Saturday, May 29, 2010

Xi'an Part One

Ah Xi’an, Pearl of the Orient!

Well, that sobriquet is perhaps better applied to Shanghai or Hong Kong, but for me Xi’an will always be my pearl. It’s the ideal city in my book, home to a modest 8 million inhabitants and the center of the earliest civilized culture in China. As a history lover, Xi’an is like a theme park, with one grand attraction after another. And even though this was my third visit in 7 months, I could go three more times in the next 7 and be perfectly happy. Between the peaceful splendor of the Little Wild Goose Pagoda and the staggering majesty of the Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an has everything I like.

We arrived and were retrieved by the intrepid guide Lily – no haggling with thieving Shaanxi cab drivers this time. I planned it this way because Lily had been bugging me to visit the Hanyangling Museum which is conveniently located on the airport road into town. On my previous visits I’d always been on the far side of the county so a visit was difficult. This time we stopped and were amazed.

The Han rulers that succeeded Qinshihuang like his idea of a Terracotta army to defend them in the afterlife. But they were smart enough to see that the burden that had been placed on the Qin Dynasty by the creation of the army had had a hand in its downfall – the people supported the attacking enemies because they were fed up with the treatment they had received from Qin. The Han came up with an alternative – a tiny army of dolly-men, perfectly formed little men perhaps 30” tall and cloaked in silk robes. Instead of 8,000 unique warriors, they commissioned 8,000 tiny replicas made from molds and so far short of the diversity of Qin’s army. Not nearly so incredible, but amazing nonetheless.

The museum is a marvel – neatly crafted archeological pits to display the artifacts, seen from a glass floor 10’ above the excavations. You walk in, cover your shoes with scuff preventers and step out onto a void that reaches back more than a thousand years in time. The tomb had been robbed many times in the past, so the results are chaotic but no less engaging than their life-sized cousins on the far side of town. In many ways they are far more poignant – dozens of tiny anatomically correct naked soldiers splayed out as left by robbers looking for treasure. Like little people cast ashore from some terrible flood. Their arms are gone, having been made of wood, now rotted away. They were designed to move at the shoulder, just like marionettes. Their silk robes have also disappeared. There they lie, forever staring up at the bottom of our shoes as we gaze down upon them.

Lily explained the arrangement of the tombs – one room for the army, another for a kitchen. One held convicts, forced to build the place. Another was for officials and the last for the Eunuchs. She delicately pointed out that the Eunuch figures were not the same as the soldiers, for they were obviously missing some important parts. These parts of course had been removed to prevent “sexual relationships with the Emperor’s concubines.” A funny moment for me, listening to a very modest Chinese explaining the nature of that particular excavation. One pit had remained undisturbed by the thieves and it left an opportunity for the scientists to carefully expose the men as they stood neck deep in an eternity of dust and dirt. One particularly interesting tidbit was the number of animals depicted; thousands of tiny pigs, sheep, horses and dogs left standing in neat little rows, shoulder to shoulder and nose to tail.

We took a stroll around the Muslim quarter following the museum. I love to bring people here because this is where “regular” China ends. Between the pale women in headscarves and the young men in skullcaps, the Silk Road comes to life. Here, the Han people are not in the majority, rather an interesting mishmash of people whose lineage extends back to the first caravans that rolled off of the steppes 1200 years ago. When you spend time in the coastal megapolis, you forget that this country was once the epitome of culture in the civilized world, and home to an incredible diversity of people. A bit of that remains and there is no better was to point it out that to wander through the bazaar and down the butcher’s street. On this day, deep purple-red cow’s livers were the special.

Now I’d been told that the one tradition in Shaanxi that must be observed is the dumpling banquet. I’d done the boiled and the steamed with my daughter Aidan back in March, electing to take the easier offering as it was lunch time. This time though it was close to dinner so we chose to go for the far more exotic offering and so we dragged Lily up to the second floor of the famous dumpling restaurant, De Fa Chang.

The set meal consisted of a dozen or so boiled dumplings and 14 steamed, along with 4 fried. Or at least that’s what we thought we’d ordered. We sat for a bit and a couple of cold dishes appeared – boiled peanuts and bean sprouts, tossed salad and shreds of bean curd. We waited some more and a plate of steamed dumplings showed up which we quickly devoured. We waited some more and a plate of four fried dumpling came – two with meat and two with red bean paste. And then we waited for a really long time, beginning to wonder if we’d finished the last of the meal.

Down the aisle, a foursome of westerners who had come into the restaurant received a big stack of dumpling steamers. I began to wonder if they had received our order, and after thinking about it for perhaps 30 seconds, I decided they had. I finally marshaled the nerve to ask the waitress, in Chinese, where the heck our food was. She mumbled something which I didn’t get and disappeared, returning in 5 minutes with our stack of steamers. Inside were 10 pairs of perfectly formed little bundles of something. She struggled to explain the contents, but we figured it out – spicy chicken, fried rice, pumpkin, egg, pork with vegetables, walnut - sporting a purple shell, tomato, not spicy chicken, pork with little unidentified spheres, and seafood. It was a shame that we’d stuffed ourselves on the boiled versions because these were wonderful. We did our best to not embarrass ourselves and left only a few behind.

Every first night in Xi’an must be closed with a stroll on the city wall. The lights, the music in the parks below, the cool breeze and the deep inky darkness – nothing anywhere compares. Tonight, a full moon hung just above one of the extended arms of the Bell Tower. Cars sped by below and thousands of Fork-tailed Swifts wheeled squeaking overhead dining on insects attracted by the lights. We grabbed a cab and headed for home.








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