Tag Archives: Chinese food

Mahjong, smog, and plant pot armies – Xi’an

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


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Barmy Beijing

Barmy Beijing

The moment we arrived at Beijing Central Station, we were swiftly swept outside by a strong current of humans into the warm, smog filled air, where it appeared that the entire population of China had kindly turned up to greet us. As it turns out, there’s quite a lot of them. 1.35 Billion of them actually, with 20 million living in the Beijing Municipality alone. We said goodbye to our Trans-Siberian friends Maarten, Paulina, Megan and Steve, and swam off through the thick soup of Chinese people in search of our respective accommodations.

Looking at the map, it seemed our hostel couldn’t be more than 20 minutes away. Over an hour of trekking later, mainly down the side of a massive dual carriageway (Beijing is built in a vast grid), we arrived. This wasn’t the first time we would underestimate the utterly immense size of this City.  Being British, we have the peculiar habit (especially to Chinese Rickshaw drivers) of walking absolutely everywhere, and this had served us perfectly well so far on our trip. However, after quite a few cases of “Peking Knees”, we eventually conceded that our feeble legs alone were not going to suffice. We also now pay very careful attention to the scale on all Maps.

Beijing’s underground metro system is pretty impressive – if you’re the kind of person to be impressed by such things, which I am. The sheer scale, efficiency, and punctuality were mind-blowing. Being a simple northern soul, I still wonder at the London Underground, which seems to baffle impatient Londoners. After experiencing the Beijing Metro, I can now appreciate that there are better (although maybe not as charming) systems out there. The longest we ever had to wait for a train was about 3 minutes, and compared to our usual experience, this was a major inconvenience. An LED map inside the train shows you where you are and which direction you going at all times, and there are a load of TV screens in every carriage, beaming incomprehensible, mind melting Chinese pop into your trapped and vulnerable brain. We soon found there is very little in Beijing without a screen on it. A ticket for 1 journey (with as many line changes as were needed) cost just 2 Yuan, or 21 pence to you and me. No matter what the time of day the main lines were always totally rammed, and fitting on the train invariably required slotting 2 or 3 Chinese people under each armpit (My distinctly average height of 5’11” made me a comparative giant here, with Amy’s diminutive 5’3″ figure looking about average).

Sinisterly, the Government decrees that the Metro stops service at 11pm every night, which is amazingly effective at basically shutting down the entire city, with unsanctioned large congregations also being banned. The Government also keeps a watchful eye of the population with the aid of hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras. Recently the Government announced all cinemas, theaters and music venues in the city are now required to install security cameras, and you can’t look up anywhere, inside or outside, without spotting one. I vaguely remember reading that per person the UK actually has more CCTV than China, I don’t know whether this is true, but the surveillance certainly felt more apparent in Beijing than anywhere I’ve ever been. Maybe we are just blindly oblivious in the comfort of our own country, which is slightly scary. It was also hard to find a major street or tourist attraction without a police or military presence. Anyway, it does seem that the Chinese Government is not without a sense of humour, with their aptly named state television network: CCTV (China Central Television).

Our hostel was a large impersonal affair in the Sanlitun district, but it was dry, clean, and fairly cheap. We were pretty well placed for the local markets and the metro to the rest of the city. A couple of the young female staff spoke excellent English, which turned out to be a life-saver in a city where it seems absolutely no one speaks a single word of the Queens. We often got addresses written down in Chinese so we could get directions from locals or occasionally a Taxi to take us there (also cheap, around £1 per kilometer).

Our first night we had arranged to meet up with Megan and Steve for some of the famous Peking Duck. This was before any of us had truly started to comprehend the sheer size of the city, and the necessity of getting addresses written in Chinese. As is the vogue in modern city planning, in Beijing, the areas of business, retail, food, and leisure frequently merge into one, and after much struggle we finally found this quaint little duck restaurant on the bottom floor of a vast glass office building, in the middle of a huge strange business and retail complex. As we only just managed it with a large dose of luck, it wasn’t surprising that Megan and Steve never found the place, and so the meeting failed. The duck was incredible though, and we did manage to meet up a few days later (outside a designated McDonald’s of course) in order to go exploring one of Beijing’s weird and wonderful night markets.

The night market was good fun, and felt much more authentic than the other one Amy and me had visited the night before, which was just a single long street of stalls, all seemingly owned by the same firm (all stalls looked identical and staff wore the same uniforms) where you were just constantly and unrelentingly heckled to buy all sorts of vile oddities like scorpion, snake, grubs, and most horrendous of all, smelly tofu (more on that later). It was a very bizarre, loud, smelly, unfriendly, tourist conveyor belt – as opposed to the second one we visited which was a jumble of narrow alleys, peculiar sights and smells, and just a much more genuine atmosphere…

Another night we successfully managed to meet with Maarten and Paulina for a surreal and incomprehensible dining experience at an immense 3 story mega restaurant, apparently very popular with locals. Due to our linguistic inadequacies, ordering anything involved a large amount of sign language, random guessing, and pot luck. In the end, we managed not to order anything too horrendous and it all went pretty well.

I’ve already babbled too long, so I’ll just do a brief run-down of our activities and observations from 9 days in this mental city…

– How to ruin a tourist attraction. Beijing gave us an introduction to the immeasurable ability of the Chinese to suck the life out of almost any tourist attraction. We visited all the main crop of wonders: The forbidden city, The Tiananmen (gate of heavenly peace), Tiananmen square, Jinshanling park, the Temple of Heaven and various other things. The inclusion of large plastic signs, chrome railings, neon lights, digital ticket booth signs, and mammoth tour groups of Chinese pensioners in matching neon baseball caps (and guide with a megaphone) makes visiting these places, to put it lightly – a strange experience, especially the more ancient sights, most of which date from early (14th century) Ming dynasty.

– The sea of hats. In China, you quickly realise you have to learn to embrace the above mentioned tourist groups, otherwise they will drive you completely and utterly mad. Each group is like a giant, marauding, neon hatted entity, feeding on the despair of other tourists (particularly avid photographers) and generally hoovering up the last drops of authenticity from any experience. However, once you learn to appreciate the power and comic brilliance of these bizarre groups, life becomes much easier (and funnier).

– Avoiding the Paparazzi. It turns out there are not as many western tourists in Beijing as you might imagine, and for many Chinese the sight of one is quite an amusing experience. This seems due to the fact that something crazy like 1/3 of the population of Beijing at any time are actually Chinese national tourists, for whom a visit to their capital is the most exotic of holidays. Because of this, it was pretty common for Chinese tourists to approach us and ask for a picture with us. The shyer amongst them would try and covertly (and it has to be said, poorly) take snaps of us strange foreign beasts from a distance – something that certainly takes a while to get used to. It’s also interesting to think how many remote Chines mantle pieces and photo albums Amy and me will now be gracing.

– Park life. Probably one of the most endearing parts of Chinese life is their park culture. Despite the immense hustle and bustle of Beijing, it was surprisingly easy to find peace and tranquility inside one of the many city parks. In the parks locals enjoy themselves however they fancy with a totally charming lack of embarrassment of self-consciousness – taking part in group dancing, tai-chi, Jianzi (Chinese hacky-sack with a shuttlecock type thing), meditation, kung-fu, or whatever else they enjoy doing. The parks are just full of people genuinely enjoying themselves. It is interesting that the idea of letting nature run its course seems unheard of in Chinese culture, with nature being something that needs taming and controlling for purpose. Nearly all parks are spirit level flat, symmetrical, orderly affairs, usually arranged based on Confucian principles of symmetry, constraint, and order, or the Taoist balance of Yin and Yang. When done well, in combination with the stunning architecture and ancient Cyprus trees, this type of park can actually be quite an amazing sight.

– Hutongs. One of the highlights of Beijing is the Hutongs. These are the network of little alleys that form the capillaries of the city. Apart from the odd one which is window dressed for tourists, these are the genuine lifeblood of the city, where locals live and eat. Some of the best and cheapest food we ate was at little street stalls and ‘restaurants’ down the Hutongs. Although amazing for us tourists to see, I’m not sure what life is life for the actual residents, who often seem to live in small, cramped, overcrowded conditions, sharing public toilets and water access. Whether the state manages to maintain any control, or whether they are just run by slumlords I also don’t know. Regardless, some of the happiest looking units of family and friends we saw eating or playing together down Hutongs.

– A wee revelation. An unexpected bonus of the Hutong life for tourists is that you are never more than 5 minutes away from a public toilet, due to the fact that toilets are shared by Hutong communities. This was an absolute revelation after the miles trekked and millions of pounds spent finding and using public toilets in Europe.

– Asleep on the job. Everyone. Despite all the crowded commotion of the city, it seems that most people in Beijing are employed in the service of snoozing. Security guards, Rickshaw drivers, shop assistants, stall owners, police and generally everyone seem to be contractually obliged to nap time. It also appears everywhere is ludicrously over-staffed. Small shops staffed by 18 teenagers, tiny car parks manned by 4 sleeping security guards, or newspaper shacks staffed by 2 or 3 daylight slumberers are all common sights.

– Rickshaw rip-offs and scams. The list of scams targeted at tourists in Beijing is pretty endless. Even writing this far into South-East Asia, I don’t think there has been anywhere as ‘scammy’ as Beijing. The Rickshaw drivers are by far the worst culprits though, and we have found this to be true pretty much everywhere we have visited since. One guy took us less than 1km, told us it was 3 Yuan (a fair price), then dropped us down an alley near a group of his dodgy looking pals and said it was in fact 300 Yuan (about £30). We managed to walk off pretty quickly after he realised that he couldn’t threaten us (I’m about 3 times the size of the little guy) but he did stalk us for a while looking pretty sinister. Another time we jumped in a Rickshaw, and driver said he was splitting the hard work and the fair with his friend, so we were put into separate Rickshaws, and then predictably we were dropped nowhere near our destination and they demanded two fares. You’ve just got to be firm and walk away. Even some of the official yellow cab drivers will try and scam you by saying there is a surcharge as well as the metered price, or by refusing to put on the meter. Other common scams involve very well educated, charming, English speaking student types approaching tourists and offering to take them to a local tea house or art gallery, where they will then disappear and be replaced by a couple of heavies claiming the bill for the tea is a few hundred dollars. We got approached by a few of these hucksters but never got sucked in – although they’re so charming and convincing I could see how people easily do. If you’re sensible and keep your wits about you though, it’s not too much of an issue.

Beijing, China
05/04/13 – 14/04/13

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