Qing Park (Shing ching) is my favorite thing so far! It is filled with mostly retired people but they are exercising: Tai Chi, clapping, dancing. So MUCH dancing! Some is traditional using fans and umbrellas. We join in, badly! There is also line dancing and ballroom dancing and our couple from Wisconsin is the only ones who know how to polka. A few old men take their birds (in cages) for a walk. We are told this is a dying activity as everyone knows birds must be free. (Funny. The people aren’t!) We see a man with a heavy wooden toy top that he keeps turning with a bullwhip. This is called hitting the monkey. We even see belly dancing. My favorite is the ladies who have a paddle and dance keeping a ball on the paddle. We see people practicing music and singing. These are all volunteer activities. I think it would be a wonderful way to get out of the house each morning and get some exercise.

He keeps the top spinning with a bullwhip
He keeps the wooden top spinning with a bullwhip

We see some young men keeping a small ball in the air using their feet, head, shoulders. When I ask what this is called, Stone tells me “hacky sack.” The ball looks different, but the moves are the same.

After, we visit a lacquer furniture factory. The prices are so high. Almost no one buys anything and we are all tired of the daily sales stops. I chose not to go on the final optional tour, an all day excursion, because it included a sales stop at a silk factory. I’m tired of the forced shopping and everyone else is too. It is surprising that they don’t make us more comfortable. The buildings are SO COLD, we have to keep our coats on. Doors and windows are often propped open though the temperature has not been above 45F the entire trip. I did enjoy a man who was painting with a brush. He was wonderful and I took him to be in his 70’s. Was surprised to find he was younger than I am. Do I look so old?

Back on the bus on our way to lunch and then the Terra Cotta Warriors. Stone tells us that he is newly married and last month was in Phuket, Thailand on his honeymoon. He told us that he did not really realize how much his internet was blocked until then. He said his new wife was angry with him because he spent so much time on YouTube, seeing “old” history of things that happened in China. He had never seen the fall of the Berlin Wall or the student demonstrations in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Ivy admits that she has a secret way into Facebook, but she is afraid to log-on more than every few months.

As we drive we notice solar water heaters on roofs. Ten years ago they were effective, but now there is not much sun and they are almost useless. Our guides use the words “building” and “beauties” interchangeably. I have never heard this before and thought I was just not understanding. Stone was surprised that I did not understand this. In Xi’an it costs 700000 yuan for a 2br condo. The average person has 5000 yuan/month income ($850). Ivy says that Chinese women want men with the 5 “C’s”: Condo, Car, Cash, Cute, and Cooking ability! Chinese men cannot live up to this and are beginning to marry Vietnamese women who do not have such high standards of living. No dual citizenship here, so if you choose to stay in China you must give up your other country. Ivy feels that many Chinese left the county for financial reasons, but are now coming back. She does not mention there may have been political reasons that people left.

We stop for lunch at a former hotel, a far eastern suburb of Xi’an near the Terra Cotta Warriors. It is freezing outside, literally, temperatures in the 30’s. But windows are open here.

Terra Cotta Warriors

Terra Cotta WarriorAfter lunch, we get back on the bus and Ivy gives us history of the area we will see: The Terra Cotta Warriors. The Qin (Chin) Dynasty is named after the man who unified all 7 kingdoms of China. He set the standards for a single currency, weights and measurement and set down a written language. He connected several smaller fortifications into the Great Wall. He also burned books and killed Confucian scholars, so he wasn’t all good. His reign was short and most scholars believe it was because he was so paranoid and he tried too hard to live forever. He kept searching for the secret to long life and took too many herbs, and perhaps some mercury, that probably poisoned him. This site is an underground mausoleum, begun when he was only 15. He ordered 700,000 workers to build the mausoleum and it is believed over 8,000 terra cotta soldiers, larger than life size, were built. Qin’s tomb has not yet been opened, partially because we are not yet sure how to preserve the artifacts once they hit the air. Also because it is believed that a mercury “river” surrounds the tomb and would likely be poisonous. The soldiers were brightly painted originally, but the paint fades the second it hit the oxygen. The first warrior was found in 1974 by some farmers who were digging a well. At first they told no one because they were afraid.

This is the site of discovery of the Terra Cotta WarriorsThe site is pretty amazing! And I got to meet and get the signature of the last remaining farmer who discovered the first warrior! The book about the site was 150RMB (about $25) and an extra 20RMB for his signature and photo! I also bought as a snack, some Oreo cookies that were blueberry and raspberry. Who knew?

On the drive home, we are told the Chinese story of how the world began. Pangu, the first god, lived in an egg. Finally he could not stand living so confined anymore and so he broke the egg in two. The top of the shell became the sky and the bottom of the egg became the bedrock. When he died, his eyes became the sun and the moon. His hair became the forest. His bones were the mountains and the muscles became the rich soil. The mother of the first humans was very lonely and she made clay figures that looked like her, only smaller. She baked them in an oven to harden them. Those that were under-baked became the white people. Those who were over baked became the black people. And those who were perfectly baked became the Chinese.

Odd fact: In almost every language “mama” means mother. But in china, daddy is “baba.”

Very dark, but can you see the split pants on the child? Tonight is an optional dinner and Tang Dynasty Show. I opt out. I planned to walk the city for a while. I find a skating rink and people seem surprised to see a Western women. A man passes me and he has a small child bundled up and sitting on this shoulders. The pants of the child are split open and his little butt cheeks are hanging out. I find later than most children are dressed this way, often without a diaper to “help with potty training” on the street. Right.

At 7pm, I sit down on my bed and realize I cannot even get up to change clothes. The jet lag has gotten me. I nap for 2 hours just to get the strength to shower, change into pajamas and go to bed.

February 27 It’s my birthday!

The men were so engrossed in the game they did not notice me.

Early morning on the streets of Xi'an, China
Early morning on the streets of Xi’an, China
Shopping in Xi'an Hui Quarter
Shopping in Xi’an Hui Quarter
Meat, on the street. Yup, that's goat
Meat, on the street. Yup, that’s goat
This is how you steam a huge amounts of buns
This is how you steam a huge amounts of buns

I got 10 hours of sleep and really needed it. I’m up early and walked the Muslim area behind hotel. Found 3 mosques. Everyone is up and grabbing food on the street. Does no one cook at home? It looks like they don’t have running water, so they may not have kitchens in their home either. The streets, the people are filthy. It is winter here, so I can only imagine what the smell would be like at the height of summer. The temperatures get to 100F here and I see fresh meat out, some being butchered on the street. This is the Hui area, people of Muslim decent and a minority in China. While I see Chinese characters, there is also Middle Eastern script. Most of the older men wear white cap, but very few of the young men are wearing them unless they are cooks on the street. There are very strict cuisine rules in Islam, no pork and meat must be killed in a specific way. A few women wear the white cap as well. Others have loose scarves, perhaps more because it is cold than to cover their hair. I see very few beards. The place is a rabbit warren and I get very lost because the streets do not connect on a grid. But I manage to keep enough sense of direction that I know which way is the city wall is. I managed to get to it and use it to find my way back to the hotel in plenty of time for a quick shower and change my shirt. I must have walked 6 miles and am sweaty. Amazing how it is the little things that really make a difference and this simple act of cleanliness restores me.

It is my birthday and I am serenaded in 3 languages! Of course English and Mandarin, and a couple from Mexico City also sing to me in Spanish. We are all on the bus to fly from Xi’an to Shanghai. It will take most of the day since the flight is delayed. Hum, even a Communist country cannot keep the airlines running on time.

Beijing    Xi’an    Shanghai


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I’m a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I’m exploring the world and you can come too!

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