Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Xi'an Part Two - Warriors and Dumplings

The first time you visit the Terracotta Warriors you are so in awe of the place that you spend most of your time just soaking in the grandeur. If you have a guide, you try to absorb as much of the historical perspective as you can. Because it is an interesting story. If you are lucky enough to go a second and third time, you’re free to do things like take pictures of faces and details. Go a fourth time and you’re allowed to do whatever you want, like spending time at your favorite spots. You now have a genuine relationship with the place, unlike anything you get in a one-time tour bus visit. I spent my fourth time there wandering around looking at those second and third level details that most people will never see. My Lovely Wife, having had the benefit of my prior stories and hundreds of photographs was essentially an honorary second time visitor – still capable of being awed, but knowledgeable enough to ask deeper questions.

Following a spate of complaints by the local vendors, the government changed the route for walk-in visitors to an upstream swim through the retail area. It meant a slightly longer walk and a few hundred more pleas to buy something. But overall it was a fine spring stroll. My Lovely Wife loved the horse sculpture in the center plaza. The three of us liked the white pigeon sitting on the lead horse’s nose, forcing what looked like cross-eyed concern on the horse’s part. We wandered through all the museums and stopped at the end to visit one of the Mr. Yangs in the gift shop. There were not so many visitors buying books from him today so he sat there looking sour. We left after three hours, stopping on the way out to buy a bag of the peanut treat I love so much. It’s prepared by repeatedly pounding shelled peanuts with a big wooden mallet until they form thin little sheets that look like mica. It’s sweet and it tastes like peanut brittle without the tooth damaging hard candy.

We took a stop at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda for a lesson in Buddhist history ala a display of Buddha’s life done in hundreds of pieces of jade, all in different colors. From there it was on to the Grand Mosque for a stroll through the gardens. I’d been there once before and was not terribly impressed but today it took on a new life for me, again no doubt due to traveling with someone fresh to the place. The turquoise blue tiles of the buildings, still holding their bright colors after 500 years, glowed slightly in the late afternoon light. The main prayer hall was a sea of identical blue prayer rugs that stretched far into the darkness at the back of the room. Authorized by an emperor more than 1300 years ago, this place started as the center of the religious community for Arab traders who worked the Silk Road and chose to stay here with their Chinese brides. Today it is still the center of the descendents of that community. A stroll down the “butcher’s street” on the way out, rimmed by tables covered with all manner of beef and sheep parts allowed you for a moment to feel like you were there in the past. I always expect a brace of camels to appear, leaving town for points west on the shores of the Roman Empire.

After an hour wasted in Starbucks waiting for my favorite restaurant to open, we went off to De Fa Chang for their famous 18 specialty dumpling banquet. This would be my second time there and I vowed not to make the same mistake I’d made on my first visit with my daughter Gwynn. In that instance we stuff ourselves on what turned out to be the introductory courses – two pairs of fried dumplings and two dozen boiled, only to discover that the fancy course came last. This time there was no problem, the specialty dumplings came first – tomato, walnut, mushroom, seafood, spicy chicken, pork, duck, rabbit and lamb. We were able to enjoy those and leave most of the subsequent courses behind. I never did figure out how they come up with 18 as the number. There were 15 of the specials, 2 of the fried, two dozen of the boiled and a couple of cold dishes that had nothing to do with dumplings. All that and a Coke apiece. Who knows and it really didn’t matter. It was enough food for four.

Dinner over, we headed down the road south of the Bell Tower and paid a visit to a very upscale and completely empty mall. I learned something new there – if you want a good bathroom in China, just find the shopping center that features Vuitton and Prada and you will be rewarded. Our last stop was a walk on the city wall just after sundown. No visit to Xi’an can be complete without it. In the daylight the wall is home to Chinese and foreigners on rented bicycles, plying the 14 kilometer circle of the old city. The Xi’an wall is the only one in China that is in good repair and completely intact. At night the clientele changes to couples strolling arm in arm. Between the soft spring breeze and the beautiful lights of the guard towers, you’re transported to another time and place. The noise and the bustle of the city are left behind and you’re free to think about the place and what brought you there. Below people dance to traditional music in the park along the city moat and roller skaters turn circles on a small and unlit rink next to the south gate. You can even overlook the fact that you have to cross a deadly traffic circle twice to visit the place.

There was a bit of a wait for a taxi but we ended up with a driver that was very excited to discover our nationality. He said he loved America and proceeded to recite the name of every state that he knew. It wasn’t clear whether he’d been keeping track of the homes of his previous fares or if he simply wanted us to know that he was a master of our place names. It didn’t matter, I couldn’t think of anything better at that moment than a geography lesson delivered by a cabbie in a place so far from home.
........................................................................................................... ............................................................................................................ ............................................................................................................ ............................................................................................................ ..........................................................

No comments: