Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Is it always this hard to leave a place you like?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me. Or does everyone have these little adventures, things easily avoided if only you had enough information to prevent them from happening. Of all the people I know I am the most detailed planner when it comes to traveling, yet time and time again, stuff just happens. Rarely serious, unless you consider racing to catch a plane to be that; normally just little things that make me glad I get to the airport early.

I did an accounting the other day and realized I had more than 30,000 Yuan to my name. Not exactly a princely sum when you consider the 6.83 exchange rate, but enough to get me thinking that it might be time to start spending it, lest I end up like other expats I know with 100,000 in the bank on the day their assignment ends. Some of it is necessary like the 7000 I keep in my safe in case I need a CT scan. The bulk of it is the result of reimbursement for business travel because when you come to China, you cease to be an American employee. The money you spend is returned to you in the local currency leaving you to pay your bills with your personal money and starting the collection of lots of Yuan. The system is pretty stupid and I’m glad I don’t have a lot of corporate travel because that is a one-way ticket to becoming a Yuan Millionaire, something that no one should strive for unless you plan to live here forever. Things are cheap and it’s a challenge to unload the cash unless you decide to go completely native and start blowing it on Mojitos at the Havana Pub and pizzas at the Brooklyn Bar. But even then I doubt I could drink and eat enough to make a dent.

When I had a plan to go to Tibet I agreed to pay for the tour in cash so I was slowly building up a stash of 6500 Yuan. It takes a few days, or even a week if you’re not dedicated to the task because Wells Fargo only allows me to take 2000 per day. So it’s at least 4 trips to the bank to do it. But I had it sitting there and when Tibet fell through and I was left with more than 14,000 in my safe which is enough for 2 CT scans and a cardiac ultrasound, far more tests than I was planning to have. I needed a plan and one presented itself – I’d pay for my vacation in Xi’an in cash.

And all of this lead-up brings me to the gist of the story, I felt like an international arms smuggler standing at the counter of the Xi’an Shangri La counting covering a 5100 tab, one dirty 100 Yuan note at a time. A completely new experience for me for sure, paying in cash. And given that I had 4 hours to kill before heading to the airport, the extra 15 minutes it took for me to count them out and for the desk clerk to run them 3 times through the money-counting machine was fine with me.

The doorman (who was actually a woman) called up a cab for me and opened the door, placing her white-gloved hand on the doorframe, lest I bump my over-sized American head. A nice, personal touch I thought. We pulled out of the lot and headed across Xi’an first on city streets and then on the newly constructed airport expressway. Along the way we passed two places I thought might be worth visiting in the future, a newly opened Han mausoleum and a museum called “The Start of the Silk Road.” We arrived at the airport in about 35 minutes, giving me a solid 3.5 hours to find my way to my plane.

The cabbie dropped me at Terminal 2, the place I had arrived back on Friday night. It wasn’t obvious to me that there was a Terminal 1, and when I saw giant white numbers above the doors at each end of the concourse, I figured they had sort of a “virtual” line between the two, within the same building. I went inside and started looking for the check-in counter, but this airport seemed to be different. Instead of the regular shared counters that every other airport in China uses, this one seemed to be following the American model – every airline had their own. And no matter how hard I tried, I was not seeing one for China Southern.

I looked around for the board that would explain what counters were checking in what flights, and it took some work to find it. Of course, my flight was not on it but I did find another China Southern flight that said Counter 68 was where I should be. So I walked from one end to the other and never found a counter higher than 48. It was time to ask a question and I turned my attention to the non-existent information booth, finally giving up and going to a China Eastern counter. I was rebuffed by the first two kids behind the counter who found my request ridiculous. They shoved me off on their friend who told me to go to Terminal 1. When I asked where that was, she replied, “Go outside”, so I did, not that I was sure why. I repeated the one-end-to-the-other walk on the front sidewalk, seeing nothing that suggested a path to Terminal 1. On my second pass I happened to notice a sign that told all China Southern passengers to go to Terminal 1 and it even provided directions “Walk 300 meters east.” Okay, I’m up on a platform above the airport with two auto ramps at opposite ends and there doesn’t seem to be a way for a pedestrian to get down to the ground unless they’re willing to walk among the cars. I’m not about to climb down the side of the building and I don’t know which direction is east. And I only have a vague notion of how far 300 meters is. So I went back inside, choosing an official looking youth in a security guard uniform which included a shiny white combat helmet.

I mustered my best Chinese and established the fact that this was Terminal 2. Progress, we had agreement here. The next step was to confirm that Terminal 1 was somewhere else. He told me to go outside. I asked him how to get there. He didn’t understand me. I asked him again. He told me that we were on the 2nd floor and that I needed to be on the 1st floor. I asked him if there was an elevator. He said yes. I asked him where. He told me to “Go outside.” So I did, walking the full length of the front sidewalk until I reached the door for international departures, which presented new territory so I went in figuring I’d walk the whole thing again. This time though I happened to stumble upon an escalator heading down which I took and suddenly I was in the departures area. Once again figuring that someone would tell me to “Go outside” I decided to spare them the effort and I went outside on my own initiative. Now I had a new front sidewalk to explore, this one covered and so not so hot, that appeared to head out from under the auto ramps. The sun at the end was literally the light at the end of the tunnel so like a moth I headed that way and sure enough as the roof ended a sidewalk continued off to what must have been the east. A side said – 300 meters to Terminal 1.

All of this suffering was rewarded when I sped through check-in, served by a surly clerk and then surfed through security being the only person in line. It was quick and it was over. I spent the next 1.5 hours sitting in the waiting area watching the people cough without covering their mouths. I washed my hands a lot with sanitizer.

This last little adventure in Xi’an set me to thinking about how westerners solve problems like this in a country where the language is so remote. There is no one to ask and the ones you do tell you to “Go outside.” Again my tiny bit of Chinese saved me, as the final bit of information that solved it for me was the 1st and 2nd floor thing. When I run into things like this, it makes me understand why my hotel was full of people on a tour – it’s easy and you’re insulated. Stuff just happens behind the scenes and it looks completely trouble-free to you. On the other hand, when you get home you don’t have these silly little tales to regale your relatives with. I mean honestly, how interesting is a story told over Thanksgiving dinner that amounts to climbing in and out of tour buses? For now, I think I’ll stick to this style and the bumpy roads it often presents.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Big Wild Goose Pagoda and my descent into the 1st Circle of Hell

It’s amazing how fast your experience can change from the sublime to the crass when traveling in this country. While being assaulted by the souvenir hawkers on the way out of the Terracotta Warriors Museum, we passed a beautiful sculpture of horses running up a rock defile, in the middle of a broad fountain, totally out of phase with what was going on around us. The theme of horses would be repeated many more times over the remainder of the day, establishing the importance of that noble animal in the history of the country and this region in particular. As we re-entered the city, a massive modern equestrian stature of a mounted warrior held down the center of a traffic circle and I was sorry I did not have a chance to stop and get a photograph.

On the way into town we passed a rural brick factory that looked precisely the same as the adobe yard down the ditch from me back home. I asked Lily about that and she told me that brick making was a common industry, although here they are fired. I told her about our house and how adobe was common in the Southwest where the climate allows it to be used. She told me that she thought most American houses were built from wood, and I told her that she was correct. She seemed to like the word adobe, although her version of it sounded more like “dobie”.

When I booked this trip I had discussed destinations with the agency owner, Mr. Lee. He told me that the Little Goose Pagoda was hardly worth the bother and that the Big Goose Pagoda was the far more famous and better of the two. Contrarian that I tend to be, I went to the former first and found it lovely. The Big Goose Pagoda figures large in the history of Buddhism in China. Legend has it that monks in India were starving and worried that they would not survive when a flock of migrating geese flew overheard. The biggest of the flock, died suddenly and fell to earth at their feet. The interpreted this as a sign that the Buddha supported their style of Buddhism and had provided the meat of the goose to help them survive. Hence the name, honoring the legend. Lily agreed to take me there on the way home and upon arrival I knew immediately that I was in for a modern China experience.

First of all we couldn’t find a place to park the car, it was that mobbed. The government had seen fit to capitalize on the history and reputation of the temple to build what they called “a cultural district” by the name of Tang Paradise. It’s hardly a paradise at all, just a long garish shopping boulevard built in the traditional Chinese sloped roof style. I only saw it from afar, but I knew that I did not want to ruin my earlier experience by wandering down that thing in the hot sun. We went into the temple grounds and I was disappointed to learn that the spirit of the place could not overcome the spirit of the people taking in the sights. The pagoda was quite beautiful, and Lily did a great job of interpreting an amazing frieze done all in jade pieces that depicted the life of the Buddha. We wandered around gardens looking at the tomb markers for the famous monks – this pagoda was built in 652 AD during the reign of the Emperor Gaozang at the request of the Monk Xuanzang who was the first to travel to India in order to collect the sacred texts. The pagoda was their home, and Xuanzang spent his entire life translating them from Sanskrit to Chinese.

We finished the place in about 40 minutes which made Lily remark on how fast I walk. Normally, her guests (as she calls them) spend at least one hour here. She returned me to the hotel, collected the fees and said goodbye.

I cooled my heels at the hotel for a couple of hours and as it was approaching dinner time I had to make a choice –brave a solo dinner in a restaurant or just make it easy and dine on snacks in the Horizon Club. I wish I could say that I have moved past this daily solo travel dilemma, but I haven’t – I just hate dining alone what with all the people in the restaurant staring at me and wondering why I have no spouse and no friends. But it was only 4:30 and for some odd reason, the Tang Paradise beckoned so I loaded up my bag and headed out, catching a cab after walking a few blocks.

It was much cooler with the sun heading towards the horizon but it was still a madhouse with people and noise. I entered the place by the pagoda, stopping to get a few more photos with it against the evening sky. Heading towards the shopping district I passed stall after stall like those that you would find at an American county fair – pop the balloon and win a bear, throw a dart and win a poodle, etc, etc, etc. Having these set up against the outside of the temple walls just seemed really wrong, or perhaps a throwback to the ancient times when the itinerant carnivals came to town and set up around the center of worship in order to attract patrons. Across the street and in front of the pagoda, a bronze of Xuanzang was eternally walking in place towards India. Here, the world changed from the spiritual to the commercial.

One side of the mall was contained by a tall wall advertising an impending Westin hotel. Down the center, granite blocks held more bronzes of ancient Chinese – more horses, monks, warriors and philosophers. I assume this display was telling the story of the region. At the end, Qin Shi Huang stood mounted atop a tall white granite pillar, catching the rays of the setting sun. I went up to the end of the pedestrian mall and made a u-turn, heading back down the other side. Over here, it was busy with a long line of food stalls selling anything you might want to eat from soft-serve ice cream to fried scorpions. This side was mobbed and it was hard to walk. It was even harder to hear given that just about every one of the sellers had techno booming from their stall. At some point the walkway turned from asphalt to red carpeting, giving the place some sort of perverse Academy Awards feel. I kept pushing my way through the crowd staring ahead at the pagoda which stood there, leaning slightly to the left as though cocking its head in wonder at what was now spread below. I crossed a street where a couple of cars sat blasting their horns at the pedestrians in the crosswalk who had the green light.

I’d had enough and headed back towards Keji Lu, my path out of this place. As I rounded the last corner on my way across the square towards a taxi, I was about flattened by deafening Chinese pop music – the fountain show had begun. Lily had mentioned this earlier, and I had declined not wanting to spend 20 minutes hanging around waiting for it. It was on now and it was something. Thousands of water jets exploded and twirled and shot into the air in time with the music. The people were loving it but for me it was just another perceptual affront. I stopped to shoot a short video and caught a cab back to the hotel.

Dinner turned out to be a solo affair in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, local dishes of wok-fried lamb with fennel and a cold shredded green bean and fungi salad. A Han Dynasty Red Wolf beer capped the evening. The waitress told me that my Chinese was quite acceptable. The kindness of the service staff always helps when you’re sitting there in the middle of a bunch of people wondering why you have no wife and friends.

The Devil is in the Details

I thought I would make a second posting, sharing some additional photos of the warriors. While the scale of the place is what takes your breath away, it's the unique individuality of each soldier that is truly incredible. That and the fact that what you see is the result of more than 30 years of restoration, taking a pile of rubble and turning it into a phalanx of men. I've included some "before" pictures to show what the archeologists have to work with, the torsos of the men and the tiles that originally paved the gallery. I think the "as found" condition of the soldiers really makes the scope of the place sink in.

Xi'an Sunday - Terracotta Warriors

I don’t really have much to say about my trip to see the Terracotta Warriors. We’ve all seen them countless times since they were first discovered in 1974 and so the images are pretty much part of the media consciousness we all share. But when you see them, you don’t know whether you’re over or underwhelmed. I had high expectations and they were surpassed, but by such a large margin that it almost feels like a big miss. In short, they are such an overwhelming sight that you simply do not know how to react.

Before coming here I had decided that I would hire a guide that was recommended by a friend of mine who had used his services back in the spring. As it turned out, he was busy but he arranged for me to use a contract employee who turned out to be the best $75 I’ve spent on any trip, anywhere. Lily was a font on knowledge and information and very friendly to boot – I can’t express just how great it was to go to a place like this with someone so capable. I’m sure my experience was improved by 1000% over what it would have been had I simply taken the bus out on my own.

The warriors were crafted in the 2nd century BC as an afterlife royal guard for the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. He founded the short-lived Qin Dynasty that had the distinction of being the first that united all of China. He ruled from 259 to 210 BC and while he is remembered for putting an end to the Warring States Period, he was also a brutal and very paranoid emperor. It is said that wherever he went he was surrounded by 24 identically dressed imposters, driving identical chariots. Although a despot, he standardized the systems of coinage, taxation and the Chinese character system, improvements that made a unified country possible. He is also known for building early segments of what would become the Great Wall. But he died at a young age and when he did, all his successes went with him – the Qin Dynasty ended a mere 4 years later when an army of peasants tired of being forced into imperial labor joined with the subjugated states and drove the last Qin emperor out.

The warriors have stood underground guarding the approach to Qin She Huang’s burial mound for more 2000 years. When the last Qin emperor was overthrown, the so-called Rebellious Armies broke into the vaults of the warriors, stole the weapons and set the place on fire. Qin Shi Huang’s actual tomb was not attacked and in fact has never been opened due to legends of deadly booby traps that were set to kill any intruders. It can be seen today as a forested mound along the highway as you approach the warrior’s museum awaiting excavation when future archeological skills are up to the task.

There are three pits on the site; Pit 1 is the most famous and by far best known and the largest. In its current state it is about 40% excavated. All of the soldiers seen in the pit were pieced back together from a jumble of pieces and parts which resulted from destruction by the Rebellious Armies and two millennia worth of earthquakes and ground subsidence. Interestingly you can still see the pattern in the hard earth dividing walls that was formed by the collapse of the wood beams and bamboo mats that formed the original roof. A few graves also dot the site, interments from more recent periods by people who had no idea that they were burying their relatives on top of such a trove.

The warriors were discovered in 1974 when local peasants, in the midst of a drought brought up a terracotta head while digging a well. They believed they had found the head of a devil so they put it back. But one man, Mr. Yang brought the head back up and hung it in a tree. He threw rocks at it daily hoping to scare the evil spirits back into the underworld. By pure chance, a nephew of Mr. Yang came for a visit and found the pieces of the head. The nephew was a janitor at a renowned museum and recognized the pieces as ancient and took one with him back to the head of the museum. The rest is history, 35 years later they are still opening up sections of the original pit and piecing back together the jumble of thousands of broken soldiers. Today, Mr. Yang sits in the gift shop autographing the guide books that are sold there. I bought a book from him today and as he was signing it I told him he was very famous.

Pits 2 and 3 are far smaller and much more specialized, one showing an area where animal sacrifices were conducted as part of a divination rite and the other a vanguard of troops leading a general into battle. These pits are kept under very low light as the preservationists have discovered that light has a very powerful corrosive effect on the statues. When they were first uncovered they were all brightly painted to appear as they did in real life. But Qin Dynasty dyes were vegetable based and they faded almost instantly upon exposure to light. The weapons fared much better and when found, the swords were capable of slicing through 20 sheets of paper with a single stroke. Elemental analysis showed a particularly strong bronze but with a chromium coating, a technology not “discovered” in the west until the 1930’s. Few weapons were found during the excavations, most of them having been stolen by the Rebellious Armies.

Each soldier is completely unique, a representation of an actual person of the time, either an artisan or a soldier. It is said that if you can find an identical pair the government will give them to you. On average they stand around 6’ tall and weigh about 600 pounds. There are multiple ranks depicted by hair style from infantry to officers to generals, of whom only 7 were found. There are many horses, each also unique. Many soldiers are very thin, representing conscripted teenagers who had not yet reached their full adult build. The vanguard wears no armor to demonstrate their bravery, nor do the outward facing flanking soldiers. There are charioteers, standing archers, kneeling archers, cavalry and regular infantrymen. Aside from all the unique design elements, the thing that strikes you the most is the absolute lack of color – a sandy gray expanse consisting of a million interesting little parts.

Of the thousands, only the Kneeling Archer was found completely intact. He is considered a national treasure.

The museum is a huge complex surrounded by an aggressive gauntlet of former farmers selling souvenirs. When the government took the local area for protection, the displaced peasants were put to work creating a retail culture feeding off the fame. Trinkets, local food, dates, persimmons and pomegranates are all offered on the way in and the way out. And like so many attractions in China, the crowds are huge. Lily told me that on a busy day the place cycles 1 million plus visitors.

I hope to come back, even though I’ve seen what there is to see. To be there on a day when you’re not jostling with the visitors and you can stand and just stare would be a blessing indeed. For today though, I have to be happy with what I saw and what I’ll remember. Truly a wonderful place.