Sunday, May 30, 2010

Xi'an Part Two

I don’t think I will ever tire of visiting the Terracotta Warriors - they are such an inspiring sight and each time standing before them promises new discoveries. Our second day began with the intrepid Lily and her amazing wealth of knowledge about the region and its history. This time she and I had a long discussion about the cave houses common to this region. I told her that I’d actually seen some still in use during my visit to Datong last week. She said she was surprised as here in Shaanxi they are most relegated to use as storerooms or pig sties. I didn’t quite get the significance of the latter but also didn’t ask. I suppose the pigs with their sensitive skin and acute intelligence would appreciate having a home out of the sun and sporting a year-around temperature of 65 degrees. We also talked about why the home province to Xi’an – Shaanxi – has two A’s while its eastern neighbor – Shanxi – has only one. The answer didn’t go beyond the explanation for the single A version which means “West Mountains”, denoting the highly rugged terrain of that state. Double A Shaanxi uses the same character for west but the first syllable is a bit harder to track down. Its character seems to be eponymous – its definition is essentially the name. Lily in a bit of regional jingoism joked that it had two A’s because it had “Twice the Attraction.”

We wandered around the museum for a couple of hours and I took a lot less photographs than on my previous visits, again focusing only on the details like faces and braided horse tails. The day was cloudy and a bit threatening and so for once I was able to get a few shots of the whole place without sections of it being blown out by the sun coming through the overhead windows. Gwynn and I had a long talk about our trip on the previous day to the Hanyangling Museum and the army of dolly-men. In comparison to this place, we were struck with how their contrasting size and subtlety made them equally as interesting as these big guys. You might think that they would be diminished, but that was not the case – looking down on them struck you with just as much poignancy. And in one aspect even more – seeing them lying there in their little waves made them much more understandable as the product of people less driven by spectacle. The Terracotta Warriors are an artful production of skilled hands that captured the grandeur of an empire. The dolly-men seemed a more human and modest attempt by far more perceptive rulers to meet the needs of their afterlife without overwhelming their subjects or the intended viewers.

Once again I bought a book from one of the many Mr. Yang’s who sits in the gift shop signing autographs all day long. Today he was polite but reserved and clearly not in the best of moods. I can only imagine what it must be like to do that day after day. The original Mr. Yang is now too sick to continue in the role he developed and this Mr. Yang is one of a handful of cousins who fill in. The show must go on and the books must be signed.

There was a single major monastery/temple complex in Xi’an which had eluded me on previous trips. Known as Baxian An or the Temple of the Eight Immortals, it is an important Taoist site and so just a bit different than the Buddhist temples which I have visited. When we arrived the street was completely jammed with people and vehicles trying to make a way through an endless gauntlet of vendors – today was the festival day (occurring regularly on the 1st and 15th day of the Lunar month) of Lu Dongbin, the most important member of the group. The original site was said to be a famous wine shop where Lu was known to tip a few before being enlightened by a Taoist master.

The foundation of Taoism is generally attributed to Lao Tse although it is argued that its basis perhaps lies even deeper in the past than the 5th century BC when he lived. A strong argument can be made that Taoist is the one true Chinese belief extending all the way back to the shamanism that was practiced in the time before civilization took root. And Taoism in fact does have a strong relationship with the elements of the physical world – air, earth, fire, wind and water.

Today many of its beliefs and practices are subtle copies or interpretations of those in Buddhism which officially predates Taoism in China by centuries. If you were to spend an hour observing in either type of temple you’d have a hard time distinguishing which was which. The most obvious characteristic is the hair styles of the monks – Buddhists shave their heads while Taoists keep their hair uncut. The temples themselves are virtually identical but the Taoist Immortals look much more like actual people whereas Buddhas tend to maintain an appearance that harks back strongly to its roots in India. The temple guardians in the outer halls of this temple were just as frightening as the protector spirits at the entrance to the Buddhist sites.

The Eight Immortals that form the pantheon are known by the names He Xian Gu, Cao Guo Jiu, Taiquai Li, Lan Caihe, Han Xiang Zi, Zhang Guo Lao, Zhongli Quan and of course the being of the hour, Lu Dongbin. Each has their special traits and what they offer by way of worship. In Lu’s case he is known for his ability to drive off evil with his magic sword and is said to be quite a lady’s man in addition to being a drunkard. Although he is the patron of jugglers, magicians and barbers, he is usually depicted in the dress of an esteemed scholar. Ironically in real life his inability to successfully pass his civil service exam led to him becoming a disciple of Zhongli Quan and his acceptance of the path of the Tao.

Here in the 21st century, all the major ancient belief systems in China share a great deal with their companions. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism often have the same look and feel and together they are further modified by the strong animist beliefs that predate all three. It’s said that there is no single system in China, and in my experience this appears to be true.

We’ve all seen movie scenes where the hero tries to force his car down an Asian street choked with throngs of people. Blowing the horn, waving the fist, inching forward only to be cut off by a rickshaw, we hope our hero can make it through before the bomb goes off or the bad guy escapes. We were in that scene, and it was just as scary as you’d expect it to be. We had a path perhaps one car-width wide and it was full of people. On both sides were tables of everything from pantyhose to Mangosteens to incense packs for the worshipers. We would creep along making slight headway until a scooter would shoot through and block our path. We’d start again until a cart full of cabbage would be pushed against the car. I assumed at some point that the driver would kick us out of the car and tell us to walk and after a few blocks of this he did just that. Outside the noise was disconcerting. He took us as close to the temple gate as he could and told us he’d meet us well beyond on the main street. Cutting between two stalls and walking up an alley lined with antiquity shops, we had to force our way through a crowd of beggars, many with horrible deformities. In a couple of instances we had to step over people lying on the ground, blocking the entrance gate. I found the ticket office and paid the $1 entrance fee. We went inside to another crowd, this one far more peaceful.

The first main square was full of people burning incense bundles and bowing to the three cardinal directions before kneeling and praying to whatever Immortal happened to be seated in the small hall at the center of the space. The ground was littered with packaging from the incense and Gwynn commented that we’d never see people walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, strip the plastic off of a votive and throw it on the floor. But this is China and so our rules don’t apply. The air was smoky and fragrant and a bit tough on the eyes. A long line of elderly people were queued up under the roof of the walkway that ran around the building – part of the festival involved a free lunch. Cardboard bowls of dried Ramen. I refrained from taking pictures because on this day, amid so many people demonstrating so much personal passion, it just didn’t seem right. The temple was interesting but far from beautiful; it had a well used, serviceable look. For an off the beaten path neighborhood temple, this one was old having been constructed between 900 and 1200AD during the Song Dynasty. The buildings on the site today hail mostly from a 17th century Qing reconstruction. As we turned to leave I heard a man ask Lily if I was an American and before she could answer I replied to the affirmative in Chinese. He gave me a big smile and welcomed me to China.

Getting back to the car on foot was no less scary than driving in. Each of us had the same thought in mind – what are we going to do if we get separated? And while there were a few close calls, we made it to the end intact albeit a bit rattled. Back in the car with the air conditioner running, we went across town to the Little Wild Goose Pagoda.

As always, Xiao Yan Ta as it’s known in Chinese is the perfect respite after a day out in the streets. There are rarely more than a handful of people on the grounds, its trees and garden damp the noise from the busy streets beyond the pagoda itself is such a beautiful monument that spending even a half hour there recharges even the most depleted sensory batteries. We wandered around, Lily recalling my discovery of the Hoopoe on my last visit and relating how she had told the story to some co-workers that I had sent her way. Of course they had no idea what she was talking about. Lily said that since her trip there with me and my obvious glee at finding that bird, she had done some research into what she called “bird observers” and had found that bird watching was quite a common pastime in China among the local people and visitors. She told me of an island off the cost where “Every fall hundreds of bird observers travel to see birds.” Her earnest use of the word “observer” instead of our more common term “watcher” made me smile; I didn’t try to correct her use, it was simply too endearing.

Two stone horses stand at the far end of the park and it’s become a tradition to get a photo of my guests sitting on them. Gwynn climbed up and told me to make sure that I cut her feet out of the photo lest the position be wrong and observed by my horse-riding loved ones back in the world. I took a shot and as she was climbing down a young Chinese man accompanied by his girlfriend smiled and began a pantomime that suggested that they wanted to use the horse. We were done so I waved him on. But I had misinterpreted his request – he wanted a photo of Gwynn on the horse along with his girlfriend. She climbed back up and I joked that I wanted 10 kuai for the photo. He looked at me for a second and then realized the joke.

We ended our day with Lily after another dumpling lunch – this time the less exotic ala carte version down on the 1st floor of De Fa Chang – limiting ourselves to beef and pork/walnut – the latter lightly dyed purple. We wandered through the Muslim quarter looking for gifts and found what we were looking for at one particular stall. The starting price was 380 and I talked her down to 130 before I told her I’d think about it. She was sad to see us leave but I promised (with no intention whatsoever) of returning after we’d walked around for a bit. Ten paces down the street we stopped and looked at the same item and the woman said “95” and we grabbed it. Clearly the vendor telegraph was working. This meant that we could not go back the way we had come so we took a sharp left at the narrow alley to the Grand Mosque and fought our way past the t-shirt sellers. A bit down the way I found a better version of the same gift and the woman told me “50.” Unfortunately she could not come up with a version that didn’t have some damage that she insisted she could remove. We left her there spitting on her fingers and rubbing the blemish and muttering “It come clean, 45.”

Lily dropped us at the hotel and after cleaning up we grabbed a cab and headed to Da Yan Ta, the other pagoda in town, this one being the near antithesis of its diminutive cousin across town. It’s taller and just as beautiful but instead of trees and grass, it’s surrounded by a sensory abomination known as the Tang Paradise. While it can suck the last life out of a tired tourist, it has its purpose because it’s quite photogenic after dark and part of the Paradise is a fancy food court consisting of dozens of nice restaurants. The cab ride was crazy as Xi’an rush hour traffic is choking. In fact we’d tried to find a taxi out on the street and had waited forever before walking back to the hotel and putting the doorman in charge of finding one for us. The temple grounds were as busy as ever. We walked from one end to the other passing a crowd of people lining up to enter a classical violin concert at the local theater. Not everything in China is cheap retail, even here in a place where it has been raised to impressive levels.

On Aidan’s visit we had dinner at the Pizza Hut just up the street from the hotel. I know many of my friends and beloved family members would cringe to hear this, but over here it’s just plain fun to do something as silly as that. You can eat the best regional cuisine 29 days a month, but on the 30th it’s great to go do something so touristy to us and yet adored by the Chinese. They think this is what we westerners do for a fancy dinner out and so the Pizza Huts in China are raised to the level of the fanciest American venues. It is not a joke that we had to wait behind a red velvet rope on our last time through. This time was no different – the Pizza Hut maitre‘d told me that there was a 40 minute wait for a table – in a 3-floor restaurant! We declined and walked back up the block to Papa John’s, equally as upscale but with a few less patrons. We dined in style on a 12” Hawaiian amid Chinese out on dates and a table of western college kids.

The trip back to the hotel involved a nice stroll under the trees beneath the pagoda and as luck would have it we managed to catch a bit of the nightly fountain show. It kicked off with jets of water illuminated by colored lights spraying aloft to an ear-splitting rendition of Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture. It was very simple compared to what we see in places like Las Vegas and so we went on to catch a cab before the crowd dispersed.

My package deal with the tour company included a drive to the airport so the next morning we parked ourselves outside and waited. Gwynn asked if I would be able to recognize the driver and I wasn’t so sure having only seen the back of his head these past two days. Just as I was getting nervous – 10 minutes past the planned departure time – he came walking across the parking lot and told us to stay where we were. He got the car and we left.

The airport was mobbed with people and the lines were long. We went to the VIP check-in and the agent gave me the most dreaded news in China – flight cancelled. She sent us to the ticket desk to get the situation fixed and of course it was precisely the mini-disaster that it always is. One girl working, a half-dozen people crowded around each chattering about their particular plight. I situated myself close to the center of the min-mob and waited. The guy in front of me stepped back and waved me into his spot – a shocking thing in China. I was flanked by two women and so I rested by arms on the counter, holding up our passports and my airline status card. The agent called the guy back and collected some money from him before handing him a ticket. A young woman with a big handful of US passports – clearly a local guide - squirted her way into my left side. She told Gwynn that her flight had been cancelled and implied that she should be able to step to the front. Gwynn told her that there was nothing unusual about that – all of us were in the same boat. She tried to get under my left arm so I elbowed her in the face. She resigned to waiting her turn at that point. The agent miraculously solved the problems of the two women who were hemming me in. She grabbed our passports, typed on her computer and took a small piece of paper, stamped it and wrote two e-ticket numbers on it. She handed it all back to me and went on to the next crisis. I took our scrap of paper back to the VIP counter and we got our tickets.

The lounge was our home for the next hour. The gal at the desk informed us that our flight would be delayed an additional 20 minutes just as it was closing in on boarding time but I never trust these little updates so a half hour before our original modified boarding time I went out to the gate to have a look. The sign said that our flight was boarding and sure enough, everyone was lined up. I went back and grabbed Gwynn and beat a hasty path back. There was an army officer standing at the end and I asked him if the line was for our flight. He said “no” and just as we concluded that conversation, they changed the sign to “Waiting.” This is so common here, announcements are rarely correct and updates are never forthcoming. Sometimes it pays to just get in line and go up to the desk in order to be officially rejected. This time though we went back and sat down.

When the plane arrived it was obvious what our cancellation was truly about. Normally flights between regional cities and Beijing are on the Airbus equivalent of a Boeing 737. Pulling up to the gate was the much larger Boeing 777, an international jet. The Air China planners had clearly taken a look at the flight bookings and decided to combine them. We’d sat around simply for an improved bottom line. As the time to queue approached, the Chinese made a break for it. We settled in the middle of the line and the moment we got positioned the desk agent got out his megaphone and made an unintelligible announcement. The Chinese in front of us let out a collective groan and went back to their seats. I went up and asked him when the plane would leave and the answer perplexed me – “20” was what he said and I stood there for a moment and scratched my head. A Chinese guy had the same look of confusion, so it wasn’t just my listening comprehension. It was not 12:30 and an answer of “20” didn’t make any sense. How could we be delayed until 8:00? I asked him if we would leave at 1PM, “more or less” and he said,”Yes.” That meant we would be boarding only a few minutes later than the original delay so I couldn’t quite figure out what all the complaining had been about. A couple of westerners came up to me and asked what was going on, I explained the current situation. It’s amazing how popular you become here when your fellow travelers realize you can speak the language. As I turned to go back to our place in what was left of the line, an elderly Chinese man asked me in English what was going on. I replied in Chinese out of courtesy and he looked at me as though I was speaking in Latin. I answered a second time in English and he thanked me.

The events of this morning were the perfect introduction to travel in the Middle Kingdom. Late drivers, cancelled flights, ticket counters, out of date information on the status boards, fights for position in line. I couldn’t have scripted it any better, had I tried to create a morning’s worth of entertainment. No matter, an hour and a half later we were back in Beijing and ready for round three of our grand tour of China.








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