Monday, March 28, 2011

And on to Xi'an.

I finally took the time to understand where the VIP check-in desk is in Beijing. After standing in dozens of lines and being denied by the kiosks, I figured I may as well ask. So I did and we found it and it was fast. No time like today to learn something you’ll probably never use again. After a short stay in the lounge and a quick flight during which I completely confounded the flight attendant when she tried to tell me that I was not allowed to have my bag at my feet (“Exit row regulation”, “You cannot have it there”, “It must go overhead”, “Excuse me, I will leave now and come back later) we arrived in my favorite of favorite Chinese cities – Xi’an. Lily, my favorite guide and honorary daughter, was there to meet us. I was happy to finally introduce her to My Lovely Wife.

I’ve made it a point on my last two visits here to stop at the Hanyangjing Museum on the way into town from the airport. A wonderfully produced introduction to a Han Dynasty royal tomb, Hanyangjing is a great way to prepare for your subsequent visit to the Terracotta Warriors. Here, the soldiers are tiny and not unique but fascinating in their own way. Row upon row of little naked armless men standing buried in two millennia of dust, their silk robes and articulated wooden arms long since gone. In the imperial barns, an endless supply of pottery dogs, goats, chickens cows sheep and horses stand waiting forever to be used in battle or served up in a banquet. I just love the place and each visit presents something new.

We came with a plan to spend Wednesday on the high speed bullet train to Luoyang. The famous Longmen Grotto was the last holy Buddhist site in China on my list of things to do. For whatever reason I’d not managed to make it there and Luoyang never did rate a visit unto itself. Being this close – 1.5 hours by high speed rail – I figured this was as an opportunity presenting itself. So after Hanyangjing, it was off to the old railway station. While the fast train leaves from the new Xi’an Bei (north) complex, there was no easy route to there from the airport so we had to go into town. Mid-spring in Shaanxi Province is splendid. Although the pollution heavily filters the sun, we had a hint of a blue sky and comfortable temperatures in the mid 60’s. The drive in was busy but not terribly so for mid-afternoon. The train station was another story – after an interesting trip into the underground parking garage (dark, damp, confusing – all the things I love about parking in China) we made our way into a crowd that can only be described as thousands of scared people trying to escape some invading army. I’ve been in some tight crowds in China, many of them aggressive with the pushing and shoving, but this one might have been the record. Even worse than the entrance tunnel to the Forbidden City, the time during which a young woman didn’t like being separated from her friend so she grabbed her arm and jerked her between My Lovely Wife and me. Even though we were walking arm in arm. Everyone jammed into a space perhaps 20 feet deep by 100 feet. A long line of ticket windows. It was noisy and very oppressive and nothing more than a typical day at the station and a wonderful introduction to average urban life for My Lovely Wife. Lily went to the information counter to understand which queue we should be in. We stood towards the back of the mob and endured our most recent round of staring. She came back and told us that we’d be better off waiting until Wednesday to buy the tickets at the new station. She felt that the queues were too long but I didn't want to take a chance on the trains being sold out. I sensed an opening and started asking people around us what line they were in. While it appeared to be chaos, there were some patterns and I had a sense that the queue we needed - #27 – was one of the shorter ones. Sure enough, ours was being swamped by neighboring lines so I pushed the three of us through and positioned us about 5 people out. Chinese behind us, sensing some leadership talent fell in as well. In no time we were at the window and after a couple of discussions about the actual date of our travel, we fought our way back out through the crowd, tickets in hand.

I like using Lily as a guide here because she is so knowledgeable about the culture and the history. She works as a contractor for Mr. Lee who owns a small tour company. After being introduced to Mr. Lee in 2009 by my friend Matt, I’ve steered a lot of my fellow workers his way and from there a word of mouth business has mushroomed. Lily told me that I had probably single-handed made his company a success and because of that she was going to buy us a local cuisine dinner at a restaurant near our hotel. After checking in and sending our driver on his way, we walked a couple of blocks down Kejiyi Lu to the place she had in mind. Shaanxi cuisine relies heavily on mutton, breads and chiles. While not as spicy as Sichuan food, it holds its own. The most famous dish is Pao Mo, a soup made of chunks of lamp, onions, broth and greens served over little bits of dense, unleavened bread. Because Xi’an was the start of the Silk Road, there is a strong Muslim influence on the food. This restaurant for example, was hallal, or Muslim “kosher.” To begin the meal you start with an empty bowl and two disks of the special bread, one enough though as it is remarkably hard and heavy. You spend a half hour tearing the bread into tiny pieces, about the size of your little fingernail. Legend says that if you make the pieces too large, the cook will know that you are not a local person and so will ruin your meal. Once done with the tearing, the waitress hands you a slip of paper with a number on it that corresponds to the finer details of your soup (beef vs. lamp, amount of broth varying from lots to none) and she takes the bowl back to the kitchen where the final preparations are made. What emerges is a hearty, fragrant stew of vegetables, meat and mushy bread. Truly workingman’s food for a cold day. In addition to the Pao Mo we shared some skewers of dry braised lamb, a plate of cold sesame noodles, jellied lotus root and another Xi’an specialty, Rou Jia Mo, tiny “hamburgers”, two little round rolls stuffed with spicy lamb and chiles.

It was grand meal and I felt that I had finally had a worthy introduction to the local fare, something I had somehow managed to miss on all my previous visits. After setting up a meeting time with Lily, My Lovely Wife and I bid her adieu and we went on to Starbucks for coffee and an “American” brownie. I had another one of those great China moments with the baristas, this time over one coffee being on ice and one being hot. The Chinese word for heat is “re” and it’s pronounced in a way that westerners cannot repeatedly master. It makes use of throat musculature that we simply don’t have. I had all the girls behind the counter staring at me with the most concerned looks (when they weren’t outright laughing) and trying to catch my drift. Eventually I just said “cold and not cold” and brought the impasse to an end. We finished our night listening to the canned jazz music, enjoying our coffee and making plans for the next day.






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