Mahjong, smog, and plant pot armies – Xi’an
After such a gruelling and seedy train ride (for me at least), we were glad that the hostel we’d booked provided a free pick up service. We’d encountered free pick up services before, and it usually involved the hostels sending a taxi or rickshaw to collect any customers, whilst also trying to grab any potential customers who’d turned up without a reservation – a sensible system that works well for both parties. We were greeted on the station platform by a young girl brandishing a piece of card with the hostel name on it. She looked about 12 years old, and I thought maybe she was someone’s daughter helping to pick up passengers, but it transpired she was in fact a hostel employee, and was probably about 35 – It’s extremely hard to guess the age of Chinese people – they either look incredibly young or incomprehensibly old, there seems to be no in between.
Anyway, ignorant racial generalisations aside, once she had realised we were the only fish from this morning’s catch, the friendly young girl escorted us to the ludicrously densely populated square outside, and advised us to follow her to where we get the bus. Assuming there must be a minibus around the corner, we obligingly followed, ploughing through the thick field of people, taking care to maim and kill as few as reasonably possible with our huge swinging baggage. After a 5 minute upstream struggle, we realised we were in fact getting the public bus. From previous experience with Chinese city public transport, we weren’t all that enthusiastic about this prospect, as usually seats are rarer than gold dust, there’s nowhere for luggage, and the journey involves standing crushed, holding onto roof handles for dear life as you desperately try to prevent yourself from falling over or snapping your spine in two from the immense weight on your back. Luckily for us, this was the buses starting point so we actually managed to get a seat, and managed to have a reasonably comfortable (but excruciatingly slow due to constant gridlock) journey to our hostel.
The hostel was cheap, modern, clean, and fairly empty. It appeared to be run by a posse of 8-12 year olds, but as I mentioned earlier, they could have possibly been late 30’s. An interesting quirk of the place was that the hostel staff seemed to speak pretty much no English (not a complaint, just an observation, as hostel staff tended to be some of the few English speakers) so when we asked them anything, they would all instinctively pick up a city map of the desk, and with a biro and a learned script, they would explain to us how to get to the Terracotta Warriors. This information came in very handy when it was in fact the terracotta warriors we were after, but when we were seeking info about laundry or the nearest minimarket, it was a tad less than useful.
Of course being in China, these were our linguistic failings, not theirs, but we did have a little help up our sleeve for such situations in the form of a lonely planet pocket Mandarin phrasebook. Granted, people would often stare blankly at our barely audible burbling, as we pathetically attempted to utter phrases, but it could work like a charm when we pointed to stuff in it – a bit of a cop out I know – but needs must.
Incidentally, it is interesting that throughout China, the phrasebook was sometimes no use, due to what we think were two main factors. The first was dialect; there are shitloads of dialects in China, with some apparently sounding as different as Spanish and Italian. Because the phonetics in the book were written in Standard Chinese (similar to “Pekingese”, apparently the purest form of Mandarin), saying the words could be futile, not that we were ever very successful with speaking phrases, even in Beijing. The second factor was that we think many people, especially in rural or poor inner city areas, may have been unable to read. All the places we went were predominantly Mandarin rather than Wu, Min, or Yue (Cantonese), and despite the dialects, written Mandarin is supposed to be fairly unifying, with only a few regional variations in the glyphs. People would often spend a good few minutes staring intently at a simple sentence like ‘vegetable fried rice please’ or ‘how much does it cost’ and then eventually apologetically shrug with incomprehension. Some refused to even look at anything written down and just waved us away. None of this is backed up by any sound (or indeed any) research – just musings really.
After that meandering digression, I’ll get back to Xi’an and mention the place’s ‘star’ attraction – The Terracotta Warriors. Surprisingly we were actually able to get there by public bus, so it was refreshing not to have to feel like such a tourist (even though we were going to perhaps the second biggest tourist attraction in China). The Terracotta Warriors are a vast collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. I reckon the guy must have had to make quite a lot of enemies in order to unify China, and it seems he was seriously worried about all the heinous shit he’d done coming back to bite him in the afterlife. Presumably because it seemed like a winning formula, he approached the idea of afterlife in precisely the same way as he approached the world of the living – He built a f’cking ginormous army to prepare to smash the holy crap out of anyone who might try and mess with him.
So as to save my fingers, and more importantly, not to go spouting dubious half read, half heard information, here’s a brief summary from the reputable and reliable Wikipedia – “The figures, dating from around the late third century BC, were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses. Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were also found in other pits and they include officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.”
Despite the pricey ticket cost, I would imagine most people hard pressed to go to Xi’an and not go see the Terracotta Warriors. The excavation and the artefacts themselves are obviously amazing to behold, especially when you consider some of the mind blowing facts, like these beautifully crafted figures are well over 2000 years old, and despite what you see, only about 1/3 of the army has been excavated. Having said that, the whole experience is not entirely one of awe and wonderment. Firstly the only way in is through the obligatory gauntlet of hawkers and tat shops. Once you’re through the defcon 5 level security, the whole place still feels like a dull grey Military barracks, which I think it may actually be. Grey concrete is the order of the day, and there are genuine soldiers marching all around the place. The excavation sights themselves are each under what are basically aircraft hangers. I’m sure it’s all very practical, but they could have housed the hangers under something more aesthetically pleasing, and not so obviously modern, at least for my benefit. It’s like going to see Tutenkhamun’s sarcophagus at an M6 service station, or the Elgin Marbles in Carpet Right – still amazing, but definitely a few layers of sheen removed.
Anyhow, back to Xi’an itself. With over 3000 years of history, it’s one of the oldest cities in China, and is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, having held the position under several of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang. It was once the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and has now recently been named as one of the 13 emerging megacities, or megalopolises, in China. Despite these impressive facts, apart from the ancient city walls, and the occasional impressive old building in the middle of a roundabout, or poking out in between all the concrete and glass, the majority of the city looked typically quite grey, smoggy, and charmless. The well paved paths and roads, and extensive use of privet hedges, did however give the place an ever so slightly more European feel than anywhere else we’d been in China so far.
Maybe because of the Universities and such there, the City did have a notably young and vibrant feel. It seemed like there was a lot going on, and loads of young people seemed to be milling around and enjoying themselves. It also felt like we were much less like visitors from another planet, and even though we didn’t see a huge amount of other westerners in the whole city (apart from maybe the Muslim quarter), people generally didn’t pay that much attention to us, which was nice.
Last but most certainly not least, the real highlight of our time in Xi’an was the Muslim quarter. The sights, sounds, and smells in this bustling network of streets and alleys were a real assault on the senses, but we soon figured out the best way to pop in and out of the river of flowing people and enjoy the snack stalls, hole in the wall restaurants, and general amazing sights. In every shop and stall people are chopping, stirring, laughing, or quite often, beating a bunch of seeds with an immense mallet. The sheer enthusiasm with which this huge variety of foods is both cooked, sold, and consumed is quite infectious. Some streets are a bit touristy but you only need to nip down an alley to get back to people working and living in this genuine community. Groups of men ride or walk to the mosque, sit huddled around Mahjong tables or tending to their little caged birds. Most commonly of course, people are sat eating and chatting together – it seems like it’s what life is all about here. It felt like being transported to a different city or even a different country to see all these Chinese guys with white skull caps, the elders with their long beards (we almost never saw a Chinese guy with a beard unless he was Muslim), and the women with their colourful scarfs and garbs. We spent a good few days pootling around this place, getting enjoyably lost and soaking up the atmosphere. One day we even managed to arrange to meet again with our friends from the US, Xavier and Kristin, and spent a good evening aimlessly exploring the sights, smells, and most importantly, tastes together.
The Chinese Muslims, or Chuslims in tabloidese, are actually called the Hui people, and although they are ethnically very similar to the Han Chinese, they retain some Arabic and Central Asian features, with their whole culture presumably being formed, or at least hugely influenced, by their position right at the end of the Silk Road trading route. Apparently there are ethnic Hui dotted all over China, but the main concentration is around the Silk Road terminus in the central and Northwestern Provinces. From our very brief experience, the Hui seemed to have a really vibrant culture going on in the Muslim Quarter, and everyone we had dealings with seemed extremely friendly and relaxed. It would have been nice to have a chat with someone to learn a bit more about it all, but the language barrier (and my general social ineptitude) made it pretty difficult. I did however get spun around numerous times by a very enthusiastic Hui guy, and he made sure Amy took a photo of us together afterwards, in what looks like a rather strange communist salute.
Finally it came time to head south towards our next destination, so we checked out, geared up, and hopped on a crowded bus to the train station. After what felt like a few days in the Xi’an traffic, we arrived at the station and settled into our train bunks for the 482 mile, 12 hour ride to Chongqing.
(Update: Since writing this, a young girl from China messaged me to say that the guy who picked me up and span me round wanted to know how much I weigh – apparently some older guys like to bet on how much westerners weigh. So there you have it.)
Xian, Shaanxi Province, China
19/04/2013 – 22/04/2013