Sunday, December 26, 2010
Two China: Xi’an Shenanigans
My train is speeding through arid valleys of dry rice paddies and some dilapidated buildings and hardly any people. Industrial haze is settling into pockets on the horizon. (One thing for the pollution: it makes for great sunsets.) Here are the dirt-road villages, the tiny alleys, the never-ending dust – interspersed here and there with the ugly concrete edifices, factory smokestacks, and other blights of a modern kind.
Xi’an itself is a city seemingly on the edge of nothing, a place thrown up against wind-driven dirt, and yet it was once one of the most grandiose settlements in China. Remnants of the old Xi’an remain in the preserved walls that protect the inner city – walls which kept invaders out but, in another time, welcomed the Golden Arches of a different sort of empire. Broad thoroughfares line the perimeters of historical sites reached via underground pedestrian tunnels which, at the other end, spit tourists into the comforting arms of Starbucks.
To be fair, all of the places I visited during my trip through China – which inadvertently became a Big-City Tour – boasted considerable western trappings, and I did avail of them more frequently than I care to admit. (Especially after I discovered that ordering food in China, which lacks Japan’s ubiquitous picture-menus, is generally a stab in the dark.) And in Xi’an I also indulged in probably the single most touristy act during my travels so far: visiting the terracotta warrior army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China.
Actually, the terracotta army itself, which was crafted in order to guard the emperor after his death, was more impressive than I expected. Two of the three publicly-viewable pits at the excavation site are huge, and it’s easy to get a sense of the statues’ considerable antiquity. Thankfully the site organizers have refrained from gumming up the pits with excessive displays. (The excessive displays are instead housed at a nearby museum, with entertaining English explanations like “Each statue is exquisitely and made in life-size” and “The area of the tombs is also considerable large.”)
The pits are worth seeing, but getting there requires navigating through a massive maze of replica-sellers, English guides (all of whom insist that you won’t understand anything at the site without their help) and ongoing construction that heralds even more replica-sellers and English guides. It is a miserable place, wholly devoid of happiness and hope.
Much more relaxing was the pretty park surrounding the city walls, where elderly men and women stretched and exercised under the sun, practiced traditional fan dances and ballads, and played furious games of table tennis like people possessed. One man offered me his paddle after he saw me observing, and his partner shamed me handily despite being well over twice my age.
My lodging was very close to this park. For sheer atmosphere, Shuyuan Youth Hostel in Xi’an was my favorite place to stay in China or Japan. It was just how I imagine a travelers’ hostel should be, warren-like with posters and signs all over the walls, Elvis playing in the attached café and cheerfully inaccurate international food on the menu. My dorm room was on the third floor of an exposed courtyard, reached by one sturdy staircase and one downright questionable staircase, and the bathroom walls lurked somewhere behind a thick smattering of thoughtful, provocative and obscene graffiti. I appreciate the hostel vibe, although I don’t participate much in it – I’m the quiet guy who, behind a cup of coffee and a book, monopolizes the most comfortable sofa – but that vibe is finicky. Very often I’ve watched bands of European and American travelers stumble into a hostel café for breakfast, huddle together in their exclusive cliques, and mumble the usual dreary travelogues (about visas, flight schedules, Kathmandu-this and Varanasi-that) into their toast. The world has all types, but I defy anyone to be more marvelously listless or fantastically boring than a determined traveler.
And I’ve never figured out their daily migration habits. Within a few blocks of a hostel-friendly section of town, I might see outsiders everywhere… but once I get a few hundred meters from that nexus, I won’t spot another all day. Where do they go? Perhaps it’s just the laws of diffusion doing their thing, but I prefer to imagine all the foreigners packed together, waiting out the day in some ridiculous place (like a video arcade or perhaps a tanning salon) until the time at which they can respectably troop over to the expat bars.
I was also surprised that I never saw another obvious foreigner on any of my long-distance trains in China. Granted, they aren’t entirely comfortable for larger westerners – my shoulders were too wide for the aisles, my legs too long for the beds – but traveling does imply a certain need to move from one place to another, and the trains seemed the best way to do it. And I did a lot of it. (By the end of roughly two weeks in China the only Chinese characters I could reliably identify, aside from the currency symbol, were the ones denoting the top, middle and lower bunks on the tickets for hard-sleeper cars.)
The Xi’an railway station, surprisingly, was considerably more frenetic and frantic than the one in Shanghai. The gates opened soon after I arrived for my overnight train and there was a mad rush: belongings were dropped, families separated, and bodies shoved forcefully down the line, moving inexorably but disconnectedly towards the train. People broke into dashes on the platform, jockeying for hard-seat position. Once the dust had settled the train creaked its iron whine, the wheels started their revolutions, and we started our roll towards Chongqing.